Air Chief Marshal Sir Derek Hodgkinson

Second World War fighter pilot who was shot down while taking part in a 'Bomber' Harris-led mission

Born: 27 December, 1917, in Derbyshire.

Died: 29 January 2010, in Hampshire, aged 92.

LIFE in the Operational Training Unit (OTU) during wartime would normally be considered relatively relaxing, but that is not the case when your head of bombing operations is Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris.

In 1942, the legendary Harris ordered 1,000 bombing raids on German cities, and the instructors and pupils of OTU would play a major part in this demonstration of power.

William Derek Hodgkinson happened to be resting in OTU at the time of this decision and soon found himself flying sorties across the heavily patrolled German skies. One night, on his way back from a trip to Bremen, he was shot down and spent the rest of the war in PoW camp Stalag Luft III.

Educated in Repton, Hodgkinson joined the RAF after gaining a short service commission in 1936. His first posting was to Coastal Command in 1937, flying the already outdated Anson aircraft, which was soon to be replaced with the superior US-built long-range bomber, the Lockheed Hudson. During this time he married his wife Heather.

By 1940 he was involved in anti-shipping missions across the North Sea before his squadron was relocated to Scotland. From here he was deployed for battle flights over the Norwegian Seas, his craft's forward firing guns and long distance capabilities providing the perfect tool for this work.

Inevitably he had a few scrapes during this time, narrowly avoiding being blown out of the sky when he was attacked by ME109s. Shortly afterwards, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his aerial victory over a Heinkel HE115 float plane.

It was at this point that Hodgkinson was sent to OTU and what, on the face of it appeared to be a cushy option after his previous appointment, but Bomber Harris had other ideas and volunteered the unit for a series of bombing raids that would change the course of the war.

The night of 30 May, 1942 was the date of the first RAF bombing raid on German residential areas and Cologne was the targeted city. The raid, carried out by the famous "1,000 bombers", stunned the Germans and was considered a huge success. Subsequent raids were less successful, however. The element of surprise which had been so devastating on the first run had been lost.

Essen was the next target, by which time the Germans were wise to the trick. On the night of 25 June, 1,006 bombers took off from their respective bases and headed for Bremen. The raid caused catastrophic damage, but this time the bomber casualties were high, with 50 aircraft and crew failing to return. Hodgkinson's bomber had a winning campaign thus far and this raid was looking like being no different, until he was shot down.

While heading home after his drop on Bremen his Hudson came under fire from a Luftwaffe night fighter and caught fire. With sublime skill Hodgkinson managed to guide the flaming plane in to the sea just off the Dutch coast. It sank quickly, leaving just one inflated tyre bobbing on the surface.

Hodgkinson and his navigator, freezing in the icy waters, clung to the debris for an hour before an emergency life raft shot up out of the abyss. Once in the life raft they drifted with the tide until they ran aground on one of the Frisian Islands, where they were captured.

He was introduced to his new home, Stalag Luft III PoW, and immediately set about trying to break out. During the course of his stay he was involved in several attempts to escape, all ultimately unsuccessful. It was the advance of Stalin's Red Army that prompted the evacuation of Stalag Luft III on the 27 January, 1945. He and the rest of his detainee group were marched towards Bremen, a 50-mile hike in one of the harshest winters northern Europe had experienced for many years. His subsequent stay at a naval PoW camp near Bremen lasted until April, when he was again moved to Hamburg. The end was in sight, and the Nazis were on the run, Hodgkinson was eventually released when his camp was liberated by the British.

After the war he was awarded a full commission in 1947, serving in Coastal Command for 15 years, while commanding RAF St Mawgan, 1958-1961. However, his most enduring contributions came not from the aerial battlefield but from his ability to influence positive change.

As Assistant Chief of Staff Operational Requirements, his role in ensuring UK involvement in the Panavia consortium was pivotal, as was his role in ensuring the result of the consortium was the type the RAF felt was required for long-range strikes. The result was the Tornado jet.

He was also instrumental in changing the RAF career structure, formerly based on the class system. He suggested in an internal report that progression should be based on ability. The RAF agreed with the report and reviewed its processes.

In 1970-73 he took up position as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Near East Air Force, Commander British Forces Near East and Administrator Sovereign Base Areas, Cyprus, during a particularly tense period in the region. Instability in Dhofar was threatening to spill over in to Oman, where the Sultan was asking the British for assistance.

This began a long relationship with British forces and Oman, with many officers taking up secondment to the countries armed forces.

His final military position was that of Air Secretary from 1973 to 1976. His tenure saw a drastic reduction in RAF personnel, mainly mid-ranking officers. He remained involved in the RAF following his retirement, acting as vice chairman, chairman and president of the Regular Forces Employment Association between 1977 and 1986.

During his career Hodgkinson was a highly decorated officer: he received the Air Force Cross in 1942, the CBE in 1960, the CB in 1969 and finally the KCB in 1971.

Derek Hodgkinson died peacefully at his home on 29 January, 2010. He was 92 years of age. He is survived by his wife, Heather, and his two children.