Frank Sumner was born in South London on 12th October
1902 and in February 1919, at the age of sixteen, he decided to
join the Royal Air Force as a Boy Recruit earning just 9d (3.5p)
In October 1922 Frank was sent to the RAF's Armament and Gunnery
School at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey for ground and air
instruction on the main 'tool' for a 1920's air-gunner - the
World War One 0.303 inch air cooled Lewis machine-gun. Frank
proved to be worthy material for an air-gunner and was awarded
a brass 'Winged Bullet', which he then proudly wore upon the
right sleeve of his RAF tunic.
On the 6th of September 1939 Frank was sent to RAF Church
Fenton near York to join 64 Squadron. His initial rank and
trade was as a Leading Aircraftsman ACH. But soon he was earmarked
for air-gunner duties once more in a 'slightly' more modern type
of Bristol aeroplane to that he had known before, along with
a new 'tool' of the trade - a Vickers 0.303 inch, gas-operated
The first flight in which Frank flew as a squadron air-gunner
occurred on the 6th of December. "Standing Patrol - Uneventful"
became the most regular entry in the 64 Squadron Operations
Record Book during the opening months of what became the 'Phoney
War', as they were given the unenviable task with their Blenheims
to carry out coastal patrols and convoy protection duties along
England's North Eastern coastline.
The winter of 1939-1940 was very severe indeed and, that notwithstanding,
64 Squadron were detached north in mid-December to the airfield
of Evanton in Scotland, situated by the Cromarty Firth.
the same duties continued unabated along the coastline, but their
main task during this detachment was to provide fighter protection
to the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy along with occasional
forays westwards for patrols over Loch Ewe. The squadron returned
to Church Fenton in mid-January 1940 and continued on daylight
patrols and sporadic night sorties, but still nothing particularly
eventful happened with the Blenheims except for an infrequent
dramatic forced-landing, or a tragic crash with the sad loss
of crewmembers lives.
To the relief of the pilots at least, came
news that the Squadron were to convert to the best that the RAF
could offer in the form of Vickers-Supermarine Spitfires.
However this change would make the air-gunners redundant,
so Frank was posted on 20th May 1940 to 23 Squadron at RAF
Wittering, also operating 'fighter' Blenheims, but in
the hazardous task of night-fighting. On the 18th the Squadron
scored its first night successes with the destruction of two
Luftwaffe Heinkel He111 bombers. But the cost was high as two
aircrew died in the loss of a pair of Blenheims with another
damaged. These 'kills' proved to be the last for the Squadron
that summer, as their aircraft were evidently not very well suited
to the task of interception.
Despite the poor performance of the Blenheim as a 'fighter',
the Squadron still had a key role to play in the Battle of Britain
that followed, not least in maintaining a presence in the air
at night and also carrying out co-operation tasks for the Anti-aircraft
and Searchlight defences along with 'RDF Runs' for the ground
radar. Likewise as during his time on 64 Squadron, Frank flew
with a number of different pilots of 23 Squadron throughout
the Battle of Britain period.
One important factor contributing to the unsuitability of
the Blenheim as a night-fighter was its speed, for the two Bristol
Mercury engines fitted to the aircraft did not have sufficient
power to easily gain upon any enemy intruder located in the night
This did not stop the crews "Giving it a go"
however. As for example, it is recorded that on the night of
the 30th August, Flt/Sgt Penford and the newly promoted Sergeant
Sumner "Chased 5 bandits, but with no luck" By this
time and into September the woeful speed of the Blenheim was
further reduced when the newly developed but primitive airborne
interception (AI) radar was fitted into most of the Squadron
aircraft, which also necessitated a third crewmember, that of
the radar operator being taken aloft as well.
With night raids
on the increase over mainland Britain, 23 Squadron were moved
further south on the 12th September, with 'A' Flight being
based at RAF Middle Wallop and 'B' Flight at the ex-Admiralty
airfield (HMS Peregrine) at Ford near Littlehampton. As Bristol
Beaufighters came into service with other night-fighter squadrons
and proved to be a far more capable aircraft than the Blenheim,
23 Squadron were selected to be re-tasked for Intruder work
with new American built Boston/Havocs.
New aircraft and new offensive roles for Fighter Command
was going to create a surplus of air-gunners, but conversely
Bomber Command was beginning to undergo greater expansion and
had need of experienced air-gunners. The majority of the air-gunners
on 23 Squadron were given the option to retrain as radar operators,
but staring for hours on end at a cathode ray tube was not everyone's
cup of tea, so Frank soon found himself at a Bomber Command Operational
Training Unit (OTU) for conversion into a 'Bomber Boy'.
In November 1940 he arrived at 15 OTU at RAF Harwell in Oxfordshire
to learn to be a tail-gunner in the Vickers Wellington bomber,
and how to the operate the Fraser Nash gun turret armed with
two 0.303 inch Browning machine-guns. The following month Frank
was posted to 142 Squadron at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire
who had just exchanged their obsolete Fairey Battle light bombers
for the Wellington MkII powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
Frank was crewed up in the aircraft of the Squadron Commander,
a pre-war pilot by the name of Wing Commander William Sadler,
a graduate of the RAF Staff College at Cranwell. Pilot Officer
George Bull was the 2nd pilot ('2nd Dickie'). By the end of April
1941 the Squadron was up to full strength, and were soon to carry
out their first operation as part of the growing Bomber Offensive
aiming to strike hard at the enemy. The first bombing sortie
Frank embarked upon took place on the evening of the 3rd May
for an attack on Rotterdam in Holland aboard Wellington W5440
QT-Q. Loaded with 8 x 250 lb General Purpose bombs and 2 x Small
Bomb Carriers, the Squadron ORB states "Target bombed and
bursts seen in target area".
Returning safe from this short
trip, the summer months of nocturnal raids would prove somewhat
more of a challenge in terms of stamina and outwitting the growing
threat from German air and ground defences. W/Cdr Sadler soon
took up a post at the Air Ministry which saw P/O Bull made Captain,
and so a new '2nd Dickie' by the name of Sgt James Pattison was
slotted into the team.
Through the summer months they returned
unscathed from raids deep inside Germany to major cities like
Bremen, Cologne, Duisberg, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Rostock, Stettin,
Vegesack and the 'Big One' Berlin. European ports and harbours
were also on their list of targets and attacks were made on Antwerp,
Brest and Lorient.
With some two-dozen bombing trips under his
belt Frank was close to completing his tour of 30 'ops', but
it was well known through bitter experience that the odds of
anyone completing a tour in a bomber were quite low and getting
lower still. In September 1941 it was learnt that the Squadron
was going to receive a new mark of 'Wimpy' the MkIV, powered
by American Pratt & Whitney engines.
This version would also
have a new variation of the Fraser Nash tail turret and so with
Frank being one of the most experienced air-gunners on the Squadron,
he was detailed to report to Parnell's in Bristol who were subcontracted
to make the turrets. It was his job to familiarise himself with
the new turret so that he could instruct his fellow tail-gunners
once the aircraft had arrived at Binbrook. Thus on the 23rd of
September Frank made his way down to Bristol whilst the Squadron
and 'his' crew prepared to carry out more raids on Germany.
from P/O Bull and Sgt Pattison the other crewmembers consisted
of the observer Maurice Jacoby and the two wireless operator/air-gunners
Thomas Harrower and John Parkin respectively. Frank's position
was taken by F/O John Ferris.]
Upon his return to
Binbrook the following week, Frank was told some devastating
news - his crew had not returned from a raid to Hamburg on the
previous evening of the 30th and were listed as missing, and
sadly it would later be learned via the Red Cross that they were
never going to be coming back home again.
Above: the crew lost on 30th September less Pattison and Ferris, the latter having replaced Frank for the fatal trip. From the left are Frank, Jacoby, Bull, Wg/Cmdr Willliam Sadler (142 Sqn CO), Harrower and Parkin.
During October and
early November of 1941, 142 Squadron began to receive and
get to grips with their new Wellingtons and it was during the
latter month that the Squadron moved to RAF Grimsby. Frank's
new replacement crew after the tragic event of late September
consisted entirely of Sergeants and on the 30th of November
seven aircraft of 142 Squadron took off on their first bombing
operation from Grimsby, the target on this night being Hamburg.
In Wellington Z1292, Sgt Alexander Gilmour (Captain), Sgt John
Lucking (2nd Pilot), Sgt William Lewis (Observer), Sgt John Saunders
(W/Op A/G), Sgt Jesse Butterworth (Front A/G) and Flt/Sgt Frank
Sumner (Tail A/G) left the runway at 17:57 hours with their bombload
consisting of 540 x 4 lb incendiaries, 1 x 500 lb GP and 1 x
250 lb GP bombs.
Two of the Squadron aircraft failed to return from this mission,
one of which was Z1292. The Squadron ORB simply states, "This
aircraft failed to return. No W/T communication at all".
Sometime later news came through via the German authorities that
the crew of a Wellington, which had been shot down by German
Naval Artillery (coastal flak) near Kiel had been recovered and
buried at the local Garrison Cemetery.
It was after the war in
Europe had ended that Frank's body was exhumed and identified
and then laid to rest in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
cemetery at Kiel - one of 'The Few' amongst nearly nine hundred
other brave men whose combined sacrifice we must never allow
to be forgotten.
Dean Sumner (nephew of the above): July 2005.