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Squadron Leader Howard ('Bert') Houtheusen D.F.C.

Born May 16th 1915 in Streatham, London. Died April 28th 2013

Squadron Leader Howard (‘Bert’) Houtheusen, was a noted jazz musician in the 1930s and was later awarded a DFC for landing his Sunderland flying boat on the sea off North Korea to rescue a US Navy pilot who had ditched in enemy waters.


Bert Houtheusen in a portrait painted by his cousin Albert 

Houtheusen and his crew were coming to the end of an anti-submarine patrol in support of the Royal Navy near Wonsan when a faint SOS message was detected, and he was directed to investigate as darkness fell. Alerted by a tiny red light, they saw a man floating in a dinghy which was drifting towards the shore.

Houtheusen decided to land on the choppy sea. As he taxied towards the dinghy, he had to cut all four engines in order to get the pilot, Ensign Ed Hofstra, on board the aircraft. Hofstra had been flying on a ground attack mission when his Corsair hit the ground; it bounced upwards, and he was able to ditch the burning aircraft just off the coast.

As the Sunderland drifted by the dinghy, the American was seized by a boat hook and hauled on board, where he was found to be suffering from hypothermia. Houtheusen headed back to his base at Iwakuni, in Japan, landing after a flight of 12 hours. The Corsair pilot made a full recovery and Houtheusen was awarded a DFC, one of the very few awarded to an RAF pilot during the Korean War.

Of Dutch ancestry, Herbert Joseph Houtheusen was born in Streatham, south London, on May 16 1915. Unimpressed by his birth names, he preferred Bert, and eventually changed his name to Howard when he was 60 . As a young boy he was a soloist in the choir of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, contributing to a number of recordings with the choir, including one from St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the Regent Street Polytechnic School, he became fanatical about jazz. Having bought a cheap saxophone, he taught himself to play from books, and while still at school he formed a band called the Campus College Band with Max Jones (later a famous jazz critic). On coming second in a national amateur jazz band competition, the band was given a professional contract. Bert left school at 18 to embark on a precarious career as a jazz musician.

His work became more regular in the late 1930s, although times continued to be tough . He worked with the Nicholas Brothers (an internationally known Harlem tap act) toured with Max Wall and played in the Edmondo Ros and Arthur Gregory bands. Later he was with the Rhythm Club Band with Johnny Claes, and he sang and played with Reginald Williams and his Futurists. He also performed in dozens of broadcasts for BBC radio as both a sax player and singer.

In 1940 Houtheusen had a residency in Murray’s nightclub in the West End with his friend Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson. Both men were recruited into the RAF at 2am in the club by a Group Captain O’Donnell. Other musicians, including George Chisholm and Ronnie Aldrich, soon joined Houtheusen to form the RAF No 1 Dance Band, better known later as the Squadronaires. They were given basic military training and a ground job, which they did during the day, before entertaining the troops in the evenings.

During the Battle of Britain, Houtheusen manned a Bofors gun at the fighter airfield at Hawkinge, in Kent. He then trained as a pilot, and after specialising in general reconnaissance and converting to the Sunderland, joined No 490 Squadron. When he and his crew were ferrying one of the flying boats from Gibraltar to their new base in West Africa, the engines malfunctioned and they were forced to ditch in the sea. Eventually a gunboat arrived to tow them to a port, an operation that lasted three days before the Sunderland foundered in heavy seas, and the crew had to be rescued. They later joined their squadron to fly anti-U-Boat patrols off West Africa.

After returning to Britain, Houtheusen continued to fly the Sunderland until he left the RAF in 1947 to return to an uncertain life as a musician. For the next two years he toured with Arthur Gregory and with Edmundo Ros.

With the Korean War looming, he was recalled to the Service at the end of 1949 and in May the following year he joined No 88 Squadron, based in Hong Kong and part of the Far East Flying Boat Wing, which maintained a permanent detachment in Japan for anti-submarine patrols off Korea. Houtheusen carried out many successful operational flights over Korean waters before and after the rescue incident.

After the squadron moved to Singapore, he flew operations over the Malayan jungle against the communist guerrillas. In 1952 he took components of the British atom bomb for its inaugural test at Monte Bello off the north-west coast of Australia.

After three years in the Far East, Houtheusen was appointed a flight commander on No 203 Squadron, flying the Neptune maritime reconnaissance aircraft before transferring to the Air Traffic Control Branch. After service in Singapore and Northern Ireland, he was appointed the senior ATC Officer at Honington in Suffolk, where he settled. He left the RAF in April 1966.

Throughout his RAF career Houtheusen formed bands with other servicemen. Later he served as a reservist and was a permanent member of the RAF Honington Volunteer Band, including two years as bandmaster. In July 2007 he played his last concert, claiming that his ‘premature’ retirement at the aged of 92 was forced on him by ‘a little difficulty seeing all the dots on the page’.

On the 50th anniversary of the Korean rescue flight, the No 88 Squadron Association historian traced Ed Hofstra, then living in North Carolina. Houtheusen and Hofstra established contact and exchanged details of their experiences during the rescue.

Bert Houtheusen’s wife, Margaret, survives him with two sons and a daughter from previous marriages.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 02 July 2019, 14:56