Air Marshal Sir Roy Austen-Smith was probably the last senior RAF officer to see action in the Second World War. He flew Spitfires in the closing weeks of the war with 41 squadron, based first at Eindhoven and then at Celle in Germany. After the war he saw action in Malaya against the communist terrorists when he was awarded the DFC. His varied flying career saw him command a Canberra squadron in Cyprus and a Victor bomber squadron in Suffolk. He later commanded RAF Wattisham, home to two Lightning squadrons. He was Commandant at the RAF College Cranwell at a time of great change and later served as the Commander of British Foreses in Cyprus before becoming the Head of the British Delegation in Washington. He was a fine rugby player representing Harlequins, the RAF and the Combined Services.
Mickey Witherow was an influential post-war RAF Regiment officer who specialised in desert warfare, airfield defence and diplomacy. He began his career in Aden attached to the Protectorate Levies and this fired his great interest and enthusiasm for the desert. In a later appointment in Libya, he crossed the Sahara in a Land Rover, a journey of some 1,500 miles. He later specialised in the air defence of airfields and commanded a squadron and served on NATO staffs as a specialist. He commanded the RAF Regiment depot at Catterick and during a tour at MoD he went to Zambia to assess the air defence threat prior to a visit by the Queen for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. Witherow epitomised the ethos and traditions of the RAF Regiment.
Joan Potts enlisted into the WAAF in 1940 and trained as a filterer before going to HQ 10 Group at Rudloe Manor near Bath where she remained throughout the Battle of Britain and during the Blitz. She worked in a team that filtered the information received from radar sites, the Royal Observer Corps, airborne aircraft and other sources in order to pass the crucial information to the plotting room where the duty commander was able to deploy his forces by reference to the updated map table. She was later commissioned and served at other control rooms. After the war she transferred to the Reserve but was recalled to the recently re- formed WRAF in 1949. She worked in Combined Operations and was appointed MBE. She died aged 102.
Tom Bennett was the captain of a Hastings transport aircraft that flew in support of a detachment Canberras deployed to the Pacific to collect air samples following a nuclear test explosion. He later became a flying instructor before transferring to helicopters. He saw active service during the Malayan Emergency and later in Northern Ireland where he was the station commander at Aldergrove. As the RAF Commander in Hong Kong he was able to remain current flying helicopters. During the Falkland’s campaign he was working in MoD and was heavily involved in developing and supplying the crucial air head on Ascension Island. He was appointed CBE.
‘Dickie’ Bird started flying night-fighters in November 1940, initially on the Blenheim and later on the Havoc ‘Turbinlite’. The latter had a searchlight in the nose to illuminate an enemy aircraft before Hurricanes, flying in close formation with Bird’s aircraft, then mounted an attack. Later, Bird transferred to the Mosquito to fly intruder patrols at night over enemy airfields to catch aircraft taking off and landing. If there was no ‘trade’, he attacked railway rolling stock and motor transport. He was awarded a DFC for his time on the Mosquito. He retired to the family farm in Cumbria.
Group Captain Derek Rake was a wartime Spitfire pilot shot down over Yugoslavia attacking a train. He was sheltered by the partisans and the Resistance movement took him over the mountains into Greece where he was reunited with his squadron. He moved to 41 Squadron in Holland in early 1945 and was in combat with Luftwaffe jets before the war ended. Post-war he served in India and in 1949 formed the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force. After working at SHAPE he commanded 51 Squadron with Comets and Canberras gathering electronic intelligence. He later commanded RAF Wyton. He was appointed OBE and was twice awarded the AFC.
Tam Syme was a fighter pilot who led strikes against targets in the Suez campaign, against dissident tribesmen in Aden and against rebels in Oman. He was awarded the DFC. During the Suez crisis, he led Venom fighter-bombers, based in Cyprus, against Egyptian airfields attacking aircraft on the ground with rockets and cannons. After taking command of 8 Squadron in Aden, he was in action against Yemeni insurgents and gave support to SAS patrols. In July 1957, a rebellion broke out in Oman and Syme flew 16 strikes against rebel strongholds in the Jebel Akhdar region. He decided to leave the RAF when he was 38 and he began a long period in the crop-spraying industry, working in Panama for several years. He established a home in Florida where he remained until he died aged 92.
Janine was one of the last surviving heroines of the Comete Escape Line that assisted over 300 aircrew shot down behind enemy lines to escape through France and over the Pyrenees into Spain. Her family travelled to Biarritz from their home in Brussels when the German invasion began on 10 May 1940. The family became the key element of the southern section of the Belgian run Line. Janine, who was 16 years-old, escorted evaders, sometimes on trains from Paris, but more particularly in the dangerous border region between her home in Anglet and the ‘last house’ close to the border where Basque guides took the airmen across the mountains. After many betrayals and the loss of key personnel, the De Grief family continued their work under great threat. The threat became so great that MI9 arranged for her to leave France. She, and her family, received numerous decorations for their bravery.
Sir John Baird specialised in aviation medicine and rose to become head of the RAF’s medical services before being appointed as Surgeon General of the Defence Force Medical Services. His service on two the RAF’s busiest flying stations stimulated his interest in the medical aspects of high performance flying and he attended No 1 Course at the Institute of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough. In 1970 he was selected to join the top secret USAF unit operating the Lockheed U-2 hight altitude reconnaissance aircraft worldwide. A number of RAF pilots joined the programme and Baird had a special interest in the life support system worn by the pilots. On his return from the USA he served on ‘fast jet’ stations where he took every opportunity to fly to better understand the environment they experienced. He later served at Command headquarters in Germany and the UK and commanded the RAF hospital at Ely. As the head of RAF Medical Services, he was dismayed at the enforced closure of RAF hospitals and the loss of personnel. He fought hard to minimise the effect of these cuts across the defence arena and was highly regarded. One senior colleague described him as, “the most able and distinguished Surgeon General of the late 20th century.”
Tom Rossor flew 60 missions in his unarmed Spitfire on photographic reconnaissance sortie over Burma. He arrived in Burma in February 1942 and initially flew Hurricanes on ground attack operations. He had some experience on Spitfires and volunteered to join a new unit, 681 Squadron, when it formed. he took photographs over Burma and some parts of Thailand when he had to contend with bad weather ands large cloud build-ups making navigation difficult. Nevertheless, he photographed railways, enemy airfields and river traffic. He sometimes flew at low level to get target photographs for the Army. He flew his last sortie in May 1944 when he was awarded the DFC. He was described as an exceptional flight commander.