BLENHEIM MK.IVF PILOT
George Platon Phitidis, born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 8, 1916, the last child of Constantine Haralambous Phitidis and Alexandra Gabriel Michaelides. Constantine was a Greek Cypriot born in Phyti in 1867, during the Ottoman occupation of Cyprus, and migrated to South Africa after taking his chances in Cairo, Egypt, and California, United States. He became a highly respected businessperson and philanthropist. Alexandra Gabriel Michaelides was born in Cyprus in 1887 and traveled to South Africa with her family in the early 1900s. A few years after the birth of George, Alexandra was hospitalized and at the young age of forty, she passed away. At the young age of five, his father sent George as a boarder to Marists Observatory School in Eckstein Street, Johannesburg. Because his mother, Alexandra, was ill, it was difficult for Constantine to take care of both his children and his growing business interests. George adored his siblings, who were at boarding schools all over South Africa. Not being with his family affected him, as he only saw them once a year on Christmas Day. In the absence of a mother and the tough time spent in a boarding school, it influenced his youth. The brothers were skilled, highly competitive athletes, they enjoyed soccer, rugby, boxing, and wrestling. Alec and his brothers, Eric and George, loved playing sport together. They were the pillars of the first football team during the difficult early years. This is what it means to be a Hellenic team supporter. The President of the club used to say:
" 'Hellenic' publicizes the name of Greece more than anything else. The Hellenic football squad comprises Greeks born in South Africa. It became a nursery of Hellenism, with the Phitidis brothers being among its best members."
While still in South Africa, George joined the Rand Light Infantry as a volunteer from 1933 to 1936. At the Roberts Height camp during 1934, he played in the Rand Light infantry band. George’s rank on discharge was a corporal, Number 96277. During active duty, the regiment becomes integrated as an element of the South African Union Defence Force. Part-time volunteers learn the same skills and pass the same tests as a full-time soldier or officer. It gave George the opportunity of leadership, responsibility, and cooperation at a young age. Passionate about flying, he joined the Royal Air force Volunteer Reserve RAVR, attaining the rank of Sergeant Pilot. The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) was formed in 1936. During the Second World War, because of the high demand for aircrew, the volunteer reserve quickly became the main entrance into the RAF. It initially comprised civilians recruited from neighborhood flying schools. He was an experienced pilot with a range of aircraft types logging over 1.200 flying hours. All flying tasks are based on four fundamental flight maneuvers: straight-and-level, flight turns, climbs, and descents. As George performed these maneuvers well, he was awarded trophies. He based his skill on accurate ‘feel’ and control analysis rather than mechanical movements. Before the Second World War, George trained as a pilot at the Air Service Training Centre in Hamble, Hampshire, Southampton. When George qualified as a pilot in 1938, he became a well-paid commercial air pilot and gained considerable civil flying experience. During the Second World War, he volunteered with the Royal Air Force on May 19, 1941. He stayed with his friend Mr. S. Back at 6 Barnes Street, Marlborough, Wiltshire.
Above & Below Left: Inscribed on the trophy: PST Air Service Training Flying. Presented by RE Gardner Esq to George in 1938 for performing skillful flights and maneuvers. Before the Second World War, George trained as a pilot at the Air Service Training Centre in Hamble, Hampshire, Southampton, and became a commercial pilot. Hamble used to have an airfield and during 1931 this was taken over by Air Service Training, an aviation school which became known as 'Britain's Air University'. In 1936, a factory was built by British Marine Aircraft, later to become Follands and then British Aerospace. Many famous aircraft have been connected with Hamble, including the "Ensign" which was built by Armstrong Whitworth and A.S.T in the late 1930s, the largest airliner ever produced in Britain at that time. During the Second World War, Hamble became a repair shop for warplanes and 2,575 damaged Spitfires were serviced here. The Folland ‘Gnat’, flown by the "Red Arrows" R.A.F aerobatic team, and the Harrier jump jet were also built here, the area has been linked with aviation through the years, and through its maritime links early seaplanes were the first to be built here by local boat builders. Currently, BAE builds and supplies aircraft parts for Airbus. (Chandler & Co of Southampton via Costa Phitidis)
Above: C.1929. Under 15 Marist Soccer Pupils George, sitting bottom right. George was passionate about football. The Marist Brother movement began in France in 1816 in the turbulent wake of the French Revolution. From 1817 Fr. Marcellin Champagnat, accompanied by seven brothers, ran a primary school in the village of La Valla and between them educated children (and some adults) in the basics of reading, writing, and Christian teachings at the school and rural hamlets within the parish. The Marist movement was based on the simple philosophy of service in humility and simplicity through teaching the illiterate children of the poor.
The discovery of pure Gold in 1886 in the City of Johannesburg; South Africa brought about a cosmopolitan community. By the time the first Marist Brothers arrived on the scene in October 1889, a theatre had been established, Waller’s Circus had been in town, the Salvation Army performed in front of dubious audiences, and a regular rash of hotels and bars had thrown open their doors to thirsty drinkers. By 1889 the first boys’ school in the city of Johannesburg at Koch Street was founded. Within two years the attendance was at 300. Due to the rapid expansion of the school over the years, separate premises were sought to separate the primary and high school sections and relieve issues of space.
The foundation stone was laid in 1924 that year and in 1926 in Eckstein Street, Observatory, the high school, Marist College, was opened. In less than ten years the number of children in the high school was over capacity at 400 (equal to the number of children in the primary section at Koch Street) and demand for places led to a second primary school being created in the orchards of the Observatory site. In the 1960s the rapid urbanization of Johannesburg saw the Koch street site dwarfed by high-rise buildings and surrounded by commercial premises; the Brothers decided to sell up and Koch Street was closed down. The Marist College at the time was an all boy’s boarding school that later became a Multi-Racial and coeducational with the amalgamation of Yeoville Convent and St Angela’s Ursuline which took place in the 1980s. The name of the school changed back to Sacred Heart College as it is known today. ( Costa Phitidis, further info https://www.maristonian.co.za/history/)
ENTER ROYAL AIR FORCE
Above Left: George standing on the veranda of his father’s flat in Rissik Street, Johannesburg, before going to a game of soccer. (Costa Phitidis)
Above Right: A snapshot of the Hellenic Club soccer team in Johannesburg in 1935. George’s brother, Alec, is standing on the extreme left, his brother Eric sitting on the right and George kneeling behind him next to the captain. The team colors were blue and white stripes representing the colors of the Greek flag. (Costa Phitidis)
Below: Hellenic soccer club of Johannesburg which has George Platon Phitidis extreme right back row wearing civvies and he is standing next to his brother Eric. Their brother Alec, is bottom row extreme left. (Michelle Adams)
His first enlistment posting on April 19, 1941, was as an Aircraft Hand, Aircraftman Second Class pilot to assist with training at the Oxford Training Unit. He transferred to a reserve unit on April 20 and moved again on May 24, to No.15 SFTS (Service Flying Training School). Finally, on August 15, 1941, RAF transferred George to No.51 OTU (Operational Training Unit) on instructions from Headquarters Holding. The unit was part of the RAF’s Bomber Command to train night fighter and bomber crews for Intruder missions, mainly on Blenheim’s. With his considerable flying experience, he had the makings of a very efficient fighter pilot. ‘The Cranfield airfield was built before the war, as a result of the general militarisation of Europe caused by the rise of Hitler. It was comfortable, with a full range of facilities. The trainees slept in proper barracks rather than huts. The food was excellent, as the catering officer was a former chef from the Savoy. There was an on-site cinema, a well-stocked library, sports facilities plus a stage.’ ‘Generally, life in the RAF was not bad, prolonged periods of utter boredom interspersed with a few exciting episodes. These episodes tended to be rather dramatic, including attacks by German raiders, or flying bombs but also, the sad sight of trainee pilots crashing, which was very common and frequently fatal.’ George tested aircraft for night-flying and trained pilots with intermediate and advanced instruction so they could specialize in night-flying while training as a fighter pilot. His Royal Air Force record of service showed he was of exemplary character and had attained sergeant rank, with excellent proficiency as a pilot.
In the early hours of Sunday morning on October 12, 1941, Sgt Phitidis, a South African was carrying out a local flying experience in Blenheim IV L4849. It was a moonlit night and at 0345 hrs, as he approached to land, it is thought he suddenly realized that he had failed to lower the undercarriage and decided to go around again. In doing so, it appears he pulled the aircraft up too steeply for the amount of flap deployed and stalled. Despite an extensive night-time search involving the Home Guard, the aircraft was not found until daylight when Cranfield resident Ivy Bettell, while out exercising her dog, came across its crumpled wreckage lying across the boundary hedge and ditch to Coleman’s Orchard. It was just a few hundred yards from the perimeter of the airfield. In the technical report, following the accident, by Unit's Specialist Officer W/ Cmdr. C.T.O. D.S. Brookes, it is written:
"Examination of the wreckage indicates that the aircraft had struck the ground at an angle beyond the vertical. The undercarriage was apparently up at the time of the impact, and the flaps down. Both airscrews had screwed themselves well into the ground, which suggests that they were running under considerable power. The Port wing had indented She ground deeply, and the fuselage had failed at the turret and was thrown to the left. The attitude tod signs of impact are consistent with the early stages of a right-handed spin. (No evidence of technical defect)"
As it was noted above, George was a very experienced pilot and his death was unexpected by his superior Officers as C.A. Pritchard, Wing Commander Flying at 51 OTU Cranfield stated below:
"This Sergeant Pilot had considerable flying experience in civilian life and was considered a most competent pilot. He came into land and it was noticed that his undercarriage was still retracted. He put on his engines to go round again, both engines sounded to be going perfectly. It was next noticed that both navigation lights appeared going down steeply to the right, and the noise of a crash was heard. There was no fire. The night was fine and clear with plenty of moon making instrument flying unnecessarily. With the combination of a fine night and an experienced pilot, no explanation can be offered for what would appear to be a stall."
Above: Doing washing at the Rand Light infantry Roberts Height camp in 1934. (Costa Phitidis)
Middle: George enters the aircraft's cockpit. Unfortunately, it would not take long to strip away their innocence from the reality of war as many young pilots gave their lives and are laid to rest in some corner of a foreign field. (Costa Phitidis)
Below: George, youthful and smiling, posing alongside a flying machine with his fellow pilots, all looking forward with anticipation to the adventure. (Costa Phitidis)
Blenheim Mk. IV L4849 was the fighter in which George Platon Phitidis lost his life while training in No.51 OTU. The unit used BD and PF squadron codes. On 25 May 1941, it was ordered that the code letter of OTU aircraft assigned to Fighter Command was to be outlined in Yellow. Aircraft is represented with the shallow gun pack usually associated with the Mk IF, which was sometimes used on the Mk IVF as well. Flame-dampening exhaust, IFF, and AI Mk.III radar installed. The identification letter (G) is hypothetical. This Blenheim was flown also by No.53 Squadron during 1939 coded as TE-J (Check the photo above left). No.51 OTU was formed at Debden on 26 July 1941 within No 81 Group, which was part of Fighter Command, its role was night fighter training. The unit was based at Cranfield equipped with Blenheims and used TWinwood Farm as a satellite from April 1942. In October 1941 Blenheim Mk IV R3617 was shot down by an enemy aircraft at Sherington, Bucks on the 13th. On 5 December Blenheim Mk IV N6172 crashed forced landing at Beckering Park in Bedfordshire and Blenheim losses continued into 1942. One of the last Blenheims lost by the unit was V5743 when its undercarriage jammed and it crashed on landing at Grantham on 18 May 1943. No 3 Sqn of the unit flew Blenheims and Beauforts used for initial conversion from Twinwood Farm. The first Beaufighters arrived in August 1942 and dual control Beauforts were used for twin-engine conversion training. The Beauforts also had their fair share of losses and X8918 was lost in a belly landing after an engine cut near Stoney Stratford on 6 March 1944. The aircraft was damaged by fire and written off. On 7 may 1944 AW195 had its undercarriage collapsed on landing at Cranfield and on 31 October W6482 crashed forced landing at Uthington, Cheshire. The Blenheims were retained until 1943 and the unit also used Martinets and Lysanders for target towing. During March and April 1943 Wellington Mk XIs were used to train night fighter Mosquito crews for No 100 group and in May and June American crews were trained by the unit on Beaufighters. By July 1944 the unit was operating Beaufighters, Beauforts, and Mosquito Mk IIs, the first of which had arrived in June. Beaufighter losses were frequent throughout the OTU's existence and Mk If R2097 was lost in a forced landing at Milton Keynes on 30 November 1942. 1943 saw the loss of R2098, which spun into the ground at Putnoe Wood, Bedford on 15 April, and V2833, which crashed on landing at IWinwood Farm on 20 August. Mk If R2126 crashed on approach to Cranfield on 17 March 1944 and in the same month R2069 was lost when the pilot lost control during a dummy attack on a B-17 and crashed at Easton Maudit, Northants. On 18 July R2080 hit a balloon and crashed near Kingsdown, Kent. The Mosquitoes were used by No 4 Sqn and crews were posted to No 100 Group. Mosquito losses included W4088, which flew into Mynydd Mawr in North Wales on 1 November 1944, W4079 which crashed on overshoot at Cranfield at the end of the same month, and W4097 which was struck off charge on 27 December 1944 having lost part of its skinning on 1 November. By February 1945 the Beaufighters had been withdrawn and the unit disbanded on 14 June 1945. (Copyright Gaetan Marie further info by Tom Docherty )
Above: Various Pages describing the accident of George Platon Phitidis from AIR81/9545 (National Archives via Andrew Phedonos)
George had spent 177 days in service with the RAF. Unfortunately, his pilot logbook cannot be traced. In the brief period as a Royal Air Force pilot, his logbook would provide details of each flight he flew, a record of his flying hours, the number of landings made, and instrument approaches. Only his hours flown solo on all types of aircraft was 1264.05 is known according to his accident report. A touching tribute, a eulogy regarding George Platon Phitidis was written in the ΚΥΠΡΙΑΚΟΝ ΛΕΥΚΩΜΑ ‘Cypriot Album by K. Theocharides:
"Somewhere in the Ancient ‘land of the Angles’ is found a piece of ground that will remain Greek for all eternity, as a testimonial to a Hellenised shroud covering the sacred bones of a Greek How could anyone who met or knew the proud young man of the Hellenic Club in his glory days ever forget the talented Giórgos Phitidis? This bright young twenty-four-year-old departed this imperfect world for the peace of the hereafter. Covered by the shroud of sacrifice as a National Duty, a part of humanity’s sacrifice to be liberated from the evils that afflict it, Giórgos Phitidis has died. It seems hard to believe this news. Memory fiercely battles logic to accept it. How is it possible that such vitality, such energy, such a bright expression of life be lost in a moment? But if his life is gone, his sacrifice, as immense or weighty as it was, was not in vain. His presence will shine in the national firmament through the ages, lighting up the true road. After our generation, countless generations will follow this path. Liberated humanity will raise its grateful gaze to the heavens as an ultimate and supreme hymn to the memory of those who have sacrificed their lives so that others can live. From his childhood years, Giórgos always excelled as a battler in the competitive arena as he did a few years ago when he left his loved ones to go abroad to England where he chose as his career the most dangerous, that of aviation. He left behind his dear father, the community benefactor CH Phitidis and his beloved siblings, forgoing a peaceful and stable future with his father’s wealth because tranquillity and quiet were not the happiness he desired in life. Only months after enrolling in the school in England, he won a trophy for skillful flights and maneuvers. Whenever he competed, he was the best of the best. When war broke out, he held an excellent and well-paid position. A high position, salary, money? What were these compared to a new career of a heroic and national competition opening before him? He had left behind lots of money in his hometown. That’s not what he wanted. Wherever there was competition, Giórgos Phitidis was never absent. So, there he was in the British air force, the RAF. No one there knows the details of his life. We are, however, sure in heroism’s embrace; this exceptional young Greek’s feats are noted in the Air Force’s official records. Giórgos was content. In his short life, his heart was filled with the satisfaction of his inner urges, like the days he played with the Hellenic Club in great competition against opposing clubs. In war, his opponent was death. His great honor was that he faced death proudly and gallantly, with his eternal smile that always brightened up our soccer games. Even if his body is no more, his spirit is undefeated. It now rests in the mysterious heights of the heavens from where it throws down balm, softening our sorrow. Giórgos was born a hero, raised and lived as a hero, as testified by those who knew him. As a hero, he has now breathed his last breath and has entered the annals of immortality."
Rest in Peace George.
Nothing can describe better his sacrifice than the inscription at the bottom of his gravestone.
ΑΝΔΡΩΝ ΗΡΩΩΝ ΠΑΣΑ ΓΗ ΤΑΦΟΣ
'Any place can serve as a grave for heroes.'
ΕΙΣ ΟΙΩΝΟΣ ΑΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΑΜΥΝΕΣΘΑΙ ΠΕΡΙ ΠΑΤΡΗΣ
'The best omen is to fight for one’s country.'
Above: The Royal Air Force arranged his funeral on October 16, 1941. Before his internment, a Roman Catholic padre held mass at the Station Church. George’s funeral cortège lifted fellow pilots preparing for his final resting place, his grave. (Costa Phitidis)
Middle: During his young age, George had attended Chapel of Marists Observatory School in Eckstein Street, Johannesburg, as a border and his father had donated funds in his memory for the building of the new chapel. (Costa Phitidis)
Below: Gravestone of George Platon Phitidis, Block J. Grave 28. (Costa Phitidis)
ERIC HARRY PHITIDIS
Eric Harry Phitidis, born on 20th, November 1910 was the second child of Constantine and Alexandra Phitidis. During the Second World War, Eric enlisted as an aircraft mechanic with the South African Air Force. He joined the tactical Desert Air Force, created to offer air support to the British Eighth Army, included the Royal Air Force, South African Air Force, Australian Air Force, and other Allied Air Forces. In the desert war, he maintained Kittyhawk planes, going north to Egypt and later to Italy. Mechanics needed to repair grounded aircraft to get them to combat airworthy, but German aircraft strafed them relentlessly, so they spent plenty of time in the trenches. A devil may care lot they drilled a hole under the general’s caravan to tap his whiskey, to running motorbikes on Grappa liquor in Italy. The battle for North Africa became a struggle for Suez Canal control and access to the Middle East's valuable oil reserves and Asian, raw materials. Increased mechanization of modern armies made oil a strategic commodity. It started in June 1940 and continued for three years and was the second most crucial war in front of the Axis and Allied forces. Eric remembered his Tobruk squadron with other allies covering the retreating troops, so they were the last out. Hitler sent in General Rommel's newly formed 'Afrika Korps’. Several long, brutal pushes back and forth across Libya and Egypt reached a turning point in the Second Battle of El Alamein. In late 1942 Lieutenant-General Montgomery's British Eighth Army broke out and drove Axis forces from Egypt to Tunisia. As an aircraft mechanic, Eric assisted the North African war effort to enable the air force to turn the tide in favor of the allies.
Passport Odyssey, Phitides Family History, ISBN: 9780620884747
No.51 OTU Operational Record Book
Training for Triumph: A History of RAF Aircrew Training in WWII, Tom Docherty, Woodfield Publishing, ISBN: 9781873203712
Special Thanks to Costa Phitidis for honoring us to write about his uncle's sacrifice and Andrew Phedonos for his invaluable help.