Tom Wingham was born, a true cockney, in Old Mile End, London in 1923, the youngest of four children.
Following the death of his father and unable to support them all, his mother placed him in Spurgeon’s Orphanage in 1930 at the height of the Depression. Here he received a good education and won a scholarship to The Borough Polytechnic studying electrical engineering.
In 1939, he was determined to make a career in the RAF but his mother would not sign the necessary papers. As soon as he was 18 in 1941, he volunteered for aircrew and was accepted the same year as an air observer.
After a period of training Tom joined 102 (Ceylon) Squadron at Pocklington and completed a full tour of 30 operations as bomb aimer flying in Halifaxes by June 1943. His crew were then posted to the Intensive Flying Development Flight at Boscombe Down to test the new Halifax MkIII.
In March 1944, Tom was serving with 76 Squadron at Holme-on-Spalding Moor and, on his third operation, on the night of 22/23 April 1944, he was the bomb aimer when his Halifax was shot down on the Dutch/Belgian border while on the way to bomb Dusseldorf. The pilot, Stanley Somerscales, and air gunner, Harry Poole, died in the crash. After parachuting down Tom was fortunate to fall into the hands of an escape network known as the Comet Line which had been set up to assist evaders.
The Comet Line was a rescue network set up in Belgium by Andree de Jongh, known as Dédée, to repatriate aircrew who had been shot down and soldiers left behind after Dunkirk. In the three years it operated from 1941 to 1944, the Comet Line saved an estimated 800 Allied aircrew and soldiers from capture. They were smuggled from Belgium through France and across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and out via Gibraltar.
It was funded by British military intelligence (MI9) in London. But it depended on the courage and help of people in the countryside and on the Resistance families in the cities who hid and fed the evaders until they could be moved. In doing so, they risked arrest, torture and death. Helping fliers to evade capture was a capital offence, and hundreds paid with their lives.
It was this network that now looked after Tom for five months. After D-Day, evaders had been told to stay put to avoid having to travel. Tom evaded his captors more than once and for long enough to witness the retreat of German soldiers as he stayed at the house of Madame Schoofs, which became a temporary German HQ.
When the front lines were getting close to Tom’s hiding place he decided to walk to find the allied forces. He came across a spearhead US tank regiment who were so far ahead they could not get Tom back to their HQ straight away. He had to stay with them as they were advancing on to where he had been hiding, until he was taken behind the lines and eventually to Paris. He was repatriated from Orly to Northolt to start two months compulsory leave during the V2 bombardment of London.
In November 1944, Tom started retraining and was posted to 105 Squadron at Bourn as a navigator flying Mosquitoes. He took part in one of the last operations of the war, before VE Day, to Eggebek on the German Danish border.
In April 1946, the United States Air Force Europe awarded Tom the American Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation reads:
FLYING OFFICER SYDNEY THOMAS WINGHAM, (156389),
No. 105 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
For extraordinary achievement in aerial flight against the enemy.
In April 1944 he was forced to abandon his aircraft by parachute. Evading capture for five months on the Continent, Flying Officer Wingham returned to his unit and reassumed his flying duties. The flying skill and determination exhibited by Flying Officer Wingham were in keeping with the finest traditions of the Royal Air Force.
Tom left the RAF in July 1946 but rejoined the RAFVR in 1949 for a further 10 years. He became engaged in electrical engineering and later in training management. He was an active member of the RAFA and RAF Escaping society and the Aircrew Association. For the 20 years from 1993 Tom was Secretary of the 102 (Ceylon) Squadron Association.
In the 1980s Tom assisted a Dutch air historian with some research and this prompted him to look into the details of his own crash. He found each surviving member of his crew, where they had landed and discovered their individual stories. Their accounts together with his own were detailed in Tom’s book “Halifax Down!”. He visited Belgium and Holland many times to see those who had helped him and to dedicate a memorial to the two crew members who had died in the crash.
Tom Wingham married Kathleen Lee in 1947, she died in 1995, Tom is survived by their two sons.
Flight Lieutenant Sydney Thomas Wingham, born January 20 1923, died on May 15 2015.
Simon A. Kularatne
102 (Ceylon) Squadron Association