In an article for the Sunday Express, published on 1st July 1973, I came across my first reference to Wg Cdr Kercher. The author, famous cricketer and ex-Blenheim pilot Bill Edrich, wrote: ‘I never got very close to Kercher’. I deduced from this that the wing commander was probably made of granite or some similar substance. How wrong I was! Subsequent investigation revealed an entirely different personality: one with a warm heart and a wonderful sense of humour. All those I interviewed spoke very highly of him.
But in December 1982, the only information I had, other than the newspaper article, was a last-known address. As this happened to be in Ashburton, Devon, not many miles from where I was born, and I was staying with my parents at the time, a visit seemed well worthwhile. And so it turned out. The proprietor of the Dartmoor Bookshop, the local vicar, and the Kerchers’ home help all kindly helped to build up a picture of the wing commander’s life in Devon. A sad story emerged. Married before the end of the war, the Kerchers lost a baby girl, their only child. Tragically, Owen’s wife, Gwenda, died in 1961, after which he lived with his mother. During this time, his health gradually deteriorated, and after a long fight against an incurable illness, he died in July 1969. By a stroke of bad luck, I just missed the opportunity of meeting Owen’s mother, Muriel, who died in a nursing home in Stevenage in December 1981. I traced the combined grave of Owen and Gwenda in Hitchin Cemetery. The inscription at the foot of the gravestone reads: A hero to the end. I wanted to know more, much more, about this gallant gentleman. Lady Luck did not desert me this time: I managed to trace an aunt of Owen’s, living in South Africa, who kindly gave me permission to obtain her nephew’s Record of Service. The 226 Squadron survivors were more than helpful, filling in many details: none more so than Owen’s old WOp/AG, Canadian-born Bob Carey, then resident in Switzerland. Bob’s contribution was priceless.
Wg Cdr John Owen Cecil Kercher, ‘Daddy’ to his RAF colleagues, was born in Brandfort, near Bloemfontein, South Africa, on 26th September 1916 – just three weeks after my cousin Len. Attending school initially at Queens College, Queenstown, and then later at Selborne College, East London, Owen tried a variety of jobs before deciding to come to England and join the RAF.
Acting Pilot Officer Kercher was granted a short-service commission, for four years, with effect from 29th November 1937. Pilot training was commenced at the Civil Flying School at Yatesbury, followed by periods at No 7 FTS (Waddington?) and No 2 SFTS (Brize Norton?). Owen’s first two squadrons, 207 (Cottesmore?) and 98 (Scampton?), both operating Fairey Battles, were essentially training squadrons doing the work of OTUs. In April 1940, 98 Squadron moved to Nantes. Still in the training role, Owen may have looked into his crystal ball before requesting and obtaining a posting to 226 Squadron – a fully-operational squadron of the AASF – just six days before Hitler invaded the Low Countries.
Johnnie Brett recalls this hectic period of the war:
‘I first knew [Owen] as a flying officer early in 1940 in France, on the banks of the River Loire. We were using an old wheat field as a landing field, and I remember him swimming in the river, wearing his No 1 hat and smoking as he was swimming!’
After the Blitzkrieg swept the AASF out of France, Owen continued the war, still flying Battles, but now operating from Belfast/Sydenham on anti-submarine patrols. Arthur Asker vividly recalls one particular sortie during this period:
‘I remember one day when we were in Belfast flying Battles on the dawn or dusk anti-submarine patrol. [Owen] had the engine running when I joined the aircraft, after I’d done a bit of briefing. There was a strange-looking gunner sitting in the back seat, which I had to climb over: turned out to be one of his girlfriends! So she actually went on an operational trip! I was sworn to secrecy – you’re the first person I’ve ever told this story to!’
The comparative rest-cure in Northern Ireland was rudely interrupted when 226 Squadron joined the 2 Group anti-shipping campaign in May 1941, moving to Wattisham and converting to Blenheim Mk IVs. Bob Carey recalls the briefing for one such raid:
‘With his handlebar moustache (which gave him an undeserved look of severity), and receding hairline, [Wg Cdr Kercher] resembled the Russian, Marshal Budyonny. During the briefing for the low-level sweep against enemy wireless ships [‘Squealers’] off the Dutch coast, 23rd June 1941, we were gathered around the briefing table when W/C Kercher entered. We came to attention, as he proceeded directly to the operations bulletin board and removed the “Battle Order”, revealing a newspaper clipping of the famous general/marshal pinned underneath. Written across the top in red grease pencil was “GUESS WHO?” Without hesitation W/C Kercher turned and said very sternly: “Sgt Jones!” “Sir!”, spluttered Sgt Jones. “Do you think that is a reasonable likeness of me?” A few seconds elapsed, and the culprit weakly mumbled: “Yes, sir!” “Good lad, Jones!” The tension was broken’.
On 23rd July 1941, Owen took over as CO of 21 Squadron from Tom Webster. He had progressed from flying officer to wing commander in just seven weeks: an achievement not uncommon amongst the carnage of 2 Group.
On 12th August 1941, Wg Cdr Kercher led the famous low-level attack on the Quadrath power station, Cologne, for which he was awarded the DSO. Bob Carey has vivid memories of this sortie:
‘On one occasion, returning to the UK from the low-level attack on the power stations near Cologne, as we reached the open sea with the starboard engine smoking from a flak hit, I had reason to crawl forward over the bomb-well to the front of the aircraft. W/C Kercher noticed me and I shouted: “Everything OK, sir?” He grinned, gave a thumbs-up, and shouted back: “Splendid!” I pointed to two small holes (probably 9mm) in the Perspex directly above his head. He regarded the holes, looked at Evans [the observer] and back to me and shouted some retort about “people mucking up his aeroplane”, and immediately asked if it was all right “back there”.’
Towards the end of September 1941, Owen left 21 Squadron, and after a variety of staff jobs, joined 102 Squadron at Pocklington, Yorkshire, on 30th November 1943. Now part of the Strategic Bomber Offensive, Owen flew Halifax Mk IIs, then later Mk IIIs, before his posting in July 1944. Further staff work and assorted detachments completed Wg Cdr Kercher’s war service. A period serving in the Royal Air Force Reserve of Officers was finally terminated when Owen relinquished his commission in November 1959.
In November 1956, Bob Carey payed a visit on the Kerchers at their home in Hitchin. He knocked on the door: Owen’s attractive wife Gwenda appeared. ‘I’d like to see the wing commander, please!’, Bob requested. ‘Who wants to see him?’, Gwenda asked. ‘Flt Lt Carey’, Bob replied. ‘I’ll just go and fetch him’, Gwenda said. Wg Cdr Kercher was overwhelmed at seeing Bob again. He took him over to the local pub, where all his old cronies were gathered. Owen, attracting their attention, asked Bob to stand on the table, and proudly exclaimed: ‘This is my old WOp/AG in the Blenheim days!’ Bob was plied with drink by all and sundry and left the pub in a drunken haze.
It was a nostalgic time for both of them. On one occasion, Owen turned round to Bob and asked him: ‘How did you feel sitting in the back? I don’t know how you did it! Weren’t you scared to death?’ Bob truthfully replied: ‘No – I had great confidence in you.’
Bob has a priceless piece of 8mm film which he shot during this visit. Owen had changed quite a lot in appearance since the war years: he was wearing dark glasses now, and still had a moustache, but it was no longer handlebar. Owen is seen standing with Gwenda, and holding Bob’s daughter, Chris, whom he liked very much.
What did the ‘chaps’ feel about the wing commander? Arthur Asker: ‘Steady chap; good pilot; always OK with me; very fair.’ ‘Warmy’ Warmington: ‘He was very well liked.’ Bob Carey: ‘Wg Cdr Kercher was one of the finest officers and gentlemen it has been my privilege to know. In the air and on the ground, his manner was always quiet, decisive and considerate. He was always absolutely calm.’ John Castle: ‘I remember with great affection John Kercher: a most likeable extrovert, slightly oversize man with a great moustache and a great sense of humour.’
Many years after these interviews, I was reading the Blenheim Society’s Journal “Bristol” BLENHEIM, Issue 7, dated July 2012, when my eyes fell upon a request posted on page 13. It reads:
‘Our Ron Scott [treasurer] received the following from Michael George.
Julian Horn suggested that I get in touch with you regarding my research into the life of W/C John Owen Cecil Kercher DSO RAF who married a cousin of mine. I am trying to find a photograph of him as I do not know what he looked like. Owen as he was known, was born in Brandfort, Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1916. His father died in 1937 and he came to live in England with his mother.
In 1938 he joined the RAF as an acting Pilot Officer. He served with 98 and 266 [actually 226] Squadrons flying Fairey Battles in support of the BEF in France. On July 23, 1941 he was made acting Wing Commander and joined 21 Squadron at Watton as their CO. During his time at Watton he took part in Operation 77 (a raid on “Knapsack” and “Quadrath” Power Stations near Cologne on August 12 1941. He led the raid on Quadrath which earned him his DSO. He was still only 24 years of age at this time.
After 21 Squadron he had a spell in HQ 2 Group and HQ Bomber Command before taking a trip to the Far East where he narrowly missed being taken prisoner by Japanese forces. He joined 102 Squadron flying Halifaxes and in June 1944 whilst landing in bad weather at Pocklington, Yorkshire after a raid on a V1 launch site, he overshot and wrote the aircraft off. However, all the crew escaped unscathed.
I am learning more and more about Owen as time goes by; but I don’t as yet have a photograph of him. Julian thought that you or your readers may be able to help with my request for a photograph or more information.
Regards, Michael B. George.’
On 17th August 2012, I sent Michael two photographs of Wg Cdr Kercher, by email. He was most grateful, especially after I added Owen’s biography. I thanked him for his information on Owen’s ‘prang’ at Pocklington, and his short tour in Singapore, both of which were news to me. We then exchanged a series of mutually interesting emails, which included the following snippets. Michael mentioned a book by Gerry R. Rubin – Durban 1942. A British Troopship Revolt – which states that Owen was in charge of an RAF contingent en route to Singapore just before the Japanese got there. Referring to Owen’s wife, Gwenda, he added that her parents were master and matron of Hitchin Workhouse, so she was probably born there! Not the nicest thing to appear on one’s Birth Certificate!
The next issue of the Blenheim Society Journal (Issue 74, dated November 2012) contained the following entry on Page 8:
‘Thank You Rusty Russell
A while ago you were kind enough to put a help wanted ad in the Society Journal for me. I am researching W/C John “Owen” Cecil Kercher.
In answer to my ad I received an email from Lionel “Rusty” Russell; one of your members. Rusty was able to supply me with lots of information regarding the Wing Commander and also supply two photographs. I will forever be in his debt for this, and would ask you to put a “thank you” in your journal regarding this. Thanks to the Blenheim Society my research has taken yet another giant leap forward..
Thank you again. Regards, Michael B George.
(Thanks Rusty, Ian [Editor])’