Air Commodore Harold Fenton

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Wing Cdr Fenton and his wife's gravestone at St Brelade

This article is based on an Airman's Story from the Battle of Britain London Monument website, itself based on an obituary in the Daily Telegraph

Air Commodore Harold Fenton, who retired to Jersey in 1958 and lived in St Brelade until his death in 1995, was one of the heroes of the Battle of Britain, commanding 238 (Hurricane) Squadron throughout the Battle and himself shooting down several enemy aircraft.

He was the first senior RAF officer to land in France on D-Day and went on to become operations manager of British Overseas Airways Corporation in the airline's early years. He flew on the first Comet to be delivered to London in 1952.

A drawing of 'Jimmy' Fenton

Early career

A doctor's son, Harold Arthur Fenton (always known as 'Jim' or 'Jimmy') was born at Gallegos in Argentina on 9 February 1909. He was brought up in County Sligo and educated at Sandford Park School and Trinity College, Dublin. In 1928 he was accepted for pilot training and the following year he was posted to Farnborough, equipped with Bristol and Atlas fighters.

In 1930 he sailed for India to join No 5, an Army Co-Operation Squadron re-equipping from Bristol fighters to Westland Wapitis. He was stationed at Kohat on the North West Frontier and detached to join the Tochi scouts at Miranshah, a small fort south of the Khyber Pass, to quell dissident Afridis and other tribesmen. He took riding lessons and hunted with the 17th Light Cavalry. Back in Britain he towed targets for novice pilots and air gunners until placed on the Reserve in 1933.

He left to become a civil flying instructor. Immediately before the Second World War he was chief flying instructor at Air Service Training on the Hamble in Hampshire.

In later years it amused him to think of the future RAF aces who received such dismissive reports as "This officer would make a perfect NCO" and "The only thing this officer is likely to pass is water".

Battle of Britain

In February 1940 he was recalled to the RAF and posted to No 8 Flying Training School at Montrose as a flight commander in the Advanced Training Squadron. By June trained pilots were at a premium and Fenton was appointed to command No 238 Squadron. He led the squadron throughout much of the Battle of Britain.

On 8 August shipping in the Channel was subject to intense attacks and No 238 was scrambled repeatedly. In a lunchtime melee over the sea, Fenton's pilots shot down two Me109s, damaged a third and destroyed two Me110 twin-engined fighters. The squadron lost two Hurricanes and Fenton was "wave-hopping" for survivors when he spotted a Heinkel 59 seaplane. He attacked successfully but was hit by return fire and had to ditch in the sea. In the course of his escape from the cockpit, Fenton's parachute broke free. It floated and he clung to it until he was picked up by the armed convoy escort trawler Bassett. Fenton shared the skipper's cabin with a rescued German pilot.

After a spell in hospital Fenton returned to No 238. Towards the end of September the squadron was reduced to five serviceable aircraft; Fenton's impassioned plea produced eight replacement Hurricanes. By the end of the Battle of Britain he had destroyed a Dornier 17 bomber and a Me110.

Fenton (right), then a squadron leader, with Spitfire ace Johnnie Johnson, who operated from RAF Kenley when Fenton was in charge

Middle East

In May 1941 No 238 was sent to the Middle East where fighter reinforcements were desperately needed. The Hurricanes and air crew were embarked in the carrier Victorious at Scapa Flow. Victorious was diverted to hunt for the battleship Bismarck and Fenton and his pilots had to kick their heels while the Fleet Air Arm went into action.

After the German battleship had been sent to the bottom Victorious proceeded via Gibraltar to Majorca where No 238s 24 Hurricanes made deck takeoffs. They staged at Malta, en route for Egypt.

Fenton distinguished himself with the Desert Air Force and in September 1941 received command of 243 Wing, comprising No 238 and three further Hurricane squadrons. He celebrated the move in memorable fashion, flying in chrysanthemums and alcohol from Alexandria; his boss, Air Commodore 'King' Cole, removed his rank stripes lest anyone should feel inhibited. Under Fenton's command, the wing was credited with 100 enemy aircraft destroyed and 50 'probables'.

Another picture of Fenton with Johnnie Johnson

Churchill entertained

In command of 243 Wing, Fenton gained a reputation for rustling up an unexpected feast. Churchill dropped in for lunch and was astonished to be treated to Red Sea prawns. When the Crusader campaign opened in November 1941, Fenton's wing fought doggedly in support of the 8th Army. The next July Fenton put up the four stripes of a group captain and took command of 212 Group, comprising 12 squadrons of Hurricanes, which supported the Army's pursuit of the Afrika Korps.

In 1943 Fenton returned the Britain to take command of the Kenley fighter sector. That summer he moved to the post of Group Captain Operations at 2nd Tactical Air Force, Bracknell. As preparations developed for D-Day, Fenton was successively commander of Nos 84 and 83 Group Control Centres. He was the first senior RAF officer to land in France on D-Day, and was appointed Senior Air Staff Officer, 83 Group, 2nd TAF and ended the war at Luneberg, a large permanent Luftwaffe airfield in Northern Germany.

Mushroom hunting

Fenton found time to maintain his reputation as a supplier of delicacies and claimed to have invented "aerial mushroom hunting" - spotting mushroom rings from an Auster light aircraft. He also raided the Dutch coast and returned to the mess with barrels of oysters.

After refusing a regular commission he was released in late 1945, and the next year was appointed managing director of Deccan Airways. He was later general manager of Airways Training and Operations Manager of BOAC from 1949 to 1952, when he became managing director of Peter Jones. He retired in 1958 and moved to Jersey where he created a splendid garden at his home at Saint Brelade.

Fenton, second left, was on board the first de Havilland Comet delivered to BOAC at Heathrow

Awards

Fenton was awarded the DFC in 1942, the DSO in 1943, and appointed CBE in 1946. He was mentioned in dispatches three times.

His citation for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross: Wing Commander Harold Arthur Fenton (27127).

'This officer has led his wing successfully on many sorties. One day in May 1942 he encountered 15 enemy bombers escorted by an equal number of fighters. Wing Commander Fenton, with two other pilots, immediately attacked the bombers and delivered four attacks, before his own aircraft was hit by fire from an enemy fighter. Wing Commander Fenton's windscreen became covered in oil but he was able to return to base where he made a safe landing. This officer is a fine leader who inspires much confidence in others.' (London Gazette – 28 July 1942)

He married, in 1935, Helier Georgina de Carteret. There were no children of the marriage. He was buried in the cemetery of St Brelade's Church.

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