|Air Commodore 'Bill' Tacon
Air Commodore E W "Bill" Tacon, died on September 15, 2003, at aged 85,
was one of the most decorated pilots in RAF Coastal Command before
becoming Captain of the King's Flight.
Tacon's most outstanding wartime successes took place in 1944, after
he converted to Beaufighters, joined 236 Squadron, and rapidly began to
demonstrate dead-eyed accuracy with his front guns and rockets. On June
23 he attacked four R-boats entering Boulogne harbour; although his
aircraft was badly hit and his navigator killed, R 79 was sunk, earning
Tacon a Bar
to the DFC he had won in 1940.
Tacon, who was based at Davidstow Moor, was soon involved in helping
the Navy destroy the remaining Kriegsmarine vessels off western France.
In the first of these attacks, at Les Sables d'Olonne, nine Beaufighters
sank a German Jupiter escort ship with armour-piercing rockets weighing
just 25lbs, using a procedure devised by Tacon and the armaments officer
at North Coates.
They had calculated that, in a 25-degree dive from 1,500 feet at 230
knots, the pilot should always score hits if he closed to a distance of
about 800 yards. While not popular with all aircrews - for it involved
flying steadily at the target whilst ignoring the return fire - the
method worked. The Jupiter vanished under a hail of cannon fire, with no
loss to the attackers.
The second attack was equally successful. On August 8, 15
Beaufighters of 404 Squadron and nine of 236 Squadron, led by Tacon, set
off on another armed sweep, working with the naval squadron Force 26. In
the shallow Bay of Bourgneuf, they found four M-class minesweepers. Flak
rose to meet them and one Beaufighter exploded but, as the remaining
Beaufighters left, all four vessels were ablaze.
By now the strike wings' attacks, combined with those of Bomber
Command and the Navy, had all but destroyed the remains of
Marinegruppekommando West. The surviving U-boats had departed for Norway
and the Germans were scuttling many of their damaged surface vessels.
Two important warships remained afloat, however: the destroyer Z 24 and
the torpedo boat T 24, which had survived the thwarted attack on the
western flank of the Allied invasion forces.
Still well-armed, the two ships were thought to be at Le Verdon on
the southern tip of the mouth of the Gironde estuary. On August 15, the
naval Force 27 had damaged T 24 near La Pallice, but the German warships
were in the shelter of coastal batteries, so an air attack was needed.
This was the last big strike required of the Davidstow Moor wing.
Tacon was to lead 10 Beaufighters from 236 and 10 from 404, all armed
with cannon and 25lb rockets. Taking off at 4.15pm, they were scheduled
to attack near the limit of their range, with the prospect of returning
Two Beaufighters of 404 Squadron turned back en route with mechanical
trouble, but the remaining 18 aircraft made their landfall and turned
north to the Gironde estuary. Spotting the two warships in the harbour
of Le Verdon, Tacon called: "Keep down low, everyone. We'll head to the
estuary first and fly along it for our climb. Then straight out to sea
after the attack."
Tacon hoped to take the enemy by surprise, but the two vessels had
steam up by the time the Beaufighters dived, and the flak was the most
intense the crews had ever experienced. Nevertheless, every Beaufighter
followed Tacon's leadership in one of the most dangerous attacks made by
a strike wing. Several 25lb warheads penetrated T 24 below the
waterline, causing an uncontrollable rush of sea-water into the hull and
the warship to sink almost immediately.
Z 24 received numerous hits above and below the waterline. Her
starboard engine was disabled but she remained afloat, and there was
time to tow her the short distance to a quay at Le Verdon, where she was
made fast alongside the harbour railway station. Frantic efforts to
patch the underwater holes were to no avail; five minutes before
midnight she capsized and sank.
Although none of the Beaufighters was shot down, 15 were damaged.
They were a long way from home, with darkness ahead. Tacon's "Call in,
anyone in trouble" elicited several responses. After instructing one of
the crippled aircraft to ditch near the naval force (the crew was picked
up after 10 hours) Tacon led five Beaufighters to Vannes aerodrome,
planning to leave three of the damaged aircraft, before returning to
England in the remaining two.
One of the aircraft crash-landed, however, and there was no
alternative but to leave the two crew there and hope that medical help
would arrive before long. With Davidstow Moor closed due to fog, the 12
remaining Beaufighters were redirected to alternative landing strips in
the South-West. Their fuel was almost exhausted, and one landed just as
its engines cut out. Tacon eventually landed at Portreath, six hours
after take-off. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC.
The destruction of the two German warships caused much excitement in
the Admiralty. Some naval officers were incredulous; others were alarmed
that such powerful destroyers could be defeated by the tiny 25lb
warheads. Tacon took command of 236 Squadron the day after attack on the
Gironde, and the detachment returned to North Coates. He continued to
fly with the same determination until September 12 1944, when he led 40
Beaufighters from North Coates and Langham against a convoy assembling
in Den Helder harbour.
Diving down against a hail of fire from the ships and the harbour,
his Beaufighter was badly hit in the wing and fuel tank. Tacon fired his
rockets for the last time, before his aircraft was hit in the fuselage.
Ammunition in the cannon boxes caught fire and exploded. His navigator
cried out and Tacon turned round to see him lying dead on the floor. He
began to climb, tugging on the lanyard of his bottom escape hatch, but
this remained closed.
As flames licked around him, burning his face and helmet, he almost
gave up hope. When his Beaufighter was hit for the third time, Tacon
could see the gun post firing at him and decided to take the gunners
with him. He rolled the Beaufighter on its back and dived straight at
the post. His last recollection was of the airspeed indicator showing
360 knots. Then there was
a violent explosion and he floated through the air, pulling his ripcord
just in time.
He landed on the island of Texel, so badly burned around the eyes
that he could hardly see. He was soon taken prisoner by German soldiers,
who bundled him roughly aboard a boat which took him to Den Helder. On
arrival, he was surrounded by a group of sailors and kicked violently
before being marched him off to the local jail.
After medical treatment, he was taken to Dulag
Luft, near Koblenz, and then to
Stalag Luft I near Barth on the Baltic
coast. He was eventually released by the Russians and quietly made his
way back to North Coates. In his absence he had been awarded the DSO.
Ernest William Tacon was born on December 16 1917 at Napier on the
North Island of New Zealand, into a farming family. He was educated at
St Patrick's, Wellington, where he played for the 1st XI and 1st XV. He
later played club rugby as a scrum-half.
He joined the RNZAF in July 1938, and transferred to the RAF in May
1939 under an arrangement whereby New Zealand supplied six trained
pilots each year. He joined 233 Squadron at Leuchars, initially flying
Ansons but switching to Hudsons on the outbreak of war.
For the next year and half, he was engaged in a mixture of
anti-submarine work, escorting naval vessels during the Norwegian
campaign, and bombing airfields. He was intercepted by German fighters
on nine occasions, shooting down two of his adversaries. He was awarded
the DFC in May 1940 and completed his tour in January 1941.
He flew a Flying Fortress from Portland, Oregon, to Prestwick,
introduced the Hudson to the newly-formed 407 (RCAF) Squadron at North
Coates and was responsible for converting 59 Squadron at Thorney Island
from Blenheims to Hudsons. He was awarded the AFC. Tacon was then sent
to Nova Scotia to open up a new Operational Training Unit, and next,
after a return to New Zealand, on to Fiji as Commanding Officer of 4
Squadron, equipped with Hudsons, earning a Bar to his AFC. Back in
Britain, he converted to Beaufighters and joined 236 Squadron in May
Tacon transferred permanently to the RAF in 1946 and was appointed
Officer Commanding The King's Flight at RAF Benson. Over the next three
years he flew the King's plane all over the world, including the tour of
South Africa with the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret on board. He was
appointed MVO (4th Class, now LVO) in 1947.
There followed overseas tours as OC Flying Wing, Fayid, Egypt (Canal
Zone) from 1951 to 1953, and as Station Commander, RAF Nicosia, Cyprus,
from 1955 to 1958, when he was appointed CBE. In 1960 he became Lecturer
at the School of Land/Air Warfare, at Old Sarum, and in 1961 Commander
of the Royal Air Force, Persian Gulf.
Returning to England in 1963, he served as Commandant, Central
Fighter Establishment for two years, and then Air Commodore, Tactics, HQ
Fighter Command Bentley Priory. His final tour was as AOC Military Air
Traffic Operations from 1968 to 1971.
On retirement from the RAF in 1970, he returned to New Zealand with
his family, where he ran the Intellectually Handicapped Children's
Society (IHC) and then fulfilled a management role with Air New Zealand
before full retirement.
He died in Auckland on September 9. After the death of his first
wife, Clare McKee, by whom he had two daughters and a son, he married,
secondly, in 1960, Bernadine Leamy, who survives him, along with three