Monday, 21 September 2020

Recalling Harry Comerford
on the 80th anniversary
of the Battle of Britain

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

Patrick Comerford

Westminster Abbey was the venue yesterday [Sunday 21 September 2020] for a memorial service marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

This was first major event in Westminster Abbey since the Covid-19 lockdown was introduced. The Battle of Britain, fought entirely in the air, was a dramatic turning point in World War II, and Westminster Abbey has held a service of thanksgiving on Battle of Britain Sunday every year since 1944.

The service, which remembered the 1,497 pilots and aircrew who died, was led by the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle.

The attendance yesterday included the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Stirrup, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, and the Chaplain in Chief, the Ven Air Vice Marshal John Ellis.

A flypast took place after the service, with a Hurricane and three Spitfires flying over central London.

Although the battle took place between July and October in 1940, 15 September is marked as Battle of Britain Day.

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

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 A 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.

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 died in May 2001 in Chiltern, Buckinghamshire.

‘God grant to the living grace, to the departed rest, to the Church and the World peace and concord, and to us sinners eternal life’ … a well-known prayer by the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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