Photos by: Helen Tsopouropoulou via www.ww2wrecks.com
Good stories never die. Some – maybe the best ones – merely lie dormant, lurking unseen, for up to years at a time and when the right story-teller comes along, stir themselves back to life.
So, I imagine, Antonis Grafas might say. A professional diver, he is a passionate explorer of sunken wrecks in the Greek seas, each with its own tale to tell. But the power of the story he uncovered on the sea bottom near Sifnos and the hold it took on his imagination surprised even him.
This story begins in 1943 on the night of November 7 when a crew of six airmen, members of the British RAF’s 38th squadron, climb aboard their Vickers Wellington bomber in Berka, Libya and head out as the lead aircraft on a wartime mission over the Aegean aimed at freeing the islands of Greece from German and Italian control. Somewhere above Naxos, they are struck by enemy fire and forced to ditch in the sea.
Such stories were countless during the Second World War and many ended in tragedy. This one, however, did not. The captain managed somehow to keep the aircraft airborne for a time, but soon realized that this would not be possible for long. He spotted an island nearby and steered toward there. The airplane hit the water just offshore and sank in less than a minute. Luckily, all six men – the Canadian captain, an Australian, and four British – made it to dry land unharmed.
Unknown to them in that moment, their good fortune had only begun. They had landed on Sifnos where kindness, openness and hospitality to strangers was the way of life then, as it remains today. They huddled together through the night beneath a tree and the next day a farmer found them and led them to his home. The first thing he did was to give the thirsty men a precious drink of water. Then he contacted the local chief of police who decided the men should be taken to a hilltop monastery to rest and stay safe, hidden from enemy patrols. Over the next days they watched as a steady stream of islanders trekked up the hillside bringing figs, cheese, eggs, almonds and cookies plus lutes and violins to entertain them, this during a terrible period of time for Sifnians over which one hundred-eighty of them died from lack of food. After four days, in the dead of night, a fishing boat spirited the six men away to the relative safety of Serifos, and in time all returned to civilian life in their home countries.
Of course no dive team, no matter how inquisitive, would learn all that at the sea’s bottom among the fishes. No wreck, no matter how well-preserved, would so easily yield a story like that and, as ever with their explorations, Grafas and his team researched further. Military records and flight logs would be the obvious place to start. Then a broader search to find whatever other snippets of information had been recorded elsewhere and remained, waiting to be found. It was here that Grafas struck gold.
After the war the Canadian pilot and captain of the aircraft, Robert Adams, did not try to forget his combat experiences, as so many of his contemporaries sought to do. Instead he embraced the miracle that Sifnos had been to him and, every year at Christmas, he would send a package off to the island with small gifts for the schoolchildren and a note a Greek neighbour in Toronto would write for him. In 1966, he returned with his wife. Among the crowd waiting for him at the port was Dimitris Bakeas, the policeman who twenty-three years before had arranged for the crew’s safekeeping, and the two men embraced joyously. At the school, Antonis Troullos, a young teacher who had taught lessons about the six airmen to his classes every year, had his students ready with a greeting in methodically-prepared English, a bouquet of flowers “from our village” and a musical performance of a piece called “This Song Belongs to Freedom.” He was the honoured guest at an official reception and dinners in more than one town. He walked with Giorgos Karavos, the farmer, from the spot near Chryssopigi where they’d first laid eyes on each other that fateful morning, along the path to the farmhouse and up the hill to the beautiful monastery of To Vouno where in those perilous days Sifnos had cradled this stranger and his crew safe in its arms.
The church at Chryssopigi, on the spit of land near where they’d gone into the sea, is the island’s most revered religious site and upon his return, Bob Adams was told, “Holy Chryssopigi gave her blessing to meet you. She sent you the right people in the right time.” And how.
What emotions he must have felt as he stood and gazed out toward to spot where that aircraft he’d captained, he knew, lay submerged far below. Could he have ever imagined that someday, long into the future, explorers skilled enough to go beyond normal diving depths would discover that it lay there, still largely intact? The least damaged wreck of a Wellington bomber ever found worldwide, in fact.
Robert Adams had not come to Sifnos alone. CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, wanting to tell of the bravery of countless ordinary Europeans who had risked their lives in wartime to save people they didn’t know, had chosen his story and sent a film crew along. The documentary they produced and broadcast to Canadians, This Song Belongs to Freedom, is a story of human connections across miles, cultures, and time.
It was this old film, one likely unwatched for a long time, that Antonis Grafas came across. It sent him and his crew’s historian back to Sifnos where they met a relative of Mr. Karavos, herself a diver. They spoke with a fisherman who showed them a small aluminum piece of the aircraft his nets hauled up one day. They visited To Vouno where he was shown the quarters where the men lived, little changed in all this time. “We were,” Grafas says, “witnessing a plot that started to unfold in front of our eyes.” They went abroad too, virtually as 21st-century technology allows, to Canada, Australia and the UK to meet descendants of the six flyers and hear the parts of the tale they remembered having been told. “The story about the Vickers Wellington bomber was something unique,” he says. “In the 20 years that I investigate wrecks, it was the first time that the actual diving was overshadowed.”
What was Grafas to do with all this now that he’d found it? Create his own film, of course. Divers are also photographers and videographers, recording what they find underwater for closer study back on dry land. And where to premiere it? On Sifnos, naturally. So on October 24, 2020 – the 80th anniversary of the declaration of World War II in Greece – in the square in Apollonia near where Robert Adams found himself wined and dined and honoured in 1966, Wings of Hope: A Story of Bravery, a new film that tells this old story was presented to the world. You can watch it here.
You can learn more about Antonis Grafas at his website and watch video footage from the dive itself, plus greetings to Sifnians from descendants of the airmen and more on the the 1895 Siphnians Association’s YouTube channel.
You can also find This Song Belongs to Freedom, the entire 1966 CBC documentary, on my previous blog post, “Sifnos in World War 2: a tale.”
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.