The Eagle Squadrons were three RAF Squadrons made up of American volunteers, their achievements and records are well-known and well documented, however, it was not all plain sailing for these determined and courageous flyers. For one Squadron in particular, 133 Squadron, September 26th 1942 would be a disaster, a disaster that would almost wipe out the entire flight of twelve airmen.
133 Squadron had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving at RAF Great Sampford, a satellite for RAF Debden. The ground crews were predominately British, assisting and training the US ground crews in aircraft maintenance and support. All the pilots however, were US volunteers, formed into three separate squadrons but under RAF control.
133 Squadron would arrive at RAF Great Sampford on September 23rd 1942, the same day as 616 Sqn RAF departed, they would be the last operational unit to fully use the airfield before its eventual closure.
Initially flying the Spitfire VBs, they soon replaced them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise. It was so new and improved, that it remained on the secret list until after this particular operational flight.
On that fateful day, September 26th 1942, fourteen Spitfires of 133 Sqn took off from RAF Great Sampford in Essex, piloting those Spitfires were:
BS313 – F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC (61053) The only British pilot and leader
BS275 – P/O. Leonard T. Ryerson (O-885137)
BS446 – P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113)
BS137 – P/O. Dennis D. Smith (O-885128)
BR638 – P/O. G.B. Sperry (O-885112)
BS445 – P/O. Dominic “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile (O-885109)
BS138 – P/O. Gilbert G. Wright (?)
BS279 – F/Lt. Marion E. Jackson (O-885117)
BS447 – P/O. R.E. Smith (O-885110)
BR640 – P/O. C.A. Cook (O-885112)
BS148 – P/O. Richard “Bob” N. Beaty (?)
BS301 – P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr (O-885127)
BS140 – P/O. Gene P. Neville (O-885129)
Unknown – P/O. Ervin “Dusty” Miller (O-885138) (not listed but known to have been on the flight).
They were to fly to RAF Bolt Head in Devon, where they would meet with 401 Squadron (RCAF) and 64 Squadron RAF, refuel and be briefed for the mission. A mission that was supposed to be straight forward and relatively uneventful.
The aim of the mission was to escort US bombers to Morlaix on the Brest peninsula. The usual commander of 133 Sqn, Red McColpin, was not placed in charge that day, instead he had been posted, and a British Pilot, F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC, was issued with the task.
McColpin was a strict disciplinarian and his leadership was admired by those who followed him. Without this leadership, 133’s preparation was slack and they ultimately paid the price for this.
After landing at 12:30 hours, they realised there were no facilities at Bolt Head for refuelling, and they would have to go with what they had. This would kick-start a catalogue of errors that would ultimately seal the fate of the flight. Following a briefing in which Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC and all but two of 133 Sqn pilots had failed to show up for, the flight (which included the sixteen 401 (RCAF) Squadron Spitfire IXs from RAF Kenley) took off at 13:50 hours. Of the fourteen 133 Sqn Spitfires sent to Bolt Head, only twelve would be needed, and two pilots were instructed to remain at Bolt Head, they were P/O. Ervin Miller, and P/O. Don “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile, they would be the luckiest two men of the squadron that day.
The briefing, a very vague and rushed one, instructed the flight to carry out a ‘Circus‘ mission escorting seventy-five B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, who were bombing Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix in Brittany. When the squadron took off the weather was clear, and winds were predicted to be 35 mph at 24,000 feet, but 5 miles off the English coast, they encountered 10/10th cumulus cloud cover at 7,000 feet, and so had to climb above it so that they could locate the bombers more easily.
The take of was a mess, disorganised and lacking both radio information and in many cases maps, the aircraft were lucky not to collide with each other.
Of the three RAF squadrons involved in the mission, 401 would take the high position, 133 the middle and 64 Squadron, the lower. They were to form up over Bolt Head at 2,000 feet and then head at 200o at 180 mph to overtake the bombers before they arrived at the target. If they could not locate the bombers, the flight was to circle the target for three minutes and then depart.
As the flight approached the rendezvous area, one 133 Squadron Spitfire had to drop out of formation and return home, as he had encountered engine problems; this problem was thought to be due to his low fuel. The remainder of the flight scanned the skies for any sign of the bomber formation, and after searching for some 45 minutes, they spotted the bombers, some 50 miles south of Brest. The bombers had in fact already turned for home after having discarded their bombs near to the Pyrenees.
By now the 301st BG had been recalled, as their fighter escort failed to materialise, whilst the 97th BG had continued on. However, due to the heavy cloud cover over the target area, they had been ineffective as no bombing of the target had taken place. The American bombers, who were only three months into their European air war, had inadvertently miscalculated a tail wind putting them off track well away from the Bay of Biscay.
The three squadrons formed up on the bombers at just after 16:45 hours, with 64 Squadron on the port side, 401 Squadron on the starboard and 133 Squadron behind. The whole formation then flew north for 30 minutes, at which point it became evident that the wind speed was in fact over 100 mph, and not the 35 mph as stated by the Meteorological Office, or at the briefing! It has since been revealed that this information was known to those in authority, but it had not been passed down the chain of command and the pilots were never informed.
The formation then spotted land, the bombers thought they were over Falmouth and turned right. 64 and 401 Squadron broke away maintaining height, but 133 Squadron dropped down below the cloud base and prepared to land.
133 Squadron then began to search for the airfield, and after searching in vain, they found a large town, this they hoped would give them the vital fix they desperately needed. Flying low over the houses they realised they were not over England at all but in fact still over France. The flight, uninformed of the 100 mph north-easterly wind at their altitude, had also been blown wildly off course, and after 1.5 hours flying time, the situation had suddenly become very severe indeed.
The Squadron flight Leader, Flight Lieutenant E.G. Brettell, wanting to ascertain his exact position, called up a ground direction finding station who provided a bearing and heading – 100 miles off the English coast with a homing vector of 020o. It was at this point they suddenly realised they were over the port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended ports under German occupation.
Immediately, the sky filled with flak and small arms anti-aircraft fire. The pilot in the number 2 position, Pilot Officer Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140, took a direct and fatal hit, he was killed instantly. Three other aircraft were to be shot down in the melee that followed: Pilot Officer William H Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; Pilot Officer Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and Pilot Officer Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294 – all four were killed, and all four were awarded the Purple Heart.
The remainder of 133 Squadron struggling to defend themselves, they scattered and were forced to land out of fuel, either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.
Of the seven 133 squadron pilots who crash landed on French soil, five were known to have been captured immediately and taken prisoner: P/O. G.B. Sperry; F/Lt. Edward Brettell; F/Lt. M.E. Jackson; P/O. C.A. Cook and P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr., with a sixth, P/O. G.G. Wright, evading the Germans for several days before being captured later on.
Of these initial five, F/Lt. Jackson was injured in his crash and hospitalised for eight weeks. He was then taken to Stalag Luft III from where he was able to escape for about ten days by jumping from the roof of his cell house into a lorry load of evergreen branches that were being taken away from the camp.
Another Pilot, F/Lt. Edward Brettell DFC. was executed for his part in the Great Escape from the same prison camp, Stalag Luft III, whilst P/O. Robert E. Smith, the last remaining pilot, managed to abandon his aircraft evading capture, eventually returning to England on 18th January 1943.
The pilot who turned back early due to his own engine problems, P/O. Robert Beatty, crash landed his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel over the Channel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal and was able to give an account of the mission through what he heard over the radio.
Several of the 401 Squadron pilots, who had continued on, also reported being low on fuel and gave their intention to bail out before land was finally sighted. One of these, P/O. Junius L. Hokan (s/n: J/6833), did have to bail out over the sea, he was last seen in a gradual dive, his aircraft heading seaward. His body was never recovered. Others in the flight that day only just made land fall, one crashed and was taken to hospital where he recovered from his injuries, the others just managed to reach either RAF Bolt Head or RAF Harrowbeer. The Operational Record Books for 401 Squadron state that “many casualties were avoided by the clear thinking and cool behaviour of all members of our Squadron“.
A full report of the days tragic events was issued to Fighter Command Headquarters by Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC, Squadron Leader Gaze and Squadron leader K. Hodson DFC.
The effect on those left behind in 133 Squadron was devastating. The result of poor preparation, inadequate briefings and sub-standard communication between the Met. Office and Fighter Command had cost many lives, and very nearly many, many more. A number of postings to the Far East soon followed, and many lessons weren’t that day that led to improvements preventing such a tragedy ever happening again.
133 Squadron would continue to operate after this, transferring over to the USAAF being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, three days later as planned, leaving both RAF Great Sampford and the sad memories of that very tragic day far behind.
Sources and further reading.
Great Sampford appears in Trail 50.
National Archives: Operational Record Book 133 Sqn – AIR 27/945/2
National Archives: Operational Record Book 401 Sqn – AIR 27/1772/17
National Archives: Operational record Book 64 Sqn – AIR 27/590/41
*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company, (1974).