The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. J H M Ellis
The story of Sergeant John Hugh Mortimer Ellis of 85 Squadron, known to all as Hugh, or indeed the 'Cockney Sparrow', has unusual elements that somehow make it even more poignant, as Hugh was not laid fully to rest for more than five decades after his brave death.
Born on 2nd April 1919 and growing up in Cambridgeshire, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 28th September 1938 as an Airman under training Pilot and had only just completed his elementary flying training before he was called to full-time service at the outbreak of War.
On completion of further instruction at Bexhill, Brize Norton and Sutton Bridge, he joined 85 Squadron equipped with Hawker Hurricanes at Debden on 24th May 1940. With a little boomerang lucky mascot around his neck sent from Australia by his favourite Aunt Stella to keep him safe, Hugh went into action during the Battle of Britain.
Above: a photo of Ellis and (below) his portrait from it by Geoff Nutkins of the Shoreham Aircraft Museum.
On 6th August he shared in the destruction of a Do17 and then on the 18th damaged a Me110 and also destroyed a Me109. His final credited success came during the mid-afternoon of the 26th, when he destroyed a Do17 over the Thames Estuary.
But on 29th August Hugh’s luck began to falter. Whilst in combat over the Channel, his aircraft caught fire; though he managed to glide back in order to bale out over land, his Hurricane Mk1 L1915 VY-B crashed at Ashburnham in East Sussex, and his lucky mascot was lost. Since his first scramble, Hugh had sworn that like his little boomerang, he would always come back. It was a thought most comforting to his childhood sweetheart, Peggy Owen, but now, like Hugh’s good fortune, the boomerang was gone.
Three days later, he was back in the air in his new Hurricane Mk1 P2673 VY-E. What exactly happened next to this brave man with the enormous smile remained a mystery for the following five decades. Hugh’s parents Fred and Ethel were told simply that their only son was missing in action. It was not until 1993 that the story was at last pieced together by three very determined interested parties: historian Andy Saunders, Hugh’s cousin Peter Mortimer and Metropolitan Police coroner’s Officer Martin Gibbs.
The confusion began on 1st September 1940 when enemy aircraft were staining the skies over Court Road, Orpington, just south east of London, and as so often that summer, the RAF were making superhuman efforts to repel them. A Hurricane seemed to peel off from the melee and begin a terrifying descent; as it approached the ground, one witness saw the pilot slumped over his controls, just before the fighter plane drilled with unimaginable force into the Kent soil of a farmer’s field at Chelsfield to the south of Orpington.
When a single foot in a flying boot was found by a civilian salvage team some days later, the confusion of war caused this to have been buried in an 'Unknown Airman’s' grave at Star Lane Cemetery in St. Marys Cray. This process was repeated only weeks later, when a group of travellers combing the area for scrap metal found further small body parts and handed them to police; the unidentified remains went into a second 'Unknown Airman’s' grave at Star Lane two plots along from the first and no one connected the two discoveries.
Unbeknown to a living soul, the lion-hearted Cockney Sparrow now had fragments of himself buried in separate plots at Star Lane, but the greater part of his remains lay unofficially buried deep under the earth, surrounded by the wreckage of his Hurricane, for the next fifty years. It is moving to reflect how Hugh’s great fear was always that if he were shot down, it would be into the sea, since one of his middle names was Mortimer, which is a corruption of the French for ‘died in the sea’. For so long no one knew where Hugh’s Hurricane had come down, for no trace of it had ever been officially acknowledged, and so a watery grave was not actually out of the question.
It was 1992 before an unauthorised archaeological dig at the site uncovered the cowling of the doomed plane, and the exact identity of the pilot’s remains then found therein could be confirmed. Among his personal effects were the photographs of two ladies, Peggy Owen, Hugh’s heartbroken sweetheart, and the aunt who had sent her gallant nephew the little boomerang from Australia. In 1993, after the remains had been formally identified, Sgt. John Hugh Mortimer Ellis was buried at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey with full military honours.
For many years, a burnt flying glove that once clothed a hand of Sgt. Ellis and recovered at the time of the crash has been on display in the Shoreham Aircraft Museum near Sevenoaks, as a token but thought-provoking exhibit to help keep alive the memory of a brave young pilot. On a dreadfully wet Saturday 17th May 2008, well over 200 people gathered together and tried to keep dry under a colourful multitude of umbrellas on Chelsfield Green to remember Sgt Ellis and to see a memorial unveiled in his honour.
Claire Warren 2008
Above: the two Star Lane graves.
Above: The final grave at Brookwood.
Above the Shoreham Aircraft Museum memorial at Chelsfield.