Basil Embry

Basil Embry

Basil Embry was born in 1902. As a child he developed a desire to fly and in 1921 he joined the Royal Air Force. The following year he was sent to Iraq where he served under Arthur Harris and Robert Saunby. In January 1926 Emby was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Promoted to flight lieutenant, Emby returned to Britain in 1927 where he took up a post as an instructor at the Central Flying School in Uxbridge.

In 1934 Embry was posted to India where he served in the Indian Wing at Kohat on the North West Frontier. He served in India for five years and returned to Britain in 1939. On the outbreak of the Second World War Embry was given command of No 107 Squadron in 1939.

Embry saw action during the German campaigns in Norway and France. On 26th May 1940, Embry was shot down over St Omer while providing air cover for the British Army during the Dunkirk evacuation. He was captured by the German Army but succeeded in escaping and was on the run for two months in occupied France but eventually got back to England via Spain and Gibraltar.

As sector commander of Fighter Command he took part in the Battle of Britain. In October 1941 he was seconded to the Desert Air Force and saw action in the Desert War.

Embry returned to Britain in March 1942 and served in 10 Group Fighter Command until being given command of the No 2 Group in the 2nd Tactical Air Force in June, 1943. He continued to fly operational missions, including three precision bombing raids on Gestapo headquarters in Aarhus, Copenhagen and Odense.

After the war Embry was appointed Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in Central Europe. He was Commander in Chief of Fighter Command (1949-53) and retired from the Royal Air Force in 1956. Basil Embry, the author of Mission Completed (1956) died in 1977.

Primary Sources

(1) While in India Basil Embry served under Arthur Harris. He wrote about Harris in his autobiography, Mission Completed (1956).

Harris turned his attention to the administrative and disciplinary side of squadron life. He improved the airmen's food by attention to detail, he lowered the temperature in barrack rooms by installing a device which sprayed water on to matting hung over each window, and he reorganized the officers' mess

and had it redecorated.

He also tightened up discipline, which had become a little lax in the carefree existence of life in an undeveloped country. A daily parade was held and young officers were made to carry out regular physical training. These measures were unpopular with some, but that influenced him not at all in driving forward

to build up the efficiency he demanded.

Harris paid great attention to training in airmanship, and insisted that pilots attend lectures and had technical instruction in the workshops. Every squadron activity he watched with keen personal interest and the effects of his policy and strong personality were soon felt throughout the unit. Morale soared, esprit

de corps rose to a great height and each member of his unit was proud to say, "I belong to 45 Squadron!"

(2) Basil Embry met Frank Whittle while an instructor at the Central Flying School.

It was during this time that I first met Frank Whittle, the designer of the first jet engine. He came to Wittering on the instructors' course, but he was also hard at work on his first jet engine, and it happened that one of the instructors in my flight, Patrick Johnson, was a qualified patent lawyer. They would sit for long hours in my office, when the weather was unfit for flying, discussing the principles of the new engine; and I believe Johnson drafted the deeds of patent there. Little did I realize I was witnessing the birth of one of the greatest inventions of modern times. I frankly own I thought the idea of an aeroplane flying without a propeller seemed crazy. Evidently I was not alone in this, since later when it was suggested by the Cambridge authorities that Whittle should remain there for an extra year to carry out engine research after completing his engineering course, the Air Ministry would not agree. Ironically enough, when the request was changed to research into airscrew design, official permission was given.

(3) When Basil Embry returned to Britain in 1939 he summarized the changes that had taken place in the Royal Air Force since leaving the country in 1934.

First-line aircraft based in Great Britain had increased from 564 aircraft to nearly 1,500; and those of the Air Forces overseas from 168 aircraft to about 450. Between 1934 and 1939, therefore, the front-line strength had been raised by about 165%. Great changes had also taken place in the equipment of the Service. When I left England, the Royal Air Force was equipped with wooden biplanes fitted with fixed undercarriages, constant-pitch airscrews and open cockpits; when I arrived home five years later, it was equipped with low-wing, metal-constructed monoplanes, retractable undercarriages, variable-pitch airscrews, landing flaps, enclosed cockpits, higher performance engines and many other new devices, bringing about a tremendous advance in aircraft performance.

In 1934 the highest-performance fighter was the Fury II with a top speed of 220 miles an hour and capable of climbing to 20,000 feet. In 1939 the Hurricane I had a top speed of over 300 miles an hour and could climb to 30,000 feet, while the Spitfire I had a speed of over 350 miles an hour and an operating height of 33,000 feet. The Fury carried only two Vickers -303 machine-guns, relics of the 1914-18 war, whereas both Hurricanes and Spitfires carried eight -303 Browning guns, which had a higher rate of fire and greater reliability than the Vickers machine-gun.

(4) Basil Embry was a member of Royal Air Force who attempted to give support the the British Expeditionary Force during Germany's Western Offensive in May 1940.

In the late afternoon of the i4th May I was called upon to lead two squadrons of Blenheims in an attack against the German bridgehead at Sedan. The French had asked the R.A.F. for a supreme effort at Sedan where their army was massing for a counter-attack against the Germans in an attempt to restore the catastrophic situation in that area. In the afternoon the remaining Battle and Blenheim squadrons based in France had been thrown into the attack with disastrous results: forty out of a total of seventy-one aircraft taking part were destroyed, mostly by enemy fighters.

(5) Basil Embry was shot down over France on 26th May 1940.

Whiting was gesticulating with his right arm, trying to make me turn to starboard. The aeroplane was out of control, I could no longer speak to the crew, the telephone would not work. I shouted to Whiting but he did not hear me and did not seem to realize what was happening, so I took off my tin hat and threw it at him. Then he turned round, and I moved the "stick" from side to side and fore and aft to show him there was nothing I could do.

I pointed to the escape hatch and signalled to him to jump - he had difficulty in jettisoning the door and it was an unpleasant few moments of suspense as he worked to free it, but at last he got it clear. By this time the aeroplane was hurtling towards the ground.

With difficulty I left my seat and peered into the turret. Lang was crumpled up and I knew there was nothing I could do to save him. The idea of abandoning the aeroplane with him still in it, even though dead, was contrary to all my instincts, but what was to be done? I could not reach him because the pilot's cockpit was separated from the compartment leading to the air-gunner's turret by a bulkhead. There was a porthole about eighteen inches square cut in this bulkhead, and when the aeroplane was on the ground it was possible to wriggle through it with a struggle, but in the few seconds left before the aircraft would hit the ground there was not time to remove flying clothing and parachute to get through this aperture, even if it had been possible to overcome the force of gravity imposed by the uncontrolled evolutions of the aeroplane.

Reluctantly I made up my mind to try and get clear. Whiting was crouching near the hatch and I could see the ground rushing towards us. I wondered if he were having difficulty overcoming the force of gravity, and so put my foot on his back to help him through the opening, but he signed to me that he had not got his parachute pack attached to his harness and he was trying to fix it. At last he was clear and disappeared through the doorway.

I tried to have a last look through the bulkhead at Lang, but found it impossible to stand and was thrown violently into the cockpit corner. Somehow I struggled to the hatch, and as I looked out I saw first sky and then earth, as the aeroplane spun down. I had to overcome great pressure which was forcing me down on to the floor. At last I was able to push myself head-first into space.

I counted three and then pulled the rip-cord of my parachute. A moment later there was a welcome jerk as it opened and checked my fall through the air, and almost at the same moment my aeroplane hit the ground and burst into flames.

(6) Basil Embry, a sector commander in Flight Command, wrote about the Battle of Britain in his autobiography, Mission Completed (1956).

Active air defence by day or night is a question of identifying the enemy, tracking his flight path and then intercepting and destroying him. At the start of the Battle of Britain we could identify and track the enemy by radar as far as the coast, but once he crossed it we had to depend entirely on visual observation reports from the Royal Observer Corps. Under clear-day conditions the track reports were accurate, but at night and in bad weather by day when cloud obscured visual observation, tracking and height finding were bound to be inaccurate and interception under such conditions a matter of luck. Guns and searchlights depended on sound locators to indicate the enemy's height and position. With slow-flying aeroplanes at medium altitude, this worked reasonably well; but the higher-performance aircraft of 1939-40 meant there was little or no possibility of successful engagement with guns at heights of 20,000 feet and above.

(7) Basil Embry was involved in three raids on Gestapo headquarters in Denmark.

Between the end of October 1944 and April 1945, we made three attacks on Gestapo headquarters in Denmark. In each instance the primary object was to destroy Gestapo records and evidence against patriots who were under arrest or about to be arrested for their activities against the Germans, with the secondary object of trying to release the prisoners held in the headquarters and killing as many Gestapo men as possible.

The first raid was directed against the Gestapo headquarters for Jutland, which was in a building in Aarhus University.

The second raid was against the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen. The Gestapo had occupied the offices of the Shell Oil Company in the centre of the town, and the building was known as the Shell House. As usual we had the target and the approaches to it modelled, and planned the operation with the greatest care because the slightest error in navigation or bombing would cause heavy casualties among the Danes. Shortly before the operation took place, I was worried to learn that a large number of the Resistance Movement were imprisoned in one wing of the building and it seemed certain they would perish in the attack. I discussed this with Major Truelson temporarily attached to my headquarters while we were planning the operation, and he assured me that they would sooner die from our bombing than at the hands of the Germans, adding, "Who knows-some might not be killed and succeed in escaping, as happened at Aarhus, and anyhow their death will save many more Danish lives, so don't worry."

We lost three Mosquitos and one Mustang on this occasion, but succeeded in completely demolishing the Shell House, destroying all Gestapo records, liberating all the prisoners without the loss of a single life, and killing twenty-six Gestapo. It will always remain a miracle to me that anyone inside the building survived to tell the tale.

The third and last attack on the Gestapo in Denmark was on the 17th April when we raided their headquarters at Odense. Bob Bateson with Sismore his navigator again led, Peter and I flying as his No. 2. We had great difficulty in finding the target, a house in a thickly populated area and well camouflaged with netting. We must have been in the target area at least half an hour searching and of course just inviting trouble from German fighters. Happily they never appeared and eventually we found and destroyed our objective. The difficulty we had turned out to be fortunate, for it gave the people in the area time to disperse and not a single Danish life was lost.

(8) Pastor Sandbaek was being tortured by the Gestapo when the Royal Air Force bombed the headquarters in Aarhus University.

I declared that I had no more to say, after which those devils handed me over to the torturers. They half dragged and half carried me up to the attic of the college, took off all my clothes and put on new handcuffs. To these a string was attached which could be tightened and caused insufferable pain. I was thrown on a bed and whipped with a leather dog whip. I was then taken down to the office again for further interrogation by Werner and his two assistants. Suddenly we heard a whine of the first bombs, while the planes thundered across the University. Werner's face was as pale as death from fright, and he and his assistants ran out of the room. I saw them disappear down a passage to the right and instinctively I went to the left. This saved my life because shortly afterwards the whole building collapsed and Werner and his assistants were killed. I was later rescued by Danish Patriots.

RAF photograph of the bombing of the Gestapo headquarters in Aarhus.
RAF photograph of the bombing of the Gestapo headquarters in Aarhus.