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Ernest Corbett

Early Years

Ernest Humphries Corbett was born on 10th April 1921 in Wolverhampton, England to Rowland George Corbett and Corbett Corbett. After his schooling he went and worked as a draftsman for the Boulton-Paul factory in Wolverhampton, which designed such aircraft as the Blackburn Roc and The Defiant. As he is my Great Uncle I have taken a significant interest in finding out what he would have experienced being a small part of World War II. To me all the people who served their country bravely, whether they lived or died, will alway be special. Their sacrafice has allowed all of us to live a life of relative freedom. 

The Blackburn Roc was a two seat fighter that the RAF used operationally in defence of the naval base of Scapa Flow, in defence of the British Fleet off Norway (flying from the carrier Ark Royal) and then over Dunkirk. During the Battle of Britain period it was used for air sea rescue duties over the Channel.

The Boulton Paul Defiant was a two seat power-operated multi-gun turret fighter. The first production Defiant F Mk I day fighter was flown on 30th July 1939 and deliveries to No. 264 Squadron began in December of that year. It was this squadron which first deployed the type operationally on 12th May 1940 over the beaches of Dunkirk achieving complete tactical surprise.

Off to War

Finally he decided that he wanted to be more involved in the war.

He wrote to his father, “I have decided to take a more active part (in the war) than merely making aeroplanes. The question is, will you allow me to join the Air Force? I have no illusions about what this would mean. I find it impossible to sit by and watch our cities being smashed without wanting to have a dam good crack at the brute that is doing it.

This rotten war is going to be no short affair, and when we attack the Germans, I don’t want to be watching other fellows doing it. It is too much to ask of me”.

Ernest joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1941 heading to Miami, Florida to undergo his training as a navigator.

He wrote, “Now that we have had a fortnight with them (American Instructors), we are getting geared up with their methods, language and speed. We have quite a lot of trouble deciphering what they say sometimes. The navigation teacher is alright, but the meteorology teacher has a southern drawl, which drones on and will put you to sleep very quickly if you are not sitting next to the fan. A test is called a “quiz”, and examination is known as a “grade”. But they are good at their job and get it over to us well. Classes start at 9 o’clock and finish at 1. The afternoon is reserved for P.T. Drill and swimming.

“Soon we shall start flying, in the Pan American Airways flying boats. They have unearthed some pretty old stuff for training purposes, which with luck and the wind behind them will hit up to 80 mph”

Ernest returned to the UK and joined 61 Squadron based at RAF Syerston, Nottinghamshire.

Mission 1 - Lancaster R5724

F/S P. CampbellPilot
Sgt S.D. GunnellFlight Engineer
Sgt E.H. CorbettNavigator
Sgt F.C. BunclarkBomb Aimer
Sgt C.H. CoakleyWireless Operator
Sgt S. SmithMid / Upper Gunner
Sgt S.J. ThompsonRear Gunner

Airborne 2020, 24th September 1942, from RAF Syerston, tasked with Lancaster Mk 1 R5724 for a mine laying sortie in the Sweet Pea area (Rostock to Arcona Light). After successfully completing their allotted task, course was set for home. While crossing Denmark at a height of 6,000 feet, they were engaged by anti-aircraft fire. A shell exploded in the bomb compartment. A fire of considerable proportions started in the fuselage of the aircraft and reconnaissance flares and distress signals commenced to burn. At the same time, another shell burst in the nose of the aircraft blowing in all the perspex nose and the majority of the perspex of the pilot's cupola with the exception of the front windscreen. The Air Bomber, who was seated in the nose of the aircraft at the time, was blown back beside the pilot. The second pilot, who was standing beside the pilot at the time, was blown back onto the floor beside the Navigator. The pilot, the second pilot, the Navigator, and the Wireless Operator all received facial burns from the explosion of this shell.

The aircraft was hit by cannon and machine gun fire. Cannon fire entered both rear and upper mid turrets. The aircraft stalled and lost 2,000 feet before the smoke cleared and the pilot was able to regain control. He immediately dived for some clouds just below them and escaped from the fighters and anti-aircraft fire. There was now a big fire in the fuselage and, in addition to the fire, ammunition was exploding in all directions in the aircraft. The rear gunner was seriously wounded and had a broken leg. The combined efforts of the navigator, the Air Bomber, and the mid-upper gunner were then directed towards getting the fire under control so as to be able to reach the rear turret. They fought their way through the fire and pulled the rear gunner out of the turret and carried him to the rest chair. The fire was still of considerable proportions and the fire and the fuselage was largely burnt away.

The efforts of the Navigator, the Air Bomber, and the mid-upper gunner were then redirected to keeping the fire under control, which they did without being able to extinguish it completely. With the perspex missing from the nose of the aircraft, there was a terrific draft blowing through. All maps, navigation and wireless logs, and documents had been blown out of the aircraft when the shell exploded in the nose. The Wireless Operator, though considerably burnt about the hands and face, remained at his post throughout and contacted his base aerodrome from the Danish coast. He maintained contact with base throughout the rest of the homeward trip, obtaining bearings regularly for the pilot. The pilot handed over control of the aircraft to the second pilot after the latter had taken stock of readings of all instruments. The pilot took over control of the aircraft as it crossed the British coast and, despite conditions of bad visibility, made an excellent belly-landing at an aerodrome without further injury to any members of the crew. The whole of the hydraulic and emergency gear for the operation of the undercarriage and flaps were completely destroyed. It is considered that the captain of the aircraft displayed outstanding qualities of gallantry, devotion to duty, and leadership in bring this aircraft and crew safely home under these conditions. It would have been possible for some of the crew to bail out over Denmark but some of the parachutes were burnt and the rear gunner was too badly injured to jump. All members of the crew therefore gallantly stuck to their posts. Finally, tribute should be paid to the outstanding qualities of the construction of the aircraft and engines which enabled it to fly back home after the damage that had been inflicted.

Sergeant Gunnell's Air Officer Commanding remarked: "After having inspected this aircraft, I most strongly support these recommendations to award the entire crew DFMs. It is almost inconceivable that any crew would have carried on, had a 400 mile sea crossing, and landed without further incident".

Tragically not all of this valiant crew were to receive their much deserved awards. The entire crew were to be presented with their D.F.M.s by the King, on 24.11.1942. However five days before the ceremony Flight Sergeant Campbell, Sergeants Bunclark, Coakley and Corbett were all killed attempting a crash landing in Devon whilst returning from a mine-laying operation in the Bay of Biscay .

An interesting note is prior to this crash, on 17th July 1942, Lancaster R5724 captained by Flight Lieutenant PR Casement became the first Bomber Command crew to bring back irrefutable evidence that they had destroyed a U-boat at sea – a photograph showing the U-boat crew in the water swimming away from their sinking vessel.

Mission 2 - Lancaster W4244

F/S P. Campbell DFMPilot
Sgt J.L. Jackson DFMFlight Engineer
Sgt E.H. Corbett DFMNavigator
Sgt F.C. BunclarkBomb Aimer
Sgt C.H. Coakley DFMWireless Operator
Sgt L. Littlewood DFMMid / Upper Gunner
Sgt E.E. BartholomewRear Gunner

Airborne 1730, 10th November, from RAF Syerston. Part of a force of 42 aircraft of unspecified types, tasked to lay mines off of the Biscay coast of France and the Frisian Islands. No aircraft were reported lost. The aircraft was diverted to Exeter when fog closed down Syerston and the surrounding airfields; the pilot misjudged the approach and the aircraft crashed at Dymonds Farm, Honiton, 4 miles from Exeter, Devon.

Four of the DFM holders had gained their decorations as recently as the previous September, but Sgt Littlewood received his DFM 13Mar42, for service with 408 Squadron. See R5724 for an account of the action. P/O P.Campbell DFM KIA (newly commissioned) Sgt J.L.Jackson KIA Sgt E.H.Corbett DFM KIA Sgt F.C.Bunclark DFM KIA Sgt C.H.Coakley DFM KIA Sgt L.Littlewood DFM KIA Sgt E.E.Bartholomew KIA.

P/O Campbell, DFM is buried in the St. Pancras Cemetery, Middlesex; Sgt. Jackson is buried in the Featherstone (or North Featherstone) Cemetery, Yorkshire; Sgt. Corbett, DFM is buried in the Tettenhall Regis (St. Michael) Churchyard, Staffordshire; Sgt. Bunclark, DFM is buried in the Lustleigh Church Cemetery, Devon; Sgt. Coakley, DFM is buried in the Streatham Park Cemetery, Surrey; Sgt. Littlewood, DFM is buried in the Whiston (St. Mary Magdalene) Churchyard, Yorkshire. There is some confusion as to whether Sgt. Bartholomew killed in the crash, as his name does not appear in the Commonwealth War Graves database. It is unlikely that the aircraft is included in the raids losses as it crash-landed in England.