Through a glass darkly – 84

The Briefing

In the house in which I grew up, in Southfields in south-west London, there was a badly framed print on the wall. It was called The Briefing, and bore the signature Frank O. Salisbury. The print showed a group of  Second World War RAF pilots in flying dress gathered around a briefing table. They are being addressed by a tall officer smartly dressed in RAF blue. The pilots are more casually dressed in flying jackets with big stand-up collars, some with scarves knotted around their necks, some with forage caps, One of the pilots leaning over the table was my father’s cousin, Sid Fox, who had been killed over France in the war. But my father was invariably vague about his family and that was all the information we had.

The Briefing

In the fullness of time I inherited the print, and it hung in a new frame on the wall in The Rectory in Duns. A year or two later I bought my first Apple Mac, and took my first faltering steps into the world of the internet. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I soon discovered  that my  father’s cousin, Sidney Horace Fox, DFM, had died on Sunday, October 25th, 1942, aged 27. He was a pilot, no. 61467, of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve; a Squadron Leader in 103 squadron when he died. For someone who had started  the war as a Sergeant-Pilot he had received quite rapid promotion.

I knew virtually nothing of Sid’s family. The Commonwealth War Games Commission confirmed that he was the son of James Richard Fox and Annie Fox of Woking, and the husband of Bessie Gwendoline Fox also of Woking. His father, my Great-Uncle Jim, I dimly remember as a little man with a fierce moustache waxed to two points. His mother, Great-Aunt Annie lived to a considerable age, surrounded by numerous children and  grand-children. I dimly remember taking my parents to her funeral in Woking Crematorium in the early 1970s; and my father, who was an only child, met a number of relatives whose names he couldn’t remember. What impressed me most, my father said, was that Sid had gone to school with Alec and Eric Bedser; twin cricketers for Surrey and England, both of whom featured in my schoolboy autograph album.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Sid Fox was buried in the communal cemetery at Nant-le-Grand; a village 12 kilometres south-east of Bar-le-Duc in eastern France. We were living at the time in Duns in the Scottish Borders.But I carefully downloaded the information and pasted it to the back of the newly re-framed print. 


By the summer of 2001 Susie and I were living in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. In May 2001 we drove north to an ICS Family Conference in the Netherlands, passing quite close to Bar-le-Duc; and we stayed overnight in Joinville, a sleepy but attractive little town on the banks of the river Marne. The next day, a Saturday, was free for exploring.

Nant-le-Grand, 2001

We found the village at the second attempt.  Nant-le-Grand is a tiny village, a few miles off the busy N4, in the rolling hills east of St-Dizier. It wasn’t clear what is anything we might find there. But the woman we spoke to was both welcoming and well-informed. Yes, of course she knew where the English airmen were buried. The cemetery was just east of the village on the road to Maulan. The graces are just inside the gate on the left. The graves were looked after by the people of the village. The people had conducted a hasty funeral for them during the war when the plane crashed. There were five graves in the cemetery. And the person who could tell us more about the story lived down the road in Ligny-en-Barrois. He was a collector of Second War memorabilia, a dab-hand with a metal detector, ad the curator of a private museum in Ligny.

After a lot of knocking on doors we found the man we wanted, M. Francis Guénon. He was an indefatigable collector of militaria with a particular interest in the crash sites of military aircraft. Soon we were seated in his kitchen, welcomed by his long-suffering wife, as he leafed through his collection of A4 files. Yes he knew the plane that Sid was piloting. It was a Halifax of 103 squadron, shot down on the way to a bombing raid on Italy by a Messerschmitt 110  night-fighter based at St Dizier. A man who still lived in Ligny had seen the aircraft came down in flames before it crashed into the hill above the church at Nant-le-Grand. 

From Francis Guénon I learnt that there had unusually been a crew of eight in the Halifax. And suddenly I heard the word survivant. Four of the crew had got out by parachute, though one of them had landed in a tree and was hanged in his straps. Sid Fox as pilot had gone down with his plane. But there were three survivors whose addresses Francis would give me. From his scrapbooks he showed me a photo of the 1942 funeral service, conducted at the church in Nant-le-Grand hastily before the German authorities arrived. And the scrapbooks also contained a newspaper cutting that described a 40th anniversary thanksgiving service attended by members of the French Armée de l’Air, by two of the survivors, and by members of the family of the dead men. Thanks to Francis I knew more about the life and death of a family member whom I had never met. 

The Survivors

In the summer of 2001 I wrote to two of the survivors. Within a few days I had a phone call from Rowland Maddocks, who as Flight Sergeant Maddocks had flown as Bomb Aimer in the Halifax which Sid Fox had been piloting. We met later that summer in the bungalow on the outskirts of Moffat where he lived with his wife. ‘Lofty’ Maddocks had been a regular member of Sid’s crew in 103 Squadron. The night on which the plane was shot down would have been their last op together. Maddocks had been recommended for a commission and was in the process of being transferred to Fighter Command OTU, as an instructor under Wing Commander ‘Sailor’ Malan. And the squadron itself was due to stand down, in order to convert to Lancasters.

Rowwland ‘LOftty’Maddocks, 2001

Of the shooting down there was little to be said. The Halifax had left Elsham Wolds with a full bomb load and extra fuel for a raid on Milan. As they began climbing towards the Alps they were jumped by a Messerschmitt 110 night-fighter. The plan was a flaming torch within seconds. Maddocks’ subsequent story is told in Artist in Adversity [published by the Dumfries & Galloway branch of the Aircrew Association]. He was taken prisoner and spent three years as a PoW. ‘Lofty’ Maddocks remembered Sid Fox as a fine man and a fine pilot. But was unable to make contact with Sid’s family after the war, when he moved to Edinburgh to set up the new company of Maddocks and Dick, suppliers of regimental and club, striped and crested ties.

Later in the summer of 2001 I heard from the second living survivor from the Halifax. Bert ‘Dizzy’ Spiller, then Warrant Officer Spiller, had been the navigator in Sid’s crew. ‘Dizzy’ Spiller evaded capture, and with the help of the Roman Catholic priest in St. Dizier had made his way to Paris. There he was taken under the wing of the celebrated Comet Line, who arranged for him to travel by a roundabout route to Bayonne. From there, as Parcel 82, he was escorted by the legendary Dédée de Jongh and the redoubtable Basque guide Fiorentino across the Pyrenees into Spain. The story of his evasion and of his adventures is told in Ticket to Freedom [pub. by William Kimber, long O/P].

In his letter Bert Spiller told me that Sid was “a good man, a flyer’s flyer; I was privileged to be in his crew”. He was also able to tell me that a Rod Weale, one of Sid’s great-nephews, had researched The Briefing a few years earlier, and had produced a booklet summarising his findings, about the history of the painting and the stories of the people depicted in it. And a subsequent e-mail produced an address for Rod Weale, then living in the Canary Islands.

Commemoration events

Later in 2001 I was delighted to make contact, successively, with Rod Weale in Tenerife; with Aileen Weale, his mother and Sid’s niece, living in Surrey; and finally with Wendy Jackson, Sid’s daughter, born five months after her father’s death, now living in Peterborough. In conjunction with Rod I organised a 60th anniversary act of remembrance in the church in the tiny village of Nant-le-Grand. To which a variety of people came from England, including relatives from Sid’s crew who had never been to Nant-le-Grand before, and some thirty air cadets from 103 Squadron together with their officers. And my mother came too, at the age of almost 90, about a year before she died; and she met Sid’s sister, Olive, whom she had last seen in London in 1942 ! A bilingual service was held in the church on October 25th, followed by a laying of wreaths in the cemetery, with speeches from the Mayor and other dignitaries; followed by a reception given by the commune in the Salle Polyvalente; followed by an informal dinner in the evening in Au Gourmet Lorrain

Remembrance Service, 20022

Ten years later there was another Service of Remembrance. At which there were fewer people from the UK, but an assortment of French representatives from both the military and civil authorities. We stood in the rain in the cemetery, sheltering under umbrellas, as more speeches were made and more wreaths were laid. Sadly I can’t at the moment retrieve photos of either of these events. I am not sure exactly what is happening this year. But I have just exchanged letters with Wendy Jackson, and out thoughts will be directed towards Nant-le-Grand tomorrow.

Remembrance ceremony, 2012

Sid Fox, bomber pilot

After the war Churchill and others were conspicuously silent about the achievements of Bomber Command.  Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the obstreperous head of Bomber Command, complained vigorously that his men didn’t get proper recognition for their wartime efforts. “People didn’t like being bombed, and therefore they didn’t like bombers on principle.” There was, rightly, much debate about the morality, and the effectiveness, of Harris’s Area Bombing tactics.

But there is no doubting the bravery of these airmen. Don Charlwood’s No Moon Tonight [pub. Goodall Publications, 1984] is a moving account of what life was like at Elsham Wolds in the winter of 1942. Charlwood was an Australian navigator, trained in Canada, flying with 103 Squadron in a mixed [Anglo-Australian] crew.  His book offers a telling picture of how it felt for an inexperienced crew to be going out night after night to well-defended targets, such as Essen or Dusseldorf or Berlin. Charlwood records that during his first 4 months with 103 Squadron no crew completed their tour of 30 operations; and that very few survived beyond 10 ops.

By October 1942 Sid Fox was an experienced and respected leader. Don Charlwood, who knew him, writes of “the narrow-eyed, panther-footed squadron leader … his step was soft and full of spring … the DFM ribbon commanded our immediate  aspect. DFMs were not given for nothing, nor did many sergeant-pilots become  squadron leaders.” We shall remember him and his crew tomorrow, the 80th anniversary of their being shot down.

October 2022

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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