Sheer luck Holmes wins freedom prize

RETIRED
journalist and war hero Ray Holmes, whose Hurricane was dubbed by
newspapers “the plane that saved the King”, was never decorated for his
bravery. Although the then Queen requested a meeting with the brave
young pilot after he foiled a German attack on Buckingham Palace,
Holmes’ one regret is that he never got to keep the appointment.

But
last month Holmes, who spent most of his working life working for his
father’s news agency covering Liverpool Crown Court, became only the
third person in the Wirral to be granted the freedom of the borough.
The award is a belated recognition of his bravery when the capital was
under sustained aerial attack in the Battle of Britain, as well as his
contribution to the area where he has lived most of his life.

Surrounded
more by family photographs than RAF memorabilia, when Holmes describes
events of 15 September 1940 it sounds no more dramatic than a trip to
the supermarket.

Already on his second sortie of the day, Sgt
Pilot Holmes spotted three Dorniers flying in formation, apparently
heading for Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen remained in
residence.

“My immediate thought was ‘Those three buggers are not
getting to London. They’re mine.’ There was no fear in my mind, just
grim determination,”remembers Holmes.

He shot down two of the
Nazi warplanes. Almost blinded when the pilot of one of the planes
deliberately let out oil then set it on fire, he narrowly missed
smashing into one of the stricken enemy aircraft as it hurtled
earthwards. Then one German airman’s parachute caught on the wing of
the Hurricane after he baled out of the bomber.

“Although the
‘Hun’ were the enemy, I must say I actually felt sorry for the poor
chap and saw him as a human being,” says Holmes. “I had to give it full
right rudder and practically fly on my side before the parachute
eventually slid off. That left me free to go after the leader, who was
heading for the Palace.”

Now aged 89, Holmes recalls the moment
his wing-mounted Browning machine guns ran out of ammunition as he
tried to take out the lead plane.

“I approached from 30 degrees
and got a bead on his bonnet – his engine was in my sights,” says
Holmes. “When I got within range I fired the machine-guns but they ran
out of ammunition almost immediately.”

Lesser pilots may have
thought there was no way to stop the bomber but Holmes calculated that
one desperate weapon remained at his disposal – the Hurricane itself.

“There
seemed to be nothing I could do but then I noticed his twin tail
looking particularly frail and tempting. It struck me that I could
bring him down by using my wing to chop off a tail fin,” he says.

Using his wing he sliced the Dornier’s tail clean away and the bomber smashed on the forecourt at Victoria Station.

But
the impact also disabled his Hurricane and sent it into a nose-dive.
Through a combination of ice-cool nerve and good luck he was able to
escape the plummeting craft. Having baled out and with his shoulder
broken Holmes found he did not have the strength to pull the rip-cord
of his parachute.

“I eventually managed to pull it by reaching
across to grab my right wrist with my left hand and giving it a yank,”
he says. “I struggled to control it but realised I was heading straight
for the tracks at Victoria Station. You can imagine how overjoyed I was
to think I was going to be electrocuted on the live rail after all
that.”

Fortunately for Holmes a strong wind blew him towards some
buildings and he finally landed on the roof of a three-storey house. In
another stroke of good fortune, Holmes’ parachute then snagged on a
drainpipe as he slid down the tiles.

“I
was so relieved to be alive that when I saw two girls in the next
garden I freed myself, leapt over the fence and got a kiss off both of
them,” he remembers.

He was taken in by local residents and given
a hero’s welcome. Miraculously, neither the Hurricane nor the Dornier
injured anybody on the London streets.

Holmes dismisses
suggestions that his actions were exceptionally heroic with a curt: “I
was just going about my job.” He says he didn’t wish to crow over his
achievements for two good reasons – respect for his fellow flyers and
fear of court martial for wrecking a Hurricane.

“Most pilots had
their good days and I did not want to paint myself as ‘better’ than
anyone else in the squadron,” he says. “I simply did my job and managed
to survive. I was also terrified of reprisals for using my plane to ram
the Dornier. Hurricanes were in short supply and I feared I would be
court martialled and thrown out for what I did. I made a full report to
military intelligence but I did not wish to anger top brass by shouting
what I had done from the rooftops. All I wanted to do was get a new
plane and get back in the air,” he says.

But his hopes of keeping
his escapade secret were dashed when one of the first people he spoke
to turned out to be a newspaperman.

Holmes asked him to simply let his father Chris Holmes in Liverpool know he was all right.

But
it did not stop there and the Press Association journalist splashed his
story across the wires and it made news next day under the headline
“Tell Dad I’m Okay!”

Chris Johnson, Mercury Press Agency

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 × three =

CLOSE
CLOSE