Orders, Decorations and Medals (25 September 2008)
Date of Auction: 25th September 2008
Sold for £90,000
Estimate: £40,000 - £50,000
The outstanding Second World War Battle of Britain D.F.M., siege of Malta D.F.C. group of eight awarded to Flight Lieutenant W. T. E. “Bill” Rolls, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, a highly successful Spitfire pilot who claimed a total of 17 “kills”, several of them over Kent as a Flight Sergeant based at Biggin Hill with No. 72 Squadron at the height of the Battle, at least two more with No. 122 Squadron in cross-Channel sweeps from Hornchurch in early 1942, and the remainder with No. 126 Squadron while operating out of Luqa - a remarkable wartime career recounted in his popular memoir Spitfire Attack
Distinguished Flying Cross, G.VI.R., the reverse officially dated ‘1942’ and privately engraved, ‘F./Lt. W. T. E. Rolls, 116492’; Distinguished Flying Medal, G.VI.R. (745542 Sgt. W. T. E. Rolls, R.A.F.); 1939-45 Star, clasp, Battle of Britain; Air Crew Europe Star, clasp, France and Germany; Africa Star, clasp North Africa 1942-43; Defence and War Medals, M.I.D. oak leaf; Air Efficiency Award, G.VI.R., 1st issue (Flt. Lt. W. T. E. Rolls, R.A.F.V.R.), mounted as worn, together with his wartime embroidered R.A.F. “Wings”, generally good very fine (8) £40,000-50,000
FootnoteD.F.C. London Gazette 4 December 1942. The original recommendation states:
‘This officer arrived in Malta on 11 August 1942, having destroyed eight enemy aircraft and been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. Since his arrival he has destroyed a further four and a half and damaged one. On 14 October, although Me.109s were attacking continually from above, he led his section in an attack on eight Ju. 88s, escorted by 15 Me. 109s, as a result of which he destroyed one Ju. 88 whilst another was damaged and an Me.109 probably destroyed by other pilots in the flight. As Flight Commander, he has shown outstanding leadership and determination especially during the present operations. He has led his Flight with great courage and skill as a result of which enemy bomber formations turned back on two occasions. He is a first class fighter pilot and a leader who gets the best out of pilots.’
D.F.M. London Gazette 8 November 1940. The original recommendation for an immediate award states:
‘This N.C.O. pilot, whose first experience of squadron flying of any kind began on 19 June 1940, when he joined this squadron, has proved in a very short space of time to be an excellent war pilot. His record since the Squadron’s arrival in this sector on 31 August 1940, being six and a half enemy aircraft confirmed destroyed, one probably destroyed and one damaged. In his first two engagements on 2 and 4 September 1940, Sergeant Rolls, by quick thinking and skilful piloting, shot down and destroyed one Me. 110, one Do. 17 and two Ju. 86s, two enemy aeroplanes in each engagement. On 11 September, after shooting down a Do. 17 which he had to follow down, Sergeant Rolls climbed up to the combat again and, attacking an Me. 110, had the satisfaction of seeing pieces fall off it. Although nine Me. 110s went down, Sergeant Rolls is not claiming it as he did not see it crash. On 14 September 1940, Sergeant Rolls attacked an Me. 109 which had fastened on the tail of a Spitfire and saw it spin down emitting glycol fumes. Sergeant Rolls is claiming this as a half-share since he saw another Spitfire tackle it lower down. The aircraft was seen to crash. On 15 September, Sergeant Rolls severely damaged an Me. 109 and on 20 September destroyed another Me. 109. This record by a comparatively inexperienced pilot compares favourably with that of any pilot in the Squadron and is worthy of reward. Sergeant Rolls is a quiet and efficient N.C.O. and an asset to the Squadron. It is regretted that this recommendation is so late on account of the loss from the Squadron records of a combat report, since found.’
William Thomas Edward Rolls, who was born in Lower Edmonton, North London in August 1914, won a scholarship to the Higher Latymer Secondary School in 1925, and afterwards worked in his uncle’s firm as a Building Engineer’s Apprentice, in addition to trying his hand at making leather coats and golf jackets. In March 1939, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and, having attended the Long Course at No. 19 E. & R., F.T.S. Gatwick, was awarded his “Wings” in July of the same year. Here, then, the opening chapter of a remarkable wartime career, a story vividly recounted in his memoir Spitfire Attack, a publication that adds so much more to the necessarily brief career summary that follows.
The Battle of Britain - No. 72 Squadron
Mobilised as a Sergeant Pilot on the outbreak of hostilities, Rolls attended another training course at South Cerney and was posted to No. 72 Squadron, a Spitfire based unit at Acklington in June 1940. But it would not be until the Squadron’s move south, to Biggin Hill on the last day of August, that his operational career commenced proper:
‘There was something about Biggin that you felt the minute you had landed on the airfield. Whether it was the smell of burning, cordite, the sight of bombed-out hangars and buildings, or just plain anticipation of the danger to come, I did not know, but I did know one thing - we were now at war with a capital W.’ (Spitfire Attack refers).
And so it proved, for just two days later, on 2 September, he claimed his first victories, an Me. 110 and a Do. 17, both in combats fought over the Maidstone area - the 110 crash-landed in White Horse Wood, Birling, one member of crew surviving to be taken prisoner, while the fuselage of the Dornier ‘blew to pieces and then the port engine caught fire’.
Again, on the 4th, he claimed another brace of victims, a pair of Ju. 86s in combats fought over Ashford and south-east of Tunbridge Wells, although there is a possibility these may in fact have been 110s - either way, the crew was seen to bale out of one of them, and the other to crash in a wood S.E. of Tunbridge Wells.
Rolls then added another Do. 17 destroyed to his tally on the 11th, in addition to another “probable”, both in combats fought to the east of Maidstone, but on the following day his Spitfire was badly shot up:
‘I was about to pull up and turn after diving on the formation with the rest of our squadron when I felt my aircraft judder and felt something hit my throttle which stunned my hand. I felt a terrific draft coming into the cockpit and knew that I had been hit somewhere although I could not see any aircraft near enough to me that could have fired at me. When I landed back at Croydon [to which base No. 72 was sometimes ordered], and having taxied over to our dispersal point, I saw the holes in the cockpit; one of the instruments had been smashed too. Then I saw holes on the other side of the cockpit and wondered how I had got hit both sides at the same time. I soon found out because before I could get out of the cockpit, I saw a metal rod coming through one of the holes and an airman on my wing put his hand on the rod and pushed it through the other side of the cockpit. The rod was now four inches from my Mae West at chest height. The airman then said, “Sergeant, do you realise that one ten-thousandth of a second later that bullet would have gone right through your heart.” ’
Notwithstanding such close calls, Rolls claimed an Me. 109 destroyed in a combat west of Canterbury on the 14th - it crashed in flames near Betherston - before once again returning to base in a damaged aircraft on the 18th - ‘When I had landed, one of the ground crew came out to me and I saw him look underneath the port wing near the fuselage. He jumped up on the wing and told me there was a big hole in my near gun ammo. pan and it had gone into the cockpit.’ Rolls also discovered that his Mae West had been holed.
On the 20th, he claimed his final victim of the Battle, another Me. 109 destroyed after a 15 minute combat. Rolls later recalled that this was his most memorable encounter to date, for he was due leave the following day - ‘So I had to win this one’:
‘As it came up in a climb I saw plainly that it was an Me. 109 with yellow nose and yellow fin. I let it climb up again and waited thinking perhaps it would dive again. It did so and then I dived out of the sun on to its tail and waited till it started to climb before I pressed the tit to fire. I let it have about three seconds fire and the 109 did a stall turn to starboard and I followed it. I saw a large black piece break away from the side of the cockpit on the port side. I got it in my sights again as it turned and let it have another four seconds burst. This time I saw smoke and what appeared to be oil and water come from underneath it. It turned to dive and as it did I let it have a final burst when the whole lot of the cockpit dropped away and the rest dropped down towards the cloud ... I marked the spot where the aircraft went in and it was near Wye between a wood and lake as far as I could make out from my own position. I landed back with three gallons of petrol and a leaky glycol rad.’
Rolls was recommended for an immediate award of the D.F.M., news of which distinction was received from his C.O.:
‘That afternoon I was down at flights and was walking on the grass by myself when the C.O. came up to me. He handed me a telegram. I read it wondering what it was about and saw that it was from 12 Group and I assumed that it was a posting notice for me. I hardly dare read it:
To: Sergeant Pilot W. T. E. Rolls, 72 Squadron, R.A.F.
From: 12 Group
Heartiest congratulations on your well earned D.F.M.
Leigh Mallory 5.11.40’
Cross-Channel sweeps - No. 122 Squadron
Having then been “rested” as an instructor at an Operational Training Units at Grangemouth and Heston, Rolls returned to an operational footing with an appointment in No. 122 (Bombay) Squadron, a Spitfire unit based at Scorton, in October 1941. And when the Squadron moved south to Hornchurch for cross-Channel sweeps in 1942, the recently commissioned Pilot Officer Rolls quickly recovered his past form, claiming an Fw. 190 destroyed over the St. Omer-Audriecq area on 17 May, together with another 190 as a “probable” on the same occasion - a date verified in his Flying Log Book versus an earlier one suggested in standard reference books. His combat report states:
‘I was the Wing Commander’s No. 2 (Red 2) and went down with him when he attacked the Fw. 190s. I got in a two seconds burst at one Fw. 190 which came past me from port to starboard and saw white smoke issuing from it. I followed it in a dive down to 11,000 feet approximately, the range closing from about 200 yards to 50 yards, giving it about a two seconds burst of machine-gun and cannon. Very shortly afterwards the enemy aircraft exploded in mid-air and an undercarriage leg and wheel came past over my port wing. I claim this enemy aircraft as destroyed.
I pulled out of my dive at 3,000 feet and started climbing to 10,000 feet approximately, S.E. of Guines, but shortly after saw another Fw. 190 very close to my tail. I went into a very steep turn and after about a turn and a half got on to his tail, managing to get a two seconds burst (machine-gun only) from about 15 degrees port. I saw white smoke coming from what appeared to be the port wing root but could not observe further as I was overshooting. This combat, however, was seen by Flight Lieutenant Thomas of 64 Squadron, who states that this enemy aircraft was completely out of control going down over and over “very sloppily”, obviously finished and not worth going after to make sure. In view of his confirmation, I claim this enemy aircraft as a “probable”.
After overshooting I half-rolled down to zero feet and set course for home, joining up with Blue 1 and 2 (122 Squadron). I saw Blue 1 (Flight Lieutenant Griffith, D.F.C.) make his attack on the gun post and a number of Boches strewn over the ground. Crossed back over the Channel landing safely at Hornchurch by 1215 hours.’
Then in early June, in a head-on attack with more Fw. 190s over Le Crotoy, he added a half-share and another “probable” to his rapidly escalating score - the former crashing into marshland at the Somme estuary. Posted to Debden a few weeks later, he was shortly afterwards ordered to prepare himself for passage to Malta.
The Siege of Malta - No. 126 Squadron
Embarked at Greenock in the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Furious, he ended up accompanying the famous “Pedestal” convoy, and led a section of Spitfires from the carrier’s flight deck to Luqa on 11 August 1942, a hair-raising experience otherwise known as “Operation Bellows”. But the effort was entirely worthwhile, for in little more than two months of operational flying he would add nine further victories to his tally, the first of them a Ju. 88 at sea off Linosa on 13 August and the second a Dornier off Cap Passero, Sicily on 19 September. Of the former victim, Rolls described in his combat report how he saw a ‘pattern of strikes zig-zag along the fuselage ... By this time the 88 was pouring black smoke from both engines and it dived vertically into the sea’, while the latter, a flying boat, had ‘a red-orange glow within’ before it disappeared in a white splash in front of him.
But it was actually in the famous “October Blitz” over Malta itself that he really excelled himself, bringing down seven enemy aircraft in a fortnight, the first of them being an Re. 2001 which crashed into the sea after a combat on the 11th - the pilot baled out, Rolls circling the Italian in his dinghy, but refusing to return his wave. The very next day Rolls claimed a Ju. 88 over Grand Harbour, Valetta, in addition to a Macchi 202 that blew-up in mid-air, and another 202 that crashed into the sea off Gozo. Of his combat with the Ju. 88 he wrote:
‘I saw one of the Ju. 88s I had fired at diving down and I put a final burst into it and it almost fell to pieces ... I followed to 4,000 feet and thought I saw two bale out. I did not see what happened to the others I hit since I was too busy getting out of the mass of aircraft flying around ... I saw Ju. 88s burning and going down all over the place.’
On the 14th, yet another enemy aircraft fell to his guns in a head-on attack - ‘I saw my cannon shells hit the leading aircraft; its port engine blew up and the aircraft went down’, while on the 16th, in another head-on attack, he claimed another Ju. 88, which came down in the sea east of Grand Harbour:
‘The bombers started a shallow dive and I gave the order for a head-on attack. I chose the leader of the formation and gave a three-second burst and hit the starboard engine. He immediately started to smoke and he did a steep turn to port, glycol coming from the engine. The rest followed him and jettisoned bombs in St. Paul’s Bay. The last I saw of the leader he was going down very steeply. The whole action was seen from the shore and F./O. Shipard and F./O. Gray and several others who were on Balluta Buildings saw this Ju. 88 crash into the sea, about 10 miles east of Grand Harbour.’
Finally, on the 26th, during a patrol off Filfla, Rolls claimed another Me. 109, attacking at 8,000 and 4,000 feet, latterly with cannon fire - it went down in a vertical dive from 2,000 feet, pouring black smoke.
The gallant Rolls, who had served as a Flight Commander from mid-August, was actually residing in hospital at the time of the announcement of his award of his D.F.C., having sustained a serious leg injury when a bomb-damaged wall collapsed on him - luckily for the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, a serious enough injury to require his evacuation to the U.K. via Gibraltar.
Return to the U.K., Normandy and beyond
In early 1943, he was appointed to the Air Ministry’s Publicity Branch, being a perfect candidate to lecture and talk at “Wings for Victory” functions, following which, that September, he was sent to the Air Armament School at Manby for an extended course. An appointment as a Specialist Armament Officer with H.Q., No. 12 Group ensued, until he was attached to the Bombing Analysis Unit, under Professor Zuckerman:
‘We went to France on 30 June 1944 and eventually made base at Versailles. There were many units spread over France and I visited them to see about photographic requirements and any armament requirements. We later joined up with the United States Air Evaluation Board and eventually I was demobbed early in 1946 and was mentioned in despatches.’
Shortly afterwards, on Zuckerman’s recommendation, Rolls was appointed as a Films Officer in the Scientific Advisers Division of the Ministry of Works, and went on to produce a string of films on all aspects of building and construction, including one about the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall. Afterwards he moved to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Headquarters in Regent Street, London as an Exhibition Officer, designing and producing exhibitions for Olympia and Earls Court. Promoted to Senior Information Officer to take over the production of R.A.F. Training Films in 1960, he went on to produce around 150 films before his retirement in September 1975, latterly as Director. Rolls settled in Westcliff-on-Sea, where he wrote his memoir Spitfire Attack, an exercise greatly assisted by his Flying Log Book:
“I had not looked at the log book for over thirty years and was surprised how readily the events in the log book came to mind. It was like looking at a video of each entry, I could almost see every detail of those actions and the people I had met during those times. In writing down my memoirs I had some very pleasant times remembering people I had known and old pals whom I had lost. It was suggested to me that I had a ghost writer to help me write the book, but I had many real ghosts helping me every time I sat down to the typewriter.’
Bill Rolls died in July 1988.
Sold with the recipient’s original R.A.F. Pilot’s Flying Log Book (Form 414), covering the period March 1939 to June 1945, together with some later civilian entries, and including additional post-war annotation, spine worn, contents good; together with his Battle of Britain Fighter Association Life Membership card, this signed in red ink by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; and a copy of his wartime memoir, Spitfire Attack (William Kimber, 1987).