The last and most serious problem was that of air cover. At the Athens conference on 22 February the British representatives had stated that the strength of Barbarity Force could by 15 April be increased from four to fourteen squadrons.3 This was an optimistic but possibly justifiable statement. The convoys from Britain were bringing new aircraft and the campaign in Cyrenaica was progressing so favourably that squadrons could soon be sent from there to Greece. Since then, however, it had been impossible to arrange the transfer. Between 1 January and 31 March 1941 the British losses in the Middle East had totalled 184 aircraft, the replacements only 166. The arrival of the Luftwaffe and the Afrika Korps had inevitably postponed the transfer of any squadron. And their sudden counter-attack in the first week of April had now made it inevitable ‘that air reinforcements would have to be sent to Cyrenaica immediately to prevent the enemy thrust from developing into a serious threat to Egypt.’4
3 Air Vice-Marshal J. H. D'Albiac's report, para. 15.
4 Air Marshal Sir A. Longmore's despatch, para. 19.
The result was that on 6 April, when Germany declared war on Greece, the Allied air strength was lamentably weak. Only eight (excluding an army co-operation squadron) of the fourteen promised squadrons had reached Greece; only about eighty aircraft were available to challenge a German Air Force of possibly 800 aircraft1 supported by an Italian force of about 300. The Greeks could give little or no assistance. Their small air force had been sacrificed in the early stages of the Italian war. Since then further losses and a serious lack of spare parts had reduced its efforts to negligible proportions. If British or American aircraft were available the force would certainly be reequipped, but until that was possible its efforts were ‘of little operational value.’2
The Royal Air Force had consequently to operate on two fronts. The two squadrons of the Western Wing were supporting the Greeks in Albania; the four squadrons of the Eastern Wing had to assist the Allied forces in Macedonia; the other three squadrons, with support from bomber squadrons during the full-moon periods, operated from the airfields about Athens. They fought magnificently but the task allotted to them was quite impossible. As early as 18 March Air Vice-Marshal D'Albiac reported that ‘Owing to the small numbers of RAF squadrons that can be made available, the lack of suitable aerodromes in this country and the fact that we will have to fight on two fronts, it will be apparent that the air support which can be provided at any rate for some time to come will be far below that considered necessary for the efficient conduct of war….’3
The Eastern Wing, whose activities were of more immediate interest to W Force, had one fighter squadron operating from Larisa, Blenheim squadrons at Almiros and Niamata, and an army co-operation squadron at Ambelon. They had to work under operational difficulties that would have kept many units on the ground— the weather and the risks of mountain flying, the inaccurate maps, the obsolete aircraft such as Blenheims, the shortage of airfields and the problems of maintenance. For those Allied soldiers who wondered why they saw so few aircraft of the Royal Air Force, these notes about the difficulties of the one army co-operation squadron in Greece may be some explanation:
3 Ibid., Appendix B, para. 19.
‘As this squadron had three Hurricanes and ten Lysanders, nobody was enthused, as we all, especially the pilots, knew that the “Lizzies” would be death-traps even as communication aircraft, and this proved to be the case.’2
2 Air Vice-Marshal A. S. G. Lee, Special Duties, p. 71.