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15 October 2014
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Two Blenheim Pilots in the Familyicon for Recommended story

by mostproudnephew

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Royal Air Force
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04 October 2005

Uncle Tommy, Sergeant Alfred William Swinburne 'Tommy' THOMAS 562935 born in Plymouth, joined the RAF in 1928 straight from school, qualifying via HALTON as a mechanic on Napier, Lion, Jupiter and Lynx engines. Through the early thirties he served with 204 and then 36 squadrons in the Middle east and Far East on Southampton Flying Boats. After qualifying as a gunner, he was selected for pilot training, winning his wings in 1936. Posted to 18 Squadron, he first flew HARTS and HINDS, thenconverted to BLENHEIMS in 1938 - which is when he married my Auntie, Mary Robins, known to all as Bobbie.

They enjoyed squadron life at UPPER HEYFORD, despite the threat of war, my auntie working as a civilian secretary, until No 18 were posted to Northern France on Mayday, May 1st 1940, in support of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

Tommy Thomas and his crew (Sgt. J. Talbot, Navigator/bomb aimer and LAC St. James-Smith, gunner) were forced down on a reconnaissance mission in Belgium shortly after arrival, and interned - most frustratingly - until they were able to return (?escape) to 18 squadron at their French base in time for that fateful 10th day of May 1940.

Frenetic action followed; many sorties per day; moving base every few days in retreat; sustaining huge losses in men and aircraft. The Battle and Blenheim squadrons, with daily sorties by Hurricanes from England, were proving the only air support for the BEF, and were vastly outnumbered.

Tommy Thomas was by now a most experienced pilot - an 'old man' at 28 - and flew many armed recces - photographing bridges and German columns for MI4 Intelligence while trying to destroy them on the way back. Most of these missions were 'on the deck' at 30 feet or so, jinking continuously to try to avoid ground flak and 88s and the swarms of Me109s and Me110s.

No 18 fought throughout the Battle of France, inspired by the wireless speeches of the new Prime Minister over in England. But finally, Tommy's number came up, as recorded on page 175 of 'VALIANT WINGS' by Norman L.R. Franks, publisher: William Kimber:

"During the day, 18 Squadron sent out Sergeant Thomas again, who had made a successful recce for 52 Wing the previous day. With his same crew and the same Blenheim (L8863) they were hit by ground fire. Thomas was hit in the neck by a bullet which passed out through his jaw on the other side. In spite of his injury, he got the aircraft back to Vitry and landed, where he and his observer, Sergeant Talbot, who had been wounded in the arm, were sent to a casualty clearing station. Sadly, Thomas died, due not only to the wound, which was serious, but which was not helped by the enforced move of the CCS because of the enemy's advance."

He and my Auntie Bobbie had been together for such a short intense time, and now she was a young RAF widow along with so many others under threat of invasion in 1940. Uncle Tommy is buried in France, which he defended so bravely, in the Pas de Calais cemetery.

Meanwhile, unknown to each other, the man who became my uncle, Sergeant Albert Thomas 'Happy' GAY 565559, had joined up well before WW2 and, qualified as a Sergeant Pilot, was posted to Khormaksar base in Aden with No 8 squadron. Their regular policing role (since 1927) over Aden,the Red Sea, Suez Canal and the Horn of Africa was conducted with Vickers Vincents, converting to Blenheim I and IV
in 1939.

When Mussolini pitched Italy into the war in June 1940,8 squadron pitted their 20 Blenheims against an Italian bomber/fighter force of 200 across the water in Somaliland (now Somalia). Through heavy flak and mobile AA guns No 8 flew flat out, attempting to knock out the Italian Air Force on the ground, and the Army columns threatening British possessions. They were further frustrated by the highly agile Fiat CR42 biplane fighters in large numbers, surprisingly lethal despite chaotic military leadership.

Under command of Squadron Leader D.S. Bradford, Happy Gay's squadron were further thrown into the attack in support of the British Army retreating at the port of Berbera. During one of these bombing/strafing missions, on August 18th 1940 (in Blenheim Mark I L1479, an old aircraft borrowed from another squadron such were the daily losses of Mark IVs) Happy and his crew were shot down, as recorded on page 116 of 'LOST VOICES OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE' by Max Arthur, publisher Hodder 1993, in this interview with Sergeant George ALLEN:

"Sometime later I was sitting in the mess with two others drinking a lime and lemon, prior to doing another trip the next morning, when one of my colleagues called 'Happy' GAY, a sergeant pilot, came back from an outing. He said, 'Well chaps you're looking at somebody who is not coming back tomorrow.' This was the first time I had met anybody who knew he wasn't coming back. I was a bit startled. I jumped up and said, 'Look, Happy, we don't want any of that nonsense, go to bed.' He was quite sober and normally there might have been fisticuffs for a short time or prolonged argument, but he just got up and went to bed. The next morning I got up and knocked on his cabin door. He said, 'I'm in no rush because as I told you last night, I'm not coming back.' I said, 'Don't be so silly. It could be any of us.' We walked down together to the airfield, and sure enough he was shot down in flames. But he survived as a POW."

Happy's Blenheim was seen in flames, keeping level, over LAFERUG LANDING GROUND, but eventually only one parachute left the stricken plane, which crashed nearby. The two crew members, either already dead or mortally wounded, went down with the Blenheim, Happy landing badly burned but alive.

Five weeks later, He was listed as a POW with the Italians by the Red Cross, at the notorious FILIQUGRI CAMP, North Africa. He was eventually moved to Italy and, after many privations, repatriated.

During Happy's treatment/rehabilitation in Blighty, he met my grieving Auntie Bobbie who was getting on with life by filling in evenings after office duties with volunteer work with burned and injured aircrew. Their romance finally led in 1949 (still in RAF sergeant's uniform) to a marriage which lasted until the end of their lives.

My memories, respect and fondness for these three marvellous people are still fresh. Although I never had the privilege of knowing Uncle Tommy Thomas, he was in many ways our family hero. On the anniversary of his death, his crew would turn up to take Auntie Bobbie out to dinner years after, even when she remarried, in best RAF tradition. Uncle Happy's modesty about his own war record, and respect for Tommy, was most impressive. He never talked about his own sufferings and losses.

I spent all my school holidays for several years with Bobbie and Happy in Leicester where they had made their home. They were wonderful honorary parents to my sister and myself while our own served overseas.

Of many exciting outings the most unforgettable was my 'flying lesson' aged only 10 in an Auster Aiglet Trainer!

After he left the RAF Happy became a skilled wrought-iron and car-spring fabricatior with his own flourishing business at Braunston Aerodrome (the Flying Clubhouse and bar were nearby!) and I have always thought it most courageous of him to use his burned hands working with white-hot steel every day. He and Auntie Bobbie led a very lively business and social life for many years until retirement, when - after Bobbie's sad death from cancer - Happy returned to his roots in Abertillery, South Wales, to run a bicycle shop.

Their long marriage was sadly not blessed with children, nor was Bobbie's first marriage to Tommy Thomas, so I am their honoured, most proud nephew, paying this tribute to all three of these 'ordinary unassuming Brits' who did such extraordinary things with courage, spirit and humour. On their behalf, I would like now to thank their aircrews, some of whom failed to return, and their ground crews who kept those Blenheims airborne under the most appalling conditions.

All my memories and research have been passed on to my son, so the next generation will also remember and cherish them.

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