Frederick William Higginson was born in Swansea on 17th February 1913, the son of a policeman. He was educated at Gowerton County Intermediate School. He joined the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice in January 1929 and passed out in December 1931 as a Metal Rigger. He was posted to 7 Squadron as a Fitter/Air Gunner.
Higginson later applied for pilot training and on 6th August 1935 began his elementary flying at 4 E&RFTS Brough and moved on to 5 FTS Sealand on 2nd October. With his training completed, he joined 19 Squadron at Duxford on 1st July 1936 but when 'C' Flight became 66 Squadron on 20th July, Higginson went with it. From 13th April 1937 he was with the AACU flights at Biggin Hill and later Bircham Newton.
Higginson joined 56 Squadron at North Weald on 20th October 1937 and was still with it on 1st September 1939 with the rank of Flight Sergeant. He went with 'B' Flight to Vitry-en-Artois, France on 16th May 1940, claimed a Do17 and a He111 destroyed on the 17th and a Me110 on the 18th.
On that evening the flight was evacuated from Vitry and went to Norrent Fontes. Higginson and Sgt. C Whitehead were sent back to destroy the remaining aircraft and stores. When they finally left the Germans were only 3 or 4 miles away.
Over Dunkirk on 29th May Higginson claimed a Me109 and on 15th July a probable Do17.
He was awarded the DFM (gazetted 30th July 1940).
On 12th August he damaged a Do17; on the 16th destroyed a Do17; on the 18th shot down another; on the 25th probably destroyed a Me110; on the 26th destroyed a Me110; on the 31st a Me109; on 14th September a Do17; on the 27th he damaged a Me110; and on the 30th he shared a Me110 and damaged another.
Higginson was commissioned on 24th September.
Above: Sgt. P Hillwood, F/Lt. EJ Gracie and P/O FW Higginson of 56 Squadron
On 1st October he was appointed temporary 'B' Flight Commander, when F/Lt. RSJ Edwards was shot down on 30th September 1940. He held the post until 17th October.
On 17th June 1941, on Circus 14 to Lille, Higginson was shot down in Hurricane IIa Z2575 over France. In the explosion his left boot was torn off and his trousers shredded. The control column was snapped off at the base making it impossible to control the Hurricane and forcing Higginson to bale out. He landed in a wood where he was confronted by a German officer and sergeant in a motorcycle combination. Higginson was seized and placed in the sidecar but at that moment his captors were distracted by a low-flying Me109. Higginson seized the handlebars and tipped the motorcycle and sidecar over and ran off. After reaching Lille he met Paul Cole, a Dunkirk survivor, who took him to Abbeville where Abbé Carpentier, a local priest, provided him with false identity papers. Cole then escorted Higginson to Paris, where he lodged in a brothel until July, before going on by train to Tours and St Martin-le-Beau. But there he was questioned by a pair of German soldiers. The Germans were not immediately satisfied with Cole's explanation that Higginson was an idiot seeking work and insisted on looking inside his valise. Fortunately, its contents were smothered in chocolate which had melted in the summer heat. When Cole opened his own bag they failed to discover a pistol and incriminating papers which had been rolled up in dirty laundry, and the pair were sent on their way.
After entering Vichy France Higginson reached Marseilles where he was welcomed by Georges Rodocanochi, a Greek doctor, and his wife, Fanny, who ran a safe house for Pat O'Leary's MI9 escape line.
It shocked Higginson, who was acutely aware of the debt he owed his companion, when he heard later that Cole, far from being the Army captain he claimed, was a sergeant who had absconded with mess funds. Among his many betrayals he had informed on Carpentier, who was later executed.
On 4th July Higginson caught a train to Perpignan where, impatient at being kept waiting, he teamed up with an Australian corporal and persuaded a Catalan guide to start them on their way to Spain. But they were stopped by gendarmes and Higginson, incensed by their attitude, struck one of them. But for this he might have been released. As it was he was imprisoned for six months for having false papers.
On 5th March 1942 he was about to be released when he was detained in reprisal for a raid on the Renault factory at Billancourt. Twelve days afterwards he was placed in Fort de la Revere above Monte Carlo, where he decided to assume the name Captain Bennett, since he believed the Germans particularly disliked airmen. At this stage MI9 in London urged O'Leary to make every effort to get Higginson out, in view of his exceptional record as a fighter pilot.
Using a Polish priest called Father Myrda as a go-between, O'Leary smuggled a hacksaw blade into the prison. On the night of 6th August Higginson and four others, under cover of a noisy concert, dropped through a coal chute and into a moat and some sewage.
Evading his pursuers, Higginson reached Cap d'Ail, where he found he had lost his ID card. Despite this setback he managed to reach a safe house in Monte Carlo. There tea was brought in by Eva Trenchard, a spinster who had run the principality's Scottish Tea House since 1924.
In due course Father Myrda provided Higginson with a cassock and accompanied him to Marseilles. On 17th September Higginson made for Canet Plage, a beach resort, where he was picked up from a dinghy by the Tarana, a Polish trawler employed on clandestine missions as a Q-Ship. A week later Higginson was put aboard the destroyer Minna and landed at Gibraltar from where he was flown home by the RAF in late September 1942.
Higginson rejoined 56 Squadron, then at Matlask, on 6th October, the squadron had exchanged its Hurricanes for Typhoons.
He was awarded the DFC (gazetted 9th February 1943).
In 1945 Higginson was serving with 11 Group on organisation duties. He went to RAF Staff College and Army Staff College and retired from the RAF on 5th April 1956 as a Wing Commander.
Higginson's portrait was done by Cuthbert Orde in December 1940 (below) and also by Eric Kennington.
He died at St Clears, Carmarthenshire on 12th February 2003, five days before his 90th birthday.
Photos and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website