A TALE OF TWO PILOTS, HURRICANE GIRLS & A FRENCHMAN!

June 1940 and the fall of France is imminent. This post looks at the story of two pilots and their brief experiences in the Channel Islands at that time. This is from their interviews with the Imperial War Museum along with other information I have found in the archives.

Other than the same two photographs of a German Sentry standing guard next to RAF signs after the occupation of the islands not much is mentioned about RAF operations from Guernsey in 1939 and 1940. The same two photos always appear in the Daily Mail etc. They were official propaganda photos taken by the German occupiers.

There were various RAF activities at both Guernsey and Jersey airports from the start of the war until the islands were demilitarised in June 1940. These ranged from training, convoy escorts, support of the withdrawal from France to a full on bombing raid on Italy. I will be covering the general operations from the Channel Islands in a future blog post. You can read about the raid on Italy, Operation Haddock, in an earlier blog post here.

The Coastal Command Pilot

Hugh Eccles was a young pilot in Coastal Command. On 7th June 1940 he found himself posted to No 1 School of General Reconnaissance in Guernsey.

This course was designed to be an introduction to Coastal Command, navigation, ship recognition, and anti submarine warfare. They were equipped with Avro Ansons like the one shown below from 48 Squadron who also operated from Guernsey.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945. (C 3043) An Avro Anson Mark I of No. 48 Squadron RAF in flight, escorting an Atlantic Convoy. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205211342

Sadly for Eccles his time in Guernsey was to be cut short as he seemed to enjoy it.

I was billeted in the Manor Hotel nearby. It was a small holiday hotel pre war, it wasn’t a terribly extravagant affair.

Just down the road was an extremely delightful little beach. A cove called Petit Bot I think it was, where you could get drinks, which were extremely cheap. A complete round of drinks was a shilling.

Hugh Eccles – IWM Interview
The Manor Hotel still exists in 2022.
You still get drinks at Petit Bot but they will cost more than a shilling! © Nick Le Huray
Petit Bot Beach- © Nick Le Huray

When asked for more details about his time in Guernsey he went on to explain what they did in their spare time. It may seem like they were having a jolly good time considering that there was a war on. To give some context to this though people were still coming from the UK to Guernsey on holiday during the first half of 1940. This happened to such an extent and so late into June some were trapped here by the arrival of the Germans. I wrote about it here if you would like to know more.

We were enjoying the beach. Actually, we bought a car for I think 30 shillings between the four of us. We each had a driving licence, which I think was something like a shilling for life in Guernsey said there wasn’t very much.

We drove this car around Guernsey to go to beaches and pubs and when we left in a hurry, we had to get rid of it. So we drew lots to see who was going to drive it over the cliff. I was the fortunate one. This was an old car that had an accelerator on the steering wheel and I put the car at speed and jumped out and left it to go over the cliff but unfortunately, it hit a tuft of grass and came round back again. So somebody else had to have go.

It did go over the edge but it really wasn’t at all spectacular a bit of a disappointment. It was just a heap with a lot of steam coming up at the bottom of the cliff. Didn’t look terribly bent at all.

Hugh Eccles – IWM Interview

He talks bout having done some flying whilst here and seeing some smoke from the French coast.

And it wasn’t a surprise when we were told at three o’clock in the afternoon that we were to be off on the five o’clock boat and that was in fact the last boat out of Guernsey.

Hugh Eccles – IWM Interview

Where he refers to the last boat out of Guernsey he is mistaken as RAF personnel from the School of General Reconnaissance left the Island on 17 June and 19th June 1940 on the SS Brittany. They left along with personnel of No 23 and 64 Fighter Service Units. This was well in advance of evacuation of civilians by ship later in the month. He was of course not to know this.

SS Brittany – See SS Brittany for more

The Hurricane Pilot

Harold “Birdie” Bird-Wilson was a Hurricane pilot who as France began to fall found himself and his squadron retreating west.

F/O Harold Bird-Wilson © http://www.bbm.org.uk

If you want to read more about his interesting chap and his long career here

Above (L to R): F/O HAC Bird-Wilson, P/O DC Leary, Sgt. DA Sewell, S/Ldr. CW Williams, P/O DH Wissler, P/O JK Ross. With a Hurricane. © http://www.bbm.org.uk

He talks about how he ended up in the Channel Islands.

l have one interesting part is that we finally got back to western part of France to a place called Dinard. We landed at Dinard and operated from Dinard and the armistice on the 17th of June was about to be signed by the French and the colonel, the French station commander or whatever he called himself called the squadron commander in and said we had one hour to get off his airfield. Otherwise our Hurricanes would be destroyed.

Not a very friendly gesture because we’d been trying to help France but then that was our orders and honestly I’ve never seen a squadron scramble so quickly in its life and we then went to the Channel Isles. We were ordered to land on Jersey and patrol Cherbourg from Jersey and from Guernsey. We had B flight at Guernsey and A flight at Jersey. So we carried out patrols over Cherbourg while the army were being evacuated from there and finally we left the Channel Isles on the 27th of June.

Harold Bird-Wilson – IWM Interview

The Squadron records record a little of events.

17 Squadron Air 27/234/9 – National Archives
17 Squadron Air 27/234/9 – National Archives

His recollection that they arrived on the 17th June and left on the 27th June would appear too be out of kilter with the Squadron records record their departure from France on 17th June but departure from the Channel Islands on the 19th of June. The 19th of course was the day that demilitarisation was completed so it makes sense that they left then. One has to remember that he gave the interview forty eight years after the events took place.

Now you might be wondering who the hurricane girls were that are referred to in the title. Towards the end of the section of the interview he makes reference to them here.

They knew there was a possible invasion and the possibility of occupation. The only experience we had was young ladies coming up to the pilots, us pilots and asking if we would fly them back to England. Being in a single seater fighter it is a pretty tight squeeze and I’m not saying that everybody obeyed the Kings regulations and didn’t succumb to the request from a pretty young lady.

A year or two later I did meet a lady at a party and she said she’d come from the Channel Isles and I said how’d you get back? She said I came in a Hurricane. I said, Well, you better keep that one quiet.

That may have been one of those ladies that we had, I think it was Guernsey at the time, but the pilot would have had to fly without a parachute. That would have been a tricky situation and he would have had to fly, not complaining I wouldn’t think, on the girl’s lap.

Harold Bird-Wilson – IWM Interview

Now I had read somewhere, although where eludes me, about a lady that had claimed to have left Guernsey in this way. At the time I thought this was unlikely. This reference seems to imply that it might have happened. Especially given the amount of detail that he goes into on the problems associated with doing this.

Sadly I haven’t been able to locate any other evidence of this happening but if you have heard of this or seen anything on it please do let me know.

These Hurricane Girls are of course not to be confused with the ATA that delivered Hurricanes to squadrons during the war!

Other Aircraft Retreating Through the Channel Islands

Now the Hurricanes and Coastal Command aircraft were not the only ones in the area. Spitfires from 501 Squadron were briefly based in Jersey. One day they had an unexpected French visitor.

Leven Mail 14 August 1940 Image © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

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I will be adding more as time permits. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it on social media or add a comment if you did. Feedback is always appreciated.

Also happy to be contacted with questions about the war in the Channel Islands, media appearances, podcasts etc.

© Nick Le Huray

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