The Airmen's Stories - Sub/Lt. (FAA) H laF Greenshields
Henry laFone Greenshields was born at Axminster, Devon on 8th April 1918, the son of Major David John Greenshields (formerly of the Royal Horse Artillery) and Edmee Greenshields of Westhaye, Hawkchurch, Axminster, Devon.
He attended Forres Preparatory School at Swanage in Dorset before going on to Sherborne School (School House) from January 1932 to March 1936 where he was in the shooting viii team 1935, Lance Corporal in OTC.
From 'The Shirburnian' July 1935: Shooting 1935, 'Of the new colours, Greenshields and King soon showed that they were certain to get places. The first has the great merit of being able to get his shots quickly away, and was seldom far from the middle of the target.'
Greenshields was employed by the de Havilland Aircraft Company when he applied to join the RAF. He was was turned down as his eyesight was below their requirements but was accepted by the RNVR and was called up by them in September 1939.
(Above: Greenshields, third from left, standing middle row at HMS Daedalus)
He was one of the FAA airmen attached to the RAF to alleviate their shortage of pilots. He entered RAF service on 23rd June 1940 and was posted firstly to 7 OTU Hawarden to convert to Spitfires. He then joined 266 Squadron at Wittering on 1st July.
(Above: the Spitfire conversion course at 7 OTU Hawarden that ended on 1st July 1940, Greenshields seated first left)
Greenshields was nicknamed 'Hank' by his friends in the Navy but was then christened 'Sinbad' by his new colleagues in 266.
On 15th August 1940 he destroyed a Me109 southeast of Dover. But next day he was shot down during a combat with Me109's that progressed out over the Channel. It is believed that he was shot down by Lt. Muller-Duhe of JG26.
Greenshields was killed when Spitfire, N3240, came down in the Calais suburbs, by a canal.
He was 22 and is buried in Calais Southern Cemetery.
In October 1996 a commemorative plaque was unveiled in the village church at Hawkchurch, near his home.
Additional research courtesy of Sherborne School Archives.
After the war his family was contacted by a Mrs. RJ Park, a Frenchwoman from Calais now married to an English husband. She had been in the area of Calais where Greenshields came down and describes her feelings at the time in a letter written in 1976 (reproduced as written):
28th April 1976
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Greenshields
You will not know who I am but I have wanted to write this letter since the end of the war and could not for reasons as will be seen below.
I am French born and lived in Calais from the time I was born to the end of 1946. On 16th August 1940 I witnessed the fight of a British plane with German ones and saw it pass over my house and eventually fall onto the bank of the canal a few hundred yards behind my house. We all ran to this point to see if we could help in any way but alas there was nothing we could do. To this day I have never forgotten this and I have wanted to write to the parents of this brave young man whose courage in trying to avoid falling on an inhabitated area saved so many lives. The Germans when they removed his body from the plane presented a guard of honour but we too stood there and prayed very hard for him and thanked him from the very bottom of our hearts for his sacrifice and courage.
His death also had a tragic link with my own life as my father was killed by a German vehicle on 15th August 1940, and it was not until about one hour after your son's death that my mother and I were told of his death as the Germans had removed all his belonging before taking him to the hospital mortuary and only gave the belongings back to the French Police that evening, after a torturing 24 hours wondering about his fate.
To this date I have always associated your son and my father in my prayers on the anniversary of my father's death and each time I visit my father's grave I visit your son's, as I did weekly all throughout the time I was in Calais until 1946.
Your son was buried under the name of Henri Lafon (a Canadian's name so it seemed) because his identity disc has been badly damaged and all they could read was the Christian name, which must have been Henry, and the second name but the surname has disappeared. I have just read these details in the book written by a friend of mine in Calais, called "Calais the Forbidden Zone June 1940-August 1941". Until then I was not sure which grave was your son's as two airmen had died on that day and been buried side by side under whatever names had been deciphered from the identity discs and papers available at the time, and when they were formally identified and the proper name engraved on the headstones I was never sure which was your son's grave and used to pray on both. In case I would ever find out I had taken the address of both from the cemetery registry and this is how I have now traced you and hope this letter will find you.
I want to say a very big thank you for your son's courage and ultimate sacrifice and how brave he was in the face of the enemy and how very proud you should be to have had such a son. Our deepest thanks will go for ever to all those brave young men who gave their whole so that we could be free from the horrors of the Nazi occupation and once again be able to live without constant fear and oppression. I sincerely hope this letter from the past has not revived your sorrow too much but will give you a small measure of comfort in knowing how your son really died and so bravely. '
Yours most sincerely
Mrs. RJ Park
P.S. Sorry for this typed letter, but my writing is not too good and this will be easier to read.
Mrs. Park also translated the account of Greenshields loss from the book mentioned in her letter and sent it to the family together with some photographs taken at the time (reproduced as written):
AN AIRCRAFT IS SHOT DOWN IN THE TOWN
Above the town, nearly level with the roof tops, took place the most extraordinary aerial fight of the whole occupation. The 16th August is a sunny day, ideal weather for aerial activity. England is still stunned from the blows delivered the day before by a Luftwaffe, literally let loose. A little after 11.00 a.m. some activity started in the air.
The County of Kent, London and the airfields in the south east of England have been raided by nazi bombers. At noon the British radars detect three important raids: 50 aircraft towards the Thames estuary, 150 assembling above Calais to take the direction of Dover "the infernal corner" and 100 going in the direction of Porstmouth and Southampton.
On the British Fighter bases the Fighter Command gives the alert. The Spitfires and Hurricanes take off at all speed to meet the bombers, break up their formations before they get to their objectives or intercept them on their way back.
It is nearly 13.00 hours. The Channel's sky witnesses the return of the German planes being chased by those bearing the tricolore insignia. In Calais the inhabitants are having their lunch when fighting at low altitude interrupts it and makes them, unwisely, run outside in great numbers.
Some dark grey planes, bearing a black cross on the fuselage and a swastika on the tail, are storming overhead and their 2Omm guns and 7.9mm machine guns are firing madly, making it look as though flashing lights are placed on the edge of the wings. In the powerful roar of his 1150 HP Daimler-Benz engine a Messerschmitt appears on the horizon to disappear as swiftly as it came towards the other side of the town.
This Messerschmitt and others are coming back from the British coast and belong to some famous squadrons: JG 26 "Schlageter", under the command of Major Handrick (who was to be shot down five days afterwards), JG 53 under the command of Major Viek. The German who are fighting just above the chimney tops of Calais on this glorious day,
are proud to belong to some choice units. Among them is Flying-Officer Franz von Werra, the only German who will succeed in escaping from Canada after being shot down in Kent on 5.9.40, and about a film was made. He too was killed in aerial combat in October 44.
The British fighters the inhabitants can see from time to time are at a disadvantage, both in number and position, for they are as it were in "enemy" territory whilst the German are "at home" and can readily get reinforcements and they are also helped by their powerful anti-aircraft artillery. If the British are shot down and escape death, they face probably long years in captivty, while if the same happens to the German they are able to go back into service immediately.
There are nine British fighters, belonging to 65 and 266 squadrons. They had taken off from Hornchurch which is to the east of London. No sooner had they flown over the Thames estuary that they saw the Garman bombers disappear onto the horizon in the direction of Dover, towards the white cliffs of Sangatte. They went after the bombers and are soon engaged in furious fights where their numbers are not in their favour. From the ground friends and enemies alike, watch the violent confrontation, marked with swift swervings and lightening passages of aircraft overhead.
The Spitfires and Hurricanes are fighting like the very devil. One of them does succeed in getting behind an ME 109, the pilot of which is too preoccupied with chasing another Spitfire to take the precaution of looking into his rear. There is a long burst of fire, cutting to pieces the tail, cockpit and fuselage of the ME 109 which, with a last roar of his engine, starts to fall. Wounded or killed at the commands the pilot remains in the plane. After an amazing half dive the plane crashed behind the maritime station from which direction can be seen a large spiral of black smoke. The JG of Audembert has just lost one of its best pilots, Hauptman (Captain) Ebbighausen, a veteran of the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War and other campaigns in Poland, Holland, Belgium and France who was in command of No.2 Group. The day before and also the day prior to that he had added two victories to his score.
Determined to avenge him, his comrades set up furiously against the Spitfires. They hit one with a deadly blow, the plane crashed in the sea opposite the Beach of the Poor, and the pilot was killed at the commands. He was Sub-Lt. Lawrence Pyman, 23 years old, from Oxford, belonging to 65 Squadron. His body was found the next day on the beach.
Above Calais the fighting is ending. The British aircrafts which by now have reached a dangerously low fuel level escape and fly low above the sea towards the Kent coast. There they will find airfields where they can land in an emergency and refuel before returning to their bases around London. Not one of them will go back unscathed, several did crash on landing in England or made emergency landings. The ME 109 are also running short of fuel and getting back to their bases.
However a last and violent combat once more brought out the Calaisiens who were resuming their unfinished meal, in the strets looking towards the sky. Those still in the street were witnessing a merciless duel. Among them a Mr. JB of rue Hermant who recalls:
“It happened at an altitude of approximately 7 to 800 meters, in line with the Fontinette (a railway station in Calais). After several bursts of fire I saw the Englishman going away, losing height with smoke trailing from the rear. A German plane was after him. The Englishman swerved and the German carried on his pursuit towards the Petit-Courgain and the Green Fort. The Englishman disappeared from sight, hidden by the Gaillard factory. A large spiral of smoke could be seen in the distance. I did not see a parachute, the plane was no doubt too low unless the pilot was trying all he could to avoid crashing into the inhabited area below”.
Indeed all who witnessed this fight (including the translater) are under the impression that the pilot tried his hardest not to crash into the buildings and the crowded streets.
There was an impact and a large spiral of smoke rose from a point in the neighbourhood of the St Peter’s bridge. A vast crowd rushed towards it and soon the two banks are thick with people. Standing in open cars the Germans screaming and cursing are trying to make their way through.
The plane has fallen onto the bank, Quay Gustave Lamarle (St Omer canal) just next door to the vehicle dump belonging to Mr. Henaux. It had broken in two with the tail resting on the roadway while the cockpit, wings and fuselage are burning on the canal bank, emitting such an intense heat that it prevented anyone to approach it. When the fire eventually died out the Germans removed the body of the pilot.
(Here the translater adds her own remarks based on her vivid memories of that day – Although the crowd was large it was oddly silent, and seemingly stunned by the tragedy. By the whispered remarks I could hear all around me all were deeply sorry they had not been able to help the unfortunate pilot who had just so very gallantly fought and died, and for his bereaved family).
A witness Mr. JB stated “On my arrival the Germans were carrying the body of the pilot to a coffin, past approximately 10 soldiers who were saluting”.
A detachment of airmen from JG26 Group arrived from Caffiers to give full military honours to the dead pilot.
On the identity disc which had partly melted away the Germans could just read “Henry Lafone” and it was under this name the unfortunate Englishman was buried. (The translater remarks – the author was not right on this point, the name painted in black on the wooden cross placed on the grave shortly after the burial was “Henri Lafon” (which might have been an error on the part of the painter) and this cross stayed there until the War Grave Commission finally identified the pilot and placed the headstone which can now be seen. I should know as I visited the cemetery weekly from August 40 to the latter part of 1946 when I joined my husband in Germany).
The British pilot’s name was in fact Greenshields – Henry Lafone were his christian names. He was 22 years old and originated from Hawkchurch (Devonshire) where his father had retired with the grade of major after a career in an artillery regiment.
Henry Greenshields was not serving with the R.A.F. He was a Sub-Lt (Ensigne de Vaisseau) of the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve. He belonged to the Aeronavale Embarquee (which I can only best translate as Aircraft Carriers) and was serving on Daedalus, when Churchill asked the Armee de Terre (Ground Forces – the author states, although whether this is right, as I am not at all sure the Army would have anything to do with the Flying Forces) and the Navy to to release a certain number of pilots from their respective Flying Corps to transfer to the R.A.F. where pilots were badly needed. Greenshields had joined the 266 Squadron base “Rhodesia” at Wittering where he was a Spitfire pilot.
Today Sub-Lt Greenshields resting place is in the British Military section of the Calais southern cemetery where his neighbour in death is the courageous Pyman who died a few minutes before him in the same merciless fight above the roof tops and steeples of Calais.
The pilot who shot Greenshields down was Leutnant (Sub-Lt) Muller-Duhe, 3rd Group of JG26 based at Caffiers, who was himself killed two days after, during a raid against Hornchurch airfield, the base of the British Fighter Force.
(Above: the rear fuselage in the road as described by Mrs. Parks)
(Above: Greenshields coffin is placed on a German lorry)
Greenshields' father received a letter from the CO of 266, Squadron Leader Desmond Spencer, who had taken command of the squadron on the 17th August, the day following the loss of Greenshields. A transcript follows the reproduced letter:
Many thanks for your kind letter of 21st August.
Unfortunately I am unable to add much more to the information already given to you officially about your son. The action took place over the Kentish Coast, when the squadron, which was engaged with the enemy, were in turn attacked by enemy fighters from above.
We lost two other officers in the same action, including our C.O. (note from webmaster - this was S/Ldr. RL Wilkinson, who was killed and is buried at Margate) Previous to this action, your son had destroyed two enemy aircraft and damaged two others.
All your son's belongings have been packed up and handed over (to) the Central Committee of Adjustment who will communicate direct with you in due course. This committee, however, are not empowered to deal with his motor car, a Talbot Reg. No. AXW 5 and I would be glad if you would kindly send me instructions for its disposal.
Although your son had only been in the squadron a short time, we had all got to like him exceedingly and it was a great blow to the members of this station when we returned without him.
Sqdn. Ldr. Cding.