The Lost Airman – Part One

The incredible story of one of ‘The Few’

Chelsfield Green, a strip of elevated, sloping grassland running alongside Warren Road from Chelsfield Station to Court Road on the fringe of the Village, has become a popular spot for a ration of daily exercise since the coronavirus lockdown was imposed. No wonder. Not only is it a quiet haven hosting an abundance of meadow flowers, it also offers spectacular vistas out over the Cray Valley to a distant Canary Wharf and Shooters Hill with Epping Forest on the far horizon. Landmarks such as the BT Tower, the Crystal Palace transmitter and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford can be picked out on the skyline too with the help of a handy viewpoint board.

Bromley Council bought the land in the 1980s to forestall any developer with hungry eyes on this stretch bordering the Green Belt. Remembered by older locals as nothing but part of a field of cabbages and once earmarked for part of the proposed route of the Ringway Three motorway, it is now designated a Site of Importance for Nature in the Council’s Biodiversity Plan while Bromley’s Local Plan regards the view from there as one “of local importance”.

But there is another feature of Chelsfield Green that captures the curiosity of many a stroller. At the edge of the open field abutting the Green, on the left by the bridle path as you head towards the Village and directly opposite the farmhouse of Court Lodge Farm, is a large granite boulder, a memorial stone to a 21-year-old Battle of Britain pilot.

Audrey's daughter, Going Postal
Memorial Stone, John Hugh Mortimer Ellis
© Audrey’s daughter 2020

Placed there in May 2008 by the Shoreham Aircraft Museum as part of its Local RAF Memorials Project which pays tribute to those of Churchill’s “Few” who lost their lives within a 10-mile radius of the Museum, an inscription on the stone records that Sergeant John Hugh Mortimer Ellis of 85 Squadron was killed close by when his Hurricane fighter plane number P2673 hurtled to the ground on 1 September 1940.

What most people stopping to inspect the memorial probably won’t know is that behind those bare details lies an incredible story. It’s not only the story of a brave young pilot but also a tragi-comic tale of wartime confusion, bureaucratic bungling and a mix-up that meant Sergeant Ellis’s remains, entombed in his plane which had drilled deep into the Chelsfield soil, were not recovered for more than 50 years.

John Ellis was born on 2 April 1919, the only son of Frederick Ellis, a grocer’s managing clerk, and his wife Ethel. He grew up in Newnham in Cambridgeshire, became a Post Office engineer and signed up for the RAF Volunteer Reserve in the autumn of 1938. Always known as “Hugh”, he appeared exactly as Britain’s wartime pilots are portrayed in countless films: young, fit and strong, blond-haired, good-looking with a big smile, sparky personality and a wry sense of humour. Hugh had just completed his elementary flying training when war broke out and he was immediately called to full-time service. After further instruction at Bexhill, Brize Norton and Sutton Bridge, he was posted on 24 May 1940 to the Hurricane-equipped 85 Squadron at Debden in Essex. There, he was quickly dubbed “Cockney Sparrow” by his Squadron Leader, Peter Townsend (later widely known as a decorated air ace with the rank of Group Captain, an Equerry first to the King and then the present Queen, and deeply romantically involved with Princess Margaret).

His picture here is reproduced by kind permission of the artist, Geoff Nutkins of the Shoreham Aircraft Museum

Audrey's daughter, Going Postal
Hugh Ellis
Artist Geoff Nutkins. With permission.

The young pilot’s boyish, sardonic wit soon surfaced. On his “Mae West” inflatable life jacket he painted the elongated stick-figure symbol of the fictional buccaneering-avenger character Simon Templar – The Saint – complete with its halo, then added a Nazi swastika dangling from its hand!

Hugh, RAF number 742068, found himself proudly piloting one of the classic fighters of all time, designed and built for war and at the forefront of our defences in 1940. Armed with eight wing mounted machine guns in two lots of four whose concentrated fire could literally saw a Luftwaffe machine in half, the single-seater Hawker Hurricane was capable of a maximum speed of just over 300 mph and could operate at a ceiling of 33,000 feet.

Nose-to-tail, the Hurricane Mk1 – the kind Hugh flew – measured 30 feet and three inches, had a wingspan of 40 feet and was powered by a single Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine. Loaded for battle and reinforced with 70lbs of armour plate to protect the pilot’s head and back, its take-off weight was something over a couple of tons.

So successful was the Hurricane in its primary role as an attack aircraft that 60% of all Battle of Britain victories were credited to it – accounting for more enemy aircraft destroyed in that period of the hostilities than any other British weapon, including the Spitfire and ground-based cannon.

At Debden, with a small boomerang lucky mascot around his neck that had been sent from Australia by his favourite aunt to keep him safe and ensure he came back, Hugh soon scrambled into action. His handwritten Combat Reports sprinkled with RAF slang such as “Tally Ho!”, “Angels 10” and “Yellow Leader”, plus graphic descriptions of “climbing into the sun” before swooping at high speed on “E/A” (enemy aircraft) from astern, “raking” them with “bursts of gunfire” and sending them diving, trailing smoke and out of control, speak of a man in his element.

On 6 August he helped to destroy a Dornier Do17, the Luftwaffe’s “Flying Pencil” light bomber. On the 18th he damaged a Messerschmitt 110 heavy fighter and shot down an Me-109. Next day, 85 Squadron was re-stationed to fly out of Croydon and, in a mid-afternoon engagement with the enemy on the 26th, Hugh downed a Do215 (a later version of the “Pencil”), over the Thames Estuary.

However, on the 29th his fortunes faltered: in combat over the Channel, his Hurricane was hit.

Nevertheless, he managed to glide homewards and when the plane caught fire over land he baled out safely from 1,000 feet before his plane crashed in East Sussex – ironically, not far from the small town of Battle.

On that August afternoon, it’s likely that weighing on Hugh’s mind was a half-joking, half-fearful thought he had confided to Squadron Leader Townsend. One of his middle names was Mortimer – his mother’s maiden name – which he read as a corruption of the French “mort-in-mer” (dead in the sea). And, with the typical young WW2 airman’s fatalistic outlook, knowing how the odds were stacked, he believed that was where his end would probably come.

From his first foray into battle with the Hun, Hugh had promised his childhood sweetheart and fiancée Peggy Owen that, just like his little boomerang, he would always come back. Now, granted a few hours’ leave after his lucky escape and somewhat miffed that he had to make his own way to Croydon by public transport, he discovered that his precious boomerang was broken.

On Sunday 1 September 1940, three days after that incident, Hugh was back in the air, piloting the brand new Hurricane Mk1 No. P2673 unexpectedly assigned to him as new machines generally went to older, more-experienced pilots. Most of the morning the skies were blotted with cloudy patches amid some sunny periods, but temperatures were a little higher than average so the cloud burnt off about midday, replaced by fine and sunny conditions.

For RAF Fighter Command, the pattern developed in much the same way as on preceding days: quiet early on, with radar pinging enemy aircraft arriving steadily over the south coast from mid-morning. Breaking up into smaller formations on reaching Kent, the raiders again focused on airfields, with Biggin Hill a prime target. Fourteen squadrons, including 85, were scrambled to intercept them and fierce dogfights raged over east Kent. Nevertheless, some bombers got through via the Thames Estuary to hit London’s Docklands.

Barely had our fighters returned to base to re-arm and refuel after the morning’s tough encounters than a second wave of German bombers and their escorts swept in. Hugh, standing by at Croydon with 85 Squadron after an hour of action right up to Noon, was ordered into the air again at 1.45pm as a force of 150-200 German planes advanced through Kent. The Hurricanes confronted the invaders over Lympne airfield, close to Folkestone on the coast, but failed to do much to impede their progress, though 85 took out one bomber near Kenley on the far outskirts of Croydon.

Biggin Hill then came under attack for the sixth time in three days, precisely as a funeral service was being conducted at the village cemetery just outside the airfield for 40 or so personnel killed in the raids of previous days. Many of them had perished in a direct hit on a packed air raid shelter. Hurricanes now tore in to take on the foe, 85 Squadron damaging one Me-110 over Biggin Hill then chasing and shooting it down. But the airfield was again left strafed, the runway pitted, buildings demolished by four high-explosive bombs. Hangars, mess halls, workshops and the telecommunications system were hit.

Action then switched to the neighbouring Surrey sector as the bombers turned their attention to the important Kenley airfield. At around 2.15pm, a number of Me-109s of the higher-flying bomber escort jumped on 85’s planes below, cutting the squadron to pieces. Three of Hugh’s comrades went down in flames: two lost their lives, the third suffered severe burns. A fourth Hurricane from his Squadron was badly shot up and belly-flopped in a forced landing with a jammed undercarriage. Hugh, in P2673, never returned to base. He was last seen in combat with Me-109s. No one knew where he had come down. His family was informed that he was missing.

Twelve days later, Hugh’s father, Frederick, wrote to the RAF Records Office at Ruislip, saying: “I rather expected that something more would have been discovered by this time as I understand the action from which he failed to return was over the Kenley area.” He added: “I take it a machine and pilot could not remain undiscovered, coming down on the land in the middle of the day, for any length of time. I also trust that all possible measures are taken to trace missing airmen …”

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend reported that it was presumed Hugh was shot down before having time to engage the German bombers in the Biggin Hill/Kenley area where the fighter escort pounced. Kenley Station had carried out a search for Hugh’s body and aircraft, he said, but nothing had been found.

Having heard no further news, Frederick Ellis wrote again in February 1941, asking whether this meant no trace had been found of Hugh’s Hurricane – “which should have been possible to identify by registration number or something” – or whether his son and his plane had simply vanished.

An internal letter from the officer in charge at the Records Office noted soon after: “It is felt hardly conceivable that no trace of aircraft or airman should have been found in the area referred to during a period of six months.” Peter Townsend, newly promoted to Wing Commander, responded in April that neither Kenley nor any other Station had produced evidence of Hugh being shot down in their sectors so “we are now forced to the conclusion that he was killed over the sea”.

This was based on the fact that Hugh’s 85 Squadron section leader had made a forced landing at Lympne “and had presumably been engaged [with the enemy] over the sea or near the coast”. Tragically, it seemed Hugh’s “mort-in-mer” premonition had come true. Along with over 20,000 other airmen and women who were lost in the Second World War but have no known grave, his name was engraved on the RAF memorial unveiled at Runnymede in 1953.

© Patrick Hellicar 2020

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