Wing Commander John Clarke Fee, DFC and Bar
John Clarke Fee was born in Toronto, Canada, on 23rd May, 1915, the son of Thomas James Fee and Margery Workman Fee (nee Clarke). He had a brother, Robert Andrews Fee (who was a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft I, in December 1943), and a sister, Margery Mary Parkinson.
He was brought up in Sudbury, Ontario, attending Espanola Public School and then Sudbury High School, before continuing his education at the Royal Military College, Kingston. During his summer breaks from College, he worked as a labourer for the International Nickel Co. at Frood Mine, his hometown.
In July, 1937, Fee enlisted in the RCAF, as a provisional Pilot Officer. Flying training got off to a slow start; he required “considerably more dual than most,” but his instructor was convinced that he would become a good pilot. He was considered a “steady, reliable, temperate,” character and was awarded his ‘wings’ on 20th May, 1938.
In the Spring of 1939, Fee took a Flying Instructor’s course, at No.115 (F) Squadron, Montreal, where his aerobatic skills were praised, though he was thought to be “a bit rough on the controls.” From the outset, he was confident in his ability to give instruction, and presented in an interesting manner.
On 21st October, he married a Calgary girl, Mary Doreen Cassidy, in Toronto. Promotion to Flight Lieutenant followed in January 1940.
In June 1940, he was posted to No.4 EFTS, otherwise known as Windsor Mills Flying School, in Portage La Prairie. The president of the school heaped glowing praise on Fee for his strong sense of duty and the excellent service he provided while he was in charge of the school. Most importantly, he was “easy to get along with” and had a good sense of humour.
Fee went on to serve as a Flying Instructor at No.4 Service Flying Training School, in Saskatoon and No.16 SFTS, Hagerville, where he “earned the confidence and respect of all ranks.” However, he craved an operational posting overseas, which was finally granted in November 1941, after he had logged a grand total of 800 instructional hours in Canada.
On arrival in Britain, John Clarke Fee spent the customary couple of weeks at No.3 Personnel Reception Unit, Bournemouth, before commencing his course at No.53 Operational Training Unit, on 16th December, 1941. From there, he was posted to No.41 Squadron at Westhampnett, arriving on 4th March, where he joined ‘B’ Flight, “temporary for operational knowledge,” according to the Operations Record Book. Three days later, back in Canada, Doreen gave birth to a baby boy, named “John Clarke Fee” after his Father.
Despite his rank of Squadron Leader, Fee had no operational experience at all, but after one local familiarisation flight and an unsuccessful attempt at drogue firing practice on the 7th, he joined the squadron for his first operational sweep on the 13th.
The 14th was a red letter day for the squadron – 7 Me109’s destroyed and 1 probable for no loss on an operational sweep, but combat must have come as a real shock to the system for Fee. On returning to base, he overshot the aerodrome when coming in to land, causing grievous damage to his Spitfire Vb, (W3713, coded ‘T’). Despite this, he was back in action that afternoon, escorting Hudson bombers to LeHavre.
Fee flew a further 15 sorties before being given command of 41 Squadron on 12th April, only a month after his first operational flight! It had been a dreadful day for the squadron, 9 aircraft had set out to escort Boston bombers to Hazebrouck and only four had returned! Four pilots were missing and one had crash-landed at Manston.
On 28th July, 1942, Fee was given command of 412 Squadron, RCAF, at Merston, and his leadership of the squadron through this period, including 3 sorties on 19th August in support of the Dieppe raid, led to his first DFC, gazetted 11th November.
The citation reads as follows:
This officer is a fine pilot and a skilful leader. By his outstanding ability he has been mainly responsible for the high standard of fighting efficiency of the squadron he commands. He has completed a large number of sorties, including some during the combined operation at Dieppe. Squadron Leader Fee has at all times set a most inspiring example.
On 29th September, 412 squadron moved to RAF Redhill, and on 1st November, they arrived at Kenley. Like many experienced pilots, Fee was caught out by Kenley’s tricky weather on the 17th – he missed his first attempt to land because of poor visibility, but forgot that his undercarriage was already down when he tried again, pulling the undercarriage lever and thus retracting the wheels. He didn’t notice the warning lights or horn and made a belly landing, breaking the propeller, and damaging the radiator and port wing-tip of Spitfire Vb (AD470).
Shortly after this, Fee was made Wing Leader and Group Captain Richard Atcherley, wisely decided that penalising him for his ‘prang’ would “undermine the prestige” of his position.
Wing Commander Fee was leading his wing on 17th January, 1943 for Rodeo 151. Here is the entry in the 402 Squadron Operations Record Book:
“401 and 402 Squadrons with 24 Spitfires IX. Up 14.30 hrs down 15.20hrs. 412 Squadron with 15 Spitfires VB. IX’s operated in three flights of 8 aircraft. Wing Commander Fee led leading flight of Red and Yellow sections. Wing crossed Beachy zero feer 14.50hours and just off Veulew Les Roses climbed to cross at 7-9,000ft. 412 detached one sub-section to attack Loco Tontaine le Dun and also sections attacked loco five miles E. off Yvetot and 10 W. of Yvetot damaging all three. This Squadron was at 4-5,000 feet in this area, whilst the IX’s flew along to the Yvetot Balbec railway after one section of 402 attacked a loco of a train at Luneray and rejoined it’s flight under S/L Malloy. One section of S/L Hodson’s flight 401 Squadron attacked a loco of a coal train at Yvetot and rejoined the flight. At Bolbec S/L Malloy took the leading section of hus flight down to attack a loco of train and so did S/L Hodson. In each case the other section staying above at 5-8,000ft. This time the W/C’s flight had covered the ground straffing and he now detailed yellow one and two to go down and strafe at Bolbec. As Yellow 1and 2 climbed up to rejoin the flight the main 6 aircraft at 5,000ft were warned of FW190’s and turned head on to meet nine FW190’s in shallow dive from cloud base at 6,000ft from west. All in line abreast. Flight turned to get onto FW190’s as did 412 Squadron and immediately dogfight developed over Bolbec. Yellow one and two were attacked on climb by 4 FW190’s and damaged two but became separated from flight. Yellow 3 and 4 kept together and damaged 2. Red 3 and 4 broke away out of melee and Red 3 destroyed 1 FW10 and then found Red 4 F/O Skinner was not with him. Red 1 Wing Commander Fee and his Red 2 F/O M. J. Sunstrum were together during the earlier part of the combat as Red 2 was heard over the R/T assuring Red 1 that he was right behind him. Wing Commander was heard to say at 15.33 “I’m hit fellows and I’m going out”. Nothing more was heard of him and he and Red 2 are missing. All told estimated 20 FW190’s in this combat in which all 3 Squadrons took part. One section under S/L Hodson also attacked what is believed to be distillery at Brachy Target, Appendix IV No.60. Cloud 5/10th at 8,000 ft with good visibility. Considerable light flak from Fecamp and 3,000 feet but not accurate. 2 unidentified aircraft seen to hit water two miles off Fecamp and one unidentified aircraft seen to hit water one mile off Fecamp. 412 were last out of France and orbited off Fecamp but saw nothing of the e/a there. Enemy casualties: 3 loco’s damaged by 412 Squadron and 1 loco damaged by 401 Squadron. 1 loco damaged by 402 Squadron. 1 FW190 destroyed. 1FW190 probably destroyed. 5 FW190’s probably damaged. W/C Fee, F/O M. J. Sunstrum, P/O Skinner missing.
Interestingly, there seems to be some confusion about who was flying as Wing Commander Fee’s number 2. A circumstantial report into the loss of Fee and his Spitfire IX (BS315), states that:
Soon after arriving over France, W/C Fee’s section was engaged by the enemy and his “number 3” (CAN/J.15621 P/O M. Johnston) became separated from the section and later returned to Kenley. Later at 15.33 hours, W/C Fee, by R/T signified that he had been hit and was turning back. No mention was made of his “number 2” or “number 4”, CAN/J.10520 F/O M. J. Sunstrum and CAN/J.16082 P/O A. M. Skinner, respectively, but it is presumed that they were still with the Wing Commander when he turned back, as none of the three have been seen since.
Wing Commander John Clarke Fee was posthumously awarded a bar to his DFC, gazetted 9th February, 1943:
This officer, both as a squadron commander and a wing leader has taken part in a large number of operational sorties. He has always shown exceptional enthusiasm to engage the enemy and remarkable coolness when under fire. Wing Commander Fee is a brilliant leader who has set a splendid example of courage and determination.
Having no known grave, he is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial, panel 172.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.