The Airmen's Stories - P/O D M A Smythe
All operational aircrew during WW2 needed a lot of luck to survive the war and you needed even more if you flew as an Air Gunner in a Boulton Paul Defiant. This was an aircraft that was originally designed for defensive standing patrols over the UK but was forced into action as an interceptor alongside the Spitfire and Hurricane during the opening phases of the Battle of Britain.
Flight Lieutenant Derek Myles Altamont Smythe must have been blessed with that extra luck as he flew many sorties as an air gunner over a three year period with 264 Squadron, starting his service with 98 Squadron in the Battle of France during May and June 1940.
Born on the 26th June 1914, Derek Smythe joined the RAF on a direct commission as an air gunner on the 20th April 1940. He was at the time living in Paddington, London with his wife Julia O'Sullivan, whom he had married in June 1935.
The Defiant was known affectionally by its aircrew as 'The Daffy’. Designed by John Dudley North in 1937, it looked similar to a Hurricane and used the same Rolls Royce Merlin engine.
Just over 1000 Defiants were built, being outnumbered by 14,000 Hurricanes and 20,000 Spitfires, but its vulnerability as a day fighter meant that it would soon be relegated to the role of night-fighter. Its airspeed was 100mph slower than the German Me109 and with no forward firing guns it was completely defenceless against frontal attack. It had only four .303 inch Browning machine guns (each able to fire 600 rounds per gun) installed in an electrically operated 'ball turret' located behind the pilot. There was an insulated cut off in the turret ring preventing the guns destroying the propellor or tail.
It also had a blind spot beneath the tail, where enemy fighters could deliver a coup de grace. If in combat the aircraft's electrical system was damaged, the turret jammed in such a position as to render escape impossible. Many air gunners from the two squadrons equipped with this aircraft during the Battle of Britain, 141 and 264, were lost in this fashion, their turrets becoming instant coffins.
On 29th May 1940 264 Squadron claimed 37 ‘kills’ in two sorties, 19 Stuka's, nine Me110’s and eight Me109 fighters, along with a Ju88 bomber (although there is no corroboration of these claims shown in ‘Royal Air Force 1939/45’ Vol. 1).
By June it had already suffered heavy losses patrolling the beaches of Dunkirk during the Battle of France and would suffer a similar fate at the end of August 1940 being left with only three serviceable Defiants within a week.
Derek carried out his gunnery training on Battles, Demon, and Blenheim aircraft at No. 1 Air Armament School at Manby from 21st April to 12th May on course No. 9 lasting 25 hours, and was graded as 'a proficient air gunner' and promoted on the 20th April to Acting Pilot Officer.
On the 20th May Derek joined 'B' Flight of 98 Squadron, operating Fairey Battles. It had been part of the BEF since 16th April 1940, providing a training establishment for Fairey Battle crews and operational reserves at Nantes (Chateau Bougon) airfield in France.
His first operational flight, on the 20th April, was acting as rear gunner with P/O Shuttleworth flying Battle K9215 on a trip lasting 1 hour and twenty minutes. On this same day, in the afternoon, he also flew in the same aircraft with Sgt. Leslie Charles Allton, a pilot who would later take part in the Battle of Britain and would sadly lose his life on 19th October flying a Spitfire with 92 Squadron. Derek Smythe flew on six more occasions as a rear gunner in Battle aircraft over France.
By the last few days of May 1940, events began to take a turn for the worse in France with the German Army and Luftwaffe continuing with their 'Blitzkrieg', pushing the British and French land forces back to the beaches at Dunkirk.
'Operation Dynamo' was put into action and the defeated armies were evacuated by the Royal and Merchant Navy along with other 'little ships' back to the UK.
On the 1st June Acting Pilot Officer Smythe was flown back from France to England by P/O Shuttleworth in Battle K9452.
Meanwhile, any remaining aircraft of the RAF that were unable to return by air were destroyed on the airfields and the crews transported back via any ship they could find.
Sadly, seventy-five men of 98 Squadron were drowned and fifteen reported missing when their ship, the SS Lancastria, was bombed and sunk in the Channel on the afternoon of the 17th June.
On the 18th June Acting P/O Smythe was posted to No. 5 Operational Training Unit at Aston Down for further training as an air gunner, at first flying in Blenheims and then converting to Defiant aircraft by the 30th June 1940.
Having now completed 21 hours flying as an air gunner, he was posted to 264 Squadron under the command of S/Ldr. Philip Hunter at RAF Duxford on the 6th July 1940. He joined along with other air gunners P/O Freddy Sutton, P/O Roy Moore, P/O John Toombs and P/O William Ponting.
The squadron had gained the nickname of 'Hunters Circus' with the Officers Mess located on a nearby pig farm, their accommodation, in Nissen huts, being only about 3 yards from the pigsties.
Derek Smythe's first time in the air with 'B' Flight was on the 13th July in Defiant L7006, with P/O Hugh Percy as his pilot, whom he first flew with on the 19th June at Aston Down. Ironically the initials of their surnames would be identical to the squadron code carried on the aircraft - PS.
P/O Percy would become his regular pilot throughout the Battle of Britain, and right up until June 1942. P/O Percy was sadly killed on 22nd May 1944, when his parachute failed to open having been shot down over France whilst flying a Spitfire with 610 Squadron.
On the 15th July Percy and Smythe flew on an Interception Patrol in low cloud and heavy rain over Orfordness in L7026 but were unable to engage with any aircraft. On Thursday 18th July there was further cloud and showers over the Channel as they were flying L7025 on a Convoy Patrol, no enemy aircraft were engaged.
The following day in the same aircraft they patrolled over Harwich,again without seeing the enemy, whilst 9 Defiants of 141 Squadron were 'bounced' by 20 Me109's over Dover, resulting in 5 of the Defiants being shot down into the Channel.
From now on the Defiant would not be deployed solely as a fighter during daylight hours but would be used on convoy patrols and in a night fighting role, with the aircraft being repainted black.
The 21st July was a day for testing the guns of L7018, Smythe and Percy engaged in air to ground firing followed by a station move to Kirton-in-Lindsey on the 23rd, in order to give cover to the East coast convoys.
By now constant speed airscrews had been fitted to the aircraft in place of the old variable pitch ones which increased its performance. The squadron was soon honoured by a visit from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Chief of the Air Staff at the end of July.
The experienced aircrews of 264 used a technique called ‘the Lufberry ‘ to repel the Luftwaffe fighters, forming quickly into a circle and descending, so that the enemy aircraft could not fly in front or beneath them. This was a complicated manoeuvre that required skilled coordination and communication from the pilots, who were hampered by the unreliable HF radio transmitters that were not tuned to the VHF frequency of the Spitfires and Hurricanes.
On the 6th August Percy and Smythe were on Convoy Patrol in Defiant L7013, taking off at 1140 and returning at 1255, without any engagements with the Luftwaffe. The following day there was a similar patrol between 1550 and 1725, in L7025, when the east coast convoys were attacked, but again no interceptions were made by 'B' Flight.
An early morning ‘scramble’ by Smythe and Percy at 0700 on the 8th again proved fruitless.
On the 11th August Percy and Smythe were flying in L7027 when they were scrambled to intercept a Ju88 over Ringway, but they could not reach it quickly enough. Goering postponed his full scale attack of Operation Adlertag until the 13th August, due to the weather conditions.
Thursday 15th August started as a fine sunny day, but became known to the Luftwaffe as 'Black Thursday' when they lost 75 of their aircraft on this day to the RAF.
Luftflotte 5 based in Norway performed a flanking attack on the North East of England and in particular the bomber station at Driffield, where 16 enemy bombers with 7 fighter aircraft were lost in the combats that ensued.
Percy and Smythe were flying in L7024 on a very early morning patrol at 0640 hrs on this day but were also one of eleven Defiants sent up at 1300 hrs on a squadron patrol to cover Convoy Arena consisting of 28 ships that had sailed at midday from Hull, passing along the Channel.
Two days later they were on another convoy patrol, this time in L6957, with no contact being made with the Luftwaffe.
On the 22nd August the squadron were on readiness having moved to RAF Hornchurch the previous day. 12 Group were reluctant to lose a squadron from day operations and reassigned them to night operations only, but with no Aircraft Interception (AI ) radar installed in the Defiants this looked the likely outcome for 264.
Between 1920 and 2045 hrs Percy and Smythe were sent up in L7006, with nine other Defiants from 264 led by S/Ldr. Hunter on a patrol over RAF Manston on this day.
The airfield had been bombed just half an hour earlier by Me110's from Erprobungsgruppe 210 backed up with 27 Me109's, but no enemy aircraft were seen in the area searched by the Defiants.
Saturday 24th August is generally regarded as the third phase of the Battle of Britain which was the day that the Luftwaffe were ordered to destroy RAF Fighter Command once and for all.
This was a fine sunny day in Southern England, with breaking cloud, when the Luftwaffe sent over 170 raiders to bomb Manston, Hornchurch, North Weald, Dover, Ramsgate and Portsmouth.
First take off by 264 was at 0530 heading for Manston to re-fuel and patrol. Shortly before midday the scramble bell was rung but before they could form up properly the airfield was attacked by Ju88's and Me109's, destroying buildings, telephone lines and stationary aircraft, also leaving unexploded bombs on the runway. F/Lt. Campbell-Colquhoon was left behind with engine trouble but this was soon fixed and he joined what he thought at first to be the rest of the squadron, only to find they were Me109’s who fired several bursts at him, setting the Verey cartridges on fire. P/O G Robinson, his air gunner, eventually put out the fire.
A series of individual combats were then taking place overhead with Percy and Smythe taking part for over one and a half hours flying in L6967. Smythe remarks in his flying logbook 'Numerous HE113's attacked but they would not engage'.
The score for the morning was 3 Ju88's destroyed, one damaged and one He113 destroyed for the loss of four Defiants in combat with two colliding on take off.
The remaining crews returned to Hornchurch to snatch a hurried lunch before being ordered up again to meet another attack.
The Commanding Officer, S/Ldr. Hunter, was missing, having been last seen chasing a Ju88 towards France, and S/Ldr. George Garvin assumed command.
According to the Squadron ORB during the afternoon various combats took place, when 4 Ju88’s were destroyed,with two damaged, 1 He113 and Me109 destroyed with 6 Defiants destroyed or missing.
Just why the Defiants of 264 were sent up in force on this day has never been fully explained, as it was only a month previously that 141 Squadron was decimated and now 264 suffered the same fate with the loss of these six aircraft.
RAF losses in total were 22, with the Luftwaffe losing 38 on this day.
On the 25th August Percy and Smythe, flying in L7024, were among ten Defiants patrolling the Dover area between 1900 and 2015 hrs as a result of over 100 enemy aircraft being tracked over the Pas de Calais area.
Six fighter squadrons were immediately sent up by Keith Park, along with the Defiants to engage the enemy but no contact was reported by 264 and all aircraft landed safely.
On the 26th August a large raid of about 40 He111s and 12 Do17s accompanied by 80+ Me109’s crossed the coast north of Dover to raid Hornchurch, Debden and surrounding areas. The Hurricane and Spitfire Squadrons attacked the He111’s and accompanying fighters, whilst 264 were sent to engage with the Dorniers over Herne Bay, they eventually destroyed 6 of them for the loss of 3 Defiants. Percy and Smythe did not fly on this day.
On the 27th the squadron flew to Southend-on-Sea (Rochford) in order to operate more effectively.
The next day, Dover Chain High reported a heavy raid forming up in the Pas-de-Calais area and Keith Park immediately scrambled 32 Hurricanes and 12 Defiant aircraft to engage them.
This was to be the last daylight attack by 264 who suffered heavy losses of 4 Defiants destroyed and 3 badly damaged. From now on the squadron were tasked in the night fighter role only, with the occasional cover of convoys along the Channel. Percy and Smythe did not fly on this day.
In September the squadron moved again and was split between two airfields, 'A' Flight under F/Lt. Smith operated at Kirton, using Caistor as a satellite for night operations, whilst 'B' Flight, under F/Lt. SR Thomas was detached to Luton, an airfield often visited by the Luftwaffe who were now jamming our R/T.
Percy and Smythe flew their first night operational patrol with 'B' Flight on the 7th September between 0015 and 0145, followed by two days of night sector reconnaissance sorties. On the 12th September 'B' Flight flew to Northolt and for the next two days Percy and Smythe were engaged on patrolling the Northolt area from 15,000 feet.
On the 16th they flew on a night patrol over Maidenhead, followed by two days of night flying tests. On the 19th September 'B' Flight flew back to Luton.
On the 20th between 2000 and 2230 Percy and Smythe were on a night patrol when they lost R/T contact 30 minutes into the patrol and became lost, only finding their way home 'by absolute fluke' as recorded in Smythe's logbook.
On the 22nd between 2155 and 2340 they carried out a night patrol in Defiant L6979. After a four day rest, Percy and Smythe flew between 0210 and 0345 and on the 27th September between 0530 and 0620.
They were up again the next day with four other Defiants on a night patrol between 2045 and 2225, they did not engage any enemy aircraft on these patrols.
On the 3rd October Percy and Smythe were on a night patrol in Defiant N1627 from 0035 until 0220, followed by a similar patrol on the 10th in Defiant L7017 from 1930 until 2045, Smythe noting in his logbook 'out of radio range, landed with 4 galls in tank' .
Percy and Smythe undertook one more night patrol on the 15th between 0030 and 0310. On the 16th October P/O Des Hughes obtained the first confirmed night kill, a He111.
In November the squadron moved to Southend (RAF Rochford), Percy and Smythe undertook a night patrol of 1 hour 25 minutes on the 9th in Defiant N1623 and another in the same aircraft on the 23rd (P/O Hughes and Sgt. Gash destroying a He111 on this night). S/Ldr. ATD Sanders took command the next day.
Percy and Smythe made their last patrol in November on the 27th, on a night patrol between 0140 and 0320 in Defiant N1653. On this day the squadron moved again, this time to RAF Debden.
From the 12th December 1940 until the 5th January 1941 Smythe was posted to the Central Gunnery School at RAF Warmwell, for a short Gunnery Leaders Course, practising as an Air Gunner in Wellington and Hampden aircraft. By the end of 1940 the Squadron’s total score was 84 destroyed, one probably destroyed and 3 damaged for the loss of 30 Defiants.
On the 1st January the squadron were sent to Gravesend and were becoming known as 'the most moved Squadron'. On 17th January Smythe returned to 'B' Flight of 264 Squadron having moved again to RAF Biggin Hill, again linking up with F/O Percy as his pilot, taking part in night flying tests throughout January.
Their first night patrol was on the 15th February in Defiant P3313, Smythe noting in his logbook 'chased invisible bandit half way across Channel'. The next patrol was on the 23rd in Defiant S3369, Smythe noting 'sat over Boulogne at 22,000 feet getting pasted by our bombers'.
The month was uneventful, weather limiting activity on both sides of the Channel, with only 95 patrols flown.
During March Percy and Smythe flew night patrols on the 1st, 5th, 19th (Smythe noting 'bad Blitz on London' ) and finally on the 23rd April 1941 Percy and Smythe flew two night patrols from Biggin Hill and West Malling, all in Defiant N3365.
Only three night patrols were flown in Defiant N3365 during May, one as far as the 'north corner Northern Ireland ' as recorded in his logbook. On 2nd May the AOC 11 Group visited the squadron and presented it with its official crest of a Knights Helmet and the motto 'We Defy'.
June 1941 only had 116 patrols and was mainly taken up with night flying training and air firing, with Smythe shown as the second pilot on a works test flight of a Sunderland aircraft from Rochester on the 11th. Only five dusk patrols were undertaken by Percy and Smythe in Defiant N3365. British Movietone News visited the squadron and made a short newsreel for the cinemas.
July 1941 heralded a new type of operation, running alongside their usual night patrols for Percy and Smythe.
This was known as the 'Turbinlite-Havoc' operation, where a Douglas Havoc night fighter aircraft equipped with 2,700 million candela searchlight in its nose would illuminate attacking enemy bombers, hopefully to be shot down by the accompanying Defiants.
Percy and Smythe flew this type of patrol for the first time on the 6th July and were in the air for one hour and forty five minutes, flying similar patrols on the 11th and 23rd. Five more ‘Turbinlite Patrols’ were carried out throughout August flying from West Malling. During September 1941 four more of these patrols were undertaken as well as testing the new Mk.II Havoc.
In October four ‘Turbinlite Patrols’ were undertaken with Havocs along with further exercises in searchlight co-operation and night patrols. During November three night patrols were undertaken around Dover, with two 'Turbinlite Cooperation Patrols' and an exercise with the Home Guard, with just two patrols in December. Similar type patrols and exercises were undertaken in the early part of 1942, Smythe notes in his logbook that whilst over Dungeness in Kent on the 5th April they were attacked by Spitfires mistaking them for the enemy.
Smythe was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on the 14th May.
264 Squadron received Mosquito aircraft on the 3rd May and were declared operational by 30th June. The Mosquito had just two crew, a pilot and navigator, so air gunners were no longer needed.
In July 1942 Smythe was posted to another Defiant Squadron, originally numbered 515, which was later known as the Defiant Flight, a secret squadron operating out of Northolt.
Nine aircraft were fitted with special equipment known as ‘Moonshine’ and would fly out in an orbit ahead of the bomber formations in order to jam the German radar. Sholto Douglas became a keen advocate of Moonshine and had already written in May 1942 ‘I have come to the conclusion that it would be advisable to employ this device as soon as it is ready for operational use. It would be to our advantage to employ Moonshine at the first opportunity'.
Smythe now had a new pilot who he knew previously in 264, S/Ldr. Samuel Richard Thomas DFC, and on the 26th September both Thomas and Smythe flew to RAF Zeals in Wiltshire in order to participate in the attacks made against the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau battleships that were being repaired in Baltic ports. By the end of the year Smythe had completed 27 operations with the Flight, flying mainly with Thomas.
Between January and July 1943 Smythe completed another 30 operations with 515 Squadron, then operating out of RAF Hunsdon. On 21st August Smythe was posted to 307 Ferry Training Unit (FTU) at RAF Finmere in Buckinghamshire, in order to train in ferrying aircraft to northwest Africa. He flew Oxfords, Bostons and Bisleys. On the 3rd November Smythe took off from Silverston with F/Lt. Dunkerton, flying a Boston bound for Algeria via Gibraltar and arriving on the 13th.
On the 20th January 1944 Smythe was posted to 223 Squadron operating Baltimores from Celone, Italy (the squadron motto 'Wings Defend Africa') acting as the Gunnery Leader. His logbook details the following 47 operations flying in Baltimore T309:
4.2.44 Bombed factory at Cheiti (accurate flak)
16.2.44 Anzio beach head (flak inaccurate but dense)
22.2.44 Bombed Railway at Campeleone (flak)
7.3.44 Bombed Zagarold Railway Station (flak)
13.3.44 Bombed factory near Tivon for 8th Army (flak poor)
16.3.44 Bombed road junction at Guiliano for 8th Army (flak poor)
17.3.44 Bombed Frosinone Town
18.3.44 Bombed Yalmontone Town
22.3.44 Bombed Popoli Junction
27.3.44 Bombed Fabriano
29.3.44 Bombed railway tunnel west of Praetola
31.3.44 Bombed San Benedetto railway (flak poor)
3.4.44 Attacked Barracks at Macerata
7.4.44 Papigno Hydro-Electric Plant Terni
12.4.44 Narni Factory south east
15.4.44 Marshalling yards Farno
17.4.44 Ammunition Dump Spoleta
21.4.44 Ammo dump shores of Lake Trasomena
24.4.44 Marshalling yards Foligno
1.5.44 Torre Factory near Popoli
4.5.44 Factory and Bridge Torre
5.5.44 Factory at Orti north of Rome (flak)
11.5.44 Gun positions near Cassino (flak dense) PM -Ammo dump Loretto
13.5.44 Gun positions south Atina (medium flak)
15.5.44 Gun positions near Ponte Corvino (medium flak)
18.5.44 Gun positions near Ponte Corvino (medium flak)
3.6.44 Bombed harbour Split (heavy flak)
4.6.44 Railway bridge Torre
9.6.44 Bridge at Catollica (8th Army Front)
10.6.44 Bridge at Farno
14.6.44 Railway bridge Farno
16.6.44 Viaduct near Cagli
22.6.44 Rail bridge Frossembrone (heavy flak)
27.6.44 Rail bridge at Rimini
28.6.44 Marshalling yards Cesena
1.7.44 Road bridge Iesi
4.7.44 Railway near Imola
7.7.44 Harbour Porto Corsino
13.7.44 Ammo dump west of Florence (heavy flak, intense and very accurate)
15.7.44 Gun position SW Ancona (heavy-medium flak)
17.7.44 Gun positions SW Ancona ( flak heavy with rockets)
23.7.44 Wharf at Ravenna (heavy flak)
27.7.44 Railway yards at Lavezzola
31.7.44 Wharfs at Ravenna (heavy flak)
This was the final operation that Derek Smythe took part in during WW2, the squadron having flown more than 5,000 operational sorties and dropped more than 2,000 tons of bombs.
On the 11th August the commanding officer of 223 Squadron W/Cdr. Kenneth Frederick Mackie DFC* made a recommendation for a Distinguished Flying Cross to be awarded to Smythe.
Flight Lieutenant Smythe has now completed 160 operational sorties, totalling 334 operational hours during two tours of flying. In practice this has been over one long operational tour, instead of two, as he has had no rest period since he started operational flying in November 1940.
Between November 1940 and December 1943, F/Lt. Smythe carried out 113 operational sorties on Defiant night fighters with Fighter Command in the UK, and in January this year flew out to Italy, joining No 223 Squadron as my own gunner on Baltimore aircraft on the 20th January 1944.
During the six months he has flown with me he has had continual stomach trouble of varying intensity, but in spite of this he refused to go into hospital or to miss a single raid. He has flown with me as Leading Gunner of Squadron Formations on 33 occasions and of Second Boxes on seven, during a long period of strain and a changeover of Observer and W/Op air members of my crew.
He has been Gunnery Leader of this squadron during this period and by his drive, sound knowledge and expertise with Fighter Command has commanded the respect of the other gunners and has contributed to a marked degree towards their efficiency and high morale.
Although we have not encountered any enemy fighter opposition, as Leading Gunner he has directed me in evasive action against often severe Ack Ack fire with such coolness and skill that no aircraft has been lost when he has been leading.
By his personal example and continuous strict supervision of the gunnery side of this unit he has been an inspiration and an asset to all the aircrew.
Strongly recommended for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery, determination and devotion to duty over a long period of operational flying.
Then on the 12th August F/Lt. Smythe DFC started a journey in a DC-3 from Pescara to Cairo West via Naples and Malta, and on to the UK for a well earned rest.
On the 31st August the Commanding Officer of No. 3 Wing SAAF Lieutenant-Colonel O Galgut added his comments:-
Although F/Lt. Smythe has only completed 47 sorties whilst with No 223 Squadron, he previously completed 113 sorties in the UK. During his period of service with No 223 Squadron he flew as Leading Gunner on 33 occasions. He showed keenness, enthusiasm and devotion to duty far beyond average and the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross is strongly recommended.
The award was approved by Air Marshal GBA Baker CIC RAF MEDME and published in the London Gazette dated 14th November 1944.
From the 9th April 1945 to 3rd February 1946 Derek Smythe was attached to 45 Group Transport Command at Dorval in Canada, acting as Group Accidents Investigator, flying in mainly Dakota and Hudson aircraft, his logbook recording a final total of 1055 hours flying time.
He was released from the RAF in March 1946 and married again at Westminster in April 1952 to Patricia Day, both living at 59 Ladbroke Grove, London W11.
Derek Smythe died at Sleaford, Lincolnshire in December 1999 aged 85 years.
Above: Smythe's medal group and logbook.
Below: Smythe's Distinguished Flying Cross.
Simon Muggleton May 2017
With thanks to :-
Ken Wynn author ‘Men of the Battle of Britain’
Francis Mason author ‘Battle Over Britain’
Gorden Leith Librarian RAF Museum Hendon.
National Archives Kew.