Had he lived, today 30 April 2010 would have been the 90th birthday of my uncle Fran, after whom I take my middle name.
He had hardly left school when he volunteered, unknown to his family, in 1939 to join the R.A.F. He had only been qualified for a few months as a pilot by the time the war began, and he joined 266 Squadron and, shortly afterwards, 222 Squadron at Duxford (Douglas Bader’s squadron).
In February 1940, he was badly injured in an air accident, when the plane in which he was a passenger hit a tree near Duxford, killing the pilot. He seems to have been in and out of hospital for the next few months with a broken jaw, cerebral contusion, and fractured vertebra. He returned to 222 Squadron in August, at the height of the Battle of Britain, flying Spitfires, but still suffering from headaches from the February accident.
The Battle of Britain ended in October 1940, and he was then posted to Moose Jaw in Canada to train pilots. Here another air accident left him in hospital for another couple of months.
He returned to Britain in September 1941, and joined 152 Squadron, based in Norfolk, and later Londonderry, and then Pembrokeshire.
At the end of October, 152 Squadron was transferred by ship to Gibraltar, en route to join the North Africa campaign that was just beginning. On 14 November, the squadron took off from Gibraltar to fly to Algiers, Maison Blanche – a distance of about 500 miles. As the most experienced pilot, his plane was positioned last in a formation of 18 Spitfires. North of Oran, over the Mediterranean, his Spitfire caught fire, and he bailed out, and climbed into a yellow inflatable rubber dinghy. The squadron continued on to Maison Blanche, where several of the Spitfires were refuelled, and went back to look for him. They found nothing. A few days later, he was posted missing, presumed dead.
My mother, his older sister, had many fond memories of him. She said that he had lots of girlfriends, with different ones sometimes phoning on the same day. He drove around in a green M.G. She’d asked him once about what it was like shooting down German bombers, and he said it was quite easy: you just came up behind and beneath them, and then climbed up and let them have it. He told her that, floating in the sea after being shot down on one occasion, he’d bitterly regretted knocking her over the head with a stick in his childhood. She said that, wherever they were, he and his fellow pilots were always glancing over their shoulders behind them.
He also wrote poetry, some of which turned up in my mother’s papers after she died. Unfortunately I don’t have an example at hand.
And he was a smoker, as can be seen in the colour photo (below left), in which he was probably wearing his desert uniform for the first time, before his departure to Gibraltar.
I created a web page for him some years ago. His name is to be found on the Battle of Britain London Memorial, on the Thames Embankment (see photo inset left) along with several thousand more of the “Few”: P/O F. B. Bassett.