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The Airmen's Stories - W/Cdr. H W Mermagen

 

Air Commodore (Wing Commander during the Battle) Herbert ‘Tubby’ Mermagen, who has died aged 85, commanded a squadron of Spitfires that provided air cover for the evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk.


In May 1940 Mermagen was ordered to bring No 222 Squadron south at dawn from Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire to Martlesham in Suffolk. As the Spitfires refuelled, Mermagen announced: "Patrol Dunkirk chaps,12,000ft."


"What the Hell?" rasped one of the squadron's flight commanders, Douglas Bader "what's happening over there?". Another pilot objected to being called to arms at such an uncivilised hour, telling Mermagen "It's a bit early to go junketing - I haven't seen a paper yet".


Within the hour Mermagen and his pilots were over the Dunkirk beaches and confronted by the full mayhem of the evacuation. The squadron returned to Dunkirk the next morning and, as Mermagen led them along the French coast, he was horrified to see the lines of heads stretching above the water as the soldiers waded out to the waiting boats. Then ahead he saw the unmistakeable twin-engined profile of a group of Me110’s. Mermagen opened fire at extreme range and watched as one of the enemy fighters began to stream smoke before plunging earthwards. As Mermagen landed back at Hornchurch he cheerily told his pilots: "Well, I must say I was most surprised when that thing fell down". Bader's retort was equally breezy: "I must say, so were the rest of us." Future patrols were not always so pleasurable; the squadron lost 10 of its 24 pilots over Dunkirk.

Herbert Waldemar Me-magen was born on February 1st 1912 at Southsea in Hampshire. His interest in flight was first awakened when, as a child, he saw a Sopwith Camel land in a meadow near the family home. He was educated at Brighton College, where he excelled at rugby, and in 1930 was granted a short service commission. Despite turning out for the RAF and Richmond Rugby Club at wing three-quarter, his short thickset frame had already gained him the nick-name of "Tubby". In June 1931, Mermagen was posted to No 43 Squadron. There he revelled in the squadron's new Hawker Fury biplanes and displayed a talent for aerobatics. Having survived a tight formation touch with another Fury, Mermagen was selected for the RAF aerobatic team at the 1933 Brussels Air Show.
Mermagen was a natural for the Central Flying School (CFS), where he qualified as an instructor before moving to the Oxford University Air Squadron. Then in 1936 he was posted back to CFS and the next year led the RAF inverted formation at the Hendon Air Display. The following year at Hendon he gave a solo aerobatic performance for George VI. While still at CFS Mermagen was promoted squadron leader, an exceptional achievement in peacetime for a pilot aged 26. He was also given responsibility for assessing each new type of fighter or bomber before it joined operational squadrons

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In October 1939 Mermagen formed No 222 Squadron, flying Bristol Blenheim fighters from Duxford near Cambridge. In March 1940 he was ordered to convert the squadron to Spitfires, a task he carried out with such dispatch that he was awarded the AFC. After Dunkirk, the squadron returned to Kirton-in-Lindsey, where on the night of June 19 Mermagen was credited with the probable destruction of an He111 bomber trapped by search-lights over Hull. At the end of July 1940 he was ordered to form fighter stations at Speke and Valley. Mermagen welcomed the posting as a break from writing letters of condolence to the relatives of those lost over Dunkirk.


In September he briefly returned to operations, leading for a week No 266, a Spitfire squadron based at Wittering. During this time he flew Spitfire P7350, now one of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.


The following summer, by now a Wing Commander, Mermagen was transferred to the Middle East. In transit, he spent four nights at a hotel in neutral Portugal. There he had the novel experience of dining among German officers and, despite wearing civilian clothes, was reprimanded by the British Air Attache for being too conspicuously British. Mermagen found this a bit rich, having just seen in the hotel bar Major-General Neil Ritchie, every bit the British officer in a regimental tie. After arriving in Egypt, Mermagen commanded the fighter station at Port Said. He moved subsequently to Cyprus to lead No 259 Wing, before taking up a staff appointment in 1944 at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. One of his last tasks at SHAEF was to help apprehend senior German officers including Field Marshal Kietel, General Jodi and Admiral Donitz. He also collared the Luftwaffe's General Koller at Berchtesgaden. At the end of the war Mermagen took charge of the British Air Command in Berlin where, as he enjoyed recounting, he experienced his only face-to-face encounter with the enemy during a mopping-up operation.


Mermagen remained in the RAF after the war, serving in a variety of staff appointments and as air adviser to the British High Commissioner in Australia. When he returned home in 1950, he qualified as a Gloster Meteor jet pilot while commanding RAF Leconfield. He moved on to Flying Training Command as Senior Administrative Officer and then went as Air Officer Commanding to Ceylon in 1955. In 1960 he retired and joined the bullion brokers Sharps Pixley, staying as a director with the company when it became part of the Kleinwort Benson Group. After attending the daily gold fixings in the City for 10 years he retired to Gloucestershire where he played golf into his eighties.


Mermagen was appointed OBE in 1942, CBE in 1945 and CB in 1960. He was personally invested by Marshal Zhukov with the Soviet Distinguished Services Medal in 1946. He also held the US Legion of Merit and French Legion d'Honneur.


He is survived by his wife Rosemary, whom he married in 1936, and their two sons.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph

 

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