FAIREY FULMAR II OBSERVER
FLEET AIR ARM
Constantine's father Christos, from the island of Imbros island on the Aegean, first traveled to Khartoum, a regional trade centre in Sudan, in the southern Sahara, to make his mark. There he heard about the vast discoveries of gold and opportunities in South Africa. The lure of the new El Dorado sparked the world’s largest gold rush. It drew a large influx of foreigners from around the globe in search of fortune, who were enticed by feverish dreams of great wealth and opportunity. In 1905, he took off and traveled steerage to South Africa to seek his fortune in the burgeoning gold-mining town of Germiston, South Africa. He returned financially established to Imbros in 1912, to find a bride and married a young Eleni. During the First Balkan War in 1913, when Turkey took control of the Imbros, most of the island’s Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians fled. Christos left with his pregnant wife, brothers, extended family and settled in Germiston, South Africa. Constantine, the son of Christos and Eleni, the second youngest of six children, was born on November 1, 1920, in South Africa. They affectionately called him by his nickname, Cossie. In South Africa, the ‘Corner Café’, typified the early Greek and Cypriot immigrants, they worked long, hard hours behind the till staying open for extended hours. These new immigrants saw the cafés as a stepping stone towards a better financial position and a better life for themselves and their families. Most of them were invited to South Africa by relatives and fellow countrymen. The early Greeks described this influx phenomenon as ‘chain immigration. When an immigrant arrived in the new country, he typically worked as a ‘μπακαλόγατος’ bakalogatos, a counter assistant, to gain the experience necessary to earn, save, in time open his own business. In time, he required assistance in his business and invited relatives from Greece to join him, thus continuing the chain of immigration. The long hours and hardships in the cafés prevented these entrepreneurs from having any social life. Even worse for the Greek immigrant retailers, they were often subjected to periodic outbursts of verbal and physical abuse arising out of xenophobia. Christos and Eleni Christelis toiled away behind the counter of Olympia, the first corner café in Georgetown, Germiston, in the heart of the Rand goldfields. Christos also owned three racehorses at Gosforth Park Race Club, a major horse racing facility, in the Transvaal, he died in 1936. The whole Christelis clan did well, they became property owners and contributed to the development of the Greek community in Germiston.
From a young age, Cossie was raised in the Greek Orthodox faith, serving as an altar boy. He attended Germiston High School, an English-medium government school established in Germiston in September 1917 with the school motto “Scientia et Humanitas”, Science and Culture. He played sport at school and loved the game of rugby. The school once enjoyed the reputation of being regarded as having the best schoolboy rugby team in the region. He also took part in the school cadet detachment, a discipline to learn military obedience. Cadets spent time during extra periods or after school marching and playing instruments in a marching band with drums, cymbals, and valveless bugles. There was also rifle shooting training, using .22 caliber rifles. Uniforms consisted of caps, khaki-colored short pants, and shirts with epaulets, long khaki knee socks, and brown boots. It exposed Constantine to leadership, responsibility, and cooperation at a young age. Just to the north of the school is Victoria Lake, better known today as Germiston Lake. It is manmade and was once used by the local gold mines, bordered by industry in the North, a park, and Germiston Boys High School on the Rand Airport Road in the South. The Germiston High School Rowing Club, of which Constantine was a member, is based at the lake and is one of the oldest rowing clubs in South Africa. A spirit of perseverance ran through the club, which resulted in some outstanding results at regattas in which he competed. The nearby aerodrome, Rand Airport, was officially opened on December 21, 1931. The airport was one of the first in Johannesburg and initially serviced its mining and manufacturing industries. Rand Refinery, the largest integrated single-site precious metals refining and smelting complex in the world used to export its refined gold by air. In early 1939, the Union Defence Force took control of Rand Airport and established training schools there to train pilots for the war effort. The plane was widely produced and used primarily for training by most Commonwealth aircrew during the Second World War. While Cossie was in his last year of school, he heard the loud roaring radial engine Harvard’s trainers rumble overhead. Their propeller tips rotated so fast they broke the sound barrier. When the Harvard’s took off, hearing that amazing throaty growl overhead kindled Constantine’s passion for aviation.
Above: Temporary Acting Sub-Lieutenant Constantine Christelis (RNVR) pose proudly to the camera after his graduation wearing his RNVR uniform. The Royal Navy commissioned ranks were created in 1840 and during 1903 the British Admiralty formed the first civilian Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. A naval acting sub-lieutenant is a commissioned junior military officer ranking below a lieutenant. It is equivalent to the ranks of lieutenant in the British Army and flying officer in the Royal Air Force. The RNVR uniform was distinguished from that of the regular Navy by its thin gold wavy stripe on the cuff. During the Second World War, because of the high demand for aircrew, the volunteer reserve quickly became one of the main sources of aircrew personnel for the regular naval service. It initially comprised civilians recruited from neighborhood flying schools. (Tasia Manikas née Dallas and N Christelis)
Middle: Cossie in the center on furlough leaves in South Africa with his family. On the left Efstratios his eldest brother, Androniki his eldest sister, his mother Eleni, his youngest sister Anthoula, his middle sister Panorea and his nephew Chris and niece Helen. Missing brother James who took the photo and deceased father. (Tasia Manikas née Dallas and N Christelis)
Below: Painting showing a Fairey Fulmar Mk.II of FAA No.803 Squadron flying over HMS Formidable. (unknown artist viahttps://samilhistory.com)
ENTER THE ROYAL NAVY VOLUNTEER RESERVE AS FAA OBSERVER
After completing his secondary education at Germiston High School, Constantine traveled to England in 1939 to study electrical engineering. Passionate about flying, sailing, adventure, and daredevil flying. He signed up eagerly during the Second World War to fight in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve RNVR. He was accepted as a volunteer because he was in the UK studying. James, one of his brothers, also applied in South Africa, but he was rejected because he was considered being a Greek. After completing his training he attained the rank of T/ Sub-Lieutenant (A) on December 13, 1941. After completing his training as a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm observer, he joined FAA 803 squadron on the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable. During the Indian Ocean raid or Battle of Ceylon, he flew Fairey Fulmars II, taking part in the sea battles resulting from the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Easter Sunday raid against the Royal Navy in early April 1942. The island of Ceylon now Sri Lanka was strategically important because of its location in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the Royal Navy was able to protect access to India as well as the crucial Allied shipping routes to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf oilfields. The Port of Colombo, on the southwestern shores of the Kelani River, served as an important naval base and Ceylon, also had most of the British Empire's rubber resources. The Battle of Ceylon resulted from a naval sortie conducted by Japanese aircraft carriers which struck at Allied shipping and naval bases around Ceylon but failed to locate and destroy the bulk of the British Eastern Fleet which, forewarned by intelligence, had sailed away from its bases before the raid. Its subsequent attempt to engage and attack the Japanese force was frustrated by poor tactical intelligence. The raid illustrated Ceylon's vulnerability and the inadequate preparation of the British forces to face further Japanese carrier raids. Accordingly, the base of the Eastern Fleet was moved to East Africa, from which it regularly deployed carrier task forces into the central and eastern Indian Ocean. Its main base was in Sydney, Australia, with a forward base at Manus Island.
Left & Right: HMS Formidable sailing on the Indian Ocean on August 3, 1942, two days after Constantine lost along with his pilot, T.Sub.Lt. Desmond Elwood in their Fulmar Mk.II DR647. The photos showing Fulmar carrier operations were taken during April 1942, and it's not known if Christelis was already aboard the HMS Formidable. The best way to summarise the Fleet Air Arm, commitment, and sacrifice is written by none other than the Admiral of the Fleet. HRH Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, born in Corfu, Greece, Duke of Edinburgh K. G., K. T., O. M., G. B. E.
"To the far-sighted, the use of aircraft in war may have seemed obvious. It needed the conviction of a saint to visualize the practical use of aircraft in a war at sea. The contribution of naval aviation to the war at sea during the First and Second World War, may not have made the headlines in quite the same way as land-based aircraft. But, as the final days of the war against Japan demonstrated, the participation of naval aircraft was crucial to the ultimate Allied victory". (IWM A11660, A9067 & A9711)
The Fairey Fulmar Mk. II DR647 was the fighter in which the South African Greek, Constantine Christelis was killed in action during a recon sortie on August 1, 1941. The Fairey Fulmar was a British carrier-borne reconnaissance fighter aircraft developed and manufactured by the Fairey Aviation Company. It was named after the Northern Fulmar, a seabird native to the British Isles. ‘The first eight-gun fighter to enter service with the Fleet Air Arm, the Fulmar two-seat shipboard general-purpose fighter. It was designed when the Admiralty held the view that navigational aids were inadequate to ensure the safe return of a single-seat fighter to its carrier in inclement weather, and that a navigator was, therefore, indispensable.’ In early 1942, Fulmar squadrons were deployed to the Ιndian Ocean in response to the Japanese advance in the Far East. Two squadrons were also dispatched to defend Ceylon. However, the Fulmar proved to be no match for the nimble and lightly armored Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter and Aichi D3A Val dive bomber and was quickly proved to have been outclassed by those two aircraft. The Fairly Fulmar was larger and slower than conventional fighters of the time but was successful and durable. The Fulmar, the most successful fleet Air Arm, was used in the Far East for long-range reconnaissance after being withdrawn from its fighter role. (Juanita Franzi Aero illustration, further info by Wikipedia)
Above: Various Pages describing the loss of Constantine Christelis from ADM358/867 (National Archives via Andrew Phedonos)
Below & Below Left: Fairey Fulmar carrier operations during April 1942 aboard HMS Formidable in the Indian Ocean and the medals awarded to the South African Greek observer of the Fleet Air Arm, Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Constantine Christelis. (IWM 9064, 9065, 9068 & 9069 and Tasia Manikas née Dallas)
Operation Stab was a British-led naval deception during World War II in order to try and distract Japanese units for the upcoming Guadalcanal campaign by US forces. Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville decided on a fake invasion force, which was to sortie towards the Andaman Islands in an effort to draw Japanese forces to the area. Somerville himself would be shadowing with 'Force A' consisting of the battleship HMS Warspite, aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Formidable, 4 light cruisers, and 5 destroyers. Units started to assemble along the Indian coast and at Ceylon from 21-25 July, with a start date of 1 August. 'Force A' sortied early on the 30th after reports of Japanese cruisers being seen in the Malacca Straits on July 29th. This would enable operational STAB to be carried out on the prearranged date and also admit of intercepting the Japanese force should it venture to the southern part of the Bay of Bengal. The course had been shaped to keep out of sight of land and to be in a position thirty-five miles to the eastward of Trincomalee, which sits on one of the world's finest natural harbors on the east coast of Sri Lanka, on August 1st. Two air searches sent out from Force A on July 31st saw nothing in either search. As no further information had been received on the enemy cruiser, another patrol set off to the northeast of that force on August 1, while at sea, to warn against any approaching enemy forces. After a subsequent investigation, it was determined that it had been enemy aircraft, which was also confirmed by a broadcast from Tokyo alerting their Japanese pilots of the presence of British forces in the area. A further air search was sent out, this time Christelis and his pilot, T.Sub.Lt. Elwood took off with their Fairey Fulmar II DR647. All the search aircraft returned to their carriers except two of them. The two missing aircraft reported to HMS Formidable by wireless that they were lost. They requested direction finding bearings, known by its abbreviation D/F or nickname huff-duff, a technique used for naval and aerial navigation. In 1840, the fleet turned to close on one aircraft when the D/F and the radio direction finder had been established. Searchlights were burned at dusk to assist returning aircraft. A few minutes later, they sighted an aircraft which by this time so short of fuel that it had to force-land into the sea near the ship, and they were able to save the crew. Unfortunately, nothing further was heard or seen of the other missing Fulmar except for one report that a light had been seen to the eastward. A night search for the survivors for this aircraft had been considered, but it would have left the convoy exposed to the northeast. The captain decided it was preferable to return to this area at dawn and carry out a daytime air search. At 0630 on August 2nd, a thorough air search set out to look for survivors of the Fulmar which had been lost the previous evening. Whilst this attack was continuing, Force A was maneuvered into the area in which it was estimated that the survivors might have landed. No survivors were located and the crew, T.Sub Lieutenant (A) D.N. Elwood, RNVR (New Zealand), and T.Sub Lieutenant (A) C. Christelis, RNVR (South Africa), was lost. Sadly, it did not take long for the young Greek parentage FAA Observer to strip away his innocence from the realities of war.
Costa Phitides correspondence with Tasia Manikas née Dallas
ADM 358/867 via National Archives, researched by Andrew Phedonos.
HMS Formidable Deck Log.
Special Thanks to Costa Phitidis for honoring us to research and write about Constantine Christelis, Andrew Phedonos for his invaluable help, Kirk Paloulian, and Malcolm Tennant Lt.Cdr RN(Rtd) Curatorial Volunteer FAAM (Fleet Air Arm Museum).