Squadron Leader Tom McPhee D.F.C.
Squadron Leader Tom McPhee D.F.C.
Born: November 30th 1917, Greenock. Died: February 22nd 2009 Age: 91
Squadron Leader Tom McPhee, who has died aged 91, piloted one of the Mosquitos that flew on Operation Jericho, a daring low-level attack to breach the walls of Amiens prison to liberate members of the French Resistance who were due to be shot the next day.
During early 1944 news reached London that up to 120 prisoners were facing execution, some on February 19, and the RAF was ordered to attack the prison in an attempt to free them. Two days before the first executions 18 crews of No 140 Wing, commanded by Group Captain “Pick” Pickard (famous for his appearance in the 1941 documentary Target for Tonight), received their briefing.
They were shown a replica model of the prison, and told to fly as low as 25ft. The aim was to drop delay-fused bombs to blow two holes in the walls, while a second group would open up the ends of the cruciform-shaped prison and destroy the German quarters. It was to this second task that McPhee and his navigator were assigned.
The weather on the day was appalling, but it was decided that the attack must go ahead. The 18 Mosquito bombers took off in blizzard conditions at 11am to rendezvous with their fighter escort. Three bombers were forced to turn back, but the leading section from No 487 (RNZAF) Squadron attacked the north and east walls successfully, and a few minutes later McPhee and his fellow pilots of No 464 (RAAF) Squadron attacked the prison, blowing the ends off the main building.
The attacks were of pinpoint accuracy, and a third wave of aircraft was not required, but was ordered to return to base. Whilst circling to observe the results, Pickard was shot down by a German fighter – he and his long-serving navigator, Bill Broadley, were killed.
Casualties in the prison were high, with 102 prisoners killed by the bombing or by German machine-gun fire; 50 German staff were also killed. But 258 prisoners managed to escape, including 12 of those who were due to be shot the following day.
Among those who remained at large was Raymond Vivant, a key leader of the Resistance who had been captured a few days earlier and was awaiting interrogation. Five days after the attack, a message was received in London from the French Resistance which read: “I thank you in the name of my comrades for bombardment of the prison.” A post-war analysis of the operation concluded: “The attack on Amiens prison will remain one of the RAF’s epics.”
Thomas McPhee was born at Greenock on November 30 1917 and educated at Preston Technical College. He began his working life as a draughtsman at Vauxhall Motors in Luton, but joined the RAF to train as a pilot in September 1938. His younger brother, James, also joined the RAF, and flew Hurricane fighters during the Battle of Britain.
McPhee joined No 139 Squadron at the end of 1940 to fly Blenheims on daylight bombing attacks. They encountered fierce anti-aircraft fire, and casualties on the Blenheim squadrons were high. He attacked the port facilities at Rotterdam, Boulogne and Calais, and during a shipping sweep over the North Sea he sank two small ships.
In early 1941 formations of six Blenheims, with a strong fighter escort, were sent to bomb airfields in northern France with the aim of enticing German fighters to join combat with the RAF escorts. McPhee flew on a number of these operations and bombed German occupied airfields at St Omer and Abbeville.
On April 7 he and his crew flew in tight formation with the squadron commander to attack the Ijmuiden steel works in daylight. The two aircraft met intense enemy fire, but McPhee maintained his position and the target was bombed from 50ft. On leaving the area his aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter, which damaged one of the Blenheim’s engines. The enemy pursued him half way across the North Sea before McPhee was able to shake it off. He returned to base and made an emergency landing.
McPhee was awarded an immediate DFM, and a comrade recalled: “We congratulated him, but he was visibly annoyed that his crew – who had been on all his sorties – were neglected and not mentioned.”
On May 27 McPhee flew his 40th, and final, sortie on No 139 when, still a sergeant, he led eight aircraft to attack the airfield at Lannion, near Brest. He delivered his attack from 50ft, scoring a direct hit on a hangar.
He was then commissioned and, after a rest tour as an instructor, in December 1943 he and his close friend and permanent navigator, Geoff Atkins, joined No 464 Squadron. They flew night intruder attacks against German airfields, and in February 1944 started to bomb the V-1 launching sites and storage depots in the Pas de Calais. By April No 464 had begun attacking road and rail targets in preparation for the Normandy landings.
On the night of June 5 – as the Allied invasion force crossed the English Channel – McPhee took off to attack enemy convoys and railway junctions near the beachhead, and the following night he flew two sorties against motor transports and railways. Throughout June he undertook numerous night missions strafing and bombing trains and railway installations to prevent enemy reinforcements reaching Normandy.
By the end of June McPhee had completed 72 operations. He was awarded an immediate DFC for his “high standard of leadership and outstanding devotion to duty”. He continued to fly on non-operational duties for the rest of the war, and was released from the RAF in December 1945, when he received the Air Efficiency Award.
After the war, McPhee returned to being a draughtsman. He worked for de Havilland Aircraft Company before moving to Bristol to work for Rolls-Royce until he retired.
He maintained a close friendship with his navigator and his Blenheim air gunner, both of whom attended his golden wedding celebrations. He was an accomplished self-taught artist, and he had a wide knowledge and appreciation of fine wines.
Tom McPhee, who died on February 22, married, in 1941, Elvina Duncan. She died in 2007, and he is survived by their two daughters.
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.