Flying the unarmed Spitfire PRIVs of No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit on sorties over occupied Europe was a hazardous job, especially when the mark was outclassed by the latest opposition. Several pilots found out the hard way, such as Wallace Devereux, shot down — and rescued — in August 1942
It was with a mixture of relief and trepidation that Wallace Devereux watched as the big Dornier flying boat slowly circled his position and then alighted on the water — relief because he would soon be rescued, trepidation because it would mean captivity in a German prisoner of war camp.
Wallace Deane Devereux was a scion of a wealthy industrial family, his father, Col Wallace Charles Devereux, having founded High Duty Alloys in the 1920s to develop and manufacture light alloys for the aircraft industry. At the outbreak of World War Two Col Devereux was appointed director of forgings and castings at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, so it was perhaps not surprising, considering his close family affiliation with aviation, that Wallace junior would join the RAF. When war broke out he was reading history at Trinity College, Cambridge, but he put his education on hold to volunteer for the air force. Called up in July 1940 he was selected for pilot training, and on successful completion the following year was commissioned. Posted to No 2 School of Air Navigation at Cranage, he served as a staff pilot flying mainly Avro Ansons. There he gained valuable experience acting as the ‘driver’ for trainee navigators as they attempted to find their way around various parts of the UK.
After a few months he was informed that he was to be posted to Benson, Oxfordshire, where he would be joining No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. The PRU operated specially modified Spitfires and Mosquitos and ranged over much of occupied Europe and Germany, obtaining vital photographs of enemy industrial and military installations.
Arriving at Benson on 19 April 1942, he was quickly assessed for his suitability for high-altitude flying. After passing all medical checks and being introduced to the Spitfire he joined ‘K’ Flight, based at Detling in Kent, under the command of veteran reconnaissance pilot Sqn Ldr Philip Watts DSO DFC. ‘K’ Flight had been formed at the end of 1941 as a dedicated operational training unit within No 1 PRU so new pilots could learn current techniques and procedures before posting to an operational flight. Having completed the four-week syllabus, once Watts was satisfied that Devereux was competent he cleared him for operations and sent the newcomer back to Benson.
There Devereux was informed he would be joining ‘F’ Flight, which was based at St Eval in Cornwall and engaged in covering targets in Brittany, the Biscay ports and the western Franco-Spanish frontier with an emphasis on the hardened U-boat pens along the coast. ‘F’ Flight had recently been re-formed and was led by the redoubtable Flt Lt Freddie Ball. ‘Fiery Fred’ had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly and soon made it clear to Devereux what was expected of him. That said, he was highly respected and liked by his men, who knew he would always stand up for them and not ask them to do anything he was not prepared to do himself.
No time was wasted in selecting Devereux for his first operational sortie, being informed he would be on the flying programme for Wednesday 20 May. Ball tried to introduce his new pilots to operations as gently as possible, making their first few sorties relatively shallow penetrations of hostile airspace. As such, at briefing on the 20th Devereux learned his objectives were to be targets in the Channel Islands as well as Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Malo on the north Breton coast.
The next few hours were spent preparing and planning until, about 20 minutes before his allocated take-off time, he walked out to his aircraft, Spitfire PRIV AB424, to do his pre-flight checks. With everything in order he taxied out and, as he recorded in his post-mission report, “Took off 10:45hrs and set course for Dodman Point at 10:55hrs. Climbed through medium cloud between 12,000ft to 15,000ft. At 11:15hrs Guernsey under clear sky but Jersey half under high cloud. Multiple cloud layers over N.W. France but parts of the coast could be seen through gaps. At 11:20hrs ran into 10/10 cloud at 25,000ft. Flew on course for St Brieuc for 5 mins after ETA [estimated time of arrival] but target obscured. At 11:25hrs altered course for St Malo but no gaps found. 11:29hrs altered course for Guernsey and at 11:40hrs came out of cloud 5 miles west of the island. Photos taken of Guernsey aerodrome and the harbour at St Peter Port from 20,000ft just below a layer of cirrus. Jersey under a lower layer of cloud so returned to base. Clear all the way back.”
AB424 touched down at 12.15hrs and taxied to dispersal, Devereux having been introduced to the variable flying conditions usually prevailing over north-west Europe. His films were unloaded for processing and he proceeded to the intelligence section for debriefing, pleased he had succeeded in covering at least one of his targets but frustrated that the weather had thwarted his attempts at the other objectives. After debrief he went to the mess before returning to the flight’s office to find out the results of his sortie. He was happy to learn that usable photographs of Guernsey had been obtained, but also received the sobering news that fellow flight member Sgt Albert ‘Dusty’ Miller was overdue from a sortie to cover La Rochelle, Rochefort and Bordeaux. He had taken off just before Devereux and was expected back at about 14.00. A Canadian, Miller had joined ‘F’ Flight eight weeks prior to Devereux and was on his 10th operational sortie. He was later declared missing, remaining so to this day.
Miller’s loss was the third suffered by the flight in less than two months, all relatively inexperienced pilots. It highlighted that casualties were likely to be concentrated amongst new arrivals. Speaking in an interview after the war, Freddie Ball stated, “It would take a dozen or so sorties before a chap really started to get on top of his game and 20 before you could say, with a bit of luck, he was probably going to make it”. He considered one of the most important factors to survival as being able to keep a good look out for the enemy: “No matter how good your aircraft, if your enemy saw you first you were liable to get shot down. Unfortunately, seeing before you were seen tended to come with experience, which was why so many photo-recce losses were amongst newly arrived pilots.”
With his first sortie partially successful, Devereux’s name went to the bottom of the list. Like most flights within the PRU, ‘F’ Flight operated a ‘squash ladder’ whereby if your name was at or near the top you were likely to fly operations the next day. Poor weather conditions over France now kept the tempo of operations to a minimum, so it was not until the 27th that he was scheduled to fly his second mission. At briefing he was informed that his objectives were the same as before, with the addition of the ports of Brest and Lorient. At 10.25 he lifted off, again flying AB424. Over the next two hours he tried to locate his targets but the cloud conditions were even worse than on the 20th, although he did take photographs of Île Vierge, sections of coast near Lorient and Saint-Brieuc and Guernsey through small gaps in the cloud. After landing he learned his photographs were largely rendered unusable due to cloud. The weather was proving a bigger hindrance to the success of an operation than the activities of the enemy.
An improvement allowed more sorties to be flown, but clearer conditions over western France meant the Luftwaffe was more likely to put in an appearance. On the 31st Devereux was again tasked with covering Guernsey and Jersey as well as the lighthouse at Casquets. The day prior, Fg Off Don Furniss had been intercepted by three Focke-Wulf Fw 190s over Saint-Malo but saw them in good time so was able to make his escape before they could close to firing range. Warned to keep his eyes open for enemy fighters, Devereux left St Eval at 14.37, this time at the controls of AB427. He could see the Channel Islands clearly at some distance and photographed Casquets, west of Alderney, before carrying out a run over St Sampson, St Peter Port and Guernsey aerodrome at 26,000ft. After 40 exposures his port camera jammed. He flew on to photograph Jersey aerodrome and St Helier, only for the starboard camera to run away after 110 exposures. With both cameras unserviceable he aborted his sortie and returned to base, landing at 16.30. He later learned that, despite the problems, he had bought back some excellent photographs.
With his first few sorties behind him Ball decided Devereux could be assigned objectives deeper inside enemy territory. During the next month Devereux succeeded in covering many of the towns and ports along the Biscay coast as well as numerous railway marshalling yards and aerodromes. It is noteworthy that, in the course of June’s sorties, he was not intercepted once and did not encounter any significant anti-aircraft fire, even when over Brest, which was noted for its high concentration of flak.
As June came to a close it was learned that ‘F’ Flight was to be rotated back to Benson, its place at St Eval to be taken by ‘D’ Flight. The hand-over was scheduled for the 30th of the month. At morning briefing on the 29th Devereux was given his objectives for the day and set about planning his route, which would take him on his deepest penetration to date.
On return, instead of making for St Eval he was told he was to land at Mount Farm, Benson’s satellite airfield. He took off in ground fog at about 14.20. Over the next four hours he photographed a small convoy off the Île de Ré, the U-boat pens at La Pallice, and the Gironde ports of Royan, Le Verdon-sur-Mer, Pauillac and Blaye before covering Bordeaux and the large Luftwaffe base at Mérignac. He turned north and on the return leg did runs over Nantes, Rennes and Saint-Malo. Forced down to 24,000ft by a solid layer of altostratus he completed his photography over St Helier, St Peter Port and St Sampson. At both St Helier and St Peter Port he experienced about 12 bursts of flak which was accurate for height but lagged behind his aircraft. All objectives covered, he set course for Benson and landed at Mount Farm at 18.35.
The remainder of ‘F’ Flight returned from St Eval during the next couple of days and settled back into the routine at Benson. Since spring 1942 work had been under way to construct concrete runways at the base, with all Spitfire operations being flown from Mount Farm from the end of May. Only the Mosquitos of ‘L’ Flight continued to fly from Benson, although most of the day-to-day support facilities remained there. Devereux’s initial sortie from Mount Farm took place on 5 July when he successfully brought back photographs of Boulogne, Étaples, Saint-Polsur-Ternoise, Amiens, Formerie, Serqueux, Montérolier-Buchy, Rouen and Dieppe from between 24,000 and 28,000ft although his Spitfire, BP887, exhibited very high fuel consumption.
He flew five more operational sorties that month, successfully covering targets in France and Belgium. After one sortie to Cherbourg on the 19th he was informed that RAF ground radar had tracked one enemy aircraft trying to intercept him, but other than some flak over the port he had not seen anything.
‘F’ Flight started to fly damage assessment (D/A) taskings for Bomber Command at the end of July. This required coverage of a target as soon as possible following a raid, in order that the effectiveness of bombing could be determined before the Germans had an opportunity to repair or conceal any damage caused. Ball conducted his flight’s inaugural D/A sortie on the 31st when he photographed Saarbrücken following the big RAF raid on the night of 29-30 July. Devereux’s first sortie to cover targets in Germany was scheduled for 1 August, when his objectives were Vegesack and Bremerhaven, but just prior to take-off the mission was cancelled by operations. WO Walter Harrison of ‘B’ Flight failed to return from a mission to the same targets later that day, most likely falling to Messerschmitt Bf 109 pilot Ltn Gerd Steiger of 2./ Jagdgeschwader 1 who claimed a Spitfire west of Heligoland.
Not until 13 August was Devereux again tasked with objectives in Germany, this time in the Ruhr. Airborne early in the morning he photographed Antwerp on his way to Duisburg and Essen, but on his ETA found the whole Ruhr area obscured by ten-tenths cloud. He observed a small gap to the east and was about to investigate it when he noticed a single-engine enemy aircraft climbing towards his position. He immediately opened up the throttle and set course for home. As he crossed the German-Dutch border he saw Rotterdam through broken cloud, so he made one run over the port and along the New Waterway Canal to the Hook of Holland at 28,000ft.
Having flown a sortie to Belgium on the 26th, he returned to Germany the next day, the target being Kassel. Almost immediately things started to go wrong. After take-off the rear-view mirror detached, so he decided to land and have a new canopy fitted. Getting airborne once more, he set course for Kassel. As he climbed to height he realised his cockpit heater was not working but continued on regardless, taking photographs of Domburg as he crossed the enemy coast. Ten minutes later the engine cut, and after getting it restarted it would not pick up properly and surged very badly. He immediately aborted the sortie and turned for home, but managed to photograph the island of Schouwen. Although the engine started to run more smoothly as he crossed the North Sea, it still surged with weak mixture selected, so it was with some relief that he landed at Mount Farm. On landing it was also discovered that the camera hatch had blown open. All in all, a most unsatisfactory sortie.
Devereux was determined to bring back photographs of a German target and he did not have to wait long for his next opportunity. He was informed by Freddie Ball that he would be on the flying programme for 28 August.
His day started as it had many times before. Following breakfast he attended the meteorological briefing with all other duty aircrew. Prior to this, flight commanders had been given the daily target lists for their flights, selected which pilots would cover which targets and allocated them a take-off slot. Devereux then made his way to the intelligence section where he was given his main objectives as well as any alternatives should his primaries be obscured, or if he had any film remaining. He was informed of any other activities in the area and where he was likely to experience flak or fighter opposition. Driven over to the ‘F’ Flight dispersal at Mount Farm, in the flight office he planned his route and made out his flight clearance forms, paying particular attention to locations and times for crossing the English coast in order to avoid interception by friendly fighters. His objectives that day — Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven and Brunsbüttel — would take him into an area known for its danger. During August ‘F’ Flight alone had lost two aircraft trying to cover the German North Sea ports. On the 11th Sgt Peter O’Connell, RAAF failed to return and six days later fellow Australian Flt Sgt Kenneth Wright went missing from a mission to the same area.
With a favourable weather forecast Devereux was confident that, this time, fortune would be on his side in German skies. After warming up the engine of BP924 and double-checking his oxygen was on, he took off at 10.03 and steered a course for Southwold on the Suffolk coast, crossing out at 25,000ft about half an hour later.
As he continued climbing over the North Sea, the Frisian Islands became apparent in the distance and he began to watch closely for fighters, aware of the numerous Luftwaffe bases dotted along the chain of islands and the north-west German coast. Over the course of the next hour he succeeded in photographing all his primary objectives, and on leaving the area of the Elbe Estuary he sighted a small convoy near Heligoland.
Devereux recalled after the war what happened next: “I was on my return across the North Sea when at 12.00hrs I was hit by cannon shells. Just prior to this I had covered a convoy and made a couple of runs over Heligoland. Whilst over the island I had a good look around for fighters and set my course home. I was at 30,000ft and about 40 miles west of Heligoland and was searching into the sun which was on my port [side] but there was thick haze and the visibility into the sun was very poor.
“I did not see the fighter until after I was hit, but as the shells came through the cockpit floor into the engine I presume he was under my tail. My engine cut immediately and the machine went into a steep spiral. I had lost aileron control and the instrument panel was smashed but I tried to restart the engine but without success. By applying the rudder I attempted to straighten my course but this resulted in the machine going into a very tight spin. I then tried to bale out but found it impossible until with the help of opposite rudder the machine eventually came out of the spin.
“When I baled out my harness was loose so that I got a terrible kick in the groin as the canopy opened and shortly afterwards two [Bf] 109Fs dived past me (my flying boots were loose too so I lost them as well). My Spitfire was still going in a steep spiral when I saw it hit the sea. When I went into the water I was still in my harness as I had not pressed the release hard enough but I was soon able to disentangle myself while floating with the aid of my Mae West as the sea was very calm. My fighter dinghy inflated but it had a slight leak and only a very rusty water container, with a small tin of meat and no opener.”
Devereux had just become another victim of Ltn Dieter Gerhardt of 2./JG 1, who was becoming something of a counter-reconnaissance specialist. His downing of Devereux’s Spitfire PRIV on 28 August was his fifth claim to date and his fourth against a reconnaissance machine. The first occurred on 5 March 1942 when he delivered the coup de grâce to No 1 PRU Spitfire PRIV AA810 — today being rebuilt to airworthiness — near Trondheim after it had been damaged by his Rottenführer (element leader), Ltn Heinz Knoke. The Spitfire pilot, Plt Off Sandy Gunn, succeeded in bailing out with minor injuries and was soon captured. Gerhardt’s next success was not until 26 July when he claimed a Mosquito over the North Sea. This was most likely MkIV DK289 of No 1401 (Meteorological) Flight on a weather reconnaissance sortie to the German Bight and Skagerrak. The body of Plt Off Leonard Dejace, a very experienced pre-war Belgian pilot, was washed ashore along the Norwegian coast the following December but that of his navigator, Sgt George Prag, was never found. On 17th August he intercepted another No 1 PRU Spitfire near Bremen. This was PRIV BP887 flown by ‘F’ Flight’s Flt Sgt Ken Wright, RAAF, who was forced to take to his parachute and made a prisoner of war. On the 28th Gerhardt and his wingman were scrambled from Jever, west of Wilhelmshaven, and vectored to intercept a lone aircraft working its way along the coast, eventually catching it and attaining a favourable firing position 50km (31 miles) west-north-west of Heligoland at 9,300m (30,500ft).
Back at Mount Farm, concern for Devereux was mounting as his estimated time of return passed. When it was obvious he would have expended all his fuel, formal overdue procedure was initiated. News was later received that a radio message from German fighters had been intercepted in which they claimed to have shot down a Spitfire in the area he would have been operating in and were requesting rescue services for a downed pilot. As Mount Farm anxiously waited for word of the pilot, Devereux sat in his small dinghy in the North Sea contemplating his fate. Fortunately the sea state was very benign, and after a couple of hours he could hear the noise of an aircraft in the distance.
“I was spotted by a twin-engine aircraft which dropped some sea markers, fired some Verey lights and then disappeared. It returned two hours later and, flying low, dropped a large crew dinghy. This landed upside-down but I did not notice until the German observer signed to me to turn it over as his machine slowly made another pass. There was a first aid kit, pyrotechnics, food, wine and brandy. I bandaged my leg which had a few shell splinters in it; [I] let off a smoke signal but decided to save the food in case I was not quickly picked up. However, after another two hours a three-engine Dornier flying boat came in to land so I hastily drank half the brandy. One of the crew took frequent photos of me getting into his machine and during the flight, probably for propaganda use.”
The flying boat was a Do 24 belonging to 4. Seenotstaffel and was piloted by its Staffelkapitän, Oblt Wolfgang Kretschmar. Soon after Devereux had been shot down the unit was alerted that a British aircraft had crashed into the sea and that the pilot had succeeded in his bale-out. After an Fw 58 Weihe had dropped a new dinghy and confirmed the downed pilot’s position, Kretschmer took off from Norderney at 17.03 and set course for the last reported location. After a quick search the dinghy was spotted. He put the Dornier down on a flat, calm sea and taxied slowly up to the RAF airman who began rowing towards the aircraft. Once Devereux was aboard, Kretschmar got the Do 24 airborne again and landed back at Norderney at 18.22. The Spitfire pilot was taken to the nearby naval hospital where he spent some time getting his leg treated.
As 28 August 1942 came to a close, morale at Benson was low. Not only was Devereux missing but two other pilots had failed to return home. There had been a number of days when two aircraft were missing, but never three. Sgt Freddy Evans of ‘B’ Flight in Spitfire PRIV AB422 had taken off just 30 minutes before Devereux on a D/A sortie to Kassel. He was later reported as killed in action, probably a casualty of the Fw 190s of 11./JG 1. Likewise, ‘C’ Flight’s Fg Off Eric Harris in PRIV AB317 had left on a D/A mission shortly after Devereux, his objectives being Bingen and Labach. He too was killed, also probably shot down by 11./JG 1. August was the joint bloodiest month of the war for No 1 PRU with nine aircraft lost on operations: eight Spitfires and one Mosquito, exactly mirroring April 1942. The unit’s losses over north-west Europe had been climbing steadily during the year as the increasingly sophisticated German air defence network was better able to deal with the RAF’s reconnaissance efforts. One of the primary factors was how the performance advantage once held by the Spitfire PRIV over Luftwaffe interceptors had gradually been eroded and surpassed by the latest German fighter types, particularly the Bf 109G and Fw 190. This situation would not start to be remedied until the arrival of the Spitfire PRXI gradually swung the pendulum back in favour of the RAF when it started to enter operational service at the end of 1942.
No 1 PRU was disbanded in October 1942 and its various flights were used to form five new squadrons, Nos 540 to 544. For the remainder of the war, photographic reconnaissance would continue to be the main means of gathering intelligence on the enemy’s activities.
Of the Germans involved with the shooting-down and rescue of Devereux, Dieter Gerhardt continued to fly with 2./JG 1. On 27 January 1943 he claimed a B-17 shot down and on 26 February he was credited with another. The increasing strength of the US 8th Air Force meant it could make deeper, more numerous penetrations into Germany, the U-boat construction yards at Vegesack being targeted on 18 March. The B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Wing (44th and 93rd Bomb Groups), along with the B-17s of the 1st Bomb Wing, were heavily engaged by JG 1 for much of their time in hostile airspace. Gerhardt was seen to damage a B-24 but was hit by return fire from American bombers near Heligoland. Ironically, he succeeded in baling out of his stricken Bf 109 and climbing into his dinghy but died of his wounds before he could be rescued. He was 21 years old. Wolfgang Kretschmar, who rescued Devereux from the sea, would survive the conflict.
After commanding 4. Seenotstaffel he became Staffelkapitän of 1./ Minensuchgruppe 1, carrying out mine clearance operations in Ju 52/3ms modified to detonate magnetic mines as the aircraft flew over them. He ended the war with the rank of Hauptmann.
As for Devereux, after five weeks in Norderney naval hospital he was sent to the police transit camp at Amersfoort in the Netherlands, the Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort, before going to Dulag Luft at Oberursel near Frankfurt for interrogation and processing. From there he was transferred to Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Lower Silesia. In 1944 he was scheduled to take part in the ‘Great Escape’, being selected by lottery as number 180 in the escape order.
However, the attempt was discovered after 76 prisoners had got out, Devereux being in the tunnel when the alarm was raised. This may have saved his life as 50 of the 76 were executed by the Gestapo. Marched further west in January 1945 to avoid advancing Soviet troops, he was eventually liberated by American forces at the end of April. Repatriated to Britain, he worked in the family business with his father before emigrating to the USA in the mid-1950s. There he continued to work in the aluminium industry. He passed away on 15 May 2005, aged 84.
During his short time with No 1 PRU, Wallace Devereux flew a total of 16 operational sorties. Despite sometimes adverse weather conditions or technical defects, he succeeded in bringing back photographs on all but his very last mission. A quiet, determined man, he was one of the many unsung heroes of the PRU.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special thanks to Wallace Devereux’s son Wayne for his help and sharing his father’s material.