Every year, the number of aircrew who served in the RAF during the Second World War sadly declines, and 2012 saw the passing of one wartime pilot who I came across when researching my book about David Maltby.
John (Tommy) Thompson was going through pilot training at the same time as David, and they met at the School of Air Navigation at Cranage in Cheshire. Tommy had a car and at one point, when they managed to scrounge enough petrol coupons, they shared a trip down south so that they could get home to their respective parents for a weekend’s leave. When I interviewed him in 2007, Tommy remembered that they put their navigation skills to the test on this trip, using charts from their course to compensate for the lack of signposts on the roads. They went on together to an Operational Training Unit at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, but their paths deviated at the end of this course with David being posted to final training on Hampdens and Tommy to Blenheims.
Tommy went onto operations with 18 Squadron, flying on a series of low level shipping strikes and high level Circus Raids along the Dutch and Belgian coastline until August 1941. The Blenheim squadrons suffered exceptional losses during this period.
He was then posted to Overseas Aircraft Departure Unit at Watton to collect new aircraft to ferry out to the Middle East Blenheim Unit. On 27 August 1941, on his way out to the Middle East, he suffered a forced landing at Aviero in Portugal, a neutral country. He had to land on the beach and then set fire to his plane, which was full of fuel in the outer wings and packed with incendiary devices in the fuselage. He escaped from Portugal with the assistance of the Royal Navy to Gibraltar and returned to the UK in October of that year.
He was then posted to the Test Flight at 13 Maintenance Unit at Henlow. During the rest of the war, he flew in various air gunnery schools, air sea rescue flights, maintenance units, glider delivery units and air transport auxiliary units.
After the war, he carried on flying, at one point as a civilian pilot for the Red Devils parachute team. In 1968 he joined Hawker Siddeley in Hatfield as Flight Operations Officer and visited many parts of the world including making several deliveries into China.
After he retired, Tommy spotted an advert in an aviation magazine from a young Portuguese journalist requesting information about planes and crews who had made forced landings in Portugal during the second World War. He was able to help the author by providing not only information on his own forced landing in August 1941, but also researching and answering many other questions. He was subsequently invited to Portugal to launch the book and awarded a pair of Portuguese Air Force wings in a special ceremony.
[Thanks to Tommy’s son, Roger Thompson, for the picture, and help with this article.]