BY RICHARD MADDOX
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.
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.
‘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.
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’.
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
http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030011651 – consulted 3 July 2017
(3) No. 19 Squadron RAF Operations Record Book, Air 27/252. UK National Archives – consulted 30 May 2017
(4) http://www.niehorster.org/017_britain/40-05_bef/bef_air_ac.html – Retrieved 1 August 2017.
(5) http://www.niehorster.org/017_britain/009_symbols_raf.html – Retrieved 1 August 2017.
(6) https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/phoney-air-war-in-france.aspx – 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 https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1803727/pace,-thomas-gilbert/ – Retrieved 1 August 2017.
(10) http://www.epibreren.com/ww2/raf/87_squadron.html Roland Beaumont – Retrieved 1 August 2017.