On May 22nd, 1939, fascist Italy signed a treaty called “The Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany. This promoted stronger ties between the two countries, but also secretly promised closer military cooperation as well.
Italy was caught entirely by surprise when Germany unexpectedly started World War Two just three months later on September 3rd, 1939 — it had anticipated that a European war was at least three years away.
Italy felt ill-prepared for any kind of major conflict at that time, as its military was in the long-term process of building up its strength and improving its combat capabilities. This was hampered by a lack of industrial capacity.
But by the summer of 1940, with the French Government on the verge of collapse and the British forces in northern France in full retreat, the Italian leader Mussolini could not resist joining in. He attacked the south of France on June 10th, 1940, in a battle that lasted 15 days for the Italians.
So now Benito Mussolini, the Italian leader and dictator, became much more confident and, on October 28th, 1940, declared war on Greece. Right from the beginning, the odds were very much in the Italian’s favor, especially when it came to air combat.
The Greek Air Force could only muster 79 aircraft, whereas the Italians deployed around 380 fighters and bombers for the Greek campaign.
The Greek-Italian war had only been going on for five days when, on November 2nd, 1940, a large number of Italian CANT Z.1007 Kingfisher medium bombers were spotted heading towards Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city.
The Greek Air Force’s 22nd Fighter Squadron was assigned to intercept the Italian bombing raid. This squadron was using the fairly modern PZL P.24, a Polish export fighter aircraft, with a gull-wing all-metal design.
What they found was a squad of Italian bombers with a heavy fighter escort of CR 42 Falcon bi-planes.
Soon, a savage dogfight was taking place between the Greeks and the Italians. The Greek fighters were slightly faster. They could just about out-climb the Italian fighters and, crucially, were more heavily armed.
In the ensuing battle, the Italians had three of their bombers shot down. It is said that the Greek attack forced them to turn around and head back to their home base in Italian-occupied Albania. But only after the bombers had successfully attacked the city.
The Greek pilots gave chase, including 20-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Marinos Mitralexis, who had only graduated from the Greek Air Force Academy a few months earlier.
He had already managed to shoot down one of the Italian bombers but now found himself out of ammunition. So he took the unusual and desperate act of attacking one of the bombers using his propeller to clip the tail of his enemy.
The propeller smashed the bomber’s rudder, sending the plane out of control and crashing into the Greek countryside below.
Though Mitralexis’s aircraft was severely damaged, he managed to execute an emergency landing near the downed bomber. He promptly captured the surviving four Italian bomber crew using only his service pistol.
For his brave and heroic action in ramming and subsequently downing the Italian bomber, Mitralexis was promoted and was given the Gold Cross of Valor. At the time, this was the highest Greek military medal. This was the only time it was awarded during the war to a member of the Greek Air Force.
The story of what he did became legendary. It was a much-needed boost to the morale of a beleaguered Greek people. But when Germany joined in the conflict to support the struggling Italian armed forces, it was all over for the Greeks. By April 1941, they were forced to surrender.
Due to over-enthusiastic propaganda, countless re-tellings, and patriotic pride, Mitralexis’s story has got wildly varying facts. This is not helped by the fact that another raid later that day is often confused with this one.
The number of attacking bombers is often quoted as being 10, 15, or 23. Sometimes the bombers are mistakenly said to be SM79s. The Greek force that intercepted the bombers was said to consist of eight fighters, but records seem to indicate only six fighters in that squadron were in airworthy condition that day.
It is generally believed that the Italian bombing raid got through despite the Greek fighters’ best efforts. However, there are some accounts claiming that the Greek Air Force valiantly drove off the Italian bombers, forcing them to abort their raid.
As for the actual ramming of the Italian bomber by Mitralexis, there is little doubt it happened. Nevertheless, many urban myths have crept in to obscure the exact details of the encounter.
Some say that, with the last of his ammunition, he killed the pilot of the bomber; others say that the pilot died in the subsequent crash.
With regards to the other four remaining crew members, some accounts say they parachuted out of the stricken bomber while others say they survived the bomber’s crash landing and staggered free.
The exact fate of Mitralexis’s own aircraft is equally confusing. Some accounts say it crash-landed, others say he made a controlled emergency landing with just a badly dented propeller.
One account goes so far as to claim his aircraft was so badly damaged by the ramming that he was forced to abandon it in mid-air and use his parachute.
Once on the ground, some accounts had him arresting the surviving bomber crews while shouting out patriotic slogans. Depending on which account you read, he did this either single-handedly or assisted by farmers.
Other versions would have you believe he rescued the bomber crew from being lynched by a group of angry Greek peasants.
But all this does not distract from the fact that a very young Greek fighter pilot, acted bravely and heroically in the face of danger.
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When Greece surrendered, Mitralexis along with many other Greek military personnel, fled to North Africa where he joined the Allied Forces. He remained in North Africa and gained another four aerial kills, making his total aerial combat tally of five.
He returned to Greece in 1944 when it was liberated. After the war, Mitralexis remained with the Greek Air Force. He was tragically killed in 1948 in a training accident in the Aegean Sea.
His heroic feat of ramming an Italian bomber was immortalized in a Greek postal stamp in 1968.