In November 2013, Gerry’s eldest son Phil found his Dad’s 1945 Diary in his suitcase of Gerry’s photos and memorabilia. This was a very exciting addition to the ‘story’ that we were starting to put together, and Phil very generously sent it to me for scanning and transcribing.
In it, Gerry writes several times of visiting someone called “Buzz” in the RAF General Hospital at Ely (above), over a period of three months – 2 January, 11 January, 11 February, 17 February, and 3 March 1945.
At least two of those visits were with his Skipper, Johnny Wood:
11 Feb: “Went into Ely with Johnny & saw Buzz”.
17 Feb: “Went into Ely with Skip & saw Buzz.”
It was obviously someone that Gerry and/or Johnny knew well, and something serious must have happened to keep him in hospital for so long. At that time there was a pilot called Buzz Spilman on the squadron, but he was active on operations all through the period in question, so it couldn’t be him. Unfortunately we don’t have Gerry’s 1944 diary, which might explain the connection and the circumstances of Buzz’s illness or injuries.
The identity of “Buzz” bugged me for the next four years, and would be in the back of my mind whenever I came across anything related to 75(NZ) Sqdn from that period.
Vic Jay is someone who I came across in 2012, right at the beginning of my search – he was on a parallel path, looking for information on his father’s crew, also 75(NZ) Squadron and around the same time as Gerry and the Wood crew. Bob Jay, Vic’s Dad, was Flight Engineer with the Bill Mallon crew.
Vic turned his search into an extensive blog (Bob Jay’s War: https://robertalfredjay.blogspot.com/), and later a very good book (The Mallon Crew). Vic and I have helped each other out on several occasions, and he devotes a chapter in The Mallon Crew to flight engineer (like his Dad) and Dog crew member Doug Williamson.
It was while looking back over some of Vic’s old posts that a penny dropped.
Vic had published extracts from letters written by Bob’s navigator Jim Haworth to his wife Sally back home in New Zealand. On April 25th, 1945 he wrote:
“Our new skipper is the oldest (in time) skipper on the station. He has not done any ops since last Nov until one on Bremen a few days ago. We didn’t do that one. He had been in hospital for a while. Comes from Wellington – Eric Butler by name – F/O by rank – and seems to be a good type.”
Then on May 17th:
“We were taken off the select list (carrying P.O.W.s) owing to the fact that Eric Butler (RNZAF), our new pilot now that Bill has gone home, has done so little flying in the last six months through being in hospital.”
This was the first and only time I had seen reference to a 75(NZ) Sqdn airman spending a substantial amount of time in hospital over the same period that Gerry and Johnny were visiting Buzz.
F/O Eric Frank Butler and his crew had arrived on squadron on 6 October 1944. Eric flew a 2nd Dickey op’ with the Francis Wood crew on 14 October and then nine more op’s with his own crew, the last on 11 November, a daylight attack on Castrop Rauxel. For some reason after that op’ he appears to have been hospitalised for about four months. His crew was taken over by F/L Don Thomson.
When he recovered, Eric re-joined the squadron and flew the Amohanga crew on the Bremen op’ on 22 April.
The story goes that their skipper, Kiwi Amohanga, had also been put into Ely Hospital, after being hit over the head with a beer bottle by an American on a night out at the pub!
Eric then took over Bill Mallon’s crew, Bill having received a compassionate posting back to New Zealand following the loss of his two brothers. However by then the squadron had already flown its last operation of the war on 24th of April.
Eric and the crew did fly a couple of Operation Manna supply drops into Holland before frustratingly being removed from the POW repatriation program (Operation Exodus) to concentrate on training, presumably with Tiger Force needs in mind.
It seemed likely that Eric Butler was “Buzz”, but we still didn’t know how Johnny and Gerry knew him.
Then a search in Papers Past, the National Library of NZ online digitized newspaper archive, pulled up this article, listing an “E.F. Butler” amongst the pilots who passed out with their Wings from Pilot training at RNZAF Wigram, Christchurch, NZ on 29 July 1943:
And there near the end of the list is J.H.T. Wood – Eric and Johnny had been classmates during training!
Eric is mentioned as winning the trophy for high-level bombing and they were presented their wings by Group Captain E. G. Olson, D.S.O., ex-CO of 75 (NZ) Squadron.
I also found this newspaper item from a few weeks later (Evening Post, Wellington, 26 August 43), which seems to confirm that “E.F. Butler” is Eric:
BUTLER—FOWLER. The engagement is announced between Joyce Garsden, elder daughter of Mr and Mrs. J. Garsden Fowler, of Auckland, and Sgt. Pilot Eric Frank Butler, younger son of Mr. A. S. T. and the late Mrs. Butler, of Wellington.
As Vic said, “Buzz” Butler does have a ring to it!
Another smaller mystery is Jim Haworth’s belief that Eric had done a previous tour with 75 (NZ) Squadron, back in 1941.
Firstly, while the official history Nominal Roll does have him with the Squadron in 1941, it gives his arrival date as 6 October, and out 29 November 1941, curiously brief.
Secondly, I couldn’t find any trace of him in the 1941 Forms 540 and 541, either postings in or out of the squadron, or listed on op’s.
And lastly, Eric’s service number was NZ425558, which indicates that he didn’t enlist in the RNZAF until mid-1942, just after Gerry, NZ425285, who enlisted in May 42.
One scenario that might fit the facts is if Eric served in the RAF as ground crew in 1941, perhaps an armourer, instrument repairer or fitter. He may then have returned to New Zealand, joined the RNZAF and re-trained as a pilot, before shipping back to England again. This could explain why he was older than the other aircrew.
We know of one other 75(NZ) Sqdn pilot who did something like this. F/O Herbert Hooper RNZAF, who originally trained with the RNZAF as an armourer, sailed to England in 1940, served with 26 Sqdn RAF on Lysanders, and was a foundation member of 485(NZ) Squadron on Spitfires. He re-trained as a pilot (in Canada and England) and flew a full tour with 75(NZ) Sqdn on Lancasters.