Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Greek pilgrimage -- I pay my respects to history and the Herbert family

This is Paramythia, in northern Greece.  It means the valley of the legends, and to the Ancient Greeks it was the limit of the known world.  Nearby flows the river Kalamos, which was to them the river Styx across which the dead were ferried on their way to Hades.  It’s a broad valley, high up and surrounded by mountains – a good place for the British to hide an airfield when they were attacking the Italians, attempting to invade Greece from Albania, which is not far away.

211 Squadron came here, bombing ports along the Albanian coast.  They had previously been in the Western Desert, again fighting the Italians; and it was because the Duce had done badly there that he turned to Greece.  But despite his boasts, his army was miserably equipped and poorly led, and the Greeks drove it back.  Then the Germans decided to do he job properly, and came down through the Balkans.  Between them, the Greeks and the RAF could muster around 80 planes, whereas the Luftwaffe had 700.  It was an unequal contest.

I took the ferry from Corfu to Igoumenitsa, and from there a taxi.  There’s a new road, sliced out of the mountainside, and it’s safer than the old one, with its corkscrew bends.  When 211 Squadron were here, local people travelled by donkey.  There were so few buildings in the valley that the airstrip could have been put anywhere that was flat.  That’s not quite the case now; a few villas have been built in the valley and the village of Paramythia has spruced itself up.  A café has some pictures of the old days on its tables and walls.  The taxi driver took some advice about lunch, and we ate something with a friend of his; extra beers were pressed on us, plates of specialities that we hadn’t ordered brought out.  But after the courtesies had been observed, we were able to follow his little car for a few kilometres out of the village.  This was where the airfield had been, he told us.  A road cut across it, and a new villa with orange trees in front of it stood to one side.  There was nothing to be seen but reeds, a bit of scrub; the local people no longer have to wring every last ounce of profit from the land.  It was, though, from here that Richard Herbert – Herby as he was known to his fellow officers and crew – took off on Easter Day 1941.

Richard is one of three Herbert brothers whose names are on the war memorial at Lydford in Devon.  All joined the RAF, all were killed.  Richard was slight, pale, with neatly brilliantined hair.  He was 21, quiet but popular in the mess.  He loved flying and it was difficult to keep him on the ground.  In September 1940, he and his crew had had a near brush with death when they flew a Blenheim Mk 1 bomber out to the Western Desert.  They hit a thunderstorm and only just succeeded in limping into Malta to refuel.  But he’d recovered his sang froid by the time they flew over the pyramids, observing laconically: ‘terrible waste of stone, what?’
That Easter Day, April 13, 1941, the squadron was attempting to halt the German advance, as troops poured through the Monastir Gap near Florina.  One Blenheim was sent off on a reconnaissance mission.  There were six other functional Blenheims, one of them being Richard’s.  He had already flown twice that day.  Usually the aircraft were escorted by Hurricane fighters.  This time the Hurricanes weren’t there.  Over Florina, the Blenheims were spotted by German Messerschmitt 109s, better armed and more manoeuvrable than the Blenheims.  211 squadron formed up into a defensive box and headed west, into the sun – it gave their gunners an advantage.  But it wasn’t enough.  Every one was shot down.  Richard’s plane came down over woods near Lake Prespa.  Airmen were seen jumping, but it was already too near the ground for their parachutes to open.

There is little enough to see at Paramythia.  But I still feel that coming here is a pilgrimage.

More about my book War Memorial here.

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