A tribute to a commanding officer

I asked Geoff Rothwell DFC & bar to write a piece on his former commanding officer. Who better to ask than a former flight commander who lived and fought alongside Wing Commander Don Saville DSO DFC during the early summer of 1943.



Geoff Rothwell

I met Don Saville three times in my service career, sadly, the last time I saw him was on the day I was posted on completing my second tour, before he went missing on a Hamburg raid.

Our first meeting was in November 1939. I was flying in an Anson on a navigation exercise from No.12 Flying Training School Grantham to South Cerney F.T.S. It was one of those superb late autumn days sometimes experienced in the U.K. The sky was cloudless and the ground was covered in a low-lying mist through which hills and church steeples were exposed.

As my E.T.A. approached I was most concerned not to see a break in the mist. However, when I reckoned I was over South Cerney I was delighted to see an airfield poking through the cloud on a nearby hill. Down I went and landed safely on what turned out to be R.A.F. Kemble. When I switched off I saw a smallish officer approaching and went to meet him. He was a Pilot Officer who asked me who I was and where had I come from. As Acting Pilot Officer pupils we had been taught to call all other ranks “Sir” but the P/O said, “Don’t call me sir. I’m Don Saville.” He told me Kemble was a Ferry Unit and took me to his office in the hangar.

Whilst getting me a cup of tea another Anson from Grantham landed. Don really hit the roof and told us they had no right to let us fly without checking condition at the destination. He put a call in to Grantham and really lambasted our Flight Commander who was another Australian, F/Lt. Dilworth. What a joy it was to an A/P/O pupil to meet such a down-to-earth and unassuming officer senior to himself.

I was instructing at 21 O.T.U. Moreton-in-Marsh in 1941 when a Douglas  DB7 Havoc landed. Who should the pilot be but Don Saville, now a Squadron Leader. He was using the Havoc to bring his kit from Kemble because he had been posted to Moreton to pick up a crew prior to posting to 12 Squadron at Binbrook.

I was posted to 218 Squadron at Downham Market on 1 April 1943 and found a new Squadron Commander had arrived a few days before. I was delighted to find it was Wing Commander Don Saville.

I was to serve as a Flight Commander under Don for five months and they were the highlight of my career to date. It was a real pleasure to witness how this small Australian was able to run the squadron so effectively with a complete lack of the restrictive rules which were often a feature of other units. In other words 218 was noted for the relaxed, bull-free atmosphere.

Operations in 1943 were noted as being some of the most hair-raising of the war. The Battle of the Ruhr took a heavy toll of losses as did raids on Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart and others. Squadron Commanders were supposed to be limited in the frequency of operations per month but  Don obviously ignored this rule and was usually found to be on the Operations Order of  some of the hairest targets.

When I heard of the loss of Don I was quite overcome with grief as he had become a close friend and such was his operation record you never expected he would become a casualty. He was certainly the most impressive Squadron Commander I served. What a sad loss and what a memory he has bequeathed us.

Geoff Rothwell DFC & Bar Order of Leopold & Palme, Croix de Guerre 1940 & Palme

Geoff Rothwell flew his first tour with No.99 Squadron based at RAF Newmarket during 1940/41. On completion Geoff was award the DFC and sent as an instructor to No.15 O.T.U at Hampstead Norris. Within months Geoff was chosen to tour the  USA. This must have been a fascinating and enjoyable time, however it was not all play as there was a serious side to his posting. Geoff had been tasked with explaining to the Americans what was actually happening in the air war over Europe, he was also instructed to promote and introduce the RAF training methods into the American system. Upon his return to the UK Geoff was posted to  No.75(NZ) Squadron equipped with the Short Stirling and to Geoff’s  surprise they too were based at RAF Newmarket. However his stay was short lived as a policy originating over 11,000 miles in  New Zealand required senior officers on the squadron to be New Zealanders. The Kiwis loss was No.218 Squadron gain as Geoff and his crew arrived in the Spring of 1943. For the next five months Geoff and his crew participated in numerous raids against heavily defended targets in Germany, finally during the first week of July 1943 Geoff was screened, he had completed his second tour. A posting to No.11.O.T.U was followed by a bar to his DFC in September 1943. Within a year Geoff was back for his third tour, he arrived at No.138(SD) Squadron based at RAF Tempsford on May 15th 1944.  Geoff’s luck run out on September 8th 1944 while on a SOE flight, Operation Draughts/Backgammon.  An unfortunate incident with a balloon cable resulted in Short Stirling LK200 NF-J crashing near De Cocksdorp north of Texel, sadly with the loss of three crew. Geoff and his remaining crew spent the lasts months of the war Prisoners of War.

Geoff Rothwell 001

“Rothwell’s Ruffians”  The crew of Squadron Leader Geoff Rothwell DFC No.218 Squadron 1943

 Wing Commander W J Burnett DSO OBE DFC AFC who arrived on No.138 Squadron on May 9th to assume command recorded in the forward to Geoff’s autobiography “The Man with Nine Lives” the following ;

I first meet Geoff in 1944 when I took command of 138 (SD) Squadron and he was one of my flight commanders. Geoff proved to be a born leader and one who lead by example. In fact, I had to suggest on more than one occasion that he let some of his other pilots have a chance. 

I will be putting together a bio of Geoff in the months to come!