A Collection of Medals to Second World War Royal Air Force Casualties

Date of Auction: 17th July 2019

Sold for £360

Estimate: £400 - £500

Three: Pilot Officer (Pilot) W. A. Saunders, 21 Squadron, Royal Air Force, who was shot down by an enemy fighter whilst his Blenheim was attacking the airfield at Merville, on 14 June 1940 - making it to the French coast on foot, he was presumed drowned at sea whilst attempting to row back to England

1939-45 Star; Air Crew Europe Star; War Medal 1939-45, all contemporarily impressed ‘P/O/ W/ A/ Saunders. R.A.F.), with named Air Council enclosure, surname partially officially corrected on last, nearly extremely fine (3) £400-£500


William Anthony Saunders, a native of Reading, Berkshire, was one of the huge intake of probationary Pilot Officers granted short service commissions on 7 May 1938, and served during the Second World War as a Pilot with 21 Squadron. By early 1940 the Squadron was flying from Eastchurch in Kent and it is from this base that Saunders flew his early missions, moving to Watton, Norfolk in June 1940. He was crewed with Sergeants Eden and Webb flying the Blenheim Bomber in ‘B’ flight, No. 21 Squadron.

Sanders and his crew fought throughout the Battle of France during the furious fighting trying to stem the rapid German advance to the Channel. They flew numerous bombing sorties against German armour and troops while under heavy flak and and enemy fighter attacks. They were in continuous action from 31 March 1940 attacking German shipping and then throughout the Battle of France, surviving the horrendous attack on the bridges over the river Meuse near Sedan. They were then engaged covering the retreat to Dunkirk. On 13 June while bombing enemy tank concentrations in Le Gault forest the aircraft were ‘bounced’ by heavy enemy fighter cover.

Saunders was killed in action when Blenheim R3742, which he piloted, was sent, along with a heavy fighter escort, to bomb the airfield at Merville, on 14 June 1940. This was a new type of target in the air campaign against German ground forces (the enemy having entered Paris on this day). Hit by flak over the target their aircraft was then caught by an enemy fighter; they dropped out of formation and were chased to the ground. Saunders crash landed the aircraft at Ardes enabling him and his two crew members, Sergeants Webb and Eden, to escape. Webb and Eden were later captured and made prisoners of war.

Air Crew Remembered has the following account:
‘Taking off from RAF Watton in Norfolk to attack the airfield at Merville. Intercepted by Me.109’s and understood to have been attacked, crash landing at Ardes. They made their way overland to Wissant on the French coast, approximately 20 miles away. Provided with a small rowing boat by the locals they decided to row back to England. They were poorly equipped for the journey, with a boat in a similar condition. After 3 days at sea with no food or water or dry clothes they finally reached a point some 10 miles from England when one of the oars broke. They were then caught in the currents and drifted back to France.
During the day the pilot P.O. Saunders had been suffering hallucinations but finally went to sleep, as did the other two. During the night he disappeared leaving his tunic behind. It is thought he had drunk sea water.
The two remaining crew were washed up on the shores of France, they were exhausted and spent a couple of days recovering. The decided to make for Le Harve but then decided against it as it was probably closely watched. They started to go up coast but were then arrested by the Germans and sent to Prisoner of War camps.’

The Air Ministry went to extreme efforts to try to identify Saunders’ last resting place. The nearest they came to this identification was the recovery of an unknown Pilot Officer’s body washed up on the French coast on 26 June 1940, 12 days after their loss. The Ministry also received very poignant letters from Saunders’ parents who firmly believed that their son may still have been alive and had been picked up by a trawler or tramp steamer. This proved to be a false hope.

Saunders has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

Sold with copied research, including a full record of the recipient’s operations.