Born: 29 November, 1920, in Manchester. Died: 30 June, 2015, in Hull, aged 94
Ian Hewitt spoke little of his wartime experiences until his Handley Page Halifax bomber was located at the bottom of a Norwegian lake where it had lain since going down in flames nearly 30 years earlier.
Only then did the full story of the heroic crew’s actions that night, during an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz, reach the wider public. And it was an extraordinary tale – reflecting the greatest qualities of modesty, courage and determination displayed by the band of young men who took to the skies above Europe each night to defend Britain’s freedom.
Hewitt, aged 21, had been the navigator on the aircraft, known as S for Sugar, when it left on its first operational mission, flying with 30 other Halifaxes, to target the area around Trondheim where the Tirpitz was moored.
The ship, a giant of the German fleet, was thought to be unsinkable and S for Sugar’s aim was to drop four 1,000lb spherical mines down the side of the fjord so that they would roll beneath the vessel and explode below the waterline, damaging her vulnerable underside.
Crewed by Canadian pilot Don MacIntyre, Hewitt, who was also the bomb aimer, two wireless operator/airgunners, a tail gunner and flight engineer, the brand new Halifax left from RAF Kinloss at 8:30pm on 17 April. Nothing was heard from her again after take-off and she was reported missing.
It transpired that immediately after diving to release her mines on the target, S for Sugar was hit by intense flak from the Tirpitz and shore batteries. One engine, a wing and its fuel tanks were set alight.
The pilot, realising she was so badly damaged there was no hope of getting back to base or the safety of neutral Sweden, decided to land her on her belly on the frozen surface of Lake Hoklingen, east of Trondheim. She had a mere 13 hours’ flying time in her logbook.
The six crew escaped unhurt apart from the flight engineer, who broke his ankle. He eventually had to be left behind as the others fled and he became a prisoner of war.
The rest, helped by the Norwegian resistance, made the dangerous journey to Sweden, hiking for three days, mostly through chest-high snow.
After a period of internment Hewitt, who was swapped for a German PoW, was repatriated in June and he and MacIntyre received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions during the raid. The citation detailed how they had pressed home the attack with great coolness and determination and how Hewitt had directed his pilot onto the lake, assisting him to bring the aircraft down in “a feat of superb airmanship”.
It concluded: “The greatest credit is due to both these officers for their calm efficiency and courageous devotion to duty.”
Hewitt viewed the incident as just one episode of a personal war: “Everyone had them, including mothers sitting in the air raid shelters listening for the buzz bombs.”
Both the Tirpitz and Hewitt survived to fight another day and by December 1942 his 405 Squadron was attached to Coastal Command, sweeping the Bay of Biscay for U-boats.
The following April Bomber Command volunteered 405 Squadron to the Pathfinder Force and he was involved in marking various raids including the Battles of the Ruhr, missions over Hamburg, Nuremberg, Berlin and the attack on Peenemunde, the German research base on the Baltic coast where V-2 and V-1 rockets were built and tested.
That operation took place on the moonlit night of 16 and 17 August, 1943 and involved the whole of Bomber Command. Almost 1,800 tons of bombs were dropped by 560 aircraft, curtailing the speed and scope of Hitler’s V-2 programme.
He then went on to fly in Lancasters with the Pathfinder Force and in 1944 was awarded the Bar to his DFC for 27 operations as a pathfinder. Just as the war with Japan was ending in August 1945 he was seconded to the accounting branch, the profession he remained in for the rest of his working life.
Born in Manchester, Hewitt moved with his family to Northumberland, and later to Kent, attending the village primary school in Alnmouth and the Duke’s School in Alnwick before completing his education at Sidcup County School. Before joining the RAF, in July 1940 at the age of 19 – he had enlisted in a pub in Eltham the previous year – he had jobs with accountancy and solicitors firms in London
After navigator training his first posting was to the bomber station of Linton-on-Ouse, where he crewed Whitleys with 58 Squadron.
He then transferred to 35 Squadron, flying Halifaxes, and in December 1941 was involved in operations over Brest attacking the German warship Scharnhorst. His aircraft was intercepted by enemy fighters and two engines were knocked out, forcing them to crash land at St Eval in Cornwall. In all, he completed 51 operations.
He married Mary, a WAAF, in July 1945 and post-war was sent to Germany and Belgium as part of the British Air Forces of Occupation, where he was horrified to see the damage done to Hamburg and the misery being suffered by the population there.
During his subsequent civilian career, after being demobbed with the rank of Squadron Leader, he worked as a trainee clerk/accountant before joining his wife’s family firm, now known as Hall Construction, qualifying as an accountant and going on to become a partner in A J Downs & Co in Hull.
He became a senior partner and remained with the company after its amalgamation with Kidsons, continuing to work with a number of clients until he was in his mid-70s. He was also the official auditor for Hull Medical Society, honorary treasurer of the military charity SSAFA and held various offices of the Hull branch of the Royal Air Forces Association.
As a founder member of Second World War Escape Lines Memorial Society, a charity dedicated to the helpers, escapers and evaders who used the escape lines of mainland Europe during the conflict, he never forgot the debt owed to those selfless individuals who helped him to safety in 1942.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s, when S for Sugar was salvaged by the British and RAF Sub-Aqua Clubs, aided by Norwegian divers, that his own story finally came to light in the attendant publicity.
On hearing that the aircraft was being recovered, Hewitt, who regarded himself as an accidental hero, observed: “Fancy, after all this time – the old girl’s with us again.”
He was later reunited with her crew, presented to the Queen Mother and renewed his friendship with MacIntyre, who lived in Toronto, visiting him there a couple of times. Meanwhile, the Halifax remains in its salvaged condition, apart from the nose turret which has been restored, and is displayed at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in London as a permanent tribute to the bomber crews of the Second World War.
In 1992 Hewitt returned to Norway, along with his wife, where the village of Asen, close to Lake Hoklingen, hosted a reunion of survivors involved in raids on the Tirpitz’s naval base nearby. Overcome by the welcome, he asked why the raids had remained so significant 50 years on. The answer was that they had given the Norwegians hope of liberation and showed they had not been forgotten.
For Hewitt, typically modest and self-deprecating, it had just been a case of “doing his job”.
He is survived by his wife Mary, daughters Felicity and Anne, granddaughter Victoria and his brother Douglas.