The Airmen’s Stories – Sgt. F Sumner
|Frank Sumner was born in South London on 12th October 1902 and in February 1919 at the age of sixteen he decided to join the Royal Air Force as a Boy Recruit earning just 9d (3.5p) a day.
In October 1922 Frank was sent to the RAF’s Armament and Gunnery School at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey for ground and air instruction on the main ‘tool’ for a 1920’s air-gunner – the World War One 0.303 inch air cooled Lewis machine-gun. Frank proved to be worthy material for an air-gunner and was awarded a brass ‘Winged Bullet’, which he then proudly wore upon the right sleeve of his RAF tunic.
On the 6th of September 1939 Frank was sent to RAF Church Fenton near York to join No.64 Squadron. His initial rank and trade was as a Leading Aircraftsman ACH. But soon he was earmarked for air-gunner duties once more in a ‘slightly’ more modern type of Bristol aeroplane to that he had known before, along with a new ‘tool’ of the trade – a Vickers 0.303 inch, gas-operated ‘K’ gun.
The first flight in which Frank flew as a squadron air-gunner occurred on the 6th of December. “Standing Patrol – Uneventful” became the most regular entry in the No.64 Squadron Operations Record Book during the opening months of what became the ‘Phoney War’, as they were given the unenviable task with their Blenheims to carry out coastal patrols and convoy protection duties along England’s North Eastern coastline.
The winter of 1939-1940 was very severe indeed and that notwithstanding, No.64 Squadron were detached north in mid-December to the airfield of Evanton in Scotland, situated by the Cromarty Firth. Generally the same duties continued unabated along the coastline, but their main task during this detachment was to provide fighter protection to the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy along with occasional forays westwards for patrols over Loch Ewe. The Squadron returned to Church Fenton in mid-January 1940 and continued on daylight patrols and sporadic night sorties, but still nothing particularly eventful happened with the Blenheims except for an infrequent dramatic forced-landing, or a tragic crash with the sad loss of crewmembers lives. To the relief of the pilots at least, came news that the Squadron were to convert to the best that the RAF could offer in the form of Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires.
However this change would make the air-gunners redundant, so Frank was posted on 20th May 1940 to No.23 Squadron at RAF Wittering that were also operating ‘fighter’ Blenheims, but in the hazardous task of night-fighting. On the 18th the Squadron scored its first night successes with the destruction of two Luftwaffe Heinkel He111 bombers. But the cost was high as two aircrew died in the loss of a pair of Blenheims with another damaged. These ‘kills’ proved to be the last for the Squadron that summer, as their aircraft were evidently not very well suited to the task of interception.
Despite the poor performance of the Blenheim as a ‘fighter’, the Squadron still had a key role to play in the Battle of Britain that followed, not least in maintaining a presence in the air at night and also carrying out co-operation tasks for the Anti-aircraft and Searchlight defences along with ‘RDF Runs’ for the ground radar. Likewise as during his time on No.64 Squadron, Frank flew with a number of different pilots of No.23 Squadron throughout the Battle of Britain period.
One important factor contributing to the unsuitability of the Blenheim as a night-fighter was its speed, for the two Bristol Mercury engines fitted to the aircraft did not have sufficient power to easily gain upon any enemy intruder located in the night skies. This did not stop the crews “Giving it a go” however. As for example, it is recorded that on the night of the 30th of August, Flt/Sgt Penford and the newly promoted Sergeant Sumner “Chased 5 bandits, but with no luck” By this time and into September the woeful speed of the Blenheim was further reduced when the newly developed but primitive airborne interception (AI) radar was fitted into most of the Squadron aircraft, which also necessitated a third crewmember, that of the radar operator being taken aloft as well. With night raids on the increase over mainland Britain, No.23 Squadron were moved further south on the 12th of September, with ‘A’ Flight being based at RAF Middle Wallop and ‘B’ Flight at the ex-Admiralty airfield(HMS Peregrine) at Ford near Littlehampton. As Bristol Beaufighters came into service with other night-fighter squadrons and proved to be a far more capable aircraft than the Blenheim, No.23 Squadron were selected to be re-tasked for Intruder work with new American built Boston Havocs.
New aircraft and new offensive roles for Fighter Command was going to create a surplus of air-gunners, but conversely Bomber Command was beginning to undergo greater expansion and had need of experienced air-gunners. The majority of the air-gunners on No.23 Squadron were given the option to retrain as radar operators, but staring for hours on end at a cathode ray tube was not everyone’s cup of tea, so Frank soon found himself at a Bomber Command Operational Training Unit (OTU) for conversion into a ‘Bomber Boy’.
In November 1940 he arrived at No.15 OTU at RAF Harwell in Oxfordshire to learn to be a tail-gunner in the Vickers Wellington bomber, and how to the operate the Fraser Nash gun turret armed with two 0.303 inch Browning machine-guns. The following month Frank was posted to No.142 Squadron at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire who had just exchanged their obsolete Fairey Battle light bombers for the Wellington MkII powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Frank was crewed up in the aircraft of the Squadron Commander, a pre-war pilot by the name of Wing Commander William Sadler, a graduate of the RAF Staff College at Cranwell. Pilot Officer George Bull was the 2nd pilot (‘2nd Dickie’). By the end of April 1941 the Squadron was up to full strength, and were soon to carry out their first operation as part of the growing Bomber Offensive aiming to strike hard at the enemy. The first bombing sortie Frank embarked upon took place on the evening of the 3rd of May for an attack on Rotterdam in Holland aboard Wellington W5440 QT-Q. Loaded with 8 x 250 lb General Purpose bombs and 2 x Small Bomb Carriers, the Squadron ORB states, “Target bombed and bursts seen in target area“.
Returning safe from this short trip, the summer months of nocturnal raids would prove somewhat more of a challenge in terms of stamina and outwitting the growing threat from German air and ground defences. W/Cdr Sadler soon took up a post at the Air Ministry which saw P/O Bull made Captain, and so a new ‘2nd Dickie’ by the name of Sgt James Pattison was slotted into the team.Through the summer months they returned unscathed from raids deep inside Germany to major cities like Bremen, Cologne, Duisberg, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Rostock, Stettin, Vegesack and the ‘Big One’ Berlin. European ports and harbours were also on their list of targets and attacks were made on Antwerp, Brest and Lorient.
With some two-dozen bombing trips under his belt Frank was close to completing his tour of 30 ‘ops’, but it was well known through bitter experience that the odds of anyone completing a tour in a bomber were quite low and getting lower still. In September 1941 it was learnt that the Squadron was going to receive a new mark of ‘Wimpy’ the MkIV, powered by American Pratt & Whitney engines. This version would also have a new variation of the Fraser Nash tail turret and so with Frank being one of the most experienced air-gunners on the Squadron, he was detailed to report to Parnell’s in Bristol who were subcontracted to make the turrets. It was his job to familiarise himself with the new turret so that he could instruct his fellow tail-gunners once the aircraft had arrived at Binbrook. Thus on the 23rd of September Frank made his way down to Bristol whilst the Squadron and ‘his’ crew prepared to carry out more raids on Germany. [Apart from P/O Bull and Sgt Pattison the other crewmembers consisted of the observer Maurice Jacoby and the two wireless operator/air-gunners Thomas Harrower and John Parkin respectively. Frank’s position was taken by F/O John Ferris.]
Upon his return to Binbrook the following week, Frank was told some devastating news – his crew had not returned from a raid to Hamburg on the previous evening of the 30th and were listed as missing, and sadly it would later be learned via the Red Cross that they were never going to be coming back home again. During October and early November of 1941, 142 Squadron began to receive and get to grips with their new Wellingtons and it was during the latter month that the Squadron moved to RAF Grimsby. Frank’s new replacement crew after the tragic event of late September consisted entirely of Sergeant’s and on the 30th of November seven aircraft of 142 Squadron took off on their first bombing operation from Grimsby, the target on this night being Hamburg.
In Wellington Z1292, Sgt Alexander Gilmour (Captain), Sgt John Lucking (2nd Pilot), Sgt William Lewis (Observer), Sgt John Saunders (W/Op A/G), Sgt Jesse Butterworth (Front A/G) and Flt/Sgt Frank Sumner (Tail A/G) left the runway at 17:57 hours with their bombload consisting of 540 x 4 lb incendiaries, 1 x 500 lb GP and 1 x 250 lb GP bombs.
Two of the Squadron aircraft failed to return from this mission, one of which was Z1292. The Squadron ORB simply states, “This aircraft failed to return. No W/T communication at all“.
Sometime later news came through via the German authorities that the crew of a Wellington, which had been shot down by German Naval Artillery (coastal flak) near Kiel had been recovered and buried at the local Garrison Cemetery. It was after the war in Europe had finished that Frank’s body was exhumed and identified and then laid to rest in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Kiel – one of ‘The Few’ amongst nearly nine hundred other brave men whose combined sacrifice we must never allow to be forgotten.
Dean Sumner (nephew of the above): July 2005.