Of all the war graves I know about during my research of Perthshire’s aviators, the grave of Henry Anselm de Freitas, AFM (1917–1943) is the one that I often revisit and have in a way adopted. Henry is unique in being buried in Perth, so very far away from his home and was in my view enshrined there, with great love and respect by his wife and family. Henry is buried in Wellshill Cemetery in Perth, in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission grave, Section O, Grave 15 (nearer to the Rannoch Road, and close to the cemetery’s war memorial).
This is the story of how a top WW2 Hawker Hurricane pilot came to be buried in Perth, 4,500 miles away from his home.
Henry Anselm de Freitas was one of 8 children born on 21 April 1917 in Trinidad, West Indies, to Alderman, Henry Alexander de Freitas MBE, and Jessimina de Freitas of Port of Spain. During WW2, 5 of their children served and 3 sons would be lost to accidents by 1946.
Henry was, by all accounts, an intelligent, charismatic, and active boy. He attended a prominent Roman Catholic School, St Mary’s College and was awarded the Jerningham Medal for being the top student in the Island Scholarship examinations. Henry left Trinidad in 1935 to attend the Royal School of Mines at London University. Henry did well, he was President of the School of Mines Student Union, Captain of their rowing club and President of the Imperial College Riding Club. As a talented oarsman he represented the Thames Rowing Club at the 1939 Belgian International Regatta in Dinant, Belgium.
Henry de Freitas demonstrated both his humanity and bravery when in June 1937 he dived into the river Thames, near Putney, and successfully saved the life of 11-year-old Cyril Basil Smith who had gotten into difficulties and was being carried away by a strong ebb tide. He also saved 16-year-old typist, Margaret Bunker who had attempted to first rescue Smith.
Just before the Second World War started, Henry was awarded a scholarship for the 1939-1940 school year to study Petroleum Engineering at the University of Birmingham. He instead joined the RAF, and we know that on 1 July 1940, Leading Aircraftman “Henry Anslem de FREITAS (81695) was granted a commission for the duration of hostilities as Acting Pilot Officer on Probation”. By 3 November 1940 he was promoted to Pilot Officer on Probation. For some unknown reason on 20 June 1941 his commission as an officer was terminated, he did however continue flying as a Flight Sergeant and in July of 1943 was awarded the Air Force Medal.
Henry was the first West Indian to be so honored. Henry became a top flying instructor at the RAF Flight Leaders’ School and served with RAF No. 59 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.). The indications from my research were that he was a very skilled pilot.
Henry married Helen Janice Begg of Charles Street, Perth, in September 1941 at Kensington, London. They could have met while they were both students at university in London and possibly when Henry was undertaking flying training at 59 OTU at RAF Turnhouse, now Edinburgh Airport. The couple produced 2 children, Alexandra Jacqueline, born March 1942, followed by his namesake, Henry Anselm, in July of 1943.
During 1943, de Freitas was serving as a Flight Sergeant, RAFVR (RAF Volunteer Reserve) (1393818) with RAF No. 59 Squadron OTU (Operational Training Unit) at airfields in the Northumberland area of England. Henry Anselm de Freitas was killed, aged just 26, in a training accident when his Canadian built, Hawker Hurricane Mk X (AG111, HK-G) crashed at 15:00 hours on 5 May 1943. De Freitas is reported as crashing onto Horton Moor near Doddington, Northumberland, just north of Wooler. His aircraft collided with a Supermarine Spitfire IIA P7902 just over Wooler and it crashed into a bog, close to a dry-stone wall at Doddington Hill. The Spitfire was piloted by Sergeant F. T. L. Futon, RNAZ 416496, aged 19, he was also killed.
The accident happened after a flight of Hurricanes from 59 OTU ‘bounced’ from above, a formation of Spitfires from 57 OTU in a mock combat attack. De Freitas’s Hurricane AG111 had earlier been passed from No. 59 OTU RAF (at RAF Turnhouse) to No. 57 OTU RAF at RAF Eshott, Northumberland. It was primarily a Spitfire-equipped unit but used Huricane’s in a support role. Henry was still listed as being from No. 59 OTU at the time of the accident. RAF Eshott during WW2 was the home for between 77 and 100 Mk1 & Mk2 Spitfires, pilots receiving about 60 hours combat training. No 57 OTU was established at Eshott in November 1942. De Freitas I believe may have been instructing on courses at RAF Eshott and nearby RAF Milfield at the time of the accident.
De Freitas’s Hurricane is not listed as a No. 1 Specialised Low Attack Instructors’ School (SLAIS) allocated aircraft which was based at RAF Milfield. The Imperial War Museum picture of Hurricane AG111 (Source: © IWM (CH 9222) shows his aircraft on the ground at RAF Milfield, and it bears the unit codes of the Fighter Leaders School based at Charmy Down, Wiltshire. I believe that unknown pilot in the picture is in fact, Henry Anselm de Freitas. It was, not uncommon for pilots, as it looks like in Henry’s case, to bring with them to other RAF airfields, their personal mount.
RAF Millfield was located just northwest of Wooler in Northumbria, it was formed there on 7 December 1942, operating until 26 January 1944 when it was absorbed into the Fighter Leaders School. The unit provided ground attack practice for pilots from operational squadrons based elsewhere. Goswick Sands, about 15 miles to the east, was the location of the ground attack range. Pilots were also ground attack training at the time with the relatively new Hawker Typhoon and the USAF Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
De Freitas’s Hurricane AG111 was one of a batch of 140 Canadian built Mk. 1 Hurricanes produced at the Fort William (Thunder Bay) plant, arriving in the UK from June 1940. They were built by Canadian Car & Foundry and when powered by a 1,300 horsepower (969 kilowatts) Packard Merlin 28 engine, they were re-designated the Mk. X Hurricane. They were initially fitted with 8 Browning .303 machine guns, later Mk. X variants had 12 guns. If used for ground attack would have been fitted with 2 Vickers Class ‘S’ 40 mm cannons. Later, some Hurricane aircraft were fitted with 8 unguided 60 pounder RP-3 rockets.
This happened at a time in 1943 when the intensive training of pilots was finally possible and was now extremely well organised. The Luftwaffe had turned their attention away to the attack on the Soviet Union, 22 June 1941, and the United States had joined the war following the day of infamy attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour, 7 December 1941.
Unfortunately, the RAF records for 57 & 59 Operational Training Unit have not been digitised, this is all I can find out about Henry. Where he was from 1941 to 1943 is not known. Henry had to be not only an excellent pilot to be an instructor, but he must have been involved in brave action at some point.
The Air Ministry announced on 2 April 1943 the award of the AFM to De Freitas – the first West Indian to be awarded the AFM:
“ROYAL AIR FORCE. The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards: Air Force Medal to Sergeant Henry Anselm de FREITAS.”
(The AFM was a military decoration, awarded to personnel of the Royal Air Force and other British Armed Forces, and formerly to personnel of other Commonwealth countries, below commissioned rank, for ‘an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying, though not in active operations against the enemy.)
De Freitas is commemorated on a memorial to honour those who served and died at RAF Milfield between 1941 and 1946. The memorial was unveiled in 2002 and is located outside the Borders Gliding Club.
After his death, Henry’s parents arranged for Henry’s wife, Helen de Freitas’s B.Sc., and their children to relocate to Trinidad. Helen lived in Trinidad for 38 years and died in Nashville, Tennessee in 1998. Helen’s older sister Jessie, who died in 1941, age 24 is buried with Henry in Wellshill Cemetery.
Research by Ken Bruce