Eye-witness: Billy Filson-Young’s death, May ’45
I have set myself to commemorate the life and death of Wing Commander Billy Filson-Young, and – more broadly – his family. My father Paul North, Billy’s half-brother, in 1990 gathered new material about his brothers and here is an eye-witness account written around then.
This account covers Billy’s death, and part of his RAF career and is by a fellow pilot. Orginally, it was intended for a planned book on air operations in Burma. In letters in 1990, Bill Powell referred to his commanding officer as, “dear Billy”.
One “Op” too many
by Flying Officer G W (Bill) Powell, D.F.C. No 47 Squadron
I joined No 47 Squadron as a Sergeant Pilot at Gambut, near Tobruk in North Africa in November 1943. Our aircraft were torpedo Beaufighters and our operational targets were Crete and the many other islands in the Aegean Sea, all German-occupied, of course, at that time.
Squadron morale was low after a bad few months when a number of aircraft were shot down, including that of the then Commanding Officer. His deputy was tour expired and for a short time we were under the command of the CO of No 603 Squadron who were flying rocket-firing Beaufighters from the same base.
Before the end of November, a new CO arrived from England in the person of Wing Commander W.D.L. Filson-Young (later D.F.C. and Bar) who had been operating with No 254 Squadron on torpedo Beaufighters as part of the celebrated North Coates Wing.
He was a softly spoken individual with a deceptively languid air, but he proved to be made of steel and soon, thanks to his superb flying skills and leadership, Squadron spirit was high again.
The Aegean Campaign ended in mid-March 1944 and shortly afterwards we learned we were to move as a unit to the Far East.
We were re-equipped with brand new Beaufighters and on March 31st we arrived at our first base – Cholavaram, near Madras.
For several months, alternating between Cholavaram and Ceylon, we carried out exercises in formation flying, night flying, dummy torpedo attacks on Royal Navy ships, single engine flying, low level flying etc., and then, in October we learned we were to convert to Mosquitos before moving up to take part in the Burma Campaign.
The conversion took place at Yelahanka, near Bangalore, and towards the end of November we commenced our journey North East across India but when we arrived at our first port of call – Ranchi – we discovered that all Mosquitos in the Far East had been grounded after a fatal accident when a wing fell off an aircraft during a steep turn.
So, shortly, we were re-equipped with tide trusty Beaufighters and commenced operations against the Japs from Khumbhirgram in Assam in January 1945 . Most of our operations consisted of very low-level attacks – day and a few night – well behind the Japanese lines on every conceivable form of transport, on suspected supply dumps, oil installations, troop concentrations, reported temporary HQs and telephone exchanges; we also carried out night intruder patrols over Japanese held airfields and over their artillery positions, which earned warm thanks from the 14th Army, particularly during their desperately hard struggle to force their way across the great rivers of Burma, the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin.
The level of operational activity increased month by month and Wing Commander Filson-Young led many of our attacks with a fearlessness and determination that was inspiring to us all.
I was privileged to be chosen to fly as his No. 2 on a number of operations and it was from this position that I became the only Squadron witness to his tragic death on May 15, 1945.
By mid-April we had been equipped again with Mosquitos and moved to a new base at Kinmagan near Myingyan in Central Burma.
Rangoon was recaptured early in May and, after its fall, the Japanese were in full retreat. Large numbers had made their way across the Sittang River towards Indo-China but their movement was badly hampered by the heavy monsoon rains which flooded the rivers and turned much of the terrain into a veritable morass.
They were under heavy attack from the ground forces and from the air but, as always, put up a determined and desperate resistance.
On May 15th, following receipt of an Intelligence Report that there was a concentration of some 2,500 Japanese troops in Lagunbyo, near Bilin, on the east bank of the Bilin River, a bombing and strafing attack by eight Mosquitos of No. 47 Squadron was laid on.
Wing Commander Filson-Young and his Navigator, Flight Lieutenant McClory, were both tour expired but the CO decided to lead this operation.
[RDN note: I have redacted a sentence or two here becaue they seem tactless and maybe misinformed about a third person. Anyway, Ft Lt McClory went on leave and a] spare Navigator, Flying Officer Waters was detailed to take his place.
We took off from Kinmagan [check spelling] in two formations of four, the second some 4/5 minutes behind the first.
The weather was reasonable and we found the target without much difficulty.
Lagunbyo was situated in a valley and each of us was to drop our two 500 pounders in a dive bombing attack. The CO waved to me in the No. 2 position and then peeled off to the left, diving on to the target area at an angle of about 45°.
I followed suit and as I looked down half-way through my diving turn saw to my horror the CO’s aircraft crash and explode into a colossal fireball. My Navigator’s view must have been obscured partly by the angle and partly, perhaps, by me, as, in the Mosquito, the Navigator’s seat was on the right of the pilot and about two feet behind and he was completely unaware of what had happened.
I must have been in something of a daze as I made my attack, dropping both my bombs into the target area and then carrying out a strafing attack with the cannons on buildings which came into the gun sight as I pulled out of the dive. Only then was I able to switch on the intercom and let the other two crew in the first flight and the leader of the second flight, which was now close to the target, know what had happened. All seven aircraft carried out their attacks and returned safely to base but the whole Squadron was devastated when they heard the sad news of the tragic deaths of our gallant Commanding Officer and of Flying Officer Waters, who fate had decreed should be the Navigator on that fatal operation.
Much later the news filtered through to us that the headman of the village of Lagunbyo had been questioned by some of our guerilla friends shortly after our attack. He said that at the time many Japanese troops were in the village and they had been defending themselves with anti-aircraft and machine guns.
The obvious conclusion was that the CO’s aircraft had been shot up as he dived towards the target area and he would have had no chance whatever. Neither body was ever discovered and very little trace of the Mosquito was ever found; possibly much of the wreckage would have been carried rapidly downstream by the Bilin river which is deep and swift during the monsoon season. Apparently the surviving Japanese troops
pulled out into Siam shortly after the attack and destroyed all their documents beforehand so no details of what had happened from their point of view ever became available.
So ended the life of Wing Commander W D L Filson-Young, D.F.C. and Bar. A very gallant gentleman, a courageous and fearless pilot and a superb Commanding Officer of No. 47 Squadron during both the Aegean Sea and the Burma campaigns of the Second World War. We who were privileged to know him and to serve under him will never forget – it was, tragically, one “op” too many.