A Collection of Army Gallantry Awards to the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, and the Royal Air Force

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Date of Auction: 4th March 2020

Sold for £6,000

Estimate: £2,400 - £2,800

A fine Second War 1941 ‘Defence of Maleme Airfield, Crete’ M.M. group of seven awarded to Aircraftman 1st Class M. G. Comeau, Royal Air Force, for his for bravery during the pre-invasion bombing of Maleme on 18 May 1941, when he left his slit trench during a heavy bombing and strafing raid in an attempt to rescue Greek soldiers who had been buried in a bomb blast, digging out two men with his bare hands; he later recovered under fire a Vickers machine gun which he used to great effect, shooting down a strafing Me-109 the following day. Finally, during the airborne invasion of Crete on 20 May 1941, he personally shot two Fallschirmjäger as they exited a glider, joining the New Zealanders in the defence of the airfield and the fighting withdrawal to Sfakia where he was evacuated to Egypt: his 1961 book Operation Mercury remains one of the most vivid and dramatic published first-hand accounts of the campaign on Crete

Military Medal, G.VI.R. (625329 A.C.1. M. G. Comeau. R.A.F.) on original mounting pin, in named card box of issue; 1939-45 Star; Africa Star, 1 clasp, North Africa 1942-43; Burma Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45; Greece, Kingdom, War Medal 1940-41, for Land Operations, bronze, unnamed as issued, generally good very fine and better (7) £2,400-£2,800

Footnote

M.M. London Gazette 17 October 1941:
‘In the course of a heavy bombing and machine gun attack on an aerodrome, a bomb exploded on a trench causing 2 soldiers, both Greeks, to be buried in the debris. Aircraftman Comeau, displaying great bravery, left the shelter of his trench and, although the station was under continuous fire, managed to dig them out with his hands. One of them however subsequently died. Later on, in the face of enemy fire, Aircraftman Comeau secured from another position a gun which greatly improved the defence of his own position.’


Marcel Gerard Comeau, a ‘fourth generation Englishman of Nova Scotian ancestry’, enlisted in the Royal Air Force as a ground crew rigger in 1938, and served during the Second World War with 33 Squadron (equipped at the time with Gloster Gladiator biplanes) in the Western Desert from June 1940. One of the squadron’s pilots, Flying Officer Charles ‘Deadstick’ Dyson, D.F.C., received extensive press coverage in Britain after shooting down seven Italian aircraft in one sortie, a British and Commonwealth record which would not be surpassed during the War, and for which he was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross. During this period Comeau served as rigger on the aircraft flown by Southern Rhodesian ace Pilot Officer Percy ‘Ping’ Newton, D.F.C.

In late April 1941 R.A.F. ground crew (including Comeau) and the few remaining Hurricanes were evacuated from Greece to Crete where preparations were made to defend the island from an impending German invasion.

‘From early morning on Sunday 18 May [1941], we could hear the distant skies thunder as wave after wave of dive-bombers, Ju88s and Heinkel 111s escorted by Messerschmitts massed over the shipping in Suda Bay and the Cretan capital, Canea. At Suda, the sky was blotched with sudden black patches as the British ack-ack defence hurled everything they had at the diving Stukas...The Bay was turbulent with the water-spouts of near-misses and covered with a haze of smoke coming from burning shipping, victims of earlier attacks. At the same time large formations of Heinkels droned over Canea, pattern-bombing as they went. At Maleme airfield I had joined Ken Eaton in the Lewis-pit and throughout the morning had witnessed a procession of strafing Messerschmitts falling out of the skies, raking Bofors guns, hitting the riddled wrecks now littering the perimeter...A deafening metallic explosion suddenly darkened everything. A bomb had hit the sand-bags and exploded in the pen below. The gun-pit caved in upon us and I was conscious of a searing pain across my back. I thought that I had been hit. Ken was underneath me and I struggled to shift the weight of the sand-bags pinning me down. Then I could hear McKenna's voice. He and the gang, swarming out of the trench ran to the pit and pulled it apart. They lifted the hot machine-gun muzzle from my bare back and the pain went. I was setting about rebuilding the gun-pit when a fresh formation of Heinkels drifted in over the hills. Once bitten, twice shy, this time I watched the bomb-doors open and saw the falling bombs flash silver in the afternoon sun. There was a slit trench across the road. I made a dive for it - at the same moment there was an ear-splitting explosion and once again everything went dark. I had been buried twice in the space of 15 minutes!’ (the recipient’s account in Operation Mercury refers).

The last surviving Hurricane was flown from Maleme for Alexandria on the evening of 18 May. With no serviceable aircraft remaining at Maleme, the R.A.F. ground crews could do little else but await the inevitable invasion. The following day, Comeau secured and set up a salvaged Vickers ‘K’ machine gun in a gun pit and throughout the afternoon of 19 May used it against attacking Luftwaffe aircraft. Another ground crewman from 33 Squadron, Leading Aircraftman Ronald ‘Ginger’ Stone, set up a Browning .303 machine gun salvaged from a destroyed Hurricane in a gun pit nearby.

‘By late afternoon the airfield wore the desolate appearance of an out-of-season seaside resort. Wisps of black smoke drifted from the littered beach across the sandy strip and over the road which curved eastwards towards Pirgos like a deserted promenade. The Bofors concert party had closed down and Ginger and I were the last of the side-shows. Only the Germans still arrived by the score like vulgar sightseers to poke about in the litter dumps of wrecked aircraft. Without Bofors to worry them [the Royal Marines crewed Bofors anti-aircraft guns had all been knocked out during earlier raids] the Messerschmitts cruised to and fro across the airfield. There was a German pilot banking and looking down at us and Stone and I followed him as he flew slowly past. Three rings, then two, then half a ring on the gun sights when suddenly the fighter pulled up, heading for the sea and belching smoke. A chunk of metal cowling clattered on the aerodrome. Ginger and I were shouting to each other excitedly but our jubilation was short-lived. Sailing over Kavkazia Hill came 18 Heinkels. Formatting on the leader they dropped their bombs in a long stick and we watched them most of the way. Then the earth erupted suddenly among the New Zealanders up the slope, then down the rising ground towards us. A sudden series of explosions straddled our two gun-pits; the world blacked out in a dozen showers of dust and clods of earth. Something smacked into the front gun-sight of my 'K' and knocked it loose. Instinctively reaching to screw it back again the hot muzzle seared my fingers. Ginger Stone, covered in white dust like a miller, was standing by my pit scratching his head and muttering: “Well, flake me!” as he surveyed the pattern of craters all around us. The last bomb had fallen just in front of his Browning. Sometime later Squadron Leader Howell came down the camp road and walked over to us. “Any luck?”, “Yes sir, I think we pranged a 109. There's a piece of it out there on the ‘drome somewhere”, said Stone. It was getting dark. The C.O. paced out the nearest craters and congratulated us on our escape.’ (ibid).

Squadron Leader Edward Howell, D.F.C., was badly wounded the following day and taken prisoner. Two days later ‘Ginger’ Stone was killed in action during the defence of Maleme.

On the morning of 20 May 1941 the defenders of Maleme airfield comprised 620 men of 22nd New Zealand Battalion under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Andrew, V.C., D.S.O.; 85 men of the Royal Marines; 55 men of the Fleet Air Arm; and 229 men from 30 and 33 Squadrons, Royal Air Force. Comeau recorded the morning bombing raid which preceded the invasion:

‘Messerschmitts, the sunlight flashing on their wings, approached rapidly from the sea. They swept low over the airfield strafing the Bofors and the empty aircraft pens. Then they turned their attention to the hillside defences. For 20 minutes or so they flew up and down the New Zealand lines firing their cannon at the rising ground around the hill. I looked up and saw a vast armada of aeroplanes approaching. The throbbing of their engines grew to a crescendo. Then bombs started falling and the air reverberated with sound. Above flew Ju88s, Heinkels and Dorniers, wave after wave. Bombs fell in sticks around the base of the hill, among the New Zealanders, and through the RAF camp. For half an hour or more the bombs rained down. Fresh aircraft thundered in large formations out of the afternoon sky. On all sides I could hear the screaming of the bombs and the occasional metallic clang of shrapnel fragments of bomb-casing flew in every direction. I had grabbed my rifle and dived into a one-man hole a few yards away. There was a violent eruption ahead of me and, through the haze, I thought I saw the bomb lift a man off the ground but I could not be sure. The next bombs burst behind me among “D” Company lines and I started to breathe again - but not for long.’ (ibid).

Comeau next found himself in the midst of the airborne invasion:

‘Above me, I heard the sound of rushing air. A glider swooped low through the curtain of dust, silent and sinister, and disappeared westwards. Almost at once there was a crackling and cracking through the olive trees - a second glider was careering straight towards me. I had no time to avoid it. It skidded into the tent, slewed half-round, showering me with loose soil and stopping in a cloud of dust with one wing dug into the bank behind me. Another glider piled in close by. I ducked under the wing feeling pretty scared. Before I could reach the bank leading to the high ground the door of the nearest glider opened. Out jumped a dazed-looking German and I fired and shot him at almost point-blank range. He fell backwards on to a second glider-trooper now standing behind him. I had time to eject and re-load. The second man was holding his head with his hands. I fired again and he spun around and collapsed, his body blocking the doorway. I sent a third bullet into the darkness of the doorway. This could not go on forever. I moved backwards to the bank ejecting the empty case as I went. The next round jammed. Sweating and swearing I wrestled with the bolt but it refused to budge. The rest of the Germans were piling out by now while out of the corner of my eye, I could see more of them racing through the trees from the second glider. It was the longest second of my life! Then I was clambering up the bank, clawing at the loose earth, running towards “D” Company trenches, with bursts of rapid fire following me. Bullets sliced through the trees and flicked into the ground. I reached the trenches. One of “D” Company's Tommy-guns lay beneath a tree loaded with a drum. More suitably armed I made my way cautiously back down the slope to the top of the bank. The two bodies lay where I had left them by the glider seemed deserted. I raked it through from nose to tail just in case.’ (Ibid).

Reaching the safety of the New Zealand defences, Comeau witnessed the arrival of the paratroopers:

‘Flying low over the sparkling sea came an armada of Junkers 52 troop-carriers. In impeccable vic formation they made a left handed circuit of the area dropping their human cargo as they went. On the hill the airmen of 30 and 33 Squadrons joined with the army defenders in firing at every German within range. They fell on all sides and it was sometimes difficult to know which target to pick. The dead were probably hit several times over as they fell among the living. The few who reached the ground alive grabbed their parachutes and instantly vanished into the shrubbery. In the middle of this a Kiwi entered our gun pit. When he saw my Tommy-gun he asked for it back as it really belonged to the New Zealanders. Limited in range it was of little value at the time and in any case I had used up most of the drum on the glider in the RAF camp. I exchanged it for a Lee Enfield rifle. The Junkers were being knocked all over the sky. One aircraft was out of control and careering towards a string of parachutes; another was on fire and we could see men leaping out to escape the flames while, by Maleme beach, a troop-carrier hit the sea with a wing and, in slow motion, cartwheeled into the water with a mighty splash. An isolated parachutist, caught by a thermal, drifted away over the sea, receding from us towards a watery death, pulled down by the weight of his equipment. The loss of life must have been fantastic. We did not know at the time but we had witnessed the almost complete destruction of Student's III Battalion, Sturm Regiment.

Although as the morning progressed, a few isolated paratroops moved up the hill towards us they were soon dispatched. On one occasion a German suddenly appeared among the shrubbery a few feet away and opened up with his Schmeisser. Stevenson swivelled the Lewis and his sudden burst splashed across the man like water from a garden hose. He fell to his knees and pitched forward, his face buried in the mountain thyme and his hands reaching out stiff before him. We took his gun and drank the coffee in his water bottle. We were retracing our footsteps when Hess made a quick gesture to take cover. I soon saw why. Between us and the summit lay a paratrooper. In his hands he held a sub-machine gun. He was resting on one forearm with his back turned towards us, and he had not seen us. I lined him up in my rifle sights, loath to pull the trigger at such a sitting target. He was a dead duck. As I hesitated Hess ran up to him, shouted in German, and prodded him in the back with his rifle. The Schmeisser clattered from the German's grasp. Hess kicked him flat. The paratrooper, letting out a shriek of agony rolled over, clutching his leg with both hands. We could now see that it was soaked in blood. We took away his gun and examined his leg while Hess questioned him in German. He produced a flick-knife with a swastika-marked handle for us to hack at his clothing. His bared leg was a sickening pulp of red, bullet shattered flesh and bone. The poor devil must have caught a burst from a Lewis. He was in great pain; agony contorted his sweating face. I felt pity for him. No longer a matchstick man to knock down, a mere clay-pipe target at a fairground, the enemy became a human being for the first time. I heard myself saying: “All right old chap”, as we eased him under a shady bush.’ (ibid).

During the withdrawal from Kavkazia Hill, Comeau joined a party of New Zealanders, Royal Air Force personnel, and Royal Marines under Captain Campbell, “D” Company, 22nd Battalion, N.Z.E.F., which was ambushed:

‘Suddenly, the German machine-gunners opened fire. A hail of bullets from the hills slanted across the clearing among the men now dashing for scanty cover, and into the soldiers and airmen in the river; almost immediately other Spandaus opened fire from the hills around us. We unslung our rifles. McKenna and Stevenson were standing in the line of fire, then, ducking low, searching the hills in vain for a target. A soldier got to his feet. I saw the big man standing there in the clearing, swaying, and then he collapsed. Four bullets thudded into Jack Diamond from “A” Flight, as he lay face downwards in the mud by the water's edge. A corpse in the river turned over and started to drift away. Men were trying to crawl stealthily backwards the way they had come. The Germans, sitting tight behind their guns, still sprayed the clearing. While we floundered, helplessly, the bushes ahead moved and parted and then a hulking Maori stood surveying us and grinning from ear to ear. He reached down for our rifles and dragged us out dripping, one by one. The Maori, who had a bullet wound in the leg, said: “You jokers should be all right now. This is Maori territory.” When I showed concern for his leg he only grinned again. “I’m just waiting here to catch the bastard who done it”, was his only comment.’ (ibid).

After walking overland to Sfakia which was under heavy air attack, Comeau was evacuated on 30 May by destroyer H.M.S. Kelvin, which was damaged by JU88s on the way to Alexandria. Of the 229 RAF personnel at Maleme airfield at the time of the airborne invasion no less than 50 were killed in its defence. The need for RAF ground crew to participate in defending the airfield was one of the key factors that led to the creation of the RAF Regiment the following year. After further service with 33 Squadron in North Africa, where its Hurricanes supported the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, Comeau qualified as a Sergeant pilot in Rhodesia in 1943. He died in Huntingdon in 1999, aged 78.

In 1991 on the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Crete, Royal Mail produced a commemorative cover limited to 900 issues which were flown in an R.A.F. Hercules of 30 Squadron from R.A.F. Lyneham to Suda Bay, Crete and thence to R.A.F. Akroitiri, Cyprus, before returning to R.A.F. Lyneham. Of the two veterans of the Battle of Crete who signed each copy of the commemorative cover, one was ‘Mr. M.G. Comeau, MM’ of 33 Squadron and the other ‘Mr. N.J. Darch, MM’ of 30 Squadron, both awarded the Military Medal for bravery during the pre-invasion bombing of 18 May 1941. Darch’s award was for bravery as a Medical Orderly in an R.A.F. Ambulance during the pre-invasion bombing of 18 May 1941, and these were the only two gallantry awards to the R.A.F. for the Battle of Crete.

Sold with a copy of the recipient’s book Operation Mercury; and a Battle of Crete 50th Anniversary First Day Cover signed by Comeau.