The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. F H Silk
Frank Harry Silk was born on 12th May 1917 in Willesden. He attended Willesden County School and after leaving enlisted in the RAFVR in July 1939 as an Airman u/t Pilot.
He was called up at the outbreak of WW2 and completed his training at No. 8 Flying Training School at Montrose, Scotland.
After being promoted to Sergeant he was sent to No. 6 Operational Training Unit at Sutton Bridge on the 25th July 1940. Having converted to Hurricanes, Silk was posted to 111 Squadron at Debden on 17th August and was soon engaged on ‘scrambles’ over South East England as part of 11 Group Fighter Command.
He flew two patrols between 1500hrs and 1845hrs with ‘B’ Flight on Monday 19th August, this being the day that 111 changed over with 85 Squadron who were being rested. At midday on the 20th he flew from Debden to Martlesham in order to take part in a convoy patrol between 1245 and 1405hrs. Later, the airfield was attacked by Me110s and Me109s from Erpobungsgruppe 210 led by its new commander, Hauptmann von Boltenstern. This attack forced the Squadron to disperse and eventually land at Debden airfield at 1920 hrs; it was also the day that Winston Churchill made his famous speech at Westminster about ‘the Few’.
At 0530hrs on Thursday 22nd August Silk flew from Debden to Martlesham in order to be part of the patrol covering the passage of convoy ‘Totem’ through the Dover Straits between 0800 and 0900hrs.
Over 100 shells were fired from the big guns situated at Cap Griz Nez trying to sink the convoy. He flew two further patrols that day before landing at Debden at 1825hrs.
Saturday 24th August marked Phase Three of the Battle of Britain where the Luftwaffe made attacks on RAF airfields. Between 0825 and 1620 Silk took part in four patrols with nine Hurricanes of Yellow Section, making head-on attacks against He111s and Me109s over Chelmsford at 20000 ft. Silk finally landed back at Debden at 1915hrs.
Monday 26th August was the day that the Luftwaffe deceided to mount attacks on 11 Group Sector Stations, Biggin Hill, Kenley, Hornchurch and Debden taking the brunt of the bombing. At 1500hrs Silk took off from Debden with eight others from Yellow section making beam attacks over Maldon against 50+ Do17s and 100+ Me110s. During the ensuing dogfights 111 Squadron were bounced by the protecting Me109s, Sgt. Ray Sellars being shot down and slightly wounded whilst F/Lt. David Bruce suffered damage to his aircraft.
The next day there was a slight lull and Silk took the opportunity to fly to Croydon and Martlesham on patrol during the afternoon.
On Friday 30th August, the Battle now entered its critical phase with the tempo of attacks increasing. Silk, along with eight other Hurricanes from 111, was scrambled at 0835hrs to intercept an incoming raid (which turned out to be 4 Blenheims from 25 squadron). 111 Squadron had been vectored towards Manston and ran into one of the early morning raids from the Luftwaffe consisting of a Gruppe of Do17s covered by about 30 + Me110s from 111/ZG76 flying at 3000ft.
Three Me110s were claimed as damaged whilst F/O Bowring found bullet holes through his leading edge upon landing.
On Saturday 31st August, Silk made a local patrol in the Martlesham area between 0810 and 0930 hrs and after an hours break was back on patrol. By this time four waves of enemy aircraft were reported to be heading for Dover and the Thames Estuary. 12 Group were unable to send any squadrons up in time and Keith Park ordered 9 Hurricanes from 111 to engage 30+ Do17s and 40+ Me110s in head-on attacks. Two enemy aircraft were shot down for the loss of one Hurricane, whose pilot Sgt. Craig baled out wounded. Silk finally finished his patrol duties at 1930 hrs that day.
Tuesday 3rd September, and Keith Park was again forced to rearrange his Battle Order. 85 Squadron were down to only eleven pilots and eight aircraft and were sent off to be rested, again being replaced by 111 Squadron. At 0625 hrs Silk took off from Debden with ‘A Flight’ to fly over to Croydon Airport, only having enough time for breakfast before being scrambled at 0920hrs.
111 Squadron was one of 16 squadrons ordered up to attack 54 Dorniers with 80+ Me110s that were on their way to bomb North Weald. Over two hundred bombs fell on the airfield and it was only when the Luftwaffe were on their way home that the RAF were able to reach the necessary altitude and engage them. 111 Squadron suffered no losses on this day.
On Wednesday 4th September the squadron took off at 0640 hrs in order to fly from Croydon to Hawkinge; Silk’s engine failed at first and didn’t take off with the rest of the flight. By midday he was up and flying to Croydon, making a RT test en route, which was fortunate because 111 were ordered to fly to the Folkestone area, along with eight other squadrons, to intercept 70+ Heinkels and Dornier bombers with a fighter escort of 200+ Me109s. The Luftwaffe were on their way to attack Canterbury, Faversham, Reigate and Eastchurch.
In the ensuing dogfights 111 lost two pilots, F/Lt. Bruce and P/O Macinski. This turned out to be very long day, the squadron finally landing at Croydon at 2015hrs.
The tactics employed by Kesselring on the next day, 5th September, were difficult to assess by Park as the Luftwaffe launched no fewer than 22 separate formations over a period of 8 hours.
At 0950hrs 8 Hurricanes from 111 were scrambled from Croydon to intercept a raid on Biggin Hill airfield by 60+ bombers with a similar number of fighter escorts. The attack later being recorded in the Operational Record Book for 111 thus:-
The bombers were in two blocks of 24 aircraft each flying level 3 abreast with 1 section of 3 aircraft flying in ‘vic’ formation on each side at 16000 ft. The formation was flying west towards Biggin Hill but the whole formation swept south east when attacked by 111. The 60+ fighter escorts flying all around and above to a height of 25000 feet. Only Red Section, led by F/O Bowring, were able to engage the enemy as pilots in Blue and Green sections suffered with oxygen problems.
At 1015 hr, Silk’s luck finally ran out. Positioned as Red 4, a ‘weaver' flying Hurricane 312, he was damaged by enemy fire and suffered wounds to his forearm. However he managed to land the crippled aircraft near Lullingstone Castle in Kent.
Silk was taken to the nearby hospital whilst his aircraft was taken away for repair.
On the 8th September 111 Squadron was moved to Drem to reform, having been in the thick of air fighting since the Battle of France on the 18th May, accounting for 94 enemy aircraft destroyed, 18 probably destroyed and 59 damaged with 15 pilots killed in action.
Silk is shown as being posted to Kenley on the 24th September 1940 whilst remaining on the strength of 111 Squadron as part of a nucleus of experienced pilots being retained for training purposes, especially for the newly posted pilots.
On 25th June 1941 Silk was posted to 91 ‘Nigeria’ Squadron based at Hawkinge, flying cannon equipped Spitfires V’s mainly on ‘Jim Crow’ operations (operational Patrols along the home coastline intercepting any hostile aircraft and looking out for any invasion forces). It also began ‘Rhubarbs’ (small scale attacks on ground targets) over the Continent combined with shipping recces.
By the 4th May 1941 the squadron had been fully equipped with the new Mk.V Spitfires and the government of Nigeria responded by giving twenty ‘presentation’ aircraft, each of which bore the name Nigeria followed by a specific province. Silk was to regularly fly a Spitfire named ‘Katsina Province’.
Silk’s first flights with the squadron were as an escort for Lysanders and Walruses of the Air Sea Rescue units, helping to pinpoint aircrew in dinghies downed in the Channel. On the 30th August, flying in company with Sgt. Gillies, the two of them attacked 7 ‘M’ class minesweepers near Ostend, observing strikes on two.
On the 21st November 1941 Silk was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, still remaining with 'B' flight. On December 5th Silk, in company with F/Lt. Sunderland-Cooper, searched the area of Hastings looking for a downed pilot reportedly in his dinghy but with no success.
Operation ‘Channel Stop’ was launched in the early months of 1941 where two aircraft would leave Hawkinge on the hour, every hour, fly across to Cap Griz Nez before splitting up and patrolling the coast alone from Fecamp to Ostend. These were dangerous intelligence gathering operations, with low flying in radio silence, the object being to report the presence of enemy vessels in port.
If they were attacked they could not call on any help, having to fight their way out on their own. P/O Silk, in company with Sgt Ondall, undertook one of these patrols on 12th December.
Two days later he again assisted the Lysanders from ASR, looking for a downed pilot in the Rye area, but with no success.
On the 11th December Silk and P/O Sellmer were scrambled from Hawkinge looking for reported enemy aircraft, nothing being found. Four days later he was taking part in two ‘Channel Stop’ patrols over Ostend and also the next day, locating shipping and attacking them in the area of Nieuport, and searching for another downed pilot on his return along Beachy Head.
During January 1942 Silk took part in six ‘Dusk Patrols’, ‘Scrambles’ and ‘Channel Stop’ patrols, becoming Flight Commander of ‘B Flight. The months of February and March were similar but were hampered by the usual coast mist known locally as the ‘Hawkinge Horror’. On the 9th April the Squadron received reports that a Manchester aircraft had ditched off Ostend, having been damaged on its return from a bombing mission. Silk, along with P/O Frizzell, took off at first light and found one of the crew in his dinghy 20 miles west of Ostend. However it was not possible to get a message to Biggin Hill for an Air Sea Rescue launch to RV with them and the airman seemed lost. Silk returned, refuelled, and went out again in bad weather this time with P/O Maridor (Free French), relocated the dinghy along with others and stayed in the area until they were all rescued by boat. Both Silk and Maridor had stayed in the air for 2hrs 35 minutes and were forced to land at Manston because of bad weather. Both Silk and P/O Maridor received congratulations from the Officer Commanding 91 Squadron, S/Ldr. Bobby Oxspring, for their efforts.
The next day Silk and Maridor were on patrol looking for submarines reported off Zeebrugge, with no success, the day after being scrambled to look for intruders along the coast again this proving negative. On the 5th May Silk, again in company with P/O Maridor, made 91 Squadron history by carrying out the first offensive night patrols over occupied France.
Silk flew down the Somme towards Dieppe and then on to Cap Griz Nez where he spotted 4 coasters of 500 tons. He attacked two of them, seeing flashes from both, landing at Hawkinge at 0220hrs.
During May an official photographer from the Air Ministry visited the Squadron and took group photos of both flights, Silk was photographed standing on the wing of Spitfire ‘Katsina Province’.
Silk had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant on the 15th May and he was again photographed standing next to another Spitfire he flew, a Mk Vc AA976 named ‘Grand Hotel Manchester’.
Silk is not shown flying again until the 4th June when he made an early start with Sgt. Omdahl (RAAF) looking for E-Boats that were likely to attack vessels bringing back commandos who had raided Le Touquet. Two days later Silk was taking part in another ASR operation, this time successfully rescuing two pilots from 122 squadron.
At 2200 hrs, on the 17th June, Silk and Sgt. Eldrid were on Dusk Patrol over the Goodwin Sands when they spotted a Ju88 flying at 500 ft. Silk made an attack dead astern at 300 yards on the enemy aircraft, silencing the rear gunner and expending all his ammunition. Sgt. Eldrid then took over the attack also using up all his ammunition with the result that black smoke was seen to be coming from both engines of the Ju88 as it headed for the French coast.
They were awarded a ‘shared damaged’.
On the 1st July 1942, F/Lt. Orr took over ‘B’ flight from Silk who was given a rest from operational flying being posted onto Special Duties with Hawker Aircraft at Langley, near Slough, as a Test Pilot.
It was here that he met with W/Cdr. Roland ‘Bea’ Beamont CBE DSO DFC AFC, taking over his duties testing Hurricanes and the new Typhoon aircraft. By February 1944, Silk had done his tour with Hawkers and was posted to 4 Squadron, 84 Group 2nd TAF, flying Spitfire Mk. XI’s on high and low level PR work.
First operations with these types were flown on 7th March, being photo-recces of the ‘Noball’ sites (V1 bases).
The Squadron also concentrated on assisting the invading armies by preparing up to date ‘mosaics’ of Northern France. In October the Squadron received Typhoon 1b’s for low level work and often came in for intense flak. Silk did over 80 sorties amounting to 410 hrs with 4 Squadron, his final sortie being on the 29th December 1944 flying over the area of Dordrecht.
Silk had been flying many dangerous missions on many types of aircraft since the Battle of Britain and his efforts were recognised at last with the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross on 26th February 1945 (gazetted 10th April 1945). The citation reading:-
Since joining this Squadron in February 194, F/Lt. Silk has carried out a large number of operational sorties on photographic reconnaissance. Prior to D-Day this officer produced exceptional results on mosaics, requiring flying ability of a high order, which were of vital importance and influence on the planning of the assault.
In addition the work of the Squadron necessitated many deep penetrations into enemy occupied territory to cover marshalling yards and airfields; on these, which were often carried out in bad weather, F/Lt. Silk displayed great navigational skill and determination in locating the target. In Normandy and during the subsequent advance this officer maintained a very high standard of photography and this made a magnificent contribution to the success of the 1st Canadian Army for which the Squadron was working. On one occasion F/Lt. Silk was attacked by 3 Fw190’s while engaged on a photographic run. He showed great coolness and courage by leading the enemy aircraft away from the area and then after skilfully outmanoeuvring them returned and completed his mission before proceeding to base. During the final assault to free the port of Antwerp, when photographs had to be obtained regardless of weather conditions, this officer showed great bravery when carrying out several low level photographic missions during which it was necessary to fly straight and level at 3000 feet in the face of intense opposition from the ground. F/Lt. Silk, by complete disregard for his personal safety and untiring efforts, has set a very fine example of gallantry and unswerving devotion to duty.
On the 1st January 1945, Silk was reposted back to Hawkers for a second tour, this time testing the Tempest Mk 2 and 6. He often flew with another test pilot F/Lt. Frank Murphy DFC (RNZAF pilot with 486 Squadron in WW2) in the company’s Vega Gull G-AFEA to Gatwick (Horne) Airfield. He lived as a paying guest at a house called ‘Line Shooters Lodge’ at Winkfield Row which he shared with another former Battle of Britain pilot, F/Lt. ‘Chips’ Carpenter DFC and the very famous test pilot, S/Ldr. Neville Duke DSO OBE DFC** AFC CMC. (who acted as Silk’s best man at his wedding in 1946).
At the beginning of 1946 Silk was posted to 695 Squadron at Horsham St. Faith, which operated with Spitfires on anti-aircraft co-operation duties, and received the Air Efficiency Award in the same year.
From July 1947 695 Squadron became 34 Squadron until its disbandment in November 1952.
Duncan Simpson (Chief Test Pilot with Hawker Siddeley) recalls meeting Silk in 1953/54 at West Raynham but cannot remember in what capacity.
Silk retired from the RAF on 25th February 1958 and died on 25th August 1970, the location of his grave not being known.
©Simon Muggleton 2008