The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. M H Hine
Merrik Hubert Eric Hine was born on 27th October 1916 to Frederick [‘Eric’] and Dorothy Hine, the young Merrik grew up on a farm owned and run by his father between Forty Green and Penn near to Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire.
As a teenager Merrik developed a strong interest in flying and his exuberant character saw him ever keen to seek good argument, even to the point of taking up a stance to argue against his own point of view just to test out the opposing view!
After completing his schooling in the early 1930’s Merrik found employment with the London Midland and Scottish Railway and, with good earnings in his pocket, he could now seek out a long held dream to try his hand at flying. He took himself to the newly opened airfield at White Waltham in Berkshire, which was home to the second de Havilland School of Flying that naturally operated the parent company’s Tiger Moth biplane trainer aircraft. This classic aeroplane would soon become the mainstay for many trainee ab initio RAF pilots. Such was the occasion for Merrik’s first flight, that both of his parents along with his sister Edith drove to White Waltham to watch him take his first trip up into the sky under the experienced command of his flying instructor. The thrill of his first flight sealed Merrik’s new longing to forge a career as a pilot and where better than the Royal Air Force. However it wasn’t until March 1939 that Merrik was able to join the RAF Volunteer Reserve as a u/t [under training] Pilot and then awaited further instructions.
With the growing threats from Nazi Germany, expansion of the RAF took greater precedence and the momentum towards mobilisation of Great Britain’s armed forces quickly gathered pace. Along with thousands of other reservists Merrik received his call-up on 1st September 1939, the same day that Blitzkrieg was launched against Poland. Two days later Great Britain declared war on Germany.
Over the following months as the ‘Phoney War’ dragged on in Europe, Merrik successfully completed his elementary and advanced flying training that saw him selected as a candidate to become a fighter pilot. By the time Merrik was posted to No.5 Operational Training Unit at Aston Down in Gloucestershire at the beginning of August 1940, Great Britain was standing alone after the defeat of France and found the might of the Luftwaffe striking across the English Channel in an effort to smash RAF Fighter Command as a prelude to a planned Nazi invasion.
At 5 OTU Merrik learnt about getting to grips with the superlative Supermarine Spitfire, but his newly acquired Pilot Wings were almost ‘clipped’ on Sunday 11th August when after landing at nearby Kemble airfield in Spitfire N3106, a wheel of his aircraft hit a stump in the ground. This caused the undercarriage leg to collapse and a wing of the Spitfire to dig into the grass as the tips of the turning propeller chopped into the dirt, bringing the once sleek machine to an abrupt halt. Though the aircraft was damaged, the young pilot was fortunately unhurt.
After two weeks of practice flying in the seat of a Spitfire and a ‘prang’ under his belt, Merrik was assessed as competent for operational duty and on Monday 19th August was posted to join 65 ‘East India’ Squadron at Hornchurch to the east of London. With the Luftwaffe having launched Adler Tag – Eagle Day, on Tuesday 13th August with many subsequent air attacks as each day unfolded, a quick baptism of fire awaited young Merrik – perhaps?
Arriving at Hornchurch from No.5 O.T.U. with Sergeant Pilot Merrik Hine were fellow NCO pilots Peter Mitchell and Ronald Stillwell and Pilot Officer Charles Chappell. They found a fighter squadron battle-hardened from continuous air combat that had experienced an equal share of success and tragedy. Since moving to Hornchurch on Wednesday 5th June 1940, 65 Squadron had lost eight pilots including two Squadron Commanders.
Though stationed at Hornchurch, the ‘East India’ Squadron Spitfires would usually operate from either Rochford [now Southend Airport] or Manston in Kent from dawn until dusk, depending upon the operational requirement dictated by No.11 Group Command. A conscious decision by the Squadron Commander Arthur Holland, who evidently could spare throwing his new pilots into combat despite operational losses and the tiredness felt by his men, kept Merrik firmly on the ground and doubtless put him to task on more mundane duties.
Frustrating as this might have been for a keen and fresh fighter pilot impatient to be bloodied in battle, Merrik nonetheless must have eagerly awaited the Squadron returning each evening to hear tales of dogfights and ‘kills’ against the Luftwaffe. The reality of air combat would have hit home soon for Merrik when three days after his arrival at Hornchurch, 65 Squadron lost Sergeant Pilot Michael Keymer who was shot down and killed when the Squadron encountered and engaged a large formation of deadly Messerschmitt Me109’s near Dover on Thursday 22nd August. On the credit side the Squadron had claims against three of the enemy fighters.
Over the next four days, the Squadron continued to engage the enemy whilst the feet of Sergeant Pilot Hine stayed on terra firma. As the operational pilots battled with their tiredness and combat weariness, a signal from Fighter Command was received on Tuesday 27th August and informed the Squadron that they were being ‘rested’ and were to head north to Turnhouse [now Edinburgh Airport] in Scotland. That same evening six battle-scarred Spitfires took to the air and headed to Church Fenton in Yorkshire for an overnight stop, before continuing onto Turnhouse the following morning.
Several pilots were held back at Hornchurch awaiting serviceable aircraft to take northwards including Sergeant Pilot Hine, and he was witness to the severe losses suffered by No.603 ‘City of Edinburgh’ Squadron on Wednesday 28th August during their first day of frontline duty in the south. This Auxiliary Squadron had relieved Merrik’s unit only the day before and already three of their number were dead with one other pilot wounded.
A big moment arrived for Merrik on Thursday 29th August when he was given the ‘keys’ to Spitfire K9904 and in the company of Warrant Officer Mayne, flew direct from Hornchurch to Turnhouse in a recorded flight time of one hour and fifty-five minutes. [Note: Warrant Officer Mayne was in all likelihood ‘Ernie’ Mayne who had recently been stood down from combat operations with No.74 Squadron at Hornchurch, in part due to his age. He was 39 years old and a veteran of the Royal Flying Corps.]
Settling in at their new home airfield, the 65 Squadron pilots were keen to set out on Sector Recce’s to recognise local ground features from the air that would be useful for navigation and for finding the airfield, especially if the weather should suddenly deteriorate. New arrivals were also being posted into the Squadron to boost the operational strength and for the purposes of training up pilots fresh from the O.T.U’s.
Sergeant Pilot Hine was still ‘fresh’ and it wasn’t until the late morning of Thursday 5th September that Merrik took off for his first Sector Recce in Spitfire N3161, and leading the way was the recently promoted Flying Officer Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane, who was later to become an RAF legend, albeit ultimately a tragic one.
With the main Squadron emphasis on training, there were only limited operational duties, and Merrik was one of those pilots who had to concentrate on his local and formation flying. Other duties for the pilots included aerobatics, test and weather flights and sorties to other airfields like Arbroath near Dundee and Drem in East Lothian.
On Thursday 12th September, a new experience awaited Sergeant Pilot Hine when along with other Squadron pilots he flew to Drem in Spitfire R6982 to conduct practise night flying, an oft tricky business in a Spitfire, but there were no recorded mishaps that night.
Sunday 15th September dawned quiet at Turnhouse, but as events would prove, things were not so quiet over south-east England this day as the Luftwaffe made another attempt to win air superiority as a prelude to a Nazi invasion. However, that morning and again flying in company with ‘Paddy’ Finucane, Merrik piloted K9904 to Acklington on the Northumberland coast in preparation for air firing practice. Whether this was the first time Merrik ever fired the eight Browning guns of a Spitfire in the air with a purpose is not known, but it was undoubtedly a satisfying experience to press the ‘tit’ on his control column and let loose bursts of fire.
In those early autumn days that followed, K9904 became Sergeant Pilot Hine’s regular mount, but the partnership was broken on the late afternoon of Monday 23rd September, when Merrik unfortunately crashed on landing after a routine practic flight at just after 4:00pm. He was unhurt and the exact reasons why he crash-landed are not stated in the Squadron records and though the aircraft was damaged, it was repairable.
After a hectic August with so many contacts with the enemy, September by contrast recorded not one enemy aircraft seen in the sky by the Squadron who carried out only eleven uneventful Operational Patrols. October followed a similar pattern to the previous month yet with even fewer operational duties, but one date in particular is significant to the memory of Sergeant Pilot Merrik Hine and ensured his name would be entered upon arguably one of the most famous Rolls of Honour in the history of the Royal Air Force.
With training still the main emphasis for the Squadron, a steady trickle of ‘new’ pilots arrived from No.7 O.T.U. at Hawarden in Flintshire throughout the month, including a young 20 years old Sergeant Pilot by the name of Ian Pearson who appeared at Turnhouse on Monday 14th October and eager to make a good impression. Two days later after some mid-morning flying practise in Spitfire X4233, Merrik took off in another Spitfire with the serial K9789 during the early afternoon of Wednesday 16th October in the company of five other Squadron members to fly the short distance east to Drem, where they all landed at 1:40pm.
Forty minutes later Sergeant Pilot Hine took off again in K9789 and in Section formation with the experienced Sergeant Pilot Joseph ‘Dick’ Kilner and Pilot Officer Emanuel Lyons for an Operational Patrol – his first and ultimately only Battle of Britain ‘war’ sortie. It was uneventful with no sighting of an enemy aircraft and the Section landed back at Drem after forty-five minutes. Though not considered at the time to be significant, in later years when the criteria for ‘The Few’ was laid down, this one operational sortie was very significant indeed.
Whilst Merrik was in the air on patrol, Sergeant Pilot Pearson took off from Turnhouse for some flying practice and headed north over the Firth of Forth in the direction of his parents home at Bannatay Mill Farm, Gateside in Fife. His intention was to carry out a fly-by over the farmhouse where his proud parents John and Agnes Pearson could watch their fighter pilot son ‘show-off’ a bit in his Spitfire. Yet what happened horrified Sergeant Pearson’s parents who witnessed his fighter plane inexplicably plunge to earth less than a mile from the farm; they had the sad task several days later of burying their boy at the local Strathmiglo Parish Churchyard. Sergeant Pilot Pearson was only with 65 Squadron for two days and because he never flew an operational sortie, his name does not appear on the Roll of Honour to ‘The Few’.
A change of command took place at the end of the month when Squadron Leader Holland was admitted to hospital with a suspected tumour behind one of his eyes, and his place was taken by one of the Flight Commanders, the tall and fair-haired Gerald ‘Sammy’ Saunders who had been with the Squadron since the summer of 1936. He had a reputation for being strict with pilots who dared to slip-up, but it’s not on record whether young Merrik ever received a ‘Sammy’ lecture.
November 1940 continued in a similar vein to October for the Squadron with continued training and only a handful of Operational Patrols, and it wasn’t until the mid-afternoon of Monday 25th November that Sergeant Pilot Hine undertook his second ‘War Operation’ when he went aloft for thirty-five minutes with Sergeant Pilot Kilner and Pilot Officer Robert Strang, but there was nothing of importance to report and still no sign of enemy activity.
A tragic accident however occurred on the ground earlier in that last Autumnal month at Turnhouse on Sunday 3rd November, when Sergeant Pilot Geoffrey Hill struck a contractor’s lorry during a formation take-off and a civilian occupant in the lorry, Mr Francis Lyn was sadly killed with the RAF pilot lucky to escape any injury.
As the final days of autumn 1940 ebbed away, 65 Squadron received news that they were to head south again for frontline duties once more and for many of the young pilots including Sergeant Pilot Hine, their past three months of training and practice flying could now be put to good use with the hope of a chance to have a crack at the enemy. Thus it was on the morning of Friday 29th November 1940 that the Squadron waved farewell to Scotland and took-off from Turnhouse for the flight south; stopping off on-route at Church Fenton, all the aircraft and pilots eventually arrived without incident at around 1:30pm when they landed at the Sector Station of Tangmere near Chichester in West Sussex.
With little time allowed to settle in, the very next day the Squadron sent up eleven of its Spitfires at about 2:00pm for the first Operational Patrol from Tangmere, but the Patrol was uneventful and lasted only a short time. Perhaps poignantly for the Squadron now back in the frontline, the pilots read a message in Command Routine Orders from their retiring head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding to his beloved ‘chicks’ as he fondly called them:-
“My Dear Fighter Boys,
In sending you this, my last message, I wish I could say all that is in my heart. I cannot hope to surpass the simple eloquence of the Prime Minister’s words ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. That debt remains, and will increase.
In saying goodbye to you I want you to know how continually you have been in my thoughts, and that although our direct connections may be severed, I may yet be able to help you in your gallant fight.
Goodbye to you, and God bless you all.”
For whatever reason and possibly due to either being on leave or grounded because of sickness, but Sergeant Pilot Merrik Hine did not fly operationally from Tangmere after the arrival of the Squadron or during the following first six days of December, in which time regular Patrols were conducted along the Sussex coastline and the Portsmouth and Southampton areas.
The night time bombing Blitz by the Luftwaffe was continuing to build-up and Southampton was a regular target at this time with attacks on Portsmouth too, but there was little the Squadron could do to counter these nocturnal raids, which was frustrating for the experienced pilots like ‘Paddy’ Finucane.
Allotted his usual position within Green Section of ‘B’ Flight, Sergeant Pilot Hine is recorded as conducting his first Operational Patrol from Tangmere on the late morning of Saturday 7th December whilst piloting Spitfire N3127, when twelve aircraft took-off in Squadron strength. Merrik had never been particularly keen flying as number three that required him to fly on the left-hand side of his Section Leader. Maybe he hoped for the day when he was more experienced to then fly as number two or even as a Section Leader perhaps. The patrol lasted about one hour, but as usual it was uneventful. Things would not remain ‘uneventful’ for much longer however.
On Sunday 8th December each Section of the Squadron took turns to conduct an Operational Patrol and first away this day was Red Section led by Flight Lieutenant Gordon Olive [Red One] in company with Pilot Officer Ernest ‘Dave’ Glaser [Red Two] and Sergeant Pilot William Oldnall [Red Three]. Moments after taking off at 1:20pm the Section of three Spitfires were vectored towards Portsmouth and soon spotted a very rare sight – an enemy aircraft.
Chasing after their quarry, Red Section went into line astern formation and as Flight Lieutenant Olive closed in, he identified the Luftwaffe aircraft to be a Messerschmitt Me110 evidently on a lone reconnaissance mission. Within range, Red Section Leader fired a full burst at the twin-engine German machine which erupted in flame and fell towards the sea. As Red Leader broke away, Red Two followed in to fire his guns at the doomed enemy, more for experience than to deliver a coup-de-grâce to the Me110 which seconds later dived into the sea.
Elated at this first success for the Squadron since arriving at Tangmere, their colleagues were eager to hear of the action. [The victim of Red Section had come from 4 Staffel, Fernaufklärungsgruppe 14, a long-range reconnaissance unit. The crew of Feldwebel Otto Mercier and Oberfeldwebel A. Schönewald were listed ‘missing’].
In the mid-afternoon, ‘B’ Flight including Sergeant Pilot Hine at the controls of N3127 and led by the Squadron Commander ‘Sammy’ Saunders, took-off for an Operational Patrol in the hope of finding more of the Luftwaffe, but the generally poor weather curtailed the patrol after only thirty minutes aloft.
In the early evening darkness, three of the most experienced Squadron members that included ‘Sammy’ Saunders, Tom Smart and ‘Paddy’ Finucane bravely carried out a Night-Flying Patrol, but they returned with little to report.
Continued deteriorating weather on Monday 9th December prevented any operational flying by 65 Squadron, and the Luftwaffe did not conduct any significant offensive attacks and the day to rest from the tension of combat was undoubtedly welcome for many exhausted aircrew.
Fine weather on Tuesday 10th December did not see any great amount of activity by the enemy, but 65 Squadron carried out some Operational Patrols and Sergeant Pilot Hine in Spitfire N3169 accompanied his Squadron Commander and Pilot Officer Strang for a late morning patrol that lasted fifty minutes, but there was nothing to report. The next day continued with an increase in the number of Operational Patrols though Merrik was ‘rested’ and not called to go flying, but he did not miss any excitement with another day of quiet activity recorded.
Thursday 12th December 1940 dawned with patches of fog and mist in some areas with a scattered build-up of rain or drizzle developing, but generally the weather was calm with only light winds. The improved conditions encouraged Luftwaffe fighter sweeps out across Kent during the late morning and some sporadic combats with RAF defenders ensued. Engagements against raiding enemy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft using cloud as cover were also recorded but with only limited success in countering them.
During the early afternoon at an enemy occupied airfield in the Normandy region of France, a sole Luftwaffe aircraft in the shape of a Junkers Ju88 from 4(F)/121 lifted off from its base to head out over the English Channel detailed for a reconnaissance duty along the south coast of England. The crew were hopeful they would avoid ‘bumping’ into any patrolling RAF fighters.
At Tangmere after lunch, ‘Sammy’ Saunders called together the members of ‘B’ Flight as they readied themselves for what they thought would be another routine patrol. The Duty Op’s board showed Sergeant Pilot Merrik Hine as Green Three in company with Section Leader Pilot Officer William ‘Gunner’ Franklin [Green One] and Green Two, Sergeant Pilot Victor Lowson.
At 2:30pm, six Spitfires that made up Blue and Green Sections of 65 Squadron departed Tangmere and formed up to head southwards for the coast to take up their designated patrol line. Merrik, at the controls of Spitfire R6978 [as recorded in the Squadron records] tucked in close on the left hand side of the Squadron ‘ace’ pilot, 29 years old Pilot Officer Bill Franklin, recently commissioned and holder of a Distinguished Flying Medal and Bar for his prowess in the air.
With the six ‘East India’ Spitfires climbing for height, S/Ldr. Saunders steered his Flight towards the direction of Selsey Bill.
After about twenty minutes an excited voice broke over the radio to exclaim they had spotted a ‘Bogey’ and as each pilot strained to look about the patch of sky in which it was reported, a single Ju88 and doubtless on reconnaissance, could be seen going about its business. With hearts starting to race, especially for those like Merrik who had yet to come up against the enemy, a nervous excitement began to build as ‘Sammy’ Saunders gave out orders for the attack. Surprise was the key as once the Ju88 crew spotted their potential assailants, the tactic would either be to seek immediate cover in adjacent cloud or dive away at speed to escape back to France across the Channel seas.
Blue Section with ‘Sammy’ Saunders leading jostled to get into line astern and immediately went into pursuit of the twin-engine Junkers. Closing within range, surprise wasn’t complete as the German aircraft began to dive away on evidently spotting the chasing RAF fighters, but ‘Sammy’ Saunders, Pilot Officer Lyons and Sergeant Pilot S. Reeves each let off a burst of fire in turn, but with no apparent effect as their aim was spoiled by the return fire coming back at them from the spirited Luftwaffe crewmembers manning the two rearward firing machine-guns.
With Blue Section now out of position to continue the chase, it was then up to Green Section to ‘bag’ the ‘Bogey’ which was beginning to get further away as it zoomed down in a very steep dive towards the French Coast and cloud cover.
What happened next is not totally clear, but bad luck struck ‘B’ Flight who returned to Tangmere missing two of their number. Conversely, across at an airbase in Occupied France a jubilant Junkers crew were doubly celebrating their escape and safe return from a ‘Squadron’ of RAF “Schpitfires” and with claims that they had shot two of them down.
The sole returned member of Green Section, Sgt. Lowson was grilled by Squadron colleagues to find out what had happened to Bill ‘Gunner’ Franklin and young Merrik. As Green Two, all he knew was that for one moment he was in formation with Green One and Green Three and after having fired at the Junkers he suddenly found himself alone. Something then caught his eye and he spied a Spitfire below him going down and breaking up before it hit the sea. There was no sign of any parachute. To add to the distress of the Squadron losses, the enemy had seemingly escaped unscathed despite the persistent attacks by ‘B’ Flight.
Whether the Luftwaffe gunners were deadly in their aim or that P/O Franklin and Sergeant Pilot Hine collided in mid-air as they got into position to attack the Ju88 will never be known, but tragically 65 Squadron had lost one of its top ‘aces’ along with a young pilot who never really had the opportunity to prove himself in combat. The Squadron diarist concluded the days ‘Summary of Events’ thus:- 'Sergeant Hine joined the Squadron in August and though he had accompanied the Squadron on several other operational flights, this was the first time that he came under enemy fire'.
Sergeant Pilot Merrik Hine, aged 24 years and one of ‘The Few’, remains missing and is remembered upon the Royal Air Force Memorial at Runnymede, panel 15.