There can be very few individuals who served on 218 Squadron who had such a varied operational career as Geoff Rothwell, the “Man with Nine Lives”.Geoff was born on April 3rd 1920 in Didsbury near Manchester, throughout his early childhood Geoff’s sense of humour and mischief were apparent, he was no academic and his early schooling was not an overly enjoyable one. In 1935 he left Christ’s College, apart from sport in which Geoff excelled his time could be best be summed up as unhappy.With the threat of war looming Geoff wanted to join the RAF, a pal of his had already done so on a Short Service Commission, it was then Geoff decided that this was where he wanted to be. In 1938 Geoff was 18 and applied for a Short Service Commission in the General Duties Branch of the RAF. After a few issues, age, academic results Geoff was finally accepted and was posted to RAF Desford, Leicestershire where he undertook his initial training. On July 25th 1939 Geoff flew for the first time in a De Havilland 82 Tiger Moth N6477, it was the start of a fascinating RAF career.
Geoffs next posting was to No.12 Flying Training School, Grantham where he was assessed as “Average”. It was while at 12 FTS that Geoff would meet and become friends with Don Saville. Promoted to pilot officer Geoff was posted to No.15 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Harwell, it was here that Geoff went solo on the Vickers Wellington, the date was May 13th 1940. After a total of 15 hours by day and 44 hours 20 minutes night training on the Wimpy Geoff was certified a qualified Wellington pilot. His first posting was to No.99 Squadron a No.3 Group squadron based at RAF Newmarket. On May 16th Geoff flew with Pilot Officer Bill Thallon on a cross country flight, three days later on May 19th Geoff undertook his first War Operation against the railway yards at Hal, Germany, this again was with Bill Thallon in Wellington Mk Ic P9243. Geoff flew a total of ten operations in the right hand seat before his leadership skills and enthusiasm resulted in him captaining his own crew.
On June 29th Geoff flew his first operation as captain, the target was storage dumps in the Black Forest. The operation was successful however the crew landed Wellington R3197 at RAF North Weald on return the result of wireless set failure. Three operations were flown in July two of which resulted in damage to Geoff’s Wellington. On August 2nd Geoff was forced to abort an operation due to engine trouble and again on the 11th with intercom failure. There followed a period of intense flying attacking targets such as Boulogne, Wilhelmshaven, Emden, the Air Ministry building in Berlin, Munich and Gelsenkirchen. On return from attack Kiel on October 13th, Geoff was subjected to “friendly” AA fire from the trigger happy coastal gunners while crossing over the English coast near Lowestoft. A week later he was forced to send a SOS while returning from Wilhelmshaven, a faulty engine 100 miles out over the inhospitable North Sea resulted in a rather tense return. Geoff’s finally operation of his first tour was 5 hour 30 minute raid against the docks at Cherbourg on November 22nd 1940, it was his 37th operation. The tour had witnessed a number of close calls, undeterred Geoff’s determination and press on spirit had seen him and his crew through. He had flown a total of 181.05hrs with “A” Flight of No.99 Squadron. Geoff was posted to No.15 OTU and then “C” Flight at Hampstead Norris as an instructor. In January 1941 he was awarded the DFC, the citation reads :
Pilot Officer Rothwell was detailed as a captain of aircraft to take part ina raid on Munich on the night of November 8/9th 1940. On approach to the target the aircraft ran into AA barrage at Ulm. There was a bright moon at the time and the captain decoded to circle the town in view of the intensity of the AA fire. He noticed a large factory which in his opinion merited an attack. He made two attacks descending to 5000 and 4000 feet respectively, releasing one bomb on each occasion. Each bomb was seen to burst on the factory and fires broke out. Pilot Officer Rothwell then proceeded to his primary objective which was satisfactorily attacked, one of the bombs being a 1000lb calibre. On return journey two low level machine gun attacks were carried out on aerodromes at Ulm and Leipheim in the course of which the pilot descended to 1500ft. The factory previously attacked at Ulm was blazing fiercely. Since May 1940, this officer had taken part in 33 major bombing attacks over Belgium, France and Germany involving 169 hours flying. All this time he has displayed a conspicuous determination in pressing home his attacks in the face of heavy enemy opposition. By his persistent determination and outstanding skill this officer at all times sets an example of the highest order.
After a long and frustrating spell of instructing Geoff received the welcome news that he was off to the USA on an educational / moral building posting. In April 1942 Geoff was part of the RAF Delegation sent to Washington DC. Within days of his arrival he was posted to the South East Air Corps Training Centre at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama. Here Geoff did the rounds, public speaking, guest appearances and more interestingly meeting American airman and viewing and appraising US aircraft. Geoff’s stay was relatively short as within six weeks he found himself at Turner Airfield Base where he stayed until mid-August. There followed another spell at Maxwell until his return to Washington where he was told that his time in the USA was over. In November Geoff set sail from Halifax aboard the Glasgow built SS Cavina, a passenger & refrigeration vessel built in 1925. The Cavina set sail part of a large convoy in freezing conditions, the crossing was far from uneventful, the convoy was attacked on a number of occasions losing a number of ships to the prowling U-Boats. In early 1943 Geoff was posted to “A” Flight of No.1657 Con Unit based at RAF Stradishall for conversion to the four engine Short Stirling, the type almost exclusively used by No.3 Group. At the time No.1657 was commanded by Wing Commander Jo Jo Ker a former 218 Squadron tour expired pilot. Geoff took his first flight in a Stirling (W7427) on January 26th under the watchful eye of his instructor Pilot Officer Bob Hook, the 1 hour 50 minute familiarisation flight went without mishap. On February 6th Geoff flew his last flight from Stradishall, a 80 minute circuit & bumps night trip, his conversion was over. Flight Lieutenant Rothwell DFC found himself and his new crew, which included three New Zealanders posted to No.75 (NZ) Squadron based at RAF Newmarket on February 9th 1943. The squadron was commanded by Wing Commander Gerald Lane DFC a pre-war veteran pilot. Geoff’s first operation of his second tour was on February 26th 1943 to the Frisian Islands, this was Geoff’s first flight as a squadron leader and Geoff’s first taste of mining, or Gardening as it was referred. The following night Geoff was back again sowing, this time off North Ameland, on this occasion the crew were shadowed by a prowling fighter. On March 1st Geoff and crew attacked Berlin, it would prove to be a battle of survival. On route the crew were attacked by twin engine fighter over the Fehmarn Island, (see Combat Report) After shaking off the fighter the crew successfully bombed the target and where on route home when on the outskirts of Osnabruck they were again attacked. Flying at 13,500ft (see Combat Report) both gunners were alert to the presences of a fighter manuavering into position at a range of 400 yard astern. Seeing the danger both gunners instantly opened fire with a 2 second burst, the fighter was seen to dive away. Almost immediately the Stirling was bracketed by flak and severely hit, Geoff had to draw upon all his experience and flying skill to escape the flak which exploded all around his aircraft. Finally the crescendo of bursting shells began to recede as the range slowly increased until thankfully the crew were in the clear, Geoff’s windscreen had been shattered and the fuselage was badly holed luckily missing the crew and any vital equipment, it had been a close shave. Twenty eight minutes later the crew were north of Munster when a JU88 was observed on the port bow slightly above, both the front and mid upper gunners engaged the fighter at maximum range with a 2 second burst, the night fighter went into a step dive without firing. A few seconds later the crew then observed a red glow below the clouds which slowly disappeared (see Combat Report). Unable to land at base the crew diverted to RAF Stradishall landing at 03.00hrs. It had been real baptism of fire, the crew had performed magnificently. It was later recorded that the last encounter the crew could claimed a “probable”. Two operations were quickly flown without incident, Hamburg March 3rd and Essen March 5th followed by a raid on Nuremburg on March 8th. This was unsuccessful due to S/I engine failure resulting in an early return. The following night the crew again took off to southern Germany, the target was Munich. The all incendiary load was successfully dropped on the city, it was not until Geoff was over England that his troubles began. While coming into land both P/O and S/O engines cut requiring Geoff to make a forced landing on Newmarket Heath, when checked the Stirling had just 5 gallons of fuel left in its tanks, at the most a few minutes of flying time. It had been yet another close call. Geoff and crew did not operate again until March 27th when Berlin was the target. Geoff and crew were aloft at 19:40hrs in their now regular aircraft BF451. The crew encountered considerable flak over the target as Geoff dropped his 2 x 1000lb + 48 x 30lb + 270 lb incendiaries on red and green markers from remarkably low altitude of 8,500ft. He was back within the circuit within 7 hours 45 minutes, once again BF451 was in the wars with numerous flak holes. It was back to Berlin on the 29th however on this occasion severe icing meant that Geoff was forced to abandon the operation. Rothwell was now a respected senior captain and flight commander on No.75 (NZ) Squadron and since joining the squadron had made a number of good friends, however sadly this was not to last. Towards the end of March No.75 Squadron was inspected by the base commander Air Commodore “Square” McKee and according to Geoff’s excellent biography “The Man with Nine Lives” he was informed that it was the New Zealand Government’s policy to staff senior posts on the squadron with New Zealanders, he was to be posted. Geoff was dismayed and stunned at the prospect of leaving, however orders were orders. There was one positive, Geoff could keep his crew. While with No.75(NZ) Squadron the crew had completed 9 operations flying a total of 55 hour forty minutes.
The Kiwi’s loss was No.218 (Gold Coast) Squadrons gain and the Rothwell crew arrived at RAF Downham Market on April 1st 1943 two days before Geoff’s twenty-third birthday. No.218 (Gold Coast) Squadron was commanded by an old friend, Don Saville. Wing Commander Saville DFC was an experienced and charismatic Australian who had served both in the UK and more recently in the Middle East. His courage and leadership qualities quickly earned him a reputation as an excellent commander, he lead from the front, was anti-bull, enjoyed a pint and had a rather twisted sense of humour, how could they not have become firm friends! Geoff was given command of “A” Flight on the departure of an equally enigmatic flight commander, Squadron Leader Wally Hiles DFC on completion of his second tour. Geoff’s first operation with No.218 Squadron and 47th war operation was on April 4th, the target was Kiel. If Geoff was under any illusion that 218 Squadron would be any less dangerous and demanding he would be proved very wrong. On return from Kiel Geoff was forced to land at RAF Coltishall due to a holed wing tank, while taxing to his dispersal, all four engines cut due to lack of fuel. On April 14th Stuttgart was the chosen target. Geoff was hedge-hopping his way across France and Luxembourg in almost daylight conditions, shooting up a train, a signal box, river barges and a military camp along the way. On approaching the town of Junglinster in central Luxemburg they chanced upon a slow moving train travelling into the town. Without hesitation the bomb-aimer, Sgt “Wal” Fielding, manned the front turret and opened up, registering strikes all over the engine, which almost immediately gushed steam. While Geoff’s attention was momentarily distracted, he failed to notice until too late that he was on a collision course with an electricity pylon. With sheer brute strength and a fair degree of luck Rothwell managed to avoid a head on collision, but he could not avert contact altogether, and a six foot long section of fabrication starting just below the bomb-aimer’s compartment was ripped off to the accompaniment of blue and white sparks. One of the incendiaries damaged in the collision burst into flames, forcing the jettisoning of the entire incendiary load. Having regained control Rothwell turned for home, climbing to an altitude of 5,000 feet in preparation to re-cross the coast. However, ten miles north-east of Sedan they were attacked by a JU88, but crew discipline, superb airmanship and accurate return fire saved the day. It was a close shave, evidenced by a cannon shell smashing the cockpit canopy and sending a piece of shrapnel into Rothwell’s neck. The gunner’s poured fire into the fighter, which was seen to shudder and omit red and orange flames as it was lost to sight. (see Combat Report) BK650 eventually landed safely after being aloft for a hectic four and a half hours. Geoff did not operate again until the 20th when the crew was given the Heinkel Works at Rostock as a target, it was Geoff’s 50th war operation. ( see the damaged BK650 the morning after ) Operating for the first time as acting squadron Leader it would appear that both Geoff and crew had forgotten all about the near fatal encounter with the electrical pylon, while on route home the crew attacked a locomotive engine from low level resulting in three explosions, this time the crew encountered no problem landing BF712 HA-K at 05.35hrs.
Geoff operated on three occasions during May attacking Bochum on the 13th, Dortmund on the 23rd and finally Dusseldorf on the 25th. It was not until June 11 that the “Rothwell Ruffians” operated again, the target was again Dusseldorf. This was a particularly heavy raid which caused extensive damaged to the city. Geoff had S/Ldr Denys Maw alongside him in BK803 HA-D on June 24th, the target was Elderfeld. The crew ran into searchlights over Düsseldorf while closing in on the target. For five minutes the Stirling was bracketed by flak, and Geoff used every bit of his experience as a pilot to escape it. Finally, after surrendering three thousand feet of altitude, he managed to slip away, but it had been a close call, which would be self-evident in the cold light of the following morning, when twenty holes would be found in the wings and fuselage. A few days later Rothwell was told to report to W/Cdr Saville, which he duly did, uncertain as to the reason for the summons. Expecting the worst, Rothwell was delighted to hear from his commanding officer and friend that he was now to be screened after completing his second tour. Elberfeld had been his fifty-fifth and final operation. He had flown 9 operations with No.218 Squadron totally 47 hours. Geoff’s contribution to the squadrons success cannot be underestimated, he lead from the front and had totally commitment and loyalty from his flight and more importantly from his commander and good friend W/Cdr Don Saville. Sadly Geoff’s departure coincided with the loss of Wing Commander Don Saville DFC on the July 24th while attacking Hamburg, it was Don Saville’s 57 operation, two days later it was announced he was awarded the DSO. It was a bitter blow to all to see Geoff posted to No.11 O.T.U RAF Oakley on July 26th 1943, within a matter of days the squadron had lost two of its most experienced and respected pilots. Geoff was awarded a well-deserved Bar to his DFC in September, the citation reads:
Bar to the DFC
Throughout many attacks on the enemy targets, Squadron Leader Rothwell has consistently displayed courage and determination of a very high order which has had an influence on the results obtained by the whole squadron. He is now on his third tour of operational duty, which has consisted of attacks on major Germany targets.
What followed was a period of Geoff’s career that can be best summed up as frustrating and unhappy due mostly to a dislike of his commanding officer Wing Commander Clive Scott RNZAF. It was not until May 1944 Geoff was operational again on this his third tour. Posted to No.138 (Special Duties) Squadron based at RAF Tempsford, the squadron was “Top Secret” and used to supply equipment and arms to the various resistance groups in the occupied Europe, also it dropped agents or “Joes” behind enemy lines. Equipped with the H.P Halifax the squadron was commanded by Canadian Wing Commander Wilf Burnett DFC. It would be almost four months before Geoff once again found himself in the cockpit of a Stirling. Geoff’s first operation was on May 23rd when he accompanied S/Ldr Wilding in H.P Halifax LL390 dropping five agents and containers in France, the trip was a success. During June Geoff completed five operations including one on D-Day, all of which were flown in the Merlin powered Halifax Mk V, a further five operations were completed in July with varying success ( See copy of a 138 Sqdn De-briefing document) . Two further operations were flown on Halifaxes in August, “Tablejam” on the 4th and “Osric” on the 8th, it was back to the Stirling on August 29th with a 7 hour 50 minute trip to “Crupper 7” in Norway where two agents were dropped. This was Geoff’s first operation in the new Mk.IV Stirling which had been extensively modified from the old Mk III, the front turret was removed and a large Perspex nose added giving excellent forward vision imperative for the work the squadron was undertaking. Also removed was the FN mid upper turret, the removal of both turrets increased the Stirlings speed and overall handling. September 1944 started with a double operation to both Holland and the Dutch /Germany. “Rummy I involved dropping an agent and parcel in Holland while “Bob” situated on the border of Germany required the dropping of a number of containers to the local Resistance. On the return flight the crew had an encounter with a Me110, excellent crew cooperation and flying skill prevented serious damage, the Stirling received just 2 bullets holes. It was not until the crew landed at Tempsford the ground crews reported that a cannon shell had hit the undercarriage leg causing damage which would require extensive repair. A successful operation was flown to “TableJam 60” in Denmark on the September 6th it was his 70th war operation. On September 8th Geoff was given a double op trip to “Draughts” and “Backgammon” both located in the Alkmaar region of Holland. It was around this time that Wing Commander Wilf Burnett DFC tenure of command of No.138 Squadron was coming to an end, it is recorded in “ The Man With Nine Lives” that Geoff was to assume command having completed 70 operations and his third tour. It is also suggested that the September 8th operation was Geoff’s final operation before promotion to wing commander.
Geoff lift off Stirling LK200 NF-U from Tempsford runway and set course for the east coast, aboard were two agents Pieter de Vos and Tobias Biallosterski. The pre op weather forecast predicted fine weather on route, however over the North Sea the crew encountered a giant cumulo nimbus cloud front that towered up to 6000ft. Climbing from 500ft Geoff enter the cauldron of cloud, it was rough going as the Stirling was tossed from side to side, Geoff struggled to keep the mighty Stirling on an even keel, bludgeoned and blown in almost every direction Geoff had no option to reduced altitude fearing structural damage to the Stirling. In a hope of flying below the cloud Geoff brought the Stirling down to 150ft encountering heavy rain in the process. Within minutes the crew were clear and flying in brilliant moon light, the sight of the moon was a welcome one. The crew found the DZ and both agents were successfully dropped. Geoff circled the area to confuse the German radar operators and then set course for Vlieland. It was while at 300ft the Stirling encountered and collided with what is thought to be a balloon that had broken free and was drifting 2 miles of Vlieland, the Stirling lost speed as the cable wrenched the S/I engine propeller away causing a fire in the engine, this quickly began to eat into the wing towards the fuel tanks. Geoff used every bit of his strength and skill to keep the aircraft aloft, fuel pressure to the engines was lost and the ASI was U/S as was the ailerons, Geoff instinctively knew that the Stirling was going to crash. The crew were too low to bail out so Geoff ordered the crew to their ditching stations. Within seconds the Stirling hit the ground with a shuddering force that tossed the Stirling about like a toy, disintegrating as it slowly came to a halt. Geoff had been catapulted out through the cockpit roof, he lay unconscious for hours, bruised, blooded and shocked but alive. On coming around Geoff began a frantic search for his crew, sadly the crews bomb aimer, F/O Roger Court DFC, F/O John Hulme, Wireless Operator and F/O William Walton DFC rear gunner had been killed. Dazed and concussed but otherwise relatively uninjured Geoff located the survivors, all of whom were injured. Geoff was fortunate in obtaining help from a loyal Dutch family, more in hope than anything Geoff had hoped to locate a boat and escape off the island. Sadly it was not to be, the German Garrison was on full alert and it was only a matter of time before they were captured. Not willing to endanger the lives of the Dutch family Geoff surrendered his gun to the head of the family, he in turn handed it over the Germans, Geoff was picked up spent the remaining months of the war as a PoW. Squadron Leader Geoff Rothwell DFC & Bar Order of Leopold II with Palme and Croix de Guerre 1940 with Palme contribution to the squadrons he served and to No.3 Group is unsurpassed. His courage, tenacity and personality inspired those who served with him, he was an inspiration to all those who knew him, the words of his DFC citation graphically sums up Geoff ” By his persistent determination and outstanding skill this officer at all times sets an example of the highest order. Geoff is a TRUE BOMBER BARRON.
A very special thank you to Geoff and Gabrielle for allowing me to use photos from the book The Man with Nine Lives and Mr Bob Body expert on all things Tempsford. Follow the link to Bobs excellent site. http://www.tempsford-squadrons.info/