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Wreckage of a First World War Plane Found on Thassos

Wreckage of missing 'First World War' plane found on Thassos

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Updated 1 May

During the First World War, Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) operated from airbases in the Northern Aegean against the German alliance countries (known as the Central Powers). One such airbase was located near the village of Prinos, situated on the west coast of Thassos. Between May 1916 and the end of the war, British and Commonwealth pilots alongside their Hellenic counterparts were stationed at the airfield to undertake combat and reconnaissance missions against the Bulgarians and Turks and also against contingents of the German Air Force who were based at Drama.

Wreckage of a First World War plane found on Thassos

In February last year, members of the Hellenic Team of Aviation Historical Research (Kerykeion) were invited to investigate aircraft wreckage that had been seen close to the summit of Profitis Ilias, a  mountain peak in the centre of the island.

With the help of Mr. Ionnis Doukas, a local Prinos businessman and a shepherd, who knew of the position of the wreckage, the team was guided to the crash site. What the team found was immediately identified as First World War aircraft wreckage, scattered across the surrounding area. They also believe they have located the exact spot where the plane impacted the ground, a depression containing parts from what was initially presumed to be the engine and front section of a Nieuport 11 biplane (the RNAS purchased 20 Nieuport 11’s, serial numbers 3974 to 3994), a French designed aircraft that served in a number of WW1 theatres including Greece. This led to the early speculation that the plane was that of a Flight Lieutenant Peberdy (serial number 3983), based at Prinos and reported missing in action in January 1917. However, further examination in the UK of the parts so far recovered, has now confirmed that these are from a Sopwith Camel F.1., not a Nieuport 11. This now discounts the possibility that the pilot was Lieutenant Peberdy, as the Camel only came into service with the RNAS after he was reported missing in action.

Wreckage recovered

All the wreckage of the Sopwith has now been recovered from the mountain and placed in storage in Prinos awaiting plans on how and where it will be displayed to the public. Although personal items from the pilot have been recovered that prove he was British, no parts of the plane containing a serial number have been found and therefore the identity of the plane and that of its pilot remain a mystery.

The orientation and position of the plane wreckage indicates that the pilot was flying low and not on any logical flightpath. This suggests the possibility that during a ‘dog-fight’, in an attempt to escape or due to severe damage, the plane impacted the mountain.

This is the very first wreckage from a First World War aircraft to be found in Greece and an extremely rare find internationally. The difficulties faced by the research team are that aircraft of this period were constructed mostly of flammable materials which would have been destroyed by any conflagration that followed the crash. This coupled with the deterioration over the last 95 years of what was left and the effects of a severe forest fire in 1985, make the accurate identification of the plane a slow and difficult process.

It has also been reported by locals that they believe the engine was recovered 70 years ago and the fuel tank 30 years ago, both by local shepherds, so further important pieces are as yet missing.

What has now become evident is that the recovery of this wreckage is also crucial to early aviation history, as it will hold the key to how parts of the Sopwith were designed and built. Already photographs of some of the wreckage have thrown new light on our understanding of a number of the aircraft’s components, which up until now has had to rely on pure guesswork, as the original plans and knowledge have been lost.

The Sopwith Camel was a difficult aircraft to fly, mainly due to the gyroscopic effect of the rotary engine on the fuselage. Many pilots who didn’t master its idiosyncrasies came to grief, so there is the possibility that the wreckage on Profitis Ilias was due to an accidental crash, not enemy action. It is on record that a German ‘Air Ace’ named Rudolph von Eschwege was based at Drama during the relevant period and scored 20 confirmed kills, many against allied aircraft based at Prinos. He built such a reputation that he was nicknamed the “Eagle of Macedonia” by his contemporaries, so it is feasible that one of his numerous unconfirmed kills could have included this Sopwith Camel. Neither the British, Greek or German records record such an engagement, so it is turning out to be a mystery plane.

Even though the most recent results from the analysis of the wreckage establishes that this was not Peberdy’s plane, I find the story of this courageous and patriotic pilot poignant and well worth documenting (see below). Whatever the outcome, it will not detract from the fact that somewhere on or near Thassos, wreckage of his plane lies unrecorded and he continues to be classified as “Missing in Action”.

Latest:

In the last few days, I have been informed that a group of local divers have discovered the wreckage of a plane containing human remains in the sea between Thassos Town and the small uninhabited island of Thassopoula. I am endeavoring to confirm the story and whether the wreckage is a British First World War aircraft, if so we can only hope that this is the missing Peberdy plane.

Flight Lieutenant Warner Peberdy’s story

Warner Hutchins Peberdy was born in Rugby, England, on the 29th April 1884, his parents were William Warner and Annie Peberdy, who also had a daughter, Ruby Annie. Until the age of  15, Warner and his parents lived with Warner’s Grandfather Robert, at 18 Albert Street, Rugby. Then in 1899 the family moved to Lansdowne House, at 22 Hill Street in Rugby, although William continued to operate his business as a ‘Carver & Gilder’ from his father’s house and workshop at 18 Albert Street.

Warner was educated at the Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby. In early March 1909, at the age of 24, Warner boarded the ocean liner R.M.S. Baltic in Liverpool bound for New York and a new life (4 years later on April 14 1912, it was the ‘White Star Lines’ R.M.S. Baltic that sent an ice warning to its sister ship the Titanic on the eve of that fateful night).

Warner arrived in America on 22 March and travelled to Ohio where he joined the fledgling General Electric Company (GEC) as an Electrical Engineer. Six years later at the age of 29, he left GEC and crossed the border into Canada to volunteer for the RNAS.

His pilot training was undertaken at the ‘Curtiss Aviation School’ at Long Branch, near Toronto, Canada, which opened in early 1915 with the primary aim of training military pilots. Graduating on the 20th July that year (see photo below), the now Sub-Flight Lieutenant Perberdy was posted to England and between July 1915 and September 1916 underwent further training at RNAS Chingford, Dover, Hendon and Eastchurch. Then in late October or early November 1916, he was transferred to No. 2 Wing, and embarked for Greece to be stationed at the airfield near Prinos, flying the French built Nieuport 11 biplane, nicknamed the Bébé (Baby).

On New Year’s Eve 1916, he was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, but just two weeks later, on the 14th January 1917, he was reported missing in action after failing to return from a reconnaissance mission in Eastern Macedonia. As no crash or wreckage had been reported, it was presumed he had gone down in the Gulf of Kavala, the stretch of the Aegean Sea between Thassos and the mainland.

Warner never married, confirming in his Naval records his father as “next of kin” . His Will amounted to £427 4s 9d (equivalent to around £16,000 today).

He is listed as “Missing in Action” on the RNAS War Memorial in Chatham, Kent.


Above: Nieuport 3983 was originally flown by Flight Commander K.S. Savory, then in late 1916 it became Lieutenant Peberdy’s aircraft. The photograph was taken at Prinos airfield between the middle of 1916 and his fateful flight on the 14th January 1917. In the background is one of the airfield’s canvas and wood “Bessonneau” hangers.

Prinos airfield served as a base for both British and Hellenic Naval Aviation pilots, who flew on numerous missions from here during the latter years of the war. Sadly these resulted in the loss of many pilots from both fledgling air forces. The airbase was closed in 1919.

In June 2012, a new war memorial (photos below) was unveiled in Skala Prinos, Thassos island, near to the site of the First World War airfield. The memorial is dedicated to all those pilots based at Prinos, both British and Greek, who were killed or reported missing during the war, including Flight Lieutenant Warner Peberdy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The push for recruits

Recruitment for the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps (later to become the Royal Air Force) was advertised in newspapers across Canada. Those eligible to qualify had to be between nineteen and twenty-three years of age with a maximum age limit of thirty. In additional to that criterion, eligible candidates had to be British subjects of “pure European descent”. Those who satisfied the criteria also had an interview and medical examination before applicants were finally accepted.

1915 Canadian Newspaper Advert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They joined for King and country and the international elitism of becoming an ‘Air Ace’, not only for their squadron and mates; but also for their home nations. They wore winged insignia over their hearts and engaged the world above in machines made of wood, wire and canvas. Sadly, the stark reality during those early years of aerial warfare was anything but ‘glorious’. More pilots died whilst training than in combat and what the advertising failed to mention was that the average life span for a pilot was less than a month!

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the following for their help in researching this story:-

Dr. Constantine Lagos, The Hellenic Team of Aviation Historical Research

Pantelis Vatatis, Flight Lieutenant Colonel, Hellenic Air Force

Mr. Ioannis Doukas, Prinos

Jake Edmiston, reporter for the National Post, Canada

Richard Oswin, UK research

Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby

Mr. Peter Davies, Rugby Family History Group

Mr. Andy Kemp, Chairman, Cross and Cockade

6 Responses to “Wreckage of a First World War Plane Found on Thassos”

  1. David McGuinness July 28, 2013 at 3:07 am #

    Hi Tony,

    An absolutely fascinating account! We don’t usually hear very much about WW1 aviation which occurred in and around Greece.

    Do you have any contact details for the team who recovered the remains, and / or for the people responsible for the storage of the relics? Do you know if the location of each piece of wreckage was documented before it was removed? I had a look on Google Earth and I was able to find several Mountains named Profitis Ilias, but I have not been able to find a Profitis Ilias on Thassos. Have you heard anything more about the wreck which was recently discovered in the sea?

    I don’t know if you are aware of this or not but drawings for the Sopwith Camel are reasonably easy to obtain. I have a reasonably complete set of factory drawings. For anyone interested, there has been some discussion about the wreckage of the Camel on http://www.theaerodrome.com . John McKenzie, who I believe identified the pieces as having come from a Sopwith Camel is a member there. He is very knowledgeable.

    Best Regards,

    David.

    • Tony Oswin July 28, 2013 at 6:28 am #

      Hi David,

      Thank you for your comment, I will try to answer your questions.

      First regarding the team, I am one of the members, the others are senior Greek Air Force officers, locals and WW1 historians. The parts are being stored at Prinos village in a municipality storeroom awaiting a decision on how and where they will be displayed.

      As to the location of the parts, grid-photos were taken throughout the site during excavation, but as most debris was lying on the surface and it has been nearly a century since the crash, combined with the action of animals and a major forest fire which swept through the area in 1986, it was deemed less important to precisely record the position of individual pieces of debris.

      Regarding the mountain of Profitis Ilias, it lies directly above the village of Prinos, but as you confirmed, it is not named on all maps.

      Lastly, regarding the new wreckage, we are still waiting for the divers to go back to obtain a clearer picture of what it is, so that we can try to identify whether it is from WW1. I will update the blog when this is completed.

      From the very beginning, we have been helped by a number of UK and worldwide organisations with regard to the identification of parts and general advice, but until we can confirm the serial number of the plane, we have hit a ‘brick wall’! We hope that new evidence will come to light in the near future.

      I hope this helps,

      Kind regards,

      Tony Oswin

  2. gmaddockgreene May 28, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    Fascinating post Tony. Enjoyed reading this.

  3. John Alan Crook June 28, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    We visited the island of thassos ,While we were there at skala prinou. they were building a new war memorial on the quayside where the ferries dock. The grand opening was on the day we left 24 june 2012.Greek tv and much pomp as we were leaving so we never got to see the ceremony.Would love to see some pictures if anyone has any, Alan

    • Tony Oswin June 29, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

      Hi Alan,

      I have posted two photos above that I took on the day. Sadly I was very busy with the proceedings, so do not have more.

      Regards,

      Tony Oswin

  4. Mike Dibley May 17, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    Really Interesting Tony. Have always had a passion for aircraft and for history so anything like this is always fascinating.
    Best regards
    Mike