Flying Officer William Douglas Willis (RAAF)
William Douglas Willis, the son of Henry Samuel and Alice Margaret (nee Nice) Willis, was born in South Yarra, Victoria on 26 April 1917. Not much is known of Willis’ early life and education but by 1940 he was working as a clerk for the Country Roads Board in Rathdown, Victoria. This body was responsible for the construction and maintenance of the main roads in the state.
Willis signed up to the Air Force Reserve on 15 January 1940, was officially enlisted on 23 June and joined No. 2 Initial Training School the following day. In common with a large number of trainees he was then posted to No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School where he became a pupil on the Tiger Moth.
After completing his ab initio flying training, Willis was sent to Canada joining No. 1 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Camp Borden on 24 November 1940. His journey appears to have been eventful, as his service record indicates he was involved in a car accident near Hamilton in New Zealand on 4 November. At Camp Borden he progressed to the North American Yale and Harvard, training there between 24 November 1940 and 11 February 1941. On completion of his course, he was promoted to Flying Officer.
After a spell of leave, Pilot Officer Willis made the Atlantic crossing and arrived in Britain on 5 March, 1941, to be posted to No.57 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Hawarden. Whilst 57 OTU was described as an “operational” training unit, it merely introduced pilots to flying the Spitfire and basic combat manoeuvres, the real training would have to take on posting to a squadron. After completing his nine week course, Willis was posted to 452 (RAAF) Squadron on 5 May, 1941.
He arrived at 452 as part of the second tranche of pilots to join the squadron, the others were Pilot Officers Holt, Eccleton, O’Byrne, Lewis & Truscott plus Sergeants Chapman, Chisholm, McCann & Cox. All these pilots, with the exception of Truscott, had followed the same training path as Willis. Benefitting from this early arrival with the squadron, Willis was able to continue his training on the Spitfire, with his first “operational” sortie not taking place until 31 May, although at only 15 minutes it was only a patrol of Kirton-in-Lindsey. After the squadron was declared “day operational” on 2 June, Willis joined in the round of interceptions, sweeps and convoy patrols for the rest of June and early July. On 11 July, 1941, he joined the squadron in their first offensive “sweep.” After refuelling at West Malling, 452 headed for Cassel joining up with 65 and 266 Squadrons over Manston. During the sortie, enemy aircraft were sighted and engaged by Flight Lieutenant Finucane, who claimed one as downed – no other pilot in the squadron fired their guns. The squadron lost Sergeant A. C. Roberts in unknown circumstances, but most likely picked off as a “tail-end Charlie”, fortunately he was later confirmed as a prisoner of war.
With the move to Kenley on 21 July , the tempo of operations stepped up immediately. Willis took part in two sorties the following day, although he was forced to return early on the first. The evening sweep saw the squadron stage from Merston before returning to Kenley. The next ten days saw Willis involved in a pair of sweeps and a pair of convoy patrols before he headed off on leave on 4 August. On his return, an intense period of Circuses began with Willis flying on seven between 12 and 18 August. Circus 81 to Gosnay took place on 19 August, where 452 was heavily engaged, Willis (Black 2) “suffered slight superficial wounds” when his Spitfire was hit by two cannon shells and forced to return to Kenley. Truscott flying as Black 1:
I saw Me.109 after attacking. Black 2 dive below squadron…I then turned and noticed that my No.2 Black 2 had not followed me. He had been badly hit by the attack and had immediately turned and made for England.
Following a seven day break, Willis returned to operations on 26 August as part of Circus 87 to St.Omer. Flying as Green 1, he engaged enemy aircraft but made no claim.
The next day, 27 August, he was in action again on Circus 85. Squadron Diary:
P/O Willis Blue 2 AUS reports – 2 Me.109s came down out of the sun and passed over the top of the Squadron and appeared to attack the Leader (W/Cdr. Kent. Blue 1). The E/A then almost collided with Blue 2 and then half rolled in front of the squadron where Blue 2 fired a short burst of 1 second from 150yds, full deflection at the E/A leader. This was when the Squadron was 1st attacked, being about to cross the coast out of France at approximately 14,000ft. Blue 2 made no claim.
The wounds were sufficient to grant a week off operations. Pilot Officer Willis returned to operations on 26 August, with the first of five Circuses in six days. The intensity of operations during August 1941 marked a concerted effort by the RAF to draw Luftwaffe strength away from the invasion of Russia.
Willis opened September by taking part in a Roadstead anti-shipping operation to Ostend on the 2nd. This time he was leading Black Section with Sergeant Archie Stuart and, as the Blenheims turned for home, Willis spotted one flying low across the water with its propellers throwing up spume from the sea. In his combat report Willis related:
I was Black 1 and after the attack on the ship I saw one of the Blenheims returning at sea level without escort. I broke away with Black 2 and we took over the escort both weaving behind it. About 2 minutes later I saw Me.109 turning to attack Black 2, as I turned towards it I saw a second Me.109 and decided to attack it as Black 2 seemed to be in a better position to deal with the first E/A. As the second E/A was making a steep climbing turn to port, I turned inside it and gave it a 1.5 second burst. E/A dived away and I gave it another short burst just before it dived almost vertically into the sea. I thought I saw the port side riddled with holes caused by my fire. (During this combat the Blenheim must have got away as we did not see it again) E/As camouflage was standard.
The claim was verified by Sergeant Archie Stuart flying as Black 2 who credited with downing the second Me.109. Willis and Stuart were the only pilots to engage the enemy on the operation.
Shortly afterwards, Willis embarked on a seven day leave. His return to the squadron saw a gentle reintroduction to flying with his first two flights being squadron practise “Balbos”.
18 September saw the squadron take part in Circus 99 to Le Grande-Querville Power Station near Rouen. 452 were one of six fighter squadrons escorting the bombers. Circus 99 had been intended as a diversionary attack for Circus 97, intending to split the defenders’ forces. However, the Hampdens on Circus 97 aborted leaving their fighters to perform an ineffectual sweep. Consequently, the Germans were able to concentrate on Circus 99. The Luftwaffe responded to the RAF, launching around 150 fighters to intercept with around 100 orbiting St. Omer. 452 flew as close escort to the bombers at 10,000ft but after escorting Hurricanes from Circus 97 joined the formation, 452 climbed to 12,000ft to join 485 and 602 but were squeezed out on the approach to the target and forced to climb to 14,000ft – it was now the highest flying squadron in the enlarged escort. The determined German attacks broke up the defenders and, as the force turned for home, Black Section of Willis and Stuart found themselves at the tail of “B” Flight, nearest the attacking Me.109s.
The Squadron diary recalls the events:
P/O Willis (AUS) (Black 1) was last seen in company with Sgt. Stuart (Black 2) by Sgt. Wawn (Green 2) who drove away 2 Me.109s which were attacking Black Section from behind. There were an abnormal number of e/a in the vicinity at this time, and although P/O Willis and Sgt. Stuart were not seen to break away, they were not shot down at this point of the combat.
Willis along with Sergeants Stuart, Try and Manning were missing at the end of the Circus. Stuart and Try were later confirmed as prisoners of war. Pilot Officer Willis had almost succeeded in reaching the coast before being shot down, his remains were recovered from the Spitfire wreck and interred by the Germans. 18 September 1941 marked the heaviest losses sustained by 452 during their residence at Kenley.
Flying Officer William Douglas Willis is buried in Ste. Marie Cemetery, Le Havre. The inscription reads:
“Remembered with honour”
He was also commemorated on a plaque in the Victoria Country Roads Board Offices, unveiled on 5 November 1952, which remembers the 9 officers and at least 8 employees of the Board who made the supreme sacrifice in WWII.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.