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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.
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”.
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!
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