South Shields Local History Group

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Purdy, Thomas (RAF)

Pilot W/Officer Thomas Purdy D.F.M.

Thomas Purdy was born in South Shields in 1913 to parents George Lancelot Laidler Purdy a Colliery Fitter and Elizabeth a housewife, who lived at 20 Harton Rise, South Shields.

Pilot Tom Purdy sitting (marked with cross) in the Sergeants Mess Honington 1940

Here is Sergeant Thomas Purdy’s citation for his Distinguished Flying Medal which was awarded on 24th December 1940.

“Sergeant Purdy has taken part as Captain of aircraft in most of the important operations undertaken by the squadron since 4th September 1939 and has at all times shown conspicuous gallantry and determination in pressing home his attacks in the face of severe enemy opposition and in adverse weather conditions. On 18th December 1939, in operations near Heligoland he was responsible for the destruction of three enemy aircraft. His success as a captain of aircraft is no less marked than his skill and determination as a pilot and he has imbued his crew with a team spirit to a marked extent. By his courage, persistent determination, skill and power of leadership, this N.C.O. has at all times set an example deserving of the highest praise.”

Remarks by his Station Commander:

“This pilot has only three months rest from operational flying since the declaration of war. Amongst the successful results of his bombing attacks are included damage to railways at Osnabruck on 7th July 1940 and Ham on 4th August 1940. In addition to hits on barges at Calais on 21st September 1940, and the dock at Kiel on 19th August 1940, these attacks were pressed home in the face of severe anti- aircraft fire.”

Remarks by his Air Officer Commanding:

“Although on one occasion during his first tour of duty his aircraft was extensively damaged during an attack on Wilhelmshaven with necessitated a forced landing without his undercarriage at a strange aerodrome and with a wounded crew, his determination was in no way shaken and he completed his normal tour of duty in an operational unit. After three months employment on the O.T.U. he returned to his original unit as full of vigour and determination as ever and has at all times been an outstanding member of his squadron and sets the very best example to all junior Captains.”

It must have been an immensely proud day for his parents George and Elizabeth and wife Ellen May né Jacobs, who was living at 47 Marsden St with their young son when Tom was given this prestigious award for serving his country with 9th Squadron during its darkest hour.

On the 4th September 1939 14 Wellington bombers one of which was flown by Tom Purdy attacked the entrance to the Kiel Canal in the first raid of the war. Two of his Squadrons aircraft were the first to be shot down on the western front. The first air raid warnings were sounded in Germany during this raid. At the time the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau battleships were in anchorage at Brunsbuttel.

In December 1939 Bomber Command, which included Tom Purdy’s 9th Squadron, made 3 attacks on the important German naval base at Wilhelmshaven. The last raid on 18th December cited by Tom’s Air Commander as being when his aircraft was heavily damaged, involved 22 Wellingtons which were to attack German ships outside the harbour. The enemy vessels were inside the harbour and their orders did not allow them to attack them in harbour, so they turned for home.

A Flight of 9 Squadron’s Wellingtons 1940

This was when the German fighters struck. First ME109s then ME110s pursued the bombers back across the North Sea. The Wellingtons did not have self-sealing fuel tanks so easily caught fire. 10 Wellingtons were shot down and 2 more were forced to ditch before reaching Britain and 3 more were destroyed in crash landings. Thomas Purdy must have been a skilful flyer as he was able to force land the bomber safely without his undercarriage which ensured he got his wounded crew swift treatment back home. His Wellington also succeeded in destroying 3 enemy aircraft during the pursuit across the North Sea.

However lessons were learnt and the Wellington fuel tanks were quickly modified and guns added on either side of the aircraft. Bomber Command abandoned daylight bombing because of this raid and resorted to night bombing only.

In April 1940 the Squadron moved from Honington to Lossiemouth in Scotland to support the allied expedition to Norway.

During the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command had two objectives – to deter the German Invasion Fleet from setting sail and to attack the 1600 ships and barges massing for the operation.

Invasion Barges

The ports were heavily defended with 6700 light and 2600 heavy guns from Dunkirk to the Scheldt estuary at Antwerp. The R.A.F. bombers inflicted heavy damage on the invasion fleet. The coastline from Dunkirk to Calais became known as the ‘Blackpool Front’ – as the whole French coast was ablaze. Tom made successful strikes on invasion barges on the 21st September.

Thomas Purdy transferred from 9th Squadron to 57th Squadron and was flying a Wellington bomber Z1097 called Gorakpur after an Indian Rajah who had paid for it for the R.A.F.

At 5-15pm on the 27th December 1941 Tom took off in his Wellington from Methwold to attack the marshalling yards of Dusseldorf. His crew were Sgt Maxwell Joseph Cronin NZ Airforce, 2nd Pilot, Flying Officer Ronald Cave Scarlett Australian Air Force, observer bomb aimer, Sgt Stanley Barraclough, wireless operator, Sgt Robert Frederick Aldous, front gunner and Walter James Poulton, rear gunner.

Max Cronin
Tom Purdy

As usual the moment the bomber crossed over the Dutch coast they were attacked by enemy flak guns. It was nothing to perturb experienced pilot Thomas Purdy and he flew on towards their objective of Dusseldorf. Stan Barraclough reflected:

There were umpteen searchlights, lots of light and heavy flak and our aircraft were already dropping their bombs”

Ron Scarlett the bomb aimer dropped their load and suddenly the cockpit was brilliantly lit up by searchlights.

“We were in the process of being ‘coned’ and knew what the result would be if we didn’t shake them off.”

Tom Purdy with no hesitation pushed the Wellingtons nose down in a steep dive and the crew hung on as he took evasive action and hurtled through the night sky. He levelled out at 1000ft after he’d lost the searchlights but that was when disaster struck.

“Streams of incendiary shells ripped through the bottom of the aircraft setting fire to a large section of the fuselage below the astrodome. Tom knew that she was finished and gave the order to abandon the aircraft”

Stan the wireless operator managed to clip his parachute on with difficulty and followed Ron Scarlett out of the escape hatch. Presumably Tom as pilot stayed at his controls.

“Hanging on to the end of my parachute I saw the burning aircraft continue on its downward path. I did not see anyone else get out and there was no sign of Ron Scarlett’s parachute in the sky below me”

The Wellington bomber had been riddled with incendiary shells by Hauptman Werner Streib (1911- 86) Night Flyer Ace. The aircraft crashed at 20.30 pm near Someren in Holland.

Werner Streib

Stan Barraclough floated down to the ground and landed on a snow covered field in Holland. He sought refuge in a farmhouse only to find out they were informers and he was quickly taken prisoner and incarcerated in a military prison in Amsterdam. From there he was taken to Dulag Luft and then to Stalag 383 at Hohenfels near Nurenberg where he stayed for the remainder of the war.

The family of Thomas Purdy in South Shields had to wait until 23rd July 1942 until he was officially stated killed in action.

Twenty eight year old Tom and his crew, Max 21 son of E.D.W. and Mary Florence Cronin of Remuera, Auckland ,New Zealand, Ron 27 son of Frederick and Alice Scarlett of Malvern, Victoria, Australia, Bob 26, son of Annie Aldous of Sandwich, Kent and Jimmy Poulton are buried in a line together in Woensel Cemetery Eindhoven. Ron Scarlett’s parents included this epitaph on his headstone “For God, King and country his duty nobly done” A fitting and sincere tribute to them all.

Written and researched by Dorothy Ramser

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