A MAN OF TWO WARS
Vashon James Wheeler — his Service career through two world wars
by Martin Middlebrook
(reprinted by kind permission of the author)
WHEELER. Wing Cdr (Pilot) Vashon James 76594, D.F.C. and Bar, M.C. and Bar, Order of St Stanislaus (Russia)/ R.A.F. 23rd March 1944. Age 46. Husband of Josephine Hermione Wheeler of Clee Stanton, Shropshire.THE ENTRY in the register of the British Military Cemetery at Durnbach in Bavaria caught my eye.
Of the 2,959 graves in the Cemetery, 2652 are R.A.F. nearly all men from Bomber Command shot down while bombing targets in the southern part of Germany, targets such as Munich Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Mannheim and Nuremberg.
‘Wing Commander Wheeler’ ; I had seen the name before. I looked up some old research papers and found that, in 1943, he had been the C.O of a. Mosquito night fighter squadron, 157 Squadron, flying defensive patrols over England and the occasional Intruder operation to North Germany.
Why was he buried here in the south? And what about those medals the Military Cross and Bar and the Russian decoration? And his age, 46 years? The average age of the other airmen on the same page of the cemetery register was 23 years!
My curiosity fed me to delve further. I found a most interesting character, a man who had sought out the mot dangerous of frontline actipn in two world wars and in an almost forgotten venture to Russia.
First World War
Vashon James Wheeler was born in 1898, near Ludlow, son of a landowner and barrister, The ‘Vashon’ was after a great-grandfather, Admiral Vashon; it was ofen used in later life but so also was the ‘James’ or even ‘Jim’ when he traveled in such places as Australia, where Christian names like Vashon were not an advantage.
The young Wheeler was educated at a private school in Bournemouth, and then at Eton his early career was no different than that of a multitude of boys of his background. But the First World Way was raging and, after the Eton O.T.C. Summer Camp of 1915 he disappeared and the family story is that his father and his Eton housemaster, de Havilland, eventually tracked him down to the Guards Depot into which he had enlisted by giving a false age.
The Guards were persuaded that their new recruit should not have been there and they agreed to release him. The story goes that an amused drill instructor dismissed young Guardsman Wheeler from the parade ground with the words, “Your nanny’s come to take you home”; his father had a long beard.
But Wheeler junior soon left Eton and entered Sandhurst for a wartime shortened officers’ training course. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in The Rifle Brigade on 16th August, 1916.
Little is known about his subsequent First World War career except that he served on the Western Front with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, in the, 4th Division, and probably remained with that battalion for the rest of the war except for temporary absences when he was slightly wounded three times. At the end of the war he was a captain and probably a company commander.
The Russian Expedition
After the Armistice, Vashon Wheeler appears to have decided to remain in the Regular Army although he had to revert to his substantive rank of lieutenant, he did not have long to wait for more action when he became a platoon commander in the 45th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, which was earmarked for service within the British Expedition to North Russia, that forlorn attempt to turn back the clock of history by supporting the Czarist Forces against the Communist Revolution.
Wheeler’s battalion landed at Archangel on June 6, 1919, and was in action in the following months. The battalion’s War Diary quotes the following fantastic figures at the end of August:
British:Officers: 2 Killed
Other Ranks: 5 Killed
But the days of the small force were numbered and the Reds started pressing the British back. The war Diary and subsequent London Gazette citations hint at violent action before the battalion was evacuated on September 10.During a hectic nine day period, Wheeler earned his first Military Cross and a Bar to the Cross, the Russian decoration mentioned earlier, was promoted to captain again, and received a painful wound to his left hand, losing two fingers.
The Years of Peace
Ten months later Captain Wheeler was discharged from the Army with a pension for the wounded hand. The next 10 years were spend in a variety of jobs abroad – office work on an Indian tea plantation which Wheeler quit as soon as his first year’s contract expired, labouring on a sheep farm in Western Australia when an Australian made the mistake of calling him “a ******* pommy” and finished up in hospital (Wheeler had been a boxing champion at Eton), odd jobs in South America and Rhodesia, and the ownership of his own sheep farm in New Zealand.
This last terminated when he was offered a most favourable price by a man “whose son was suspected of a rather nasty crime, and wanted a remote place to live in.
Wheeler returned to England and used part of the proceeds of the farm sale to pay for flying lessons at Heston aerodrome. Despite his injured hand, he eventually found little difficulty and eventually qualified for a B License, which allowed him to fly passenger planes.
One of the several flying jobs he had in the 1930s was with British American, an airline owned by the wife of the famous test pilot, Rowley Falk. To obtain this position he had answered an advert for a pilot, which stressed that ‘old school ties’ need not apply.
Writing his application at the Heston bar, Wheeler, the old Etonian replied, “and you needn’t worry about the kind of tie I wear; in most of my jobs I have never even worn a collar”.
Second World War
When war broke out again in 1939 Vashon Wheeler was flying for an Egyptian airline but he returned at once to England. Despite his age – 41 years – he wanted to join the R.A.F and fly as a pilot.
After some ‘wangling’ and certainly after understating his age in contrast to 1915 when he had overstated it -~ he was granted a commission in the R.A.F.V.R. in January 1940. He discreetly ceased claiming his First World War disability pension at the same time.
For the next four months, Pilot Officer V.J. Wheeler spent his time as a staff pilot at a Bombing and Gunnery School in Wales, thus relieving a younger pilot for more important work
Target towing was not satisfying enough and, at the end of April 1940, Wheeler managed to obtain a posting to one of the R.A.F’s few transport squadrons, 271 Squadron at Doncaster. The aircraft used here was the old Bristol Bombay.
The move came at an opportune time because, one month later, the Blitzkrieg came in the West and the squadron had to make some interesting flights to France in the following weeks, carrying important passengers and stores and, finally, helping in the evacuation when France fell
Wheeler carried out 12 such flights without any accident or serious incident. In July came another operational posting, to 500 Squadron at Detling in Kent and for the next four months he flew Ansons on convoy escort and anti- U-boat patrols in the Channel and the North Sea.
He carried out 22 such patrols and had at least two encounters with German aircraft.
On the first of these he chased a Junkets 88 away from the convoy hut on the second occasion Wheeler was lucky to escape when lie was attacked by several Messerschmitt 1l0s.
By the early winter of 1940 the R.A.F had won the Battle of Britain but was facing the nighttime Blitz. The night-fighter arm -almost non-existent before the war- had to he expanded hastily and it was to this work that Wheeler now went.
So great was the R.A.F’s need for pilots now that the lack of half a hand was no drawback when the owner of the other half was obviously such an experienced and steady pilot.
November 1940 saw the beginning of Wheeler’s next operational tour. He starred with 85 Squadron at Gravesend with the rank of Pilot Officer; 13 months later he was Wing Commander Wheeler, DFC, commanding officer of 219 Squadron at Tangmere.
During this period he flew three different types of aircraft – Hurricanes, Havocs and Beaufighters – made 71 operational flights and had been credited with two ‘probables’ :-
a Heinkel 111 on May 6, 1941, and a Junkers 88 two nights later. Both combats were over the sea near Felixstowe and Wheeler was flying a Havoc at that time.
Most of 1942 was spent ‘resting’ as station commander at West Malling but on December 29 he managed to get back on operations again and began a further night fighter tour as commander of 157 Squadron, a home defense squadron flying Mosquito IIs from Castle Camps, Bradwell Bay and Hunsdon airfields.
But the Luftwaffe came rarely to England in 1943 and Wheeler saw little action during this tour. He flew 29 defensive patrols without incident. There was more action to be found when his squadron like many Mosquito night fighter squadrons at this period began Intruder work over German occupied Europe, the most experienced crews in such squadrons being sent on these operations.
German airfields were the main targets but anything useful seen on the ground was attacked. Wing Commander Wheeler flew 157 Squadron’s first Intruder operation on March 23, 1943 to the Paris area, and completed a further 14 such flights during his time with 157 Squadron.
He was never lucky enough to catch a German night fighter but he shot up several trains and other targets and was fortunate enough to be able to nurse his Mosquito back to England one night after having one engine knocked out by light flak while deep in Germany.
One of his regular navigators at this time, Flying Officer George Carcasson, describes him as “as a strange man, a loner; we all felt he was much older than he admitted. When we were not needed for Bomber Support, he often put up his own plan to Group; if it was not approved, he still went his own way on his own plan”.
Wing Commander Wheeler’s tour with 157 Squadron finished in August 1943; he was awarded a Bar to his DFC and posted as station commander to Honiley, near Birmingham. He was 45 years old and Fighter Command now had plenty of pilots; it was unlikely that he would be allowed to fly operationally again.
In fact, Wheeler argued fiercely over this with Air Vice-Marshal Hollinghurst, his group commander, but he did not win the argument. Wheeler was not finished however. He offered his services to Bomber Command, then on the eve of the- so-called Battle of Berlin, and was accepted.
So far during this war, he had served in five active service squadrons and had completed three operational tours not counting the flights made with the transport squadron in 1940.
Wheeler went through the usual preliminaries – blind approach training and then an Operational Training Unit, No 20 at Lossiemouth, to pick up a crew -
three second tour men and three new ones. The six were delighted to have found such an experienced pilot and, knowing that Wheeler was destined to become a squadron commander who would normally expect to fly only one or two operations each month, were looking forward to a prolonged, undemanding tour with a safe pilot.
They were in for a rude shock. Wheeler took command of 207 Lancaster Squadron at Spilsby in Lincolnshire on February 26, 1944. The squadron’s next operation was a major raid to Stuttgart on the first night in March. Wheeler put himself and his crew down to fly this raid.
It became clear that Wing Commander Wheeler had no intention of conforming to the usual routine for squadron commanders. He flew every operation: to the Michelin lyre factory at Clermont-Serrand in France, to Stuttgart again, to Frankfurt. On each occasion he reached and bombed the target.
Flight Sergeant Joe Dunseath, his Scots tail gunner says, ”He was quiet but dedicated. He loved flying: he lived for it. He had no fear whatsoever; over Germany he would point something out – ‘isn’t that lovely!’, he would say, and we would be shaking in our shoes’.’
The new CO also made. a tremendous impression on the rest of the squadron’s aircrew, Flight Sergeant Jack Briggs was a navigator, plodding through his tour in this dangerous period.
“Wing Commander was a fantastic character for a crowd of young lads like us, going on every trip like he did. It was the epitome of leadership but he was still one of the lads; he was all part of what was going on, not standing on the end of the runway seeing us off like a normal CO. He gave us tremendous confidence”
Vashon James Wheeler’s luck ran out on the night of March 22/23, 1944. The target was Frankfurt again. He still had not missed one of the squadron’s operations. His Lancaster arrived in the target area a little early and circled until the Pathfinder markings were seen going down.
At that very moment there was a violent explosion just under the fuselage of the Lancaster. It was a heavy flak shell bursting. The engines lost power; some of the controls were hit. Wing Commander Wheeler immediately gave the order to bale out.
The navigator and the two gunners managed to get out safely. The wireless operator’s parachute opened prematurely and billowed right along the fuselage.
Wheeler was at the controls, keeping the Lancaster steady for as long as possible. A wing fell off; the plane exploded; the four men inside were killed. The wreckage and bodies came down in the wooded, hilly countryside near the small town of Bad Schwalbach, just north of Wiesbaden and about 25 miles west of Frankfurt.
It was Wing Commander Wheeler’s 158th operational flight.