Somewhere in Sri Lanka, an immensely popular ex-Blenheim pilot is probably sipping the occasional gin and tonic in his tea plantation, and reminiscing about the hazardous yet incredibly lucky days of his youth.
Born in Kandy, Ceylon, of parents who were tea planters, Denis Graham-Hogg clearly yearned to return there after the war. His love of his birthplace is reflected in the name of his house – Kandy Lodge in Hampton-on-Thames – where all my variously addressed letters eventually arrived, to the consternation of the present owner!
Robbie Robertson describes Denis as ‘young, very nice; capable pilot; merry and happy, kindly; fair, medium to slim build.’
Gilbert Lowes remembers him as ‘an extrovert person: not mad or wild, but I think he would have made a very good regular officer.’
In his article for the Sunday Express dated 1st July 1973, Bill Edrich describes his old friend from training days as ‘tall, slim, fair, and of a wonderfully gay temperament. He was a good talker and a good mixer, and he loved flying. His presence alone made me feel at home.’
Denis’s WOp/AG, Jim Marsden, obviously has the clearest memories of his pilot. ‘He was a very nice character’, Jim informed me, ‘and theatrical in his own right. He was in the officer compound, which at one time was next to me. We were both at Stalag Luft III: it was built for the RAF – they were the most troublesome prisoners, I believe. Anyway, he was in the next compound, and he took part in one or two theatricals, dressed as a woman. He liked taking the part and he did it very well!’
So well, in fact, that Denis applied for membership of the British Actors Equity Association in December 1945. Exactly how his acting career progressed thereafter was difficult to establish from Equity. However, Frank Campbell-Rogers filled in some of the details:
‘The only person I got to know [on 21 Squadron] was F/Lt Graham-Hogg. He was a Squadron Leader at the time he was shot down and became a POW. I do not know anything of his operations though we were together at Stalag Luft III, near Frankfurt [actually Sagan, 100 miles southeast of Berlin!] as well as other POW camps. I believe two or was it three of his brothers lost their lives during the war. He impressed me as being capable of being a good leader. A very likeable chap. He played his part in tunnelling escape operations; he assisted in designing stage settings for the POW theatre. He also took part in some stage plays. After the war, I received a letter from a POW friend of mine who informed me that Graham-Hogg was attached to a theatre company in England and was very much interested in this line of work. F/Lt H.A.R. (Keith) Prowse, a Spitfire pilot friend, in a letter of 14th July 1946 writes: “I almost forgot to mention the bit of news I have about Graham-Hogg. He is appearing in a show called Follow the Boys [Here Come The Boys?] with Jack Hulbert and Bobby Howes. That isn’t all though: he is also chief set designer and has made a good job of work in this particular show. He doesn’t look at all well and in my opinion is working much too hard. I saw him after the show for a few minutes and also met his wife. A very charming girl!”‘
In my travels I came across a programme for the musical Here Come The Boys, starring Jack Hulbert and Bobby Howes, and shown at the Saville Theatre in London in 1946. Disappointedly, I could find no reference to Denis Graham-Hogg, while other lines of enquiry proved equally fruitless. There could be only one assumption – that he had returned fairly quickly to his country of origin.
Adrian White, who became a POW just two days before Denis, recalls getting an invitation to his wedding during OTU/training days, adding that he thought that the whole squadron had been invited!
The vivid account of Denis Graham-Hogg’s last flight of the war is contributed by his WOp/AG, Jim Marsden. Episodes such as this occurred with frightening regularity to Blenheim aircrew on daylight low-level operations, and the narrative is reproduced in toto as a mark of respect for those, including in this case his observer David Wyatt, who lost their lives. Jim recalls:
‘1941 summer was exceedingly good, and the 18th July was a very bright and hot day. 21 Squadron was stationed at Manston; each flight stood by their aircraft on a four hour stand-by, in preparation to attack shipping in the Channel at about 11am. Our flight was ordered to attack this convoy. We had 12 Spitfire escort. Our course was set and we flew low, our escort at approximately 100 feet above. Sgt Kemp to starboard, Sgt Maguire to port, the first sign of the convoy being smoke on the horizon, the flight climbed a few feet higher making a better view of the ship chosen for attack, increasing our flying speed. If my memory is correct, the convoy consisted of 12 ships, of which three or four were flakships. As we closed, the anti-aircraft fire became intense; the fighters had already climbed up into the sun where the 109s flew constantly.
As the Blenheims closed with the ships, our evasive action became more violent. Sgt Kemp’s aircraft was trailing flames from both wings before he passed over the foremost ship. I had turned the turret and aimed the guns over the starboard wing, firing whenever the evasive action permitted. The bombs were released as the nose was pulled up to go over the ship. At this point in time, machine-gun fire damaged the intercom, putting it out of action; we turned, going west between ships and shore with flak everywhere. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a water spout rise up at the stern of the ship. Sgt Kemp’s aircraft hit the beach and turned tail over nose, one mass of flames [the crew survived to become POWs]. At the same time, a German fighter flew over the burning Blenheim heading directly at us. As Sgt Maguire is going east, in the opposite direction to us, one leg of his undercarriage down [he staggered back to base], the fighter is behind us at four hundred yards, right down on the sea – at our level – closing (no intercom). I fire and he rises some 50 feet and fires everything; I can feel cannon shells explode; the armour plate to the rear of the turret just above knee high and the wireless is smashed to pieces; the port ammunition chute is hit and buckled; the blinding flash of a cannon shell as it hit the cupola. The Infantry man’s helmet without the inner cage and brim possibly saved my life, as a bullet hit the helmet, pierced it and a part of the bullet is still in my skull. This I only became aware of some 6 years ago after having a head X-ray. Our aircraft suffered major damage: on fire in both wings, rudder and stabilizer out of use, ailerons damaged.
No question of anything other than putting down on the sea now, a few feet below. For my part, I did everything that should not be done – unbuckled the seat belt, got out of the turret, placed the flying helmet on the seat, opened the upper hatch, quickly went down the fuselage to the bomb well, took the dinghy. On looking in the front of the aircraft, David Wyatt was standing up having as I thought opened the front hatch by sliding it to the rear. For a moment we looked at each other, a look which said “That’s it”. I went back down the fuselage, pushed the dinghy up through the hatch, and stood on the first step of the ladder, holding the dinghy at the ready. Flames wafted inboard from the burning wings, scorching my face: of course, the only place to be with any chance to survive is head and shoulders out of that hatch, otherwise one is down in the bomb well, with the tail in the air and the nose and engines under water. We hit the sea once and stayed down. Denis Graham-Hogg said sometime after that our speed on touching down was 180mph. The braking effect of water is strong: the force applied to my body bent me sideways. As the speed diminished and the tail went up, I was flung out and up. In falling, I struck the side of the fuselage head-first, and unconscious or semi-conscious found myself holding the underside port wing, now at right angles to the sea.
Being dazed, I looked around for the dinghy, which was not to be seen: the sea had a large swell on. The aircraft sank lower and lower in jerks. Holding on to the wing by one of the many of the jagged holes, I realised that the fuel was burning on the surface of the sea. I blew down the tube of my Mae West, or life-jacket, for some time, only to realise the air escaped via the many holes. Presumably shrapnel holes. Looking out over my shoulder, rising slowly on top of a wave, I saw the dinghy come into view. I set out to swim towards it, losing sight of it, and after what seemed ages again, I would see this small bundle on top of a rising wave. After a long swim and a great effort, I was holding on to the uninflated dinghy.
Eventually, after pulling on the chord, suddenly with much sound, I had an inflated dinghy, but the wrong side up – in something of an exhausted state wondering how to right the matter. A voice said: “I’ll help you, Jimmy”. Together, pulling on the ropes, we righted the dinghy; climbing on from either side, we just lay there face down – vomiting oily sea water, utterly spent. Slowly we recovered. My pilot’s face was oily: two black eyes, a burst nose. When putting the aircraft on the sea, Denis placed both feet on the instrument panel, holding the stick hard back, and telling me that the force of impact flung him so far forward his face struck the instrument panel. Before leaving the pilot’s position, with the front of the aircraft under water, he could not see David Wyatt or feel his body in the navigator’s seat. The impact stove in the nose panels: very possibly, the force of the water would make it impossible for Wyatt to move.
Time passed, maybe an hour and a half, as we lifted up and down on the swell. We became aware of a sound: a clank and a clonk could be heard approaching our position. After a while, the faint outline of a grey painted ship came into view through the sea mist, the sound being made by a paravane as the ship swept for mines. She stood by as members of her crew lined the rail, taking photographs. Two German sailors came down the ladder to help us, hitched a line to the dinghy and hauled it on deck. We stood there on the deck dripping water, our uniforms stained yellow from marker dye.
A sailor took us below to the ratings’ messdeck. Our clothes were dried out in the engine room and we were given mint tea to drink. All in all, the German seamen treated us with chivalry, repeating their often-used expression “For you the war is over”. The ship was a trawler, converted for minesweeping; the crew young, mainly cadets; the leading seaman was about 28 years of age and spoke fluent English.
I remember this man telling us he had served on British merchant ships before the war. His name was Ernest Heimer. He said more, saying that the German army would be in Moscow in 3 or 4 weeks, and then they would be coming to England. He suggested I gave him my home address, and if he found the opportunity, he would visit my parents, and, of course, Germany would have won the war. To this, I replied more in hope than anger that we could exchange addresses, and then see who would eventually win the war. And so we did.
Some 4 years later, I received a letter from Ernest Heimer, telling me that he had just returned home from America after being taken prisoner, when his ship was torpedoed not far off the Isle of Wight some six months after we had been captured on July 18th 1941.
The minesweeper sailed on eastwards down the Channel, close in shore, with frequent shouts of “Achtung! Spitfeuer!”; much firing of machine-guns as aircraft flew low over the ship. The minesweeper docked in the harbour of Ostend about 10 o’clock that night. Denis and I were locked up in separate rooms in a dockside concrete blockhouse to become some of the early few to invade Europe’.