Flight Lieutenant Ernest Schofield DFC
Flight Lieutenant Ernest Schofield D.F.C.
Born: October 26th 1916, Penistone, Barnsley. Died: February 23rd 2009 Age: 92
Flight Lieutenant Ernest Schofield, who has died aged 92, was the navigator of a Catalina flying boat that carried out a number of top secret long-range sorties to the High Arctic and Russia, earning him an immediate DFC.
With the need to send critical convoys to Russia, in 1942 it was deemed necessary to establish an Allied presence on Spitsbergen – 350 miles north of Norway’s North Cape – to monitor the weather, ice conditions and Luftwaffe activity. The Germans already had an outpost there, having established a weather station manned by four men in late 1941.
In May 1942 a party of Norwegians and an intelligence officer, Lt-Cdr Sandy Glen, were sent to Spitsbergen in an ice breaker. The ship was attacked by a German aircraft as she arrived, but the survivors made it ashore and set up a signal station. Flight Lieutenant Tim Healy and his crew, which included Schofield as navigator, were detailed to go to the aid of Glen’s party, using a Catalina that had been specially modified to allow it to cover extreme distances.
On their first flight they were able to do no more than exchange messages; on the second, although drift ice prevented them from landing to evacuate the wounded, they dropped supplies. Then, on June 6, the Catalina managed to land, ferry stores to the small garrison and pick up three wounded men. A week later the aircraft returned to collect Glen, who was needed at discussions in London, and subsequently brought him back to the island.
Throughout this period the Catalina also carried out reconnaissance missions to determine the extent of the ice in the High Arctic, missions that sometimes required the crew to remain airborne for more than 24 hours. Schofield’s role was particularly demanding: polar navigation, particularly north of the 80 degree latitude, presented unique problems to the navigator, since the traditional magnetic compass and routine maps were unsuitable.
Schofield had to rely on gyromagnetic and astro compasses, and on a sextant to obtain sightings from the sun which, at those latitudes in the summer, never set. He was often afflicted with air sickness, which only added to his difficulties. The crew’s attempt in August 1942 to fly a reconnaissance to the North Pole was thwarted by bad weather when they were 600 miles away from their objective. On their return one of the aircraft’s two engines lost power, but Healy was able to nurse the Catalina back to Iceland.
For their service over this period Healy was awarded a DSO and Schofield a DFC.
After the mauling of the PQ 17 convoy to Russia in June/July 1942, the RAF sent torpedo bombers to Russia’s north-western Kola Inlet to support the next convoy.
The Catalinas of No 210 were ordered to provide PQ 18 with an escort and to establish an anti-submarine barrier around the North Cape of Norway. In September Healy’s crew flew to a Russian airbase to carry out a number of patrols during the final, and most dangerous, phase of PQ 18’s journey to Murmansk.
With the convoy safely in port, on September 24 Healy and his crew took off to return to Shetland via Spitsbergen. Bad weather forced them to return to their Russian base, and as they approached the coast a German long-range fighter attacked the Catalina. Healy was killed, but the second pilot managed to fly the aircraft back to a safe landing.
Ernest Schofield was born on October 26 1916 at Penistone, near Barnsley, and educated at Bemrose School, Derby. He won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read Economics.
After taking his degree he spent an additional year at Cambridge reading History, then joined the Civil Service. In January 1939 he was posted to the Inland Revenue, but despite being in a reserved occupation he joined the RAF to train as an observer in 1941.
That September Schofield was posted to No 210 Squadron, flying anti-submarine patrols from Oban. In April 1942 the squadron moved to Sullom Voe in the Shetlands, where its primary role was to carry out reconnaissance off the north Norwegian coast and to protect convoys in the region.
After his adventures in the Arctic, Schofield left No 210 in the spring of 1943, spending the last two years of the war as a specialist navigation instructor. He was released from the RAF in 1945.
He returned to the Inland Revenue, where he remained until his retirement in 1976. He devoted more than 30 years to the care of his wife, whose delicate health required many stays in hospital and constant care at their home in Surrey.
Schofield was a patient, gentle man of great integrity, and liked nothing better than to work in his superb garden, which he had cultivated from a large bramble patch.
With a fellow Coastal Command observer, Roy Nesbit, he wrote about his wartime experiences in Arctic Airmen (1987), a book he dedicated to his pilot Tim Healy.
Ernest Schofield died on February 23. He married, in 1940, Hattie Pritchard; she died in 1995, and he is survived by their two daughters.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.