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Squadron Leader Bill Humphrey. DFC & Bar

Squadron Leader Bill Humphrey. D.F.C. and Bar
Born: February 13th 1923, Karachi. Died: December 10th 2009 Age: 86


Squadron Leader Bill Humphrey, who has died aged 86, was a wartime Pathfinder and led the first air attack on the German defences in Normandy on D-Day; in all he completed three operational tours, flying 103 missions and twice winning the DFC.

In the early hours of D-Day Humphrey’s target was the coastal battery at Crisbeq, one of many such batteries on the Cherbourg peninsula posing a major threat to the invasion forces at sea. He was followed by waves of heavy bombers, and all but one of the guns was put out of action. He recorded laconically in his logbook: “Ops. Crisbeq – Dropped first TI [target indicator] on night the second front started.”

Humphrey’s first operation with No 105 Squadron had been on February 18 1943, in a daring 20-aircraft low-level daylight raid. The target on that occasion had been the locomotive repair workshops in Tours.

The group crossed the Channel at 50ft, flying blind for 10 minutes through sea mist before emerging into bright sunshine at the French coast. They streamed over three flak towers, catching the German gunners napping.

The Mosquitoes then attacked in three formations, destroying the workshops. Humphrey later recalled: “All three formations hit their respective targets well and truly, and we shook up Tours thoroughly.”

Humphrey and his navigator attacked trains and rail depots throughout the spring of 1943, sometimes dropping 30-minute delayed-action bombs on their targets from low-level.

In July, following the invention of Oboe at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Great Malvern, No 105 Squadron took on a new role.

The Oboe system identified a target by the transmission of a radio beam from ground emitters located on the east coast; specially-equipped Mosquitoes flew along the beam to the target before dropping markers and flares for the main bomber force. As Humphrey put it: “Low-level had been extremely dangerous, but not very frightening as one was working so hard. Oboe was terrifying, flying dead straight and level along a beam and letting them shoot at you.”

For defence, the Mosquito relied on speed and manoeuvrability, and Humphrey’s method of escape after marking the target was to climb above the flak and the enemy fighters. But this was not foolproof. His aircraft was hit on a number of occasions, and once – after his hydraulics and undercarriage had been damaged – he had to make a belly landing on reaching home.

On another raid he was hit by flak, which left shrapnel lodged in his foot but still succeeded in recovering from a spin and pressed on to his target, marking it accurately. He was awarded a DFC for his “courage and determination”.

On a later mission his navigator was killed by shrapnel; one of the aircraft’s engines was put out of action, and Humphrey had to nurse his Mosquito home on the remaining engine to make an emergency landing at an American base.

William Ernest Gifford Humphrey was born on February 13 1923 in Karachi, where his father was a shipping broker. He was educated at Bradfield College, Berkshire, where he became head boy.

Aged 17 he tried to follow his elder brother into the RAF, but was told to return later, which he did after six months’ studying at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. He was sent for training in Texas and in early 1943 was posted to No 105 Squadron at Marham, Norfolk.

After completing his second tour, Humphrey was awarded a Bar to his DFC and spent six months helping with the development of Oboe and flying test runs. He returned to operational flying in January 1945, joining No 128 Squadron at Wyton. He flew 11 operations to Berlin, as well as others to Magdeburg, Erfurt, Wesel and Kiel. He then declined offers of a postwar career in the RAF – unlike his brother Andrew, who became a Marshal of the RAF and was to die in 1977 whilst serving as Chief of the Defence Staff.

Bill did not expect to survive the war, and never ceased to marvel at his luck. Decades later, thinking of his comrades who had been lost, he would privately confess to being almost embarrassed by his survival. “One was robbed of one’s youth and one’s friends,” he said once. “Living through a period like that affects the rest of your life. It makes you question what many people automatically accept as fact. I suppose it makes you a bit of a rebel.”

It certainly made him something of a misfit in an increasingly bureaucratic postwar world, and he developed a “can-do”, “why not?” approach to obstacles he encountered during his management career with Burmah-Shell in India, where he witnessed the bloody consequences of Partition.

When he was struck by amoebic dysentery in the subcontinent, Shell moved him to Syria, then to Bermuda. In 1966 he joined the glass-makers Pilkington to run its fibreglass operations in India, but illness forced him to return to Britain.

He left the commercial world to “put something back”. In particular, he wanted to try to alleviate unemployment, and for a time he ran the Elephant Jobs training workshop for young offenders in London.

In 1978, with the help of his former employers Pilkington, he set up the Community of St Helens Trust in Lancashire.

Humphrey’s philosophy was not to provide work for people but to help them to provide it for themselves. This required a fundamental shift in the accepted wisdom of the time, as small businesses during the 1970s struggled against powerful trades unions. “We have to change the way people think,” Humphrey said.

He set up the trust in an old grammar school classroom opposite Pilkington’s main gate, using discarded office furniture. The roof leaked, but he refused to have it repaired, using buckets to catch the raindrops – a useful indication of financial need when potential donors came to call.

Appointed OBE in 1981, Humphrey is credited with contributing to an increase in the number of new small businesses in St Helens, and with giving life to the enterprise agency, forerunner of today’s Business Links. Similar agencies sprang up all over Britain, encouraged by Michael Heseltine, who saw their potential on a visit to St Helens in 1980.

Bill Humphrey, who died on December 10, is survived by his wife, Pauline, and a son.

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, 13:42