Battle of Britain London Monument – Sgt. W J GREGORY

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Privacy Statement The Airmen’s Stories – Sgt. W J Gregory

Wing Commander (Sergeant during the Battle) Bill ‘Sticks’ Gregory, who has died aged 87, was Air Interception (AI) radar operator to the Second World War night fighter ace Wing Commander Bob Braham. Gregory’s superb radar skills helped Braham to destroy 29 German aircraft in the night skies over Britain and occupied Europe – a tally which was among the highest of any wartime RAF fighter pilot, flying by day or night. The two men were first paired when Gregory, then a flight sergeant, stood in temporarily for Braham’s usual radar operator, a Canadian named Ross. Braham was soon noting Gregory’s "cheerfulness", and rating him "far above average in the AI business". When Ross was rested, Gregory began to partner Braham regularly. Their first combat took place in early July 1941. Flying in a twin-engine Bristol Beaufighter of No 29 Squadron over a moonlit Thames Estuary, Gregory called to Braham: "Contact dead ahead and at 2,000 yards." As Braham went into a gentle dive to close the range and to get below a Ju88 bomber, the enemy opened fire. When Gregory urged Braham to open up, Braham said calmly: "No, not yet. We must get closer to make sure of him." Despite heavy fire from the Ju88, Braham continued to delay firing, until with three short bursts he sent the bomber blazing down into the Thames.

Later that year, after a brief detachment in Scotland to assist No 141 Squadron convert from obsolescent Boulton Paul single-engine Defiants to Beaufighters, Braham and Gregory returned to No 29 at West Malling in Kent. Early in 1942, Gregory was commissioned a pilot officer – a promotion for which Braham had been pressing – and he and Braham were posted as instructors to No 51, a night fighter Operational Training Unit at Cranfield. Keen to return to operations, in early June the two men slipped away for an unofficial weekend visit to their old squadron, No 29, in Kent. During a night sortie, Gregory positioned Braham to attack a Do217 bomber. Braham soon set it alight, and it dived into the sea off Sandwich. Bad weather then caused them to divert to Manston, on the Kent coast. With fog rolling in from the sea, Braham overshot and crash-landed in a ploughed field. The crash truck crew were astonished to see Gregory and his pilot emerge in one piece.

William James Gregory, the son of a builder, was born on November 23 1913 at Hartlepool, where he attended the Lister Sealy School. Before the war, he worked for his father as a plasterer, and was drummer in the Debroy Somers Band – earning the nickname "Sticks".

He enlisted in the RAF soon after the outbreak of war, and in May 1940 was posted to No 29 Squadron as a wireless operator/air gunner. Subsequently, he was redesignated observer/radio operator and then radar operator. Before teaming up with Braham, Gregory had a nasty experience when he and his pilot were, as he noted in his logbook, "scrambled to intercept Huns raiding Liverpool". They were about to shoot down a Do17 when their Beaufighter was hit in the starboard wing by "friendly" anti-aircraft fire. Having baled out at 16,000 feet, Gregory landed on the roof of Lime Street station – and as he climbed down to the ground rail passengers mistook him for a German airman and roughed him up.

After the mishap at Manston, Gregory and Braham returned to No 29 Squadron where Braham became a flight commander. In December 1942 Braham, aged only 22, received command of No 141 Squadron at Ford on the south coast; Gregory, at 29 the old man of the team, stayed with him.
One moonlit night, Gregory and most of the squadron aircrew were having a party at Worthing, on the Sussex coast, when they heard enemy aeroplanes overhead. Racing back to their airfield they took off in their waiting Beaufighter. Gregory brought the aircraft to within visual range of a Do217 bomber, flying at 15,000 feet. There was an exchange of fire in which Braham, having rather enjoyed himself at the party, opened up at too long a range. Gregory’s caustic comments quickly sobered Braham up, and in four long bursts he sent the Dornier diving ablaze into the sea.

Early in 1943 the squadron moved west to Predannack, near the Lizard Point in Cornwall, mainly for night training. Visiting Fighter Command, Braham urged the use of AI night fighters in support of the bomber offensive over occupied Europe, in which heavy losses were being incurred. Although his proposal was not accepted at this stage, he won approval for moonlight attacks on rail and road traffic on the Brest peninsula.

At the end of April 1943 Braham and Gregory led No 141 Squadron to Wittering, near Stamford, Lincolnshire. Their aircraft were now fitted with "Serrate", a radar device which enabled Gregory and his fellow operators to home in on enemy fighter transmissions from a distance of up to 100 miles.
This was an ideal aid in Gregory’s new night-intruding role, and after he and Braham had exchanged their Beaufighter for a deHavilland Mosquito equipped with Serrate, the two men went into action in support of Sir Arthur Harris’s bomber formations. One night, flying over Cologne, they were attacked by two enemy night fighters, one of which shot out their port engine, obliging them to make a perilous return back to base. Another night, supporting a raid over Mannheim, Gregory logged "a hell of a dogfight". In a 25-minute battle, they destroyed one German aircraft – an Me110 fighter – and drove off another.

In March 1944, Gregory, by now highly experienced, joined the night operations staff at No 2 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force (2nd TAF) headquarters, where Braham had preceded him. Such was his and Braham’s hunger for action that from time to time they would slip away from their desks to freelance on sorties over Europe with various Mosquito squadrons. On one daylight sortie, they destroyed an He177 heavy bomber which was circling Chateaudun airfield in France at 1,000 feet. Caught in a stream of fire from their Mosquito’s nose guns, the bomber, Gregory recalled, "reared up like a wounded animal, winged over on its back and dived vertically into the ground".

On May 12 1944, Gregory and Braham – truanting again from the operations room – had just taken part in the destruction of a Fw190 fighter off the Danish coast when an Me109 fighter struck. Short of fuel, and further damaged by anti-aircraft fire, Braham coaxed the stricken aircraft towards home until he had to ditch 70 miles off the Norfolk coast, where they were rescued by two minesweepers.
Shortly after that, the team broke up. Braham was shot down and ended the war as a prisoner; Gregory continued staff duties.

While Braham accumulated three DSOs, three DFCs and an AFC in the course of his wartime service, Gregory was awarded a DSO, two DFCs, an AFC and a DFM.

At the end of the war, Gregory accepted a permanent commission, specialising in navigation and fighter control. He received the Air Efficiency Award in 1946, and after commanding RAF Wartling, in East Sussex, retired in 1964.

Thereafter, until final retirement, he worked as an estate agent at Eastbourne. He was a member of Cooden Beach golf club and, having retained his drumming skills, played with a local band. Later in life, so as to be near his daughter, he moved to Camberley, Surrey, where golf, bowls and darts – he was known as "The Demon" – brought him much enjoyment.

Bill Gregory married, in 1942, Jean Atkinson; they had a daughter.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph November 2001


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