• 1 February, 2020
  • Bravery
  • Britain at War
  • Medals

Published in Britain at War in February 2020.

Wing Commander Hugh Gordon Malcolm VC

There can be few, if any, better examples of self-sacrifice in the air than the noble actions of Wing Commander Hugh Malcolm. Such outstanding bravery aimed at the saving lives of infantry on the ground was recognised with the reward of a posthumous VC.

Hugh Gordon Malcolm was born in Broughty Ferry, Dundee, Scotland, on May 2 1917. He was the son of Kenneth Malcolm, a Dundee jute merchant, and his wife Majorie (née Smith). The young Malcolm was educated at Craigflower Preparatory School, Dunfermline, and Trinity College, Glenalmond, Perthshire. As a young man, Malcolm was shy and quiet, but he was sporty and excelled at golf and hunting.

After completing his schooling, he entered RAF College Cranwell, Lincolnshire, as a cadet in January 1936, where he graduated as a commissioned pilot in December 1937. The following month Malcolm was posted to No. 26 Squadron (Lysanders), based at RAF Catterick, Yorkshire.

On May 20 1939, he was piloting a Lysander 4784 in practice flight for a forthcoming Empire Air Day display when he was involved in a major accident, with his observer, that wrote-off the aircraft. “It just fell out’er me hands,” he noted in his log book, with masterly understatement. Malcolm suffered serious injuries, including a fractured skull, and was told he would never fly again.

He spent four months in the Princess Mary Hospital at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire and it was while recuperating there that Malcolm met a nurse, Helen Swan, who would become his wife: the couple married in Sussex in 1940. Malcolm’s eventual recovery was so complete that he returned to his squadron in September 1939. As the Second World War intensified, Malcolm was promoted, first to flight lieutenant in September 1940 and then to squadron leader in December 1941.

Malcolm served as a flight commander in No. 18 Squadron (Blenheims) based at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk. With this squadron, he flew mainly night sorties, the first being on May 6 1942. Many of these sorties were in support of main bomber force raids and his role was to attack German night-fighter airfields.

Malcolm and his crew participated in Bomber Command’s first “1,000-bomber raid” on Cologne on the night of 30/31 May 1942. It involved eighteen Blenheim IVs from No. 18 Squadron which flew intruder sorties against three Luftwaffe air bases, with Malcolm leading seven of these aircraft against St Trond airfield. On 1 June 1942, while involved in another major raid, this time on Essen, Malcolm and his crew again returned to attack St Trond.

Malcolm and his crew also participated in the next “1,000-bomber raid”, this time to Bremen, on the night of June 25/26. On July 1, Malcolm and his crew were commended for their bravery in searching for and locating a dinghy – containing British aircrew – some 50 miles off the Dutch coast. This was carried out in daylight and in clear weather – which put them at great risk of an enemy attack – and Malcolm remained in the air for four hours to obtain seven “fixes” on the dinghy so that the crew could be rescued.

In September 1942, Malcolm was promoted to wing commander and also to the command of the squadron. Two months later, he moved with his squadron to north Africa, where he was initially based at Blida airfield in Algeria. By then, his squadron, part of 326 Wing, was flying new Blenheim Vs, which were proving unreliable in these very different conditions.

The aircraft’s failings became apparent on their first operational sortie in north Africa on November 17 1942. Malcolm and his squadron attacked Bizerta airfield in Tunisia at low-level in daylight and without a fighter escort. They bombed and strafed their target, but encountered both bad weather and the Luftwaffe on their return flight: No. 18 Squadron lost two bombers to the German fighter aircraft and two more in an air collision. Undeterred, the squadron returned to Bizerta 11 days later to bomb and strafe the airfield a second time, despite a massive barrage of fire from the German air defences.

By this point, the ground war in north Africa had become intense and, on December 4, 11 Blenheim Vs from No. 326 Wing were flown to Souk-el-Arba in Tunisia to support the Army units in the battle area. Six Blenheims, led by Malcolm, took off at 9.15 a.m. to search for targets in the Chouigui area.

When they located a Luftwaffe landing strip some ten miles north of Chouigui, they bombed and strafed it before flying to Canrobert, to refuel, and then returned to Souk-el-Arba. However, less than an hour after landing, Malcolm received a message from the forward Army battle zone, requesting urgent air support in the area they had just come from.

This meant flying in broad daylight over a battle area without fighter aircraft support: it was not possible to organise this in the time available. Malcolm was aware quite how hazardous the mission would be but, knowing the infantry desperately needed support, he did not hesitate. He was, however, ordered to abandon the attack if there was insufficient cloud cover to complete the task satisfactorily.

Eleven Blenheims from No. 326 Wing were chosen for the sortie but one burst its tail wheel attempting to take off and was taken out of service. The ten remaining aircraft kept a tight formation knowing that this was their only defence against the Luftwaffe, but within 20 minutes, one of the planes had to make a crash-landing 15 miles east of Souk-el-Arba. The crew survived but the mission was now down to only nine aircraft.

On arrival at the target area, the much-needed cloud cover was lacking, but Malcolm refused to abandon his mission. After circling their target, the Blenheims started to bomb but they were set upon by a huge number of Me 109 fighters, as many as 60 at any one time. One by one, in a five-minute “battle” that was more like a massacre, the Blenheims were shot down until only Malcolm and his crew remained. Then, their Blenheim was hit, too, and the aircraft, with its crew of three, crashed and burst into flames some 15 miles from its target. Malcolm, his navigator, Pilot Officer James Robb, and his gunner, Pilot Officer James Grant, did not survive the crash.

The process by which Malcolm received his posthumous VC was anything but straightforward as Stephen Snelling detailed in an article in October 2004. Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal Sir) Laurence Sinclair, who described Malcolm as “one of the bravest officers I had known”, had no hesitation in submitting a recommendation for the VC.

Others, however, questioned his judgment and suggested a lesser award while he was officially still “missing in action”: the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Once it emerged Malcolm had died, this award was ruled out (it was not and is not awarded posthumously), leaving him eligible for the VC or a mere Mention in Despatches. Fortunately the arguments of Sinclair and others eventually won the day.

Malcolm, who died aged 25, was gazetted for a posthumous VC on April 27 1943, both for his bravery during his final sortie and his earlier courage in north Africa. His lengthy citation ended” Wing Commander Malcolm’s last exploit was the finest example of the valour and unswerving devotion to duty which he constantly displayed.”

After learning of her husband’s posthumous award, his widow, Helen, who lived in Worth, Sussex, said: “My husband’s commanding officer wrote and told me of his last flight. I can only say how very proud I am of him. After his [1939] crash, he was told he would never fly again but he was determined to get back. He made an amazing recovery, and was able to return to his unit in September 1939, just after war was declared.”

Malcolm’s widow received his VC from George VI at an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 11 June 1943. Malcolm is buried at the Beja War Cemetery in Tunisia and his name is on the RAF Memorial at St Clement Danes in central London.

Sub-Lieutenant K. G. Wallace, of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who had been loaned to the RAF for special observer duties, was one of three men to survive their crash landing after being shot down during the raid that claimed Malcolm’s life.

After returning home to Britain, Wallace, who was not in Malcolm’s actual plane, provided a vivid description of the final attacks and his own remarkable survival. “Our bombs were still going down when fifty to sixty Messerschmitt fighters came in at us. In the tightest possible formation we weaved as a single unit through the valley of the hills. We could see the fighters’ cannon shells bursting all along the mountain-sides on a level with our faces. Finally, we were forced out of formation, and, with the starboard engine on fire, the fuselage on fire, and a large piece of wing missing, we went into the hillside at about 150 miles per hour.

“Out of the blazing aircraft all three of us emerged more or less in one piece, and as we were in No Man’s Land, we began to run like hell. Behind us were a party of men running down a hillside, and ahead was a second party of men – our own troops – coming to meet us. We were accelerated by cannon-shells from an enemy fighter who was trying to get us, but we made it. Then I passed out, and the party was over.”

Wallace also provided an affectionate tribute to Malcolm, explaining that every member of the crew knew there was only the smallest chance of surviving the mission. ‘But we would have gladly followed Malcolm anywhere. He was superb. Malcolm radiated a joy of living and fighting which was irresistible.’

In his book For Valour: The Air VCs, Chaz Bowyer writes: “Hugh Malcolm’s cool determination to complete this ill-fated sortie, against all the odds but in his constant endeavour to fulfil his duties, was the culmination of a flying career in which his qualities of courage and leadership had been manifest.”

Several months after Malcolm’s death, Lady Tedder, the wife of the Middle East Air Commander-in-Chief, came to open the first in a series of rest and leisure recreation centres in north Africa. To people’s surprise, she named it the “Malcolm Club” despite the fact that she had barely known him. However, the name stuck and was soon applied to other similar clubs in the region.

I am immensely proud to be the custodian of this courageous and selfless man’s gallantry and service medals having purchased them at auction in 2010.

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