Awards to Men of the Battle of Britain

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Date of Auction: 20th September 2002

Unsold

Estimate: £5,000 - £6,000

A rare and impressive Norway 1940 Gladiator pilot’s D.F.C. group of eight awarded to Group Captain R. S. “Milly” Mills, Royal Air Force, afterwards C.O. of No. 87 Squadron’s Hurricanes at the height of the Battle

Distinguished Flying Cross, G.VI.R., the reverse officially dated 1940; 1939-45 Star, clasp, Battle of Britain; Atlantic Star, clasp, Air Crew Europe; Burma Star; Defence and War Medals; Coronation 1953; Jubilee 1977 minor contact wear, good very fine and better (8) £5000-6000

Footnote

See Colour Plate VI

D.F.C. London Gazette 10 May 1940. The recommendation states:

‘This Officer was one of the Flight Commanders of No. 263 Squadron whilst in Norway. During an enemy bombing attack he remained in his cockpit and started his engine, taking off under machine-gun fire. He assisted in destroying one Heinkel III aircraft and attacked eight other aircraft of that type and three Junkers 88s. He also carried out a successful forced landing when enemy shots had removed one aircraft cylinder and starboard inner plane strut.’

(Randolph) Stuart “Milly” Mills was born in London in October 1909 and attended the Imperial Service College prior to joining the Royal Air Force as an Aircraft Apprentice in December 1929. Afterwards successfully applying for pilot training, he was granted a permanent commission in May 1936 and served with No. 17 Squadron at Kenley, and the Station Flight at Northholt, before the outbreak of hostilities.

Mills was posted to the newly formed No. 263 Squadron at Filton in October 1939, gaining advancement to Flight Lieutenant in the following month. Commanded by Squadron Leader J. W. “Baldy” Donaldson - the eldest of three exceptional R.A.F. brothers who would all win D.S.Os - No. 263 was operating with Gladiators. The prospect of facing the Luftwaffe in an obsolete biplane was not a good one, but as Mills would quickly discover, the Gladiator possessed one definite advantage over its more modern counterparts - it had the capability of landing on difficult surfaces. And in February 1940, Fighter Command looked into the possibility of despatching No. 263 to assist the Finns in their fight against the Russians, it having been ascertained that Gladiators could land on tightly-packed snow runways - ‘However, the poor Finns gave in and eventually all the assembled equipment had to be returned to maintenance units.’

But in mid-April, Donaldson received a message to put his men at short notice to move to Prestwick, in readiness to embark on H.M.S. Glorious for Norway - unbeknown to them, plans were already afoot to prepare a landing site on the frozen waters of Lake Lesjaskog. Various problems cropped up on the voyage out, Captain D’Oyly-Hughes of the Glorious not proving the most sympathetic of hosts, added to which the men of No. 263 found themselves limited to just four maps of Norway - one of them had been torn from The Daily Telegraph by Mills. After a closing encounter with D’Oyly-Hughes, in which Donaldson managed to persuade him to take the Glorious to a point 150 miles from Lake Lesjaskog, rather than the originally intended 300-350 miles, the Gladiator pilots carried out their first ever take-off from an aircraft carrier. As escort, due to the lack of maps, the F.A.A. sent up two Skuas to help them. Mills takes up the story:

‘After one and a half hours flying, the Gladiators [18 of them] were landing on the ice. I flew on another 60 miles or so to Dombas rail junction to reconnoitre the area. The main road and rail track between Aandalsnes and Dombas had recently been heavily bombed. On landing I reported to “Baldy” that there was intense air activity in the area and we must realize what we were in for ...’

To add to their problems, there were already signs that the runway was beginning to melt and the Gladiators could neither be sheltered from attack or even screened from prying Luftwaffe eyes. And with only one R.A.F. armourer having arrived by land, it was apparent that the pilots would have to re-arm and refuel their own aircraft between sorties. The oil was another matter. It was the wrong grade. In fact in terms of supplies and support, just about everything was wrong, even down to the pilots having to start their Gladiators by hand, no-one having thought about sending out a starter battery. Many would have given up there and then, but “Baldy” Donaldson thrashed out some temporary remedies with Mills, his senior Flight Commander, and everyone settled down in readiness for the coming onslaught. As verified by Victor MacClure’s Gladiators over Norway, their patience was barely tested:

‘The real show began just before eight o’clock [on the morning after their arrival]. From then until nightfall the attacks were incessant ... They usually came in V formation - we call it ‘Vic’ - but taking up line ahead or splitting for individual attack at from 500 to 6,000 feet. One of these approaches in Vic formation dropped 12 bombs. That salvo destroyed four Gladiators and wounded three pilots. A terrible smack - exasperating because we couldn’t get at the enemy in force. Baldy himself was rather concussed by a near-by blast, but he stuck it out until he was steady on his pins again. After the bombing in this attack, and in the raids that came hot and strong later, the machine-guns of both front and rear turrets were used to spray our pilots and the amateur ground staff, with never any shelter nearer of better than the trees and the snow-drifts 50 yards away ...’

Then:

‘About nine o’clock, Milly got an aircraft started up under machine-gun fire. He took off and kept the area clean of hostile aircraft for half an hour. The sun by this time had begun to do his stuff, and Milly’s watch-dog tactics enabled the other pilots to get another six machines away. One section set off for the front ... Our section took on patrol of the base. Milly, meantime, had tackled six Heinkel IIIs from time to time on his flight, and one of these he had sent into a crash with port engine ablaze ...’

According to MacClure, on landing back at the lake, Mills next turned his attention to ground defence:

‘It was too hot, the strafe, and Baldy and Phil very sensibly scooted for shelter. But on the way, Phil saw Milly floundering through snow-drifts to a machine-gun post that had been deserted. This struck Phil as a good idea, so he quit bolting, turned, and went lolloping after Milly through the snow. The pair manned the machine-gun, Milly firing and Phil feeding in the ammunition. The tracers showed how good their shooting was, and we who were watching danced with envy for the idea and excitement of seeing the Heinkels driven off ...’

In the lull that followed, Mills would appear to have found three or four ground crew hiding amongst some trees but whether they were anything to do with the unmanned Bofors gun remains unknown - he ushered them out at the point of his revolver. He also managed to refuel two Gladiators with the aid of some milk jugs acquired from a nearby farmhouse, and he and Donaldson again joined battle with the enemy. The former set off in hot pursuit of a formation of three enemy aircraft, MacClure continuing:

‘He [Mills] silenced the rear gunners of two of the machines, and prevented the attack on the lake. The men on the lake saw one of the hostile machines make off very lamely, and here was another that almost certainly came to grief among the mountain recesses ... By this time Baldy’s guns were out of ammunition, except for a very little in one of them. He decided that the time had come to land and re-arm and refuel. The two aircraft had been airborne for well over two hours. Baldy gave Milly the signal to land first while he gave him cover ... [but] ... going into land, [Milly] saw that there was nobody in sight about the ’drome. He judged from this desertion that the lake was in for another attack there and then. Immediately, with his aircraft just at touch-down, he took off again and saw the Junker 88s coming in. Up he climbed and sailed in to give the formation a taste of “Baldy dosage”. The enemy aircraft, now in line formation, broke away from the line astern as Milly sailed in, and began an answering attack. They opened with the concentrated fire of their front cannon on the solitary Gladiator at a range of from five to six hundred yards. The people about the lake, drawn out to watch this epic fight, saw the shells burst all about the little ship. Milly was almost clean out of gas, and only one of his guns was firing. Oil was streaming from the engine of his aircraft, but for ten minutes he fought on, gradually finding himself out-manoeuvred and out-climbed.

Then, while he still fought, trying tactics that by his weakness might tempt the enemy into a disadvantage, his gas failed completely. He went down - but was able to make a successful forced landing on the lake surface towards one end.

He was examining the Gladiator to see what was the extent of the damage - part of his engine was gone and there were holes in the fuselage from the cannon fire - when he found himself and his aircraft attacked by a Heinkel III. The attack completed the destruction of the Gladiator, but Milly came out of it with no damage ...’

In fact by the evening of the 25th, only five Gladiators remained serviceable, and these were set alight and abandoned on the following day, 263’s exhausted pilots being embarked on a motor vessel, the Delius, for England. The ship was promptly subjected to several hours of enemy attack, but eventually made port. Donaldson and Mills were subsequently interviewed by Sir Samuel Hoare, the Secretary of State for Air, and “Stuffy” Dowding, C.-in-C. Fighter Command, the latter informing them of their respective awards of the D.S.O. and D.F.C. Dowding also asked them whether they would be interested in returning to Norway in support of the Narvik operations:

‘We had no hesitation in expressing our willingness to go back, but we made the Squadron’s needs quite clear. We asked, basically, that our ground personnel and all the necessary equipment be in position before the Squadron arrived. There must be no repetition of our earlier experience.’

A few days later, they found themselves bound for Norway in the Furious, 263 having been rapidly re-equipped with new Gladiators and some replacement personnel. And on the evening of 20 June, in appalling weather, Mills took-off from the aircraft carrier with two fellow Squadron pilots and a guiding F.A.A. Swordfish, the whole bound for an airfield at Bardufoss. They never arrived, the latter leading them ‘slap into a mountain, a peak of 3300 feet on Senga Island, north of Soreisa.’ Mills later wrote:

‘It was difficult to get out of the cockpit, and when I managed I fell over and was knocked unconscious. The blood from a cut on my forehead dripped into my eyes and when I awoke I thought for a while that I was blind. I laid in the snow a long time and felt for where my gun would be. Luckily I did not find it otherwise I would have shot myself. In the end I managed to open my eyes again. The weather was bad, low fog, snowing and visibility down to 100 metres. I walked, or in other words stumbled down the side of the hill and not very long after came to the wreck of the Swordfish, but found no one, dead or alive. So I carried on down towards the fjord because I remembered the power station being mentioned on the carrier and I was in need of help.’

Mills was taken in a motor boat to Harstaad, with the body of a fellow 263 pilot, which was a ‘terrible sight’, the latter being interred locally. And thence, under medical escort, to Tromso, from where he was evacuated aboard the cruiser Devonshire. Fellow passengers included the Norwegian royal family. Painful that his latest experiences had been, Mills was actually a very lucky man - most of the gallant pilots from 263, including his friend and C.O., “Baldy” Donaldson, perished aboard the carrier Glorious.

The Squadron was reformed at Drem in June, and Mills converted to Hurricanes, flying his first sector patrol on 20 July. Later that month, he also flew for the first time in a recently arrived Whirlwind, No. 263 having been given the dubious privilege of ironing out the new fighter’s engine and gunnery problems.

But in late August, at the height of the Battle, following another couple of sector reconnaissances, Mills was appointed C.O. of No. 87 Squadron, a Hurricane unit operating out of Church Fenton, with detachments at Bibury and Hullavington. Its previous C.O., Squadron Leader T. G. Lovell-Gregg, had been brought down over Abbotsbury, Dorset after leading an attack against an estimated force of 120 enemy aircraft, a few days earlier - his bullet-riddled body was found near the wreckage of his Hurricane. Mills was quickly airborne, flying a brace of offensive patrols over Warmwell and Portland, and the Channel, on the 25th of the month. And he led further operations out of assorted airfields over the remainder of the Battle, his Flying Log Book recording the occasional, unsuccessful encounter with enemy aircraft.

Towards the end of December, Mills was posted to the U.S.A. as an Assistant Air Attache at Washington, where he personally briefed Roosevelt on European operations, and met Eisenhower. Afterwards he was employed in the setting-up and development of airfields for the training of R.A.F. personnel, a post in which he excelled. Eventually six airfields were established, Mills serving as Chief Flying Instructor at No. 4 British F.T.S., Mesa, Arizona and at No. 1 British F.T.S., Lancaster, California.

Returning to the U.K. in July 1942, he joined Fighter Command H.Q. for liaison duties with the U.S.A.F. 8th Fighter Wing, which appointment he appears to have held until July 1943, when he was posted to the Directorate of Organisation Establishment (D.O.E.). By now an Acting Wing Commander, Mills next travelled overseas with a D.O.E. appointment in India and Burma, in January 1945, a posting that witnessed him being flown to numerous locations in Dakotas and other aircraft. And in May of the following year he was appointed to H.Q., A.O.C. South-East Asia Command. Mills remained a regular R.A.F. Officer until his retirement in October 1956, in the rank of Group Captain, and he died in January 1996.

Sold with the recipient’s original Flying Log Book, covering the period April 1940 to February 1956, with opening endorsement verifying the loss of his first book ‘in action at Torsken Senga Island’, and immediate summary of his earlier Norwegian operations following; numerous photographs, from pre-war portrait shots in full-dress uniform, via the war to a great deal of post-war subject matter, including reunions and further portraits, one or two of them showing him wearing his medals, including the Jubilee 1977; and a separate album of assorted memorabilia, including wartime neswpaper cuttings and letters.