Group Captain Prosser Hanks, DFC, DSO RAF

Discussion in 'The War In The Air' started by Maybole1599, Feb 27, 2018.

  1. Maybole1599

    Maybole1599 Member

    This is what I have been able to dredge up so far about one of Britain's Aces - my uncle's father. I actually met and shook hands with Prosser in 1978 as a young lad visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Natal.


    Prior to the War Prosser made his reputation as a highly skilled aerobatic pilot in the RAF.

    Prosser and Rhodesian colleague Caesar Hull used to work together in aerobatics, swapping seats whilst aloft in a two seater Hawker Audax. Another of their aerobatic team was Peter Townshend who later became Royal Equerry and unintentionally famous for his doomed romance with Princess Margaret. Caesar Hull was to be shot down and killed over London in 1940.

    In 1937 Prosser and his 1 Squadron team won accolades in an aerobatic competition in Switzerland, even drawing plaudits from the German Air Force.

    Before the outbreak of war 1 Squadron were based at RAF Tangmere near Chichester, trialling Hurricane Mk1s which were replacing the obsolete Hawker Fury aircraft. Paul Richey who also flew in 1 Squadron believed that if the War had started in 1938 during the Munich Crisis then the RAF would have been totally outclassed and unable to defend Britain from the Luftwaffe. Even so, Air Marshal “Stuffy” Dowding strongly objected to the Hurricane squadrons going to France, saying that London would be undefended.


    As part of the celebrated 1 Squadron, Prosser flew his Hurricane Mk I to France on the 8th September 1939 with the “Advance Air Striking Force” to take part in the defence of France, along with fellow squadron members and flying legends ‘Bull’ Halahan, “Johnny” Walker and Les Clisby. They landed at the new Le Havre Aerodrome, the first RAF fighter squadron in France. They spent the evening exploring the local bars. The next day they nursed hangovers whilst digging defences around the airfield in the sun. Later they flew off in formation, Prosser in “Yellow” Section of “A” Flight with Paul Richey and New Zealander “Stratters” Stratton.

    The AASF consisted of 25 squadrons of fighters, bombers and light reconnaissance aircraft. There were a lot of virtually obsolete aircraft such as the Fairey Battle which was utterly outclassed by the planes of the German Luftwaffe. There were six squadrons of Hurricane Mk1s. The AASF was commanded by Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Ugly” Barratt. There has been a lot of controversy about the deployment of the RAF in France in 1940 but their bravery was unquestionable and they performed a pivotal role in allowing the BEF to escape at Dunkirk. Their bombers would have caused the German ground forces much more problems if the French General Gamelin had allowed them to conduct bombing raids on the advancing forces. When the blitzkrieg came the AASF was strengthened with another 12 squadrons.

    The AASF was strictly speaking divided in two - one part defending the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the main force working with the French Army along the Maginot Line. 1 Squadron were part of the BEF defence force, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Blount.

    This part of Prosser’s career is celebrated in the book ‘Fighter Pilot’ by fellow 1 Squadron member Paul Ritchie. He mentions them moving a few days after arrival to Vassincourt fifty miles East of the old cathedral city of Reims - where Air HQ was based. On days off they liked to visit the nearby elegant towns of Nancy, Metz and of course Paris. They also became very friendly with neighbouring French squadrons. The winter weather was very bad and neither the Allied Air Forces nor the Luftwaffe did much flying. March saw an improvement in the weather and heightened activity in the air. Prosser was by now commanding B Flight.

    Prosser’s victories at this time were a Messerschmitt 110 on March 31st, Heinkel 110 on 20th April, Dornier 17 on 10th May - the first day of the Blitzkrieg, a Messerschmitt 110 the next day, 13th May a Heinkel 110, 14th two Messerschmitt 110s and shared a Heinkel 110 with two other pilots. He shot down a Heinkel 110 on the 15th May, his last victory in France. He was shot down on the same day but baled out to safety.

    In mid-May they were posted from Vassincourt to Berry-au-Bac then to Pontavert. By this time Richey speaks of Prosser as being a natural leader with his flying experience. He would play as safe as possible in general knowing that the Hurricane did not have the speed or climbing ability of the opposition’s aircraft. The pilots had experienced being bombed at the airfield and had seen civilian casualties at close quarters. They were by this time feeling the stress of battle and Richey for instance found himself strangely irritable. Unknown passers by were suspected of being fifth columnists - the Germans were known to be dressing units in Allied uniforms to try to infiltrate and disrupt.

    Sometime after the 15th May they moved to Vraux. They had to destroy any planes that they couldn’t fly out - the Germans were very close, at Rethel. When they arrived they found no support crews, troops or fuel. Despite the parlous situation, they all felt that the RAF had the measure of the Germans and were putting up a great show. This was despite their frequently being ordered to stay on the ground by French High Command and not directed to attack German bomber formations. The feeling was that the French High Command had somehow been infiltrated and subverted. At this point it was revealed by “Johnny” Walker to the rest of 1 Squadron that the experienced pilots were all to be relieved and the squadron reformed. Squadron Leader “Bull” Halahan felt they were burning out. Soon after they moved on again to Anglure. Orders then came for them to move to Amiens.

    On the 26th May Prosser, “Johnny”, “Stratters” and “Killy” Kilmartin visited Paul Richey, now injured having been shot down, at the American Hospital in Paris, on their way back to England. They were in great spirits despite their recent ordeals. “Johnny” told Richey that the fight on the 19th May in which Richey was shot down had been the last fought by 1 Squadron in France.

    The Typhoons were a disaster at first, due to chronic machine failures. Tail structure problems caused many deaths among the pilots until the root cause was discovered - vibrations in the fuselage. Carbon monoxide kept seeping into the cockpit threatening to smother the pilot. The engine was liable to catch fire. The Typhoon was also a difficult plane to fly with heavy torque, high speed, poor visibility from the cockpit and its heavy weight.

    2 Typhoons had arrived on 11 September 1941 but subsequent deliveries were slow. The squadron were planned to switch from Hurricane IIBs to Typhoons. Prosser Hanks commanded 56, 266 (29-30 January 1942) and 609 (30 March 1942) squadrons as Wing Commander at Duxford. Duxford was the centre of Southern England air operations to the north of London. Prosser Hanks was able to add to his tally of victories even when flying the problematic Typhoon.

    From: RAF Fighter Command Victory Claims Part 2 by John Foreman


    On his return to England he was assigned to 5 Operational Training Unit, conducting pilot training at RAF Aston Down, Gloucestershire for the rest of 1940. Training duties did not stop Prosser from taking part in the Battle of Britain.


    25/07/1940: During the afternoon Ju 88s set out to attack the Gloucester aircraft factory at Hucclecote. From Kemble, Pilot Officers Bird and Manlove of No.4 Ferry Pilots Pool set off in Hurricanes belonging to No.5 MU.

    One of the Ju 88s, flown by Unteroffizier Heine, was intercepted by Bird and Manlove who were joined by F/L Prosser-Hanks, a Battle of France veteran now instructing with No. 5 OTU. They caught up with Heine over Gloucester where a running fight took place resulting in the Ju 88 and a Hurricane falling near the village of Oakridge Lynch. All four of the Ju 88 crew bailed out, but P/O Bird was found dead in his Hurricane. It's not clear whether he had collided with the Ju 88 or had been shot down by its return fire.

    Source: Larry Donnelly, The Other Few: Bomber and Coastal Command Operations in the Battle of Britain, Red Kite/Air Research, 2004

    Return to Action

    Prosser Hanks commanded 56 Squadron from early 1941.

    56 Sqn locations were:

    December 1940-June 1941: North Weald
    June 1941: Martlesham Heath
    June 1941-March 1942: Duxford

    Prosser oversaw the introduction of the Typhoon at this time.

    The Typhoons were a disaster at first, due to chronic machine failures. Tail structure problems caused many deaths among the pilots until the root cause was discovered - vibrations in the fuselage. Carbon monoxide kept seeping into the cockpit threatening to smother the pilot. The engine was liable to catch fire. The Typhoon was also a difficult plane to fly with heavy torque, high speed, poor visibility from the cockpit and its heavy weight.

    2 Typhoons had arrived on 11 September 1941 but subsequent deliveries were slow. The squadron were planned to switch from Hurricane IIBs to Typhoons. Prosser Hanks commanded 56, 266 (29-30 January 1942) and 609 (30 March 1942) squadrons as Wing Commander at Duxford. Duxford was the centre of Southern England air operations to the north of London. Prosser Hanks was able to add to his tally of victories even when flying the problematic Typhoon, shooting down a Dornier 217 on April 29th/30th 1942.


    Sometime before June 1942 Wing Commander Prosser Hanks moved to the island group comprising Malta to take over Luqa Wing during the most critical period of the Middle East War, when the Allies were in retreat from Gazala and it looked at least for a time as if the whole region would fall to the Nazis. Malta was a precious outpost from which the Allies could harry enemy convoys supplying Rommel.

    Malta, located south of Sicily and north of Libya, faced attacks from all directions. German and Italian bombers gathered with their Messerschmitt 109 escorts over Comiso in Sicily then flew raids on the aerodromes of Hal Far, Ta Qali and Luqa or against the Grand Harbour. The air war over Malta bore a strong resemblance to the Battle of Britain except Malta had no radar, and fighter control was underground, early warning being limited to human observation only. The fighter pilots couldn’t get into the air quick enough to fight the attackers and were often dive-bombed on the runway. Malta was subjected to more intensive bombing than any other place in World War 2, most of it during 1942. Fuel like every other essential resource was in short supply due to the attrition rates of the convoys supplying Malta. The people were close to starving by this time and the island would have had to surrender were it not for the brave men of the Malta convoys, which were being virtually annihilated en route.

    Malta had been defended by Hurricane Mk1s which struggled with their .303 calibre guns which were ineffective against by now improved enemy armour, and had poor airspeed and climb, relative to the enemy’s fighter planes.

    The advantage of the Hurricane lay in its amazing ability to continue flying despite massive damage, and in its great manoeuvrability - but by now this was not enough. A visit by Basil Embry of RAF Command to Malta in January 1942 led to Embry recommending Spitfire Vs for Malta which would have the necessary climb, ceiling and firepower in order to deal with the enemy. He recommended radar be deployed, and he recommended improving fighter control by bringing in more experienced heads. Soon enough some members of Douglas Bader’s old units were drafted in led by Wing Commander P.S. Turner. Turner was able to improve tactics, improve results and reduce losses despite the bad state of the Hurricane Mk IIs when even available - many of the planes were unable to even fly. Many aircraft destined for Malta crashed into the sea out of fuel or were destroyed on their aircraft carrier.

    Spitfire Vs arrived in March and immediately improved the situation, though the Spitfire had its own issues - taxiing was difficult due to lack of visibility from the cockpit over the high nose of the aircraft, and the pilot had to be careful not to taxi for too long in case the engine overheated, especially in the warm weather.

    Air Vice Marshal Keith Park became Air Officer Commanding Malta in mid July 1942. He was determined to take the war to the Germans and Italians.

    Convoy Pedestal arrived in Grand Harbour, Malta in August 1942, most ships having been sunk on the way but with the barely floating hulk of the tanker Ohio towed in, filled with precious oil and aviation fuel. Malta could carry on her heroic resistance for a while longer.

    Meanwhile the Axis were cranking up the pressure with constant raids on the Islands and the new Spitfires were being deployed to great effect.

    Prosser shot down more German aircraft during this critical time as can be read about in the book Air Battle of Malta by Anthony Rogers.

    Management Problems

    Prosser Hanks remained in command on Malta for some time, up to February 1944 when he took over command of 286 Wing. He is mentioned in the memoirs of another fighter ace, one John Freeborn who served under him in Malta.

    Freeborn gave an extensive interview to the Imperial War Museum before his death and wrote a highly entertaining memoir ‘A Tiger’s Tale’.

    Freeborn, like Prosser, was a Yorkshireman. He was a combustible character to say the least and a bit of a wheeler-dealer who especially liked to trade with the Americans - at one time he claimed to have ‘acquired’ a Liberator bomber and was much miffed when it was taken off him! He had fallen out with many people during his war service. Early in the war he was involved in a terrible 'friendly fire’ incident that led to a fellow pilot being shot down and killed by mistake and in the court martial John disputed exactly what happened with his commander, the famous South African Ace, Adolph 'Sailor’ Malan. Freeborn insisted he had been ordered to fire on the aircraft by Malan and that the South African did not then counter his order. John was acquitted by the court. He regretted the death of the pilot till his dying day, visiting the grave of the deceased to pay his respects.

    By his own account, Freeborn did not get on well with Prosser when he was in Malta and soon demanded a transfer back to England.

    According to Freeborn, relations between Prosser and the US Air Force on Malta had also soured by late 1943, and this had caused the RAF problems in obtaining US tankers in order to quickly refuel the RAF’s aircraft.

    A clue to the conflict between Freeborn and Prosser may be that, judging from his own words, Freeborn tended to demand the best quality machine available and had a low opinion of the Spitfire Mk V. By this time Prosser had long become accustomed to the limited supplies of decent aircraft available on Malta and knew he had to make do. He was probably unable to do anything about upgrading the Spitfires available to him and would have told the awkward Freeborn so, in no uncertain terms. By this time Malta was not much troubled by the Axis forces, with Rommel kicked out of North Africa and the Allies landed in Sicily, so supplies of the latest Spitfire Mk X would not likely to have been forthcoming from England - indeed for most of Malta’s time of peril she had been defended by a handful of barely functional Hurricane Mk1s.

    Prosser may have fallen out with the Americans due to their enthusiastic informal trading of war materials with British servicemen - Freeborn evidently from his testimony had no problems with this behavioural trait of the American allies whom he saw as his friends and joined in heartily, at one point trading a captured German motorcycle and sidecar with American troops. He had spent some time in the US earlier in the war as a pilot trainer (rumours had it that he had even had a relationship with screen star Betty Grable). Prosser may have ordered Freeborn to desist from his trading activities - which would have infuriated the latter.

    Freeborn had from childhood nurtured a deep resentment of authority - he cheerfully admitted to severely injuring a teacher who was punishing him while he was a pupil at Leeds Grammar School. He also said himself that he had overbearing parents.

    Whilst commanding 286 Wing in Italy, part of MACAF - Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Forces, Prosser was promoted to Group Captain in May 1944. 286 Wing were based at Grottaglie near Taranto, with operations from airfields in the region extending both in Italy and north to the Balkans where air support was being given to the Yugoslavian Partisans. Amongst the senior officers at 286 Wing, Prosser once again had the inconvenience of dealing with the irascible youngest-ever Wing Commander Freeborn once again.

    Prosser was eventually posted to command of 323 Wing in October 1944, based at RAF Aston Down in Gloucestershire, England where he had been stationed with 5 OTU flight training, after returning from France in 1940.

    In the 1950s Prosser commanded RAF Coltishall in England, which was a base for Vampire and Venom night fighters. He eventually retired from the RAF in 1964 and went on to work for Hawker Siddeley in Stevenage.

    Any further information about Prosser Hanks would be gratefully received.
  2. Maybole1599

    Maybole1599 Member

  3. KevinBattle

    KevinBattle Senior Member

    Interesting read, but what were the Heinkel 110's they encountered in France? Should that be Me110's or He111's?
  4. Maybole1599

    Maybole1599 Member

    Heinkel IIIs, thanks for the correction!
  5. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    There was talk of several pilots claiming He 100's during the Battle of Britain,
    but the plane was never placed into production as it would have had a detrimental effect on the Bf 109 production.
    A nice looking fighter that may have been better than the Bf 109 from a pilots perspective.
    Heinkel He 100 - Wikipedia

  6. KevinBattle

    KevinBattle Senior Member

    Yes, Tom, that's where I went to check if there was a He110!
    Agree, nice aircraft and possibly a game changer had it gone into production.
    Engine supply was the main problem, perhaps it would have done well with the Fw190 powerplant.

    Intrigued that at least one example went to Japan as I think the Kawasaki Ki 61 has some similarity.... ?
  7. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    Spot on. The Americans tested a lot of planes. Some captured during and a lot after the war.
    The Kawasaki was found to be a good plane.

  8. Maybole1599

    Maybole1599 Member

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    Maybole1599 Member

  10. Maybole1599

    Maybole1599 Member

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    Maybole1599 Member

  12. Maybole1599

    Maybole1599 Member

    When you click on the links I posted above, just cancel the "sign in to Onedrive" dialog box that appears and the image will then appear. Images take a few seconds to develop fully.
  13. Shirt Off

    Shirt Off Member

    Radar was actually on Malta from 1939 onwards, with an experimental set at Dingli. Other sets arrived in 1940 and GCI sets arrived at the end of 1941, just before Embry arrived. Lack of properly trained controllers and filter room staff, together with pilots who were unwilling to be ordered by those on the ground where to fly to intercept the raiders led to catastrophe whenever the Hurricanes faced the GAF rather than the IAF.

    Pilots were slow off the ground, and with time a crucial factor, decided they needed to go south instead of north to get to the height needed. This allowed the bombing before attempts at intercepts were made.

    Suggestions to get the tactics altered failed even after Embry and the arrival of the Spitfires, except for a couple of equations. Historians have missed the way Park sacked his Group Captain Fighters and squadron commanders within a week of being on the island and changed tactics with near immediate effect. Yes he had more Spitfires at his disposal but so did his predecessor since June 1942 and he chose to keep things as they were. Their version of the battle you those sacked, in their memoirs, therefore, were written to big up AVM Lloyd and diminish Park’s impact. The huge air battle in October 1942 is usually consigned to a few lines, rather than used to show how much better the new tactics were.

    Anyway, that is part of the story of the book I have nearly finished writing. It’s almost entirely a revisionist history.

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