- Contributed by
- BILL SLATER
- People in story:
- Francis (Frank) Walker-Smith
- Location of story:
- Spondon, Derby
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 December 2004
It was a baptism of fire for Spondon Pilot Officer Frank Walter-Smith when he took off with 85 Squadron on 18 August 1940. Up to 250 enemy aircraft were overhead with just 13 Allied planes to thwart their progress. Frank was flying one of them.
That day 85 Squadron became part of No.11 Fighter Command Group. Led by Peter Townsend, 13 Hurricanes were scrambled at 5.24pm to patrol at 10,000 feet.
By 5.35pm they were on their way to Folkstone with orders to intercept a raid when Townsend picked out a huge concentration of enemy aircraft consisting of between 150 and 250 planes.
At about 10,000 feet were Junkers 87 dive bombers. Two thousand feet higher flew Heinkell IIIs. Above them were mixed groups of Junkers 88 and Messerschmitt 109s.
It appeared to be 13 against the whole German Air Force. As Townsend led the squadron into action some eight to 12 miles east of Foulness Point, it was not a set-piece attack.
Overwhelming enemy numbers dictated separate actions that resulted in a series of individual dogfights.
Frank's combat report reads: "At 17.30 hours I was ordered up with my squadron to intercept bogeys. Enemy were spotted at 15,000 east of Thames estuary. The squadron was given tally-ho. I picked out a Me110. After about one and a half minutes of steep turning I delivered a frontal attack on it from a height of 2,000 above it, opening fire at 100-150 yards above it.
"It was a burst of about four seconds. I saw smoke coming from both its engines as it glided down from 8,000ft to strike the sea about 40 miles out. After giving various other EA short bursts I delivered another frontal attack on another ME 110, which broke up at about 3,000ft. The rear gunner or pilot baled out. This attack took place at 5,000ft, about 60 miles due east of Margate. Only one person baled out. The aircraft broke up making a series of splashes in the sea. Enemy casualties: two ME 110s destroyed."
Both victories were confirmed on this, his first combat report.
It was an impressive success for the Spondon lad, born in January 1917, and his sisters Freda and Hester, and parents, Arthur and Frances Walker-Smith, were justly proud of him.
And the RAF must have been relieved they had finally accepted the former Bemrose schoolboy into their ranks. From an early age Frank was flying mad but his dream of a permanent commission into the RAF was thwarted when he failed his medical because of a slight astigmatism in one eye. However, when the RAF Volunteer Reserve was formed in Derby, he was among the first eager volunteers. Meanwhile he completed an engineering apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce.
He started flying training during weekends at RAFVR Desford, near Leicester. Not long after he became one of the first trainees to gain his coveted wings at Burnaston. From then on during his VR training he would, whenever possible, head for Spondon and his Tiger Moth and perform spectacular, and it must be said unauthorised, aerobatics over his parents and neighbours homes in West Road.
One story passed down through his family is that one impromptu display to enliven a cricket match on Locko Road was terminated rapidly when, due to loose safety straps, he nearly parted company with the tiny bi-plane as he rolled the aircraft over and commenced an inverted flypast.
When the Volunteer Reserve was mobilised on September 1st 1939, he went to No.9 Flying Training School, then to No.5 Operational Training Unit in March 1940.
Around the same time he married Dorothy Johnson, a farmer's daughter from Stanley Common, at St Werburgh's, Spondon.
Frank was then posted to 85 Squadron at Lille-Seclin, France. It is doubtful, being an inexperienced rookie, that he flew operationally before the squadron, lacking replacements for their lost and battered Hurricanes, was ordered back to the pre-war base at Debden. There, on 23rd May, Squadron Leader Peter Townsend joined them and took command.
Frank's first operational flight was on 18th June 1940, flying Hurricane N2557 with B flight on convoy patrol. These patrols were frequent giving invaluable tactical training with experienced pilots like Sgt Geoffrey 'Sammy' Allard, 'Dickie' Lee and Patrick Woods-Scawen.
It was the aforementioned clash of the skies on 18th August that pushed the squadron into the very forefront of the battle. Of the 18 pilots, 14 were to be shot down — some twice - in the next fortnight. Meanwhile Frank's next big action was on 26th August.
Twelve Hurricanes were scrambled to patrol the Maidstone area. His combat report read, "At approx 1500hrs the squadron was ordered to scramble. At 15.27 we sighted 18 Dornier 215s flying in a stepped up formation. The whole squadron delivered a frontal attack led by the CO. On the second attack (another frontal) the bottom section of three broke away from the main body. This section was attacked again by myself and F/O Woods-Scawen. The Dornier 215, at which both of us aimed, broke formation and both of us attacked it at the same time. Bits were seen to break off and the Starb'o motor emitted black smoke. The plane then went down in a long glide and disappeared into the clouds. My bursts were of two and three seconds duration. Claim: Half Dornier 215 destroyed."
The combat report following another action on 28th August on the last of the day's four patrols reads: "At 1600hrs the squadron was ordered to patrol forward base. On reaching the coast, 20 Me 109s were spotted to the east. The squadron attacked in formation, but split up as it did so. I picked out one Me 109 and gave it a two second burst as it crossed my bows 200 yards away. It then dived into a cloud and I followed. I then noticed it cross a gap and climb up again. Staying in the top layer of cloud, I opened up and drew up to within 200 yards of him, and slightly underneath him.
"As I manoeuvred into position I gave him a five-second burst and noted the shots to be penetrating. After about four seconds the port petrol tank was seen to burst and the machine then wobbled slightly and went into a steep dive.
"At that exact moment I was shot at from behind and had to do a steep turn to the left to avoid being shot down. As I pulled out of this I was in the cloud and decided to go and see if I could find what happened to my previous opponent. He had dived steeply though the clouds and as I came through I saw a large explosion on the sea surface and large black cloud of smoke arose. On arriving back at base P/O Hodgson and P/O Hemingway confirmed that they watched a 109 dive straight into the sea and it was the splash that I saw. I climbed up again but could not find any more enemy aircraft. Claim: one ME 109 destroyed."
Winston Churchill watched this action as he toured coastal defences.
The very next day Frank was not so fortunate. He took off with 11 other Hurricanes to patrol over Hawkinge. At 4pm they spotted 18 enemy bombers escorted by 30 Me 109s. Though at a lower height, they climbed hard to follow the enemy aircraft. Between Beachy Head and Hastings more enemy appeared.
The pilots' reports logged ME 109s and Me110s, HeIII's and Dorniers. The estimated total was 300 hostile aircraft.
Peter Townsend led his tiny band of 12 Hurricanes into the sun to gain height and to try and attack from above and behind, but more Me 110s appeared from behind.
During the ensuing manoeuvres Frank was hit from behind, probably by an Me 109. He was injured in the right foot and, as he took evasive action and dived steeply, he found no response to the throttle or rudder controls. He baled out at 1,600ft and parachuted down safely at Hawkhurst. He was treated at Etchingham. Consequently he lost the little toes of his right foot. Regardless of the discomfort, he returned to the squadron that evening.
Remarkably his Hurricane, which crashed at Underwood Farm, Etchingham, was partially recovered by the local Aviation Society and is exhibited at Robertsbridge Aeronautical Museum.
Frank was not in combat with the Luftwaffe again after his brief but effective actions during August 1940, but remained with the squadron and in November, after a well deserved break, they began night flying missions to seek out the enemy.
These were fruitless in the dark winter night skies. Frank and the squadron were on patrol the night of the Great Fire Raid on London on 29th December when for three hours a large force of bombers dropped thousands of incendiaries, creating a vast inferno that laid to waste a vast area of houses, warehouses, workshops and other buildings including the historical Guildhall and eight of Wren's churches, strangely leaving St Paul's Cathedral standing amidst the chaos.
In spite of the tremendous illumination from the awesome light of the firestorm below, Frank reported no contact with enemy aircraft. Unfortunately this was normal for fighters attempting to intercept bombers at night in 1940 without the aid of electronic detection systems.
In 1941 the squadron was to re-equip with new twin-engined night fighters and in February Frank was detached to Church Fenton and completed a two-week, twin-engine conversion course flying Blenheims.
Later that month the squadron received its American Havoc 1 Night Fighters. These had a crew of three with the navigator using a bulky, primitive airborne interceptor radar. Frank first flew a Havoc on February 25th.
On 6th March Frank was told he had been promoted to Pilot Officer and granted a commission in the RAFVR for the duration of the hostilities. He celebrated by spending the following Sunday at Dolphin House, Stanley Common. Four days later on 13th March F/Lt Sammy Allard was scheduled to take the now P/O Walker-Smith to Ford to collect a new Havoc for the squadron. At the last moment P/O 'Ace' Hodgson, who was reputed to have a girlfriend at Ford, hitched a lift.
At dispersal they found LAC Johnnie Johnson (no relation to the Derbyshire flying ace) unable to fasten the last of six Zeus fasteners used to secure the gun panel on the nose of the Havoc.
A new panel was tried but still the last fastener refused to lock. Sammy was an ex. Halton apprentice. He tried the stubborn fastener and said that he had locked it. Unfortunately the offending panel was not locked for, as the Havoc became airborne and still within the airfield circuit, the panel became detached and flew back, lodging behind the edge of the tail fin. This forced the tail down and the aircraft climbed, stalled then smashed into a field at Mill Field Ley, bursting into flames. All three occupants were killed.
They had survived actions against overwhelming odds, now victims of an appalling accident they perished in a quiet English field far from battles.
The squadron operations record book stated that the trio had greatly distinguished themselves during the Battle of Britain and were a great loss. The burial took place at Saffron Walden cemetery with service honours.
The impressive funeral procession, headed by the Cranwell Band, started from Debden Camp. The roads were lined with airmen, including Wing Commander Peter Townsend.
On 29th September 1941 Frank was posthumously mentioned in despatches for the "gallant work he performed during the Battle of Britain."
Eight months after his death his wife gave birth to a baby girl who was christened Margo. Sadly Margo died of cancer whilst at Edinburgh University in her early 20's.
In St Werburgh's Church, Spondon, is a plaque in Frank's memory from his old colleagues from Rolls-Royce. This was unveiled in June 1943 by his old RAFVR commanding officer from Burnaston, Wing Commander N Roy Harben (DFC).
This acts as a constant reminder but he also remained in the thoughts of those who flew with him, including Wing Commander Peter Townsend.
In a letter to a family member in 1985 Townsend wrote: "Your Uncle Francis Walker-Smith first came into my life when, on 23rd May 1940, I took command of 85 Squadron. I have a clear and sympathetic memory of him. He was nice-looking with a smile on his lips and a subtle sense of humour.
"He was an excellent pilot too — which did not prevent his being shot down on August 30th 1940, near Hawkshurst, Kent. Back with the squadron that evening, he told us with, as usual, that smile: "If you have to be shot down, see that it happens over Hawkshurst. The people there are wonderfully friendly." Next day I myself was drifting down in my parachute over Hawkshurst only to find out, after several beers at the Royal Oak, that what he had said was true.
"On 13th March 1941 he took off as a passenger in one of our Douglas Havoc night-fighters. The other passenger was young New Zealander 'Ace' Hodgson and 'Sammy' Allard, the squadron's best pilot, was at the controls.
"The aircraft crashed shortly after take-off and all three of these great young men were killed. We in the squadron felt their loss deeply. Your uncle, with Allard and Hodgson, was buried at the cemetery in Saffron Walden. It is so sad for me to have to recall these memories, but war takes away so many of the best of the young."
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