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The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. R T Holmes

 

Raymond Towers Holmes was born on 20th August 1914 at Wallasey, Cheshire and was educated at Wallasey and Calday Grange School. He was working as a journalist when he joined the RAFVR in February 1937 as an Airman u/t Pilot.

He began his flying training at 12 E&RFTS Prestwick.


He later flew at 7 E&RFTS Desford and 17 E&RFTS Barton. Called up at the outbreak of war, Holmes was posted to 4 ITW Bexhill on 29th October 1939. He went to 5 FTS Sealand on 9th December and whilst there he was court-martialled and severely reprimanded for low flying.

With his training completed, he joined 504 Squadron at Wick on 18th June 1940.


The squadron moved south to Hendon on 5th September and on the 15th Holmes was one of the pilots involved in shooting down a Do17 over Central London, probably the best-known German casualty in the Battle of Britain.

The Dornier, F1+FH werk nr. 2361 of 1./KG76, had taken off from Beauvais-Tille at 10am and joined a formation heading at 15,000 ft for central London. After crossing the coastline near Dungeness an engine started to malfunction and the aircraft dropped behind the main force. Once over London it came under concentrated attack from Hurricanes of 310 (Czech) Squadron.

The observer, Uffz. Hans Goschenhofer and gunner, Uffz. Gustav Hubel, were killed and the pilot, Oblt. Robert Zehbe, ordered the remaining crew, Ogefr. Ludwig Armbruster and Uffz. Leo Hammermeister, to bale out.

Zehbe then set the aircraft on auto-pilot and baled out himself.

As the unmanned aircraft flew over Central London Holmes came across it and turned for a head-on attack. However pressing the gun-button produced no response, he had run out of ammunition. Unaware that the Dornier was unmanned, he made a split-second decision to try and slice off its tail with his port wing. This succeeded and the Dornier went into a violent spin. The resulting g-forces caused the bomb load to be ejected (part of which fell on Buckingham Palace) and the wings outboard of the engines to be torn off (photo below).

 

 

The main section fell on Victoria Station with parts coming down on the station forecourt in Wilton Road (photos below).

 

 

 

 

 

The damage resulting from the collision caused loss of control in Holmes's Hurricane, it too went into a spin and he baled out, landing on an apartment block close to the railway lines. His parachute caught on some guttering and he was suspended with his feet resting on a dustbin.

He was taken to see the water-filled crater where his aircraft lay then on to Chelsea Barracks where he was entertained in the mess before returning to Hendon later that day.

He later said 'There was no time to weigh up the situation. The Dornier looked so flimsy, I didn't think of it as solid and substantial. I just went on and hit it for six. I thought my aircraft would cut right through it, not allowing for the fact that his plane was as strong as mine'.

Zehbe landed in Kennington near the Oval Cricket Ground and was suspended in his parachute from some cables. The attacks on London were now a week old and feelings were running high, regrettably he was set upon by an angry mob, including several women armed with pokers and kitchen knives. Zehbe was rescued by the Home Guard and driven away but died of his wounds the next day.

The Hurricane had dived vertically into the middle of the crossroads where Buckingham Palace Road meets Pimlico Road and Ebury Bridge Road. The tremendous impact punched a large hole in the road into which the majority of the aircraft disappeared (photo below).

 

 

Above: the incident depicted by artist Geoff Nutkins.

 


It was excavated in 2004 and the engine and other parts were recovered (see below).

Holmes had damaged another Do17 earlier on 15th September 1940.


On 26th September 504 Squadron moved to Filton and on 16th October Holmes and F/O BEG White took off on an interception sortie and were later diverted to Cardiff because of fog. They had breakfast there with Amy Johnson and returned to Filton later in the day.


Holmes was commissioned in June 1941. In late July 'A' Flight of 504 was re-numbered 81 Squadron and posted to Leconfield, where the personnel, Holmes included, were kitted out for an unknown destination.

They flew to Abbotsinch in Harrows and embarked for Russia on the carrier HMS Argus, which carried crated Hurricanes. On 1st September the squadron flew off in sixes for Vaenga airfield, near Murmansk.

Holmes destroyed a Me109 on 26th September.

 

Above: in Russia, (L to R): unknown, Sgt. BM Bush, F/Lt. AH Rook, unknown, P/O JMcL Edmiston, Holmes

 

Operations were flown until mid-November when pilots of the squadron began converting Russian pilots on to Hurricanes. 81 Squadron left Russia on 29th November, leaving all equipment behind, and returned in HMS Kenya, landing at Rosyth on 6th December 1941.

The squadron went to Turnhouse, where it received Spitfire Vbs in January 1942 and was operational again on 1st February.

On 1st March Holmes was posted to 2 FIS Montrose for an instructors course, after which he joined the staff at 5(P) AFU at Ternhill. He returned to 2 FIS on 17th September 1942 as an instructor and stayed with the unit until mid-November 1944.


After a short spell with 309 Squadron at Andrews Field in early 1945, Holmes joined 541 Squadron at Benson, a Spitfire photographic-reconnaissance unit.


He became a Kings Messenger for Winston Churchill, when he was preparing for the Potsdam Conference, flying mail between London and Biarritz, and Berlin and London when he was at Potsdam.

Holmes left the squadron at the end of August and was released from the RAF on 4th October 1945 as a Flight Lieutenant. He worked again as a journalist.


He was the subject of a television documentary in 2005. He was made a Freeman of the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, Cheshire on 24th January that year.

His memoir 'Sky Spy' was published in 1989 (ISBN 1 85310 844 8).

Holmes died on 27th June 2005.


An apartment block, built in 2006 in Wirral, was named Holmes Court in his memory.

 

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In 2004 the remains of the Hurricane were excavated. The picture below shows Ray Holmes reunited with the Hurricane's control column which he last held 64 years ago. Centre is the recovery organiser Christopher Bennett.

Appropriately the brass firing button was still set to 'FIRE'. It was very fortunate that this significant item was recovered, otherwise there was very little cockpit material remaining.

 

 

 

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