AIRMEN'S STORIES - P/O. F A Toombs
A CRUEL WAY FOR A HERO TO DIE
Note: This story was compiled after review of the biography 'The Sky Suspended A Fighter Pilot's Story' by Jim Bailey [ex-Battle of Britain pilot who served with No.264 & No.85 Squadron]
Frank Albert Toombs was born in 1911. Before the Second World War he lived in Richmond in South-west London with his wife Violet. Having joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve he was commissioned in May 1940. In July he arrived at the Duxford satellite aerodrome of Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire to join No.264 Squadron. This unit had experienced mixed fortunes from 12th May 1940 when after achieving their first combat success, four of their aircraft were subsequently shot down. Later that month they saw intense action in the skies around Dunkirk, where the RAF valiantly tried to protect the British Expeditionary Force from a continued aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe, whilst the Royal Navy and the 'Little Ships' heroically evacuated Allied troops from the exposed beaches.
After some initial successes by the Defiant aircraft against German fighters at Dunkirk, who possibly mistook them for Hawker Hurricanes and so attacked the RAF turret-armed machines from above or astern, the enemy soon learned to intercept either head-on or from below where they could not be sighted by the air-gunners!
Over a period of four days aerial fighting in late May 1940, No.264 Squadron lost ten of their aircraft whilst on patrol and eleven aircrew killed. Dividing the responsibility for flying and fighting between two crewmembers appeared like a good idea on paper, but in reality it was not a successful concept for day combat, especially when up against enemy fighters! Frank Toombs flew his first operational sortie on 15th July and survived another eighteen 'ops' during the remaining period of the Battle of Britain. Despite the hard-fought lessons suffered by the squadron over Dunkirk and the near massacre of Defiants from No.141 Squadron on 19th July, the turret fighters were again committed to daylight patrols. Late in that summer No.264 Squadron tragically lost their much-admired Commander, Philip Hunter DSO and thirteen more aircrew killed, as another ten aircraft were downed in combat from 24th to 28th August. These air battles left the squadron with just three serviceable machines.
The losses were unacceptable so the Defiant fighter was sensibly and belatedly withdrawn from daylight operations and switched to night-fighting, where it was hoped the flexible armament of its gun-turret would be more suited. Notwithstanding the appalling casualties, No.264 Squadron could boast within its ranks the most successful Defiant crew in the RAF, with Sergeants Edward Thorn and Frederick Barker claiming the destruction of at least eleven enemy aircraft in day combat! Frank Toombs eventually teamed up to fly with Pilot Officer William 'Roddy' Knocker and such was his character that the nickname of 'Two-pint' was bestowed upon him! The reason behind Frank being given the nickname 'Two-pint' was on account of his inability to consume no more than two pints of weak wartime bitter, before he then became hopelessly drunk! At 29 years of age Frank was a man of maturity and was thus expected to drink far more copious amounts of alcohol.
'Two-pint' was one of the luckier Defiant air-gunners, for he survived unscathed from the high losses inflicted upon No.264 and No.141 Squadron during the summer months of 1940, when the turret fighter was proven to be outclassed in fighter-verses-fighter combat. Though never to personally experience anything notably dramatic or successful during the Battle of Britain, the relatively unknown 'Two-pint' was nonetheless a popular individual on his squadron. As already mentioned a good deal of merriment was made at his lack of prowess in consuming large quantities of beer, but furthermore he was known on a regular occasion to go aloft in his gun-turret armed with a daily newspaper to read.
This he did confident in the knowledge that others in the formation were bound to spot anything of importance before he was ever likely to! - Quite what his fellow squadron pilots thought of this behaviour is not recorded.
With the Luftwaffe failing to gain air superiority over South-east England as the prelude to an invasion, the Battle of Britain drew towards to its official conclusion at the end of October 1940, during which time the enemy bomber forces concentrated their attacks at night. To counter this threat, the Defiant due to its shortcomings as a day-fighter was one of the RAF aircraft utilised for nocturnal defence, and so 'Roddy' Knocker and 'Two-pint' Toombs continued to fly regularly together on dusk and night-time patrols. In the darkness on the early evening of 15th November 1940, 'Roddy' and 'Two-pint' took-off from Rochford Aerodrome in Essex at 18:30 hours for a Night Patrol in Defiant N1547, but after only a few minutes the aircraft mysteriously caught fire in mid-air. Without delay 'Roddy' steered their night-fighter around for a rapid return to Rochford to carry out an emergency landing, and approaching from downwind he was unfortunately not successful in his first attempt to land the stricken fighter.
With the seriousness of the situation increasing, 'Roddy' was only too aware as to how difficult it could be for an air-gunner to rapidly exit the restrictive turret in an emergency. Heading in at fairly low-level towards Rochford for another landing attempt, the Defiant struck a tree and immediately hit the ground on the golf course adjacent to the aerodrome! The wrecked aircraft burst into flames, but 'Roddy' managed to quickly crawl away from his blazing cockpit whereupon he then passed out. Two soldiers in the vicinity ran up to the crashed RAF aeroplane and reportedly could see 'Two-pint' struggling inside the gun-turret as flames from the fire licked around him. Perhaps through a combination of the fierce heat, fear of explosion and simple self-preservation the soldiers stood idly by and watched poor 'Two-pint' slowly cook inside the Defiant. Many minutes were to pass before the Station Medical Officer arrived on the scene to find the helpless air-gunner still trapped within the gun-turret, and that he was now hideously burned to a virtual crisp.
Showing commendable bravery the SMO pulled 'Two-pint' from the inferno and despatched him with haste to hospital where medical staff worked frantically to treat his terrible burns. Despite his horrifying injuries, 'Two-pint' displayed the great fortitude and courage typical of those badly afflicted, and he bravely demonstrated enormous quality of spirit by chatting both cheerfully and coherently to those around him.
Very sadly he succumbed to his awful wounds two days later and would nevermore get another opportunity to raise his drinking threshold beyond two pints of beer! Frank Toombs was laid to rest in Richmond Cemetery in Surrey (Southwest London)
AIRMEN'S STORIES - BACK TO MENU
"I regard it as a privilege to fight for all those things that make life worth living - freedom, honour and fair play"
Pilot Officer William "Bill" Millington Australian 79 & 249 Squadrons Fighter Command