11 November 2023

The Battle of Britain
and remembering the role
of Harry Comerford
on Armistice Day

The Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday commemorations and services are taking place across the land today (11 November) and tomorrow (12 November), at war memorials and in churches and cathedrals.

Apart from competing attention for news coverage with today’s large Palestinian protest in London, many news outlets focussed inrecent days on the Battle of Britain, in which 1542 British pilots were killed, 422 were wounded and 23,002 civilians were killed.

BBC television news earlier this week interviewed the last surviving Battle of Britain veteran, Group Captain John Hemingway, who lives in Dublin and who is now 104.

He joined the RAF as a teenager before World War II. When he was 21 he was a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, a three-month period when air force personnel defended the skies against a large-scale assault by the German air force, the Luftwaffe.

He was shot down four times during the war – twice in the space of eight days, during the Battle of Britain. The last incident was in 1945 when he was flying a Spitfire behind enemy lines in Italy. ‘I don't think we ever assumed greatness of any form,’ he told the BBC this week. ‘We were just fighting a war which we were trained to fight.’

Flight Lieutenant Harry Alfred George Comerford (1905-1956) is one of the RAF fighter pilots named on the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment, London

The Battle of Britain was fought entirely in the air and was a dramatic turning point in the war. Churchill said of the pilots: ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.’

Flight-Lieutenant Harry Alfred George Comerford (1905-1956) is one of the RAF fighter pilots named on the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment, on the north bank of the Thames, about 200 metres from Westminster Bridge, and almost directly opposite the Millennium Wheel.

Not all fighter operations during the Battle of Britain involved dogfights with the Germans. Many involved long routine patrols along Britain’s shores, without so much as a sighting of a German aircraft. Yet the story of how Harry Comerford became an RAF officer and how he eventually came to be named on the Battle of Britain Monument is another story in the Comerford family history.

Harry Alfred George Comerford was born on 13 August 1905, the eldest son of Harry William John Comerford (1874-1955), a popular music hall and variety comedian and actor whose stage name was Harry Ford.

Harry Comerford or Harry Ford married Rosina Sarah Sipple (1881-1958) in 1903. Rosina’s sister Aggie married Harry’s brother, Albert (Bert) Albert George Comerford (1879-1973), known on stage as Bert Brantford. Together, these Comerford brothers and Sipple sisters almost created a theatrical and movie dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rosina and Aggie Sipple were descended from some of the most interesting Sephardi Jewish families in Europe. Many of their immediate ancestors were married in the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and they could trace their ancestry directly to leading Sephardi families who lived in Amsterdam, Livorno, Venice and Seville, including Spanish Marrano families who had been forced to convert to Christianity in Seville during the Inquisition but had maintained their Jewish faith and practices in their private family and domestic life.

Harry Ford was at the peak of his career while the likes of Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and George Robey dominated bill-topping positions at the Tivoli, Oxford, and the Pavilion, London. At the London Pavilion in particular, he was a recognised favourite for many years. He frequently did top bills throughout London, as well as in the major provincial cities. The Variety Theatre once described him as a true star of the Metropolis.

Harry Comerford (Harry Ford) died in Birmingham on 31 March 1955, aged 80. Harry and Rosina Sipple were the parents of two daughters and three sons:

1, Rose Comerford, born in 1904.
2, (Flight-Lieutenant) Harry Alfred George Comerford (1905-1956), who is named on the Battle of Britain Monument in London.
3, Georgina Comerford (1909-2001). She was born on 4 August 1909, and died in April 1996 in Lincolnshire.
4, Leonard Jack Comerford (1914-1993). He was born on 16 February 1914 in Wandsworth. He was a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps during World War II and was a prisoner of war in Germany. He died in January 1993 in Boston, Lincolnshire.
5, John Comerford (1920-1996), who was born in Surrey in 1920 and died in April 1996 in Leicester.

Harry William John Comerford (1874-1955) was a popular music hall and variety comedian and actor under the stage name of Harry Ford

The eldest son in this family, Harry Alfred George Comerford, was born on 15 August 1905 in Wandsworth. He joined the RAF on a short service commission in January 1927, and was posted to 2 Flying Training School Digby in Lincolnshire for flying training.

When he qualified, Harry joined 16 Squadron at Old Sarum on 19 December 1927, equipped with Bristol Fighters. Within a year, he was posted to 28 Squadron at Ambala, India, near the border with Punjab, on 20 October 1928, and he served on the North-West Frontier in 1930-1931.

While Harry was in India, he married Georgiana Alicia Betty Davidson (1903-2001) on 5 November 1931 in Ambala, Bengal. She was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, on 11 November 1903.

Some months later, Harry moved to 31 Squadron at Quetta – now in Pakistan – on 18 March 1932 and he became adjutant.

Harry returned to Britain on leave on 20 December 1932, returned to India, and was then posted back to Britain on 22 November 1933. He joined 40 Squadron at Abingdon on 15 March 1934, and when he completed his term of service, he went on to the Reserve of RAF Officers on 7 October 1934.

The name of Flight Lieutenant HAG Comerford on the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With the outbreak of World War II, the RAF recalled Harry on 13 January 1940 and posted to 7 Flying Training School, Peterborough, as a flying instructor and ‘C’ Flight Commander.

Harry was remanded for Court Martial on 5 July 1940 on a charge of becoming unfit for duty due to excessive consumption of alcohol. He was tried by General Court Martial on 24 July 1940 and acquitted.

Harry was then posted from 7 FTS to 6 EFTS Sywell and from there that he joined 312 Squadron at Speke on 1 October 1940 as ‘B’ Flight Commander.

Not all fighter operations during the Battle of Britain involved dogfights with the Germans. Many involved long routine patrols along Britain’s shores, without so much as a sighting of an enemy aircraft. After chaotic air battles over France, these patrols may have seemed mundane. But they were not without their own dangers as Harry and a flight of Hurricanes from Squadron 312 found as they were patrolling the coast of Lancashire that October.

Harry flew operational sorties on the 11, 12 and 13 October 1940. On 13 October 1940, Blenheims K7135 and L6637 of 29 Squadron were aloft from Tern Hill when they were attacked in error by Squadron-Leader J Ambrus, Flight-Lieutenant Comerford and Sergeant J Stehlik over the Point of Ayr, south-west of Liverpool.

Despite firing the colours of the day, L6637 was shot down with the loss of Sergeant RE Stevens, Sergeant OK Sly and AC2 A Jackson. K7135 with Flight Office JD Humphreys, Sergeant EH Bee and AC1 JF Fizell was able to break off and return to base.

On Tuesday 15 October 1940, 550 German fighters and bombers attacked London, the Thames Estuary and Kent in five waves. That night saw an even heavier assault on London as some 300 bombers, in the light of a full moon, gave Londoners a foretaste of the Blitz to come.

But for now, this intense activity was focused to the south. Early that evening, two flights of hurricanes, Red and Yellow sections of No 312 Squadron, took off from Speke at 17:30 for a dusk patrol over the Lancaster area, with instructions to return at 18:25. Red section landed as instructed, but there was no sign of Yellow section, consisting of Squadron Leader Jan K Ambrus flying No V6846, Pilot Officer T Vybiral flying No V6811 and Flight Lieutenant HAG Comerford in Hurricane No V6542.

It appears that Yellow section was lost over the sea in deteriorating weather conditions and the failing light, after Ambrus, who knew his position, followed Comerford, whom he believed had sighted a German aircraft.

Although the flight was fortunate in regaining the coast and found themselves once again over land on the Barrow peninsula, their fuel situation was critical and both Comerford and Vybiral were soon forced to abandon their aircraft.

Comerford ran out of fuel and bailed out at 19:00, landing near Dalton-in-Furness with slight injuries, having struck his head on the tail of his aircraft as he left it. His aircraft dived vertically into farmland at Gleaston, narrowly missing a cottage by only 20 yards. Comerford was subsequently rendered non-effective for a while due to his injuries.

At about the same time, Vybiral also ran out of fuel and bailed out, leaving his aircraft to crash into farm land near Dalton-in-Furness. He landed close to Whinfield Farm Lindal, where he was mistaken for a German airman, due to his accent, by the farmer’s wife. He could not convince her otherwise, and she locked him into a barn until his identity was confirmed.

The flight had been observed by a number of people in the Dalton-in-Furness area who recalled seeing the aircraft flying overhead and then observed two of them fly into the ground. But, to their relief, most soon saw the two parachutes blossom in the sky.

A local police officer saw one of the pilots on his parachute, and commandeered a Ribble bus to take him to the spot where the pilot landed. When he arrived at the farm, the policeman found himself rescuing the unfortunate airman from the barn.

Ambrus continued flying until his fuel ran out and then carried out a well-executed wheels up forced landing on farmland south of Over Kellet, near Carnforth at 20:00, leaving a furrow across the field. He was not injured, and the aircraft was not too badly damaged and was subsequently repaired.

The official inquiry into the incident later concluded that the flight should have kept sight of land and landed 20 minutes before blackout as instructed. No further action was taken against the pilots and this was the Squadron’s last accident of the Battle of Britain period.

Comerford’s aircraft, serial No V6542 had dived vertically into farmland and was completely destroyed. However, the crash site was located in 1977 by the Warplane Wreck Investigation Group from Merseyside. They carried out a full excavation and recovered the propeller hub and a few other fragments that were donated to a museum in New Brighton.

Harry was posted non-effective sick on 20 October and declared fit for light duty only on 26 October. He did not fly again operationally. He was posted away to the Air Ministry on 13 November 1940, for attachment to Vickers at Weybridge. He was awarded the AFC on 30 September 1941 and left the RAF when he resigned his commission on 19 April 1943.

After World War II, Harry and Georgiana Comerford were living in Sutton and Cheam in Surrey, in 1945, and in Basingstoke, Hampshire, in 1948. He died in Leicester in September 1956; she later lived in Cambridge (1960) and died in Chiltern, Buckinghamshire, in May 2001.

The decorations and medals awarded to Flight Lieutenant HAG Comerford

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (7) 11 November 2023

The Duomo, facing the Piazza Vescovado) is the spiritual and social centre of Ravello (Photograph: www.ravello.com)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England, and tomorrow is the Third Sunday before Advent (12 November 2023) and Remembrance Sunday.

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (11 November) remembers Saint Martin (ca 397), Bishop of Tours.

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

In recent prayer diaries on this blog, my reflections have already looked at a number of Italian cathedrals, including the cathedrals in Amalfi, Florence, Lucca, Noto, Pisa, Ravenna, Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint John Lateran, Rome, Siena, Sorrento, Syracuse, Taormina, Torcello and Venice.

So, this week, my reflections look at some more Italian cathedrals, basilicas and churches in Bologna, San Marino, Pistoia, San Gimignano, Mestre, Sorrento and Ravello.

Throughout this week, my reflections each morning have followed this pattern:

1, A reflection on an Italian cathedral or basilica;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Entering the duomo in Ravello through the museum on a side street on the north side of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Duomo, Ravello:

Ravello on the Amalfi coast is a small town (population 2,500), but it was once an independent city state and today it is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is known for its beautiful views of the coast below, for the Ravello Festival and for the Villa Rufolo, built in 1270, and its gardens.

Boccaccio mentions the villa in his Decameron, it inspired Richard Wagner’s stage design for his opera Parsifal (1880), and it was there DH Lawrence wrote part of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

But visitors often miss out on Ravello’s much older duomo or cathedral on the other side of the square, built in 1080 in a combination of Baroque and Romanesque styles with the support of the Rufolo family. The duomo, dedicated to the Assumption and Saint Pantaleone, h has undergone extensive modifications and restorations over the past 900 years. The shining white fa├žade dates back to the last major restoration in 1931.

The entrance to the cathedral has two bronze doors depicting 54 scenes of the life and Passion of Christ. The doors, which were temporarily removed for restoration in 2010, were built in 1179 by Barisano da Trani. These bronze doors are one of only two dozen pairs of bronze doors in Italy, three of them by Trani.

Although the cathedral was being prepared for a wedding on the afternoon I was visiting, I was welcomed inside, entering through the museum on a side street on the north side of the cathedral.

Inside, the cathedral’s richly ornamented interior is a riot of sculpted white marble, which holds a third century sarcophagus, marble slabs decorated with mosaics, and the skull of Saint Barbara. Behind the altar, there is a vial that is said to hold the blood of Saint Pantaleone, the town’s patron saint, and a fragment of the hand Saint Thomas placed in the side of the Risen Christ.

But the gems in the cathedral are the two 13th century, decorated, marble pulpits in the central nave, adorned with glittering mosaics: the Gospel Pulpit on the right of the central nave, and the Epistle Pulpit on the left.

The Gospel Pulpit, dating from 1272, displays dragons and birds on spiral columns, supported by six carved lions, and the heraldic arms of the Rufolo family who built the Villa Rufolo, with profiles of family members above the doors of the pulpit. The Epistle Pulpit depicts the story of Jonah and the Whale.

The Chapel of Saint Pantaleone the Healer commemorates a third century physician who was beheaded on orders of the Emperor Diocletian after he converted to Christianity. The chapel has a small phial of the saint’s blood, which is said to liquify every year on 27 July, the anniversary of his martyrdom. The chapel also has a silver bust of the town’s venerated saint.

Ten saints depicted on two panels of a 16th century predella in Ravello by Giovanni D’Angelo D’Amato (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

The cathedral reached through a side entrance on the Via Richard Wagner. The collection is relatively small but includes several significant sculptures and works of art. A famous marble bust is said by many to be Sigilgaida Rufolo, the wife of Nicola Rufolo, the 13th-century merchant who commissioned the cathedral’s pulpit. Other sources say the bust represents the Madonna or, alternatively, Joanna, the Queen of Naples.

Two 16th century paintings by Giovanni D’Angelo D’Amato are part of a polyptych he painted in oil on wood for the Trinity Benedictine Monastery in Ravello, depicting the Transfiguration, Our Lady of the Rosary, and the Mysteries of the Rosary.

The abbey was suppressed in 1812, and the Benedictine nuns were moved to the Monastery of Salerno. However, the convent and its possessions became the property of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Torello. Later, the paintings were later moved from Torello to the cathedral museum in Ravello.

The paintings form a predella that depicts an array of saints and martyrs. The first painting depicts (from left):

1, Saint Benedict, the founder of western monasticism.
2, Saint Hieronymus or Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).
3, Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the first systematic theologians; he once said in a sermon: ‘God was made man, that man might be made God.’
4, Saint Aniello, an Italian Franciscan saint.
5, Saint Pantaleon, a fourth century martyr who was the patron of medicine.

The second painting depicts (from left):

6, Saint Francis of Assisi.
7, Saint Leonard, a sixth century abbot and the patron of prisoners.
8, Saint Mary Magdalene.
9, Saint Scholastica, twin sister of Saint Benedict.
10, Saint Ursula, who was martyred on a pilgrimage to Rome; she was from south-west Britain, and is shown here with the flag of England, the cross of Saint George.

The Duomo’s bell tower, which dates back to the 13th century, shows Moorish and Byzantine influence.

The Gospel Pulpit displays dragons and birds on spiral columns and is supported by six carved lions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 25: 34-40 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 34 ‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.’

The Epistle Pulpit depicts the story of Jonah and the Whale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 11 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Community Health Programmes’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (11 November 2023, Saint Martin of Tours) invites us to pray in these words:

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, we give thanks for his bravery in refusing to fight and instead following his faith.

The Chapel of Saint Pantaleone the Healer in the duomo in Ravello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

God all powerful,
who called Martin from the armies of this world
to be a faithful soldier of Christ:
give us grace to follow him
in his love and compassion for the needy,
and enable your Church to claim for all people
their inheritance as children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God, shepherd of your people,
whose servant Martin revealed the loving service of Christ
in his ministry as a pastor of your people:
by this eucharist in which we share
awaken within us the love of Christ
and keep us faithful to our Christian calling;
through him who laid down his life for us,
but is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Preparing the cathedral in Ravello for a wedding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Ravello is known for its beautiful views of the coast below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)