Desmond Michael De Silva’s inclusion in this list is at best open to debate. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records his parents living in Flushing, New York, however Desmond was not born in America.
Desmond was born on August 25th 1920 in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, a British colony on the north coast of South America. His inclusion in the American list is due to the fact that he spent his childhood and teens living and working in New York. Prior to enlistment Desmond worked as a elevator operator, while living at 1355 Pacific Street, Brooklyn. Obviously a man wanting excitement Desmond travelled north to Canada in early 1941.
In March he was in Ottawa where he enlisted on March 13th 1941, he was just twenty years old. His RCAF Record of Service records that Desmond considered himself a British Citizen of English origin.Initially accepted as a trainee pilot / observer these aspirations were short lived, while at No.12 EFTS Desmond’s pilot training was brought to a quick conclusion, he was not pilot material, he was to be trained as a air gunner. On February 29th 1942 Desmond arrived at No.22 OTU where he stayed until July 29th when he was posted to No.214 Conversion Flight based at RAF Stradishall. While with No.22 OTU he participated in the 1000 bomber raids on Cologne and Essen. Both op’s were flown with P/O J Lancaster in Wellington Mk.Ic “S” 9923. Throughout this time Desmond was in and out of trouble with authority, in December 1941 he was AWOL for a day and in May 1942 he was drunk and disorderly and found without his leave pass, stopped at the main gate he was put under close arrest and escorted to the guard room, Desmond took it upon himself to escape, much to the upset of the military police! and his commanding officer! On September 19th 1942 Desmond arrived on 218 Squadron then based at RAF Marham, the following day he was surprisingly posted to No.218 Conversion Flight. During this time De Silva was crewed with Sergeant C Rothschild, on October 7th they returned to 218 Squadron and began operations almost immediately. On November 1st Rothschild was posted to No.75 (NZ) Squadron while his crew remained on No.218 Squadron. It had not been a trouble free start for the young pilot, of the five operations flown only two had resulted in a successful operation.
It was Desmond’s good fortune and that of his crew that they were taken over by a Pilot Officer Waldo Hiles who was on his second tour of operations. Welshman Hiles had flown 29 operations with No.49 Squadron during 1941 and had gained considerable experience visiting some of Germany’s most heavily defended targets. The crew’s 1st operation was on November 3rd when they were part of a special late afternoon attack on the railway workshops at Lingen carried out by three 218 Squadron crews. Desmond could not have known that over the preceding months the crew under the command of Waldo Hiles would become one of the squadron’s most “press on” and respected crews, known for their love of low level attacks on rail and transport targets Waldo would rise throughout the ranks to squadron leader and be awarded both the DFC and DSO.
Desmond was wounded on February 19th 1943 while attacking Wilhelmshaven. While flying close to the Frisian Islands the crew encountered a convoy, severe damage was inflicted to the Stirling while Desmond was hit in the right hand by shrapnel which almost severed his thumb. It was to be a further six months before he would fly with Waldo Hiles again, in that time Hiles completed his second tour. The now pilotless crew were then taken over by the squadron commander W/Cdr Saville DFC with whom they completed their tour in June 1943.
Such was the injury to Desmond that on discharge from Ely hospital he was sent on Sick Leave from March 28th until May 15th 1943. Three days later, on May 18th he was awarded a well deserved DFM. I have not managed to find any operations flown by Desmond between his return from sick leave and his return from leave on July 29th 1943. He had by August 1943 flown 20 operations with 218 Squadron plus 2 with No.22 OTU. It is uncertain if at this time he was to be posted off tour expired or waiting to commence further operations.
On the morning of August 23rd Desmond’s old skipper Squadron Leader Waldo Hiles DSO DFC arrived at Downham Market. It as never been established why Waldo arrived at Downham Market that morning. Flying Officer John Overton (who went on to command both A Flight of No.623 & 218 Squadron and would receive a well earned DFC) in a letter to me indicated that he was there in an official capacity , however this cannot be confirmed. Sometime during the day it would have been confirmed that the target for the night was Berlin, it would be a maximum effort. Waldo had only attacked Berlin once before in September 1941, and on that occasion his aircraft had been hit by flak. It is very unlikely that Waldo was at Downham Market to fly operationally, if that is the case then the decision to operate that night was Waldo’s. Given Waldo’s personality it is most likely the thrill of being back on his old squadron after spending months at No.3 Group HQ and the thought of attacking Berlin was simply too much and his aggressive have-a-go nature got the best of him. Obviously Waldo would have needed to obtain permission to fly from either Wing Commander Little DFC or Wing Commander Morris, one of them must have given their blessing. All this is conjecture as no definite proof can been found. However what is known and can be confirmed is that Waldo gathered together a scratch crew, comprising of five inexperienced 218 Squadron aircrew and Desmond. Soon after briefing Flying Officer John Overton spoke to Waldo and tried to give him a friendly update on the current defences over Germany, Waldo’s response was not what John Overton expected, it would prove to be a precursor to a tragic night.
This rebuff from Waldo was still fresh in John’s memory sixty-six years after the event.
Waldo borrowed a No.623 Squadron aircraft, Short Stirling EH925 IC-C and departed RAF Downham Market at 20:52hrs with a full incendiary load. The route took them over Cromer on the Norfolk Coast and out over the North Sea, landfall was near Egmond on the Dutch Coast from where it was almost a straight route to just south of Berlin. The crew were shot down by a night fighter soon after bombing crashing near Zossen south of Berlin, there were no survivors. All the crew are recorded on the panels of the Runnymede Memorial.