Flight Sergeant John Stewart Harries
Sergeant John Harries was posted to 66 Squadron at RAF Zeals, from No. 52 Operational Training Unit (OTU), on 6 October 1942.
The squadron were finding the weather and airfield conditions a challenge, fortunately operational duties were relatively light and new pilots, including Sergeant Harries, had the opportunity to gain flying experience within the squadron. Consequently, it was not until 20 November that Sergeant Harries took part in an “operational” sortie. On this occasion the squadron was scrambled to provide cover to Whirlwinds returning from a Rhubarb formation practice. His gentle introduction to operational duty continued that afternoon when he joined in a routine convoy patrol.
As December dawned, the weather had a serious impact on the squadron’s activities with the airfield being unserviceable between 11th and 23rd. It was on 23 December the squadron, despite the conditions, moved to RAF Ibsley. They were much relieved as they had faced the prospect of spending Christmas “on the move.” However, their joy, on arriving at Ibsley, was dampened somewhat by the discovery that the departing Americans had “left very little in the way of civilised comfort behind.” The squadron celebrated Christmas morning with some practice flying, followed by the traditional Christmas dinner served by the officers in the airmen’s mess.
January 1943 brought more training flights for Sergeant Harries. On 9 February, the squadron began its two day move north to RAF Skaebrae in the Orkneys where they would provide air cover for Scapa Flow. More dismay met the Main Party on its arrival: “The advance party greeted us with news of the aged Spitfire VBs the squadron would have to fly.” Zeals had been renowned for bad weather but Skaebrae surpassed this for high winds. The location of Skeabrae meant the squadron was left to its own devices for entertainment, with the camp cinema being highly utilised, with squash and P/T also popular. Practice flights were made, weather permitting, including some air-to-air firing.
An improvement in the weather allowed Sergeant Harries to take part in convoy and dawn patrols on 22 and 23 February respectively. The weather effectively prohibited operational flying for the rest of the month. The weather in March again limited operational activities for Sergeant Harries, with only two sorties to his name. The perils of the weather were illustrated on 12 March, when Pilot Officer William Donald failed to return from a sector reconnaissance. It appears he was caught in an intense local storm, Operations were unable to contact him to guide him home, and he was not seen again.
April brought some slight improvement in the weather and on 4th, Sergeant Harries was sent up accompanying his squadron leader, Harold Bird-Wilson, and Flight Sergeant Arthur Hill, to escort a De Havilland Dominie with engine trouble back to Skaebrae. On 14 April, 66 Squadron was split, with “B” Flight relocating to RAF Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands, Harries remained at Skaebrae with “A”Flight. During a visit by the Air Officer Commanding 14 Group, on 27 April, Sergeant Harries and Flight Sergeant Hill were scrambled but were recalled immediately. In all likelihood, this was purely a demonstration of operational readiness by the squadron for the benefit of the AOC. 28 April saw the pilots of ”A” Flight pose for photographs at Skeabrae.
May saw “A” Flight receive “new” aircraft when Spitfire Mk.VIs were transferred from 234 Squadron, they were intended to counter high-flying German reconnaissance aircraft and were a refinement of the Mk.V with a pressurised cockpit and extended wingtips. The Mark VI was a rare beast, with only 100 made. On 7 May the pilots of “A” Flight had their first acclimatisation flight on the new type. However, prior to this, newly promoted Flight Sergeant Harries suffered an incident on 1 May when he struck the ground during a low flying exercise:
F/Sgt. Harries, carrying out low flying and cine camera sighting exercises, struck a small hill with his propeller, his attention having been distracted by a seagull which hit his starboard mainplane.
The next few days saw several training sorties for Flight Sergeant Harries but on 14 May, in company with Flight Sergeant Burke, he carried out height climbs in his Spitfire Mk.VI reaching an altitude of 37,400ft. The following day 615 Squadron veteran, Squadron Leader Keith Lofts, assumed command. More practice flying rounded off the month for Flight Sergeant Harries.
June proved to be an even quieter month, with Flight Sergeant Harries only performing one operational sortie, on the 18th. On the same day Squadron spirits were lifted, however, with rumours of an imminent move south. The move materialised on 28 June, when the Squadron set off for RAF Church Stanton, later renamed RAF Culmhead. The pilots at Skeabrae flew their Spitfires to Peterhead where they embarked on a Handley Page Harrow for their onward journey to Church Stanton. “B” Flight at Sumburgh left their Spitfires behind and flew to Church Stanton direct by Harrow. The Squadron’s first two days in their new home consisted of sector reconnaissance flights, periods at readiness and convoy patrols.
The move south, a new station and a new month brought a welcome improvement in the weather. As a result, Flight Sergeant Harries was able to undertake six patrol sorties in the first fortnight of July; these were interspersed with more practice sorties. Despite his relatively long time with the squadron, at this stage Harries did not take part in any of the offensive sorties.
This situation changed on 25 July, when the squadron forward deployed to RAF Coltishall at 9.00 a.m. Flight Sergeant Harries joined the squadron when it took off at 2.00 p.m to provide Close Escort for Mitchells bombing Amsterdam. Heavy anti-aircraft fire was encountered over the target and two Me.109s were seen as the squadron turned for home, otherwise the sortie was uneventful. The squadron again provided Close Escort, this time to Bostons, when they took off again at 7.00 p.m. on a mission to Schipol. Approaching the Dutch coast, one of the Bostons turned back, Flight Sergeant Harries was part of Yellow section detailed to cover its withdrawal, en route they also spotted another Boston circling an Air Sea Rescue Operation. Harries returned to Coltishall at 9.00 p.m. The following day the squadron moved to Martlesham Heath to provide Escort Cover for an attack on Courtrai. The Squadron returned to Church Stanton during the afternoon. Flight Sergeant Harries played no further part in operational sorties for the remainder of the month.
August 1943 again started quietly for Flight Sergeant Harries, his first operational sortie taking place on the 8th. The squadron flew, via Exeter, to provide withdrawal cover for an attack on a submarine storage depot at Rennes, the affair proved uneventful. The return to Church Stanton was met by news of another impending move. Preparations were interrupted on 9 August by orders to fly to Coltishall, on arriving there at 9.20 pm, two Spitfires collided on the flare path. The squadron diary noting at this point there were serviceability issues on the unit. The planned operation from Coltishall was cancelled and at 3.00pm 66 Squadron set off for Redhill with only five Spitfires. The weather at Redhill on 11 August was good and the pilots took the opportunity to undertake some sector reconnaissance. In the evening they headed off to explore Redhill and Reigate.
For 66 Squadron, it was a whistle stop stay at Redhill, on 13 August they were off to RAF Kenley, it was also a Friday! On arrival they found their first task was to clear up the dispersals after the Canadians, for the second time in three days. An interruption to normal routine occurred on 14 August, when a photographer arrived to photograph the pilots in civilian clothes. The squadron began operations immediately, but Flight Sergeant Harries was not involved. His first operational sortie from Kenley was part of a squadron escort of USAAF Marauders in an attack on Poix on 19 August, again the mission passed off without incident. That afternoon an Fw190 of 1526 Flight (Enemy Aircraft Circus) arrived at Kenley and Squadron Leader Lofts engaged it in a dog-fight.
Flight Sergeant Harries participated in further escort missions on 23, 27 and 31 August, all three proving uneventful for him. However, 66 Squadron had scored their first victory in many months on 27 August when Flight Lieutenant Elcombe downed an Fw.190. The squadron’s escort mission to Bethune on 2 September proved to be Flight Sergeant Harries’ last. Early in the morning 66 Squadron re-positioned to RAF Tangmere in preparation for the sortie, weather delayed the operation and it was not until 5.00 p.m. that they took off. Their role was to provide escort cover to Marauders attacking Bethune. Despite the lack of Luftwaffe activity, the anti-aircraft fire around Dunkirk was heavy:
There was little enemy activity but the flak from Dunkirk area on the way out was heavy and accurate. F/Sgt. Harries was hit and last seen losing height and going inland.
Flight Sergeant Harries, flying Spitfire Vb, did not make landfall.
John Stewart Harries was the son of William and Florence Mabel (nee Dunford) Harries, who married in January, 1913. He was probably born in Cardiff in July, 1919. By 1939, it is likely that he was living in Glanaman, near Ammanford. He left behind a widow, London-born Muriel Lillian (nee Wardle) Harries, who he had married in July 1942. She re-married in 1944 to John Peter Hanna, a RNZAF bomber pilot, and emigrated to Waikato, New Zealand, with him, where they raised a family. Muriel passed away in 1998.
John Stewart Harries is commemorated on Panel 137 of the Runnymede Memorial.
“Remembered with Honour”
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.