Wg Cdr Peter Fitzgerald ‘Tom’ Webster made a lasting impression on anyone lucky enough to have made his acquaintance. Without exception, he was described in terms ranging from utmost admiration, through deepest affection, to outright hero-worship. He was a natural leader of the same calibre as Sir Basil Embry and the Earl of Bandon: all could easily coax the best out of their aircrew by sheer personality and fine example. What a pity so few such mortals grace our shores.
Air Vice-Marshal Sir Laurence Sinclair GC KCB CBE DSO considered Tom Webster to be one of the finest commanders in the history of 2 Group. He was not alone in his assessment. Typical of the high esteem in which the wing commander was held by those he commanded are the comments made by Gilbert Lowes, an observer on 21 Squadron. Though the facts are not quite right, the sentiments certainly are . . .
‘He had a fabulous career’, Gilbert enthused. ‘Short Service Commission – not good enough to be an officer permanently. Then, down on their hands and knees. Would he be a group captain? Would he be an air vice-marshal? And they wouldn’t let him fly, and all that sort of thing. So he began making his own conditions before they promoted him to air vice-marshal. We’d heard that he’d been promoted to group captain and AVM, and they had to arrange to give him special permission to fly. We’d heard that he was testing this aircraft [Fairey Firefly] for another crew – this is hearsay, of course. He was a splendid commander: a great gentleman – the soul of courtesy – and incredibly considerate in doing things for you. You’d never see him hurry, or anything like that. At one time, the group captain at Watton [Laurie Sinclair] was away, getting married, I believe, and Webster was acting-group captain for the station. He was in charge of the station, and he went round doing all this briefing himself. And another time, he called the three of us in, and said that Philip Ashby [Gilbert’s pilot] had to go for a more detailed medical examination for his ear, or something, at Halton, and he sent us on leave. And if we would go to his adjutant, he would have all our passes…He would do that himself. He was a wonderful gentleman – he really was. His authority, I think, was never questioned. He’d come into the mess, and speak to you easily and friendly: you’re off duty, and all that sort of thing. But he was always the number one somehow – I think from the sheer respect he commanded, rather than laying down the law. He was worshipped by everybody.’
Tom’s observer, Robbie Robertson, remembers the impact that his pilot had on the formations which he led: ‘On some raids, in particular the high-level raids, when we went over to France, he was very good. Yes, we did have R/T, and he spoke quite clearly and was able to, you know, have a calming influence on people. Particularly when we had young pilot officers and were getting new boys with us in formation. Yes, he was very good.’
In an article written for the Sunday Express published on 1st July 1973, Bill Edrich, famous cricketer and Blenheim veteran, described Tom Webster as ‘a powerful personality who inspired tremendous confidence’.
A Welshman, Tom was born in Merthyr Tydfil on 30th July 1914. He was educated at Warren Hill, Eastbourne, Clifton College and the Technical College, Cardiff. His initiation into the flying world was by way of the Civil Flying School at Prestwick, from where he graduated with a mark of 85%. As is often the case, this outstanding pilot of later years got off to a fairly slow start, earning the following comments: ‘Average pilot, but his flying should be carefully watched’. His assessors did, however, sugar the pill with the additional remark that he was ‘keen and intelligent’. Graduation brought promotion, or rather a change of status, to Acting Pilot Officer on Probation in April 1936.
In June 1937, Tom Webster took over the duties of Squadron Adjutant, XV Squadron Abingdon, from Fg Off S.C. Elworthy (later MRAF The Lord Elworthy KG GCB CBE DSO LVO DFC AFC MA).
The day before Britain declared war on Germany, Fg Off Webster flew Fairey Battle, K9303, from Abingdon to Bétheniville in France, as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force.
By 25th September 1939, Tom Webster, now at Condé-Vraux, collected another secondary duty: Officer i/c Transport, a task which grew rapidly in importance during the hasty retreat in May 1940.
In November 1939, Flt Lt Webster flew a Battle in which a Vickers Gas-Operated gun was successfully fired through the bombing hatch, with a Sgt Hopkins at the trigger.
Of five flights of Battles returning to England on 9th December, only one managed to cope with the foul weather and reach the destination airfield, Wyton. It was led, of course, by Tom Webster. By the end of the year, Tom had collected yet another squadron secondary duty, as an essential part of a General Duties officer’s career structure. This time it was Officer i/c Armoury, and probably earned as a result of his prowess with the Vickers GO gun the previous month.
On that fateful day, 10th May 1940, Tom flew a kind of dress rehearsal for the raid which is the subject of this book. On this occasion, the orders were to bomb the airfield of Waalhaven, rather than the dock, the former being held by parachute troops. Of the nine Blenheims despatched from Alconbury, Tom led a section of three. Although all aircraft returned safely and without injury to personnel, several of the machines were quite seriously damaged.
Having survived this raid, which almost annihilated No 600 (City of London) Squadron, Tom was then earmarked for ‘the big one’ – the bridges over the Albert Canal at Maastricht on 12th May. Six of the twelve aircraft despatched were shot out of the skies. The remainder, looking like colanders, limped back to Wyton. Tom’s luck held: although receiving a bullet wound in each foot, the damage was only superficial.
Back in the air again on 21st May, Tom’s crew, which included LAC Hunter – his faithful and long-serving WOp/AG – were tasked with impeding the progress of AFVs (Armoured Fighting Vehicles) near Montreuil. The Squadron ORB states that Flt Lt Webster failed to return from this sortie: quite correct, in the accepted meaning of the term, but he returned eventually. There is a parallel here with Sir Basil Embry, with whom I compared Tom earlier. Mike Bowyer lucidly describes Tom’s belated RTB in his 2 Group R.A.F. (pp 95,96).
You cannot keep a good man down, and Tom was back at the controls again on 30th May, having been rewarded one week earlier with promotion to squadron leader, taking over as OC ‘B’ Flight. During this phase of operations, Tom had a close call with a former chairman of the Blenheim Society, the late Wg Cdr Hugh George DFC. Hugh remembers Tom Webster flashing across his path so close that he could see the whites of his eyes! Post-flight discussion revealed that Tom had not even seen Hugh!
Tom’s luck held out throughout and beyond the Battle of France. His exceptional skill was recognised on 9th July by the award of his first DFC. One incident, typical of this great man, is recorded in the XV Squadron ORB for the night of 25th July 1940. On what was to prove his last sortie on the squadron, Sqn Ldr Webster was tasked with bombing aerodromes in northern Germany, near Wilhelmshaven. Owing to bad weather, it was impossible to identify the land from the sea, and a course was set for the alternative target at Leeuwarden. A flare was dropped on ETA over the target. In the words of the ORB: ‘Immediately five small lights appeared on the ground. The flare did not illuminate the ground, being dropped from 9,000 feet, and while debating whether or not it would be ethical to bomb the lights, they were extinguished, and numerous flaming onions drifted up on the port bow, about 4,000 feet below them. If meant to be fired at [that particular] aircraft, they were hopelessly inaccurate and Sqn Ldr Webster banked his machine to watch the firework display!’
Then followed a spell as CO of No 17 OTU Upwood. Tom ‘Jeff’ Jefferson recalls that time: ‘One day, Webster was going on a short trip and asked if I’d like to go along. So I went with him, and there was a front coming along. And he flew into this front for so long and turned round and came back out of it, telling me all about clouds and fronts and things, and how you knew, and what the effect was of going towards lower pressure and going toward higher pressure, and so on. This was very interesting. He was just a helluva nice chap, being unusually helpful to some miserable sprog sergeant.’
On 2nd May 1941, Wg Cdr Webster took command of No 21 Squadron Watton. Back in his element Tom skated through the perils of numerous anti-shipping strikes and Circus bombing raids on Continental ‘fringe’ targets. During this month he was awarded a Bar to his DFC. On 2nd July, he had to go cap in hand to 226 Squadron Wattisham and ‘borrow’ Sgt Jack Onions DFM. Jack bombed Merville aerodrome and his logbook reflects a warm reception from fighters and flak. Tom attacked the nearby power station at Lille. Although no mention is made of it in the 21 Squadron ORB (not surprisingly), Tom’s Blenheim – V6360 (YH:K) – was photographed after returning from this raid. The photo of the badly shot-up Blenheim, in the 21 Squadron Scrapbook, is further evidence of Wg Cdr Webster’s incredible combination of skill and luck.
For his leadership of the Rotterdam raid on 16th July 1941, Wg Cdr Webster deservedly received the award of the DSO, to add to the two DFCs already won.
Over at Polebrook (3½ miles E/S/E of Oundle, Northants), 90 Squadron were having real problems with the American Boeing Flying Fortress B17C (known in the RAF as the Fortress Mk I), part of the vital lend-lease agreement. At short notice, and only one week after the Rotterdam raid, Tom Webster was suddenly offered this can of worms. The teething troubles of this new aircraft, the forerunner of its illustrious successors, the B17E, F and G, were destined to be overcome, not by the powers of leadership of the new CO, but by the technical skills of the aircraft designers. There is no doubting that Wg Cdr Webster would have relished the challenge, but the high-altitude unpressurised flying was not at all to his liking. I learned this as late as the Blenheim Society’s AGM on 9th March 1991, when I had the pleasure of meeting John W. ‘Bunny’ Moffat for the first time. He told me that Tom suffered quite badly from the physiological effects of the high-altitude work, and that this inevitably led to his early posting.
The 6th October 1941 was a memorable day for the CO of 90 Squadron. On that day he returned to Watton for an audience with their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Four months after joining 90 Squadron, Tom Webster was to spend a similar period at HQ No 2 Group, as Deputy SASO, before rejoining 21 Squadron as squadron commander. Tom must have experienced a strong déjà vu feeling when told that his squadron would pioneer the introduction of a new American aircraft: but this time it was the Lockheed Ventura. Sadly, this cousin of the much more successful Hudson never achieved Gold Star status, and it too had more than its fair share of teething troubles. Fortunately, before the ‘pig’ became operational, the Powers-That-Be decided that they needed a dynamic CO for their newly-formed Bomber Development Unit, and who better to fill this important post than Wg Cdr Webster?
Incorporating 1418 Flight, the BDU operated Stirlings, Halifaxes and Wellingtons. The variety of the aircraft flown and the complexity of the associated tasks could lead Tom Webster in only one direction – the newly-formed Empire Test Pilots’ School at Boscombe Down, where he enrolled on No 1 Course in June 1943.
Any service pilot worth his salt should try to get onto such a course. Very few are good enough to be selected. Tom’s progress on No 1 Course can best be judged by his non-appearance in a photograph taken of the course during its visit to Filton. The reason given was that he was ‘absent flying’, in other words, taking full advantage of the visit to fly any new type that he could lay his hands on.
No 1 ETPS Course finished on the last day of February 1944. The very next day, Wg Cdr Webster climbed into a Fairey Firefly Mk I – Z1839 – to conduct a spring-tab aileron check. Tom’s phenomenal run of luck was at last to come to an abrupt end, and this gallant gentleman, who had survived all that the enemy had to throw against him, ended his days in the Hampshire countryside. I am indebted to Terry Heffernan of A&AEE (Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment) Boscombe Down for the following detailed account of the background to this tragedy:
‘At that time the flying side of A&AEE consisted of Armament and Performance Testing Squadrons (Arm T and Per T for short), each split into flights: A for fighters, B for bombers, C mainly naval but some twins, and D for aircraft flown in support of specific operations. Wg Cdr Webster was OC ‘D’ Per T.
Firefly Z1839 arrived at A&AEE on 20.10.43 for handling tests with spring tabs fitted to the ailerons and rudder. The handling characteristics of the Firefly had not been entirely satisfactory and the spring tabs were the latest in a line of changes to the control surfaces. A spring was incorporated in the circuit and arranged so that for small movements of the appropriate control in the cockpit the control surface was moved directly. For larger movements the tab deflected in the balance sense to reduce the force required compared with that for the standard control surface. The aircraft was in A Per T and a general handling programme was undertaken. Instrumentation was then fitted in the rear cockpit for a specific investigation of rolling performance (in effect a research programme) which was started at the end of February 1944, the aircraft remaining in A Per T but being flown by D Per T.
The crash occurred while Wg Cdr Webster was flying on the rolling performance programme. My copy of the F540 gives the time as 1834 and the location as Goodworth Clatford, which is two miles south of Andover and a mile south of Bury Hill. It would still have been light at the time even if 1834 was GMT and not GMT plus 1 hour (we had double summer time in 1944). The F540 also refers to Appendix 10. There were appendices for each accident numbered consecutively for each year. They do not exist at A&AEE but are in the PRO, I think under AIR 29 [AIR 29/896]. I remember that the day after the crash the Scientific Officer running the trial, Alec Wilson, described the wreckage as showing little forward speed at impact and it was assumed that the aircraft had spun. Copies of all our Firefly reports are in the PRO under AVIA 18/731, the results of the tests on Z1839 being in the 41st and 46th parts of Report AAEE/780.’
In August 1983, I visited the village of Goodworth Clatford. Memories were vague. Yes, an aircraft had crashed there during the war: a garden or allotment had suffered from oil contamination over a protracted period. And, more poignantly, a letter had been found nearby which was presumed to have been addressed to the dead pilot’s parents.
Some miles further west, and almost within hailing distance of Stonehenge, lies Durrington Cemetery. With not too much difficulty I managed to locate the grave I was seeking. On the headstone was the simple epitaph:
P.F. Webster DSO DFC
Royal Air Force
1st March 1944 Age 29
As a measure of the esteem in which Wg Cdr Webster was and still is held, I can do no better than quote the following extract from a letter from Mr M.J. Mochan: ‘When the RAFA Branch in Merthyr Tydfil was formed, we bought his old home and converted it into a club. Since those days, we have gone forward to a rather larger club, and have named it after him, Webster House.’