The German Biber midget submarine – part one; Biber 90 at IWM London 1946

Richard Maddox

IT MUST HAVE BEEN AN EERIE SCENE that confronted Royal Navy minesweeper HMS Ready, on 29 December 1944 off Northforeland, a promontory on the Kent coast of southern England.

The boat from HMS Ready nears the German Biber submarine. Image © IWM (A 28249).

A hawser is rigged from HMS Ready, so that the submarine can be taken in tow. Image © IWM (A 28249)

The ship had gone to investigate what was thought to be a marker buoy drifting out of position. Instead the crew found a small grey painted German submarine slowly sinking, the waves lapping against its steel hull.

The minesweeper probably watched and waited adding to the silence. On the ship’s bridge, binoculars scanned the winter sea and sky.

The submarine was a ‘Biber’ (‘Beaver’ in English) class midget submarine. Length just 29.5 feet (9m) long with a crew of one. On her conning tower was the pennant number ‘90’.

The sole crewman (or ‘pilot’) would turn out to be Joachim Langsdorff, son of Kapitän zur See (Captain) Hans Lansdorf who while in command of the damaged German cruiser KMS Admiral Graf Spee had scuttled the ship in the River Plate off Montevideo in far-away Uruguay in December 1939.

A boat launched from the British ship. Warily it approached the German vessel and a line was attached.

But there was nothing to fear. Joachim Langsdorff was dead at the controls. He had died of carbon monoxide poisoning sometime after setting out from Hellovoetsluis in the Netherlands.

Slowly HMS Ready towed the tiny submarine the fifty miles to Dover Harbour.

Once there the submarine sank near the harbour entrance.

Not to be cheated of their prize it was later raised by the Royal Navy and with other captured and abandoned Biber boats – including Biber No. 105 now at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport Hampshire – minutely examined and documented. (2)

During extensive trials Biber No. 90 was found to be unsafe and was modified to make it safe for the men (chiefly Lieutenant Commander Arthur Connuch Halliday RN a very experienced submariner) (3) who tested it.

Even so, with at least one report of the vessel catching fire because of an electrical fault (4) – Halliday claimed replacement uniform items after his were damaged (5) – working with the vessels, even on dry land was always a potentially hazardous venture.

Langsdoff’s vessel was one of 324 Biber submarines operated by the nine flotillas of the Kleinkampfverbände der Kriegsmarine (the German Navy’s Small Battle units). (6) He had set sail on 27 December, two days before his vessel was found. Of the 14 that were prepared for patrol, eleven were destroyed with the remaining failing to return. (7)

Besides midget submarines, the unit also operated fast boats equipped with high explosives as well as combat divers. Their targets were – unsurprisingly – shipping supplying the allied armies pushing across Europe and transport structures such as canals and bridges.

The Biber’s design was apparently influenced by that of British Welman boats – a specialist midget submarine designed to be operated by Britain’s Special Operations Executive.

Although the use of Welman boats was abandoned by the British after a single unsuccessful mission when a boat was captured intact by German forces on 21 November 1943 in the Norwegian port of Bergen, Kreigsmarine Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commander) Hans Bartels saw the potential for a German low-cost and easy to operate submarine – the Biber was born.

In February 1944 a prototype was constructed by the Flenderwerke shipyard at Lübeck in northern Germany and undertook initial trials on 29 March 1944, much of which was carried out by Bartels on the River Trave in Schleswig – Holstein.

In all some 324 units were delivered in seven batches during 1944. (8) Operational vessels were organised into nine flotillas under Bartels’ command to form Lehrkommando 250. This unit was self-contained and responsible for training crews and for operational deployment. (9)

The first mission was to attack shipping supplying the Allied Invasion beaches and submarines were launched from Fécamp in northern France on 21 August 1944. (10)

The centre section of Biber No.90 looking forward showing one of the batteries in place. Image © IWM (A 27777)

The German submarine was built in three sections – the forward buoyancy tank, the crew compartment and the rear section that contained both the power plant and the rear buoyancy tank. The sections were bolted together with watertight seals to protect the operator. It was armed with either mines or G7e electric powered torpedoes – which it could only fire once on the surface.

Although designed to be easy to operate, the pilots – many from non-naval units like the SS – needed to be trained and although the programme was designed to be some eight weeks long, the initial group of submariners were trained in just three weeks.

Within the submarine everything was reduced to a bare minimum.

A view of the sail or conning tower of Langdorff’s submarine after it had been raised from Dover Harbour. Note the compass projector, periscope and snorkel air intake masts. The size of the entry hatch is approximately 18 inches (45 centimetres) in diameter with the scuttle or ‘window’ being around 15 inches or 35 centimetres. Image © IWM (A 28253)

With only a single crewman and operations lasting up to two days, handling the submarine and conditions aboard could be very difficult. With no trimming tanks and diving planes manoeuvring underwater was difficult. Because of its small size it was a ‘fair weather’ boat – able to operate only in relative calm waters.

A technical evaluation report in the IWM Archives on the Biber submarine dated 27 March 1946 (11) contains a detailed summary of the submarine’s technical capability.

The small conning tower was made of aluminium and projected 15 inches (381mm) above the hull. The vessel was entered through a circular hatch with a glass scuttle (window) in the top. This was secured by three simple hand clips and a rubber seal. The tower also had a small running light.

Although there was a magnetic compass mounted in a bowl near the periscope, it was found that this was not steady enough for accurate navigation, as the compass was affected by movement of the hull.

The 4 foot 6 inch (1.2 metre) periscope had a fixed magnification of 1.5 times and was clear – at least when dived – and was fitted with cross hairs and a bearing indicator to enable torpedo attacks to be launched.

However the periscope could only be turned to see about a quarter of the horizon.

The pilot had to be awake throughout the mission and had a special chocolate ration fortified with caffeine and other stimulants as well as an experimental drug known as D1-X (12) (13)

Some pilots suffered from claustrophobia, some from violent sea-sickness and of course there were no ‘heads’ aboard meaning that all bodily waste had to be disposed of overboard when – and if – possible.

The rear compartment of a captured ‘Biber’ showing the Opel vehicle petrol engine. Image © IWM (A 27775)

But the real problem was the choice of the main power plant. Submarines at this time made extensive use of diesel engines for surface running with a battery-driven 13 horse-power electric motor for manoeuvring beneath the waves.

The Biber used the readily available and proven petrol engine from an Opel ‘Blitz’ lorry to propel the boat on the surface and to charge the electric motor’s batteries.

The main engine not only heated the crew compartment but also gave off poisonous carbon monoxide gas – so much so that running the engine for 45 minutes or more built up dangerous levels of the gas.

Pilots were equipped with oxygen apparatus but this supply only lasted for twenty hours – often less than half of that of a typical mission.

The rear of the Biber No.90’s conning tower with the cracked rear armoured scuttle. Note what appears to be a hole in the pipe on the right of the image (to the right of the hair on the original negative) as well as possible heat damage forward of the pipe’s connection to the large dark shape in the centre of the image.  Many of the original parts were redesigned and fabricated in Royal Navy workshops to enable the submarine to be tested safely. A report on these tests found that the Biber class of vessels were succumbing to ‘numerous defects’ as ‘the direct result of poor material or detail in design’. It went on to conclude that ‘There is no doubt that the Biber is a layout and production of very low calibre and must be intended as a “one-shot” weapon’. Image © IWM (A 28254)


Although the cause of Langsdoff’s death can be explained, there is still a mystery surrounding a message in a bottle found under his seat.

An ‘official report’  (since lost) apparently states that there was ‘a bottle hidden under the seat and inside was a document in English which, romantic as it read, appeared to have some bearing upon the capture of the submarine and possibly the explanation of why the pilot met his end’. (14)

Because of this, there is speculation that suicide may have played a part in Langsdoff’s death. (15)

Langsdorff’s submarine on display prior to the Imperial War Museum reopening to visitors after the Second World War in November 1946. Note that the periscope assembly is not fitted to the submarine. Although the hull of Biber 90 was transferred to Imperial War Museum in April 1946, the periscope assembly was not sent to the museum until September of that year. Image © IWM (D 29422)

Biber no. 90 submarine with masts fitted and a single G7E 21 inch (53 cm) electric torpedo as fitted when the vessel was first captured. Although the submarine is no longer at IWM London an example of the torpedo can be found in the Second World War gallery. Image © IWM (MAR 558). Original Source:



(1) – retrieved 10 September 2017

(2) ‘The German Biber Submarine’ by James Bullen, Imperial War Museum Review No. 4 (pages 79-86) Published by The Trustees of the Imperial War Museum (1989). ISBN 0-901627-5-26

(3) – retrieved 10 September 2017

 (4) German Midget Submarine – Biber type, Report of trials carried out on Clyde area; risk to personnel prohibits completion of trials. Report dated 25 April 1945 detailing a petrol vapour explosion that occurred on 22 April.

Following a previous breakdown the submarine had been repaired and Halliday was sitting in the vessel. He had operated the engine starter when an electrical spark caused the explosion that damaged his clothing and caused him to receive minor burns to his face and head. Another man Able Seaman Hastings who was standing nearby also received minor flash burns to his face.

According to the same report Halliday was expected to be off duty for about a week while Hastings returned to duty the nexy day.

File reference: ADM 1/18151, UK National Archives. File consulted 7 September 2017.

(5) Private papers of Lieutenant Commander A C Halliday RN. IWM Catalogue reference: Documents 1460 – consulted 18 September 2017.

(6) – retrieved 10 September 2017.

(7) – retrieved 10 September 2017.

(8) – retrieved 10 September 2017.

(9) – retrieved 10 September 2017.

(10) – retrieved 10 September 2017.

(11)Private papers of Lieutenant Commander A C Halliday RN. Op. cit.

(12) – retrieved 11 September 2017.

(13)  – retrieved 8 January 2018.

(14) – retrieved 11 September 2017.

(15) – post 22. Retrieved 10 September 2017.



The IWM Sound Archives contains an oral interview with Klaus Rudolf Georg Goetsch who served aboard the heavy cruiser KMS Prinz Eugen in 1943 before transferring to the Kleinkampverbande in 1944.

Image of the main Biber controls: – retrieved 8 January 2018

A variety of Biber submarines are preserved. See the links below for details: – retrieved 8 January 2018 – retrieved 8 January 2018– retrieved 8 January 2018– retrieved 8 January 2018 – retrieved 8 January 2018


Olga and (some of) her ‘sisters’ – Reindeer from the Soviets


AS MANY PEOPLE KNOW, the story of ‘Olga’ the reindeer and her stay on HMS Belfast (one of three IWM sites in London and the largest exhibit in the IWM collection) is not a happy one.

‘Olga’ was a gift from Russian Northern Fleet Commander – in – Chief Admiral Arseniy Golovko to a Royal Navy counterpart, Admiral Robert Burnett, Flag Officer 10 Cruiser Squadron.

The animal was being carried aboard his Flag Ship, HMS Belfast when the British cruiser was involved in the sinking of the German battleship KMS Scharnhorst on 26 December 1943.

Housed in one of the former seaplane hangars on the ship – the Supermarine ‘Walrus’ aircraft of HMS Belfast Flight, 700 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air had been removed earlier in the year as advances in radar had made them redundant – the reindeer was driven insane by the noise, smells and vibrations of the battle.

Unable to be calmed ‘Olga’ had to be dispatched by the ship’s butcher and his assistant. (1)

large_Supermarine Walrus aircraft being unfolded on the flight deck of the EDINBURGH preparatory to flight_© IWM A 5026A

Although not taken on HMS Belfast (but the similar Town class cruiser HMS Edinburgh) this picture gives an idea of the size of the Supermarine Walrus aircraft and the hangar that accommodated it. As can be seen the wings were folded and the aircraft entered the hangar on a handling trolley. Image © IWM catalogue reference A 5026.

But ‘Olga’ wasn’t the only reindeer to be sent as a gift to Britain – or the only one from Admiral Golovko.

There was ‘Pollyanna’; a reindeer who spent six weeks with fifty six British sailors… on HMS Trident… a ‘T’- class submarine (2).

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, HMS Trident (pennant number N-52) was based at Polyarny near Murmansk in the Arctic Circle during the latter months of 1941.

The boat’s task was to promote closer working practices with the Soviet navy and to aggressively patrol the area between North Cape and Varanger Fjord. By so doing they would not only be attacking German supply routes but also diverting German naval resources away from British convoys suppling Russian forces via Murmansk. (3)


Commander G M Sladen, DSO, DSC, RN, Captain of HMS Trident (left) in conversation with Captain H M C Ionides, RN, Captain S3, after the submarine’s arrival alongside the Depot ship HMS Forth. Image © IWM catalogue reference A 7936.

On their last evening in the port before returning home Commander Geoffrey Mainwaring Sladen, DSO, DSC, RN was being dined by a Russian admiral.

In his speech to the assembled officers Sladen apparently mentioned that his wife was having difficulty manoeuvring their baby’s pram in the winter snow of his home town.

The Russian admiral – who is unnamed in accounts – is supposed to have remarked that what was needed was a reindeer.

According to a letter in a copy of the ‘New Scientist’ (dated 3 January 1957) (4) as the submarine was making ready to leave, two crates arrived on the quay, addressed to Commander Sladen, compliments of his Russian host from the night before.

Inside one crate was a large quantity of local fresh moss.

The other contained a young reindeer.

A submarine about to leave on a long voyage is a place with little empty space.

Food and other supplies are everywhere.

No doubt a little confused and at a slight loss as to how to cope with the gifts, Commander Sladen ordered the gifts taken aboard the submarine through the torpedo loading hatch on the main deck. According to the letter she was put into the ‘heads’ – the boat’s toilet – apparently as the reindeer was somewhat incontinent.

Each night the submarine would run on the surface for a short period to recharge its batteries.

During this time the hatch would be left open to give the crew fresh air and feed the diesel engines that powered the vessel on the surface as well as charging the batteries for the electric motors Trident used beneath the waves.

When this happened the reindeer would be allowed out to share the fresh cool air.

Instead of proceeding home HMS Trident went to another patrol area and the moss ran out leading to the crew feeding ‘Pollyanna’ scraps and it was apparently with difficulty that the officers  were able to stop the animal being fed things such as ‘chocolate and cigarette ends – a diet that could have proved fatal’ (5).

Nevertheless on arrival in the UK it was found that the animal had put on so much weight that she had to be trussed up to enable her to be fit through the torpedo loading hatch.

Once ashore she was sent to Regent’s Park Zoo in London where she lived out her days, ironically dying within days of HMS Trident being decommissioned in 1947.

Furthermore another ‘T’ – class boat (HMS Tigris, N-63) brought another reindeer to Britain.

Little information is available but it was apparently called ‘Minsk’ and was a gift to Admiral Sir Richard Bevan, Senior British Officer, North Russia and commander of the Royal Naval contingent at Polyano. (6)

After arrival in Britain it went to Whipsnade Zoo, north of London.

Lieutenant Commander D J Foster RN (retired) who had served aboard the submarine made reference ‘Minsk’ in a short letter to the ‘Telegraph’ newspaper in 2002. (7)

In early November yet another reindeer was gifted by another Soviet Admiral.

This time the donor was Admiral Nikolay Kuznetsov, Minister for the Soviet Navy and Naval Air Arm and it was No. 151 Wing, the RAF contingent defending Murmansk that had the honour of receiving it – one that did not last long as the three month old animal (named ‘Droochok’ or ‘Little Friend’) died a fortnight later (8).

large_NO 151 wingA

Hawker Hurricane Mark IIB, Z3977 ‘FN-55’, of ‘B’ Flight, No. 81 Squadron RAF, No. 151 Wing (Force BENEDICT) at readiness at Vaenga airfield, near Murmansk, Russia. Image © IWM catalogue reference CR 36. The aircraft suffered minor damage as a result of an attack on the airfield on 6 October 1941. (9)

In contrast to the story of ‘Minsk’, there are many stories concerning ‘Pollyanna’s’ antics including that she had the run of the submarine, slept in the Captain’s cabin and more. (10) (11)

Undoubtedly some of these stories are true. But how many?

Clearly the animal would have been in a very unfamiliar environment and at times, all most certainly very frightened.

And apparently reindeer can bite hard!

Another ‘Olga’ is the subject of a number of pictures taken by Lieutenant F A Hudson RN (an accomplished photographer) in the online IWM Collection. Confusingly this animal was also a gift from Admiral Golovko in December 1943.

This ‘other Olga’ arrived at the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow having made the journey on board the heavy cruiser HMS Kent. (12) *


‘Olga’, Admiral Sir Lionel Wells, his wife Lady Aline and Petty Officer A E Dowdswell shortly after the animals arrival at Scapa Flow. Image © IWM reference A 20919.

 According to the captions on the IWM images ‘Olga’ was met by Sir Lionel Wells and his wife Aline on arrival, the animal having been transferred to a landing craft in the company of her ‘keeper’ Petty Officer Dowdswell RN who was from Westminster, London.

At some point Olga was presented to Edinburgh Zoo.

No doubt Petty Officer Dowdswell was pleased to return to his regular duties.


Sources and further information





(5) ibid



(8) ‘Force Benedict’ by Eric Carter with Antony Loveless (2014) Hodder and Stoughton, page 229





* Some sources also state that the reindeer’s journey was made partly aboard HMS London and partly on HMS Kent. However according to HMS London returned to Scapa Flow in November 1943 and then was under refit from the end of that month until April 1944.








The finding of Australian Submarine AE1 – more than a century after it sank



HMAS AE1 underway on the surface. Image © IWM. Catalogue reference: Q 74848


September 14 1914 saw the loss of AE1 – a British designed and built ‘E’ class submarine and the first submersible for Australia’s navy.

Built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness between 1911 and 1913, the vessel was commissioned in February at Portsmouth, England.  HMAS AE1 set off in March of that year on the long trip to Sydney, Australia, together with the similarly designed HMAS AE2.

Arriving 24 May 1914, the boat had completed the longest voyage by a submarine ever at that time. Albeit that most of the voyage was on the surface it was never the less a great source of pride for the Royal Australian Navy,(1) its title having been officially recognised by King George V on 10 July 1911(2), a decade after Australia became a self-governing federation(3).

With war declared the two Australian boats set about the capture of Germany’s Pacific colonies, including the surrender of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, to the east of New Guinea on September 13 1914.

The following day AE1 rendezvoused with the destroyer HMAS Parramatta and then proceeded to Cape Gazelle.

At around 09:00 the submarine was ordered to a new patrol point and to anchor with the destroyer at Herbertshohe (the German name for what is now Kokopo, New Guinea) at 17:30.

Visibility varied between five and ten nautical miles because of haze and HMAS Parramatta subsequently reported that submarine was obscured by the mists and the commander of the destroyer thought it advisable to maintain visible contact with the submarine for as long as possible.

Five hours later at 14:30 the two vessels were in signal contact with the submarine asking for a report on the visibility in the immediate area.

An hour later the destroyer lost sight of the submarine and decided to investigate further. When nothing was found it was decided that the boat had returned to harbour and the Parramatta proceeded with its ordered task of anchoring at Herbertshohe.

With the destroyer anchored as order ed and the submarine now overdue a search was made to find AE1. No distress call had been received.

Despite an extensive search nothing was found at the time and the loss of the submarine with all thirty five crew was the first major tragedy in the history of the Royal Australian Navy and the first loss of an Australian naval vessel.


Lieutenant Charles Lewis Moore. RN one of three Royal Naval officers aboard AE1 when the vessel was lost. Image © IWM. Catalogue reference: HU 125835

The crew included three officers from the Royal Navy and Cyril Lefroy Baker, the boat’s  telegraphist and the first man from Tasmania to die in the First World War.(4) (5)

Several searches were carried since the vessel went missing but none could locate the wreck.

On 21 December 2017 –  almost 104 years after AE1 disappeared – the Australian government announced that the mystery of the submarine’s final resting place had been solved.

An underwater search which began on 17 December and funded by the Australian government and the Silentworld Foundation and assisted by the Submarine Institute of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum, Fugro Survey N V, the government of Papua New Guinea and Find AE1 Limited a not for profit organisation established to finding the wreck, managed to  locate the submarine in 300 metres (985 foot) of water off Duke of York Islands, a group of islands in St George’s Channel, Papua New Guinea.

There are said to be more than twenty shipwrecks in the area

With the Australian government attempting to find descendants of the 35 Australian and British crew members, talks were beginning with the Papua New Guinea government regarding a lasting memorial for the site.

However, how the submarine met its end remains a mystery.

The fin or conning tower structure is separated from the main body of the boat and the absence of oil at the time of the sinking suggest that the vessel sank intact and not as the result of an explosion.

Sources and further information








‘Tirpitz the Pig’ and the bears and lions at the Royal Navy zoo on Whale Island.



TO MANY HMS EXCELLENT ON WHALE ISLAND near Portsmouth on Britain’s south coast will always be associated with training Royal Navy gunners and the home of the Portsmouth Field Gun Crew who competed at the Royal Tournament in London against teams from Devonport and the Fleet Air Arm until the Tournament ceased in 1999.

Although other units have also shared ‘Whaley’, few have been as usual as Royal Navy zoo based there between 1893 and 1940.

The zoo was started as a place where official gifts of animals presented to ships or adopted as mascots (as well as probably a number of exotic pets that outgrew their welcome in sailor’s homes) could be housed and live out their days. (1)

In May 1940 it was decided that with war progressing, and the likelihood of the adjacent naval base being bombed it should be closed.

Today the site of the zoo is a garden and there is a small cemetery that gives an indication of the variety of animals and birds housed there, including ‘Barbara’ a polar bear who was there at some point during the Second World War.



‘Barbara’, a polar bear at the Royal Navy’s zoo at Whale Island greeting old shipmates. Note the sailors dark topped caps and their gas respirator haversacks over their shoulders © IWM Catalogue reference: HU 45273


The bear was (according to the caption on the IWM online collection) rescued from an ice floe off Greenland by a ‘cruiser’ although it does not identify the ship or when the bear was rescued. (2)

Also there is ‘Jack’ a parrot that had arrived after a cyclone in Samoa in 1889 and lived for three decades in the zoo.

Besides the remains of ‘Barbara’, the cemetery contains those of another polar bear (‘Nicholas’), a pair of sun bears from tropical forests of East Asia (‘Henry’ and ‘Alice’) as well as lionesses ‘Topsy’ and ‘Lorna’.

Despite protests, these and other animals were all dispatched by armed sailors in May 1940 as there were fears that if the area were bombed the frightened animals may cause havoc in Portsmouth.

Leslie Bailey a Fleet Air Arm observer mentions briefly in an IWM oral history interview available online about his training at HMS Excellent in February 1940 that it was possible to hear the animals as one passed by the main gate and that there was a lion that roared at night.

He continues ‘I know because it used to frighten me to death when I went past the gate!’ (3)

What happened to another lioness called ‘Lola’ (who gave birth at the zoo to three cubs around July 1936) (4) is not known although it may be that ‘Topsy’ and ‘Lorna’ were two of her cubs.

large_Tirpitz_© IWM (Q 47559)

‘Tirpitz’ onboard HMS Glasgow around 1916.
Image: © IWM Catalogue reference: Q 47559


‘Tirpitz’ the Pig’ was also at the zoo after being rescued by British sailors serving on HMS Glasgow after the ship sank the German cruiser SMS Dresden during the Battle of Más a Tierra in Chilean waters on 14 March 1915.

But ‘Tirpitz’ was trouble – at least for some of the residents at the zoo, where it caused havoc amongst the smaller animals by stealing their food and smashing its quarters up.

The pig was sent to John Luce (the former captain of HMS Glasgow who had been promoted to Commodore and was busy developing a naval aviation flying school at Cranwell in Lincolnshire) and although history does not recall what his thoughts were on being reacquainted with this former ship mate, ‘Tirpitz’ was put up for sale.

The pig was bought by William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland.

He paid 400 guineas (£420) for the animal in December 1917, the money going to the British Red Cross and the Agricultural Relief of Allies’ Fund of which the Duke was President.

Two months later he himself put ‘Tirpitz’ up for sale and the animal made 800 guineas for the two charities, with the Duke of Portland buying back the pig!

On Monday 5 August 1918 ‘Tirpitz’ was once more put up for sale by the Duke and this time raised another £550. (5)


 ‘A horrid name – even for a pig’


As an added incentive he said that he would change the name of the pig to ‘Beatty’ (after British Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Beatty), as ‘Tirpitz’ was ‘a horrid name – even for a pig’, if the animal raised more than £500. (6)

When in 1919 the inevitable occurred and the pig died, the Duke had the pig’s head preserved and mounted and then donated it to the Imperial War Museum where it was exhibited when the museum was housed at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in South London.


Mounted head of ‘Tirpitz the Pig’. Image: © IWM. Catalogue reference: EPH 9032. Original Source:

After a period of restoration and conservation, it was displayed in the First World War Galleries at Imperial War Museum London when they opened in 2014. (7) (8)



(1) – retrieved 12 December 2017

(2) – retrieved 12 December 2017

(3) – retrieved 12 December 2017
Reel two, approximately 27 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording.

(4) – retrieved 12 December 2017

(5) – retrieved 12 December 2017

(6)The Sheffield Telegraph’ newspaper, 7 August 1918

(7) – retrieved 12 December 2017

(8) – retrieved 12 December 2017

Have you tried turning it off and then back on again?


THE NIGHT OF 2/3 DECEMBER 1942 and the RAF is using ‘TINSEL’ for the first time.

As you might expect, this is not a way of making their aircraft pretty or of sharing festive greetings with the German people.

In this context TINSEL was a communications jammer – a microphone fitted inside one of the four engine nacelles or ‘pods’ on a ‘heavy’ RAF bomber like the Avro Lancasters on display at IWM Duxford, the RAF Museum and IWM London where the forward fuselage section of Lancaster DV732 in on display.

Both this aircraft and the RAF Museum’s example (R5868, PO-S ‘Sugar’ credited with 137 operational sorties) flew with No. 467 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force.

Image: The forward fuselage section of IWM London’s Avro Lancaster BIII. The aircraft flew with No. 467 Squadron RAAF as PO-F ‘Freddie the Fox’ and completed 45 operations over Europe. Dominant to the left is the radio operator’s position with the 1154/1155 radio transmitter/reciever equipment. © R Maddox 2017.

When the bomber’s radio operator heard German speech he – and literally hundreds of other radio operators on the other aircraft in the bomber stream – could transmit the sound of one of the 12 cylinder, 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin engine directly to the Luftwaffe Night Fighter Control station on the ground.

The resulting noise could interfere with that German controller’s instructions to the fighters he and his team were guiding to attack the RAF aircraft.

It didn’t always completely drown out the conversation – the Germans just increased the power of their signal to reduce the interference.

Image: A close-up of the radio transmitter in the IWM Lancaster. The painted legend referring to ‘Tinsel’ below the red switch can just be seen. © R Maddox 2017.

But often, as each of up to a thousand wireless operators were doing the same thing the process masked bits of it – making it very frustrating for both the Luftwaffe fighter crews and their ground controllers.

And of course this frustration could lead to mistakes that could benefit the RAF crew…

But like all things in the technological battleground, one side’s advantage doesn’t last for long.

Late-war translations of Luftwaffe records of RAF prisoner interrogations (held at the UK National Archives in Kew, England) show that the Germans knew what TINSEL was.


Selective image from an RAF SIB (Special Investigations Branch of the RAF Police) report of a translated German interrogation of a captured RAF aircrew member. The Sergeant’s identity has been removed from this image by me to protect his identity. Image from a document at the National Archives UK.


From a practical point of view, German aircrew soon realised that if they switched off their communications and then switched them on again (similar to a computer reboot) there was often a gap of a few seconds before the RAF radio operators found them again and the jamming resumed.

And sometimes in those few seconds there was enough information from their controllers for the hunters to find their prey.

The German Cross of Honour for the German Mother award, 1938 – 1944


BEING A MUSEUM OF SOCIAL HISTORY looking at the experience of British and Commonwealth nations in times of conflict from World War One onwards, IWM’s collection is vast and diverse.

And of course there are always some surprises.

Take for instance the enamelled award below, part of the IWM’s collection.

Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter (First Class) Image © R Maddox 2017.

Officially named the Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter (the Cross of Honour for the German Mother) or more simply the Mutterkreuz or Mother’s Cross, it was instituted by Adolf Hitler on 16 December 1938 (the rear of the award shows this date and a facsimile of the Fuhrer’s signature) (1) as part of a campaign to increase the birth rate following the deaths in the First World War and the Influenza pandemic at the end of the conflict.

The rear of the same award. Image © R Maddox 2017.

The medal was conferred in three separate classes or grades and awarded on the basis of how many children a woman had given raised.

  • Gold Cross: First Class Award, bestowed on eligible mothers with eight or more children
  • Silver Cross: Second Class Award, awarded to eligible mothers with six or seven children
  • Bronze Cross: Third Class Award, for eligible mothers with four to five children

But the medal wasn’t just for becoming pregnant and successfully giving birth.

It directly supported the three ‘Ks’ of German society in the 1930s; Kinder (children), Kirche (church) and Küche (kitchen) (2) – all of which were considered important and had a great impact on the lives of women at the time.

There were strict conditions that were attached to the award that had to be satisfied by lengthy and through bureaucratic investigation by local government agencies and the police.

For example, the mother and her husband had to be ‘deutschblütig’; that is of ‘pure’ German bloodline or ancestry (under German law at the time this phrase also included both sets of grandparents of the new baby) and a signed affidavit had to be produced to this effect.

The parents also had to be physically and mentally fit and not alcohol or drug dependent.

The mother had to be ‘honourable’ and ‘worthy’ of the decoration. She had to be able to prove no evidence of prostitution, marital infidelity, having intimate relationships that were contrary to the race laws at the time or unlawful abortion.

She (and her husband) had not to have been in prison and be able to prove that they were not having children to avoid work or attempting to live solely on state child benefit or have behaved in any way that could question their moral standing and reputation.

If she or her family failed to meet the criteria they risked being seen as dysfunctional and ultimately a risk to and burden on the state.

Having the award granted privileges.

A German national newspaper stated in 1938 that ‘…the holder of the Mother’s Cross of Honour will in future enjoy all types of privileges that we by nature have accustomed to our nation’s honoured comrades and our injured war veterans.’ (3)

In practice this meant that award holders could get better rations, have priority for seats on public transport and practical local help to assist with the care of the children. Members of German youth groups were required to salute the wearer of the award and greet her in a respectful manner.

Once awarded, the mother still had to behave appropriately. If she neglected her children or behaved in a way that was contrary to the criteria of the award it could be revoked.

There was also provision that Adolf Hitler would become a godfather to the tenth child in any eligible family (4).

Interestingly given the at times quasi-religious ceremonies of German National Socialist and Workers Party the colours of the medal and ribbon are seen in some quarters as a nod to the traditional colours that the Mary, the Mother of Christ is often depicted wearing (5).

It is estimated that some 4.7 million awards were issued between its inception in 1938 and 1944 when the awards ceased (6).  The first award ceremony was held on 12 August 1938 as Hitler’s mother (Klara) mother was born on that day in 1860 (7).


More information and sources:



(3) The Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer) national newspaper (1938 Issue No. 25) stated (English translation of the original German text) : “…the holder of the Mother’s Cross of Honour will in future enjoy all types of privileges that we by nature have accustomed to our nation’s honoured comrades and our injured war veterans.”

(4) (5)



A Stirling effort: a crew from No. 622 Squadron, RAF debrief following a raid to Berlin, 22-23 November 1943. But why is the female RAF Intelligence officer out of the picture?


ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1941-1945. (CH 11640). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

THE TWO IMAGES shown here are from the online IWM Collection and were taken by Pilot Officer A Goodchild (an official RAF photographer) on the same night and at the same place.

They show two Short Stirling bomber crews being debriefed by two Intelligence Officers, one male and one female on the results of their mission.

Except that in the published image you would not have seen the female officer.

So why  has the official censor (or the picture editor of the publication the image was to be used in) decided to crop out the WRAF Intelligence Officer conducting the debrief as well as the two other airmen (one hidden behind her)?

Given that the Stirling was manned by a crew of seven, there are two men missing from the suggested cropped image, one to the left of the WRAF and another (difficult to see) behind her head and all those seated could conceivably be from the same crew with the airman leaning in being from another.

The caption which accompanies this image is long and detailed with the Squadron number, the date of the raid to Berlin, the RAF Station the crew have returned to (Mildenhall), the number of aircraft  that took off (764) and names of just the five airman to the right of the vertical line as well as some information about their ultimate fate.

As the material is available from the IWM Collections website I have focused on just the names of those depicted in the main part of the photograph. The man leaning in and three others in the background are not named on the caption.

… Seated left to right are: Pilot Office R J Brown (captain), Sergeant W Brodie (flight engineer), Sergeant F Forde (wireless operator/air gunner), Flight Sergeant P Harwood (bomb aimer) and Sergeant F E Tidmas (navigator). With the exception of Harwood, all were to perish over Berlin on the night of 30/31 January 1944 in an Avro Lancaster of the Squadron.

The caption for the second image (also taken by Goodchild on the same night at the same debrief) shows and names all the seven crew as well as the (male) Intelligence Officer ,

This too is part of the online IWM Collection. It has the same introductory information in its caption as the previous image and again I have focused on the names of those central to the image. What happened to the crew is not specified,

THE STRATEGIC BOMBING OF GERMANY, 1942-1945 (CH 11641).  Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

The relevant part of the caption reads:

Those shown are (left to right): Flight Lieutenant R D Mackay (navigator), Flying Officer G Dunbar (interrogating officer), Sergeant J Towns (rear gunner, partly hidden by Dunbar), Pilot Officer K Pollard (wireless operator), Flight Sergeant C Stevenson (second pilot, standing), Squadron Leader J Martin (captain and flight commander), Sergeant W Rigby (mid-upper gunner), Flying Officer Grainger (bomb aimer) and Sergeant H Fletching (flight engineer).

According to historian Martin Middlebrook (1), Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, having been briefed on ‘near perfect’ conditions for the attackers ordered a ‘maximum effort’ raid on Berlin.

Seven hundred and sixty four aircraft took off for the raid, the greatest number sent to Berlin at this point in the war.

Only No. 617 Squadron (by now recognised as a specialist bomber squadron and two De Havilland Mosquito squadron equipped with OBOE, (specialist bombing guidance equipment) were exempt from the order to fly that night.

The raid would be led by Pathfinder aircraft equipped with an air-to-ground radar to enable them to ‘see’ through smoke and cloud to the target below and mark it with flares for the main bomber force.

Of the aircraft taking part fifty would be Short Stirlings, the first of the four-engined bombers to enter RAF service but now out performed by newer designs.

Twelve of these returned early to base with mechanical problems without bombing, meaning that although the overall loss rate of 3.4% of the total number of aircraft despatched, the loss rate for the slower and lower – flying aircraft was appreciably higher.

This was the last time Stirlings were sent to bomb Germany.

Very heavy cloud on the way to and over Berlin grounded the Luftwaffe night fighters and stopped searchlight illuminating the bombers for the German guns.

Despite the weather, the raid was seen as perhaps the most effective of all those on the German capital .

During the 22 minutes scheduled for the attack, aircraft were to bomb the target at a rate of 34 a minute, starting at 19:58.

Around 2000 people were killed on the ground that night, including 500 when a public air raid shelter at Wilmersdorf was destroyed.(2)

So to return to the original question, why was the female officer removed?

I  have no definite answer.

By this time the general public in the warring countries knew that women were serving in the armed forces in a variety of roles.

Although away from the front line, these roles – particularly in a naval dockyard, air force station or headquarters building –  all carried the threat of death or injury to some extent.

If it was to protect her identity for some reason the film negative could have been destroyed with nobody any wiser or the photographer (a servicing RAF officer presumably used to giving and receiving orders) simply told not to take it.

And there we have it – another unanswered mystery…



(1) The Berlin Raids R.A.F Bomber Command Winter 1943 – 44 Martin Middlebrook (1990)

(2) The RAF Pathfinders Martyn Chorlton (2012)

The Unassuming Accountant – Flying Officer John Gillies, RAF


This is the final of a three-part post about Sir Harold Gillies and written by IWM London volunteers Dr. Jess Pocock and myself, with Jess writing the first in the series.

The companion pieces are ‘The Surgeon’ and ‘The Patient’.

ON 23 MAY 1940 FATE DEALT A CRUEL BLOW as it had done so often before and would continue to do so.

Pilot Officer John Arthur Gillies of No. 92 Squadron RAF failed to return from a patrol over the French coast at 17:00. The initial cryptic signal received by the RAF’s Casualty Section just before midnight on 24 May attributed the loss to enemy action. He was the eldest son of the eminent plastic surgeon Sir Harold Delf Gilles.

It also stated that ‘Gillies was missing (believed killed)’ (1). Telegrams were then sent to his wife Ellen in Liverpool (they had married in February 1940) and his father in Hampstead.

In view of the importance of Sir Harold’s work with the RAF a Group Captain Powers had asked to be informed of any developments in John’s case – presumably to act as a support for the family.

By June 14 it was clear that John was a Prisoner of War.

An international Red Cross telegram had been received listing him and nine other airmen as being at Dulag Luft, (Durschgangslager der Luftwaffe – Luftwaffe Transit Camp)  – the Luftwaffe’s aircrew reception and interrogation centre to which all captured airmen were sent before continuing on to a prisoner of war camp (2).

The telegram ends with the words ‘Tous Bien’ – all is well.

While he was at Dulag Luft he became a member of the camp’s Permanent British Staff and became was Cookhouse Officer (3).

John, a chartered accountant by profession who had served with No. 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force before the war, would be imprisoned until its end, returning home after his prison camp was liberated.

On 17 May 1945, with the Victory in Europe celebrations more than a week old and the imminent end to the war in Europe in sight, his father made enquiries as to when his son would arrive home.

He left a message that a Squadron Leader Byrne (4) at No. 106 Personnel Resettlement Centre (one of three centres set up for returning liberated prisoners of war at this time) could contact him with details of his son’s arrival. Byrne had also been imprisoned in Stalag Luft III before being repatriated in 1944 (5).

But of course there were many things to be done before John was truly home. Like all former prisoners of war he had to provide the authorities with details of his experiences as a captive.

He was asked to complete at least two questionnaires – one from P4 Casualty Branch who were attempting to find and identify missing airmen and another from MI 9 a department of Military Intelligence established to help evading airmen return to the UK by supporting resistance networks in Occupied Europe.

His P4 Casualty questionnaire is attached to his casualty file (6).

Completed around 21 June 1945 it bears only his neatly written name, rank and serial number, together with the number of his squadron and the date of his capture. Details of his aircraft, where he was captured and other information are left blank.

With the war in Europe over, MI9 (and its sub-division Intelligence School 9 – IS 9 (7)) were interested in the former prisoner’s experience of capture and subsequent imprisonment. They were concerned with securing the prosecution of enemy personnel who had maltreatment prisoners or indeed allied prisoners who may have collaborated as well as recognising those individuals who had helped aided Allied airmen.

On 23 May 1945 he completed his Liberated POW Questionnaire. Here too he wrote little – but showed an accountant’s mind for detail and exactitude.

Although not specifically asked to do so, he gave his prisoner of war number (626), disclosed that he had been with No. 604 Squadron, was uncertain of his date of enlistment (‘approx. April 1932 in R.A.F.O. class A.A. (ii)’) and that he was interrogated at Dulag Luft in June 1940.

All other questions about his experience as a prisoner of war are crossed through, answered with ‘NO’ or both.

And at the end he signed a neat signature and the date (8).

AT THIS POINT I MUST ADMIT TO BE A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED with my research. Having made up my mind that there was nothing more to be found, for some strange reason I turned the page over.

Why I don’t know. But I did. And what I did made interesting reading.

I turned the page to find another with two testimonials, one from Group Captain Richard Kellett, RAF, the Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft III and the second from Wing Commander Harry Day.


The then Wing Commander Richard Kellett RAF Commanding Officer of No. 149 Squadron RAF at RAF Mildenhall, Cambridgeshire. Image © IWM C439.

Kellett was flying as a second pilot on Vickers Wellington bomber on 18 December 1939 when the aircraft was shot down. His was one of nine aircraft lost from the force of twenty four. A further six ditched in the sea or make emergency landings at other airfields. He managed to evade capture for a week in September 1942 before he was caught (9).

The Citation for the award of his Distinguished Flying Cross in January 1940 (awarded for leading the attack in December 1939) notes that “… by his personal example and cool leadership he won the confidence of all pilots under him (10).

His testimonial to Gillies’ work reads:

‘… From its inception he was responsible for the coding and decoding of messages to and from home. For the last 3 years he was in sole charge in East Camp Luft III for this particular work, Involving all special letter writing and wireless messages, training and supervision of operators and the security of the whole system.

He notes that because of his immense work load Gillies was ‘practically precluded from indulging in any personal interests and that over this period he wrote nearly 200 letters introducing and modifying codes as necessary. He did all this without a break from his duties and without the Germans discovering his activities.


The testimonials of Group Captain Kellet and Wing Commander Day on the back of John Gillies’ POW Questionnaire contained in file WO 399/114/1. Image © R Maddox 2017.

Originally a Royal Marines officer Harry Arbuthnot Melville Day transferred to the Fleet Air Arm in 1924. During the First World War he won an Albert Medal (the equivalent of the George Cross) for saving two trapped men on HMS Britannia when the ship was torpedoed off Cape Trafalgar in November 1918 – just two days before the Armistice. He then joined the RAF in 1930 (11) (12).

Known as ‘Wings’ Day he was the first British officer imprisoned at Dulag Luft, having been shot down when his Bristol Blenheim reconnaissance aircraft (was attacked by Luftwaffe fighter aircraft on Friday 13 October 1939.

Although he and his fellow crew members Sergeant Eric Hillier (the observer) and AC2 Frederick Moller (the wireless operator/air gunner) all managed to leave the stricken aircraft, Day – who was also the newly appointed Commanding Officer of No. 57 Squadron and was forty years old at the time – was the sole survivor, receiving burns to his hands and face (13).

Whilst in captivity he was made Senior British Officer at Dulag Luft. He used his position to build a relationship with senior German personnel to win them over and thus gain intelligence insights which he sent back to London. He would also debrief newly arrived prisoners on the interrogation methods they were subjected to and their general welfare. In addition he started writing coded letters after being shown by a fellow prisoner

So successful was he in building these relationships that other prisoners genuinely suspected him of collaborating and reported their suspicions after the war (14).

Day was awarded a DSO and an OBE in December 1945 (15).

His testimony reads: ‘His duties as camp Accountant Officer i/c Coding were most painstaking and arduous, and at no time was it necessary to even check over his work, and he carried  them [all his duties] out with good temper and great ability(16).

Further research informed me that a third of each officer’s pay was diverted to the Communal Fund used to pay for a variety of things from furniture to bills for damages, additional rations from the German canteen as well as items needed by the camp’s Escape Committee (17).

This fund was administered by Gillies after he took over the post from a Flight Lieutenant R G Stark RNZAF when Stark was transferred to another part of Stalag Luft III.

Account books with their strings of numbers and cryptic headings can be a natural place for codes.

Gillies as a member of the Coding Staff, would have been given intelligence material gleaned from overheard conversations, mission details from newly captured aircrew as well as any intelligence that was gained by trading food stuffs, personal items etc. with German personnel by the camp’s Code Intelligence Officer, and then approved by the Senior British Officer and his own Intelligence Officer. (18)

He then would turn this into a coded message that was sent back to England, sometimes by hidden radio (as in the post on this blog ‘Captain Shackleton’s gift to the Imperial War Museum’) or in a coded letter.

In order to keep messages secure, codes had to be updated or devised from scratch. Gillies and another RAF officer devised a new code during June and July 1943 and managed to have the information sent to London. (19)

There was a real skill in constructing these messages as not only had the message to be hidden in ‘normal’ English it also had to contain no word or phrase that would be deleted by the German censors.

In December 1945 John was awarded an MBE for his wartime services (20) and may have moved back to the land of his birth as there is an award to a John Arthur Gillies MBE of the New Zealand Queen’s Service Order for Community Service (21) in the 1986 New Year’s Honours List.

It is perhaps significant in the way that John lead his life that I could find only one picture of him (on a website describing his crash) and that I haven’t been able to establish definitely if he did returned to New Zealand or even what he did in his post-war life.

As usual if there is anything that can be added to this story please let us know.


(1) Air 81/509 – enclosure 1A. UK National Archives, Kew, England.

(2) ibid – enclosure 5A. UK National Archives, Kew, England.

(3)Dulag Luft – The German Aircrew Interrogation Centre’. After the Battle magazine number 106, pages 14.

(4) This is probably Vincent “Paddy” Byrne, serving with No.74 Squadron RAF and captured when his Spitfire was shot down over France also on 23 May 1940.  See file Air 81/506 UK National Archives, Kew, England.

(5) – accessed 3 August 2017

(6) Air 81/509 – enclosure 13. UK National Archives, Kew, England.

(7) – accessed 3 August 2017

(8) WO 399/114/1. UK National Archives, Kew, England.

(9) – accessed 5 August 2017

(10) page 301 – accessed 5 August 2017

(11) – accessed 28 October 2017

(12) – accessed 28 October 2017

(13) AIR 81/27 – UK National Archives, Kew England.

(14) Dulag Luft – The German Aircrew Interrogation Centre’After the Battle magazine number 106 – page 8.

(15) – accessed 28 October 2017

(16) WO 399/114/1. UK National Archives, Kew, England.

(17) Stalag Luft III: An Official History of the POW Camp of the Great Escape. John Grehan, pubished by Frontline Books (2017) – page 12.

(18) ibid – page 65.

(19) ibid – page 70.



Special thanks are due to Ernie Henty who kindly lent me his copy of ‘After the Battle’ Magazine when I had been unsuccessful in finding a copy. Not only that, but he then ordered me my own copy!

The Patient – Flying Officer Thomas Gilbert Pace, No. 85 Squadron RAF


This is the second of a three-part post about the eminent surgeon Sir Harold Gillies written by Dr. Jess Pocock and Richard Maddox, IWM London Volunteers.

The others in the series are ‘The Surgeon’ and ‘The Unassuming Accountant’.

PILOT OFFICER THOMAS GILBERT PACE, RAF – nicknamed ‘Ace’ Pace – was shot down south of Ath in Belgium on 15May 1940.  He sustained severe burns to his hands and face and was placed on the ‘Dangerously Ill’ list on the following day (1).

In a letter dated 2 November 1940 to a Miss Peggy McFarlane of Montreal he describes his crash and his treatment as a patient of Harold Gillies (2). He starts at a point in late April when he and Peggy had gone shopping in Cambridge and then relates how a few days later on May 4 he arrived at his new squadron ‘in time for lunch’.

He was made to feel very welcome and met his former Flight Commander from his Flying Training School there. After general familiarisation and getting used to flying a Hawker Hurricane. He had previously flown Supermarine Spitfires with No. 19 Squadron RAF  – which he preferred – until he had been posted to No.85 Squadron ”somewhere in France’ on 26 April 1940 (3).

Based at RAF Duxford – now the site of IWM Duxford – No.19 Squadron  was the first squadron to be equipped with the type in August 1938.

May 10, 1940 – the first day of the ‘Blitzkreig’ German invasion of France and the Low Countries – was also Pace’s first day of action in France.

Although not mentioned in his letter – which of course had to be approved by wartime censors – his ‘new squadron was No. 85 Squadron, based at Lille-Seclin and part of the 60 Fighter Wing, Air Component, British Expeditionary Force  (4)(5). The Wing’s role was to support French and British ground operations. Offensive bombing was carried out by the other RAF organisation in France at the time, the Advanced Air Striking Force.(6)

Pace was a member of No. 85 Squadron’s ‘A’ Flight (7).

On 10 May 1940 the squadron was on alert from 03:40 with some aircraft flying at 04:00 (5) but he would not be airborne until 17:30 when he chased a damaged enemy aircraft but had to give up as his fuel reserves were low. Later that day he and two fellow pilots came across ‘35 Heinkels bombing a town’.

The three RAF aircraft were soon joined by others making the odds 12 against 35. He writes that 27 of the German bombers from that raid were destroyed.

He shot down one of the bombers and ‘believe me it was a satisfying sight when I think what they were doing lately. When his particular combat was over (as seemed to happen so often in these type of accounts) he found the sky empty of aircraft.

Landing back at his airfield he gave his ground crew a thumbs up sign and received an ecstatic response.


Their work done for the moment, groundcrew of No. 85 Squadron RAF take a few minutes to relax while a Hurricane fighter sits at readiness at Lille-Seclin, November 1939. Image by Mr H Hensser, official photoographer © IWM (C 460)


You should have seen them singing and dancing.  I felt glad I didn’t let them down.’

Later that same day he would account for another Heinkel.

That night there was a ‘terrific party in the Mess‘ as soon as they were stood down and he went to bed at 2am, having consumed nothing but orange juice and was awake an hour later. He flew again that day but did not encounter any enemy aircraft.

Wednesday 15 May 1940 and the Netherlands fell to the German advance. Pace and his colleagues were in action again – after another late night when they returned from ‘the town’ at 02:30 to be up an hour later.

The town in question may have been Lille, about 10 kilometres (six miles) from Fretin where the officers of No. 85 Squadron were billeted.

The squadron had moved from Lesquin – officers to a chateau, which had been owned by the Duke of Marlorough in 1708 with NCOs and men to billets in the village of Ennetierre – around 13 May when the squadron’s Officer Commanding, Squadron Leader J O W Oliver decided that Lesquin ‘was unhealthy due to the fact that there was a munitions factory in the village’ (8).

Airborne that morning at 11:00 with two of the squadron’s other pilots (Pilot Officers Allen and Ashton), together they attacked a group of 15 German bombers.

Pace set one on fire.

Then he was too was attacked, possibly by a Messerschmitt bf110 escort as he describes being hit by 20mm cannon shells.

His engine faltered.

Smoke came from under the dashboard. His aircraft had the oil pipe severed and cannon shells damaged the underwing radiator.

Then his radio was shot out.

Knowing how valuable his aircraft was – given the losses the squadron was experiencing – he decided to force-land in a field.

Unfortunately as he came in low, blinded by smoke he hit a tree with his right (starboard) wing.

As I hit the ground there was a terrific pop and the whole thing was a mass of flame.’

The force of the landing jammed the canopy (which he had previously opened in case he needed to parachute out) shut. The forward fuel tank behind the instrument panel exploded, showering his right thigh with burning fuel.

With the flames taking hold he heaved at the canopy and managed to open it. Then his parachute caught on his seat. Somehow he cleared it and threw himself out of the burning cockpit.

But his troubles were far from over.

He fell onto the port wing, landing on his shoulder in the burning port fuel tank .

He rolled on the ground to put out the fire on his clothing and body. Picking himself up he walked half a mile until he met an Army motorcyclist who summoned an ambulance.

‘I climbed into it myself and very nearly passed out but I managed it and climbed out the other end. Then they put me to sleep and I woke up a fortnight later in the hospital’.

He was eventually evacuated to England, arriving first at Exeter Hospital before coming to Prewett Hospital near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Gillies and his team established their reconstructive surgery unit away from the main hospital buildings at Rooksdown House, a former private wing when the hospital was an asylum.

Sir Harold Gillies the famous plastic surgeon is working on me. He has given me two new eyelids and put my nose straight, the broken cheek bone mended itself because they only found it out when I pointed out a little lump on my cheek that I could feel but couldn’t see’.

At the time of writing to Peggy (2 November 1940) he has already had four operations. In his letter he says that he wants to go back to flying with his squadron and having been seen by a medical board he was told he could do so after his final surgical operation, which he was hoping to be in three months hence.


Flying Officer Pace, ‘The Mousetrap’ and an unnamed dog. Part of the private papers of T G Pace, held by Imperial War Museums, reference: Documents 11775

In his final paragraphs he writes that he hopes to get his sports car (named ‘The Mousetrap’) to the hospital as it will save him money on bus and taxi fares.

And although Gillies and his fellow doctors encourage their patients to drink beer ‘as soon as I’ve been discharged I am going back to orange juice’.


Pilots of No. 85 Squadron RAF pause for a photograph between sorties at Lille-Seclin, at 9am on May 10, 1940 first day of the German invasion of France. They had been intercepting German aircraft since 4.15am and were to continue to do so until 9pm that evening. They claimed seventeen enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of four Hawker Hurricanes.
Back row, (left to right); Flight Lieutenant J R M Boothby, Flying Officer T G Pace, Squadron Leader J O W “Doggie” Oliver (Commanding Officer), Pilot Officer J H Ashton, Pilot Officer J W Lecky, Flying Officer S P Stephenson, Sergeant G ‘Sammy’ Allard, Sergeant L A Crozier and Warrant Officer Newton: Front, (left to right); Flying Officer K H Blair and Sergeant J McG Little.
Image © IWM (C 1514)

Eventually he recovered enought and returned to operational flying but on 3 December 1941 he and his aircraft were lost without trace.

He is commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial to the Missing at Runnymede in Surrey, England (9) as one of the 20,456 men and women who served in the British and Commonwealth air forces and have no known grave.


No 85 Squadron RAF was one of four regular RAF squadrons sent to France in September 1939.

It can be difficult to directly match the claims of the squadron to the official Operational Record Book as this was reconstructed later from a variety of sources after the RAF had withdrawn from France on 21 May 1940.

Between 10 and 21 May 1940 not only did the RAF launch attacks on enemy forces, RAF airfields were in turn bombed. Lille Seclin was attacked on at least four occasions but luckily casualties were few. However only four of No. 87 Squadron’s aircraft returned to England (10).

Some would be cannibalised, put back into service or stripped for parts by men like Pilot Officer Louis Strange DFC and Bar (see the post ‘Louis Arbon Strange – a man with a DFC in the First World War and another in the Second’).

Pilot Officer Patrick Philip Woods – Scawen (see ‘Brothers in Arms’ post) was a contemporary of Pace, serving with ‘B’ Flight, No. 85 Squadron RAF at the same time.

He would die on 1 September 1940 with his brother being killed the next day.


The primary source for this post was the letter cited at (2) below.

(1) UK National Archives file reference AIR 81/403 Flying Officer T G Pace injured; Hurricane N2656 failed to return from an operational flight, 15 May 1940.

(2) Manuscript letter  written by Flight Lieutenant while recovering at Park Prewitt Hospital. IWM catalogue reference: Documents 11775. Selected images can be viewed at – consulted 3 July 2017

(3) No. 19 Squadron RAF Operations Record Book, Air 27/252. UK National Archives – consulted 30 May 2017

(4) – Retrieved 1 August 2017.

(5) – Retrieved 1 August 2017.

(6) – Retrieved 1 August 2017.

(7) No. 85 Squadron RAF Operations Record Book, Air 27/703. – entry for 10 May 1940. UK National Archives – consulted 30 May 2017

(8) No. 85 Squadron RAF Operations Record Book, Air 27/703. – entry for 13 May 1940. UK National Archives – consulted 30 May 2017

(9) Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Thomas Gilbert Pace Casualty Result,-thomas-gilbert/ – Retrieved 1 August 2017.

(10) Roland Beaumont – Retrieved 1 August 2017.



The Surgeon – Sir Harold Gillies (1882-1960)


This is the first of a three-part post about the work of eminent surgeon Sir Harold Gillies that IWM London volunteers Dr. Jess Pocock and Richard Maddox have written together.

The others (‘The Patient’ and ‘The Unassuming Accountant’) will follow.

Archibald MacIndoe, a young gastric surgeon, arrived in London from America and contacted his cousin in the hope of finding a post in a London hospital.

This meeting was to have enormous consequences in the Second World War because the older cousin was Harold Gillies, by then a celebrated plastic surgeon who had changed the future of reconstructive surgery through his pioneering work during the Great War. MacIndoe started work at St. Bartholomew’s hospital, and soon changed course to become a leading expert in plastic surgery.

Harold Delf Gillies was born in New Zealand in 1882 but came to England to study Medicine at Cambridge and St. Bartholomew’s hospital. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1910 and by 1914 was on course for a successful career in Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) surgery.

However, the outbreak of war was soon followed by a huge demand for medical officers to cope with the alarming numbers of casualties and Gillies, along with many colleagues, volunteered in early 1915.

gillies 03A

Harold Gillies during his service with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. Image by kind permission of Dr Andrew Bamji FRCP

As a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps he was posted to a Base hospital at Wimereux, France, where he worked as a General surgeon. Here he met Charles Valadier, an experienced dental surgeon, who was campaigning for specialist reconstructive plastic and jaw surgical units. Both men were appalled by the number of facial wounds caused by shrapnel and soon Gillies was assisting Valadier in the first specialised plastic unit at Wimereux.

They, together with a slightly more experienced American surgeon, C.W. Roberts, were helped by a newly published book on surgery for “Mutilated Soldiers”, by Lindemann, a German surgeon.

The main aim of reconstructive surgery at that time was to return the soldiers to active service as soon as possible. However, Gillies realised that thousands of soldiers were left so disfigured that they would rather die. He was shocked that so little attention was given to the cosmetic outcome of surgery and he became convinced that specialist hospitals must be set up in England.

“War is the only proper school for surgeons”

Hippocrates c460-377 BC

By the end of 1915 he was recalled to England and, with Colonel Sir William Lane, planned an experimental specialist unit. Progress was rapid and this first unit opened in Aldershot in February 1916.

At this point Gillies may have lacked experience, most of which was in general and ENT surgery, but he more than compensated for this with tremendous drive, enthusiasm and tireless work.

He read all the books and the ancient texts – for plastic surgery is an ancient art. He tried every known technique and developed methods such as using living tissues from the same patient for reconstruction, instead of implanting foreign material which had previously been tried, but with relatively poor long-term success.

large_© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3659)

‘The Queen’s Hospital for Facial Injuries, Frognal, Sidcup: The Operating Theatre’, an oil painting by J Hodgson Lobley, 1918. © IWM (Catalogue reference: IWM ART 3659)

By 1916 the unit had outgrown its premises and moved to Frognal, near Sidcup in Kent. The staff now included nurses, radiologists, dental surgeons, photographers, plaster technicians and office personnel – often ex-patients. Professor Henry Tonks, from the Slade School of Art, created a permanent record of all the operations performed. His famous illustrations survive to this day (1).

The Battle of the Somme (July – November 1916) produced a dramatic rise in the number of casualties and at one stage some 2,000 patients were admitted over 10 days.

By now there was also a need for accommodation for patients between surgical procedures, as most needed several staged operations, and further facilities for convalescence and rehabilitation.

Another move was necessary, this time to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup and the team expanded and included surgeons from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America.

This famous unit, set up in August 1917, was headed by Gillies.

He developed and adapted a Russian technique of “tube pedicle grafts” which preserved the original blood supply of a graft while it established itself on a new site, in another part of the body. This method minimised the risk of infection. There were parallel advances in radiology, dental surgery and, most importantly, anaesthetics.

During the war, it is estimated that around 11,000 patients had passed through the team’s hands and Gillies’s last war casualty patient left his care in 1921. He was twice Mentioned in Despatches, was awarded the OBE in 1918 and CBE in 1920. He was knighted in 1930.

After the war he worked as a Plastic surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s hospital, concentrating on reconstructive procedures following removal of malignant tumours, repairing hare-lips and cleft palates etc.

In 1924 he became Consulting Plastic Surgeon to the RAF and, in 1939, to the Army at Home and to the Ministry of Health. He was responsible for the expansion of plastic surgical units outside London at the beginning of the Second World War, he himself leading the team at Park Prewett Hospital, near Basingstoke, Hampshire, while his cousin Archibald MacIndoe was responsible for the unit at East Grinstead, Sussex, which became very famous.

Mcindoe et al

Four greats in the field of plastic surgery. Left to right: Rainsford Mowlem, MRCS, FRCS,
Thomas Pomfret Kilner, CBE, DM, FRCS, Sir Harold Gillies, CBE, MRCS, FRCS, LRCP, Hon FACS, Hon FRACS, and Sir Archibald McIndoe, CBE FRCS. All except Kilner were born in New Zealand ancestry. Image by kind permission of Dr Andrew Bamji FRCP

Unlike the situation in 1914, these units were up and running and ready for action for the first major influx of patients – from Dunkirk.

Harold Gillies made an enormous and unique contribution to the development of plastic surgery during the 20th century. He was a meticulous, dedicated surgeon and an inspiring and exacting teacher.  After his death in 1960 it was said: “Sir Harold Gillies’s name might perish but his influence will be immortal”.




We are very grateful to Dr Andrew Bamji FRCP, retired Consultant in Rheumatology and Rehabilitation, President, British Society for Rheumatology 2006 – 2008 for permission to use the images of Gilies shown above.

Andrew’s personal interest in the work of Gillies has lead him to discover and preserve much of the original First World War case notes of those treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup, Kent.

His very informative website about can be found at: