Sergeant Francis Gilbert Harper (R.A.A.F.)
By the standards of the day Francis Gilbert Harper could have been considered to be old when he joined up in October 1940. He had already been married for three years to Doris Muriel Harper (nee. Biss) and had two young daughters, Carol Joan and Lynette Merle.
Francis Harper was born on 29 June, 1913, in Brisbane, the only child of Reginald Gilbert and Mary Maud Harper (nee Watson). Growing up he spent his time in and around Brisbane; following schooling, he entered the new world of moving pictures. He started out as an assistant projectionist, before progressing to salesman with Columbia Pictures Pty. Ltd at the time of his enlistment.
Unlike a number of the new pilots who joined 452 (RAAF) Squadron during 1941, Francis Harper undertook his initial training in Australia. After completing his induction with No.2 Initial Training School, he was posted to No.2 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at RAAF Archerfield, then No.3 EFTS. He spent six months across both EFTS and embarked at Sydney for the UK on 17 July 1941. Whilst with No. 3 EFTS he had trained on the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) Wirraway which was a licensed-built version of the North American Harvard.
On arriving in the UK, Harper was posted to No. 52 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Aston Down in Gloucestershire. Here he received his training on the Spitfire, although this could only be regarded as basic and not in any way to combat standard. After just eight weeks training on the Spitfire, he was posted to 452 (RAAF) Squadron at Redhill on 4 November 1941, having been promoted to Sergeant on 28 October.
In common with other newly qualified pilots joining 452, Harper spent the remainder of the year building up his experience and familiarity with the Spitfire Mk. V on the Squadron. 452 had been operating this mark of Spitfire since the end of August, but the OTU used the older Mk. I and Mk. II. Standard policy in the Kenley Wing was to rotate the squadrons between Kenley and Redhill, so 452 returned to Kenley on 20 January 1942 replacing 602 who made the reciprocal journey.
Harper now became operational with the squadron, making his first sortie on 22 January as part of a minesweeper escort patrol with 602 Squadron. It was a tough introduction to the frontline arena while no enemy aircraft were encountered, Harper witnessed the difficulties of his Blue Section leader Pilot Officer Don Lewis. Harper reported seeing oil on his windscreen before Lewis made the turn for Manston, the oil ceased to accumulate after Lewis had departed. Lewis was later seen floating, apparently unconscious, next to his parachute but was not recovered.
Harper took part in a Chanel sweep on 27 January before embarking on five days leave on 30 January. On his return, he took part in an uneventful scramble on 10 February. This was followed on the morning of 13 February by his likely participation in the squadron “turkey shoot”, along with Group Captain Victor Beamish, on a German He.114 floatplane off Boulogne. Lunchtime that day produced another uneventful scramble.
Harper’s sixth, and final, sortie took place on 15 February when he flew, as “Green 2” in “B” Flight on a coastal patrol between Dungeness and Beachy Head. After being vectored towards an enemy aircraft, the two sections were split by the cloud layer. Closing the French coast, Green section descended to investigate some boats, but were then distracted by two Me.109s and set off in pursuit. As the enemy fighters split Green 1 and Green 2 followed one each. Green 1 became entangled with a gaggle of Me.109s and Fw.190s and lost sight of Harper who was last seen heading for the French coast in pursuit of the 109. The squadron diary and combat report recorded:
“4 Spitfires VB (P/O Sly, P/O Shillins, F/Sgt. Makin and Sgt. Harper) took off Kenley to patrol Beachy Head to Dungeness. They were vectored onto enemy aircraft; one section went above 10/10ths cloud at 3000/4000 feet, the second section (F/Sgt. Makin and Sgt. Harper) were below cloud. About 8 miles off Cap Gris Nez this section observed a number of small enemy motor boats and went to investigate. At this point F/Sgt. Makin and Sgt. Harper espied two Me.109s and gave chase. The Me.109s separated, one Me.109F climbed and was attacked by Makin (Green 1). The E/A was just above 1000ft and Green 1 swooped down firing a 2 sec. burst at 350yds closing to 150yds. The E/A emitted a stream of white smoke and then pushed his stick forward. Makin could not follow him, having lost his height advantage, but he did fire a second ½ sec. burst at long range at the Me.109F which made off for the French coast in difficulties. F/Sgt. Makin could not observe any further, for he was hotly attacked by a mixed bag of 10 Me.109s and Fw.190s. He took violent evasive action and using full boost managed to keep his distance from two pursuing Fw.190s who chased him 2/3rds the way across the Channel towards the English coast. The second of the original Me.109s dived and was followed by Sgt. Harper, who was not subsequently seen.”
It seems likely Sergeant Harper was caught up in the thrill of the chase and the prospect of his first “kill”, forgetting his basic pilot training to continuously check his tail. It is possible Harper was brought down by one of the gaggle of enemy aircraft that Flight Sergeant Makin managed to evade.
Sergeant Francis Gilbert Harper is commemorated on Panel 112 of the Runnymede Memorial. The inscription reads:
“Remembered with Honour”
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.