One of those little coincidences that occur regularly in people’s lives happened to me the other day while browsing in Waterstones in Cheltenham. I picked up a book with pictures of WWII Hawker Hurricane aircraft on the cover called ‘Force Benedict’ by Eric Carter and found it was an account of a once clandestine operation early in the war years that had been discussed the day before on BBC Radio 4. The discussion rotated round Eric himself, an RAF veteran who had been part of that operation and is now one of only 3 survivors still living in the UK.
Leafing through the book covering the deployment of 151 Wing RAF, consisting of two Hurricane squadrons, Nos 81 and 134 transported via a converted aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, in mid 1941 to Murmansk in the Kola peninsula, I noted a familiar name. The aim of the deployment was to support the Soviet army in its war against the combined German and Finnish forces facing the peninsula following commencement of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The aims of the deployment were to help protect the critical port of Murmansk, show British commitment, then train Russian pilots to fly the Hurricanes once handed over to the Soviet air force. The deployment lasted several months, until about October 1941 and was highly successful, the RAF pilots returning to the UK on completing their task. They had all been experienced pilots of the Battle of Britain or other operations over Europe or the Middle East. 81 Squadron RAF is the only one with the battle honour ‘Russia’.
A book recounting the event, ‘Hurricanes Over Murmansk’ was published in 2002, and a film by the British Film Council ‘Hurricanes To Murmansk’ in 2011. The name that had jumped out at me on the first browse of the Waterstones’ book was that of the commander of 151 Wing, an experienced New Zealand Wing Commander called Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood. This was a surname I knew as 45 years ago, while at RMA Sandhurst, I had a New Zealand cadet in my platoon called Bernie Ramsbottom-Isherwood. I’m not yet sure of the relationship, but it is presumably very close and at the time there was no mention of an outstanding war record of any close relatives. Bernie was however famous within Gaza Company as being the man who taught the Intake Company rugby team the ‘haka’, which we performed before playing other Company teams – not that I recall it did us much good -but was excellent for morale.
The outcome of the 151 Wing deployment was that Wg Cdr Ramsbottom-Isherwood and his squadron commanders, Sqn Ldr Rook and Sqn Ldr Miller and a Flight Sergeant, later Flt Lt, Haws, all received the Order of Lenin (but were probably forbidden from wearing them due to the secrecy of the deployment).