Thursday, 15 December 2011

Bobby Pearce

Battle Attack

Flying Officer Bobby Pearce - centre photo June 1940
At the outbreak of war a small RAF force was dispatched with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) to assist France in its efforts to repel a German advance. Initially, four Hurricane squadrons were sent out to assist the brave young men who flew in light bomber aircraft such as Fairey Battles. One such airman was Bobby Pearce, a Wireless Operator / Air Gunner from Erith, Kent.
          Bobby joined the RAF in 1938, as an aspiring Wireless Operator. He began his basic training at Uxbridge and then went on to Cranwell Wireless School to learn his chosen craft. On completion of the course Bobby had his first taste of Wireless duties from the air in a Vickers Valentia aircraft. There were 12 students on board and each was given a different message to send to the Radio Shack. Once the message was sent they would then receive a reply. As a young man with a keen passion for aviation Bobby found the experience to be a complete thrill. As the course continued Bobby soon became a capable Wireless Operator and Air Gunner and was then posted to No. 63 Squadron stationed at Upwood. Prior to his posting Bobby and his peers were told that they would be sent to either a Blenheim or a Fairey Battle squadron. When Bobby realised that he would be going to a Fairey Battle squadron he was assuredly informed by the “old sweats” that he was extremely fortunate because ‘Blenheims could not maintain height on one duff engine.’ It was not until Bobby arrived at Upwood that he instantly realised that the Fairey Battles had exactly the same problem!
‘The Battle light bomber was a fairly advanced aircraft at the time of its conception, but was virtually redundant before it eventually went to war in 1939-1940. The immense production effort, involving 2, 200 aircraft, engines and spares was largely wasted. This could not have been foreseen when the specification P27/32 was issued in August 1932 and in definitive form in April 1933, or when the first big orders were placed in 1935-1936 for the rapidly expanding RAF. Designed to replace and improve upon the Hawker Hind and Hart two-seat biplane day bombers the Battle lacked speed and defensive armament necessary to survive attacks even by the monoplane fighters of its own design era. Though accepted as being obsolescent, Battles continued to be ordered and made.’
          In August 1939, while on leave, Bobby received a Telegram which exclaimed – “Report to your unit immediately”. On his return Bobby and two colleagues were flown to RAF Bicester to join No.142 Squadron who was preparing to depart for France. The Squadron, along with nine other Fairey Battle squadrons were to form the AASF (Advanced Air Striking Force) to offer support in France to both the British and French armies in the event of a German advance into the Low Countries. On 2 September 1939, No.142 Squadron left for France. When they arrived preparations were quickly underway.  
‘The Imperial crew spent some time with buckets of green and brown camouflage paint and long-handled brooms, concealing the beautiful silver paint with a sombre coating. Our destination was Berry-au-Bac, a small village about nine miles north of Rheims. About a mile from the village was a very large area of agricultural land which had recently been harvested. This was to be our aerodrome which was separated by the main Rheims/Laon road from a more modest field which had a small forest of saplings along its border. After landing the aircraft they were taxied over the road to the periphery of the wood, backed into small clearances, and young saplings were propped against the leading edges of the aircraft. The concealments were quite effective. Later the taxiing paths were covered with metal lattice grids by the Pioneer Corps. The N.C.O’s and airman were billeted initially in the village. My group were accommodated in a large barn. A groundsheet and a blanket were issued to each of us and our “adventure” had begun. Everything was fun. Breakfast was served in the open behind the Town Hall. It comprised of a slap of French Rye-bread, very dark in colour and very dense in texture. The bread was accompanied with bacon, decanted from 7lb. tins into large trays, and then heated over Primus stoves. We had the choice of either a rasher of bacon placed on our slice of bread or we could submerge our bread in the bacon fat. This repast was washed down with strong, sweet tea decanted from a vast urn. In these early days we were fed at mid-day by the French army caterers and in the evening we were fed in the village by our own cooks – mostly bread, margarine with bully beef or jam. All of this was very novel and great fun. We had quite forgotten that there was a war in progress.’
          Once the Squadron had organised the aircraft dispersal, the administrative and flight offices, practice began. At first the crews embarked on familiarisation flights in the area and formation flying. The latter was of particular importance because the Squadron was expected to fly in close formation with the intention of providing crossfire for its mutual defensive support. In due course a more exciting form of practice came about when the Squadron began practising low-level flying and dive attacks on the gun-pits that surrounded the Headquarters tent.

‘Our confidence in our aircraft was high, our low-level tactics we regarded as invincible.’

          The novelty of living and working in a foreign country soon wore off for Bobby; in fact after only a month of two the boys of  No.142 Squadron became very nonchalant with the supposed ‘war’ and soon adjusted to their life in France.

‘We established a very good relationship with the locals and we occupied a farm with all its outbuildings in the small village of Ville-au-Bois, quite near the airfield. We slept in the smaller sheds and the larger barns were used as mess-halls. The Officers were accommodated in a Chateau quite near Berry-au-Bac. The Chateau was occupied by the owner with his wife and many maids and menservants. They were welcomed into the family home and enjoyed a life of luxury. A swimming pool and a tennis court were available.’

          As winter approached the weather became severe and all of the Squadron’s efforts were directed at looking after the aircraft so that they would remain serviceable should a crisis breakout. To protect the Fairey Battles, canopies were erected over the engines of each aircraft and a small oil-burning stove placed below to create some warmth. Due to the extreme conditions of cold weather the airmen were issued a generous amount of cigarette rations and a constant flow of scarves and balaclava helmets were received from England. With little else happening, Leave passes were soon permitted for weekends in Paris. There were even rumours circulating about possible leave arrangements being made for visits to England. Bobby included began to feel a lack of urgency around the Squadron.

 ‘Any Trepidation we may have felt was now a thing of the past. We had not heard a shot fired in anger and the “War” may not have existed. We were all delighted when the Squadron moved down to the South of France for a “Practice Camp”. We landed at La Salanque near Perpignan on the Mediterranean. High temperatures, tropical plants and a total lack of snow made for an idyllic situation. We spent days engaged in air-to-air firing at a drogue towed by another Battle and air-to-ground firing. We also carried out dive attacks on targets with smoke bombs. Those Air Gunners who had not qualified as such, were, after a test, awarded the coveted Flying Bullet Air Gunners Badge. This award entitled the Air Gunners to an extra sixpence a day. We returned to Berry-au-Bac and began to enjoy the advent of spring. We were by now competent with our flying exercises and confident that we were ready for any eventuality.’

          Finally after what felt like an endless lull in Berry-au-Bac, No.142 Squadron was rudely awakened to the war. In the early morning hours of Friday 10 May 1940, a group of Heinkel 111s bombed and machine-gunned the Squadron’s airfield from 600 to 1, 000 feet. The attack left some damage to the airfield and two aircraft but fortunately there were no casualties. A second attack occurred less than two hours later when a lone bomber dropped incendiary bombs from a high altitude but caused no further harm.
          The Hurricane squadrons were also early into action, including the RAF’s first ace of the Second World War, Flying Officer Edgar James ‘Cobber’ Kain. Just before 0530 hours, Kain scrambled with No. 73 Squadron’s Flying Officer Harold Paul. Shortly into the patrol Paul ran into a formation of Dornier Do 17s of 4/KG2 at 18,000 feet, north-east of his aerodrome. Flying Officer Paul attacked a Dornier that was flying in the rear of the formation. His accurate bursts sent the bomber spiralling down inverted.
           Kain, flying at 20,000 feet over Metz took his Hurricane towards nine Do 17Z’s of 9/KG3 and opened fire. At first Kain overshot one Dornier but quickly engaged another. Kain scored direct hits on the bomber’s engines and fuselage causing it to burn and descend. Kain followed the machine down firing additional bursts until his ammunition boxes were empty. The Do 17 finally crashed east of Metz and Kain broke away from the attack. 
          At approximately 1200 hours, No. 142 Squadron was briefed to attack a Panzer Division which was approaching the French border. Eight Fairey Battles took off, but Bobby’s aircraft, flown by Pilot Officer I.C. Chalmers, had to return because their undercarriage failed to retract. Of the seven aircraft which were able to carry out their low level passes through light Anti-Aircraft fire, three failed to return. Flying Officer M.H. Roth and his crew were shot down and became Prisoners of War, Pilot Officer F.S. Laws and his crew were shot down and killed and Sergeant A.N. Spear, whom Bobby would later fly with, force - landed his damaged aircraft and returned with his crew back to Berry-au-Bac the next day. Pilot Officer W.H. Corbett and his gunner were wounded and their observer was killed. Flying Officer A.D. Gosman’s gunner also received slight wounds. Flying Office A.D. J Martin and Sergeant V. Heslop returned relatively unscathed.
          After such an awful ordeal the dangers of flying in Fairey Battles were all too real for the airmen.
          During the following days, No.142’s Squadron’s airfield continued to be bombed by German aircraft. On 12 May, a morning raid scored a direct hit and destroyed one of the Squadron’s aircraft – K9259.
          On 14 May, four Battles of No. 142 Squadron left Berry-au-Bac to bomb the pontoon bridge which was located between Sedan and Mouzon. But at around 1300 hours the four aircraft were shot down by friendly fire. The unfortunate culprits were French Morane fighter pilots who mistook the Battles to be Henschel Hs 126s. One Battle pilot was badly burned, another was injured and 5 men were tragically killed.
          Shortly after this horrendous incident the Squadron was back in the air at around 1330 hours. Once again, Bobby was flying with Pilot Officer Chalmers alongside eight other Battles with orders to destroy the bridges at Sedan. The Squadron was met by intense Anti-Aircraft fire from the ground and Messerschmitt 109s, but the target was bombed and several hits successfully struck the bridges. Once again Sergeant Spear’s aircraft came under attack and he was shot down by Bf 109s. Both his crewmen were killed but Spear managed to bale out of his aircraft before landing behind enemy lines. He was able to evade capture and later returned to the Squadron. For this Spear was awarded the DFM. Out of the eight aircraft that originally set off only four returned to base.

‘In the days that followed, the Squadron’s losses were severe. There was however an apparently inexhaustible supply of replacement aircraft and crews. Most of the sorties required a total flying time of about 40 minutes. We had become very aware of our vulnerability to attack from below and from behind and we therefore tended to keep as close to the ground as possible. This was an exhilarating experience for the air gunner standing in the open rear cockpit. Quite small changes in height would cause the feet to leave the floor when he became “weightless” for a moment, the next instant he was forced to the floor when the aircraft gained height. This zero gravity effect alternating with a positive gravity situation necessitated a constant check on the “monkey chain” by which we were tethered to the floor of the aircraft. Our bomb-load at this time comprised of 4 x 250lb bombs, fused for low level attacks with an 11 second delay. We sometimes added a further 2 x 250lb bomb on external racks, one on each wing. It may be of interest to know that the cruising speed of the Battle was about 210 mph. With a bomb-load of 4 x 250lb bombs the speed was reduced to about 180 mph and with the Air Gunner’s canopy open (which was necessary in order for him to fire his gun, but acted as an airbrake – speed was reduced by a further 20 mph). It can be appreciated that the Battle with a speed of 160 mph was no match for a ME 109 with a speed of 360 mph and a cannon firing through his propeller hub with a range of 600 yards. The rear gunner had to maintain a very tight grip on his Vickers K gun. The loaded ammunition pens were stored on “pegs” on the side of the cockpit. When it was necessary to change a drum (each drum held 40 rounds), the empty was tossed on to the cockpit floor and the replacement quickly removed from its peg and fitted to the gun. At this period the guns were fitted with a ring and bead sight, later we had reflector sights which were more efficient. Each gunner was responsible for filling his own ammunition pans. Most of us favoured the idea of using predominantly tracer bullets. We considered that the enemy would be more discouraged by bullets which he could see approaching him. Anyway it seemed to work for me.’

          On 15 May, the Luftwaffe continued to mount aggressive attacks on Berry-au-Bac. In the afternoon a raid of Heinkel 111s bombed the airfield leaving 13 craters in their wake.
          The Squadron soon moved to Faux-Villecerf, salvaging what equipment they could from Berry-au-Bac. On the 19 May, further devastation hit the Squadron when out of the three serviceable Battles that went on a morning raid none returned. It was a desperate and sorry affair for No.142 Squadron. After being urgently reequipped by Pouan, the Squadron soon found themselves with 25 aircraft. Operations continued.

‘When the time arrived to attack German troop columns, the troops were not in the least intimidated by either the noise of the attacking aircraft or by the Browning gun mounted in the leading edge of the starboard wing. Neither did they seek shelter from the rear gunners bullets as the plane climbed away. Instead, in an orderly manner, they left their vehicles, made their way into the adjacent fields or verges, lay on their backs in serried ranks and, with their rifles pointing skywards, awaited the arrival of their attackers. Thus the final run was through a hail of bullets. It was no comfort to remember that the radiator beneath the Merlin engine, would very quickly lose its coolant if hit. Our attempts to slow the German advance were also hindered by the steams of refugees who were fleeing westwards.’

On 20 May, Bobby was back in the rear cockpit of a Fairey Battle with Pilot Officer Chalmers flying and Sergeant Howard as their Observer. Their orders were to make a photographic reconnaissance sweep of the Troyes area, which was successfully carried out. That same night, four Battles were detailed to take part in a late sortie but on preparation a flare ignited and set one of the aircraft ablaze. The bomb load exploded and tragically killed five of the Squadron’s ground crew.
          Three days later the Squadron switched to night operations due to the impossible loss of both men and machines. 

In June 1940, the Fairey Battle squadrons were kept actively involved in a range of various operational sorties against the rapidly advancing German army.
          The 7 June, saw the tragic and untimely loss of one of the RAF’s greatest fighter pilots – Flying Officer ‘Cobber’ Kain of No. 73 Squadron. By this time the New Zealander had claimed an impressive amount of victories against the Luftwaffe with 17 enemy aircraft destroyed and 2 damaged. Kain was due to go on leave, but shockingly he accidently crashed his Hurricane and was killed after ‘beating up’ his aerodrome for the final time.
          Sometime after the unnecessary tragedy, Bobby and a few of his friends investigated the Hurricane wreckage and each took a souvenir to remember the high scoring ‘ace’ by. Bobby retrieved Cobber’s oxygen mask connector.
          On the 12 June, No.142 Squadron continued to play their part in the defence of France. In the morning, Bobby was involved in an operational raid which consisted of four aircraft attacking a bridge at Le Manoir. Bobby’s Battle, flown by Sergeant Spear scored a direct hit on the target, as did a Battle flown by Pilot Officer L.H. Child.

‘On 15 June we had orders to fly back to England. In addition to my pilot and observer, we were to take with us the Squadron Intelligence Officer, all Squadron records and his large black Labrador dog. Having decanted our passengers at Shoreham airport, we made our way to RAF Waddington, where having been supplied with uniforms, we were sent on leave. Those of us that survived were indeed fortunate. Outnumbered and outgunned, the inadequacy of the Fairey Battle was all too manifest. The total loss of aircrew of the AASF in the period of 10 May until our evacuation on 15 June exceeded 650 killed or missing and more than 230 Prisoners of War. While our contribution to the campaign was difficult to assess, we undoubtedly acted as guinea-pigs in the new concept of modern air warfare. Hopefully lessons were learned from our endeavours which were of benefit to those that followed on.’

          The men that flew in Fairey Battles during this period of history will always be remembered for doing their part to hinder the German advance in the Low Countries, despite working in obsolete aircraft. After participating in 14 operational sorties in Battles with No.142 Squadron, Bobby Pearce was indeed fortunate to have survived such a volatile and desperate campaign which ultimately failed. Bobby then went on to complete a tour of 20 operational sorties in Vickers Wellington Mk 2 bombers which the Squadron was equipped with when the Battles were withdrawn. After completing his tour, Bobby was then posted to an Operation Training Unit as an instructor, during which time he was able to participate in two of the first 1000 Bomber Raids. When Bobby was finally invalided from the RAF at the end of 1944 due to Tuberculosis, he continued to harbour an affectionate love for aviation but in particular that unfortunate aircraft called the Fairey Battle. 

Fairey Battle Gunner Bobby Pearce

Left- Wellington crew, Bobby far right
Right- Bobby with a Fairey Battle at Hendon

After the war Bobby Pearce became a Dental Surgeon, retiring in 1980. He was a dedicated supporter of the RAF Benevelent Fund and served as Secretary to the Friends of the RAF museum, Hendon, for many years. Bobby passed away on 24 April 2008, aged 87. 

142 Sqn Wellington Bomber & Bobby's ID

Bobby kneeling on the right & Bobby far left

Copyright Christopher Yeoman 2011

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