Squadron Leader John O’Brien

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NEVER CROSS A VICAR

 Squadron Leader John O’Brien’s began his flying career on September 30th 1940 during the height of the Battle of Britain.

The young trainee pilot on what would be the firstly of literally hundreds of flights was airborne in a DH83 Tiger Moth of No.7 Elementary Flying Training School based at RAF Desford, Leicestershire.  John’s instructor on this maiden flight was Sergeant Fieldhouse.  Both instructor and pupil  were aloft for just 35 minutes,  it was the start of a fascinating career for the young trainee pilot.  For the next two months while the Battle of Britain raged over the skies of England, John carried out almost daily flights, learning all the basics of piloting, turns, take off and landings, gliding and spinning, all under the watchful eye of Sergeant Fieldhouse.  

Finally on October 16th 1940 John O’Brien carried out his first solo flight in Tiger Moth N.9272 under the scrutiny of Flight Lieutenant W.J Hall  OC “D” Flight. With some trepanation John put the Tiger Moth through its passes, carrying out a series of gentle turns and banks, finally after 25 minutes John brought the Tiger Moth in for a near perfect landing, the 25 minutes felt like hours.  Within a month John was checked out by Pilot Officer Brett. John must have done enough as this was his last flight with No.7 E.F.T.S, he was assessed as “Average”
John’s next posting was to No.2 Squadron RAF College Cranwell on November 17th where two days after his arrival, he was aloft in the twin engine Airspeed Oxford s/n P9643. Sitting in the right hand seat was Flying Officer Flynn. Over the next five winter months John fine-tuned his flying skills. In March 1941 he was assessed by Flight Lieutenant L Headley as “Above Average”.   A new aircraft was added to his Log Book on March 30th when he carried out a training flight in A.V Roe’s type 621 two seat radial engine Avro Tutor. By the end of John’s time with No.2 Squadron it was obvious that he was a natural pilot as he was chosen to become an Instructor. It is not known if this was John’s choice or he was ordered to do so, but instruct he would.   John’s next posting was to No.14 E.F.T.S based at RAF Elmdon, West Midlands. This school trained both RAF and Royal Navy pilots.  John’s first flight commander was Flight Lieutenant K Barnes o/c “C” Flight.  It was on October 21st 1941, a little over a year since taking his first solo that John carried out his first instructional flight. The pupil was Sergeant Owens.  Sergeant Owens was the first of what would be literally hundreds of pupil pilots to be trained under John’s calm and reassuring influence over the next 3 years. 
It was while instructing at No.14 E.F.T.S that John records within the pages of his log book a number of trainee Fleet Air Arm pilots. The school was at the time training both services, which would have made the mess an interesting place I am sure.  Glued on a number of pages are small photographs of his pupil pilots. How many I wonder survived the war? 

By February 1942 John was an experienced instructor and with his experience came promotion. He was promoted to Pilot Officer in February and to Flying Officer in June having amassed a total of 534 flying hours.  Yet another move in July 1942 found John instructing at No.9 E.F.T.S based at Walsgrave. His stay was brief as within a few short months John was transferred  back to No.14 E.F.T.S as o/c “A” Flight. By now he had amassed 928 hours 5 minutes flying time.  John was obviously in demand as in the New Year he was once again setting off for pastures new, this time No.4 Flying Training School based at RAF Teversham which was equipped with the Miles M.9 Master, an  advanced two seat monoplane and the  Miles M.14 Magister two-seat monoplane trainer aircraft. Both aircraft were built by the Miles Aircraft. Affectionately known as the Maggie, the Magister was based on Miles’ civilian Hawk Major and Hawk Trainer and was the first monoplane designed specifically as a trainer for the RAF. As a low-wing monoplane, it was an ideal introduction to the Spitfire and Hurricane for new pilots.  This stay was equally brief. After two short months John found himself once again packing his bags and heading back to No.14 E.F.T.S.  John’s first Log Book finishes on May 14th 1943. He had by this time amassed a grand total of 1214 hours 40 minutes flying hours  and in the process he had visited a staggering 41 aerodromes and had flown five types of training aircraft.  John was now an extremely proficient and skilled instructor who during the first six months of 1943 put this skill to good effect, however his nomad ways soon caught up with him as in early June 1943 he was posted back to No.9 E.F.T.S where he would serve until January 1944.  It was around this time John began to start making enquiries about a posting to a front line squadron.  He had been instructing for over 3 years and had been instrumental in the training of numerous young pilots. Finally in late January 1944 he was posted to No.18 (Pilots) Advance Training School at Snitherfield, Warwickshire equipped with the Airspeed Oxford, he was at this time a flight lieutenant. John’s first flight at this new unit was at the controls of Oxford ED282. Not since the summer of 1940  had John found himself the pupil, sitting beside him and showing him the ropes was Flying Officer G Hollins o/c “F” Flight. John’s stay was relatively short as he carried out his last flight on April 14th and did not fly again for almost five weeks, the longest break from flying in almost 3 years. Whether exhausted or waiting posting, John no doubt enjoyed the rest.

It was at No.26 Operational Training Unit equipped with the Vickers Wellington that John found himself in early May 1944. His first flight was on May 20th under the guidance of Flight Lieutenant Lowe. John lifted the battered and weary Wimpy off RAF Little Horwoods main runway. John was put through his passes, flapless overshoots, feathering engines and cockpit procedures where cramped into 2 long hours.  It must have been an exhilarating experience with two powerful 1050hp Bristol Pegasus engines either side of the cramped cockpit.

On May 23 1944 a single entry denoted the arrival of his crew, John was now responsible for the lives of five others and this new responsibility he took seriously. For the next month John and his crew pounded the runways of both RAF Wing and Little Horwoods. By the end of July they had accumulated 43 hours 35 minutes day flying and 36 hours 30 minute night flying. The commanding officer of No.26 O.T.U Wing Commander Radley summed up John’s flying as “Above the average”.   The next phase of the crew’s training was at No.1653 Conversion Unit based at RAF Chedburgh which at the time was under the command of Group Captain Ken Batchelor. The conversion unit was equipped with the mighty four engine Short Stirling which for John, especially, must have seemed enormous. The crew’s first encounter with the Stirling was on August 5th when they were accompanied by Flying Officer Kirk. Under this screened pilot’s watchful eye John lifted the brutish Stirling aloft. The Stirling BK777 was a real veteran having flown a magnificent total of 59 operations with No.75 (NZ) Squadron before its arrival on No.1653 CU.   Training continued at a pace. A further 15 training flights were undertaken by August 29 when John and his crew were deemed sufficiently competent to start their next stage of training.

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The O’Brien crew 1944

For the O’Brien crew the penultimate stage before operations had arrived. The crew was sent to No.3 Lancaster Finishing School based at RAF Feltwell for conversion to the mighty Avro Lancaster.   Their first flight was on September 15th under the scrutiny of “C” Flights Flight Lieutenant Todd. John was joined on No.53 Course by Flying Officer G Bates who would, like John ultimately join No.218 (Gold Coast) Squadron.  By now John had accumulated a staggering 1,706 hours 35 minutes flying time, it was no doubt this accumulative flying experience that resulted in the O’Brien crew being posted within two days of arrival to No.218 (Gold Coast) Squadron based at RAF Methwold. They had only flown 4 hours dual and 7 hours solo on the Lancaster. The Finishing School’s commanding officer, Wing Commander H.H Burnell AFC, appears not to have been overly impressed with John and the crew recording simply “proficient” in John’s Log Book.
John was posted to No.218 (Gold Coast)  Squadron w.e.f 18th September 1944. The squadron along with No.149 (East India) Squadron were operating from RAF Station Methwold, Norfolk. The squadron had only as recently as August converted to the Lancaster after two years operating the now obsolete Short Stirling.

Johns Log Book records his first flight on September 22nd when he took off for a 4 hour 20 minutes cross country flight in Lancaster ME842 HA-R. The O’Brien crew were posted onto “A” Flight under the command of the respected Squadron Leader Nigel McFarlane who, like John had only recently arrived on the squadron.  No.218 Squadron was at the time  commanded by Canadian Wing Commander Royd Fenwick-Wilson AFC. Fenwick Wilson was a seasoned veteran having joined the Air Force in 1934, and like John he had spent the early part of the war as an instructor. In 1941 Fenwick Wilson  was given command of No.405 RCAF Squadron operating the Vickers Wellington, he completed a  hectic operational tour in February 1942.

On September 23rd 1944 John was part of the crew of Flight Lieutenant Ron “Taffy” Ecclestone briefed to attack the town of Dusseldorf. John, like all new skippers, would have to fly the customary  2nd Dickey trip for operational experience. He could not have been in better hands than that of the experienced “Taffy” Ecclestone. While over the target their Lancaster PD277 HA-A was bracketed by flak resulting in some damage to the wings and fuselage, thankfully there was no injuries to the crew. It was certainly a baptism of fire.  There is at this point an anomaly between Johns Log Book and that of the squadron ORB. The squadron target on the 23rd  was the marshalling Yards at Neuss and not as recorded Dusseldorf. Also there is no record of John operating with F/Lt Ecclestone. There would be a two day interval for John before the first operation as a crew, it would have been an anxious time for all the crew. September 25th would witness fourteen crews take-off from RAF Methwold in marginal weather. John was aloft in Lancaster  PD288 HA-D. The target was a series of German strong points positioned around Calais, it would however not be a good start to their operational career. The crews found  10/10th cloud cover over the aiming  points resulting in the Master Bomber abandoning the operation. The O’Brien crew was back at Methwold within 3 hours 30 minutes. Within the next 48 hours the crew had successfully flown two operations, both daylights to Cap Gris Nez and a return trip to Calais. John’s log book at the end of September 1944 recorded a grand total of 1724 hours 20 minutes flying time.

October would record the crew completing a further six night raids and a daylight to Essen, all without incident. On October 21st Squadron Leader W.J Smith arrived on the squadron from No.115 Squadron. Within days he was promoted to wing commander and assumed command of No.218 Squadron. The highly regarded Wing Commander Fenwick Wilson AFC was posted to No.31 Base within days of Smiths arrival.  His tenure of command can be best summed up as one of change. The change of stations, the change of aircraft and a change in role with the  new GH bombing apparatus. He will be best remembered for his influence during the training and execution of Operation “Glimmer”. This achievement was never recognised and sadly went unrewarded.  He led by example through strong but understanding leadership, his style was low-key for a Canadian but appreciated by all ranks.

31-year-old William John Smith had served with the Indian Army before joining the RAF in 1936 when he commenced flying with No.31 Course No.2 F.T.S based at RAF Digby. Smith had served the majority of the war in RAF Training Command, two years of which were in Canada instructing on twin engine aircraft. By July 31st 1944 he had successfully completed No.44 Course at No.3 Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Feltwell from where he was posted to No.115 Squadron as a flight commander.  Regrettably for the squadron Wing Commander Smith brought with him a rather starched and authoritarian approach to commanding that was prevalent in Training Command but not appreciated on a front line bomber squadron. Sadly for the squadron, this approach would lead to differences of opinions between the recently promoted Smith and the seasoned crews. 

November started with the O’Brien crew attacking the oil plants at Homburg in daylight on the 2nd, a further six daylight operations were flown in November. All were directed at Hitler’s oil plants apart from the attack in support of the American army sector near Heinsburg on the 16th .  The squadron lost the experienced and highly respected Squadron Leader Nigel MacFarlane mid month when he was posted to No.15 Squadron based at Mildenhall after the loss of Wing Commander W Watkins DSO DFC DFM. It was a fortuitous posting as Nigel MacFarlane and Wing Commander Smith’s style of command were very different. MacFarlane assumed command of 15 Squadron on the 21st.  John was within a matter of days given “A” Flight to command and promoted to squadron leader.  December 1944 would see the O’Brien crew complete 3 daylight operations, Duisburg on the 8th, Witten on the 12th  when the German day fighters made an unwelcome and costly appearance and John was given the responsibility of Deputy Base Leader on the raid against Cologne/Gremberg Marshalling Yards on the 28th. The squadron was once again living up to its unofficial nick-name the “Nomads” when during December it departed RAF Methwold and moved to RAF Chedburgh, Suffolk its final war-time station.
January 1945 would see a flurry of activity for John and crew, a rare night operation to southern Germany on the 2nd recorded the squadron attacking Nuremburg.  John’s next operation was a daylight raid on the marshalling yards at Krefeld on the 11th. John was once again given the responsibility of Deputy Base Leader. Flying with him was Group Captain W R Brotherhood who was operating in the role as 2nd pilot aboard PD323 HA-K. Group Captain William R Brotherhood was Station commander of RAF Chedburgh. This was strictly against all the rules and was actively discouraged against, not only by group but also Bomber Command HQ.  However to the members of the squadron it meant a tremendous amount and went a long way to increase moral. A further four daylight raids were flown during January. On each operation John and crew were Deputy Base Leaders. It was around this period that tensions on the squadron began to come to a head, a number of senior crews had become irritated and frustrated with Wing Commander Smith’s rather pretentious and overbearing method of command. Whether this was a result of his years in Training Command or pressure from No.3 Group HQ is unclear. What was clear was that the squadron at this time was far from happy. The feelings were summed up with W/Cdr Smith being given the unflattering nick-name the “Vicar”.  It is perhaps unfair to attribute all the blame on the commanding officer. The strain of command and the increasing requests for maximum efforts almost daily by group and HQ Bomber Command would have put a tremendous amount of pressure on this relatively new commanding officer. 

February started with John attacking the town of Wiesbaden, he reported on his return that fighters very active. Two further operations were flown, on the 19th a successful daylight operation directed against Wesel was undertaken, John was once again given the role of Deputy Base Leader. This was followed by a night raid on Dortmund on the 20th, flying with John was Flight Sergeant P Cullen for operational experience. It was after this operation that there was an altercation between John and Wing Commander Smith. The circumstance are unclear but for John it would ultimately led to a rather unpleasant and unnecessary shock.    John did not fly again until March 10th when the Group was briefed to attack in daylight the oil refineries at Scholven/Buer near Gelsenkirchen.  This operation would finally see the O’Brien  crew given the Base Leader role. This as it turned out was  John’s 29th and final operation with the No.218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Within days the entire crew was posted to No.622 Squadron based at RAF Station Mildenhall.

The disagreement between John and Wing Commander W Smith was in relation to  the inexperience of some of the recently posted crews, this disagreement resulted in John being posted off the squadron at a time when the squadron could ill afford to lose such a fine officer.  John had over the previous five months occupied the role of “A” Flight commander, and during that time the quietly spoken flight commander had proven himself to be an outstanding and courageous pilot respected by all ranks on the squadron. His loss was keenly felt. John’s years of experience in Training Command and his professionalism added to his obvious concerns over the welfare of those less experienced crews under his charge were apparently not welcomed or appreciated by the “Vicar”.   The circumstances surrounding John’s posting did not help the already fragile relationship between the senior crews and Wing Commander W Smith. Twenty eight year old John O’Brien relinquished the rank of squadron leader on posting to 622 Squadron on the 15th. He subsequently completed his tour of 34 operations against Potsdam on April 14th 1945. John survived the war, his log book records a total of 1897 hours 50 minute flying time. John received no recognition for his war-time service, his tireless work as an instructor and the completion of an operational tour of 34 ops the majority of which were flown in the role of flight commander accounted for nothing in the eyes of his commanding officer.  These 34 ops which included six operations flown as Duty Base Leader and one as Base Leader was without doubt a magnificent achievement.  On May 18th 1945 he married his fiancée Joyce in his home town of Solihull.

aJohn O Brien

War’s end.

I would like to thank the family of John O’Brien for the loan of John’s Log Book and their help with my research.
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