Battle of Britain pilot, Sergeant Alexander Henry Thom 114075 RAFVR was born in Perth on 29 May 1919. He was educated at Perth Academy and Dundee Technical College; and later trained as a quantity surveyor. Thom was the son of George Thom and his wife, 44 Crieff Road, Perth. Prior to enlisting, Thom served a five-year apprenticeship with J Nairne Campbell, Methven Street, Perth.
Thom, who was married in August 1942 to Cynthia Wilson, Bath, was well known in Perth as a skilled violinist. He gained many certificates at musical festivals in Perth, Dundee and Arbroath.
On 24 June 1939, Alex Thom joined the RAFVR and started flying at the weekends with No. 11 EFTS at RAF Perth as an airman under training pilot. This was just over two months before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Thom was called to full-time service at the outbreak of war and posted to RAF No. 3 ITW (Initial Training Wing) at Hastings on 2 October 1939. Thom moved next to No. 15 EFTS at RAF Redhill, just north of Gatwick Airport and then on to RAF No. 15 FTS at RAF Brize Norton. By 29 September 1940, he was at RAF No. 6 OTU at RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire where he trained on Hawker Hurricanes. Thom joined RAF 79 Squadron at RAF Pembury in Carmarthenshire for a brief period and was then transferred to RAF 87 Squadron who moved to at RAF Exeter on 30 October 1940. Alex was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 3 December 1941.
RAF 87 Squadron had returned from active duty in Northern France in May 1940, just before the fall of France and the evacuation of allied forces from the beaches at Dunkirk. They had been In France since September 1939, part of the air component of the BAF (British Expeditionary Force). On the day of the German invasion, the squadron moved forward to Lille, but after ten days it was forced back to Merville and then falling back some more until they were sent back over the U.K., to RAF Debden, near Safron Walden.
Thom made his first sortie with 87 Squadron on 10 November 1940. On 18 July 1941, two Hawker Hurricanes of RAF 87 Squadron were scrambled to intercept enemy aircraft reported 30 miles to the south of the Scilly Isles. A detachment of the squadron was stationed in the Scilly Isles at RAF St Mary’s. Thom was the first to attack the lone Heinkel He111, his windscreen being sprayed with oil as his rounds tore into the Heinkel’s starboard engine. Flying Officer Roscoe took over the chase, but the Heinkel was finished and came down on the sea. The Heinkel crew took to their lifeboats just minutes before their aircraft sank. Thom circled their life raft until a motor launch came to rescue them. He later met the crew and was given as a thank you the flying helmet of the German pilot.
On 21 July 1941, Thom had a share in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111, twin-engine medium bomber. His first solo ‘kill’ came on 20 October 1941 when he shot down another Heinkel He 111. The following day he shared in the destruction of yet another Heinkel He 111, which crashed into the sea southeast of the Scilly Isles.
Thom was appointed Flight Commander of B Flight on 10 July 1942 and awarded the DFC on 14 August 1942 and promoted to acting flight lieutenant. During this period, he shot down two enemy Heinkel He111 aircraft and claimed another probable.
Citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross:
This officer has been engaged on operational flying for a long period, both by day and by night. Throughout he has displayed great keenness and devotion to duty. He has destroyed two enemy aircraft both of which he shot down after pursuing them out to sea for more than 50 miles. On one occasion, he engaged a Heinkel 111 in extremely hazardous flying weather and probably destroyed it. Recently, Pilot Officer Thom has completed several successful intruder operations. He has invariably displayed initiative and courage.
Operation Jubilee was an allied amphibious attack on the French coast at Dieppe. One of the pilots providing fighter cover that day, 19 August 1942, was Thom.
During the attack, Thom’s Hawker Hurricane (LK-M) was hit by ground fire causing a loss of oil pressure. Thom coaxed his Hurricane back making a forced landing at East Dean, near Eastbourne. It was reported that Thom managed to get back to his airfield as a passenger in a Miles Master. He immediately took off again, this time in another Hurricane (LK-A) and returned to Dieppe where he continued to strafe enemy positions.
On 2 November 1942, RAF 87 Squadron was on-route to Gibraltar and North Africa. From 7 November 1942, they were based at RAF Gibraltar, Phillipville, Setif, Djedjelli and Taher in Algeria. The squadron was tasked to support the allied invasion of French North Africa, Operation Torch (8 November 1942-10 November 1942).
Thom was posted away from the squadron to be a flying control officer at RAF Bone in Algeria (Annaba, formerly known as Bona or Bône). He returned to RAF 87 Squadron, taking command on 27 June 1943 at Tingley Aerodrome. Tingley was an all-weather landing strip built by US engineers to the south-west of Bone. The commanding officer of the construction unit was a Major Tinglet. Wing Commander Hugo, commander of RAF 322 Wing, spoke of the new strip as ‘Tingley aerodrome’, and the name quickly stuck.
Thom returned to Britain on 27 September 1943 as a flight lieutenant. He became a flight instructor with RAF 55 OTU at RAF Annan, Dumfries, and Galloway on 17 November 1943. On 12 March 1944, he moved to RAF 53 OTU at RAF Kirton in Lindsey, Lincolnshire. He was appointed Flight Commander Fighter Affiliation Flight at 84 (Bomber) OTU at RAF Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire on 19 May 1944, and remained there until 10 October when he was posted to RAF Peterhead as Adjutant. His final posting was to RAF 13 Group, RAF Inverness on 8 May 1945, as a staff officer. Thom retired from the RAF on 4 December 1945 as a flight lieutenant.
Thom returned to his profession as a quantity surveyor; his last position was as Regional Quantity Surveyor for the Western Region Hospital Board, Scotland. Flight Lieutenant Alexander Henry Thom passed away on 10 January 2016 and is commemorated on the Battle of Britain Monument, Victoria Embankment, London.
During the Dieppe Raid, Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory reported losses of 70 pilots and 10 crew killed or missing; aircraft destroyed as 88 fighters, 10 Army Co-operation aircraft, one from 2 Group and seven of the smoke laying aircraft
RAF Bone is now Rabah Bitat Airport, formerly also known as Les Salines Airport, and popularly as El Mellah Airport.
Pilot Officer Alex Thom, Perthshire Advertiser 15 August 1942
ROYAL AIR FORCE OPERATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, 1939-1943. (CNA 3978) Operation TORCH: a mobile Homer Station at work on the airfield at Bone, Algeria, during the arrival of Supermarine Spitfire reinforcement aircraft, ferried from Gibraltar. The vehicle is a Commer Q2, fitted with an RVT 105 Signals body, housing single-channel VHF/DF radio equipment from which homing bearings and controlled descents were transmitted to the ferry pilots. In the background, Spitfire… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205209493
DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS FOR RAFVR PILOT OFFICER (CH 4255) Original wartime caption: Pilot Officer Alexander Hentry THOM, RAFVR., No.87 Squadron, who has gained the DFC has been engaged on operational flying for a long period, both by day and night. Throughout he has displayed great keenness and devotion to duty. He has destroyed two enemy aircraft shot down after pursuing them out to sea. On one occasion, he engaged a Heinkel III in extremely hazardous f… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444966
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE IN BRITAIN, 1939-1945 (CH 4243) Pilots of No. 87 Fighter Squadron RAF mapping out a patrol at RAF Colerne, 4 December 1941.
From left to right: Sergeant Antoni Beda, previously of No. 302 Polish Fighter Squadron; Pilot Officer Alexander Henry Thom RAFVR; Squadron Leader Denis Smallwood, the CO of the Squadron; unknown; Sergeant P. L. Gibbs of Jasper, Alberta, Canada; unknown, unknown. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205382098
Image courtesy of the collection of F/O R Watson, Battle of Britain London Monument. http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Thom.htm