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Group Captain Henry Ramsbottom-Isherwood

13 July 1905 - 24 April 1950

Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood was born 13 July 1905 at Petone, Wellington, New Zealand. He was the son of Henry Lionel and Lilian Catherine Ramsbottom-Isherwood; husband of Betty Ailsa and father of daughter, India.

He was awarded the Order of Lenin medal by the USSR for his leadership of RAF 151 Fighter Wing in North Russia during 1941 and 1942.

Wing Commander Ramsbottom-Isherwood, Sqd Ldr HH Rook, Sqd Ldr AG Miller and P/O Haw were the only four Allied recipients of the USSR's senior order in the war.

The Wing's mission was to train Russian pilots and ground crew in the flying and maintenance of British Hurricanes. Most of the aircraft went on to fight in the Defence of Leningrad.

The Hurricanes, flown by both British and Russian pilots, engaged the Luftwaffe's Me 109s and JU 88s above Murmansk.

In January 1941 Isherwood was posted to Fighter Command and was given command of a sector in No. 9 Group and later served as a controller at the group headquarters. In August 1941 Isherwood was selected to command No. 151 Wing, which was being formed for a mission codenamed Operation Benedict, which was planned in the immediate aftermath of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

The aim of Operation Benedict was to take two squadrons of Hawker Hurricane fighters to defend the naval port of Murmansk in northern Russia and to train the Soviet Air Force to operate the aircraft which would be the first of more than two thousand to be supplied.

Arriving on the first Arctic convoy at the beginning of September 1941, the wing established itself at an airfield at Vaenga (renamed Severomorsk in 1951).

Besides training the Soviet pilots and groundcrew, the wing claimed 15 enemy aircraft destroyed plus four 'probables' and seven damaged, for the loss of a single Hurricane in combat.

Portrait held in Australian War Memorial

None of the Soviet bombers that they escorted was lost. At the end of October, when the wing had handed their last aircraft to the Soviets, they were ordered by the Air Ministry in London to travel south by rail through the Soviet Union for further service in the Middle East theatre.

Isherwood compiled a lengthy signal stating that the journey was likely to take three months, that no rations or winter clothing were available and that there was a considerable danger of being overrun by the advancing Germans. The order was rescinded and the wing was evacuated by sea.

He was awarded the DFC for his service during the operation as well as the Order of Lenin.

The Order of Lenin awards were made in London by USSR Ambassador Maisky in the presence of Lady Churchill.

Returning to Britain, Isherwood took command of a series of air bases. He was intended to command No. 153 Wing, a much larger fighter force which was due to be sent to Russia in late 1942, but the plan, codenamed Operation Jupiter, was abandoned, perhaps because of the heavy losses to the Arctic convoys. In 1944, he took command of No. 342 Wing in Burma.

Returning from southeast Asia in 1947, Isherwood became Commanding Officer of RAF West Malling. On 24 April 1950, he took a Gloster Meteor IV jet fighter for a test flight, but ran into a severe snow storm and crashed near Tonbridge and was killed. Much of the Meteor's wreckage was recovered in 2003.

A military funeral was held on 29 April 1950 at St Felix church in Felixstowe.

In 2009, Isherwood's medals were put up for auction at Sotheby's by his only daughter. They were bought by an anonymous Russian bidder for £46,000. The sale aroused considerable interest in New Zealand where his nephew conducted an unsuccessful campaign to acquire the medals. A television documentary about Isherwood called Operation Hurricane was made by Prime TV in New Zealand in 2012.

'Ish' Isherwood served in the New Zealand Rifles before travelling to Britain to join the RAF.

Unique set of medals: Order of Lenin far right

We are grateful to the Capel History Society for the following:

Many brave pilots flew in the skies over Capel during World War Two, and this aspect of the parish's aviation history was recorded in Capel Explored Two. One such pilot, who survived years of wartime service, tragically lost his life after the war when his plane crashed near Five Oak Green.

Distinguished Pilot
Under the headline 'Fighter Ace Killed In Jet Crash', the Tonbridge Free Press of 28th April 1950 broke the news that the commanding officer of RAF West Malling, 44 year-old Group Captain Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood, AFC DFC Order of Lenin, was killed on Monday 24th when his single-seater jet fighter Gloster Meteor F4, VT185, crashed in a field on Moat Farm, Five Oak Green. The actual site was described as about a mile from the road, near a fringe of woodland close to East Lock.

The topography of the area is now dramatically changed by gravel digging and the creation of lakes.

Group Captain Ramsbottom-Isherwood, known to his friends as 'Ish', was on his way from Suffolk to West Malling when he crashed. He was a New Zealander who in 1941 led the RAF Hurricane Wing in the defence of Leningrad, hence the award of the Order of Lenin by the Soviet government. One of the RAF's most experienced pilots, with 3339 flying hours on propeller driven aircraft such as the Hurricane, he had only 13 solo hours on the Meteor. The difference between the two is said to be like comparing a go-cart with a Ferrari. At his death he was just three months short of 20 years service.

Witnesses tell the story
While William Tolhurst, the farmer, was at a meeting in Maidstone all the morning and knew nothing of the accident until told by a Courier reporter, there were several witnesses to the crash and its aftermath.

About 11 a.m. Gilbert Sturmer was feeding bullocks at Moat Farm, glanced up and saw a jet plane coming out of the clouds, turn sharply to the left, lose height suddenly and dive straight into the ground. He saw two puffs of smoke and heard the echoes of two explosions. The first, a 'tearing blast',was followed by a muffled explosion. 'It looked as though the plane was out of control.'

Farm workers heard the plane flying above a bank of low clouds. Then the aircraft crashed, hit a tree and exploded, leaving a six-foot crater.

Men working on a dredger on the river Medway, about a mile from the scene of the crash, heard the aircraft pass nearby and then saw it dive steeply 'like lightning' out of the clouds. They did not know it had crashed – the noisy engine of the dredger must have drowned the sound of the explosion, they thought.

Mr. C. Tapp, of Tunbridge Wells, who was passing through Five Oak Green at the time of the accident, said: 'Everybody in the street heard the whine of the plane as it approached us. We couldn't see it because of the clouds, and then suddenly its engine seemed to stall. Something flashed out of the clouds and there were two explosions.'

Village residents also heard a loud explosion, followed by a smaller one and some saw a vivid flash. They saw a cloud of white smoke and ran to the scene where they found debris thrown over a wide area. One person who was there a few minutes after the impact told the Courier: 'There was absolutely nothing we could do; the plane exploded on hitting the ground and there was just a deep hole, a few small pieces of metal and a faint haze of smoke.'

The plane struck a large tree, cutting it in half, and near the tree was a hole about eight feet deep and several feet long. The only recognisable part of the plane was a crumpled wing tip bearing the RAF roundel. Small pieces of metal, and wood from the tree, were scattered over a wide area. Such was the completeness of the destruction police officials were initially unable to determine the type of aircraft or its squadron location.

Fire brigades were called from Tonbridge and Paddock Wood and stood by, but there was no fire and after a short period returned to their respective stations. Members of the St. John Ambulance from Tonbridge were also present. Police guarded the crash site until RAF experts arrived to examine the wreckage in an attempt to determine the cause of the accident.

The inquest on Group Capt. Ramsbottom-Isherwood was held at Tonbridge Police Station on Monday 8th May. On opening the hearing the Coroner (Mr. J. H. Soady) commented: 'I doubt very much whether you will be able to get at the actual cause of the crash, apart from the extreme probability that it was due to the weather. It is no part of our duties to go into any technicalities.'

Wing Commander EBG Masefield, Senior Administrative Officer of West Malling, said Group Captain Ramsbottom-Isherwood took off from Martlesham at about 10.30 a.m. Shortly afterwards he called up West Malling and was given a bearing. Flying conditions were extremely bad and it was suggested that he should land at Manston, but the message was not acknowledged. 'I saw the machine at about 10.50 a.m. when it flew over the aerodrome in a very heavy snow storm at about 300-400 feet,' said Wing Commander Masefield. 'Visibility was literally nil at the time it is assumed he crashed. It is most unlikely he could have made a safe landing at West Malling. I think it is quite probable that he didn't see the aerodrome although he came right over the top.'

A dead heron was found about 100 yards from the scene of the accident, but it is believed that the bird would have been flying too low to have been its cause.

The jury returned a verdict of Accidental death due to adverse weather conditions.

Remains of Meteor VT185 were found in 2002 during soil stripping ahead of aggregates extraction, and the site was excavated in April 2003 under Ministry of Defence Licence issued in accordance with the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Local man Richard Barnstable and his volunteer team recovered items including parts of the engines, main wheels and tyres, instrument panels, cockpit instruments, and most of a 20mm cannon. Various parts of VT185 were donated to Lashenden Airfield in Headcorn with the intention that they will be displayed in the museum.

Examination of these parts confirmed that extreme ice accretion would have caused loss of control. Not only was the plane on 'maximum de-ice' but the engines' turbine blades were undamaged, indicating that they were iced and shut off, resulting in the inevitable crash.

SY 2017-07-15

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• Last Modified: 15 March 2021, 18:20 •