I hope I will be forgiven for writing here about a young RAF pilot called Bill Lewis. He was the grandson of Penrith-born Agnes Grisdale and her husband Frederick Lewis – my great grandparents. My father used to tell me about his cousin Bill who had died in the Second World War serving in the RAF. I never knew how and where he died. This is part of Bill’s story. I hope I’ll be able to tell more in the future.

William Lewis Commissioned Gunner, Royal Navy in 1928

William Lewis Commissioned Gunner, Royal Navy in 1928

William ‘Bill’ Lewis was born in Dover, Kent in 1922. He was the second son of Royal Navy ‘Commissioned Gunner’ William Lewis. William Senior had joined the Royal Navy as a rating in 1903. When the Great War came he was commissioned and served as a gunnery and torpedo officer throughout the war and beyond. After having a son called Frederick in 1911, William lost his first wife Mary in 1914. He remarried Ethel Teresa Leeming in 1916 in Dover, and the couple’s only son Bill was born there while William was serving on the cruiser HMS Caledon.

As a child Bill spent much of his time with his mother and older half-brother Frederick, while father William was away at sea. The family eventually settled near the Royal Navy’s dockyard in Chatham in Kent. William Senior was by all accounts a rather old-style disciplinarian and, I have been told, rather dreaded by his family. What his relationship with his two sons was like I don’t know.

Young Bill attended St Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School in Rochester, probably until he was 18 in 1940. He then worked as an ‘accountant’ in Chatham Royal Navy Dockyard. The family story was that Bill had fought and died in the Battle of Britain, this is not true. Bill joined the RAFVR on 29 January 1941 and was immediately chosen for pilot training. He gained his ‘wings’ on 18 February 1942 and then was sent to 54 OTU at RAF Church Fenton in Kent for night fighter training, before joining the Beaufighter night-fighter 29 Squadron at RAF West Malling in July 1942 where he became a Flight Sergeant in January 1943. He was granted a commission and became a Pilot Officer in March 1943 (with effect from January) and was then transferred to 255 Squadron which was then serving at Maison Blanche in Algeria.

29 Squadron Bristol Beaufighter

29 Squadron Bristol Beaufighter

A Beaufighter Mk 6 in 255 markings as at Bo Rizzo in Sicily in August 1943

A Beaufighter Mk 6 in 255 markings as at Bo Rizzo in Sicily in August 1943

Here in a nutshell is 255 squadron’s war history:

The squadron (255) was reformed on 23 November 1940 and was equipped with the Boulton Paul Defiant. This turret armed fighter had been proved inadequate as a day fighter, and its lack of radar meant it wasn’t particularly successful as a night fighter either. In July 1941 the squadron received the Beaufighter, a much more effective night fighter, and these aircraft were used as part of the air defence of the Midlands from then until late in 1942.

In November 1942 the squadron was deployed to North Africa to take part in the invasion of North Africa. It was used to provide defensive cover at night over the Allied bases in Algeria, which were vulnerable to German attack from Tunisia. At first the squadron had to operate without its airborne radar, which was removed for security reasons, but in early December the radar was restored, and the night defences became rather more effective.

In August 1943 the squadron moved to Sicily and in November to Italy. Its role now changed, and it went onto the offensive, flying intruder missions over the Balkans (including attacks on river traffic on the Danube). The Beaufighters were replaced with Mosquitoes at the start of 1945 and these aircraft were used until the end of the war. After the end of hostilities the squadron moved to Malta, and then to Egypt, before being disbanded on 30 April 1946.

255 Squadron. Ad Auroram 'To the break of dawn'

255 Squadron. Ad Auroram ‘To the break of dawn’

When the squadron left for Africa from RAF Honiley on 13 November 1942, the squadron’s diarist wrote:

A great send off was arranged & the entire staff of controllers etc etc had manned the roof & verandah of the control tower armed with very pistols. Rockets, red lights, green lights, all sailed into the air as each three machines started their ‘take-off’… A few minutes before the ‘take-off’ began the following message was received:

‘ Both present and past Air Officers commanding No 9 Group and entire Group Staff wish to thank 255 Squadron for their willing efforts, excellent cooperation and first class work in the Group and now congratulate 255 on being given further opportunities of showing their worth and wish them the very best of luck and good hunting.’

Pilots of 255 Squadron at Maison Blanche, Algeria 1943

Pilots of 255 Squadron at Maison Blanche, Algeria 1943

Travelling via Gibraltar the squadron arrived in North Africa. At first the Beaufighters of 255 Squadron were based at Maison Blanche and Setif airfields in Algeria before moving to Tunisia and operating out of various airfields there: such as Monastir, Bone, Paddington (Souk El Khemis) and La Sebala. They conducted regular defensive and offensive night patrols and shot down many Italian and German aircraft, while also losing many of their own pilots.

Pilot Officer William Lewis only joined the squadron at Maison Blanche on 28 April 1943, as we have seen having transferred from 29 Squadron. His first patrol was from Bone airfield on the night of 4-5 May. A few days later  on the night of 8-9 May, Bill, with his radio navigator P/O S. A. Hurley:

Took off at 23.05 from Monastir landed 02.00 Monastir. Freelance patrol east and north of Cap Bon 20/30 miles out at 2,000’. Flames and flares seen to west. Investigated lights on the sea, thought to be naval units shelling the coast. Flow over Pantellara on return. R.D.F sweeping followed Beaufighter some way down to Monastir.

During May and June the squadron, including Bill, continued their nightly patrols while the allied forces in North Africa prepared for the invasion of Sicily – Operation Husky. On the 17th June, Bill, together with the rest of the squadron, had what the squadron diarist called a ‘red letter day’: ‘The whole squadron paraded at Sebala 1 to welcome the King.’

An Italian Cant Z 1007 bis medium bomber

An Italian Cant Z 1007 bis medium bomber

The British and Americans landed in Sicily on the night of 9-10 July 1943. And on that very night we can read of another patrol by Bill Lewis and his long-time radio navigator P/O S. A. Hurley. They took off in a Beaufighter Mark 6 F at 01.25. from La Sebala airfield in Tunisia:

Carried out practice interceptions under mixture control North of Bizerta until 02.30 hours. Afterwards on patrol in the same area. At 03.05 a Bogey was reported 20 miles N. E. Of Bizerta at 14,000ft going N.W. Mixture instructed pilot to increase height to 14,000ft and at an airspeed of 230 MPH IAS gave various vectors ranging from northerly to westerly ones. At 03.12 contact was obtained at 9,000ft range hard to port well below.

Turned in towards it and throttled back with a few corrections of course the Beaufighter lost height to 11,000ft. The pilot then saw an A/C on port side at 2,000ft range and below, crossing from port to starboard, burning navigation lights. The Beaufighter got beneath the E/A and at 100 yards range the pilot could clearly see three twin bright exhausts and twin tail against the starlit sky. The aircraft was identified as a Cant. Z. 1007 Mod. The navigation lights were no longer on. At 03.20 now approx 50/60 miles NN. E of Bizerta fire was opened with all guns at 100 yards range. After a two seconds burst the centre motor burst into flames. Small pieces of burning wreckage hit or passed over the Beaufighter without causing damage.

Another two second burst put the starboard engine on fire. The E/A lost height in a diving turn to port. Coming down 5,000ft the crew of the Beaufighter saw the blazing A/C hit the sea and burn there for a few minutes. Only slight evasive action taken and there was no return fire. No one seen to bale out. The Beaufighter returned to base after the combat. CLAIM: – One Cant. Z. 1007 Bis (Mod) destroyed.

Bill Lewis had shot down a three-engined Italian medium bomber over the Mediterranean off Tunisia and the unfortunate Italian crew had been killed. The squadron’s diarist wrote: ‘Congratulations also go to P/Os Lewis and Hurley on their success in shooting down a Cant. 1007 B.’

The allied armies fought their way through Sicily, which the Germans evacuated in late August. While this was happening, 255 Squadron Leader Eliot “flew to Sicily” on July 27th “to give the ‘dromes’ the ‘once over’”. On the same evening back at La Sebala ‘the 2nd airmans’ dance was held’. ‘Cpl. Johnston … enlivened the proceedings by endeavouring to teach the French lassies the highland fling.’

'Bo Rizzo' Airfield, Sicily - 1943

‘Bo Rizzo’ Airfield, Sicily – 1943

In late August Bill’s squadron moved to Sicily, soon basing themselves at ‘Bo Rizzo’ airfield (the present-day Aeroporto di Trapani-Chinisia). Night offensive and intrusion patrols continued in support of the allied invasion of Italy. By November the squadron could move to the Italian mainland near Naples. Here they operated from the airfields of Grottaglie and Pomigliano.

On 27 November 1943, the promotion of P/O (Pilot Officer) W. Lewis to F/O (Flying Officer) was announced, ‘with effect from 20. 7. 43’.

A month later on 28 December, Bill and his navigator Hurley took off from Pomigliano at 04.10:

On patrol west of Naples at 10,000ft. At 05.25 port engine failed. Set course for base. Attempted to feather airscrew, not sufficient oil pressure to feather. Prepared to bale out. Height now 4,000ft. When a west of Ischia, propeller fell off. Then able to maintain height at 4,000ft. Made safe landing at base. ATOM and Chaperona gave every assistance to home the aircraft.

In the New Year Bill flew a few more patrols in Italy, his last being a ‘defensive patrol’ from Grottaglie on the 12th of January. On the 28th of January, Flying Officer W. Lewis (Pilot) and Flying Officer S. A. Hurley (Navigator Radio), their ‘tour expired’, were ‘posted to 144 M.U. for test duties’.

144 Maintenance Unit Maison Blanche

144 Maintenance Unit Maison Blanche

Bill had been sent to 144 Maintenance Unit based at Maison Blanche airfield in Algeria – the same place where 255 had first been based in North Africa. As its name implies such Maintenance Units repaired and maintained aircraft, both of the RAF and the USAF. After his last operational tour Bill, together with his navigator Hurley, were there to test fly repaired aircraft to ascertain if they were fit to re-enter service. The 144 M. U. records state that Flying Officer W. Lewis had been ‘posted from 255 Squadron for Beaufighter testing duties’. During February and March 1943, this is what Bill Lewis did.

But then, on the 1st April 1944, 21 year-old Bill was killed. The records say:

April 1st. F/O W.Lewis (139419) (sic) was killed when Mosquito MM.472 crashed into the ground near Rivet, Algeria and caught on fire.

The RAF Historical Branch wrote to me as follows:

I can tell you that Fg Off Lewis was serving with 144 Maintenance Unit and was engaged on a non operational ferry flight at the time of his death. He took off from Blida airfield at about 5.6 pm on 1 April 1944 in Mosquito MM472; the aircraft was seen to be flying straight and level at about 7000 feet when it commenced aerobatic manoeuvres in the form of slow rolls. These rolls were performed at least twice before the aircraft went into a steep dive resulting in a spin.

The aircraft crashed near Rivet, Algeria about 20 miles South East of Algiers. Fg Off Lewis died in the crash and was buried on 3 April 1944 in the cemetery at Deli Ibrihim. The service was conducted by Squadron Leader The reverend J L Douglas Padre of 1 Base Personnel Depot

When at a height of 500-1000 feet Fg Off Lewis tried to gain regain control of the aircraft by using his engines but was unsuccessful. The evidence presented to the Court of Inquiry (we hold no copy the report produced by this Inquiry) showed that the accident was due to loss of control while attempting aerobatics in a type of aircraft unsuitable for the purpose and was against regulations.

I have to say that as a pilot I find this report a little puzzling but I’ll leave it for now.

Flying Officer William Lewis RAF (VR) of ‘255 Squadron, Service Number 139418”, aged just 21, was buried in Dely Ibrahim War Cemetery (4. F. 18) in Algeria. (photo)

Flight Sergeant Bill Lewis aged 19 in 1941 before he became an officer

Flight Sergeant Bill Lewis aged 20 in 1942 before he became an officer

All RAF pilots had to write a will. When Bill’s was proved on 13 September 1944, giving his address as 32 Balfour Road, Chatham, he left his small estate of £537. 13s. 1d to his father William Lewis ‘retired commissioned gunner R.N.’.

So this was the fate of ‘Cousin Bill’, a story my father never told me, or never knew.

It’s strange really but only a few months ago I was with my family in Naples and we climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius. If I had known I could have seen from there the airfields from which Bill flew his night patrols in 1943 and the island of Ischia where he had lost an engine. So many times we cross the paths our ancestors crossed, and never know it.






Rochester School Memorial includes William Lewis

Rochester School Memorial includes William Lewis

  1. valerie Mehmet says:

    Very interesting Stephen i had always been told the same as you. I guess that sounds more heroic. Such a young man with so much responsibility

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