Tales of an airborne hero

War historian Shaun Corkerry finds out more about the life of Gordon Stobbart, one of Galgate’s most decorated veterans

Thursday, 7th October 2021, 3:45 pm
Gordon Stobbart (centre) with crew mates.
Gordon Stobbart (centre) with crew mates.

few months ago, I was made aware of Gordon Stobbart through a Galgate resident, and through her family connections I was able to find out more about the life of one of the area’s most decorated veterans.

Gordon was born in Lancaster on January 17, 1924. His parents were Christopher W and Agnes (nee Dupre). In 1939 the family were living at 6, The Square, Galgate, in a house (since demolished) down the alleyway next to what is now Headmasters Hair Salon. Gordon was the eldest of five siblings.

A stalwart of the Church Lads’ Brigade, Gordon was a fire watcher at the Priory. While serving there with his friend Charlie Burgess,he penned the lines shown on below.

Gordon Stobbart with 518 Sqn at Tiree, winter 1944. Here he shows how to keep warm!

Gordon joined the Air Training Corps from February 13, 1941 to April 1942. He was accepted into the RAF in August 1941,being deferred until April 16, 1942.

After basic training and then wireless operator/air gunner training in Canada and the USA (at 111 Operational Training Unit (OTU) in the Bahamas, where he flew Mitchell and Liberator bombers),

Gordon completed final training on the Halifax Bomber at 1674 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) at Aldergrove. The entire process took about two years from initial training wing, bombing and gunnery/wireless schools, Operational Training Unit and finally Heavy Conversion Unit.

The 1674 HCU was responsible for the training of air crews on the Liberator, Halifax, and Fortress aircraft prior to service with an operational squadron. The unit would be initially co-located, the Liberator flight at RAF Aldergrove, Co. Antrim with the Halifax and Fortress flights at RAF Longtown, Cumbria.

Gordon Stobbart and crew outside a Halifax on a different occasion.

Trainees could arrive singly or as part of a crew. It is noteworthy that many air crew had in fact completed a tour of duty on Coastal Command flying a different type of aircraft.

Gordon is recorded as arriving at 517 Squadron at Brawdy on August 26, 1944. He was a sergeant at the time but was promoted to temporary flight sergeant on September 22, 1944. He was a full flightsergeant by November 1 1944 No. 517 Squadron was formed on August 1, 1943. It flew daily out into the Atlantic to collect meteorological dat.

By November 1943, the squadron had re-equipped with the Halifax, and then moved to RAF St David’s in Wales. Two further moves followed, one to RAF Brawdy in February 1944 and then after the war to RAF Chivenor.

Gordon was then posted to 518 Squadron on October 1, 1944. This squadron was part of 15 Group Coastal Command. No. 518 Squadron had been formed July 6, 1943 as part of 19 Group Coastal Command at RAF Stornoway, Scotland, and was also equipped with the Handley Page Halifax, specially fitted out for meteorological observations.

Gordons medals from left: the AFM, 39-45 Star, Atlantic Star, War medal (Rob Stobbart).

An extra crew member (Met. Air Observer, known as an MAO) was carried to read and operate the instruments also. After moving to RAF Tiree in the Inner Hebrides on September 25 ,1943 518 Squadron became operational, with daily flights hundreds of miles out into the North Atlantic to collect meteorological data (such as air pressure, humidity, and temperature). It also kept observations for U-boat activity.

From January 1945 depth charges were also carried so attacks could be made on U-boats if sighted.

Gordon seems to have flown mostly with Flt Lt Reed’s crew.

The weather observations the squadron collected helped inform Group Captain James Martin Stagg’s recommendation to General Dwight D. Eisenhower to delay the launching of the D-Day invasion of Normandy from June 5 to June 6, 1944, though this was before Gordon’s time with the unit. This was just one example of the use to which the observations were put operationally.

Halifax Met V - the plane is returning to Tiree and is over the Great Glen Loch Ness.

Some idea of the danger involved in the often 10 hour plus flights can be gathered from this account from Guy Pearman, one of Gordon’s best friends on 518. Guy was a navigator and joined the RAF around the same time as Gordon.

He wrote: “At around 04.30 on January 25 1945, we were on the return leg of a night Mercer (the routes flown on missions were all code named) sortie when we flew into the back of an active cold front and were tossed around by thunderclouds… the whole aircraft was bathed in St Elmo’s Fire…

“Suddenly every member of the crew saw a brilliant flash… we had been struck by lightning… the Perspex nose had vanished, shattered by the lightning… I was ordered to stay in the nose as a lookout, and a cold and miserable job it was… just before dawn we ran into another cold front and ice started to form on the wings.

“The skipper F/Lt Reed came down to about 200ft to get below the icing, but… suddenly the engine noise died, the carburettor intakes had iced up and ditching seemed to be imminent.

“Our skipper called Mayday… as I scribbled the letters SOS and our rough position on a message slip which I handed to the wireless operator… the pilots yelled for hot air to the carburettor intakes…the engines picked up again as suddenly as they had died away…half an hour later we landed at Tiree, having been escorted on the final stage by an ASR Warwick complete with airborne life raft.

“Close inspection of our aircraft revealed, believe it or not, traces of seaweed on the tailwheel assembly”

Gordon mostly remained with 518 – flying many more missions – and he was promoted to Warrant Officer by October 1945. As well as flying with 517 and 518 Squadrons he was posted from 518 to 519 squadron based at Leuchars from December 28, 1945 to 31 May 1946.

He then returned to 518 Squadron which moved to Aldergrove in October 1945 and became 202 squadron in October 1946.

Remaining in the RAF Volunteer Reserve after the war, Gordon was awarded the Air Force Medal (AFM) in the 1947 New Year’s Honours list.

The reason for the award is being further researched – no citations have survived – but appears to have been for long and valuable service. He was released from the RAF on June 2, 1947.

On leaving the RAF, Gordon became a civil servant working for the Foreign Office in the fields of radio intercept, code and cipher and intelligence reporting (at the time this branch of the Foreign Office was known as CSOS – this later became GCHQ).

He held a variety of postings after training in Scotland, notably Taunton, Cheltenham, Turkey, Finland, Singapore, Cyprus and Iran. While in Finland he met a Finnish woman, Irma Koisa-Kantilla, and they were married at St John’s Silverdale in 1959.

One of Gordon’s longer postings was Scarborough – (around 17 years – where he retired in 1987.

Gordon was awarded the Imperial Service Medal on retirement and died in Scarborough in March 1992.

*My grateful thanks to the Stobbart family, particularly Rob for his help with my research on Gordon and his comrades.