Philip Felton remembers

Philip Felton 1940

Philip Felton 1940

A 21 Squadron navigator in 1941 was Sergeant Phillip Felton who wrote to Colin Waugh about his career in the RAF and involvement in raids of the period;

“I joined the RAFVR in May 1939 on my eighteenth birthday. I fervently hoped to become a pilot and was eagerly looking forward to starting flying instruction at Hamble, near where I worked and lived in Southampton.

“The war intervened and on 2 September we were all mobilised and given the rank of Sergeant Pilot Under Training. After a month or so I went to an ITW near Hastings and did my ‘square-bashing’ and then spent six months on classroom work because of a bottleneck in the training programme. Eventually I arrived at White Waltham which was an EFTS equipped with Tiger Moths on which my flying training started immediately. This was in April/May 1940 with Dunkirk only weeks away. In addition to the flying work we had to carry out dawn to dusk patrols of the aerodrome on foot, armed with some old Ross .303 rifles, in case of invasion.

“After eight hours of flying instruction it was considered that it would take too long to train me and I was remustered and sent to No11 Air Observer Navigational School at Hamble, my initial destination, prewar!

Then it was off to 17 OTU at Upwood for final training as a navigator and at this unit I crewed up with a pilot and airgunner on Blenheims. We commenced our work and flew many exercises over Shropshire and Wales, gradually knitting together well. Unfortunately, towards the end of the course they were killed in a crash during dusk to dawn, ‘circuits and bumps’. I then joined Flying Officer Harrison-Broadley and Sergeant Stewart Thompson on 21 Squadron at Watton.

“I was initiated into the Squadron by having to stand on a table in the mess and drink a pint of beer very quickly while the others sang a song which ended – ‘Drink it down, down, down’. I was supposed to sink the whole pint while they sang the last three words! Of course this was impossible but I had to keep trying with a fresh pint each time. In the end, after several attempts and by then totally saturated in beer, I was allowed to fall off the table. I was deemed a member of 21 Squadron and I felt that the long haul had been really worth it.

“My first operation was on 21 May 1941. I cannot remember the briefing but I do remember that it was a ‘big show’ with thirty-six [sic] Blenheims involved and a massive fighter escort. I understand that it was one of the first massed daylight raids on occupied France. It was to be aimed at an oil refinery and the power station at Gosnay, near Bethune and straight inland from Le Touquet. We were to fly in boxes of six at around 11,000 feet and I understood the raid was also to lure enemy fighters into battle with our massive escort; a so-called ‘Circus’.

“We were led by our CO whose observer would do the navigating for the whole show. When nearing the target our Squadron was attacked by Me 109’s and I saw one Blenheim do down with smoke coming from it. I then moved to the bomb-sight in the nose and gave instructions to make slight alterations in our course until we were on target. I felt the aircraft [V6398] lift as I released our four bombs and saw bursts all over the power station as other aircraft had released theirs at the same time. There was a lot of explosions and smoke and then we returned to Watton. I cannot remember anything of the debriefing but I know I attended. It had all been very exciting and at last I was doing my bit . . . “

21 Squadron were selected for a raid on Borkum on 24 May with nine crews briefed to take their part. Airborne by 11.45 hours, they were led by Squadron Leader H.D.H.Cooper. Before reaching the target a convoy was intercepted and two motor vessels of 2,500 tons attacked by six aircraft with sixteen 250 lb bombs and sixteen 25 lb incendiaries released from low-level. Explosions were observed on one ship as the Blenheims pulled away and, as they pressed on black smoke and steam could be seen rising from the stern of the coaster as they climbed to rejoin their colleagues.

Pilot Officer D.Graham-Hogg in R3635 was unlucky with his bombs which just overshot, Pilot Officer J. Harrison-Broadley did not bomb owing to a misunderstanding with his navigator and Sergeant J. Chambers landed to find that his bomb-toad was still in its racks due to an electrical fault. Considerable light-flak had been experienced during the run in, with the port engine of V5595 damaged and it’s pilot, Sergeant J.Wotherspoon, slightly wounded by one burst.

Of the above operation, Phillip Felton commented; “My second operation was scheduled for 24 May 1941 and was to have been a raid on Borkum, one of the heavily fortified Friesian islands. We were led by our Flight Commander for the raid and set off that morning, apprehensive about a daylight attack that was heading for a target where the Germans had loads of anti-aircraft guns. We flew very low, close to the water all across a choppy North sea and I hoped that we would not have to ‘ditch’. Not far from Borkum we came across two large merchant ships, and a few coasters, aborted the raid, and attacked them instead.

“I had been given a large, hand-held, oblique camera and took pictures of the convoy from the nose, thinking that the pilot would release the bombs. We dived on a ship very low on the water, shooting up between the masts and I clearly saw a machine-gunner in the crows-nest. When Harrison-Broadley realised that I had not dropped the bombs he was, naturally, very cross. It would have been suicide to carry on to Borkum as any semblance of surprise was now gone. We turned for home, desperately looking for another target but none appeared and we landed back at Watton with our bombs still on board.

“I was very unpopular with my pilot and also the poor armourers who hated having to unload fused bombs, a very dodgy business. While over the target we were subjected to quite a lot of light flak. One Blenheim was badly damaged and limped home on one engine with a wounded pilot. We arrived back at 15.46. As we approached the English coast I loaded the correct ‘colours of the day’ into my flare pistol and fired it off as we came over the Thames Estuary near Orfordness. My photos came out well but I was still, well and truly, in the dog-house.

“I seem to remember that I carried a weighted tin briefcase on all raids. Perhaps it contained secret instructions such as ‘colours of the day’. These were changed every few hours. When crossing the English coast if these flares were not fired off, or the wrong ones were used, we were liable to be fired on by the coastal defences. If we flew anywhere near a Royal Navy vessel we were normally fired on even if we displayed the correct colours!

“As I remember, on our mass-French raid the formation flying was very impressive. Our fighters were with us all the way to the target but at a much higher altitude. I did not see any German fighters or ‘dog-fights’, just one Blenheim going down. I remember some of the others saying that we had been attacked from below by Me 109’s which climbed so steeply that all that could be seen were the yellow bosses in the centre of the whirling props.

“After the raid we all went down the pub, in fact every evening we went there as the food was good, so we had a meal in preference to those served on the station. Then everyone drank lots of beer. Again I was a beginner at this sort of thing and after a few pints it was coming out of my ears. My pilot and gunner could sink eight or nine pints with no trouble at all. One night I felt so ill after a ‘session’, that I went to the toilet in the pub and eventually went to sleep (or passed out!). When I came round it was the middle of the night so I crept out of the pub and walked back to camp.

“A few days after the second raid we were sent up to Lossiemouth where we were to operate against the airfield at Stavanger in Norway. We flew up to Scotland going up the North Sea and this was where we were fired on by naval vessels. After only a few days there, we were sent back to Watton as a crew and found that our stint with 21 Squadron, unfortunately, was over. We were to join 82 Squadron.

“Harrison-Broadley and Stewart Thompson had already completed one tour with 21 Squad-on, and this meant more to them than to me, just a new bod. I think that they both were ‘regulars’ whereas I was RAFVR. When I was approached by Stewart and asked to join them I was in great awe of any officer so, from the onset, there was not the close comradeship that I had had with the first crew; all of us sergeants. I ask you to understand that I was only a country lad, whose only machine up until then, had been a bicycle!

“When we got back to Watton we found that 82 Squadron were taking a flight of nine Blenheims to Egypt. These aircraft were specially equipped for desert use, but then fate took a hand and we were ‘hijacked’ to Malta. On 22 June 1941, just a month after beginning my operational career, I found myself involved in an attack on an Italian convoy off Lampedusa and an escorting destroyer shot us down. We all survived the ditching, but became POWs . . . “

You can read more about Philip Felton’s time as a POW by clicking here

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