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The Airmen's Stories - F/Lt. D F B Sheen


Group Captain (Flight Lieutenant during the Battle) Desmond Sheen, who has died aged 83, was shot down twice during the Battle of Britain, in the course of which he accounted for three enemy aircraft destroyed, one shared, two probably destroyed and two damaged. By the summer of 1940, Sheen, an Australian, was serving as a Spitfire pilot with No 72 Squadron, based at Acklington, Northumberland. Although well to the north of the main area of the Battle of Britain, on August 15 the squadron was heavily engaged with the enemy. Flying from Denmark and Norway, a Luftwaffe force of more than 60 bombers with a 34-strong fighter escort was making for the RAF's fighter bases in north-east England. With two other Spitfire squadrons, No 72 raced to intercept them. In the ensuing action, beyond the Farne Islands, Sheen accounted for two Me110 fighters, one of which almost did for him. "Flames and smoke appeared near the inside of the port engine," he said. "The enemy aircraft, either with the pilot shot or in a deliberate attempt to ram me, approached head on left wing low." Sheen took evasive action and saved his neck.

A fortnight later, on August 31, No 72 was ordered south to No 11 Group fighter sector station at Biggin Hill, Kent - where they landed as the airfield was being heavily bombed. The next morning, having transferred to Croydon, they were scrambled to intercept a large enemy force approaching London. This time Sheen's aircraft was hit. As his cockpit filled with dense smoke, he released his straps, turned the Spitfire on its back, pushed the stick forward and dropped out. It was a sunny day, and as he drifted to the ground he had a "grandstand view of the battle Several dogfights were going on and an Me109 went past me in flames. I think the pilot baled out but his harness broke and he didn't make it." On reaching the ground, Sheen was confronted by a girl and a young Army officer who, suspicious of the darker blue of Sheen's old Australian uniform, brandished a revolver. The misunderstanding cleared up, the girl took Sheen to a nearby house where a party of guests were enjoying pre-lunch drinks on the lawn as they watched the battle in the sky overhead.

Four days later, back with his squadron, Sheen was shot down again. As his Spitfire hurtled towards the ground, Sheen, though wounded, managed to release his harness. He was sucked out of the cockpit, but his boots caught on the windscreen and he was left lying on top of the fuselage.
"After what seemed an age," he recalled, "my feet came free and I pulled the ripcord and my parachute opened with a terrific jerk. I just had time to see treetops underneath when I was in them. These broke my fall and I landed on my feet as light as a feather. A bobby appeared on the proverbial bicycle. He pulled out a flask, bless him, and handed it to me. 'You left it a bit late,' he said."

Desmond Frederick Burt Sheen was born in Sydney, Australia, on October 2 1917. After school, he received a cadetship in the Royal Australian Air Force and in 1937 sailed for Britain, where he was granted a short service commission in the RAF and was posted to No 72 Squadron. His first real taste of action came on October 21 1939, when he shot down two of some dozen Heinkel 115 floatplanes that were attacking a North Sea convoy off the Yorkshire coast. In early December, north of Arbroath in Scotland, Sheen shared in the destruction of an He111 bomber. Flying so low that he opened fire at a level below the top of a nearby lighthouse, he was hit by return fire and wounded in the leg.
"I stopped a couple of bullets," Sheen explained. "One went through my earphones and the other got me in the thigh. The most serious was a bullet in my fuel tank. The petrol began to stream into the cockpit. I went in again to attack but I was dizzy and decided to turn for home." After a spell in hospital, in April 1940 Sheen was posted to the embryo photographic-reconnaissance unit which had been formed under Sidney Cotton, another intrepid Australian. The two men flew down to the south of France and to Sardinia where, flying unarmed Spitfires, they made photo-recce sorties over Italy.
Sheen resumed with No 72 at the end of July 1940 and later, after the Battle of Britain and a second spell in hospital, took part in a night action over the North Sea which he described in a broadcast on the BBC. In bright moonlight, on the night of March 13-14 1941, he intercepted a Ju 88.

As I opened fire I could see my tracer bullets bursting in the Junkers like fireworks . . . when I turned in for my next attack I saw that one of the Hun's engines was beginning to burn but just to make quite sure of him I pumped in a lot more bullets then I had to dive like mad to avoid ramming him.

Not long after this, Sheen received command of No 72. Flying from Biggin Hill, he led the squadron - and sometimes the Spitfire Wing - in offensive sweeps over occupied Europe. Subsequently, he held staff appointments and station commands in Britain and in the Middle East. He was awarded a DFC in 1940 and a Bar to it in 1941.

Sheen was released from the RAF in 1947, but in 1949, dropping in rank from wing commander to flight lieutenant, he rejoined with a permanent commission. From 1950 to 1952, he commanded No 502, a Royal Auxiliary Air Force fighter squadron equipped with Spitfires, and later with Vampire jets.
In 1954, he was posted to the Central Flying Establishment's air fighting unit, and a year later to RAF Leuchars, in Scotland, as Wing Commander Flying. Subsequent appointments included the command of RAF Odiham (1962-64), and Group Captain Organisation at Transport Command. After retirement in 1971, he joined the BAC/British Aerospace to administer the company's BAC 111 and Concorde marketing teams.

Desmond Sheen married, in 1941, Muriel ("Rusty") Russell; they had a son, who served in the RAF and flew with the Red Arrows, and a daughter.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph November 2001

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