264 Squadron and aircrew

Frank Toombs was an unlikely Battle of Britain hero. He wasn’t your stereotypical young and dashing Spitfire pilot holding the Luftwaffe at bay in 1940. In fact he wasn’t a pilot at all and at the age of 29 he was ancient when compared with his colleagues whose average age was 20. He was modest and married and his inability to drink more than two pints of the weak wartime beer before falling off his chair earned him the affectionate scorn of his friends and the nickname ‘Two-pint.’

Frank Toombs was born in Richmond in 1911 and lived there with his wife Violet until he was commissioned into the RAF Volunteer Reserve in May 1940 as an air gunner. He joined 264 Squadron based at RAF Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire flying the Boulton Paul Defiant ‘turret fighter’. To a casual observer the Defiant looked rather like the single engined Hawker Hurricane fighter that was a mainstay of Britain’s Fighter Command at the time. The main difference was the Defiant had a power operated turret with four x .303 machine guns stuck immediately behind the pilot’s canopy. The theory was this allowed the pilot to concentrate upon placing his aircraft into the most advantageous position while the gunner got down to the business of engaging and destroying the enemy. The idea worked rather well at first. Mistaking the cumbersome Defiant for the Hurricane enemy pilots would swoop in from behind to attack only to find themselves exposed to fire from the turret. On the 29th May 1940, during the Dunkirk evacuation Defiants allegedly claimed 37 victories but this success was not to last. German pilots flying the faster and more manoeuvrable ME 109 fighter soon realised that the Defiant was desperately vulnerable to attacks from below and head on. On 31st May 1940 seven Defiants were lost and this number was to increase during the Battle of Britain that followed. Over just 5 days, between the 24th and 28th August 1940, Frank’s squadron lost 14 aircrew and 10 aircraft leaving them with just 3 serviceable machines. Such losses were unacceptable and the Defiant ‘turret fighters’ were soon withdrawn from daylight operations and became rather successful night fighters.

Gunner climbs into a Defiant turret.

‘Two-pint’ Toombs flew his first operational sortie on 15th July and he survived 18 ‘ops’ during the Battle of Britain. His good luck and his easy going manner made him a popular member of the squadron. Colleagues remembered that he used to take the daily paper to read in his turret, in the belief that if there was anything to be seen, other people would see it first.

In October 1940 ‘Two-pint’ and his pilot William ‘Roddy’ Knocker were transferred to night time patrols. At 6.30pm on the evening of 15th November 1940, ‘Roddy’ and ‘Two-pint’ took-off from Rochford Aerodrome in Essex for a Night Patrol in Defiant N1547. After a few minutes the plane mysteriously caught fire and was forced to return to the airfield. Roddy’s first attempt to land downwind failed so he went around again. On his second attempt the Defiant hit a tree on the nearby golf course and burst into flames. Roddy managed to crawl out of his cockpit but ‘Two-pint’ was trapped in his burning turret. A squadron member, Jim Bailey, recalled the event…

Defiants

The story as I was told it was this: two soldiers ran up but because of the fierceness of the fire – and a burning fighter aircraft becomes a petrol-fired furnace in which belts of ammunition explode – they did nothing. I understand that they could see ‘Two-pint’ struggling inside his turret but that they were afraid, because of the flames, to help him. The doctor was rung up and informed of the accident. He had time to drive from the mess to the aerodrome, a distance of a mile or two, reach the crash, and pull the poor fellow out of the wreckage. In hospital he talked to his friends quite cheerfully and coherently although burnt to a cinder. He lived two days more…

Two Pints grave

In the annals of the great air war that raged over southern England during the summer of 1940 ‘Two-pint’s’ tragic end barely rates a mention. No dicing with death, no ‘duel amongst the clouds’, no medals, no recorded ‘kills’, no name on the list of ‘aces’, just a brave, self effacing man, determined to get on with the job that he had signed up to do. Jim Bailey summed it up…

The quality that mattered was spirit; and to my way of thinking the small insignificant clerk was the type that constantly emerged with flying colours. “Two-pint” was such a one…

THE SKY SUSPENDED – A Fighter Pilot’s Story – Jim Bailey 1964

Two Pint Headstone

In Grave 4298 in Section T of Richmond Cemetery lies a hero of the Battle of Britain who died on active service on 17th November 1940. To the official records and his family he was Pilot Officer Frank Albert Toombs 79221 but to his colleagues in the RAF this courageous man was known simply as ‘Two-pint’.

Paddy Finucane

Richmond was home to another hero of the Battle of Britain. With a ‘bag’ of 26 confirmed and 6 shared ‘destroyed’, plus 8 ‘probable’, 1 shared ‘probable’ and a further 8 ‘damaged’ Wing Commander Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane DSO, DFC and bar, of 22 Castlegate, was one of the greatest fighter aces the RAF had ever known. Read his story in Spitfire Paddy in the pages of the St Margarets Community Website

— from Martyn Day