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The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. R W Hillman


Ralph Walter Hillman, from Edmonton in London, was born in 1918, the son of Walter John Hillman and Grace Elizabeth Hillman (nee Sutton).

He attended Latymer Secondary School there.

His father, Walter, served in the Gloucestershire Regiment in WW1. Returning from leave on 9th October 1917, his transport detonated a mine and he was killed, his name is recorded on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

Ralph went on to work in the accounts department of the Kodak company in Kingsway, London, joining in June 1935.



He resigned from Kodak and joined the RAF in May 1939 as an Aircrafthand.


Above: Hillman seated at left hand end of the bench, presumably at a training school.


After the outbreak of war in September 1939 he remustered as a Wop/AG and was posted to 22 Squadron of Coastal Command, which was the first unit to operate the Bristol Beaufort.

He was attached to 235 Squadron, operating Blenheims, on 1st August 1940 and was eligible for the Battle of Britain Clasp by his service with them between the 1st and 31st August, when he returned to 22 Squadron.



In late March 1941 two German capital ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, arrived at the French port of Brest. RAF bombing raids left them undamaged but in order to remove an unexploded bomb from a dry dock the Gneisenau was re-berthed in a more exposed position. This vulnerability was spotted by a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire on the 5th April and orders were immediately issued for an attack to be carried out the following morning.

22 Squadron was briefed for the first attack and at 0420 in the on 6th April three torpedo-armed Beauforts flown by F/O K Campbell, F/O J Hyde DFC and Sgt. H Camp took off independently from St. Eval in Cornwall. They intended to rendezvous near Brest.

Very poor weather resulted in the aircraft of F/O Campbell, N1016 OA-X, arriving alone. F/Sgt. Hillman was the aircraft's gunner, the other crew being the observer Sgt. JP Scott RCAF and the wireless operator Sgt. WC Mulliss. Just after 0600 the Beaufort flew through the entrance of Brest harbour, descending to 50 feet to line up the Gneisenau, 500 yards ahead within the inner harbour.

Dropping the torpedo at minimal operating distance, the Beaufort was seen to make a climbing turn in order to clear the surrounding hills and reach low cloud. However the extensive harbour defences were fully awake by then and the aircraft suffered multiple hits, went out of control and came down into the waters of the harbour. There were no survivors from the crew, whose bodies were recovered and buried at Kerfautras Cemetery in Brest.

The torpedo struck home below the waterline. The Gneisenau may well have sunk if not for the proximity of a dry dock to which it was rapidly moved. It was under repair and out of action for the rest of 1941.

F/O Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross (gazetted 13th March 1942).




The Squadron's officers wrote to Hillman's mother on 7th April, 12th April and 10th May, each time saying that they were increasingly hopeful that he was a PoW however the letter below confirmed that this was not so.



Hillman's mother Grace, no doubt weakened by Ralph's loss, died from stomach cancer later in 1942.


Research courtesy of Dean Sumner.

Additional research and all images courtesy of Ann Parkhouse (niece).




Ralph Hillman left these uncaptioned photos, as he was with 235 Squadron for just one month it is likely that they depict his colleagues in 22 Squadron.







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