Wing Commander Ernest Reginald Baker
DSO, DFC & Bar


The Lead-Up to War

At the beginning of 1939 Reg Baker, second pilot on a 210 Squadron Sunderland had been carrying out his squadron duties with his crew on escort duty to shipping. He was flying beyond the shores of the UK.

Reg’s letters give an insight into the build up:

8 April 1939: Pembroke Dock – I am back in England, about an hour ago. We left Malta at 4 this morning.

4 July 1939: a Telegram from Singapore K6909 – I MUST GO , WE ARE JUST TAKING OFF.

19 July 1939: Pembroke Dock – Well, here I am in the midst of wild and woolly Wales – this place is the most deserted spot imaginable. A very small place 2 miles away and Tenby (which I am told is terrible) 14 miles away. A pretty grim outlook isn’t it? The Squadron is what is called ‘Operational’. That is it may be sent anywhere at 48 hours notice. We have had all the inoculations, Typhoid, Malaria, Tetanus etc. Yesterday three of the pilots set off to fly out to Singapore and they only had forty eight hours notice.

23rd July 1939: Pembroke Dock – Actually I have just about recovered from the inoculation now, my arm is exceedingly stiff and sore. I am waiting at the moment for my luggage to arrive so that I can start swotting for an exam – so that I shall be sure of getting into Imperial Airways when I leave the service.

August 18 1939: Pembroke Dock – I am flying to Alexandria on Saturday morning. I expect being away for about a month. I expect coming back by P&O boat landing at Southampton. We are in a colossal ‘Flap’ here rushing about buying tropical kit and frantically packing. Three flying boats are going.

23 August 1939: Pembroke Dock – I am back in England just in time to join the war. Arrived Malta Wednesday straight back here in another flying boat on Sunday. The trip was cut short and completely spoilt by the darned international situation. We arrived at Malta on Wednesday and were shot back here in another flying boat on Sunday. Altogether I have flown 4,000 miles in about 5 days. We are on a wartime basis here, standing by, day and night loaded up with bombs and guns etc. and we have to stay in camp and stand-by, ready to go at 5 minutes notice.

28 August 1939: Pembroke Dock – Just a note to say I am back in England. Arrived about an hour ago. I am feeling very tired – we left Malta at 4 this morning and have been going all the time.

From Reggie’s journal..

I had been in the RAF 19 months when war was declared and was in fact arriving at the stage where I could be considered a reasonably useful flying boat second pilot. A training of 19 months in today’s light may seem long, but in those days after that training one was considered capable of making tea, maintaining the stock of toilet paper, seeing the boat was left clean and in fact doing the countless odd jobs a cabin boy is required to do.

We knew that when the war started it was about 90 to 1 against our being alive after the first six months. Still it was our job and if we managed to keep going until the people shook themselves and trained chaps to take our places then it was a good show. At the back of our minds too we had a suspicion, or hope if you like that it was probably 90 to 1 against most chaps but not us, we should be all right.

The Start of War

September 3rd

From Reggie’s journal..

That starlight morning Alan taxied Sunderland L2165 down the haven to do a dark take off. We had received our orders from operation room, stumbled our way down to the pier and been carried by means of the inevitably greasy dinghy to ‘65.

The crew were all ready on board, the Sunderland was a blaze of light and everything was under control as we climbed on board. Alan signed the crew list and I handed them to the waiting dinghy and we then went on to the flying deck.

Murphy the rigger reported that we were on short slip, Cpl Ewings doped the two outboard engines and we were ready to start up. The starboard outer lurched into life, then the port outer ‘Let her go’ shouted Alan. Murphy slipped the buoy and we were away. Ewings doped the two inboard engines and I started them saying ‘OK Alan all four’. We taxied out into the channel and proceeded down the haven keeping the long line of the S H buoys on our port side for we were heading out to sea.

It was a long taxiing for miles to Angle Bay where the flare path was laid. As we approached the flare path Alan ran up the engines, they were OK. Once on the flare path the control office gave us a green and we were ready to go. I wound the flaps out one third, checked that the crew were all set, told Alan and stood by to put in the over rides. Alan checked his trimming tabs, grinned, said ‘Here we go’ and opened up the four engines. At full throttle we passed No.1 flare. I put in the override and at No.2 flare we left the water, smoothly and apparently without effort.

We carried out straight ahead to a height of seven hundred feet, straightened out, throttled back with flaps in, override out and props coarse pitch. We circled the twinkling lights below, picked up St Ann’s Head lighthouse and set off on a course of 250 degrees for our convoy.

Dawn found us five hundred miles out to sea, alone in a sky of wispy cloud. Ahead of us about ten miles we could see the straggling convoy, eight ships in a loosely knitted mass; looking rather like toy ships on crumpled paper they poured out black smoke and wallowed in the long Atlantic rollers. We spent several uneventful hours looking after these children rather like an indulgent mother and then set course for base. At 1600 hours we made our landfall at Skokholm Island and thirty minutes later we came gliding in to alight in the channel north of the flying boat trots??. I wound out the flaps to two thirty??, changed into fine pitch and stood by while Alan brought her down. As usual we alighted beautifully, finished our run and taxied up to a buoy. With both drogues?? out and inboard engines cut we moved slowly up to a buoy. Murphy stuffed the short-slip?? through the loop, took two quick turns round the boat bollard, turned round and put his thumbs up. I switched off and turned to Alan. ‘There seems to be a hell of a lot of activity here.’

Alan looked out, saw people scurrying backward and forward from the pier; airmen on the pier with machine guns and in fact more activity than we had seen before. By this time a dinghy had come alongside and we climbed in. Alan grinned at the dinghy driver and said ‘Why all the flap?’ The dinghy driver looked at us in blank amazement. ‘Flap! Blimey there’s a war on! We declared war on Germany at 11 o’clock this morning.’ It was September 3rd 1939.

My thoughts were confused but one thing stood out. We had been flying for 5 hours at war with Germany, our only lethal weapon was a Verey pistol and we hadn’t been warned. I hoped that it wasn’t an augury for the future. The mess that night was chaotic, everyone stood around clutching pints of beer and taking excitedly. The general feeling was one of relief, at last we knew exactly where we stood. Bets were laid as to how long the war would last, one optimist said it would be over by Xmas. Our CO looked at him and said dryly ‘I seem to remember hearing that said in the last war.’

Alan was in the mess and he asked me to go back with him for some food. As we walked slowly through the streets to his house Alan was silent until he said ‘What do you think about it Reg?’

I thought for a minute or so and replied ‘Well I think that we all expected it and personally I feel relieved that it is now a plain issue, the Germans or us. At heart we all have a very deep respect and love for this country of ours and for our way of living and as we are fighting to preserve that well it’s a good fight. Personally I think that most of us will never see the end of the war, at least not from this world, but I don’t feel that that is important. I don’t particularly want to die, but if it is written so well there it is and what’s the good of worrying. Alan grunted and said ‘When are you getting married?’ I looked at him in surprise. ‘Married? I hadn’t thought about that. What the heck has that to do with the war?’

Alan smiled and said ‘Ask me that question again in the morning?’ We completed our walk in silence and went into Alan’s house.

Nancy was Alan’s wife, dark not beautiful but attractive, a delightful understanding woman who lived only for Alan. As we had supper and chatted of odds and ends I watched Nancy, she was cheery and bright and seemed full of life, but her eyes betrayed her. I began to realize a little of what Alan had hinted at. Nancy’s soul was in her eyes and her eyes were saying ‘I can’t lose him, it must come out all right. Why must men fight’.

I took my leave of them rather abruptly. I felt that I was looking on forbidden sights. As I said goodnight to Alan he looked at me and said ‘For men must work and women must weep’. As I walked back to the Mess I realized for the first time why women hated war so deeply, they had the worst job, all they could do was sit and wait and hope. For the first time that day I felt unhappy.

Submarine Hunter

September 9th

Flight Lieutenant Ainslie and his second pilot Flight Lieutenant Baker took off on their first war patrol and were lucky enough to sight a submarine on that initial trip. They at once attacked with bombs, but to their chagrin the submarine escaped.

Reg’s views on his first attempted kill:

The first patrol we did after the declaration of war was completely uneventful until we were on the homeward leg. About a hundred miles out from the coast we sighted U-boat. The U-boat was about 2 miles away on the surface, we went straight into the attack. The warning horn had been sounded on board and every one was at his post. We were flying at about 1700 feet and with the throttle fully open we went for the U-boat. Alan pitched the nose down and we dived at the swirl left by the submerging sub. At 500 feet the ‘fit’ was released and 4x250lb AS bombs released. We climbed sharply and turned to port.

The 4 bombs straddled the ‘wash’ of the submarine beautifully. We circled, watching and hoping. Nothing happened, the area was slightly discoloured, a faint greenish brown and that was all.

We had already reported our attack by wireless and after waiting for half an hour hoping against hope that we should see results, we set course for base. We were all excited but badly disappointed, we were the first crew in the squadron to have any action but it had been most unsatisfactory.

When we had moored up and reported to Operations Room we were surrounded by a crowd of excited chaps.

“What had it been like”

“You lucky devils”

“Did you fix it?”

And a host of other questions were hurled at us from all sides. Alan good naturedly answered all the questions and eventually we were left alone with our food and pint of beer.

As soon as was possible I lay in a steaming hot bath, my pipe burning away smoothly and myself completely at rest. I found a hot bath and a pipe the best possible relaxation. I lay in the water and tried to analyse my somewhat confused feelings. For the first time I had been in action and one thing had registered if nothing else, action was so sudden engrossing that one had no time to think, merely time to react instinctively for the first time. I had tried to kill some human beings. Was I sorry? I knew that the only cause for sorrow was that we hadn’t definitely killed the U-boat.

It was pleasant reclining there and trying to analyse my feelings but like all good things it came to an end. My batman entered – “you are wanted on the phone”

“Oh hell I groaned who wants me?” the batman mumbled “It’s a French call sir and it sounded like a lady”.

I groaned ‘French’, climbed out of the bath and slipped into my dressing gown slithered down the corridor to the telephone.

“Baker here”

A faint yet recognisable voice came over the wire, “Is that you darling this is Ann”.

September 14th

During their second patrol they again sighted a submarine and let loose their load of bombs, but once more the enemy eluded them.

September 16th

They went out for their third patrol and sighted their third submarine which was promptly bombed without avail.

Three submarines sighted on three trips and not one attack successful there is no need to touch on their feelings!

September 19th

Hopefully they took to the air again on , and generous Dame Fortune gave them another chance to sink an enemy submarine, but although their bombs crashed down without delay, the U-boat got away.

Thus on four successive patrols Flight Lieutenant Ainslie and his second pilot Flight Lieutenant Baker had the unusual luck to sight four submarines and the misfortune to lose them all.

By trial and error some of the greatest discoveries have been made. As attacks had not given the results expected, it seemed that some­thing more was needed to bring success. The question remained whether the method of attack and the weapons employed were the most suitable for the purpose. That was the problem which all those engaged on the task had to work out.

On the last operation a friendly ship had been sunk by the U-boat and they directed a Dutch tanker to the area and the lifeboat containing the survivors.

The Loss of 65

End of September

Reg Baker and his pilot remained on shore and on the station whilst the rest of their normal crew were on an operation in their aircraft ‘65.

That evening they went to the pub and as Reg’s normal crew wasn’t due back until midnight he went to bed. The next morning at breakfast Reg noticed a colleague looking longer in the face than usual.

“I ruffled his head and said ‘Cheer up Ivor, only the good die young.’ He looked at me. ‘What the hell is there to cheer up about,’ he answered, ‘65 crashed last night. Everybody was written off.’ I couldn’t believe it . . . all the old crew gone.

I sorted out the whole story as far as it could be done. By midnight when they were due back the weather was somewhat hazy. W/T fixes had been sent out and 65 had actually flown over the station without seeing it. Ivor was on the flare path and at last he saw 65 coming in, she was coming over the cliff towards Angle Bay when suddenly her engines spluttered and stopped. 65 hit the edge of the cliff crashed into the haven and went down like a stone.

About two weeks later the bodies of the crew began to be washed up and ‘we had funerals day after day’.

Murphy was the last to come up. He lay there on the bare rock, looking more muscular than he had ever done alive, his chest greeny blue mottled seemed to be fully expanded but his face and hands were eaten away. I thought of the fish I had eaten for lunch, turned away and was quietly sick. We rolled the body into a blanket, carried it down to the power boat and with an ensign at half mast headed for the station. Rob and I sat at the stern smoking; the body was lashed forward.

My thoughts were chaotic, was this pitiful corpse all that was left of our fitter? What had happened to turn a living man who loved and thought into this shrouded clay? I knew the physical explanation, his heart had stopped beating, he had died, but was that the whole of life. Were we all just like mechanical toys, capable of running for so long, and then becoming cold and empty? I couldn’t quite feel that our life was an end in itself; probably it was wishful thinking. We said little to each other, Rob and I, on that ride home. What could we say, we were in the presence of something which was beyond our understanding. As we stood by and watched the body carried away from the pier Rob lightly put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Well I must away. I’ve lots to do on the poor demise’. He hesitated. ‘Thank God it wasn’t you.’”

Reg went to the Pub for his supper, spirits low and later on walked back to camp.

“I passed airmen and soldiers arm in arm with their girlfriends, completely wrapped up in each other. In my mind I said, ‘Of course they don’t know about my crew, or else they would be bewildered like me.’

But I knew that I was wrong. A fragment of poetry came into my mind and I found myself repeating unconsciously.

‘What is life if full of care We have no time to stand and stare.’ To stare. God how those sightless eyes had stared into the heavens. Had they stared in vain. I didn’t know.”

Mourning the loss of loved ones

Reg also had the task of meeting his former crew mates Mother and Sister when they came to the station to mourn the loss of their loved one.

“Murphy’s mother was slightly built, grey-haired, dressed in black, her fingers curling and uncurling spasmodically. Her face was swollen with crying and her eyes had the dazed hurt look of an animal that had suddenly been cuffed without understanding why. I tried to say that Murphy and I had been in the same crew, but I couldn’t. I knew that nothing I could say or do would get through that overwhelming sorrow. My eyes will never forget the dry eyed sorrow of Murphy’s sister and my ears can never banish the sobbing of his mother and the bitterly repeated ‘He was such a good boy.’

That night I went to bed very drunk.”

6th December 1939: Pembroke Dock – At the moment I am singularly fed up. I am laid up with a badly damaged shoulder – heaven only knows when it will be right again – I have torn the muscles and badly bruised the bones.

Christmas 1939

Reg Baker returned to his home in Doncaster, to spend it with his parents. Unsurprisingly they were concerned about the welfare of their son.

I tried to answer their questions about the War although I probably knew less than they did; Dad startled me by saying, How long is it going to last Reg?’

I thought – how long is it going to last? Three months have gone and we have done nothing. The last one took four years and the world hadn’t been too well developed for dealing out death and destruction.

‘Four and a half years’ I answered. ‘Certainly not less.’ Mother turned her head away and Dad sighed ‘God as long as that.’

I echoed him ‘Yes, as long as that.’