Flight Lieutenant Tom Hughes
Flight Lieutenant Tom Hughes
Born: November 21st 1921, Rugby. Died: December 31st 2010 Age 89.
Flight Lieutenant Tom Hughes, was almost certainly the only member of the wartime RAF
to bail out of an enemy fighter – in his case a Messerschmitt Bf 109; later in the conflict (back in his Spitfire) he was shot down during the battle of Monte Cassino.
Hughes had flown to Gibraltar in late 1942 to test Spitfires that had been shipped to the airfield in crates. He then joined No 72 Squadron ahead of Operation Torch – the invasion of north-west Africa.
From January 1943 he was constantly in action, flying from desert airstrips in support of the British First Army as it advanced towards Tunisia. On March 2 the engine of his Spitfire failed and he had to crash-land. The next day a search party found him walking back to his lines and he was flying two days later.
After victory in the desert, No 72 moved to Malta in June in preparation for the invasion of Sicily. On July 5 his formation was escorting USAAF bombers when they encountered a large force of Axis fighters. In the ensuing melee Hughes thought he damaged a Messerschmitt Bf 109, though postwar analysis suggests that it probably crashed.
On July 12, two days after the Sicily landings, No 72 encountered another large mixed force of enemy fighters and bombers. Squadron pilots accounted for a number and Hughes was credited with destroying an Italian fighter-bomber.
When the squadron moved to the Sicilian airfield of Comiso, RAF pilots discovered a number of flyable Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. Hughes flew one against a Spitfire to compare their respective capabilities, but on another flight the German aircraft suffered an engine failure and he had to bail out. He ended up parachuting into a vineyard and, after convincing the locals that he was not a German, enjoyed their hospitality. Hughes thus had the unique distinction of qualifying for the Caterpillar Club having bailed out of an enemy aircraft.
The squadron then moved to the Italian mainland, where Spitfires operated in the ground attack role. Returning from a dive-bombing sortie supporting the troops attacking Monte Cassino, Hughes’s aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he crash-landed, suffering severe burns to his legs.
He was made a PoW and transported to Germany, where he was put into a hospital. Hughes later related that the patients on his ward were used by German staff as guinea pigs for drugs testing, and that some of them died.
But he managed to escape, he said, after a visit from a German general whom he managed to annoy by claiming: “I have flown both the Me 109 and the Spitfire and can confirm that the Spitfire is the better aircraft.” His insolence saw him transferred to solitary confinement, but he always said that his quip had saved his life by getting him removed from the hospital. Finally, six months before the end of the war, he was included in a prisoner exchange and returned home.
Thomas Bartley Hughes attended the school there as a day pupil. Aged 18 he joined the RAFVR and trained as a pilot.
After gaining his wings he became a flying instructor, once leading a formation of three Oxford aircraft under the two bridges across the Menai Straights. In September 1942 Hughes converted to the Spitfire and, after a few operations with No 611 Squadron, left for Gibraltar.
After the war Hughes went to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and completed his Mechanical Sciences Tripos in 1948. He went on to pursue a career in electronic design and engineering, working for AEI and Ronson.
For many years he was a member of the management committee of Matfen Hall – a Cheshire Home supporting the disabled. Leonard Cheshire wrote a forward to a collection of Hughes’s memoirs that were sold to raise funds for the Homes.
A staunch supporter of No 72 Squadron Association for many years, Hughes was thrilled in 2006 to be invited to be the reviewing officer for jet pilots graduating from the RAF’s No 1 Flying Training School, which had been granted the title of 72 Squadron.
A keen glider pilot, Hughes was a modest man who rarely spoke of his combat flying, or the injuries and imprisonment he endured.
He married, in 1949, Joan Harris, and she survives him.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.