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The Airmen's Stories - P/O F W Higginson

 

Wing Commander (Pilot Officer during the Battle) 'Taffy' Higginson, who died on February 12 aged 89, had already downed at least 15 enemy aircraft when, on June 17 1941, he was shot down over France and baled out of his burning Hurricane fighter. After fighting throughout the Battle of Britain in the preceding summer and autumn and being awarded the DFM, he was determined to evade capture and return to No 56 Squadron. Higginson was escorting bombers raiding Lille when his Hurricane was hit, though he was never sure whether anti-aircraft fire or an enemy fighter pilot was responsible. In the explosion his left boot was torn off and his trousers shredded. Worse, the control column snapped at the base, making it impossible to control the Hurricane and forcing Higginson to jump and land in a wood, where he was confronted by a German officer and sergeant in a motorcycle combination.
Higginson was seized and placed in the sidecar but at that moment his captors were distracted by a low-flying Me109. Higginson, seizing the handlebars, tipped the motorcycle and sidecar over and ran off. After reaching Lille he met Paul Cole, a Dunkirk survivor, who took him to Abbeville where Abbé Carpentier, a local priest, provided him with false identity papers. Cole then escorted Higginson to Paris, where he lodged in a brothel until July, before going on by train to Tours and St Martin-le-Beau. But there he was questioned by a pair of German soldiers. The Germans were not immediately satisfied with Cole's explanation that Higginson was an idiot seeking work and insisted on looking inside his valise. Fortunately, its contents were smothered in chocolate which had melted in the summer heat. When Cole opened his own bag they failed to discover a pistol and incriminating papers which had been rolled up in dirty laundry, and the pair were sent on their way. After entering Vichy France, Higginson reached Marseilles, where he was welcomed by Georges Rodocanochi, a Greek doctor, and his wife Fanny, who ran a safe house for Pat O'Leary's MI 9 escape line. It shocked Higginson, who was acutely aware of the debt he owed his companion, when he heard later that Cole, far from being the Army captain he claimed, was a sergeant who had absconded with mess funds, and, among his many betrayals, had informed on Carpentier, who was later executed.


On July 4 Higginson caught a train to Perpignan where, impatient at being kept waiting, he teamed up with an Australian corporal and persuaded a Catalan guide to start them on their way to Spain. But they were stopped by gendarmes and Higginson, incensed by their attitude, struck one of them. But for this, he might have been released. As it was, he was imprisoned for six months for having false papers. On March 5 1942, he was about to be released when he was detained in reprisal for a raid on the Renault factory at Billancourt. Twelve days afterwards he was placed in Fort de la Revere above Monte Carlo, where he decided to assume the name Captain Bennett, since he believed the Germans particularly disliked airmen. At this stage MI9 in London urged O'Leary to make every effort to get Higginson out, in view of his exceptional record as a fighter pilot.


Using a Polish priest called Father Myrda as a go-between, O'Leary smuggled a hacksaw blade into the prison. On the night of August 6 Higginson and four others - under cover of a noisy concert - dropped through a coal chute and into a moat and some sewage. Evading his pursuers, Higginson reached Cap d'Ail, where he found he had mislaid his ID card. Despite this setback, he managed to reach a safe house in Monte Carlo. There tea was brought in by Eva Trenchard, a spinster who had run the principality's Scottish Tea House since 1924. In due course, Father Myrda provided Higginson with a cassock, and accompanied him to Marseilles. On September 17 Higginson made for Canet Plage, a beach resort, where he was picked up from a dinghy by Tarana, a Polish trawler employed on clandestine missions as a Q Ship. A week later Higginson was put aboard the destroyer Minna and landed at Gibraltar, whence he was flown home by the RAF.


Frederick William Higginson was born at Swansea on February 17 1913. He joined the RAF as an apprentice in 1929 and in 1932 was posted as a fitter-airgunner to No 7 Squadron. Higginson was accepted for pilot training in 1935 and the next year joined No 19, a Gloster Gauntlet biplane fighter squadron, moving almost immediately with C Flight to form No 66, another Gauntlet Squadron.
Higginson, a useful rugby player, was selected to play for the RAF, which helped to bring him to the notice of his superiors. He moved on in 1937 to No 56, a Gloster Gladiator biplane squadron which was re-equipped shortly afterwards with the spanking new Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighter.


Promoted flight sergeant in 1940, he fought over France as it fell, then found himself in the thick of the fighting over south-east England and London during the Battle of Britain. When awarded the DFM on July 27 1940, 16 days after the battle began, he was praised for having already destroyed at least five enemy aircraft. The citation emphasised that despite being an "airman pilot" he led a section of 56 Squadron during all operations, "his determination in the face of the enemy and his cool and courageous leadership" being an example to his squadron. As the battle wore on Higginson continued to build his score until he reached a total of at least 15 - taking into account shared victories and probables; by this time he had exchanged his sergeant's stripes for the thin blue ring of a pilot officer.


Almost 60 years afterwards Higginson met Hans Mellangrau, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot whom he had shot down over the Thames Estuary. "I saw this Messerschmitt coming towards me and suddenly we were face to face," Higginson recalled. "After he hit my Hurricane's engine with incendiary bullets I shot him down and he crash-landed in a field. By this time his incendiaries had set my engine on fire and I actually crash-landed alongside him."


Following his evasion of capture and escape from prison in France, Higginson rejoined No 56 Squadron in October 1942. By this time the squadron had exchanged its beloved Hurricanes for Hawker Typhoons, much more advanced in speed, performance and firepower than their predecessors. In the New Year of 1943 his further success, particularly in sweeps over France - often leading the squadron - was recognised with the award of the DFC. The citation stated: "He has now destroyed at least 12 enemy aircraft and throughout has displayed great skill and courage in combat with the enemy."


After a stint with No 83 Group's communications squadron, he was posted in 1946 to the headquarters of Fighter Command's No 11 Group. Higginson concluded his war on attachment to Napiers, the engineering business. In 1948 the Air Ministry sent him to the RAF Staff College at Bracknell, appointing him personal staff officer to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command, and in 1951 to the Army Staff College at Camberley. Higginson was promoted wing commander and from 1952 served on the operational requirements staff, taking a helicopter course at the same time. In 1956 he retired and joined Bristol Aircraft as its military liaison officer.


After two years British Aerospace appointed him sales and service director in the guided weapons division. In 1963 his success in opening up overseas markets for guided weapons, particularly Bloodhound, was recognised with an OBE. Meanwhile, Higginson had met the businessman Abdullah Alireza, who had established an engineering, construction and oil business in Kuwait and wished to open a London office. In 1964 Higginson launched Rezayat Services for Alireza, building a substantial business for the Kuwaiti's European company.


In 1969 he bought Peny-Coed, a 250-acre farm in his native Wales, with a large 17th century house. He had not farmed before, but "bought some books and set about reading everything I could on the subject".


Higginson married Shan Jenkins in 1937. She died last August; he is survived by his four sons.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph February 2003

 

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