A Short Biography by Don Aris
John Randall Daniel 'Bob' Braham, with three Distinguished Service Orders, three Distinguished Flying Crosses plus Belgian decorations, was the most highly decorated fighter pilot in the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces in World War II. With the post war award of the Air Force Cross he is thought to be the most highly decorated British serviceman.
He destroyed 29 enemy aircraft, probably destroyed another and damaged 6 more. He was the top scoring ace flying twin engined fighter aircraft and was fifth in the list of all the top scoring fighter pilots serving in all the British and Commonwealth Air Forces in all the theatres of war.
He was born on the 6th April 1920 in Holcombe, Somerset, his mother Ethel May Braham and his father Ernest Goodall Braham, a Methodist Minister who was later ordained into the Church of England and became a Doctor of Theology. His father had been a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I with the rank of Captain. He had a sister, Josephine, who was a year younger.
After prep school, John Braham was educated, primarily, at the public school Taunton in Somerset and his last five months education was at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Blackburn, Lancs. His favourite sports were boxing and rugby. Upon leaving school in 1936 he became, for a short period, a clerk with the Lancashire Counts Police.
In December 1937 he applied for a Short Service Commission in the RAF and was accepted. His pilot's training was at No 7 E&RFTS Desford and No 11 FTS Shawbury and he was awarded his flying badge, 'wings', on the 20th August 1938. His training aircraft had been Tiger Moth, Hawker Hart, Audax and Fury and his final assessment had been Average.
He was posted to his first Squadron, No 29 at Debden, in December 1938, flying, to his disappointment, two seater Hawker Demons. Also posted to No 29 Squadron, some three months earlier, was P/O Charles V. Winn who later became a Flight Commander on No 141 Squadron under W/C Braham when he was CO of that Squadron. Charles Winn later became the CO of No 141 Squadron.
Early in 1939, No 29 Squadron was equipped with Blenheim l's but soon after was equipped with Hurricane l's and it was with this aircraft that 'Bob' Braham carried out his first operational patrols of WWII in September 1939 from their forward base of Wattisham, Suffolk. He had, by now, been given the nickname 'Bob' on No 29 Squadron which stayed with him throughout his service career although his family always called him John.
No 29 Squadron was designated a night fighter Squadron in October 1939 and once again received Blenheim l's which, in early 1940, were being equipped with the early AI Mk III radar and a four Browning machine gun pack under the belly. The Squadron moved to Digby and its satellite Wellingore, Lincs. in June 1940 and it was from here on the night of the 24/25th August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, that he destroyed his first enemy aircraft, a Heinkel 111, assisted by his air gunner Sgt Wilsdon and radar operator Aircraftman Jacobson.
In October 1940, No 29 Squadron started to be equipped with Bristol Beaufighter Mk IFs with Mk IV AI radar at Wellingore. Braham was now flying an aircraft ideally suited to Home Defence night fighting and to him personally, he was to destroy 19 enemy aircraft in Beaufighters. F/Lt Guy Gibson, later of Dam Buster fame, joined No 29 Squadron in November 1940 as "A" Flight Commander and he and Braham became friends.
Whilst flying Blenheims he had successfully crash landed on two occasions without injury to himself or crew when he was unable to let down his undercarriage. His assessment of pilot's ability was now Above Average.
He received his first DFC in January 1941 and in March he destroyed his second enemy aircraft, a Dornier 17Z, his first in a Beaufighter. His Radio Observer, radar operator was Sgt Ross.
On the 15th April 1941, 'Bob' Braham married Joan Helen Hyde, a nurse from Leicester, he was 21 and she 20. The ceremony was at St Peter's Parish Church, Duxford, Cambs. and it was carried out by his father the Rev. Dr. Ernest G. Braham who was Rector and a Chaplain at the nearby fighter airfield of Duxford. Sadly his mother, Ethel May Braham, died shortly after on the 13th August 1941 aged 48 years. She was buried in St Peter's churchyard.
No 29 Squadron moved from Wellingore to West Malling, Kent on the 1st May 1941 and it was from here that he developed his extraordinary night fighting skills and the start of his association with the two Navigators/Radar Operators who contributed so much to his success, 'Sticks' Gregory and 'Jacko' Jacobs. By November 1941 he had destroyed 7 enemy aircraft, had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant and received the first bar to his DFC. At the end of December 1941, S/Ldr Guy Gibson was posted from No 29 Squadron to No 51 OTU at Cranfield, Beds having destroyed 3 enemy aircraft and damaged 3 whilst with the Squadron. A month later 'Bob' Braham joined him with his Nav/Rad F/Sgt 'Sticks' Gregory. Gibson and Braham were both night fighting instructors at Cranfield and both resented being taken off operations. Gibson had previously had a brief rest on an OTU but Braham had operated continuously since September 1939. In December 1941 Braham's ability assessment as a pilot was Exceptional the highest category.
'Bob' Braham's first child, a son Michael, was born on the 10th February 1942. He had a few days leave with his wife Joan and the new baby at Leicester.
Whilst at Cranfield, 'Bob' Braham and 'Sticks' Gregory, now a Pilot Officer, took a few days leave and visited 29 Squadron at West Malling and, operating on the night of the 6/7th June 1942 in a Beaufighter, destroyed a Dornier 217, one of a number raiding Canterbury. Bad weather had closed West Malling and whilst landing in fog from the sea at Manston, he overshot the runway and hit a building with no injury to him or Gregory.
He was posted back to No 29 Squadron from 51 OTU in July 1942 and was promoted to Squadron Leader and became "A" Flight Commander, they still had Beaufighters. Whilst P/O Gregory was on leave, he operated with F/Lt 'Jacko' Jacobs during most of August. After damaging a Ju 88 on the 24th, he destroyed another on the 28th. On the 29th he attacked and damaged a Ju 88 flying at 150 ft above the Channel. Return fire from the Ju 88 caused his port engine to catch fire, this he extinguished but just as he regained the English coast his starboard engine caught fire, he was just able to crash land on the small grass airfield of Friston near Beachy Head. Neither he not Jacobs were injured. He was awarded his first DSO on the 9th October 1942.
By the end of October 1942 he had destroyed 12 enemy aircraft, with 1 probable and 4 damaged. He was then given command of No 141 Squadron at Ford on the 22nd December 1942 and was promoted to Wing Commander, posted with him was his Nav/Rad F/O Gregory DFC DFM. No 141 was, at that time, a Home Defence Beaufighter night fighter Squadron and it was to be the only Squadron he commanded in WWII. By his example, dedication and courage he was to transform the Squadron and to lead it from its defensive role into an offensive one. The combative spirit and esprit de corps he engendered in all ranks stood the Squadron in good stead long after he left and right up to the end of the war. Also, which was very important, it was a happy Squadron despite all that happened to it. He was only 22 years of age at the time of this appointment but he was ably assisted on the ground by F/Lt 'Dickie' Sparrowe Adjutant, F/Lt 'Buster' Reynolds Intelligence Officer, F/Lt J.H. Sewell Engineering Officer, F/O J.P.W. Pollard Radar Officer and F/Lt 'Doc' Dougall Medical Officer.
In January and early February 1943, he and No 141 Squadron continued with their defensive night fighting role at Ford and he, with 'Sticks' Gregory, destroyed a Dornier 217 on the 20th January, his 13th. During this period a number of new crews were posted in to replace those tour expired and in preparation for the Squadron's new role.
No 141 Squadron, still with Beaufighter IFs, moved from Ford to Predannack, Cornwall on the 18th February 1943 and despite training new crews, W/C 'Bob' Braham was pressing for a more offensive and aggressive role for the Squadron. From Predannack, in March and April, they carried out night Ranger patrols over Brittany and SW France and daylight Intercept Patrols over the Bay of Biscay and Atlantic Approaches to protect Coastal Command aircraft. W/C Braham carried out the Squadron's first of both types of operation and continued with these attacks on trains, stations, motor transports and other ground targets and at sea he damaged a U Boat, torpedo boat and an E Boat. His own aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter and was also hit by flak from ships but without injury to himself or his Navigator F/Sgt Blackburn. The Squadron suffered the loss of three aircraft and crews during these two months.
On the 30th April/lst May 1943, No 141 Squadron moved from Predannack to Wittering, then in Northants. It had been chosen, primarily because of 'Bob' Braham's leadership, to be the first bomber support night fighter Squadron to operate over Germany and occupied Europe. Initially this was with Beaufighters and using a new homer receiver, called Serrate, which picked up on the radar impulses given out by the German night fighter's airborne interception radar. The Beaufighters were also equipped with the, by now, outdated Mk 1V AI radar plus Gee navigation equipment.
There was brief Serrate training at Drem, Scotland and whilst there his second child was born on the 2nd June 1943, another son Robert born to Joan in Leicester.
Serrate operations started on the night of the 14/15th June 1943 led by W/C Braham with 'Sticks' Gregory back as his Nav/Rad. He had immediate success, destroying an Me 110 over Holland. This coincided with the award of a second bar to his DFC. The successes by him and No 141 Squadron continued through June, July, August and September and by the time that he left No 141 Squadron on the 1st October 1943 the Squadron had destroyed 16 enemy aircraft plus 1 probable and 6 damaged, all on night Serrate bomber support. His own score on Serrate ops, with either Gregory or Jacobs as his Nav/Rad, was 7 destroyed (making his total now 20), plus 2 Damaged. Two other No 141 crews were responsible for most of the rest with F/O Harry White with F/O Mike Allen destroying 4 and damaging one and F/O Howard Kelsey with Sgt Ted Smith destroying three plus 1 probable and another damaged. Both these crews went on to greater successes with No 141 and other units. The Squadron suffered losses during this period and W/C Braham's aircraft suffered damage from enemy fighters and flak and he had to return on one engine twice but with no injuries to him or crew. He was awarded the first bar to his DSO on the 24th September 1943.
Once again against his wishes, W/C 'Bob' Braham was rested from operations and posted from No 141 Squadron on the 1st October 1943. In his book "Scramble" written after the war and first published in 1961, he says this of leaving No 141 Squadron "My association with my first love, 141 Squadron, was now broken for good, and with it comradeship as I have never known since."
He took a Staff Course at the Staff College Camberley, Surrey from the 21st October 1943 until the 11th February 1944 and from there he was posted as Wing Commander Night Operations at Headquarters No 2 Group, Mongewell Park, Berks. Under its AOC AVM Basil Embry, No 2 Group was both operating and preparing for its role as part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force in the invasion of France. Although a Staff Officer at HQ, W/C 'Bob' Braham was able, with his usual persistence, to persuade the AOC to allow him to operate occasionally using Mosquito FBV1s from various Squadrons in the Group. By the time he was shot down on the 25th June 1944 he had carried out 15 operations over France, Denmark and Germany. These were 1 day and 2 night bombing and strafing attacks and 12 lone daylight Ranger operations during which he destroyed another 9 enemy aircraft .
The following is just one example of how dangerous these daylight lone Ranger ops were and how determined he was to destroy the enemy. On the 12th May 1944, operating over Denmark with F/Lt 'Sticks' Gregory as his Navigator, he chased and attacked a FW 190 which flew very low to the ground in an attempt to escape. Braham flew so low that the tips of his propellers were bent on hitting a mound. He was attacked by an Me 109 which severely damaged his Mosquito but despite this he pressed on with attack and destroyed the FW 190. He was then hit by flak but with great skill he managed to fly the damaged Mosquito across the North Sea to within 70 miles of Cromer when he had to ditch. He and Gregory survived and got into the dinghy and were rescued by a minesweeper which transferred them on to a motor torpedo boat which, in turn put them on an RAF Rescue Launch.
On the night of the 6th June 1944 he took part in a bombing and strafing operation in support of the D Day landings that day in France. He had with him as Navigator on this operations, Grp Capt David Atcherley the No 2 Group Senior Air Staff Officer who had one arm in a sling.
His last and final operation of the war was another lone daylight Ranger operation over Denmark and North Germany on the 25th June 1944. F/Lt Don Walsh DFC was his Navigator. They were attacked by two FW l90's over Denmark and after a dog fight his Mosquito was set on fire and he managed to crash land on a sandstrip by the coast. They were able to get out of the aircraft before it exploded. They tried to evade capture from German troops but they opened fire on them with automatic weapons and they were captured. Once again his luck held and they were not injured. The Luftwaffe pilot who shot him down was Lieutenant Robert Spreckels.
On the 15 operations that W/C 'Bob' Braham carried out with No 2 Group, he had F/Lt 'Sticks' Gregory with him as Navigator six times and F/Lt 'Jacko' Jacobs once, both of these Navigators had joined No 2 Group HQ with him. 'Bob' Braham's final total of successes was now 29 enemy aircraft destroyed. 1 probably destroyed and 6 damaged.
After interrogation at Oberursel, Frankfurt, where he met the pilot who shot him down Robert Spreckels, W/C 'Bob' Braham was sent to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan in Prussian Silesia. In January 1945, with the Russians advancing, the Germans vacated the camp forcing the prisoners to march for five days in atrocious winter conditions before he and the others were put into filthy cattle trucks for the rest of the journey across Germany. They were put in another POW camp, Marlag-Milag Nord at Tarmstedt near Bremen. 'Bob' Braham lost both big toe nails through frostbite. In April 1945, due to the advancing British 2nd Army, they were marched to Trenthorst near Lubeck with Allied aircraft attacking the column by mistake causing casualties. The British 2nd Army reached them on the 2nd May 1945.
He was reunited with his comrades of No 2 Group Headquarters now in Brussels, Belgium and a personal welcome back by the AOC AVM Basil Embry. After a medical he was flown home in a Mosquito to Seighford, Staffs and then to No 106 Personnel Reception Centre at Cosford, Salop. After further medical checks and debriefings he went on leave to be reunited with his wife and two young sons in Leicester. His war was now over and some of his exploits and totals of victories have been given. It is a miracle that he was not killed or injured during this courageous wartime service, luck must have played a part but mainly his great skill as a pilot must have saved his life and that of his crew on many occasions. This skill and luck were put to the test many times during the war as he carried out 318 operational sorties and survived being fired on by enemy aircraft 14 times, being fired on by enemy flak 23 times, being fired on by an unknown aircraft once, being fired on by RAF aircraft twice and once being fired on by our own anti aircraft guns. During these attacks his aircraft was hit on eleven separate occasions. Seven times he returned to base on one engine and made five crash landings. He once flew so low attacking a train that he lost part of the underneath of his Beaufighter. The bending of his propellers on the ground chasing a FW 190 and his ditching in the North Sea have already been recorded as has surviving being shot at by German troops. His was an outstanding war career by a remarkable man who well deserved the six British gallantry awards and two Belgian ones, the Belgian Order of the Crown with Palm and the Belgium Croix de Guerre 1940 with Palm. His Navigators, Radar Operators and, in the early days, Air Gunners, must not be forgotten. They made a great contribution to his successes and two deserve special mention, W/C W.J. 'Sticks' Gregory DSO DFC* DFM and S/L H. 'Jacko' Jacobs DFC* AFC.
In July 1945 W/C 'Bob' Braham joined the Night Fighter Development Wing of the Central Fighter Establishment at Tangmere, Sussex and one of his old Nav/Rads, F/Lt 'Jacko' Jacobs joined him. The CFE moved to West Raynham, Norfolk in October 1945 where he tested and developed existing and new night fighting equipment and flew on service visits to Malta and Germany. He found peacetime RAF service dull and empty and in March 1946 he resigned with the intention of joining the Colonial Police. However, whilst on release leave, he realised that he had made a mistake and applied to rejoin the RAF and was accepted.
There followed a period of two years of non flying appointments, Air Ministry London, HQ Technical Training Command Brampton, Officer Commanding No 2 Wing No 3 Recruits Centre Padgate and back to Air Ministry London. It was almost as if he was being penalised for his earlier resignation. Finally, in August 1948, he was back to flying when he was posted to command the Fighter Interception Development Squadron and Night Fighter Leader School of the Central Fighter Establishment at West Raynham. Further good news for him was the birth of his third child on the 26th October 1948, another son, David.
He held his latest appointment at CFE until January 1951 during which time he carried out trials of the many new electronic aids for radar detection and navigation. He made three visits to the United States as the USAF had asked for him personally to test and report on their interception equipment, he also visited the RCAF in Canada. He had flown his first jet, a Meteor, soon after he got back from being a POW and now he flew a variety of aircraft including Vampires, Venoms, Hornets, Tempests, Mustangs, Canberras, Sea Furys, F-86 Sabres, F-94 Starfires ,and F-7H Banshees. He was awarded the Air Force Cross on the 1.1.1951.
In January 1951 he was posted to Fighter Command HQ at Stanmore as Wing Commander All Weather Operations. He still did a lot of flying with visits to Germany, Malta, and a fourth visit to the United States Air Force.
On the 1st March 1951 his father the Rev. Dr. Ernest Goodall Braham MA BD PhD died aged 60. He was, at that time, vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Newton, Hampshire and was buried in the churchyard.
In May 1952 he resigned from the RAF for the second time stating in his book that he found England depressing and thought that the future of his three sons would be better in another country. The Royal Canadian Air Force had been looking for experienced All Weather fighter pilots and he therefore joined the RCAF with the rank of Wing Commander. He and his family sailed for Canada on the 3rd June 1952 and he took up a Staff appointment at Air Defence HQ St Hubert, Montreal. He remained here for 20 months doing a considerable amount of flying and in January 1954 he took command of No 3 All Weather Fighter Operational Training Unit at North Bay, Ontario flying the Canadian Avro CF-100 jet fighter. He was flying with a student pilot when the starboard flap of the CF-100 broke away as the student was landing, he took control narrowly avoiding a crash and saved the lives of himself and the student. He received a Commendation.
W/C Braham left No 3 AW(F)OTU in June 1955 for a Staff Appointment at Air Force HQ in Ottawa which he held for over two years until he was given command of an operational Squadron No 432 All Weather Squadron at Bagotville, Quebec flying CF-100s. This was his second and last command of a Squadron his first being No 141 in WWII. With No 432 he had his first and only bad flying accident. In close formation flying another CF-100 hit his aircraft knocking off one wing. He ejected but the canopy did not release at once and he hit it badly injuring his back. Amazingly, he was flying in two and a half months.
In May 1957 he was awarded the Canadian Forces Decoration. In July 1960 he was posted to the Staff of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Paris, France and his wife and family accompanied him. He was also, at this time, completing his book "Scramble". Whilst in Europe, he and his wife Joan met Robert Spreckels and his wife Gerda, Spreckels was the German pilot who shot him down in 1944. W/C 'Bob' Braham was promoted to Group Captain in July 1963 whilst still ~,; t h RH A PF
He returned to Canada in August 1964 and in September he attended the National Defence College of Canada at Kingston, Ontario as a student. Whilst on the course those attending went on tours of airfields and military bases in America and Asia flying in Canadian Yukon transport planes. Upon completion of the course he was posted, in August 1965, as Director Air Force Operational Requirements at the Canadian Armed Forces Headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario. At various times, on duty, he flew to the USA, France, England and Germany. In 1967 he flew on an official round the world tour with a party of 31 service personnel visiting airfields and service establishments in the USA, Hawaii, Wake and Guam Islands in the Pacific, Hong Kong, Ceylon, Tanzania, Ghana and Barbados. They flew in a Canadian Yukon transport plane and he acted as second pilot for a third of the trip.
According to his flying log book, this was his last flying as a pilot in the Services as, on his return from this tour in November 1967, he resigned from the RCAF in January 1968. He had flown a total of 5,370 hours in the RAF and RCAF and had flown 66 types of aircraft starting with the biplanes of the late 1930's with a top speed of 180 mph and finished flying such aircraft as the English Electric Lightning with a speed of Mach 2.1, 1,390 mph.
When he resigned from the Royal Canadian Air Force in January 1968 he was classified as being on the non-effective strength during terminal leave. His final day of service was the 15th July 1968. It is understood that he resigned because he did not agree with certain policies and was very strongly opposed to the unification of the Canadian Armed Forces which took place on the 1st February 1968. It was a drastic step to take after 30 years in the RAF and RCAF and at the early age of 48 and with the vast experience that he brought to the RCAF and the possibility of promotion to Air Rank. However he was a man who, when he made up his mind, nothing would change him.
'Bob' Braham then joined, in 1968 soon after leaving the RCAF, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development of Canada in the Historic Sites Department. He spent the first two years in Ottawa and in 1970 was appointed Area Superintendent for Historic Sites at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
On New Year's Eve in December 1973, he suddenly became ill and on admission to hospital he was found to have an inoperable brain tumour and died in hospital in Halifax on the 7th February 1974 at the age of 53 years 10 months.
There was no funeral, burial or cremation as he had willed his body for medical research, a wonderful and noble final act so typical of the fine man he was. On the 13th February 1974 there was a Memorial Service held for the late Group Captain Braham at the Stradacona Chapel of the Canadian Forces Base in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
It was very sad and tragic that he should die, through illness, in middle life after living through such a dangerous service career, particularly during the war. He was almost unknown to the general public due to his dislike of publicity, but his wartime successes through continuously and aggressively attacking the enemy make him one of the greatest fighter pilot heroes.
His sister, Josephine Irene Dabney died on the 2nd August 1989 after many years of illness, Her ashes were interred in the grave of her father, the Rev. Dr. Ernest Goodall Braham in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church Newtown, Hampshire.
In January 1997, his widow Joan still lives in Canada as do her three sons and their wives, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Don Aris 1997.