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Hilary Edridge - a practising Roman Catholic who had a premonition of his own death


Hilary Patrick Michael Edridge was born on 20th January 1919 in Bath. His father Ray was recorded as a dental student in the 1901 census and in 1911 as a medical professional (surgeon). A medical directory shows that he was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. For many years he lived at addresses in Lawn Terrace, Blackheath, south east London.

HPM Edridge joined the RAF on a short service commission and began his elementary flying training on 23rd January 1939. His flying licence showed that some of his training was carried out at 13 FTS Drem.


Above image courtesy of Andy Saunders.

After completing his training it is believed that he joined 222 Squadron operating Spitfires at Duxford on 21st October 1939. Operating from Hornchurch, he was over Dunkirk on 1st June and probably destroyed a Me109.


On 30th August during the Battle of Britain Edridge was shot down by Me109s. He baled out, with burns to the face, landing at Broome Park. His Spitfire, K9826, crashed and burned out at Marley, near Barham.

Edridge’s next operational sortie was not made until 21st September.

Edridge made a forced-landing at Tillingham Hall, near Horndon in Essex on 15th October due to engine failure. He shared in the destruction of a Me110 on the 20th. After being severely damaged in combat with Me109s on 30th October 1940, Edridge, suffering from a head wound, attempted to land at Longwood Farm, Ewhurst. The aircraft, K9939, caught fire and overturned. Edridge was cut free and rushed to an emergency hospital at Brickwall House, Northiam but died that day of his injuries.


Edridge was aged 21 and is buried in the Roman Catholic Cemetery, Perrymead, Widcombe, Bath.



August 2020 - Andy Saunders kindly submitted his in-depth research from 2012:


By the start of the Battle of Britain on 10th July 1940 P/O Hilary Edridge had already been ‘blooded’ in battle. Serving with 222 ‘Natal’ Squadron throughout his all-too-short service career he had first flown twin engine Bristol Blenheim fighters before the squadron converted to Spitfires at their Duxford base in March 1940. Here, Hilary flew with his best friend, P/O Tim Vigors, under their then Flight Commander, F/Lt. Douglas Bader and when the squadron first engaged the enemy over the Dunkirk beaches, Hilary was able to claim a Messerschmitt 109 as a ‘probable’.


However, the squadron had taken a battering over the evacuation beaches and were withdrawn to a quieter sector in the north of England before being sent south again to RAF Hornchurch on 29th August. It was from here that Hilary flew and fought for the duration of the remainder of the battle, having once been obliged to make a forced landing due to engine problems and once being shot down and burned before baling out over Kent. On the penultimate day of the Battle of Britain, however, Hilary was again shot down but managed to make a crash-landing despite a bullet wound to the head. Sadly, it transpired that his wounds were fatal.


Hilary Edridge’s own written testimony of his part in the fighting of 1940 is limited to a short combat report relating to an aerial engagement in the battle over Dunkirk on 1st June 1940 where he probably destroyed, but certainly damaged, a Messerschmitt 109. However, we are fortunate that his father, Dr Ray Edridge, wrote his own emotive tribute to his beloved son in which he touched on many aspects of his boy’s short life. Amongst those elements of Hilary’s brief RAF career, his father gives us a glimpse of that day over Dunkirk:


Hilary was over Dunkirk during the evacuation. He told me there was no need to set a course. You steered for a vast black pillar of smoke. They were told to do as much damage as they could to the Jerries. He said the sea was a marvellous sight, covered with all kinds of craft, large and small. He saw a transport blown-up, and he told me of many other things that I forget. I think he brought down his first German ‘plane that day. It was the only time he mentioned bringing anyone down. He chased this ‘plane, but the pilot evaded him for a long while. Then he got on his tail again, going (I think he said?) at ‘twelve boosts’ [sic] and getting within two hundred yards he gave him the works. He looked at me and flushed. “It was bloody. He just burst in the air….” And then he talked about something else…..


Rather less personal and naturally more matter of fact, however, is Hilary’s own Combat Report of that engagement:

Enemy fighters sighted in line astern. I saw three dive down to sea level pursued by a few of our fighters. The remainder circled and engaged us. I saw a Me 109 dive past me, evidently having fired at me from behind, though I noticed no tracer or cannon shells. I eventually got fairly easily on his tail and got in a long burst. Immediately he slowed down. I presumed his engine had stopped and white smoke and flames appeared. I could not confirm this as I was forced to break away with a Me 110 on my tail – firing inaccurately with tracer. No hits to my machine. About half my ammunition was expended.


Whilst there are some differences in the two accounts, there is little doubt that both reports relate to the same incident and portray for us the life-and-death struggle in which Hilary was embroiled. Hilary, though, was a gentle and devoutly religious young man with a deep love of music and literature. Without doubt, however, he was a skilled and accomplished fighter pilot and we are able to learn a little more from his father:


I imagine he was a very good pilot, but whether above the average or not I have no means of judging. Does it matter in the least, either? To have been a Spitfire pilot at all, and during the Battle of Britain, was such an honour that I should be satisfied were he to have been the least amongst such a company. I remember asking him one day, after he had finished his training and begun to see actual service, how he liked it. He replied that flying was alright, but war was bloody. This was said with such feeling that I didn’t care to pursue the subject any further.

That ‘war was bloody’ was certainly becoming painfully evident to Hilary Edridge and his pal Tim Vigors, and on an almost daily basis during those days of late August and throughout the September and October of 1940. Losses and casualties on 222 Squadron just reflected the hectic pace of the air fighting, and Vigors would later write of those losses: “…we just got used to it. Shrugged it off.”


It was, perhaps, the only way to survive and to retain one’s sanity and to keep some sort of ability to continue. Pretty much as soon as their Squadron had arrived at Hornchurch, they were thrown into the thick of the fighting and Tim especially recalled what must have been their first encounter with the enemy during the Battle of Britain:


….A stream of tracer was flashing past my starboard wing tip and I hurriedly whipped my Spitfire into a left-hand diving turn and then pulled hard back to try to get above him. I saw him go fast and away below me, and at that moment a Dornier 17 appeared in front of me, about a couple of hundred yards away. As I prepared to fire, the Dornier exploded and a Spitfire, with guns still blazing, followed us down. I just saw the registration letters of Hilary’s aircraft on the side of the fuselage. I yelled with delight !

It is probably this event of which Dr Edridge also wrote, telling of dining at his club with Hilary and his girlfriend:


…….He was taking Kit to a dance afterwards, at the assembly Rooms. During dinner she told me how excited her father had been when he had seen two Spitfires bring down a Dornier at Maidstone. I saw Hilary’s face redden. He asked when, and what time it had been, and Kit gave him the details. “One of those pilots was me” said Hilary, but vouchsafed no more than this. Later, Major Roberts (Kit’s father; author) told me more about this, telling how both Spitfires had converged on the German, giving him bursts of machine gun fire that brought him down in flames. He said that he would have been much more excited had he known that it was Hilary up there.


Notwithstanding the testimony of Tim Vigors, Dr. Edridge and both Kit and Major Roberts, there appears to be no filed combat report that might tie in with or confirm this victory claim, although that might be explained by the fact that Hilary was shot down himself on another sortie later that same day. Quite likely, Hilary had simply not had a chance to fill out his report before he was temporarily knocked out of the battle himself.


Again, we rely on Hilary’s father for an account of his son’s close brush with death that day:

He was hit in the petrol tank, which immediately caught fire and the flames came back into the cockpit. He made a good get-away, electing to fall very much further than was pleasant before pulling his rip-cord. Jerry had been machine-gunning parachutist that day and he preferred to drop clear of that possibility. When he was first in difficulties his first reaction was thankfulness that it was all over. He put up his hand to make the sign of the cross, but then felt his parachute harness and realised that he must try to bale-out. He landed in Broome Park at Barham, in Kent, just through a gap in the trees….but actually on the back of a sheep! (Editor’s note: P/O Edridge had been shot down in Spitfire K9826, ZD-X)


The H.A.C were in possession of Broome Park and at first took him for a spy, but his language raised doubts in their minds and finally an Intelligence Officer gave him the ‘OK’. At this point they filled him up with Brandy, which was more to the point. His face was pretty badly burnt, but the burns were superficial although he spent a week in the Kent & Canterbury Hospital. By a strange coincidence I had been a house-physician there thirty five years ago.

After his week in hospital he came home for ten days leave, and was his usual bright and happy self and with no sign of mental reservations of any kind. It was during this leave, however, that he said goodbye to his friend Steve Sedgewick, telling him that he was going to die and would not see him again.


For once, though, Tim Vigors’ usual sang-froid at the loss of squadron comrades deserted him when his close friend Hilary had failed to come back from that early-evening sortie on 30th August, his fate initially unknown on the squadron:


None of us had seen him get into trouble, and I waited anxiously for news. Deaths had become everyday occurrences by now, but as I paced up and down outside the dispersal hut I found it difficult to treat the possibility that my good friend had been killed with that same studied lightness which, like everybody else, I had learnt to affect in these circumstances. Hilary and I had grown very close over the last few months and now, confronted by the stark reality that he might have been killed, I suddenly realised how much I relied on his sympathy and humour. Luckily, my anxiety on this occasion was short lived.

“He’s OK, Tim” yelled Johnny Hill from the doorway of the dispersal hut.”Biggin Hill have just called to say that he baled out. He’s a bit burnt, but they say not too bad.”


Illustrative of the knife-edge on which the lives of the two friends was balanced during those desperate days, Hilary now found that his friend, Tim Vigors, was ‘Missing’ when he returned to Hornchurch on 9th September. For a desperate few hours he also spent an anxious time waiting for news. In fact, Vigors turned up back at the airfield the next morning, after being shot down and having made a crash-landing into allotments at Dartford, Kent. Here, the drama of his juddering arrival in a cabbage patch was only matched by later having to be protected by Police Officers from angry members of the public.

Convinced that the blond-haired young Vigors was a captured German, they were intent on lynching him. At mortal danger in the air, this nineteen year old pilot was now in danger from the very public he was daily putting his life on the line to defend. Luckily, the protective Police Officers calmed the baying mob leaving Vigors shaken but unharmed. Back at Hornchurch, he found a relieved Hilary none the worse for wear apart from some scars on his forehead where the flames had penetrated between flying helmet and the top of his oxygen mask. Already, Hilary Edridge was aching for revenge. Tim Vigors, writing in 1979, was very clear about his friend’s state of mind:


The first time he was shot down he shouldn’t have come back so quickly, but he realised we were very short of pilots and insisted on flying again. I tried to talk him out of it, but he was an obstinate devil.


Not very long after this ‘obstinate devil’ had returned to ‘ops’, Hilary Edridge found himself in trouble yet again. This time, on 15th October, and on the squadron’s fourth patrol of the day, P/O Edridge’s Spitfire (K9795) suffered engine failure and he made a wheels-up emergency landing at Tillingham Hall near Horndon in Essex. The Spitfire was badly damaged, but Hilary was unhurt.

Fate served him better, however, on 20th October when he shared with four other Spitfire pilots (three from 92 Squadron and another pilot from 222 Squadron) in the destruction of a Messerschmitt 110 of 7.(F)/LG2 that was shot down and forced to land at Bockingfold in the village of Horsmonden, Kent. Of the two crew, Oblt Semmerich was captured and taken POW, but not before he had set fire to the bullet-riddled aircraft although the hail of gunfire that had downed the Messerschmitt had also taken the life of Semmerich’s crewman, the air gunner/wireless operator, Uffz. Rudolf Ebeling.


Perhaps recognising the terrible strain that this twenty-one year old pilot was now under, the Commanding of Officer of 222 Sqn, S/Ldr. ‘Johnny’ Hill, sent Hilary off on a short leave at around this time and it was during this leave that he said his farewells to his close friend, Steve Sedgewick. Mentally, too, he seems to have been preparing for what he believed to be inevitable during those last precious days of leave at his Bath home. Quiet and thoughtful, Hilary spent time immersing himself in music; playing the violin, flageolet, recorder and penny whistle and listening to Gilbert & Sullivan. He shared his time, too, amongst special friends and family, no doubt inwardly saying his farewells, but only openly sharing that ‘goodbye’ with Sedgewick. His strong Roman Catholic faith, too, was important to him at this time and Dr Edridge tells of his son’s attendance at Mass and Holy Communion on the last day of his last leave. It was here that he also requested of the celebrant, Canon Sugden; “What about a spot of confession, Canon?”


Under the circumstances, it is difficult if not impossible to comprehend the mental turmoil in this young man’s mind. Whatever that turmoil might have been, then he was dealing with it calmly and with serene dignity, noted later by his father. Hardly worthy of anything but passing comment by Hilary was his promotion to Flying Officer with effect from 21st October, the day after his shared victory over the Messerschmitt 110.

Whilst not having any particular premonition of his son’s demise, Dr. Edridge nevertheless knew the risks and he knew the odds. He later wrote of his inner fears following Hilary’s departure back to his squadron during late October with these poignant words:

If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come…

Sadly, that time came on Wenesday 30th October, 1940. It was the penultimate day of the Battle of Britain.

At around 11.15 that morning, S/ldr. Hill had led the squadron off from Hornchurch to patrol base at 30,000ft and to act as rear-guard for 41 Squadron. Very soon they were vectored to meet an enemy raid in the vicinity of Dover at 25,000ft although, in the event, the engagement that ensued had spread westwards and towards Hastings. One squadron pilot who managed to survive the engagement, told of its ferocity in a letter home to his mother. In it, P/O John Carpenter wrote:


…I was absolutely peppered with cannon shells and machine gun fire. My instrument panel broke up in front of me, for the fire came from over my shoulder. The engine started thumping and vibrating so that I thought it might shake the wings off…but I managed to struggle back to the aerodrome. When I got out and inspected the aeroplane the Flight Sergeant counted over three hundred holes in the fuselage. In fact, it looked something like a sieve.


Also coming under a similar withering hail of fire was another 222 Squadron pilot, twenty-three year old P/O Alfred Davies. High over the East Sussex coast his Spitfire was hit by a hail of 20mm cannon fire that literally hacked away one of Davies’ wings. Immediately, the Spitfire flicked into a vicious flat spin and like a fast-falling sycamore leaf it hurtled earthwards to crash with terrifying force into a meadow not fifty yards from Upper Wilting Farmhouse in the village of Crowhurst, nestling between Bexhill and Hastings. Meanwhile, the severed wing tumbled over and over and see-sawed back and forth as it fluttered down with a witness describing its descent as “…like a falling sheet of paper.”

Even had he survived the rounds that had slammed into his fighter, Davies stood no chance of getting out of his doomed Spitfire and would have almost certainly been trapped in the gyrating aircraft, pinned to his seat by centrifugal forces. Possibly, and perhaps mercifully, he may well have been quickly rendered unconscious by intolerable ‘G’ forces.


A little further to the north, over Northiam, Daisy Lloyd was walking towards her magnificent house, Great Dixter, as it was coming up to lunchtime. The sound of battle above was, by now, commonplace and almost ignored, but the noise of an approaching aircraft drew her attention. It circled, low, as if the pilot was looking for a landing place and then, terrifyingly, roared straight towards her home. In the last seconds it lifted up over the roof, but then vanished from view into the little valley beyond. Then came the sound of a crash. As she rushed indoors to telephone for an ambulance her gardener, chauffeur and electrician raced down to the scene. Here, they found a badly wrecked Spitfire with its wounded pilot trapped helplessly in the crumpled cockpit. It was Hilary Edridge. Struggling with his harness, and cutting him free of his parachute, many pairs of caring hands lifted him clear as the local ambulance bounced down the track to the scene.


Ambulance driver Bert Norris supervised the gentle removal of Hilary to the ambulance, and then drove off at high speed, down Dixter Lane and into Main Street towards Brickwall House on the other side of the village. Once a private stately home it had been transformed into a RAMC Field Hospital, and F/O HPM Edridge, 41836, would become its first real war-casualty patient. Tragically, and despite the care and attention he received, Hilary did not recover from his severe wounds and injuries. The next day, Bert Norris felt compelled to write to Hilary’s parents:


I want to assure you that everything possible was done for his comfort. I myself held blankets to screen him from the wind while the first aid party dressed his wounds. He crashed around 11.30 am, was found at once and cut out of his parachute and his wounds dressed and then taken to hospital. He passed on about 1.30pm, but I know he was unconscious all the time and knew nothing of what happened, I am sure. The reason, I think, of his crash was a bullet wound in the head.


Seemingly, Hilary Edridge had been wounded in combat and, despite his injuries, had tried valiantly to get his Spitfire down. From all the evidence it seems likely that he had selected his field and was on final approach when control was lost in those last moments. Perhaps weak from loss of blood and shock, his faculties had eventually failed him at the last second – although it seems very likely that his wounds would have been non-survivable in any case.


For Tim Vigors, the shock of loss was an almost intolerable blow. He had watched as his friend’s Spitfire was hit off to his right, protecting the squadron’s tail. An ugly cloud of black smoke momentarily engulfed the aircraft before it veered away from him, earthwards. Back at Hornchurch, and haunted by the sight of the stricken Spitfire, he paced up and down muttering “He must have got out, he must have got out…!” When news finally came through that Hilary was dead, Tim Vigors sat on the grass outside the squadron dispersal hut and wept.


In 1979, he recalled that dreadful day:

I can remember going pretty well berserk the afternoon Hilary was killed and making myself a thorough nuisance to the enemy as a result. Once I had got it out of my system, I was absolutely calm again but I missed old Hilary for many years to come. I still do. P/O Davies was a good friend of mine, too. It was a very bad day.

J

ust over a week later, and almost appropriately on 11th November, the tattered remnants of the squadron were withdrawn to RAF Coltishall to rest and reform. During the period of the Battle of Britain, Tim Vigors recalled the drain of pilot losses:


During this period we went through about 100% of our pilot strength and I was the only pilot left who flew back to Coltishall who had flown down to Hornchurch from Kirton-in-Lindsey that August. We got so short of experienced pilots that on two occasions, and as a nineteen year old Pilot Officer, I found myself leading the Hornchurch Wing. My dear friend knew that he would die. I felt sure that I would, too, but fate decreed otherwise and left me, all of these years, to mourn poor Hilary.


Mourning Hilary, too, were his parents and family. His father, Dr. Edridge, met the train bearing his son’s coffin on the evening of Monday 4th November at Bath’s Great Western Station. The train was late, and he waited looking up the line towards London, reflecting sadly on the times he had met Hilary here on happier occasions. Now he was meeting him for the last time.

Of the family’s grievous loss, Dr Edridge wrote:


Hilary is dead. He will never come back to us again. He was one of the most cherished possessions of our lives. Hilary eating. Hilary sleeping. Hilary kneeling at mass. All these things have suddenly ceased. This piece of life has been arrested, as the horologist with interjected finger arrests the beating of a clock. No amount of mental preparedness is proof against the dreadful blow when it falls. We loved him exceedingly, and still love him. We, the least courageous of parents, find that the honourable manner of his courageous passing makes it all the easier to bear.


In that ‘honourable and courageous passing’ F/O HPM Edridge* became the penultimate casualty of the 544 men lost from RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.

*Editor’s Note: F/O HPM Edridge is shown in the RAF List for 1940, and in Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, as Hilary Patrick Michael Edridge. In fact, his given names were Hilary Patrick Mary Edridge, it not being uncommon for male children of devout Roman Catholic parents of the time to be given the name Mary as one of their forenames. For understandable reasons he appears to have forsaken Mary in favour of Michael upon enlistment.

© 11 November 2012.


Photos and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website



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