Found in action

Σάββατο, 5 Μαΐου 2012

by Dr Constantine Lagos*

During the First World War, Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) operated from airbases in the northern Aegean, on the islands of Tenedos, Imvros, Limnos and Thasos. The last was located at Prinos. Between May 1916 and the end of the war, British and Commonwealth pilots used its airfield for combat missions against the Bulgarians who occupied Eastern Macedonia and Thrace from 1916 to 1918 and also the Turks in the Dardanelles.
The Bulgarians and Turks were allied to the Germans and some of their famous (German) Ace pilots were involved in dogfights with British and Greek pilots over the Aegean. One of those British pilots was Flight Lieutenant Warner Hutchins Peberdy, a Canadian who voluntarily joined the RNAS in 1915

Sent on a reconnaissance mission to Eastern Macedonia on 14 January 1917, Peberdy failed to return to Prinos. He was declared missing in action and it was assumed that his aircraft had crashed in the sea and that he did not survive. A twisted part of the aeroplane showing the
force of impact and the explosion that followed

A twisted part of the aeroplane showing the force of impact and the explosion that followed

Rare aviation find
But a discovery in February provides strong evidence that the mystery of his fate may be resolved at long last. At that time, the municipality of Thasos invited members of the Kerykeion team, a non-profit and non-governmental organisation that researches aviation history in Greece, to investigate the veracity of a story circulating for many years now about an aircraft wreckage on one of the island’s mountains, supposedly dating back to the time when the airbase at Prinos was operational. The members of the team, aided by two locals, were able to locate the wreckage close to the peak of Profitis Ilias, a high mountain overlooking Prinos. The wreckage consists of a large number of metallic parts on the surface of the soil while many more appear to be buried in the earth and covered by bushes. What is particularly interesting is that we seem to have located the exact spot of the plane’s impact, a hole in the surface where parts belonging to the airplane’s front are still visible.

Research by members of the Kerykeion team on cases of other aeroplanes that operated from Prinos airbase and crashed as a result of enemy action or accidents do not match the evidence of the aircraft that crashed at Profitis Ilias. Indeed, there is a strong case that this is Peberdy’s plane and that he crashed while trying to land at Thasos, not in the sea. This means that the remains of the pilot may still lie buried among the debris of his aeroplane. However, we can only be certain about this after the full excavation of the aircraft. It is difficult to be certain about the exact version from the parts of the wreckage visible on the surface, but Peberdy flew with a Nieuport 11 single-seater tractor scout plane - a French-built biplane reconnaissance airplane that was used during WWI, by most allied air forces - and the preliminary survey of the wreckage parts show that this, too, was a Nieuport, and probably an 11.

No wooden parts of the airplane seem to have survived, as a major forest fire in 1985 destroyed the entire area where the wreckage is located. The importance of this find affects aviation history globally. This is the very first wreckage from a First World War aircraft to be found in Greece and a very rare find anywhere in the world. However, what makes this discovery even more important is the fact that it may very well solve a 95-year mystery concerning the fate of an RNAS pilot. The municipality of Thasos and the Hellenic Air Force general staff have been informed about this find and it is hoped that an official investigation will be undertaken for the recovery and positive identification of the aircraft and the pilot who flew it.

First Greek casualty

Thasos was the site of multiple battles with the Germans. The British using the Prinos airbase were joined by the pilots of the Hellenic Naval Aviation (Naftiko Aeroporiko Soma) under the leadership of the legendary commander of the Hellenic Navy, Aristides Moraitinis. In a battle on 5 June 1917, a German pilot brought down a Greek airplane off the coast of Thasos, killing its pilot. Ensign Demetrios Argyropoulos became the first Greek airman to be killed in a combat mission. In total, nine Greek airmen serving at the Prinos airbase during the First World War died as a result of enemy action. In February 1919, following the end of the war, the airfield at Prinos was abandoned. Today most of its former site is marshland, with some cultivated fields on its edges.

• Dr Constantine Lagos is a lecturer of Aviation History at the Hellenic Air Force Academy and a member of the Kerykeion team that identified the First World War wreckage on Thasos

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