War medals from Norfolk's beer-loving bomber hero up for auction
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As the wartime honours of one of the RAF’s greatest heroes are about to be auctioned, Steve Snelling charts the stellar career of an East Anglian-based bomber ace.
He was a larger than life war hero who knew how to have a good time.
Four times decorated bomber pilot Sidney ‘Tubby’ Baker amassed a staggering 100 missions against heavily defended targets in Nazi-occupied Europe and his astonishing feats of airmanship were matched only by his high-spirited exploits on the ground.
In the course of five years and four operational tours, ‘Tubby’ acquired legendary status throughout RAF Bomber Command both as an inspirational leader in the elite Pathfinder Force and for his gargantuan appetite for food, cigarettes and, most famously, beer.
One of the most admired and most successful bomber commanders of his generation, he cemented his reputation for boisterous bonhomie with a celebration to mark his century of wartime sorties that has become part of RAF folklore.
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Landing back at Downham Market after an eventful final ‘op’ over Germany, he was greeted with a glass of best bitter which, true to form, he downed with a mixture of relief and relish even before leaving his battle-scarred Lancaster.
Now, nearly eight decades after his unforgettable swansong, memories of one of the most ebullient bomber aces ever to fly out of East Anglia are being stirred all over again by the sale of his medals and memorabilia.
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Described by Spink’s head of medals Marcus Budgen as “one of the best collections of its kind to come on the open market in the past 10 years”, the treasure trove of distinctions include a Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross, each with a second award bar, and a well-used beer tankard commemorating his Norfolk service.
Together, they are conservatively estimated to fetch between £28,000 and £32,000 when they come under the hammer on Thursday, July 29 , but, given the lot’s scale and scarcity, Budgen believes the final price could soar to more than £50,000.
“It’s an incredible collection with a truly extraordinary story behind it,” he said. “There’s no doubt at all that ‘Tubby’ was one of the greatest bomber leaders the RAF has ever produced. His record is amazing and stands comparison with the most distinguished wartime pilots, including the likes of Leonard Cheshire.
“What sets him apart from so many others is that the overwhelming majority of his 100 operations were proper heavy duty missions involving targets deep into heavily defended enemy territory. Of those, the last 20 or so were nearly all flown as Master Bomber, in other words he led and directed the raid which meant spending longer than anyone else over the target with all the added risks that entailed.
“But there was so much more to ‘Tubby’ than his heroism. He was a huge character in every sense. He wasn’t just some boring guy who was very good at flying planes, he was someone who lived every moment as if it was his last - an inspiration to the men he commanded who had absolute faith in him and a good guy to have at the bar!”
That there was something of the incorrigible ‘laughing cavalier’ about him was clear. When ‘Tubby’ was around laughter and japes were never far away. A member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force based at Downham Market recalled how he always used to “breeze” into the operations room with his trademark expression “what’s cooking good looking”?
Another airman remembered seeing him enter the mess at the moment a WAAF officer was bending over to poke the fire. “‘Tubby’ took a bottle of soda water, shook it up and put it under her skirt,” he recalled. “She nearly killed him with the poker!”
But as well as his natural ebullience and irreverence there was a steely determination laced with a mastery of his profession that was born of hard-earned experience gained during one of the fiercest and most costly campaigns of the Second World War.
As one of his aircrew later remarked: “His concentration on the things that matter, and to hell with trivia, earned him the admiration of all who served with him.”
‘Tubby’s’ rise to prominence was nothing if not meteoric. Just 20 when war broke out, he qualified as an ‘above average’ pilot at the height of the Battle of Britain and in the space of five incident-packed years rose from sergeant to wing commander in charge of a Pathfinder squadron whose task it was to identify and mark targets ahead of the main bombing force.
Flying first out of Stradishall in Suffolk with twin-engine Wellingtons, he alternated hazardous operational roles with gruelling instructional duties that included two more tours with Pathfinders based at Oakington in Cambridgeshire where he came to epitomise Bomber Command’s ‘press on regardless’ spirit.
At a time when crews considered themselves lucky to complete a single tour his survival appeared little short of miraculous.
Once, during a “ghastly” night training flight in which his aircraft was blown off course by high winds, he was forced to crash-land with an engine on fire in the Peak District. He and his crew just managed to scramble clear when the plane erupted in a fireball.
A little over three months later he was piloting a Stirling bomber over Berlin when it was bracketed by flak that knocked out one engine and seriously damaged a second. Somehow he contrived to nurse the stricken aircraft back to base on two engines after an “exhausting” five-hour flight only to discover that enemy fire had shredded one of its landing wheels.
Touching down, the undercarriage collapsed and the bomber slewed off the runway. “Luckily,” ‘Tubby’ later recalled, “the aircraft came to rest quite close to a cottage on the perimeter of the airfield and six tired airmen climbed out unhurt.”
Undaunted, he flew on to complete an arduous tour that included attacks on a host of major German cities, not least the firestorm raids on Hamburg during which his crew shot down an enemy fighter, as well as the critical pinpoint assault on the V2 rocket research centre at Peenemunde.
By the time, he took charge of 635 Squadron at Downham Market in September 1944 his reputation as “a pilot par excellence”, as one airman described him, was already secure.
But despite having clocked up more than 80 missions and earning the DSO and DFC and Bar in the process he was determined not to rest on his laurels.
Ignoring strictures about senior officers flying on missions, he continued to lead by example, taking personal charge of many of the more challenging sorties. As one of his officers at Downham Market later remarked, he displayed all the instincts of “a real buccaneer and outstanding wartime leader”.
This was never more true than on a daylight raid carried out in foul weather on Boxing Day 1944 in support of beleaguered American troops at the height of the so-called Battle of the Bulge.
“‘Tubby’ showed us all what was expected,” wrote a navigator aboard one of the Norfolk-based Lancasters. “One of his engines went out on take-off but he carried on… jettisoned his bombs in the North Sea, retained his markers and went through [to] the target as if he was flying on all four engines.”
The result was one of the most accurate and destructive bombing missions spearheaded by Pathfinders and helped turn the tide against the German army.
His final wartime mission as master bomber of a daylight strike against the German city of Wuppertal on March 13, 1945 was even more eventful.
Finding the target obscured by cloud, ‘Tubby’ dropped down and called the rest of his force to follow in terms which, according to one of the pilots, were far from polite!
Not for the first time his courage spliced with an unerring if somewhat unnerving sixth sense was rewarded. One of the raiders later described it as “one of the most impressive demonstrations of Pathfinder operations” he had ever seen as bombers came “hurtling down, pell-mell through the clouds” to rain destruction on the hapless city.
However, ‘Tubby’ did not escape unscathed. During repeated runs over the target area directing the attack his Lancaster was peppered with flak and on the return flight he was forced to twice evade attacks from an enemy rocket fighter, but as on all of his previous 99 missions his luck held to the last.
Officially ‘grounded’ after landing back in Norfolk he was awarded a richly deserved Bar to his DSO, married a ‘WAAF’ he had met at Downham Market and served another 21 years through war and peace.
Against all the odds, the RAF’s one-off hero called ‘Tubby’ had lived to tell his extraordinary tale, no doubt over the odd pint or two in a contented retirement that lasted till his death, aged 88, in 2007.
Reviewing a priceless saga of courage and good humour that all but beggars belief, Spink’s Marcus Budgen marvels at a fearless life lived to the full. “What he achieved was simply incredible,” he said. “There were no easy ‘ops’ for him. To read his record of missions is to read the history of the RAF’s entire bombing strategy. As bomber pilots go, he is up there in the premier league.”
Spink’s sale of orders, decorations and medals takes place at their London auction rooms on Thursday starting at 10am. For more details visit www.spink.com