In 2007, a Spitfire crash site was uncovered in France, leading to the possible identification of the grave of the RAF pilot who remained missing since the war. It was 27th July 1944 when F/O Ernest Russell Lyon together with his squadron undertook a Rhubarb mission over a German airfield in Brittany. That day he was listed as missing. His family never knew what happened to him – until recently when a group of French aviation enthusiasts traced the remains of F/O Lyon and solved the mystery for his surviving relatives.
The following is the account of Russell Lyon’s career with No. 234 Squadron in the hectic days of 1944 which were dominated by Allied invasion in Normandy. Kindly provided by Richard S. Lyon, Russell’s nephew.
The author is indebted to the following researchers who have contributed hugely to the development of the story.
Jean Yves Le Lan (Comité d’Histoire du pays de Ploemeur).
Jean Robic, Farmer and enthusiast of WW2 history in the Ploemeur Region (excavated remains of Spitfire AR343)
Claude Hélias Researcher ?Spitfire Losses over Brittany in WW2, and other subjects
Sébastien le Coupanec(excavated remains of Spitfire AR343)
Alain Gargam(excavated remains of Spitfire AR343)
Michel Jaouen (excavated remains of Spitfire BM200)
Nigel Walpole (the author of the book Dragon Rampant – The Story of No. 234 Fighter Squadron)
Everything that remained from the Spitfire Mk. Vb AR343. A propeller boss, some engine parts, port exhaust pipes, fragment of the firewall and armoured backplate and a pair of compressed air bottles. Recovered from crash site at Kercavès in France during 2001-2003.
[the Lyon Family]
This story relates to my uncle Russell, and Spitfire MkVb AR343 in which F/O Ernest Russell Lyon was killed when his aircraft was shot down on a Rhodeo mission over Kercavès, near Lorient, Brittany at around 8pm on 27th July 1944.
Remembering Russell Lyon
Russell Lyon (right) around 1933, with half brother Stanley (centre) and brother James (left)
[the Lyon Family]
Russell was educated at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh. He finished school in 1941 and like many young men of his generation, enlisted with the forces as soon as he reached mature age. His chosen arm was the Royal Air Force; Russell wanted to be a pilot. His military record starts on 1st March 1941, at the age of just 18 years and two months.
After the initial flight training in th UK during the summer, Russell was promoted to Leading Aircraftman. He was then posted to the United States to complete his training. This he achieved on 20th May 1942, being awarded pilot’s wings and promoted to Sergeant. In September he received a temporary commission as Pilot Officer in Canada as Staff Pilot at No.41 Service Flying Training School Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
On 4th March 1943. Lyon was promoted to Flying Officer ad posted back to the UK. He received an operational fighter pilot training on Spitfires at No.61 OTU at Rednal. Finally, on 20th October 1943 he arrived at No. 234 Squadron RAF at Hutton Cranswick.
In Squadron Service
No. 234 Squadron RAF was a unit with long history. However, through a series of circumstances, at the time of Russel’s posting it was literally an entirely new unit under the process of reforming.
The unit’s doldrums began in January 1943, when the squadron was transferred for a rest period to the Orkneys, being stationed in Grimsetters and Skaebrae. It returned to Hornchurch in July 1943, only to be told to prepare for a posting overseas. Shortly afterwards the squadron was taken over by Sqn/Ldr Phil Arnott. In July 1943, they moved to Church Fenton, then, in August to West Malling. There the squadron was told that the overseas posting had been cancelled, and on 20th August 1943 Squadron Leader M.G.Barnett, a New Zealander, became a new Commanding Officer.
However, any anxiety the personnel might have about the overseas posting was not to end there. In September, the unit moved to Southend-on-Sea. From there, on 26th September Sqn/Ldr Barnett and most of the pilots were posted ’en bloc’ to Australia to form No. 549 Squadron. F/Lt E.D. Glaser became acting CO. The squadron moved to Hutton Cranswick and was virtually disbanded.
On 15th October the command of the unit was taken over by Sqn/Ldr Bocock DFC with the aim of reforming the unit at Hutton Cranswick as part of 12 Group. Checking the dates reveals that Russell Lyon arrived to the squadron only five days after, effectively becoming one of the founding pilots of the “new” unit.
On 25th October Sqn/Ldr Arnott returned and resumed command. F/Lt Walton DFC was nominated as ‘A’ Flight Commander, and F/Lt Lattimer as ’B’ Flight Commander. Additional pilots soon began to come in and soon the squadron was practising air-to-air fighting in the old aircraft left over from the disbanding. The first operational sortie was led by a Sgt Crowhurst in search of a ditched Mosquito.
The aircraft received by 234 were a collection of rather dated – two to three years old Spitfires Mk. Vb. By 1944, this mark of the Spitfire was no longer a serious contender in fighter-versus-fighter combat and indeed, No. 234 Squadron was to be one of only a few fighter units in 1st line service over the Channel and France to retain this mark until September 1944. However, the Luftwaffe was by that time greatly overstretched on three fronts and so it was entirely possible that the pilots would complete a tour of duty without coming into contact with their opposite numbers. In these conditions, the aircraft could still be put to good use against ground targets, transport and communication targets.
The role of the squadron became once again that of convoy patrolling and bomber escort. Whilst at Hutton Cranswick, an RAF base in East Yorkshire, Russell wrote to his sister-in-law May, who had married his brother Stanley in 1940. In the letter Russell arranged to meet May on his way through Newcastle during a seven-day leave that he had been granted from 14th December 1943. At this time Stanley was abroad on active service.
With the beginning of the new year 1944, No. 234 Squadron moved to Coltishall with the aim of joining the offensive operations over occupied Europe. On 6th February the squadron took part in their first Ramrod, escorting 72 American Marauders to Paris and back. The operation took one hour and fifty minutes. On 8th March, another operation ‘Jim Crow’ was undertaken, two pairs of Spitfires doing armed shipping reconnaissance between Ijmuiden and the Hook of Holland.
In March 1944 it was time for another move, this time to Bolt Head in the area of 10 Group. Here they were engaged in ‘Rodeos’ – ground attack operations. These sorties were often routed close to the enemy airfields in the hope of catching enemy aircraft at a disadvantage in their landing or start circuit. Such a flight occurred on 20th April, consisting of 8 aircraft flying along the route Mont St. Michel – Rennes – Grand Champs – Plestin and back.
Group portrait of the “A” Flight of No. 234 Squadron, winter 1943-44. The pilots, from left to right, are: Dennis Sims, Alan Frost, Charlie Potter, Johnny Johnston, Judy Fraser, Reg Hooker, David Ferguson (sleeves rolled up centre), Pete Bell,”Wally” Walton, Dick Jacobsen, (Ernest) Russell (nicknamed Ben) Lyon ( 5th from right)
“Pete” Pedersen, Roy Fairweather, Sgt.Smith, Len Stockwell
[Photo by kind permission of David Ferguson]