16 May 1940

Additional reinforcements arrive with a detachment of three pilots from No.242 (RAF) Squadron, B Flight. They are Pilot Officer Robert D. Grassick [1], William L. McKnight [2] and Percival S. Turner [3]. They already have a little experience since they joined No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May and participated in some operations, which have already cost the life of Flight Lieutnant John L. Sullivan in charge of the detachment.

The No.615 Squadron leaves Vitry-en-Artois and Abbeville for Moorsele with twelve Hawker Hurricane Mk I. It is during this transfer that Pilot Officer Robert D. Grassick (KW-X) commits an unfortunate mistake when he attacks and claims a possible Junkers Ju.88 bomber. It turns out to be the Bristol Blenheim Mk IV (N6168 TR-A), of No.59 (RAF) Squadron, returning from a reconnaissance mission. Flight Lieutnant G.V. Smither managed, however, to land, with his severely damaged aircraft, at Vitry-en-Artois with his wounded gunner (Aircraftman Davy J. Pitcher) [4].

In the afternoon, nine Hawker Hurricane Mk I take off under the command of Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley to escort a Westland Lysander. Between Tirlemont and Brussels, British pilots are surprised by several Bf.109. Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley (N2335) is immediately shot and killed. According to Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson (N2338) :

“I opened the cockpit as I could not see much to rear. About a minute later, while flying with the sun behind, we were bounced. The first I knew of it was when I was hit. An aicraft went past beneath me and I gave chase, but my engine cut. A second 109 came by and I had a go at him – belive bits of his tail came off. Fired at it again frombehind. Saw aircraft all over the place. My aircraft was hit heavily and there was a huge explosion. I had my gloves and flying boots on, but not my flying helmet. I did not unplug oxygen lead, just leapt out after releasing side panel. Opened the parachute and throught : God, it’s quiet”.

He is captured as soon as he arrives on the ground by German soldiers. Injured and suffering from several burns, he remembers :

“One soldier produced a big knife and cut open my collar, and another produced a hypodermic syringe and injected me. A vehicle arrived and I was told to get in ; an oberleutnant sat in the back and covered me with a pistol. My own pistol had six rounds of locally bought .38 ammuniation, as I had used that issued potting cans in a river. These appeared to be blunt-nosed and I thought the German might think they were dumdum, but he could not open my pistol so fired off rounds into the ground – I was greatly relieved. I was taken to a field hospital at Tirlemont and spent two days in a room with eight or nive German officers ; one badly wounded with a stomach injury made lots of noise. I was moved to a large building with a stone floor, amongst some hundreds of british troops, and then transferred after a week to Maastricht”.

A third pilot is lost, in this case, the Pilot Officer Brian P. Young whose Hawker Hurricane Mk I (P2577) crashes in flames near Essene. Burned in the upper body and face, however, he manages to jump. He is, however, unlucky because he is immediately targeted by British soldiers who fire at him, then throws a grenade, before realizing that it is one of them . He was taken to a field hospital in Dieppe before being evacuated to Saint Nazaire. Having decidedly no luck, his ambulance is damaged, arriving in the port, by a shrapnel shell killing almost all occupants. Brian P. Young miraculously survives to be embarked on a ship bound for England. He will not be coming back to No.615 Squadron. After a long hospitalization, he returned to service in 1942 as a Short S.25 Sunderland Seaplane pilot at Coastal Command, before being transferred to the Middle East on various commands. He remained in the RAF after the war with a variety of senior positions, while attending courses at Imperial Defense College. He retired on 5 May 1973 with the rank of Air Vice-Marshal and died on 26 July 1992. [5]

For his part, the Pilot Officer Robert D. Grassick (KW-X), very active on this day, is able to claim a  German fighter.

It is difficult to identify the confrontation in question for lack of the time during which this escort took place. Thus, Brian Cull [6] and Donald Caldwell [7] mention a confrontation around 15:50 with the II./JG 26, which claim three victories (identified as Morane 406 and Hawk 75A) despite the loss of an aircraft (pilot killed) This analysis is, however, contradicted by Arnaud Gillet [8] and Peter D. Cornwell [9], who make a connection with the events of No.87 (RAF) Squadron. Another hypothesis would be that of I./JG 27 whitch claim several Hawker Hurricane around Brussels around 13:40 (unfortunately some of these claims do not have a precise time). Thus, the Lieutnant Flight Leslie T.W. Thornley allegedly fell victim to Oberleutnant Gerhart Framm of 2.JG 27. In the mean time, two Bf.109 E-3 of I./JG 27 were damaged, including that of Feldwebel Otto Sawallish. Once again, for lack of further details, it remains difficult to match the facts, besides nothing proves that the set of events specific to No.615 Squadron takes place during the same mission.


[1] Robert Davidson Grassick (41579) was born in London (Ontario – Canada) on 22 May 1917, and joined the RAF with a SSC in November 1938. After his training at No.5 (RAF) Flying Training School of Sealand, he was transferred to No.3 (RAF) Squadron (September 1939) and No.242 (RAF) Squadron (November 1939). He was seconded urgently to No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May 1940 with three other B Flight pilots from his squadron. SHORES Christopher ; WILLIAMS Clive. Aces High: A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces of WWII. 2008, Grub Street ; Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/O R D Grassick: http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Grassick.htm

[2] William Lidstone McKnight (41937) was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on 18 November 1918. He joined the RAF in February 1939 with a SSU. After training with Little Rissington’s No. 6 (RAF) FTS, he joined Squadron No.242 (RAF) on 6 November 1939, before being seconded to No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May 1940. Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – P/O W L McKnight: http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/McKnight.htm ; SHORES Christopher ; WILLIAMS Clive. Aces High: A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces of WWII. 2008, Grub Street, p.437.

[3] Percival Stanley Turner (41631) was born on 3 September 1913 in Ivybridge (Devon – England). His family emigrated, however, to Toronto, Canada, where he studied engineering while joining the No.110 Squadron of the Canadian Auxiliary Air Force. He joined the RAF, with a SSC on November 1938. After his training with the No.7 (RAF) FTS Peterborought and No.1 (RAF) Fighter Training School of St.Athan, he joined No.219 ( RAF) Squadron, 4 October 1939, before being transferred to No.242 (RAF) Squadron on 20 November 1939. He was sent to France on secondment to No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May 1940. Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/Lt. P S Turner : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/TurnerPS.htm

[4] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.166.

[5] Air of Authority – A History of RAF Organisation – Air Vice-Marshal B P Young (33376) : http://www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Young_BP.htm

[6] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.166 à 168.

[7] CALDWELL Donald. The JG 26 War Diarry, Vol 1 (1939 – 1942). Grub Street, 1996. 346 p.

[8] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.221 et 222.

[9] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p. 294 et 299.

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