Group Captain Geoff Womersley D.S.O. and Bar. D.F.C.
Born: November 19th 1914, Bingley, Yorkshire. Died: October 28th 2010 Age 95.
Womersley had already completed more than 50 bombing operations over Europe when he was appointed to command No 139 Squadron, flying Mosquitos as part of the Pathfinders’ Light Night Striking Force. In addition to marking targets with flares and target indicators, this force of fast, mobile bombers flew “spoof” raids to confuse German air defence forces as well as “nuisance” raids designed to deprive industrial workers of a good night’s sleep.
After taking over the squadron in February 1944, Womersley soon completed 26 operations against Germany’s most heavily defended cities, including Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt. On many occasions he acted as “master bomber”, with the role of directing other bombers on to the various coloured markers that indicated the aiming point for the target. This frequently involved Womersley remaining over the target, under fire, for long periods until the attack was complete.
On the night of May 12, he led nine of his Mosquitos in support of another squadron which was dropping mines in the Kiel Canal. It was 139 Squadron’s task to drop flares to mark the route and to illuminate the target for the low-flying bombers. The raid was a great success and the canal was closed for many days. On another occasion, Womersley descended to low level over Mannheim, in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, in order to give accurate instructions to the main force of bombers above. For this he was awarded a Bar to an earlier DSO.
The son of a mill owner, Geoffrey Harland Womersley was born at Bingley, Yorkshire, on November 19 1914 and educated at Bradford Grammar School. He joined the RAF in 1936 and trained as a pilot at the RAF’s flying school in Egypt.
His flying career started on the biplane bombers of No 102 Squadron before it re-equipped with the Whitley. Immediately after the outbreak of war he dropped propaganda leaflets over German cities and bombed the German seaplane bases on Heligoland and Sylt. On the night of May 11 1940, however, Womersley flew on the RAF’s first raid on a German town, when 37 aircraft bombed road and rail links at Monchengladbach.
His squadron was called on to support the British Expeditionary Force and when, on May 22, (see note below) his aircraft was hit by flak on the German-French border, he and his crew were forced to bail out. On the ground he inadvertently stumbled into a group of German soldiers. Turning round and striding off in the other direction, he eventually came across some British soldiers. From there he managed to get to Paris and on to the last flight to England from Le Bourget airport. Throughout his life he would refer to “the luck of the Womersleys”.
He went on to complete 30 operations, most of them against road and rail targets in Germany, before he was rested to become a bombing instructor – a task he considered more dangerous than operations.
His return to operations in August 1942 coincided with the formation of the Pathfinder Force, and he immediately volunteered, joining No 156, one of the Force’s original four squadrons. In his Wellington he attacked targets in Germany and in Italy (the latter often involving missions of nine hours’ duration), dropping flares to illuminate the targets.
Womersley was recognised as one of the Pathfinders’ most fearless pilots, and in January 1943, whilst still a junior flight lieutenant, he was awarded a D.S.O. The citation concluded: “He has displayed outstanding ability and pressed home his attacks with unusual courage in the face of enemy fighter and anti-aircraft opposition.”
After the squadron had been re-equipped with the Lancaster, Womersley went on to complete 25 operations during the Battle of the Ruhr. A few months after receiving his DSO he was awarded a DFC for “pressing home his attacks with grim determination”.
In April 1943 he joined the air staff at Pathfinder headquarters, working directly for its commander, Air Vice-Marshal Donald Bennett. Ten months later he took command of No 139 Squadron.
After attending the USAAF Staff College, Womersley was promoted group captain to command the Pathfinder airfield at Gransden Lodge near Cambridge, and flew a number of operations with the resident RCAF Lancaster squadron. He left the RAF in November 1945.
Early in 1946 Donald Bennett established British South American Airways, whose civilianised RAF bombers flew routes to the Caribbean and South America. Many of his ex-Pathfinder crews joined him, Womersley among them. The airline later used the Avro Tudor, one of which was lost without trace in the Bermuda Triangle. Womersley was one of the aircraft’s few fans, describing it as “the best civil airliner flying”.
On May 10 1954, following the airline’s merger with BOAC, Womersley flew a Comet into Rome airport, where another crew took over for the flight to London. Shortly after take-off the aircraft suffered an explosive decompression and crashed into the sea off Elba; there were no survivors. He remained with the airline until 1968, retiring as one of its senior Boeing 707 captains.
Womersley was a well-built, impressive looking man with a natural presence, known for his unflappability and modesty.
A scratch golfer in his youth, he played to single figures until he was in his late eighties. His golf clubs accompanied him everywhere, sometimes stowed in the cockpit of his aircraft.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Dorothy Allsop, five days after war broke out in September 1939. She died in 2002, and he is survived by their daughter.
Note: Flying a Whitley V N1528 DY-E with 102 Squadron – escaped with all the crew baling out at 01.00 hrs and making back to England, via Paris on the 25th May.