His deeds in battle have remained Harry Baker's only rewards, the varied moments of skill that in some of the greatest theatres of the Second World War won him a clutch of enemy planes shot down, enough to be an ace. Nothing this Spitfire pilot did seems to have been officially deemed worthy of a Distinguished Flying Cross: he had a kill in the 1940 Battle of France and another two, one shared, in the Battle of Britain a few months later as one of “the Few”. A fourth came at the end of November the same year and a fifth as one of the “Tigers” of 74 Squadron at Biggin Hill in January 1941.
Unhonoured, he also accounted for another seven enemy aircraft damaged between June 1940 and the months of September to October 1942, when he was in command of 229 Squadron as Acting Squadron Leader in the “October Blitz” that ended in Allied victory in the Battle of Malta.
The career that began with a short-service commission in July 1938 – he broke an ankle crashing into trees in training – was one punctuated by bouts of injury and illness. Between his Dunkirk triumph with 19 Squadron and his Battle of Britain double with 41 Squadron during the September climax – one shared “kill”, a Heinkel 111, on 15 September and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 to himself on 30 September – he had endured two months in hospital recovering from a car accident.
There is also a tale that early in the war he got on the District Line of the London Underground to get back to his base at Hornchurch after scrambling ashore, having had to bale out from his aircraft over the Essex coast, and in his dishevelment and bloodied flying suit was turned off by an official for not having a ticket.
The RAF was already calling on him to pass on his fighting brilliance: in 1940 he was “on loan” to 306 (Polish) Squadron at Tern Hill, before the stint with 74 Squadron in which his shot-down prize, his fifth and the one making him an “ace”, was a Messerschmitt Bf 109, on 26 May.
By July 1941 Baker's operational tour was complete, but the period of instructing he took up at OTUs (Officer Training Units) at Debden and Aston Down seems to have ended with a further stay in hospital. This was possibly when a piece of shrapnel in his body had to be surgically removed. He convalesced at Torquay before the strains of combat were again loaded on him. He joined a fighter squadron in the Western Desert in May 1942 until a bout of malaria grounded him. He was then promoted, and arrived in September in Malta to take over 229 Squadron at Takali as the 29-month tussle with the Germans, who were trying to choke off the island, reached its height.
As in the Battle of Britain, Baker, a man of fine and sensitive facial features now nicknamed “Butch”, found himself one of a small force fighting off a more numerous one, and this time the advantage was with the enemy. “It was a bastard”, in the words of Baker's colleague, the Canadian Wing Commander at No 249 Squadron also flying from Takali, Stanley “Bull” Turner, who like him had flown over Dunkirk and in the Battle of Britain.
The British Spitfires, including Baker's, had the challenge of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring's Sicily-based II Fliegerkorps, part of Luftflotte 2, which had switched to the Mediterranean from Russia in December 1941 as America's entry into the war goaded Germany into increasing her efforts to snatch the Middle Eastern oilfields. To this end knocking Malta out as an Allied base was essential.
But Kesselring failed. The climax came on 12 October; by dusk Spitfires had claimed 27 Axis aircraft. Baker damaged two Messerschmitt Bf 109s, one on 12 October and one the following day. After that the fight for Malta went the Allies' way, with 229 Squadron accounting for many Axis losses in the following days.
Baker was replaced by Sqn Leader Tommy Smart shortly after and for the rest of the war he had non-operational tasks, instructing and ferrying aircraft. From May 1943 he ferried Hurricanes from Gibraltar to Cairo, and was later an instructor at Cranwell, his last job being at Kimbolton. He left the RAF on New Year's Day 1946.
Henry Collingham Baker was born at Clowne, Derbyshire, and attended King's College, Taunton, where he was in the First XI cricket team. His headmaster described him as “a boy of sound character, efficient, courteous and willing”.
In 1940 he married Barbara Todd, and after the war, having been chosen over 18 others for a job managing a tea plantation in Ceylon, he took his wife and son Michael, who was born in 1944, to a new life overseas.
“He didn't have a very pleasant war,” a friend said. “When the Battle of Britain started I suppose he was so young it was great fun, but after a time, when they began to run out of qualified officers and pilots there was overwork. He didn't talk about Malta.” Barbara, known as Betty, had been in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, (WAAF) and proved a stabilising influence.
After Ceylon the family moved to Peru, where Baker took a job on the Central Railway, and while there, on 21 September 1948 he wrote from Colonia del Perené, to his former physics master, Mr Padfield, that in Colombo he had met another King's Taunton old boy, Thornhill, who had been interned by the Japanese. In the letter, in an upright hand in black fountain pen, he adds that he finds Spanish “just as hard as French”.
The new owner of the Peruvian railway, the son of the man who had taken Baker on, went back on his father's promise of continued work, and in 1953 Baker returned to England, where family connections led him to settle in Grimsby. There he made a successful career in shipping and cargo businesses. He became managing director of Nor-Cargo UK, a company formed in 1972, and was a member of Grimsby Chamber of Commerce. He retired in 1984.
Henry Collingham Baker, RAF pilot and businessman: born Clowne, Derbyshire 19 May 1920; married 1940 Barbara Todd (died 1975; one son); died Grimsby 3 July 2013.
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