Flight Sergeant André Paul François Vilboux
When the Germans invaded France in May 1940, Andre Vilboux was a student pilot in the French Air Force with No.23 Training School near Le Mans.
The German advance forced the school to evacuate to Morlaix in Brittany. Encouraged to head for Britain by the commander of the training schools then gathered at Morlaix, Vilboux along with around one hundred students boarded a lobster boat, “The Trébouliste” and sailed for England. They arrived after a rough crossing in Falmouth on 21 June 1940, whereupon Vilboux joined the Free French Air Force.
Vilboux spent some time at RAF Odiham, where 1 Fighter Training Squadron of the Free French was formed on 3 August 1940 – it was equipped with French aircraft including the Dewoitine 520. However, it only stayed a short while before heading overseas. It was replaced by the Franco-Belgian Fighter Training School when it formed on 2 November, principally equipped with the Miles Master although Lysanders and Blenheims were also used. This unit disbanded at the end of May 1941 when the RAF training system could more readily accommodate recruits from the Continent. Hence Vilboux moved to No.6 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at RAF Sywell in June 1941, which had become the centre for Free French pilot training, to learn on the Tiger Moth.
The following month saw him move to No.5 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at RAF Ternhill. Major Atcherley, father of Richard and David, had force-landed a balloon there in 1906 and recommended the site to the War Office, resulting in the creation of RAF Ternhill during the First World War. Although a training station, Ternhill initially had some fighter squadrons based early in World War II, No.131 was the last such before moving to RAF Atcham in September 1941.
From Ternhill, Vilboux moved to RAF Llandow in October 1941, to join No.53 Operational Training Unit (OTU). Here he began his conversion to the Spitfire. His first squadron posting came on 16 December when he joined No.131 (County of Kent) Squadron at RAF Atcham, with two other French pilots. 131 had been first squadron to take up residence at Atcham the previous September. Although RAF Atcham was a 9 Group Sector Station, the primary role for 131 Squadron was training and they had begun to re-equip with the Spitfire Mk.V on 10 December. The pilots were said to be enthusiastic about their new mounts.
André Vilboux is first encountered in the Squadron Diary on 1 January 1942 when he undertakes two Sector reconnaissance flights. Training flights continue regularly for Sergeant Vilboux, and the Squadron, for the first half of the month. However, bad weather, from 18 January when the airfield was snow-bound for six days, brought flying to a halt. Training resumed on 24 January and on 4 February, Squadron Leader Pedley went to 9 Group Headquarters to ask for the squadron to be moved south “to get a crack at the Hun.” The squadron got their move, however, it was to RAF Llanbedr on 8 February.
Sergeant Vilboux’s first taste of excitement arrived on 14 February when he took part in a Section scramble, unfortunately the distance to the Section Station at RAF Valley was resulting in poor radio communications and no contact was made. More training followed for the rest of the month, with the occasional scramble again hampered by communications difficulties. On 27 February the Squadron were notified of another move, this time to RAF Valley, to be carried out on 3 March. Sergeant Vilboux was delayed by technical issues and made the flight to Anglesey the following day.
At Valley, Andre Vilboux was granted the honour being one of the first pair of Squadron Spitfires to fly from the airfield, when taking part in a practice scramble on 5 March. The scramble turned real for Andre Vilboux one week later, flying as “Red 2” he joined Flight Lieutenant Harries in intercepting a Ju.88 about 35 miles south-west of RAF Valley. From Flight Lieutenant’s combat report:
I, as Red Leader steering course 220 sighted E/A at 50ft. heading N.N.E… I opened throttle fully and slowly closed up dead astern of the E/A. E/A took slightly evasive action and I closed to 200 yards before opening fire with cannon and machine guns, ceasing fire at 100 yards, breaking away to port. Red 2 then made a dead astern attack losing me as he broke away. I returned to do a ¾ attack and noticed port engine of E/A was on fire and black smoke pouring from starboard engine. After a six second burst E/A pulled straight up and I gave it another burst. By this time both engines were on fire and the E/A stalled at about 1,000ft. and went straight into the sea. I received two bullet holes in my elevator.
Sergeant Vilboux was credited with a “share” of the kill.
March continued with practice, patrols and scrambles for Andre Vilboux, but on 2 April he was posted to No.611 (West Lancashire) Squadron at RAF Drem, east of Edinburgh. At this point, 611 Squadron was effectively reforming as during March they lost a number of pilots on posting but also had to relinquish a Flight Commander and fourteen pilots for overseas duty on 31st. This left the squadron with only four effective pilots, including Sergeant Misseldine who had only been with the squadron for two weeks after joining from No.53 OTU. The paucity of experience on the squadron is illustrated by an incident on 7 April when Flight Sergeant S B Neill, on his first Spitfire flight, made a heavy landing ripping off his “starboard mainplane, undercarriage and airscrew.”
The first recorded activity for Sergeant Vilboux with his new squadron was to be sent on attachment to No.4 Delivery Flight at RAF Turnhouse, along with the unfortunate Flight Sergeant Neill. It is not recorded when Sergeant Vlboux returned to the squadron, his next record in the diary being on 24 May when he is scrambled to cover the airfield. Overall, May is a quiet month for 611 Squadron as they struggle to cope with a virtual revolving door of flying personnel. The diary highlights only 353 operational hours are flown in the six months to 31 May 1942 compared with 1990 in the same period to May 1941. Spirits are lifted however by the news of the Squadron move to RAF Kenley, initially slated for 31 May, later changed to 2 June.
611 Squadron left RAF Drem by train in the evening of 2 June, after an overnight journey they de-trained at 11.00 the following morning at a “scorching hot” RAF Kenley and began settling in. Their dispersal buildings were situated on the north side of the airfield where the pilots’ rest hut is described as “the most comfortable pilots’ hut we have ever occupied.” After settling in, Andre Vilboux joined the squadron in providing High Cover to Le Crotoy on 5 June; there then followed three weeks of sector and coastal patrols for him. Vilboux joined a six aircraft Air Sea Rescue patrol for Sergeant Guilloux, who had been shot down at 9.30 p.m. during an interception. Guilloux had in fact crash-landed near Eastbourne but was missing for some time before news reached the squadron.
The routine of convoy patrols resumed for Sergeant Vilboux and continued until 13 July when the squadron went to RAF Martlesham Heath for an Air-Firing course, whilst there, the ground echelon moved to RAF Redhill. The weather at Martlesham Heath precluded most of the intended air-firing and the Spitfires flew to Redhill on 20 July. The weather at Redhill only allowed Vilboux to participate in a Rhubarb to Le Touquet on 23 July, where they “destroyed one soldier doing guard on the beach.” The following day the squadron began to receive the first of their Spitfire Mk.IXs, to great excitement. The Squadron Diary had earlier commented on their Spitfire Vs:
The morale of the pilots is excellent, but they all hate having to run away every time they are threatened, just because we are so far behind in aircraft design.
Flight testing of their new mounts began on 26 July, which also included air-firing as there were no butts at Redhill. To compensate for the weather at Martlesham Heath, the squadron was sent to Ipswich for their air-firing practice on 27 July, taking with them a combination of Mark IXs and Mark Vs. The squadron returned to Redhill on 1 August. The new model of Spitfire was causing problems and the squadron had to limit flying while new carburettor needles were supplied and fitted, “the lack of activity is very difficult as pilots get restless and very wild.” The situation was finally rectified on 9 August. Activity remained quiet however, until 14 August, when the squadron made the temporary move back to RAF Kenley for a “large scale exercise.”
Sergeant Vilboux flew on a practice Rodeo to Dieppe on the afternoon of 18 August, in the evening the squadron were called to a briefing on what was to be Operation Jubilee. The following morning was cloudless, 611 Squadron took off from Kenley at 5.10 a.m. On reaching Dieppe, they patrolled in loose fours between 1500 and 5000 feet:
By this time the area around Dieppe was filled with small landing craft twisting and turning just off shore, while the red tracer shells fired from the boats and the land were flashing backwards and forwards in a red network. Had it not been for the realisation that it was a grim battle between men that was going on below, the whole scene might have been described as beautiful.
The scene below proved distracting and the squadron were surprised when Blue Section engaged some Fw.190s. It was during this encounter that Sergeant Andre Vilboux was shot down:
A Spitfire taking evasive action was hit and was last seen spinning at 1500 feet – this was probably our Fighting Frenchman, Sgt. Vilboux who, so far, has not returned.
Andre Vilboux and his Spitfire Mk.IX, BS179 FY-S, crashed into the sea west of Dieppe, his body was not recovered.
Andre Paul Francois Vilboux was born in Rennes, Departement d’Ille-et-Vilaine in Brittany.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.