The story of Flight Sergeant T K Whitfield

Adrian Whitfield, son of Flight Sergeant T K Whitfield has just contacted me with the story of his fathers career, particularly with 611Sqn, and it is attached with some photographs. If any one remembers Ken Whitfield please let Aldon know so we can put you in touch with the family. We believe that there are more photos to come which will also be posted on this site.

To Aldon Ferguson, author of Beware Beware:

Flight Sergeant 1100068 T K Whitfield and 611 Squadron.

Tom Kenneth Whitfield, born 1 Sept 1921 in Stockton-on-Tees where he attended the local Grammar School. Joined up May 1940, called up in September 1940. Basic training Liverpool and Scarborough. Pilot training in Phoenix, Arizona June to October 1941 (while the USA was still neutral). Operational training with 3 ATC Hullavington December 1941 to January 1942 and then 61 OTU in Heston, Middlesex, January to April 1942.

His first posting was to 611 Squadron in Drem on 28 April 1942 where he made friends with Flight Sergeant Reginald Henry William (Leo) Harris. From 29 August to 18 October 1942 he was assigned to the Intensive Flying Development Unit at Boscombe Down as a test pilot on the Spitfire Mk IX. On 9 November 1942 he was shot up over France and crash-landed in Kent. He only fired his guns in anger once and missed.

On 5 May 1943 he left 611 squadron, was promoted to Pilot Officer and posted overseas with Leo Harris. They joined the 1676 Defence of Gibraltar Flight on 4 June 1943. Harris died on 23 August 1943 when his Spitfire suffered engine failure whilst on patrol over the Mediterranean.

He left Gibraltar on 26 November 1943 and was posted to 43 Squadron in Capodichino and Largo, Italy from 9 January to 29 April 1944 for a second tour of duty, covering the Casino and Anzio operations. By the end of the tour he was mentally exhausted so he declined a third tour of operations. He was posted to Benghazi, Libya as Flight Lieutenant with 1563 Meteorological flight form 15 July 1944 to 7 June 1946. He then returned to the UK as education officer at Middleton St George (close to home). He was demobbed in March 1947 and changed to using his middle name Ken. He obtained a degree in Geography at Newcastle University, and trained as a teacher in Peterborough. Then in 1951 he got a job as a Geography teacher at his old school in Stockton-on Tees where he worked for 38 years. He married in 1953, had 3 sons and retired in 1989.

He appears in the book Beware Beware 4 times:

1. There is a copy of the "Shooting a Line" photo (page 85 of the book) in my father's album and he is the pilot kneeling in the foreground. The photo is entitled "Line Shooting Aug 1942 l t r self, PO Hogan, Sgt Walker, FL Crompton, PO Tapley, FO Graham.

2. There is a copy of the photo from page 88 of the book in his album. It is entitled "Press photo 611(A) Squadron Biggin Hill December 1942 self front left". My father is on the left hand end of the line, with Leo Harris standing next to him. That is the day when the squadron record book says that "Sixteen newsreel photographers" tuned up at Biggin Hill. My father told me that one day the Air Ministry sent the press to visit them. They were told to co-operate with the photographer. After his death, when I saw this photograph for the first time I realised it was something special. Most of his photos are obviously snaps taken by one of the other pilots using an ordinary camera. This photo is very high quality and must have taken some time to set up. It is clearly a staged shot (like the one on page 85) because my father is wearing a lifejacket - he was wounded on 9th November and didn't fly again until 30th December.

I contacted the RAF Museum in Hendon and discovered that they have several photos of the squadron taken by the famous aviation photographer, Charles Brown. They are all dated 8th December 1942. There was a version of the page 88 photo but it is not quite as good as the one in the book. It was Charles Brown who took the photograph on page 93 that you use as the wallpaper on your website. Air to air photos were his speciality. There is a copy of the photo in my father's album entitled "611 Squadron flying in formation 8 December 1942 F-SL Armstrong, B-FO Lindsay J-Sgt Walmsley". I have spent some time thinking about the 8th December photographs. Do you know any more about them and why they were taken? I suspect that the RAF was gaining in confidence because they had the Spitfire Mk IX that was a match for the FW 190 and the air ministry wanted some photos for posterity and perhaps for propaganda use. I wonder if any of them were published at the time in the newspapers or magazines? I also wonder about the statement that there were "Sixteen newsreel photographers". If there were 16 journalist and/or photographers it was a big event. Were they just photographers with stills cameras or did someone take any cine film? I have checked at the Imperial War Museum and they do not have any cine film for 611 squadron or that date. I would love to find some cine film of my father.

3. There is a copy of the photo from page 92 of the book in his album. I think it is a good one to include in the book because it shows just how big a squadron was. The record book mentions the 27 pilots but there are 111 men on the photo. My father is seated second from the right on the third row. I assumed that this was a full squadron photo but then realised that none of the senior officers (who I would recognise) are on the photo. You have listed it as a "ground crew" photograph but that is wrong because my father is on it and I think that the man third from the left on the fourth row from the front is Sgt Bunting from Jamaica. (If that is Bunting then the date must be after 3 December). The only reason for the absence of the senior pilots that I can think of, is that they were flying at the time. I wonder if this photograph was taken on 8th December while the senior pilots were having the air to air photo taken by Charles Brown?

4. I was pleased to see that my father is mentioned in the book on 9th November 1942. He told me about that day on several occasions. He said he was shot-up by a FW 190 and crash landed at Hawkinge so I was surprised to see your description that he was shot up by Harris (his best pal) and landed at Detling! I have checked the squadron record book and it says.

"F/Sgt WHITFIELD got shot-up also F/Sgt HARRIS. F/Sgt Whitfield crashed at DETLING with 2 pieces of shrapnel in his shoulder and F/Sgt Harris at HAWKINGE with some very small fragments around his left eye. Both aircraft were categorised Cat "AC". F/Sgt Whitfield was admitted to the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, Canterbury and posted N.E. to BIGGIN HILL. F/Sgt Harris returned to base next day."

The evidence that my father was shot-up by a FW 190 is that he told me so and it says so in his log book. The entry for 9 November says "SWEEP. ST OMER AREA" "SHOT UP BY F.W.190. CRASH LAND HAWKINGE". He did not fly again in November and his log book was signed by Squadron Leader Hugo Armstrong.

Have you interpreted the words "also F/Sgt HARRIS" as meaning "by F/Sgt HARRIS" or do you have any other evidence that he was shot up by Harris?

I have also checked up which airfield he landed at. The Squadron record book (form 540) says that my father landed at Detling, but the form 541 says that he "Landed at Hawkinge" and the Harris "Crash landed at Detling". I assume that the form 541 was the log kept on the day to record who took off and who came back, whilst the form 540 was written up at the end of the day, so the form 541 is more likely to be correct. It seems likely that someone made a minor error when copying the details across onto the form 540. At the national archive I looked at the Hawkinge airfield record and found a marvellous entry for 9.11.42. In the morning there was a visit by Air Marshall Leigh Mallory, then it says

"During the afternoon there was a big show against Le Havre. F/Sgt WHITFIELD, 611 Squadron, Biggin Hill, came in with no flaps and made a crash landing near the Control Office. His aircraft had been damaged by enemy action in a diversionary sweep over France. The pilot was wounded, not seriously."

So I think I have conclusive proof that he landed at Hawkinge!

Aidan Whitfield

18 December 2006

Biggin Hill Jan '43 Me and my Spitfire IX (Merlin61) My room-mate FSgt Leo Harris in the cockpit of a Spitfire IX at Biggin Hill, 8th December 1942 Self on wing of Spitfire IX at Biggin Hill 8th December 1942 Spitfire Mk IX self on wing. 8th December 1942