20 Mar 2013

A Most Evocative Photo from WWII

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RAF officer Francis R.L. Mellersh (1922-1996) reads John Buchan’s thriller Greenmantle and smokes his pipe, while getting in a haircut between fighter sorties to intercept the Luftwaffe.

Boots loosened, pipe in mouth, reading his book, being attended to by a servant, the pilot resembles a medieval knight resting between the lists at a tournament.

David Frum got hold of the photo from the pilot’s daughter, who tells us:

We have the original of the photo, and the book (he was crazy about John Buchan) and that bloody pipe killed him in the end at 72. I’m afraid those who have been to war and daily diced with death are rather cavalier with their health. I’ll tweet you a pic of him in his 60s…the red hair’s faded to strawberry blonde but still recognisably the chap getting his hair cut.

Instead of resuming his Oxford studies at the end of the war he remained in the RAF for another 30 plus years and flew right until the end (often with the Red Arrows – stress!). He reached Air Vice Marshal and was Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff. He was a very modest man, very laid-back (that photo says it all) and spoke little of the war.

You’ll like this bit. My grandfather, his father, was a WW1 ace and was on the sortie which downed the Red Baron. Forensic historians of course now say he was shot from the ground…my grandfather’s eye witness account is often quoted. We have a little box made from Richthofen’s propeller wood. He too made a career of the RAF, was in charge of operations in Burma etc in WW2 and, at one point, my father’s boss…somewhat disastrously! He died in a bizarre accident shortly after retiring…ironic given he survived the RB.

My grandfather was AVM Sir Francis (FJW) Mellersh, nickname “Tog” and my father AVM Francis (FRL) Mellersh, known always as Togs (nanny’s nickname ie. “of Tog”). Quite ridiculous. I have their obituaries and citations and some extracts from Aces High etc as well as my father’s log book filled in somewhat irreverently. He flew Beaufighters, Mosquitoes and Spitfires.

David Frum adds:

Francis Mellersh was twice awarded Britain’s Distinguished Flying Cross and was recommended for the Victoria Cross.


RAF records state:

He was quite a successful night-fighter pilot, ending the war with a tally of eight destroyed and one probable, however, during 1944, he destroyed 39, possibly 42, V-1 flying bombs. …

Citation for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

    “Flying Officer Francis Richard Lee MELLERSH (105145), Royal Air Force Volunteer ‘Reserve, No.600 Squadron.

    This officer is a tenacious and skilful fighter and has destroyed 5 enemy aircraft in combat. On 1 occasion in April,1943, during a patrol off Algiers at dusk, he encountered a large formation of enemy aircraft. In the ensuing engagement, Flying Officer Mellersh shot down 2 of them. Although his aircraft was badly damaged he flew it to base. More recently, in July, 1943, Flying Officer Mellersh destroyed 2 enemy aircraft during 1 sortie. This officer has set a praiseworthy example.”

(London Gazette – 20 August 1943)

Citation for the award of the Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross

    “Flight Lieutenant Francis Richard Lee MELLERSH, D.F.C. (1105145), R.A.F.V.R., 96 Sqn.

    This officer has proved himself, to be a night fighter pilot of outstanding ability and determination and his skill and keenness have set an excellent example. Flight Lieutenant Mellersh has completed many sorties and has destroyed eight enemy aircraft; he has also destroyed a large number of flying bombs.”

(London Gazette – 3 October 1944)


This is obviously the cover of the book he is reading.

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