Anatomy of a Disaster: The Easter Day Massacre

Tom Walker

When one RAF light bomber squadron flew into action in Greece in April 1941 its aim was to halt a German offensive, but it had tragic consequences for everyone involved.
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211 Squadron had been in Greece for five months before they were effectively destroyed. They came from Egypt before that, one of the first RAF units to be dispatched to the Balkans by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore. The Easter Day Massacre

With an official strength of 12 Blenheim Mark Is, flying operations against the Italians in Albania and the length of the supply chain took a major toll on them. They were only capable of fielding six aircraft by April 1941. The Squadron also experienced turmoil in its command structure. A popular squadron commander, Squadron Leader J R Gordon-Finlayson, left in March 1941 and was replaced by Squadron Leader R J C Nedwill. But Nedwill was killed in a non-combat related air accident shortly afterwards. Squadron Leader A T Irvine assumed command in the wake of Nedwill’s death and led the squadron successfully on four operational sorties before Easter Day.

Known as ‘The Bish’, Squadron Leader J R Gordon-Finlayson (left) led the Squadron through months of heavy fighting against the Italians

Strictly speaking, 211 Squadron should not have been anywhere near the Monastir Gap. They were part of the RAF’s Western Wing and engaged in the Albanian theatre in support of Greek forces. The increasing likelihood of a German intervention in Greece was a problem for the Eastern Wing, which was disposed in the service of Anglo-Greek forces on the Metaxas Line. When the Germans opened up a new line of advance by invading Yugoslavia, however, they threatened to cleave their way into central Greece. Desperate measures were called for and 211 Squadron received orders to conduct a full-strength operation against a critical road junction near Florina

The Squadron had already flown twice on Easter Day before it received its ill-fated orders; it returned from both of these raids without loss. It may be that the Squadron Commander was suffering from cumulative fatigue by the time the planning for a third sortie commenced on 13th  April, although Irvine had been posted off a previous squadron after using unorthodox attack methods. Also, no fighter cover was available for the mission, which made the twin-engine Blenheims particularly vulnerable if caught by faster and more heavily armed Messerschmitt Me109 or 110 fighters.

The RAF’s Bristol Blenheim Mark Is were the mainstay of the light bomber force in Greece

In fact, it was Me109s from Jagdgeschwader 26 that bounced them on their return leg, judging from the location of the six crash sites. The Blenheims’ defensive armament was no match for determined attacks from the swift canon and machine gun-armed fighters. Of the 18 RAF aircrew that took part in the raid, only two survived. Two of those who perished were the commander and deputy commander of the Western Wing. So, as well as wiping out a squadron, the Massacre also robbed the RAF of a vital link in its operational chain of command in Greece.

Undoubtedly a terrible disaster, this was not the end for 211 Squadron. Within days they had begun a slow, methodical withdrawal from their base at Paramythia. They even mounted a number of daring single aircraft raids against German occupying forces in order to cover the withdrawal. What was left of the unit was reconstituted in Palestine and then sent to The Sudan as an operational conversion unit. By 1942 they were back flying operations as a frontline unit against the Japanese in Java and Sumatra. That campaign was, in many ways, even more of a disaster for the squadron, which had to be rebuilt again in 1943. 211 Squadron died and was reborn twice; this just goes to show how resilient the RAF needed to be to fight the global war.

Tom Walker is the author of Out of the Desert, first in the Wings of Victory series, published by Sharpe Books.