A navigator on Halifax bombers during World War Two has died at the age of 98.
Alfred Ernest Fenton, known to all as ‘Ernie’, flew 30 missions from Pocklington, after joining the 102 (Ceylon) Squadron in 1942. He lived in Hull for most of his life but moved to Pocklington fairly recently.
Ernie, like his father and grandfather, was a lifetime supporter of Hull Kingston Rovers, a passion he passed on to his son.
He was a strong athlete and remained active all his life. He represented Hull Schools at football, playing at the old Boothferry Park. He was the Hull School’s sprint champion, and he played rugby union for Hessle and Yorkshire whilst also representing the RAF at Twickenham. It was playing rugby for the RAF when Ernie came to know and play with Gus Walker, later to become commanding officer of 42 Base with Pocklington as its headquarters. He was a long-time member of Zingari cricket club, and in 1964 won the Hull and District Veterans Squash Cup at Hull and East Riding.
He played his golf at Kirkella, joined the local Air Crew Association, played snooker at the Willerby Club and continued his membership of Probus. He was very proud to be made an honorary life member of both the latter organisations.
Starting in 1994 Ernie and Tom Wingham (Tom was Secretary of the 102 (Ceylon) Squadron Association) together with Canon Rev’d Valerie Hewetson planned the Association’s reunions and Remembrance Day services at St Catherine’s Barmby Moor and the airfield memorial which have continued to this day.
Ernie came every year to the reunion and on Remembrance Sunday to lay the 102 Squadron wreath on the war memorial, where 56 of his fellow servicemen are buried in the Barmby Moor churchyard.
Those who met Ernie knew he was a very singular character. He acted as master of ceremonies at the Squadron Association Reunion dinners and everybody paid attention. He had the duty of reading out the names of those members who had died during the past year, this year for the toast to ‘absent friends’, his name will be read out.
Ernie joined up in August 1940 and was sent to what was jokingly called the RAF’s biggest camp at Blackpool. He was posted to various training facilities around Great Britain before embarking at Gourock on the Duchess of Richmond bound for Durban, South Africa and ultimately on to what is now Zimbabwe to join the Joint Air Training Scheme. Ernie didn’t quite make it in pilot training due to a mishap with a Tiger Moth when landing and transferred to navigator training. Altogether he spent some two years being trained in Southern Africa before returning to Britain for further training, crewing up and so on.
He joined 102 (Ceylon) Squadron at Pocklington in November 1942. He flew a full tour of duty, 30 raids as the navigator in his tightly knit crew of seven in Halifax aircraft, missions which ranged from minelaying around the Frisian Islands to dropping bombs over Turin, Berlin and the U-boat pens of Lorient. But the main effort was to bomb the armaments factories of the Ruhr valley: Duisberg, Dusseldorf, Dortmund. Essen, Cologne. They were also the most dangerous and many, many crews did not return. In the nine months of his tour of duty the occupant of the bed next to his changed six times when the occupant was killed or taken prisoner after baling out over Germany. For his excellent navigation skills Ernie was promoted to pilot officer in April 1943 and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross that same August by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. In between missions, rugby, boxing and cycling to Betty’s bar in York with the rest of his crew were his main relaxations.
Once his tour of duty was completed, Ernie was reassigned: first as navigation officer at the Central Navigation Training School at RAF Cranage in Cheshire and later the Training School at RAF Bottesford. He was to fly six more missions from the training unit but was demobbed in February 1945.
Forty years later 102 Squadron Association was formed and Ernie went along to one of those early reunions to be greeted by cries of “Hello Church how are you?” Church not because he was religious but because what else would someone in the RAF with the surname Fenton be called!
But in all the years since the end of the war, he never forgot the camaraderie of those days. He considered himself to be the luckiest man in Hull surviving a total of 36 missions when over 55,000 of his comrades in Bomber Command were lost. He, like so many of his colleagues, had been very courageous but always brushed off talk of bravery –“You just got on with your job”, he would say.
Those events are now so long ago that few can remember them but all of us owe a debt of gratitude to Ernie and the others of his generation. At his request, Ernie’s funeral was conducted by Canon Rev’d Valerie Hewetson as was Mildred’s, his wife, who predeceased him by 16 years.
The retiring collection has been donated to 102 (Ceylon) Squadron Association as a contribution to the replacement of the Gus Walker memorial seat at the Wolds Gliding Club on Pocklington Airfield.