A Lifetime in Aviation: The Flying Life Of A.J.L. ‘Bill’ Hickox – Part 1 – Wartime Flying
If the name “Johnny Head-in-Air” from the poem in the wartime film ‘The Way to the Stars’ could be applied to anyone, then it could certainly be applied to my Uncle John, as I used to call him. Of course, his crewmates would inevitably call him Bill, as I have been called myself.
He once said to me that he considered a day wasted if he wasn’t in the air, and he proved this by flying for over 22,000 hours in his 50-year flying career from 1941 to 1991. He sadly died a few years ago, but not long before, he had been talking to me about taking him to some reunions with his flying mates.
John, as I will call him, knew long before age 18 that he wanted to fly and, if it hadn’t been for his headmaster’s refusal to sign his papers, he would have joined the RAF at age 16. An amusing anecdote he mentioned to me was that he was so keen to buy and read aviation books before the war, that he bought a book called ‘Sky Pilot’ without looking inside. When he got home and opened it up, he found to his horror that it was about a vicar. Whether he got his money back for it I do not know.
When he joined the RAF in 1941, his eyesight was not quite good enough to be a pilot, so he trained as a navigator with 15 OTU (Officer Training Unit) at Harwell on Avro Ansons and Blackburn Bothas. In 1942, he was posted to No.70 Squadron on Wellington 1C’s, where operations began after the squadron flew out to North Africa, bombing the Germans as they advanced eastwards towards Egypt and being based at a number of Desert Landing Grounds, including Kabrit and Abu Sueir, and ending up at Cairo West.
At that time crews required 40 trips to complete their tours, which John had completed by 24th June 1942, but was back on the battle order two nights later. German night fighter activity in the region was increasing, but the allies weren’t fully aware of the Luftwaffe’s growing capability in the area and crews still thought that the chances of being intercepted by night fighters was negligible.
John and his crew, flying out of Cairo West, were spotted by an aircraft which the rear gunner misidentified as a Beaufighter. The colours of the night were fired off twice. But the aircraft veered off, returned, and fired at the port engine which burst into flames. The order to bail out was given by the Captain. Only four of the crew managed to leave the aircraft, the front gunner bailing out into the good engine and the Captain going down with the flaming aircraft.
According to John’s log book, he was on operations to Benghazi to attack the Barrani to Matruh road from LG (landing ground) 224 on the night of 26th June 1942. They were attacked at 01:30, 40 miles SE of Matruh by a Ju.88, and port engine set on fire and forced to bail out. The Captain, Sgt Clayton, and the front gunner were missing.
A reliable source has since discovered that he was shot down by Lt Heinz Rökker of 1./NJG 2 SW Mersa Matruh at 2345 hrs flying a Ju 88 C-6. It was Rokker’s third kill of a total of 64 by the war’s end, and he would be awarded the Eichenlaub (Oak Leaves). He survived the war, and may be still alive.
Luckily, John landed without mishap by parachute in the darkness of the desert. And, by calling out, the four surviving crew members were able to reestablish contact with each other. They concluded afterwards that the aircraft that attacked them was a Junkers Ju.88, which looked similar to a Beaufighter in the dark.
Navigating by the stars, and being careful to avoid nasty clanking noises nearby as they did not know which side of the enemy lines they had landed, they progressed slowly in a northeasterly direction. With the coming of daylight, they finally came across some British infantry on a reconnaissance having a brew next to their lorry, and were rescued. They each got a certificate for joining the “Late Arrivals Club” when they got back to their home base at Cairo West long after their due ETA.
After a period of leave in Palestine, John was posted home on a BOAC Short Empire flying boat “Corsair”, via Central Africa and the Congo. At Lagos, he boarded a Boeing 314 flying boat “Bangor” and flew to Poole Harbour via Bathurst, Lisbon, and Shannon (Foynes). It was this long trip which showed him the future potential of civil aviation.
His close call with death was enough to adversely affect anyone’s nerve and chain smoking and trembling hands were symptoms of this, as his younger sister observed when he was at home on leave. However, after a period of rest and recuperation, he was ready to go back on active service.
Although in 1943 his eyesight was good enough when he volunteered again for pilot training, John’s navigating skills were of too much merit to be lost.
From March 1943, he instructed at various OTUs (Officer Training Units) on Wellington III’s, Lysanders, Oxfords, Whitleys and Miles Martinets. In September 1943, he volunteered to join the Pathfinders as a navigator in night bombing raids in a two-crew D.H. 98 Mosquito, a wooden aircraft so fast that it did not need defensive armament and could, in exceptional circumstances, carry a bomb load almost as much as the Boeing B-17 Fortress with an eight-man crew, which was used in daylight bombing raids by the U.S. 8th Army Air Force.
The Pathfinders were an elite bomber force created and headed by the then Wing Commander Don Bennett, who was a hard-working, no nonsense individual, who would get things done by cutting through red tape. It was said that he had written the first definitive text book on Air Navigation whilst cruising on a ship on his honeymoon with his new Swiss wife before the war, not wishing to waste time. What his new wife thought of this I do not know. But at that time, wives generally had to put up with things they would not put up with now. At that time, Bennett had begun experimental transatlantic flights in a four-engined floatplane aircraft, ‘Mercury’, taking off piggy-back style on top of a larger flying boat ‘Maia’, the Short-Mayo S.20/S.21 Composite, to conserve fuel for the long Atlantic crossing. This led to his pioneering flying at the start of the transatlantic Air Ferry Command in 1940 which, by the end of the war, had ferried thousands of American aircraft across the Atlantic, to contribute to the war effort against Fortress Europe.
He also developed FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) for the clearing of fog from runways by burning barrels of petrol each side of the runway, creating enough heat to disperse the fog to enable returning bombers to land at night on certain FIDO equipped runways, when all other airfields were closed down by fog in winter weather. As this procedure used up much valuable petrol, it was only limited to a few airfields on especially foggy winter nights.
At the first experimental trial of this new system, when a large number of petrol-filled barrels were lit to create enough hot air above the runway to disperse the fog, Bennett had failed to warn the local fire brigade who, seeing a large red glow in the sky, thought that there had been a terrible accident at the airfield and raced there at top speed. Bennett had to apologise for not letting them know. But at least there was no terrible emergency. He became an Air Vice-Marshal and after the war founded, and was Chief Executive of, British South American Airways, an airline pioneering routes to South America.
The Pathfinders needed excellent navigators and pilots as they had the task of pin-pointing targets with different coloured flares, so that the main bomber force could then aim their bombs at the flares. Technological advances based on radar included the blind bombing device ‘Oboe’, whereby an aircraft could be controlled by stations in England but was limited by the curvature of the earth, and demanded extremely precise flying. Each pair of ‘Oboe’ stations could serve only one aircraft at a time and its best application was therefore to the high-flying Mosquitoes which dropped the marker flares.
H2S, a ground mapping radar which could distinguish between land and water, built-up areas and open country, was fitted to the Main Force bombers, which, from 1943 onwards, were mostly Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers, to help their navigators to find their approximate position over Germany, particularly when the target city was on the coast or a river ran through it.
Initially on 1655 Mosquito Training Unit at RAF Marham, John teamed up with his pilot Flying Officer Jack ‘Benny’ Goodman where they trained together on a Mosquito Mk B.IV and then were posted to No.139 (Jamaica) Squadron at RAF Wyton, flying the same mark of Mosquito. John and his pilot together flew some very dangerous missions during their 40-operation tour. Their night bombing operations included visits to Cologne, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Berlin, and Gelsenkirchen.
A new Pathfinder squadron, No.627, was formed at RAF Oakington and John and his pilot, as members of ‘C’ Flight, No.139 Squadron, formed part of the nucleus of the new squadron. They moved to Oakington in November 1943, again operating the Mosquito B Mk.IV. The Bomber Command offensive against Berlin was beginning, and they took part in seven bombing missions against the ‘Big City’, operating as part of No.8 Group Light Night Striking Force.
For one operation, Nos. 627 and 139 Squadrons were briefed for an all Mosquito attack on the ‘Big City’. John and ‘Benny’ took off for an uneventful trip, except that they returned to bad weather over the airfield with a cloud base of 500 feet and heavy rain, which made landing tricky. At debrief, they learned that they had been the only RAF aircraft over Germany that night. Operations had been cancelled at a very late stage and the other Mosquito that had taken off turned back with engine trouble. No wonder that the mission had been so peaceful.
The Pathfinder Mosquitoes had another navigational aid called ‘Gee’. This used three widely-spaced ground radar transmitters which sent radio pulses in a set order. The aircraft receiver enabled the navigator to measure the difference in time between the reception of the various pulses, and by referring these to a special ‘Gee’ map of Europe, covered with lattice lines, the position of the aircraft could be determined with considerable accuracy, although this deteriorated with distance, but was good enough for aircraft at distances as far as the western half of Germany.
However, ‘Gee’ could be easily jammed by the Germans, which reduced its effective range to an arc running along the Dutch coast. This meant that navigators had to work very quickly to calculate an accurate wind speed and direction before heading into Germany. On long trips to Berlin or Munich for example, they were sometimes helped by a route marker put down halfway to the target, and possibly another even closer. These were laid either by Pathfinder Lancasters or No.139 Squadron Mosquitoes equipped with H2S.
The only other navigational aid in the Mosquito was a VHF radio set, from transmissions of which it was possible to take a bearing on the position of the transmitting aircraft and give it a course to steer for home base. This was a life saver, and stopped many an aircraft from flying off in the wrong direction and ending up force-landing in enemy territory, or in the North Sea or Channel, on running out of fuel.
The Mosquito had no defensive armament and, on one mission, John and ‘Benny’ lost the starboard engine over Germany due to a loss of oil pressure and their speed and height was reduced to that of the heavily-armed Lancasters. As their only generator was powered by the failed engine, they had to turn off internal lights, the Gee box and their VHF radio set to conserve power in their internal battery. When they reckoned they were over the Dutch coast, John switched the Gee box back on with the power left in the battery and was able to plot a fix. Turning the VHF set back onto the distress frequency, they were able to transmit and were given a course to steer for the nearest airfield at RAF Coltishall, where they landed without further trouble on an unfamiliar airfield in the dark.
They had been shadowed by a Beaufighter from over Holland when its crew realised they were in trouble. They had been completely unaware of its benign presence, which would have been needed if they had been attacked by a German night fighter. People looked after each other in those days. They had to when it was a matter of life and death.
Before one mission, they were stood down in favour of a new crew. John and his pilot had air-tested the aircraft that morning and found it was fully serviceable. When the new crew took off that night, both engines failed when just airborne and, in the dark, the crew were killed in the resulting crash. Fate had looked kindly on John and ‘Benny’ that day. They flew further bombing missions over Germany to Dusseldorf, Franfurt, Kiel, Leipzig, Stuttgart, Kassel, Duisberg, Hanover, Essen, and Osnabruck.
In the spring of 1944, a standard Mk IV Mosquito flew in, which had been modified to carry a 4,000 lb bomb, the ‘cookie’. The bomb bay had been strengthened and the bomb doors re-designed, and the belly had been expanded to look markedly rotund. John and ‘Benny’ were to fly the cookie-carrier as much as possible, as the most experienced crews were to take her on normal operations. The pregnant Mosquito was sluggish on take off and climbed sedately. But when they dropped the bomb over the Ruhr, the Mosquito shot up like a lift at least 500 feet and performance overall improved greatly.
However, this was their only ‘cookie-carrying’ mission as, in April 1944, they moved to Woodhall Spa, alongside No.617 Squadron, to take part in specialised target marking operations for No.5 Group. These were under the direction of Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, who was later promoted to Group Captain and awarded the Victoria Cross for successfully completing 100 missions over enemy territory, and for his sustained courage and contribution to the effectiveness of Bomber Command. After the war, he founded the Cheshire Homes, initially for disabled servicemen, but later for any disabled people.
The operations from then on comprised low-level target marking for which the Mosquito was best suited. The Lancaster Pathfinder Squadrons were to identify the target areas on H2S and were to lay a carpet of flares over a given target, under which No.627 Squadron would locate and mark the precise aiming point. The target would then be destroyed by No.5 Group Lancaster Bombers.
The Lancaster Pathfinders were to lay a concentrated carpet of hooded flares, the light from which would be directed downwards onto the target, making it as bright as day. A small number of Mosquitoes, four or six, would orbit, find the aiming point, and then mark it in a shallow dive with 500 lb spot-flares. Marker Leader would assess the position of the spot-flares relative to the aiming point and would pass on this information to the Master Bomber in one of the Pathfinder Lancasters. The Master Bomber would then take over and direct the Main Force Lancasters onto the target. This was a system which would bring unheard of accuracy to night bombing.
An intensive period of dive bombing practice was therefore undertaken at the Wainfleet Bombing Range. It was found that diving from 2,000 feet straight at the target was the best method to obtain the necessary accuracy and, with practice, this was achieved. But doing this while flying against the enemy would be a very different matter.
Due to plans for Operation Overlord and the necessity of crippling the French transportation system before the invasion, accurate bombing of French railway marshalling yards had to be undertaken. But French loss of life had to be minimised at all costs. Thus, the low-level marking Mosquitoes were employed to try and ensure accuracy, and John and ‘Benny’ took part in the attack on the Juvisy railway marshalling yard outside Paris, which proceeded with excellent results. The railway yards were marked at each end with red spot-flares and the Main Force Lancasters bombed between the target indicators. The bombing was concentrated, the yards were destroyed, few French lives were lost and all aircraft returned safely to base.
Other targets they marked in missions over Germany included Brunswick, Munich and Schweinfurt in April 1944. In the case of Munich, 90% of bombs fell on target, doing more damage in one night than had been achieved by Bomber Command and the US 8th Army Air Force together in the last four years of war. The superiority of the new marking system was clearly shown, but the irony was that the German Flak was almost all of the heavy variety, for use against relatively high-flying aircraft. There was not much light flak, which was concentrated in France and the Netherlands, and made these targets much more dangerous for the low-level markers than the German ones.
In April 1944, both John and ‘Benny’ were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), which were the first decorations awarded to members of No. 627 Squadron. The wording of John’s award was as follows : –
“Now on his second tour of operational duty, Flying Officer Hickox has served both in the European and Middle East theatres of war. During his first tour of duty in the Middle East, he was navigator in an aircraft which was shot down in flames. He succeeded in landing by parachute. Since this hazardous experience, this officer has participated in many successful sorties, invariably evincing exceptional skill, enthusiasm and unflinching determination to complete each mission successfully.”
The now decorated crew then undertook a further successful marking mission with three other Mosquitoes against the Usine Lictard engineering works outside Tours in France. This was then flattened by accurate bombing when, previously, the US 8th Army Air Force had dropped most of their bombs on open fields.
On the next mission they nearly met their maker or, if luckier, would have had to walk back from the Continent. The target was Mailly-le-Camp, a German tank depot near Epernay in eastern France. Wg Cdr Leonard Cheshire led the low-level marker aircraft and eight Mosquitoes of No.627 Squadron were at a slightly higher level to dive-bomb the light flak positions known to be around the depot. Although the target was marked accurately and Cheshire gave the order to bomb, the first wave did not receive the instruction and began to orbit the target. This was because of interference from an American broadcasting station in England, which should not have been on the same frequency. This caused the unnecessary loss of many British lives as the German night fighters moved in and began to shoot down the Lancasters. Eventually the situation was sorted out and the depot was bombed, but the cost was high, 46 of the 362 attackers being lost. This just shows that in wartime a seemingly small, but totally avoidable, mistake can have the most serious consequences causing many lives to be lost.
John and Benny could see bomber after bomber coming down in flames towards them and had a difficult time as they dived on the light flak batteries, dropped their bombs singly on them, avoided light flak and burning Lancasters and managed to keep out of harm’s way. After they had dropped their bombs, Benny called Marker Leader and was told to go home. John gave him a course to steer for the French coast, and they should have climbed to 25,000 feet. But, because of the mayhem at a higher altitude in the target area, they decided to stay at low level.
On their way back at high speed at 500 feet, a searchlight suddenly shone directly on them, followed by two or three more. Light flak came up and exploded all around. They could not lose height nor climb as this would have been a gift to the German gunners. With John shouting “watch your instruments”, Benny turned steeply to port, leveled out and turned steeply to starboard and repeated the performance. Although held by searchlights and flak for some time, they were not held by one searchlight and one gun for very long and were able to zigzag their way towards the coast. Luckily they were not hit and, as they cleared a low hill, they saw the sea before them. The final group of searchlights shone through the trees at the top of the hill they had just flown over, and were above them and lighting them on their way. They roared over a river estuary, passing the lighthouse at Le Treport, and then were away over the sea, climbing to safety and home. A lucky escape indeed.
The Germans were always very quick to take advantage of any mix up or mistakes in an attack, which usually resulted in a disproportionate number of casualties. The German defenses were always very sharp. It did not do to underestimate them, as you could be caught with the flick of a searchlight switch and they were very reluctant to let you go without shooting you down. The same applied if you were caught by one of their night fighters, although Mosquitoes were able to outrun these, unless taken by surprise, until almost the end of the war.
In March 1945, the Germans had made their deadly Messerschmitt Me.262 jet fighter operational with 10/NJG11 night fighter wing in northern Germany. The version used was the Me.262B-1a/U1 with a tandem cockpit to include the radar operator. This aircraft could fly nearly 100 mph faster than the Mosquito, and its jet turbine engines and advanced design represented a revolutionary new technology, which would power the next generation of fighter and bomber aircraft. The tables had been suddenly turned against the Mosquito, and a number of them were lost before the war ended.
On May 28 1944, John and Benny were briefed to attack a heavy German gun on the coast of the Cherbourg Peninsula. This gun was supposed to cover the approach to Utah Beach on D-Day. Being well camouflaged, it was difficult to find. But when found, they were able to mark it, and it was straddled with armour piercing bombs from 100 Lancasters. After several direct hits, the casemate burst open and collapsed, so that it was just a heap of rubble on D-Day and no threat to the Americans.
After one more successful trip to the railway yard at Saumur, their tour ended and John and ‘Benny’ Goodman had flown together against Fortress Europe 38 times. But they would not fly together again. John had flown a total of 81 operations, the balance of the total in North Africa.
John was posted to No.1655 MTU (Mosquito Training Unit) at Warboys in July 1944, instructing on Oxfords and Halifaxes. Both John and ‘Benny’ were awarded a Bar to their DFC’s in October 1944, recognising their brave contribution to the war effort. The wording to this award stated of my uncle the following : –
“During his long and successful record of operations Flt Lt Hickox has attacked many of the most strongly defended targets in Germany and on numerous occasions his aircraft has been heavily engaged by enemy defenses. He has recently undertaken many hazardous sorties and has consistently displayed great ability and skill. His imperturbable coolness in dangerous situations has been highly commendable.”
John was then summoned to the Air Ministry and offered a job as an aide de-camp, a sort of ‘on the run’ organiser, for a senior officer. This was the way to promotion. But John declined the offer as he “just wanted to fly”. Staying mostly on the ground was not his way, promotion or no promotion. He was therefore sent to Hendon with No.510 Met.Com.(Metropolitan Communication) Squadron in November 1944, flying on Dominies (Dragon Rapides), Ansons, Hudsons, Lockheed 12A, and Dakotas. He was then posted to No.6 LFS (Lancaster Flying School) Ossington in November 1945, flying on Yorks and Dakotas.
On secondment to BOAC at Whitchurch in December 1945, John flew as navigator on Dakotas around the Mediterranean and West Africa. In April 1946, he was seconded to BEA based at Northolt, again on Dakotas, flying as navigator around Europe. But with the war over, and having seen the potential of civil aviation, John decided to leave the RAF and seek a future with civilian airlines.
During the war, John’s Commanding Officers wrote their comments in his logbook on his performance in the role of navigator. The C.O. of 15 O.T.U wrote in November 1941, when John was new to his trade: –
Average. A capable navigator who keeps a very neat log. There is room for improvement in his navigational ability, however.
The C.O. of No.70 Squadron wrote in July 1942: –
Above average. Has improved, is now a very good navigator but is inclined to be carefree on the ground.
The C.O. of No.627 Squadron wrote in July 1944: –
Exceptional. A thorough and extremely efficient navigator in Mosquitoes.
I am not sure whether the comment that John was carefree on the ground was much of a criticism, as it was surely better to be like that than continually worrying about one’s mortality. Such worry could undermine morale and job efficiency in a bomber crew, which had to work well as a team and, whilst the Mosquito had a crew of two, a Lancaster would have a typical crew of seven. If one member of the team was not working up to scratch, it would endanger the rest of the crew. In the Mosquito, the two crew were directly dependent on each other to carry out their mission successfully, and to avoid being shot down.
The Mosquito’s escape hatch was in the lower side of the cockpit. In an emergency, in favourable circumstances at high altitude, the two crew might have 45 seconds in which to escape. After disconnecting tubes, plugs and seat belts and jettisoning the hatch, the navigator had to clip on his chest parachute and manoeuvre his way through the hole where the hatch had been, which was scarcely big enough to get through even without a parachute. The pilot then followed him, wearing the parachute attached to his backside. John and Benny both failed to get out in time in a practice drill and decided it was best not to have to try. Luckily, they never had to leave their aircraft in a hurry.
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC summed up the bombing campaign as follows:
“If when the bomber offensive and the whole war is analysed, it is decided we had lifted the lid on Fortress Europe just enough to let the Allied armies in, then by God that was enough. And that is what we did do. The bomber offensive was absolutely necessary and we could never have won without it. I think people are beginning to come round to the idea that perhaps we did have to do what we did.”
Mosquito in Action (Parts 1 & 2) – Gp Capt. J.R.Goodman (dec’d),
Five of the Many – Steve Darlow
Flypast magazine 1986
Staff Magazine No.3 – Birmingham European Airways
Wartime Logbook of A.J.L.Hickox (dec’d)
Chris Goss – Author of a number of books about the Luftwaffe