A disastrous night at RAF Tangmere, 75 years ago

Wg Cdr Lewis 'Bob' Hodges
Wg Cdr Lewis 'Bob' Hodges

Between 1942 and 1944 No 161 Special Duties Squadron flew clandestine pick-up operations from its forward base at RAF Tangmere. The squadron was equipped with Westland Lysander short take-off and landing aircraft modified to carry two and sometimes three secret agents or French resistance members into farm fields at night using only moonlight to assist the single pilot in navigating.

One of the squadron pilots, Flight Lieutenant Robin Hooper, took-off from RAF Tangmere on November 16, 1943, his target a landing field near Niort in western France. After two unsuccessful attempts to land due to low mist surrounding the field, he managed to touch down but at the end of his landing run his Lysander became bogged down in soft ground. The reception committee was soon organised to try and push the aircraft out but this proved impossible. At this point two bullocks (Fridolin and Julot by name) were brought over from the nearest farm but despite their efforts, later augmented by two more bullocks, the Lysander remained firmly stuck and with daylight approaching, Hooper had no alternative but to set fire to the aircraft and go into hiding with the resistance. Fortunately, Hooper spoke fluent French having joined the Diplomatic Service before the war.

James McBride's grave in Chichester Cemetery

James McBride's grave in Chichester Cemetery

The squadron considered it imperative to rescue Hopper as soon as possible and a month later on the night of December 16-17 (75 years ago) its commanding officer, Wing Commander Lewis ‘Bob’ Hodges, took off from RAF Tangmere about 2000 hours with a navigator in the rear cockpit for a field near Assais. Hooper was successfully picked-up and Hodges set course for Tangmere. As he crossed the English coast he was informed that the cloud base at Tangmere was getting lower and fog was rolling in. An experienced pilot, Hodges made and exemplary ZZ instrument approach using direction finding information from the control tower and landed safely. However, celebrations of the return of Hooper were put on hold because also that night two more Lysanders had departed from Tangmere on pick-up missions and had not yet returned. They were flown by Flight Lieutenant Stephen Hankey and Flying Officer Jim McBride.

Stephen Hankey had been born into a rich Sussex family and educated at Lancing College. He had joined the RAF in 1938 and flew Lysanders on army cooperation missions during the Battle of France. After a posting to the Middle East he joined No 161 Squadron in June 1943. By December he had accomplished three successful pick-ups. Jim McBride had joined the squadron in October from a night fighter squadron. He was a large and strong young Scot, rather quiet and shy who had been educated at Strathallan School and St Catherine College, Cambridge. Like Hankey, by the middle of December he had three successful clandestine missions under his belt.

Returning to the night at Tangmere on 17 December, Hodges after landing went to the control tower and realising the two inbound Lysanders would arrive overhead at about the same time ordered Hankey to divert to Ford aerodrome and McBride to continue to Tangmere. The fog was now much thicker and there were no other aerodromes in southern England to which the two Lysanders could divert. McBride made his first ZZ instrument approach with the visibility down to 500 yards. His approach appeared to be going well when he saw the red light on the runway caravan and thinking it was a hangar, commenced a ‘go-around’. On his next approach the R/T communication with McBride suddenly ceased and everyone feared the worse. The search team worked back along the direction of the aircraft’s approach and had to cross fields and ditches before finding the Lysander on its nose and burning fiercely. McBride had been trapped in the crashed aircraft but miraculously his two passengers were found shocked but unhurt and were quickly whisked away by car to Tangmere Cottage. Stephen Hankey, who attempted to land at Ford, also lost his life. It was believed he may have lost control in cloud and crashed. His two French passengers, Albert Kohan and Jacques Tayar were also killed.

So ended a terrible night for No 161’s Lysander flight, two of its valuable pilots killed, both of whom who elected to stay with their passengers rather than use their own parachutes.

Flt Lt Robin Hooper

Flt Lt Robin Hooper