Sqn Ldr A J H Roberts DFC
Arthur Roberts had a long and memorable tour with 103 Sq from 1940 to mid 1942 aerving during the Battle of France and the early years of Bomber Command’s German Offensive.
Arthur was born in Putney, London in April 1916 into a military family. after a short period at Sir John Cass’s Technical Institute in London, he joined the Merchant Navy with the Glen and Shire Lines shipping firm. Serving two and a half years at sea he left in 1934 and applied for a Short Service Commission with the RAF.
When his application was rejected, he enlisted as an Aircraftsman 2nd Class in the General Duties Branch. Still wishing to fly he secured a place at No.1 Electrical and Wireless School, Cranwell to train as a Wireless Operator.
On completion he applied for aircrew duties and, in June 1937, was posted to 115 Sqn at Marham. After serving his apprenticeship with 115 he completed the Air Gunners Course and, in May 1938, was posted to B Flight, 12 Sqn at Andover and later Bicester. With 12 Sqn he flew as a Wop/AG in Fairey Battle light bombers.
WW2. France. On the 2nd Sept 1939, 12 Sqn left for their new base at Berry-au-Bac airfield 20 km north of Rheims, France. Upon their arrival the Squadron became part of the RAF’s Advanced Air Striking Force and throughout the early days of ‘Phoney War’ performed numerous photo reconnaissance missions over the Maginot Line and the Franco German border. During one such sortie he claimed a Bf 109 as damaged. These sorties were discontinued at the end of September and the AASF then proceeded to conduct training exercises with the French Air Force.
On the 17th Jan 1940, Roberts was Commissioned with the rank of Acting Pilot Officer and after flying 25 operational sorties with 12 Sqn, returned to England to attend No. 3 Gunnery Leaders Course at the Central Gunnery School, Warmwell. Finishing the Course in May, he hurried back to France to join A Flight, 103 Sqn. After an arduous train journey across France he joined the Squadron at Rheges on the 29th May.
On the 2nd June 1940, Roberts took off in a Battle piloted by F/L Blome-Jones to attack bridges across the Seine River. Armed with 4 x 250 lb GP bombs, they returned safely after 2 and a half hours in the air. On the 3rd June the Squadron moved to Ouzouer-Le-Doyen.
Roberts next sortie was flown on the 4th. Acting as the gunner to Sgt G. C. Brams they successfully attacked a German troop concentration straddling a cross roads east of the Seine. On the 6th June he was airborne again with Sgt Brams but they were damaged by flak and forced to crash land, returning to base on foot.
Brams and Roberts were tasked to fly to the advanced base at Echimines to attack German transport columns. Flying from this airfield on the 7th June, they were once again hit by flak and attacked by fighters. Their Battle crash-landed back at base and Roberts claimed a Bf 109 shot down. The Squadron was then stood down for a couple of days.
Sgt Brams and P/O Roberts were thrown into the fray once again on the 10th June but were attacked by 3 Bf 109s. Through a combination of skilful flying and aggressive gunnery, the Battle managed to extract itself and escape back to base. Roberts, by now the Squadron Gunnery Leader, claimed another Bf 109 destroyed, but then had to explain to his pilot why he had shot up his own tail! The pair flew again on the 11th June, attacking troops in the Foret-De-Bizy.
The Squadron moved again to the airfield of Souge on the 13th June and it was from this base that they attacked a German convoy on the 14th. Returning from another ground attack sortie on the 16th, Sgt Brams did not hesitate when he witnessed their airfield being attacked by Luftwaffe bombers and dove straight in to attack. Using his single front gun, with Roberts joining in from the rear cockpit, it is recorded that the bombers left the scene at a vast rate of knots !
Return to England. By mid June the war in France was lost and Group HQ finally ordered the Squadron, surviving aircraft and crews, home. With the Squadron ground crew departing and their airfield under constant attack, 14 members of the Unit repaired 3 Battles and flew them back to Abingdon on the 17th. Due to the bulk of British forces having returned home nearly 2 weeks before, the unfortunate crews were immediately arrested on suspicion of being enemy spies. After finally gaining their freedom the team of Brams and Roberts rejoined the Squadron.
On the 18th June 1940 the Squadron reformed under command of HQ 1 and in July moved from Honnington to Newton near Nottingham to rest and train. 103 was effectively stood down during this period and flew no operational sorties until the end of the month. On the 16th July Roberts was airborne with the Squadron CO, W/C Dickens, on an S.C.I. practice from 200 feet. As the threat of invasion grew, 103 were one of a number of RAF bomber and Army Co-operation Squadrons that were tasked to trial the delivery of poison gas from aircraft at different altitudes.
The S.C.I. or Smoke Curtain Installation was fitted in a variety of ways to Squadron aircraft during the war and apart from delivering mustard or phosgene gas could also be utilized to lay smoke screens to mask other military operations.
Throughout the warm summer days of August and as the Battle of Britain raged in the South, Roberts flew 10 more exercises and practice flights in preparation for his return to operations the following month.
In the summer and autumn of 1940, the invasion of the UK was a real threat. The Squadron was tasked with the bombing of barge concentrations at ports such as Rotterdam, Ostend, Calais and Boulogne. The sorties were difficult and dangerous. Nevertheless, the Squadron was particularly active in this role from July to the end of September and suffered losses accordingly.
During October Vickers Wellingtons began to replace the Squadron’s Battles and the aircrew were given respite to familiarize themselves with this new and more capable aircraft. Roberts flew many training sorties between the months of October 1940 and January 1941. In his capacity as 103’s Gunnery Leader, he was actively involved in training the Squadron Air Gunners on the unfamiliar Frazer Nash powered gun turrets.
In February he was again involved in a series of low flying S.C.I. exercises, before taking part in bombing missions against Berlin and Wilhelmshaven. He flew 5 operations against targets in Germany during March and on the 22nd was involved in another crash on return from Lorient. His pilot, S/L Mellor, appears to have misjudged his final approach at Newton and overshot on landing, crashing their Wellington into the bomb dump. Roberts sustained bruised ribs and the rest of the crew escaped with assorted minor injuries.
One week later he was flying again as S/L Mellor’s Wireless Operator on a mission to bomb the port of Brest. Upon their return to Newton after a successful mission their Wellington was attacked by a German Ju 88 intruder in the circuit and shot down. The aircraft crashed one mile from the airfield and was written off. None of the crew were seriously injured.
April was fairly quiet. On the 15th April the Mellor crew bombed Kiel and returned safely despite being hit by flak. On the 17th they bombed Berlin for a second time.
Over the next two months Roberts flew only practice missions and exercises, but made up for his lack of operations with a 6-hour trip to Osnabruk on the 12th June. During July the Squadron moved to the newly built airfield at Elsham Wolds and began to operate its Wellingtons from rather more basic surroundings than they had been used to at Newton.
Attacking the German Fleet. By mid 1941 the German U boat menace was slowly beginning to strangle Britain’s capacity to wage total war against the Nazi Regime. The surface arm of the Kriegsmarine was equipped with some very capable and modern warships. The British Admiralty, recognising the danger that these ships posed should they be allowed to join the German submarine force, regularly requested assistance from the RAF whenever they came into range of UK based aircraft. In July 1941 the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were all docked in the heavily defended port of Brest. The scene was now set for a major raid by the Squadrons of Bomber Command against the German Fleet.
On the 23th July 1941, 103 Sqn dispatched a number of Wellingtons to the Sussex fighter airfield at Tangmere. Armed with 6 x 500lb Armour Piercing bombs, 103 would attack as part of a larger force of aircraft drawn from across the Command. Taking off at 1100 hours the next day six aircraft from 103, led by S/L Lane, set course for Brest.
On board Lane’s aircraft Roberts acted as the Wireless Operator and formation Fire Controller. Operating this relatively new and untried role, Robert’s job was to coordinate the defensive fire of all of the Squadron Air Gunners. Braving heavy flak and continuous attacks by German fighters, 103 successfully bombed the Gneisenau and the surrounding docks.
Five of the Squadron’s Wellingtons returned from the sortie. Sadly the crew of Sgt Bucknole’s aircraft were all killed after being shot down by enemy fighters. Robert’s Log Book notes that the Squadron Gunner’s claimed 2 fighters shot down to even the score. Roberts was awarded the DFC for his part in the operation.
Promotion and a lucky escape. On the 17th Aug F/O Roberts accompanied Sgt Addy to bomb the Essen in the Ruhr Valley. Landing back at Newton after an uneventful 6 hours it was his last offensive operation for the next 5 months. In October he completed a Boulton Paul Turret Course in Wolverhampton. During the early months of 1942 the Squadron remained on 24 hour standby to counter possible moves by the German Navy to sail the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen to the safety of a German port.
Promoted to Flight Lieutenant (War Substantive) on 17th Jan, he celebrated with a 4 hour offensive sweep of the North Sea on the 19th. Returning to Elsham after a ‘Sighting Course’ at Stormy Down, Roberts remained on stand by to attack the Kriegsmarine and on the 12th Feb the news of the break out reached the Squadron.
At 1445 hours F/L Holford captained Wellington T2997 with Roberts acting as Wireless Operator and formation Fire Controller once again. Taking off into rain squalls and with a cloud base of 50 - 100 ft the Squadron formation found the ships in the North Sea but could not attack due to the poor weather conditions. Shadowing
the Fleet for 2 hours under constant flak the chase was called off as darkness fell. In his Log Book Roberts notes;
‘On this operation I was detailed to fly with S/L Cross, but due to a sudden change of aircraft I found myself with F/L Holford. S/L Cross was shot down and rescued by ‘E’ boat. Taken POW & then later shot on Hitler’s orders - Great Escape’
Once again F/L Roberts flew little during the next 4 months, but completed the ‘Gyro Sights Course’ at Marham on the 16th March. Along with the rest of his Squadron he began to convert to the Handley Page Halifax in early June 1942. He flew 2 sorties in this new type before being declared tour expired. His last operational flight with 103 took place on the 1st Aug when he accompanied F/L Frith on a raid to Dusseldorf.
In his characteristic and understated style, Robert’s Log Book mentions that they bombed at 8,000 ft with 1 engine u/s and were then hit by flak as they strafed enemy airfields on the return journey.
Instructing and a Staff job. On the 1st Sept 1942 Roberts was finally declared tour expired and posted to 15 O.T.U. at Harwell as a Gunnery Instructor. With his operational experience and relative seniority in rank he was an obvious choice for a Staff job. On the 21st Nov he was posted as the Group Gunner Leader for HQ 91
(Training) Group, Abingdon. Despite official opposition, he initiated the first Air Gunner Instructor Training School in an attempt to train potential Gunnery Instructors prior to their posting to OTUs. In August 1943 he was posted to 23 O.T.U. at Pershore. For his efforts in developing Infra Red and Gyro Gun Sight training during this tour, he was Mentioned in Dispatches.
Getting his knees brown. As the allies began to build up the strength of their Forces in South East Asia experienced aircrew were needed to bolster the new Squadrons being formed to fight the Japanese. On the 7th February 1944, F/L Roberts was posted to Base Reception Depot Worli near Bombay, India. Roberts spent a 6 weeks at Worli before being allocated a place at 1673 HCU at Kolar, South India. During May and in June Roberts converted to the Consolidated Liberator.
On the 17th July he finally began his second tour of operations as the Gunnery Leader of 356 Sqn based in Solbani in India. Formed on the 15th January, 356 did not actually begin offensive operations until the 27th July 1944. Flying against targets in Burma, Sumatra and Malaya, the Squadron Liberators undertook both high and low level missions at very long range.
Roberts flew 10 operations as an Air Gunner with 356 Sqn. His final and longest sortie was on the 27th March 1945. During a trip that lasted a total of 14 hours and
15 minutes, the captain of the aircraft, F/O Stringer-Jones, flew the majority of the mission on 3 engines, but nevertheless successfully managed to bomb the target. For his efforts on this and other sorties, Stringer-Jones was awarded a well-deserved DFC. It was a fitting end to Roberts’ operational flying career.
Rest and retirement. After VJ Day Roberts was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted as Acting Senior Air Staff Officer to HQ 227 Group in Agra. On the 2nd October 1945, W/C Measures authorised Roberts to commence training as a pilot. He flew a number of flights with Measures and W/O Morgan. On the 14th March 1946 Roberts left Group HQ and was posted back to the UK via Worli. Arriving home on the 21st April he was immediately dispatched on leave.
Refusing the offer of a Permanent Commission in the post war RAF, S/L Roberts DFC resigned on the 4th Aug 1946 with over 1100 hours in his Log Book (298 hours and 45 mins on ops) and after 12 years service.
Written by Jonathan Hipkins edited by David Fell. Jonathon sent me this item about Arthur Roberts about 12 years ago. It is an excellent and comprehensive account which appeared in the newsletter I edited at the time. The picture is by famous war artist Eric Kennington who visited Newton at the time 103 Sqn were based there and painted several of the airmen