Herbert Laurence Whitbread was born on 21 August 1914, in the picturesque and fortified Shropshire town of Ludlow. Laurie lived with his parents and sister at 4 Linney View, attending the local primary and grammar schools. At the latter he was a popular pupil, excelling at sport. At Ludlow Grammar School Whitbread’s name became synonymous with boxing and rugby, and our hero also represented Shropshire at hockey. After leaving school, young Laurie became an apprentice at Fisher & Ludlow in Birmingham, manufacturing sheet steel for the automotive industry. Ken Brown,another Ludlovian, worked with Laurie but was not surprised when his friend left the firm in 1939 to become a fighter pilot.
Having passed selection for a Short Service Commission on 12 January 1939, Laurie successfully completed his flying training and was posted to a new unit – 222 Squadron – based at Duxford on 26 November 1939. 222 was commanded by a Cranwellian, Squadron Leader HW ‘Tubby’ Mermagen, whom I interviewed in 1992: ‘I formed 222 as a 12 Group night-fighter unit equipped with Bristol Blenheim twin-engined aircraft. As I was previously an Al qualified staff flying instructor at the CFS, to convert pilots to this type I was supplied with a dual Blenheim.Whitbread was one of the earliest postings to the new squadron, straight from FTS. I can remember him as a pleasant, well-mannered, quiet individual. A shortish, stocky, cheerful character whom I instantly liked – a good mixer.
‘My flying log book records that on December 12th1939, at 1200 hours, I took him up in the dual Blenheim, L6712, for a test/conversion to Blenheim Mk Is. The flight lasted 25 minutes and I must I have been suitable impressed since, so far as my log book shows, Whitbread had no further instruction and went solo immediately afterwards. I understand that he had trained on twin engined Oxfords, but even so he displayed a good standard of flying. The Squadron subsequently conducted a very large number of flying hours and we were soon operational, with no accidents.’
Throughout December 222 Squadron flew monotonous convoy protection patrols over the North Sea, all without incident. As the winter progressed flying weather deteriorated, there being none whatsoever during the first nine days of February 1940, due to heavy snow. 222 Squadron shared Duxford with the Spitfire equipped 19 and 66 Squadrons, which, from the cockpits of their comparatively uninspiring Blenheims, Mermagen’s pilots viewed with envy. 222 Squadron, however, was suddenly ordered to convert to Spitfires. There followed an intensive flying training programme: on 17 April 1940, 222 became fully operational on Spitfires. 19 Squadron moved from Duxford to Horsham St Faith, so 222 took over their recently vacated dispersals at the aerodrome’s eastern end. Squadron Leader Mermagen continued to train his pilots hard, introducing night flying into the programme.
When Germany attacked the West on 10 May 1940, 222 was sent to Digby, making room at Duxford for the Defiant-equipped 264 Squadron. Soon after, 222 moved to Kirton-in-Lindsey, also in 12 Group, before deployment to Hornchurch and participation in Operation DYNAMO – the evacuation of Allied troops from the continent via Dunkirk. Mermagen: ‘I lost four pilots killed and one missing during that period. Pilot Officer Whitbread must have taken part in most if not all of these sorties. I know that I had already recognised him as a good, reliable and sound Spitfire pilot’.
Indeed, the record shows that Pilot Officer Whitbread did fly on the majority of 222 Squadron’s sorties from Hornchurch, in Spitfires P9318, P9360 and P9378. Laurie was a member of ‘B’ Flight, but ‘A’ Flight had a very colourful Flight Commander: the legless Flight Lieutenant Douglas Bader. After Dunkirk, 222 returned to Kirton, where Mermagen was suvcceeded in command by Squadron Leader Johnnie Hill. On 29 August, 222 was sent to Hornchurch; Sergeant Reg Johnson: –
‘In the first 48 hours that 222 Squadron was at Hornchurch we lost 18 aircraft and a number of pilots. We proceeded to go into action in tight formation and our losses were heavy. Eventually we evolved a weaving “Tail End Charlie” section, Green Section, which weaved about above, below and to the Squadron’s rear (still in tight formation). It helped. I was made a permanent member of Green Section, with Pilot Officer Whitbread and one other, and we were given the job to do’.
During 222’s first patrol on 31 August, Pilot Officer Whitbread flew Spitfire L1010 and patrolled base uneventfully at 25,000 feet. Laurie flew the same Spitfire on the next sortie, which was flown from the forward field at Rochford: 222 Squadron was vectored to intercept bombers and their fighter escort 26,000 feet over Gravesend. 222 Squadron attacked the 109s, Pilot Officer Vigors claiming one destroyed and another as a probable. Later, Pilot Officer Whitbread and 10 other 222 Squadron Spitfires patrolled Canterbury at 20,000 feet. Over Maidstone 24 Me 109s protecting a formation of He 111s were Tally Ho’d, the ensuing combat concluding very much in the Spitfires’ favour: several of the enemy were shot down, against the loss of two Spitfires, the pilots of which were safe. Pilot Officer Whitbread reported his combat, which took place at 1.30 p.m., 16,000 feet over Sittingbourne: –
‘I maneuvered until the Me 109 appeared in my sights, the enemy aircraft climbing slowly away not having seen me. I fired at about 400 yards and rapidly closed to within 50 yards, when I could see the bullets entering the fuselage from tail to cockpit. The 109 half rolled onto its back and remained at that attitude, flying quite slowly with a little white smoke issuing from it. It eventually nosed down slowly when I was obliged to lose sight of it having noticed an aircraft approaching my tail which turned out to be a Spitfire’.
This enemy machine was possibly one of 1/JG 77, which crashed between Walderslade and Boxley; the pilot, Unteroffizier Keck, baled out and was captured.
The next few days followed an identical pattern, with numerous scrambles and interceptions being made by 222 Squadron. On 7 September, the Germans bombed London round the clock, and by 4.30 p.m. all twenty-one Fighter Command squadrons based with seventy-two miles of London were airborne. Pilot Officer Whitbread later wrote the following of his combat, which took place at 27,000 feet over the capital: –
‘We engaged an enemy formation of Me 109s. I became separated from the rest of the Squadron so climbed back to my original altitude and flew round looking for a target. I found one in a formation of 25-30 Do 215s which appeared to have no fighter escort. Keeping in the sun I dived down on the last aircraft which was straggling behind some 100 yards at the rear of the formation and flying at 20,000 feet. I carried out a quarter attack from the port side (formation was flying westwards along south bank of the Thames at Dartford). I opened fire at 300 yards, range closing rapidly. The starboard engine set on fire and I broke away, the return fire from the three rear gunners and my closing range making this advisable’.
On 9 September, Laurie was in action again, over Ashford: –
‘Whilst on patrol over east Kent we sighted a formation of enemy bombers flying west at 20,000 feet, above cloud. It had an escort of Me 109s, flying above and behind at 26,000 feet, and also another formation of fighters flying to one side, at the same height as the bombers. The fighters were engaged. I had a combat with an Me 109. A burst of roughly four seconds from my guns appeared to shoot off the starboard aileron when the 109 went into a spin. It continued to spin downwards into the cloud layer where it disappeared from view. My flight leader stated that he had observed the 109 spin down and also the pilot baling out’.
In his diary, Laurie wrote: ‘One Me 109 claim. Confirmed by Van Mentz.’ The enemy fighter belonged to 6/JG 27 and crashed at Beneden; Unteroffizier Georg Rauwolf baled out and was captured.
On 20 September, for the first time, twenty-two Me 109 fighter-bombers of II/ LG 2, protected by numerous fighters, took off from the Pas-de-Calais bases, London bound. Between Calais and Dover the Germans climbed to 25,000 feet before swooping down on the capital. Believing the enemy sweep to be no threat, Fighter Command’s squadrons were kept on the ground, permitting the fighter-bombers to reach London unmolested. Diving to 22,000 feet and pressing the bomb release switch, the Jabo pilots had already turned for home when their bombs exploded in the City of London and on a rail terminus west of the Thames’s great bend. Listening to the British radio frequencies, German intelligence reported a great confusion of orders and counter-orders after the ‘fighters’ had dropped their bombs.
After the first wave of raiders had caused confusion, a second was reported incoming over the Kent coast at 14,000 feet. Unbeknown to the RAF controllers, there were no fighter-bombers in this formation, so the Biggin Hill and Hornchurch Spitfire squadrons were scrambled. 222 and 603 Squadrons were up from Hornchurch at 10.55 a.m., but as they desperately climbed for height over the Thames Estuary, the 109s fell on them. The first Spitfire pilot to fall in action that day was Pilot Officer Whitbread. Reg Johnson: –
‘My vivid memory is that this sortie was a “B” Flight commitment only, led by Pilot Officer Broadhurst in Blue Section, followed by Pilot Officer Whitbread, myself and another in Green Section. We climbed to the suicidal height of 14,000 feet and stooged around in tight formation with only one pair of eyes available to scan the sky in front, perhaps over 200°. I do not think that we deserved to be jumped, but we were certainly inviting it. We were banking gently to the left, which allowed me at No 3 to look over the top of No 1, and I shouted the warning “Bandits! 2 o’clock above – attacking!” I turned over and dived straight down. There is no way that Pilot Officer Whitbread could even have seen the enemy, formatting as he was on the aircraft to his left and with three-quarters of his head and back to the attackers. When I left it was his right side facing the 109s, which were already in firing range. I can only assume that having received my warning he too rolled to his right, exposing his left side to the enemy and was hit before his dive commenced.It was a tragedy.’
Spitfire N3203 crashed at 11.15 a.m. in the garden of Pond Cottage, Hermitage Road. Higham, near Rochester in Kent.
When initially researching this story some years ago, I suspected that Pilot Officer Whitbread had been shot down by Oberleutnant Hans Hahn, of II/JG 2. More recent research, however, suggests that ‘B’ Flight of 222 Squadron could equally have been attacked by none other than Major Adolf Galland,Kommodore of JG 26 and one of the Luftwaffe’s foremost experten,who shot down a Spitfire in a diving pass. After the initial bounce, ‘B’ Flight re-formed only to be attacked again, losing two more Spitfires, although both pilots were safe. In such confused circumstances, involving so many enemy fighters, it is impossible to be absolutely certain who was responsible for bringing Laurie Whitbread down, but Galland does appear to be another strong contender.
On 3 October, 222 Squadron’s CO, Squadron Leader John Hill, wrote to Mr Whitbread: –
‘It is with deep regret that I have to write to you from 222 Squadron and offer our sympathy in the sad loss of your son.He was killed instantly by a bullet from an enemy aircraft when doing his bit in the defence of our country. His passing is a great loss to us; he has been in the Squadron since its formation and always most popular, having a quiet and efficient disposition and charming manner’.
Pilot Officer Whitbread was the first Ludlovian to lay down his life in World Two, and that fact hit the small community hard. As a mark of respect, he was laid to rest in the local cemetery with full military honours. Laurie’s old school master, George Merchant, attended the funeral, and it is to him that we give the last word: –
‘So we turned and went back and left him alone in his glory, with his name and rank on the gravestone and proud badge of the Royal Air Force that he had carried through peril to the stars.
‘For some reason I think of him as typical of those 50 boys from the school who died in the same way, a kind of symbol of what they were and what they did and why. I hope nobody will think I have singled him out from the others, it means that I regard them as having done anything less or deserving less to be remembered. He was just the kind of boy you noticed first and remembered afterwards if you saw him talking in a group of his fellows, though he was probably saying less than any of the others.He was the kind of boy one does not forget and is glad to have known’.
It was my privilege to first tell Pilot Officer Whitrbread’s story in Through Peril to the Stars(1993) and more recently update and give it currency in Spitfire Voices(2011).