NutsStirling Pilott Nuts


628829  Sgt Robert Harvey Francis. DFM
Air Gunner, RAF

149 (East India) Sqdn, RAF


Bob Francis served in the Royal Air Force from 5th October 1939 until the cessation of hostilities. During this time he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) and was also awarded a Mention in Despatches (MiD). He was one of the very first “Aircraftsman, Second Class” (A.C.2) to be honoured with a DFM and the MiD entitled him to wear an oak leaf cluster on the ribbon.

Training.

Bob started his flying career at No 4 A.O.S. (Air Observer School), West Freugh. RAF West Freugh was a Royal Air Force station located in Wigtownshire, five miles south east of Stranraer. It is still in use today as a bombing range. Here he trained as an Air Gunner. Throughout his career he flew mainly as an Air Gunner, but also did many flights as a Wireless Operator.

Handley Page Heyford Bomber

His first training flight was in Heyford K6869 flown by P.O. Gordon. It was not an auspicious start, as his logbook records: “Sick, did not Fire.” The flight lasted 1 hr 20 minutes. Three days later, however, he did succeed and registered 100/43 on a fifty minute flight. This was again in a Heyford, and was logged as F.R.5, which probably referred to the Firing Exercise he was completing. His training continued with 14 more Heyford flights and Air Gunnery exercises, totalling 17 hours flying by the 23rd of the month.

 

The Air Gunner Brevet
149 (East India) Squadron

In November 1939 he moved onto Wellington Bombers with 149 (East India) Squadron. He continued his training with the squadron, flying cross country, air firing, fighter affiliation and bombing exercises throughout November. At the end of November he had 36hrs 55m in his flying logbook. Most of his flying during this time was with the “A” flight commander, Sqn Ldr Dabinett, or the Squadron Commander, Wing Commander Kellett.

Operations with 149 Sqdn
December was more of the same, with early war “jitters” and the ‘Phoney War’ meaning a lot of exercises. It also brought his first ‘Operation’, a 5 hr sweep over Heligoland.

 
This was quickly followed by an attack on enemy warships on the 18th, flying as W/C Kellett’s Rear Gunner. It was during this flight that his aircraft, Wellington N2960, claimed two Messerschmitt Bf 109’s shot down. It was probably this action that won Bob his DFM, although no citation has been found, to date.


His last flight of 1939 is logged with Sqn Ldr Dabinett as, “Formation for News Reel” - 25 minutes. Even at this early time, propaganda was becoming a weapon.

 

149 Sqdn Wellingtons at Mildenhall in 1940

January 1940 was fairly quiet for Bob. He flew on seven trips, mainly in N2960 as Air Gunner with Sqdn Ldr Dabinett. None of those trips were classed as ‘Operations’.
 
February 1940 consisted of ten trips, this time mainly as the Wireless Operator in N2960, with various pilots in command. Four of these trips were cross country flying between RAF Mildenhall, 149 Sqdn’s base and RAF St Athan in Wales. Again, no trips were recorded as ‘Operations’.

March 1940 brought his first logged night trips, a searchlight cooperation exercise and a reconnaissance. His flying time at this point was 90.35hrs Day and 5.20hrs Night.

April 1940 carried a bit more in the way of Night and Day Operations, with a raid on the 12th to hopefully intercept the ‘Scharnhorst’ and another capital ship (probably the ‘Gneisenau’) steaming off the Norwegian coast.


The Scharnhorst

 

 After going as far as Stavanger, in company with aircraft of 38 Sqn, the formation turned for home without spotting the targets. At this point they were jumped by enemy aircraft. Two EAs were claimed in the following stern attacks before the enemy changed to beam attacks. This was much more difficult for Wellingtons to combat, however another two EAs were claimed by the formation. AC 1 Francis claimed a Messerschmitt Bf110 during the stern attacks on the formation. This trip lasted 7hrs 15m. The next ‘Op’ was in a three aircraft flight to Aalborg in Denmark, where two of the aircraft attacked from low level and one from high. Squadron Leader Collett had taken them in at 10,000ft but was unable to assess the results.
The aircraft flown by F.O. F T Knight attacked at low level and was not heard from again. The aircraft and crew were lost without trace. That was an 8hr 5m trip for Bob.

May 1940 brought a raid to bridges over the Meuse and a road junction at Namur. This raid, on the 17th was nine aircraft strong, being led by Sqdn Ldr Harris DFC. Bob was flying with Sqdn ldr Kerr, the new “A” Flt Commander. After an uneventful attack, they returned to find their RAF Mildenhall base cloaked in fog. Aircraft landed away at various airfields, Bob’s went in to Newmarket for an overnight stop and returned the next day. On the 21st, ten aircraft from the squadron, including Bob’s aircraft, went to Namur and Dinat to attack the road and rail targets there. All returned safely.

Two days later he was off again, this time to Dinat and Yvoire for an uneventful trip, although one aircraft crashed on return, killing three crew. On the 29th he went to raid Roulers and Thourout with Sqdn Ldr Kerr, for yet another quiet trip.

His next Operation was on the second of June 1940 and was a trip to support the troops surrounded at Dunkirk. Eight aircraft from the squadron dropped their loads of 10x250lb HE bombs to try and assist the evacuation. No aircraft were damaged.

The Dunkirk beaches

On the sixth and the eighth, they were in action again, this time bombing German troops and bridges leading to the Dunkirk catchments area. On the 10th and the 13th they were again operating in support of the retreating troops. On the 13th the squadron lost an aircraft, F.O. Douglas-Cooper and his crew. There was also a fatal accident on the base as the aircraft returned. AC2 Moss, a ground crew member, was hit by a propeller and killed, as Wellington R3161 taxied to its dispersal point.

The nights of the 15th and 16th produced back to back raids to Italy, for a newly promoted Sergeant Francis and his crew mates. The first trip was to Genoa to attack the Ansolado works, the second to attack the Caproni works at Milan. For this operation, they operated from Salon. Unfortunately, only one of the attacking aircraft found the target. After this intense period of flying Bob and his crew were rested and did not fly again until September, when on the 15th he was back on Ops.

September 1940 was a mixed bag of thirty flights, with five of these being ‘Operations’, with Pilot Officer Davis as Captain. The Op on the 15th was directed against Calais and the shipping and barges that were building up for the dreaded invasion. The 21st saw the crew doing the same task but this time at Dunkirk. Two days later (the 25th), the crew went to the ‘Big City’, Berlin. A trip of 7.35hrs.


A Berlin street during the War.


Then on the 29th the crew were off to Hanan to destroy enemy industrial targets. 149 lost one aircraft on this mission. For all the Operations of this month Bob flew as the Wireless Operator in Wellington OJ-D, T2458.
October 1940 produced another twenty flights in Bob’s Logbook, of which eight were Operations with P.O. Davis’ crew, again as Wireless Operator in OJ-D, T2458. The month started quickly with a return to the ‘Big City’, Berlin. The location required a flight time of eight hours and 35 minutes and the crews must have been exhausted on their return. One of the three 149 Sqdn aircraft that took part had to land at RAF Honington, but returned safely the following day. The Operation on the 9th was a multi-targeted affair, with many aircraft not finding their target. OJ-D found and bombed their allocated target and returned safely.

 The next Operation for the crew was to Kiel on the 13th, again targeting the Scharnhorst. The enemy on this trip was not the Germans, but the weather.



Bob and a colleague check the ammunition belts for the Wellington’s 303 machine guns.


Fourteen aircraft from 149 Squadron had to abort the trip due to severe icing and violent electrical storms. In light of this aborted attempt, the squadron went again to Kiel, after the Scharnhorst on the 15th and this time found her.
D-Dog was there, but despite their best efforts, had their vision obscured by smoke and flames; so they bombed the large concentration of oil fires that was visible. The 20th produced a raid on Cologne and Ichendorf, which was successfully carried out, whilst on the 23rd they went to Berlin again. As they could not locate their primary target due to cloud, they bombed the secondary target of the railway yards and came home. Not content with this marathon trip of 7 hrs 35m, they then went to the Leuna chemical works in eastern Germany – a trip of seven hrs 20, for another successful mission. Their return raid to Berlin on the 29th was badly affected by the weather and was logged in as five hours flying, with no result.

November 1940 produced only a short air test for the crew of D-Dog. The rest of the month was a nightmare of atrocious weather conditions and cancelled Ops for the whole squadron.
It did, however, produce a detachment for Bob. He was sent on a gunnery leader’s course at No 13 Gunnery School at RAF Warmwell.

A Block House at RAF Warmwell 2007

Gunnery Training in progress

So December 1940 saw Bob tucking into the advanced Air Gunnery training he required to qualify as a gunnery leader. In the twenty trips he did that month, along with the intensive ground work, he emerged on the 12th January as a fully fledged Gunnery Leader….  and Instructor.

Bob’s time with 149 Squadron was over.

For the foreseeable future his lot was to be an Instructor, doing the job he had proved so efficient at. He had completed thirty War Operations against the enemy with 149 Squadron, won the DFM and had a Mention In Despatches ….. and lived to tell the tale. Most of his colleagues were not so lucky.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.