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Wing Commander
David Scott Shearman Wilkerson DSO DFC RAFVR

The first Commanding Officer 578 Squadron

WincoWilkie, a prince among men.  Brillliant pilot, wonderful squadron commander. Led by example and a great sense of humour. He was indeed a very special man. I have a lot to thank him for and am very much richer for having known him.

Flight Lieutenant G Sanders DFC Pilot 578 Squadron

David Wilkerson

The Early War Years

David Wilkerson was born in Walthamstow, East London, on 20 May 1917 before moving nearby to South Woodford.  He attended the Forest School, Snaresbrook 1925-1932 before joining the City book publishing firm of W H Hill. He was an accomplished pianist and an enthusiastic Scout Leader responsible for running the 17th Epping Forest  Cub Pack attached to Holy Trinity Church, South Woodford.   

He enlisted for the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve on 20 January 1940 and on 18 June joined No.1 Initial Training Wing at St. Johns College Cambridge as 911952 AC-2 Wilkerson D.  Promoted to Leading Aircraftsman in August, he was posted to No.1 Ground Flying Training School at Hatfield where, after 11 hours 35 minutes of instruction on a Tiger Moth he went solo on his first cross country flight lasting 70 minutes, on 20 September.  He was marked ‘as above average’ on both his Link Trainer skills and proficiency as a pilot.  On 1 October 1940 David was posted to No.26 Course, RAF Turnhill, Shropshire, where he had his introduction to twin engine aircraft, an Avro Anson, which he flew solo after 5 hours dual instruction.

In December 1940 LAC Wilkerson crossed the Atlantic to join No. 32 EFTS, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. On 31 January 1941 with a total of 112 flying hours, he was awarded his flying badge and promoted to sergeant.  Once again, his final assessment was above average.  Returning to England in March, David joined No. 10 Operational Training Unit at Abingdon, one of eight such units using Whitley II, III and V aircraft as well as Ansons and the one, at least initially, which supplied pilots to No 4 Group Bomber Command.  At such an OTU, crews, having already learned their trade training, were introduced to the skills, not only to bomb, but to stay alive in hostile skies.  It was here that airmen were encouraged to form themselves into a crew.  Training was expanded to include instrument flying by night and night bombing.

On 11 April 1941, David was promoted to Pilot Officer for duration of hostilities on probation.  The summary of Flying Assessments issued by the Chief Instructor on 9 May graded P/O Wilkerson as an above average Heavy Bomber pupil pilot, having flown 200 hours 45 minutes.

David was posted to No.58 Squadron at Linton on Ouse, Yorkshire, on 17 May 1941 and  flew localised familiarisation air tests but on 28 May he undertook his first operation as second pilot in a raid on Kiel.  He was then posted back to Abingdon, this time to No.1 Blind Approach Training Flight for Lorenz instruction, a radio beam method of navigation used in the early stages of the War, before aircraft had access to Gee or Oboe navigation and later Radar.  On 10 June he was posted to No.35 Squadron at Linton on Ouse, Yorkshire where, next night he was soon to undertake his second operation as second pilot on an attack on Duisburg, flying in a Halifax.  The following night he was second pilot  on a raid on the Chemical Works at Huis.  On 15 June, still flying a Halifax, the same crew bombed Hanover and on 26 June, Kiel.

Shortly after entering Squadron service, the Halifax bomber developed a number of faults, particularly in respect of hydraulics.  It was duly withdrawn from service  but all second pilots were transferred to No.58 Squadron, also based at Linton on Ouse, to allow them to gain operational experience, using Whitleys.  On 7 July, David flew as second pilot on night operations to Osnabruck, 16 July to Hamburg, 20 July to Rotterdam, 22 July to Dunkerque, 8 August to Kiel and on 11 August to Krefeld Verndigen.

Over the following week of air testing, local flying, night flying and bombing practice, all in Whitley aircraft, ‘Pilot Officer Wilkerson was qualified as Ist Pilot night’. His first opportunity in the role of Captain occurred on 18 August with a night raid on Dunkerque.  Then followed 22 August on Le Havre, 27 August on Mannheim, 29 August to Frankfurt and finally on 7 September to Berlin, all in Whitley aircraft.  On 15 September, David was posted back to 35 Squadron, his Flight Commander being Flt.Lt. Leonard Cheshire. 

David Wilkerson at the controls of a Halifax

Flying Halifax aircraft, he qualified as first pilot for day and night flying.  Then followed more operations to Essen on 10 and to Nuremburg on 12 October..

The next two night operations presented David and his crew with problems.  On 20 October after bombing Wilhelmshaven the aircraft instruments failed and on 22 October after attacking Mannheim he sustained injury when forced to crash land back at base with a   collapsed starboard undercarriage.  Recovered and four nights later, the crew bombed Hamburg and again on 31 October. Early November was taken up performing firing, fuel consumption and height tests.  On 18 November David was promoted ‘Acting Flying Officer’.

On 25 November an evening attack was made on the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the harbour at Brest followed by a night raid on Hamburg on 30 November.  Then followed ten days of familiarisation and test flying the new Halifax MkII in preparation for the forthcoming programme of daylight raids, the first being to Brest on 18 December in a further attempt to destroy the two battleships. The official report stated:

‘After leaving the target, Wing Commander Robinson, leading the attack, sustained several shrapnel hits and was unable to feather the outer engine. Lost both his port engines - eventually forced down into the sea 60 miles off the English coast. Nos 2 and 3 remained in formation with this aircraft until he ditched in spite of air speeds in the region of 110 mph.  This reflects much credit to the pilotage of the two captains concerned, Flying Officer Wilkerson and Sergeant Williams. The two aircraft arranged that Flying Officer Wilkerson should remain circling the ditched aircraft and crew in the dinghy.  This he did for half an hour and remained in the vicinity communicating by wireless stations and did not depart until he was satisfied that everything had been done to ensure the rescue of the crew.

Painting of the incident by Dr. Percival-Barker a fellow pilot in 35 Squadron

The rear gunner of the stricken aircraft was Flight Lieutenant R C Rivez who had flown with David on previous operations and was later to write in his book ‘Tail Gunner’ concerning this incident. 

Wilkie was a tall, dark-haired, loose- limbed fellow…and the first impression a stranger might have of him could be that he was rather an irresponsible, carefree and vague individual.  But on closer acquaintance it would be seen that he had one of the kindest, gentlest and most sympathetic and thoughtful natures any man could possess.  I have flown with Wilkie on two operational trips, so I know his sterling qualities.  He has the knack of inspiring confidence in every member of his crew.  I certainly look back on the trips I did with him, which were to Brest and Wilhelmshaven, with happy memories.  When flying he is always perfectly calm and I cannot imagine anything disturbing him.  Each time I reported back to him - searchlights behind our tail, or flak bursts particularly near the tail, or fighters in the distance, he replied with one word - “Right” - spoken in a long drawn-out way and in a manner to make you feel that all was right.

David’s year 1941 was to end with another raid on Brest but despite this and previous attacks on the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, they were later to set sail for Germany, accompanied by the cruiser Prince Emden.  Official recognition of his personal performance was given in January 1942 by the Commanding Officer of 35 Squadron, who stated Flying Officer Wilkerson’s assessment as a heavy bomber pilot is graded above average.’

Conversion Training.
With the increasing complexity of four engine aircraft and the need to train increasing numbers of personnel to become proficient as bomber crews, it became apparent in the latter part of 1941 that reliance upon training at Squadron level was no longer sufficient.  Accordingly, a decision was taken in December 1941, to formalise training procedure.  Each bomber group was to have its own Heavy Conversion Unit, plus one Conversion Flight of four aircraft at Squadron level.  The programme of Heavy Conversion would involve twenty hours of instruction.  This was to provide practice to skills which certainly be called upon, such as 3 and 2 engine flying, instrument flying, fully laden take-off and 3 engine landings.  The instructors were to be experienced pilots, most having completed one tour of operations.  As the crews increased in skill and experience, they were to fly on operational sorties, usually in a diversionary capacity or to a less difficult target.  However, the HCU was to make a contribution to the 1000 bomber raid when both instructors and pupils took part.

It was into this sphere of training that David spent the following twenty two months. Arriving at 1652 HCU on 8th January, 1942, he was posted as Instructor under training, but a fortnight later he was back to flying, ferrying Halifax’s from Linton to Marston Moor.  On 6 February he was again engaged in instruction as well as testing aircraft performance. During March, 1942, F/O David flew over 60 hours as instructor in all aspects of HCU training. On one occasion his CO, Squadron Leader Leonard Cheshire, was a member of his crew on a night flying exercise.

On 13 March 1942 the London Gazette published the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross to:

Acting Flying Officer David Scott Shearman WILKERSON. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 35 Squadron. As a pilot, and captain of aircraft, this officer has shown outstanding ability and keenness and he has succeeded in reaching and bombing his objectives with unfailing regularity and success. Flying Officer Wilkerson has attacked a wide range of enemy targets, including Berlin, Nuremburg, Kiel and Essen, besides other industrial centres and dockyard towns. He took part in 2 daylight raids on the enemy warships at Brest, and in spite of fierce opposition, carried out his attacks with the utmost skill and determination. Flying Officer Wilkerson has proved himself to be a courageous captain.

Still with 35 Squadron Conversion Flight at Linton on Ouse as an Instructor, David’s duties included consumption tests with various bomb loads - one or two 4000 pound bombs and a load of 4 mines.  On one of these exercises the aircraft, a relatively new Halifax II, suffered a partial hydraulic failure with loss of brakes on the ground. They had aboard, possibly unofficially, a Royal Navy Officer, who when he learned of the problems which would occur, asked "Can you land one of these aircraft with a 4000 lb bomb and no brakes?" After a short pause David answered in his usual laconic manner, "We are about to find out!!” Happily the aircraft landed safely, but at the end of the runway it had to be turned onto the perimeter track, still travelling at some speed. On one occasion David had the rare distinction of having the Station Commanding Officer, Group Captain John Whitley, as a pupil for dual circuits and bumps!

Wilkerson & crew
David, left, watches his crew boarding a Halifax for a daylight operation with 35 Squadron

The biggest events of this time were the three 1000 bomber raids. Quite apart from the number of aircraft involved, the concept of the ‘bomber stream’ emerged - each aircraft being allocated a height and a time slot in the stream. The Germans were known to organise the fighter defences in a series of boxes with one controller to each box. Obviously, by going through the minimum number of boxes and the greater density of bombers, should minimise the loss rate. It was calculated that the stream should be no more than two hours ‘long’. Navigation had improved with the advent of ‘Gee’, a radio navigation aid, with which Group 1 and 3 aircraft were equipped and this determined them to act as raid leader.  Aircraft from training units were deployed to make up the required number. David and his crew took part in the first of these raids on the night of 30 May 1942 to Cologne experiencing a failed port outer engine.  All was well on the following night to Essen.

On 5 June 1942, David, having been promoted to Squadron Leader, left 35 Squadron to take command of 158 Squadron Conversion Flight and over the following month oversaw the change from Wellington to Halifax II bombers.  On 25 June all available aircraft in Bomber Command were used on the third of the 1000 bomber raids, this time on Bremen. 

David was then posted to 4 Group Headquarters at Heslington Hall, York as Deputy Group Training Officer.  Far from being a desk job his work required him to make frequent visits to local air stations and go further afield such as to the aeroplane and armament experimental establishment at Boscombe Down, there to assist in the correction of certain inadequacies and shortcomings being experienced with Halifax aircraft at that time, in particular its lack of rudder control and unexplained crashes, later found to be due to over-balance.  He was also involved in public relations work and  training objectives.

On 9 April 1943 David was promoted to Acting Wing Commander and posted to 41 Base at Marston Moor as Training Inspector, to exercise operational and administrative control over the stations at Rufforth and Riccall.  The Commanding Officer was Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.  His time was fully taken up with a variety of tasks ranging from technical conferences, test flying, accident prevention and public relations, in which he excelled due to his expertise and outgoing personality..

On 15 November 1943 Wing Commander D S S Wilkerson DFC was posted to take command of 51 Squadron at Snaith and commenced his own re-indoctrination in the bomber war by undertaking fighter affiliation and night cross county flying prior to an operation to Mannheim Ludwigshaven three nights later.  On 22 November he set off for Berlin and four nights later the target was Stuttgart and on 3 December a night operation to Leipzig.  Much of December was taken up with training, air tests and practice bombing before he and his crew carried out another raid on Berlin.

David, right, alongside Group Captain Leonard Cheshire with Air Vice Marshal Carr
David, right, alongside Group Captain Leonard Cheshire with Air Vice Marshal Carr
And others at 41 Base

The Early War Years >>> The New Squadron