628829 Sgt Robert Harvey Francis. DFM
149 (East India) Sqdn, RAF
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
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
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: