No.237 'Rhodesia' Squadron



Countless fighter pilots from every Commonwealth and Dominion nation fought with the RAF during the war. Panico Theodosiou was born on 21 November 1919 in Limassol, Cyprus, into a deeply religious Greek Cypriot family. After Cyprus was officially declared a Crown Colony in the mid-1920s and the islanders became British subjects, the Theodosiou family emigrated to Southern Rhodesia. A week before Britain declared war on Germany, units of the Southern Rhodesian Air Unit were the first to answer the call to arms. Panico volunteered for service and received a commission as a signal officer, reporting to headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. Later renamed the Southern Rhodesian Air Force, 1 Squadron at Nairobi was re-designated 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron in April 1940 when all SRAF personnel were absorbed into the RAF. Panic° successfully applied to fly and on 26 November 1940, Plt Off Theodosiou began flying training on DH Tiger Moths from the 25 Elementary Flying Training School at Belvedere, on the outskirts of Salisbury. He made his first solo flight after about ten hours of instruction. After completing EFTS, he took another leap - into marriage with his long-time girlfriend Denise. On 20 January 1941, he transferred to the 20 Service Flying Training School at Cranbourne, also near Salisbury, where he flew North American Harvards. There he received his wings on 17 April 1941, having achieved the highest marks in his group. Unfortunately, being too good a pilot can sometimes mark out personnel as potential instructors, and this proved to be the case with Panico. On 6 May 1941, he transferred to 62 Air School, Bloemfontein, South Africa, where he began instructor training, learning to fly the Avro Tutor and Bucker Jungmeister. A spell at 20 SFTS as an instructor followed until 10 November 1941 when he was allowed to join the No.74 Operational Training Unit at Aqir in Palestine for several weeks of operational training on the Hawker Audax, Miles Magister, and Hawker Hurricane. Meanwhile, the No.237 (Rhodesia) Squadron had been engaged in Army Co-operation, helping to defeat the Italians in East Africa, using a variety of obsolete biplanes and Westland Lysanders. In May 1941 the squadron moved to the Canal Zone and was re-equipped with Hurricane I. By December 1941 it was at Tmimi, west of Tobruk, as part of the Desert Air Force in support of General Auchinleck's army. Panico joined Νο.237 on Christmas Eve 1941.


Now known to all as 'Theo', Panico's first operational mission on 12 January 1942 was on an airfield protection patrol over Tmimi. Just as Rommel began his eastern offensive on 21 January, the decision was taken to withdraw 237 and send it to Mosul in Iraq in support of the Tenth Indian Division. Theo gained valuable experience in a variety of roles, including tactical and photographic reconnaissance, ground attack, and fighter tactics, as well as flying the Hurricane to its limits. He was promoted to Flying Officer in command of 'C' Flight. In early July 1942, No.237 moved to Qaiyrah, Iraq, and in September moved to Kermanshah, Persia (Iran). In October 1942 the squadron was visited by Marshal of the RAF Lord Hugh Trenchard, and on 9 October Theo and his wingman Flt Off Paul Fick were assigned to escort Trenchard's Lockheed Lodestar from Kermanshah to Baghdad. On 10 January, while returning from a photo recce, Theo was reported overdue. The next day he was found safe and sound by three 52 Squadron Bristol Blenheims from Mosul. He had been forced to land due to bad weather and engine problems. By 6 February 1943, to everyone's delight, the squadron was back in Egypt, at Shandur, north of Suez, where the pilots were to exchange their worn-out Mk.ls for 21 Hurricane IICs. The unit's designation was about to change from Army Co-operation to Fighter Reconnaissance. Landing Ground 106, some 10 miles (16km) west of Alamein, was to be Theo's home for the next five months. Although the land war in North Africa was winding down far to the west, convoy patrols over the Mediterranean and the daily hunt for the Luftwaffe kept Theo and his comrades on constant alert. Like any good fighter pilot, Theo was eager to get his first 'kill'. In June 1943 237 moved to Bemis on the Libyan coast and on 16 June Theo, now Fl. Lt and F/O John 'Boy' Crook, were scrambled to intercept a Junkers Ju 88 flying high at 30,000k (9,100m). For reasons that remain unclear, both failed to use their oxygen systems. Boy,' Crook turned back at 22,000ft due to lack of oxygen. Determined to get the German, Theo pressed on. After chasing his Hurricane to 30,000ft and closing to within 1,000 yards, he lost consciousness as he was about to open fire. His Hurricane spiraled out of control to 20,000ft before he regained both consciousness and control of his aircraft. His courage and determination almost cost him his life and a kill. On 23 July 1943, nine Νο.237 Hurricanes took part in a daring raid against German targets on Crete - Operation Thesis. Over 100 fighters, including the Greek No.335 and No.336 Squadrons, equipped with long-range fuel tanks, took part in three waves in what was considered a difficult operation due to the extreme range. Theo and his section swept in at dawn over the coast of the western tip of the island, splitting up for their targets. Theo damaged his target, a radio station at Akonis, and strafed a machine gun post at Gallas before returning ashore at Bu Amoud.  On 23 August Theo - now CO of A Flight - chased a Bf 109 and again failed to make contact. Theo and his fellow pilots longed for Spitfires. In September the squadron moved to Idku in Egypt. Events in the Aegean and the Italian Armistice meant that Theo flew many convoy protection patrols, including escorting the remnants of the Italian fleet into Alexandria.

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P/O Panico 'Theo' Theodosiou proudly wearing his 'wings' on his chest, most probably soon after completing his training. (David Theodosiou via Andrew Phedonos)
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Panico in front of Hurricane I. By 1942 the type was considered as obsolescent in the RAF, but it could still hold its own in the air-to-air combat arena if it was flown by a capable pilot. Roland Beamont, the famous British ace, described how a Hurricane could get away from a Me109: "Another thing we did was to devise a maneuver which was aimed at getting us out of a difficult corner if we ever got into one. This may sound very extraordinary, probably, to practicing pilots today, but it consisted of putting everything into the left-hand front corner of the cockpit. If you saw a 109 on your tail, and it hadn't shot you down at that point, you put on full throttle, fine pitch, full left rudder, full left stick, and full forward stick. This resulted in a horrible maneuver which was, in fact, a negative g spiral dive. But you would come out of the bottom with no 109 on your tail and your airplane intact." (David Theodosiou via Andrew Phedonos)
On 28 April 1944 Panico H. Theodosiou was lost while returning from an armed recce flying Spitfire Mk. IX MJ279, 'F for Freddie. His fighter was hit by flak in the coolant system and he baled out over the Mediterranean, never to be found. The Spitfire carries identical colors to Hurricane KW759 above except for the identification letter beside the roundel. A few days later, however, No. 237 Squadron was allocated the two-letter identification code 'DV. Theodosiou flew four of his last sorties in M1279, having eighteen ops in the Supermarine fighter, eleven at the controls of the earlier Mk. Vb and Mk. Vc variants. (Copyright Bertrand Brown aka Gaetan Marie)


Significantly for Theo, on 31 October 1943 No.237 Squadron and its 13 Hurricanes were sent to Yeroskipou, near Paphos in Cyprus, the country of his birth. Convoy protection, fighter sweeps over the British-occupied island of Castelorisso, and the occasional fight against intruders occupied him for most of his stay. Ju 88s were the only enemy aircraft with the practical range and speed to operate over Cyprus, and each scramble resulted in their escape. On 26 November Theo was ordered to fly to Lakatamia on a training mission with 227 Squadron Bristol Beaufighters, a route that would have taken him over or near Limassol. One can only imagine his feelings as he looked down from his Hurricane at the city he was born in and left as a young boy. On 30 November the squadron received orders to return to Idku to re-equip with the Spitfires they were expecting. On 7 December the Squadron was again on the move, this time to Savoia in Libya, where it was to maintain its primary role of shipping readiness. During a brief stopover at Sidi Barrani on the same day, Theo met Sqn Ldr Margaritis of No.336 (Hellenic) Squadron, one of two Royal Hellenic Air Force units serving with the RAF. The meeting of Greek Cypriot and RHAF fighter pilots made such an impression on Theo that he recorded it in his log. On 14 March the Spitfire Vs were replaced by Mk.IXs. MH279 Freddy was to become Theo's favorite mount. By April 1944, a new phase of the war had begun. The Allies had pushed north along Italy and were stuck at the 'Gustav Line', which stretched from coast to coast 100 miles (160km) south of Rome, with Monte Cassino in the middle. To force a German retreat, the Allied Mediterranean Tactical Air Force was to paralyze communications and supply routes to the German front by cutting all rail and road links north of Rome. Operation STRANGLE was launched on 24 March. The Germans had anticipated such moves and strong anti-aircraft defenses had been set up at strategic points such as railway marshalling yards. Into this theatre of war came the 16 Spitfire IXs of No.237, along with No.238 and No.451 (RAAF) squadrons, the three forming No.251 Wing. No.237 arrived at Poretta in Corsica, just 80 miles (130km) from the Italian coast, on 19 April 1944. After the necessary 40-hour checks on the overworked Spitfires, Theo got his first taste of offensive sweeps over Italy on 24 April, when 12 aircraft of 237 went 'hunting' for the enemy. On the morning of 25 April, 20 fighters from No.237 and No.451 Squadron (RAAF) escorted 24 USAAF Martin B-26 Marauders, with Theo leading the 'Red Section'. In the afternoon 237 made an offensive sweep from the Piombina to the San Stefano Road, Theo destroying a truck which went up in a ball of flame. Heavy anti-aircraft fire was encountered, but all aircraft returned safely.

Friday 28th April 1944 started early for Theo, who took off at 06:00 as part of a 12 aircraft attack on the road and railway at Empoli. During this 90-minute mission, the Rhodesians accounted for four lorries, two locomotives, and four railway wagons. Heavy ack-ack was encountered but all returned safely. At 18:25 the same day, Theo, flying his usual mount MH279 Freddie, led ten Spitfires on a sweep of the road and rail links between Leghorn, Pisa, and Florence. While four Spitfires maintained top cover against German fighters, the other six, led by Theo, went down to destroy their targets, leaving trucks and trains in flames. To quote the squadron's logs, they experienced 'heavy, accurate and intense flak', and more than one aircraft was hit, including Theo's. As the group headed out to sea for the base, Theo radioed that glycol was leaking into the cockpit - he knew that this time his aircraft would not make it to base. About 5 miles (8km) east of the enemy-held island of Gorgona, Theo had to abandon the Spitfire. He pulled back the canopy, inverted the aircraft, released his harness, and fell out. The time was about 19:45 and daylight was fading. The other pilots watched helplessly as their leader plunged into the inhospitable Mediterranean. Low fuel forced the others to continue, but Plt Off J McDermott and Fg Off D Hallas. However, the latter had engine boost problems, circled the area sending out 'Mayday' calls to enable a radio fix of the location. They saw Theo's parachute open, but when McDermott descended to 1,000ft he could only see the canopy on the water - no dinghy and no Theo. His comrades stayed on for another 25 minutes. A Supermarine Walrus and a Beaufighter were dispatched, along with an air-sea rescue launch, but nothing was found. The next day, the CO led four aircraft in an equally fruitless search. Only 24 years old, the Cypriot-born pilot was gone.  His 1,100 hours of experience, 700 of them in 'Ops', combined with his leadership and popularity, meant that his loss was deeply felt.  Theo's body was never recovered, and he has no known grave. The unfortunate pilot never saw his son David. As a Cypriot fighter pilot, Panico Theodosiou was unique in the Second World War. He was a naturalized Rhodesian, a country whose contribution to the air war is often underestimated but was second to none in the Commonwealth. Rhodesia was also the birthplace of many Greek and Rhodesian pilots, the most notable of whom was John Plagis, the top Greek and Rhodesian ace of the Second World War. Panico Heracles Christophi Theodosiou's name is immortalized on the RAF's poignant Malta Memorial, alongside those of many brave young men who made the supreme sacrifice in the Mediterranean theatre.

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The 'S' for Sugar Spitfire Mk.IX of No.238 Squadron somewhere in Italy. The Greek Cypriot pilot flew frequently the Spitfire Mk.IX 'F' for Freddie, MJ279 in the fighter-bomber role. The ever-increasing destruction brought upon the German forces in Italy reached a crescendo in April 1945. General von Vietinghoff, C-in-C of the German Army Group C in northern Italy, thought the fighter-bombers to be the most destructive weapon used against them in the final battle: "They hindered practically all essential movement at the local points. Even tanks could not move during the day because of the employment of fighter- bombers. The effectiveness of fighter-bombers lay in that their presence alone over the battlefield paralyzed every movement."  (David Theodosiou via Andrew Phedonos)
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Flight Lieutenant Panicos Theodosiou is on the balcony of a building smiling for the camera. It is not known in which town this picture was taken. (David Theodosiou via Andrew Phedonos)

A complete 48-page long chapter, regarding the service of Panico Theodosiou with many details and photos is available on our third volume of the series of books GREEKS IN FOREIGN COCKPITS. This page and the chapter inside our book pages could not be done without the great help of Andrew Phedonos who co-authored it. Andrew was the first person who researched 'Theo's' life and actions during WW2 and came in touch with his son, David Theodosiou.