Group Captain William Dixon

Bomber pilot who delighted Churchill


William Dixon (left) receives the congratulations of his crew after being awarded the DFC.


GROUP CAPTAIN WILLIAM DIXON was one of the few to be awarded an immediate DFC. In April 1941 he pressied home, under intense fire, an attack on the German battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, then sheltering in Brest, on France's Atlantic coast. His death at the age of 79 in August 1999 awoke several memories, which I'll explain later.

The two enemy warships had mounted a successful foray into the Atlantic and, with Allied convoy losses mounting, it was vital that they be prevented from venturing on to the high seas again. Bomber Command was given the task of destroying the vessels, or at least damaging them sufficiently to keep them from putting to sea.

On the night of April 4-5, the Wellington bombers of 99 Squadron assaulted Brest harbour. Then a pilot officer aged 20, Dixon first illuminated Gneisenau with a flare before diving on his target from 5,000 ft, running a gauntlet of searchlights and heavy flak. Although his aircraft was damaged, he held his nerve and at 1,000 ft released his 500 lb bombs, which he saw straddle the cruiser. Dixon continued his dive to 50 ft, and as he flattened out across the harbour encountered unwelcome attention from the multiple guns of another warship. He returned fire in kind. .

Bomber Command's actions ultimately prevented the two German warships from leaving port. Dixon was awarded a DFC for his leading part in the raid. His citation concluded: "This officer has shown the most praiseworthy courage and determination and is an exceptional pilot and captain of aircraft."

Such was Churchill's concern about the threat posed by the battle cruisers that he called Dixon's station commander and told him: "See he puts up his DFC ribbon this day.".

Later in the same week Dixon was bombing Berlin when anti-aircraft fire tore away the cabin roof, exposing him to'the elements. Piloting with his head well down to avoid frostbite, he managed to return safely to base.

After making 30 sorties, Dixon was rested as an instructor before returning to operations a year later as a flight commander in 76 Squadron, equipped with four-engined Halifax heavy bombers. He soon became squadron leader and led attacks on Berlin, the industrial Ruhr, Flensburg and other heavily defended targets. In 1943 he was awarded the DSO after displaying "an absolute determination to complete his allotted tasks".

"He has," his citation stated, "invariably remained in the target area until satisfied that he has achieved his object. On one occasion, while on the way to Wilhemshaven, his port outer engine failed. Undeterred by this, or by the fact that the aircraft was losing height, he pressed home his attack and bombed the target successfully."

William Michael Dixon was born on July 29 1920 in West Hartlepool and educated at Elwick Road Central School. He worked as a clerk in the borough treasurer's department until he joined the RAF in 1939. He was commissioned as a pilot officer in 1940.

Flew into atomic cloud

After the war, Dixon served on the air training staff in Rhodesia from 1946 to 1949. He then attended Staff College and in 1952 was posted to Australia to take part in Operation Hurricane, the test of Britain's experimental nuclear device. When the device was exploded in October that year on the Monte Bello Islands, 50 miles off the north-west coast of Australia, Dixon flew into the atomic cloud to collect samples.

He returned home in 1955 to command No 192, a signals detection and electronic countermeasures squadron equipped with Washingtons, the RAF's name for B-29 Superfortresses supplied under the US military aid programme. After being supplied instead with English Electric Canberras, jet-powered aircraft with on-board laboratories, Dixon and his squadron &endash; subsequently renumbered No 51 &endash; were better able to monitor and jam Soviet transmissions.

In 1959 Dixon joined Bomber Command's operations centre and the next year took command of RAF Feltwell, in Norfolk, base to No 77, the first of the RAF's Thor ballistic missile squadrons.

He then held various staff appointments until 1968, when he became Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Royal Malaysian Air Force. While in Malaysia he in passion for butterflies, and one rare specimen was subsequently catalogued in the British Museum's collection.

In 1972 Dixon returned to Britain and concluded his service career as Director of Aircraft Projects at the Ministry of Defence. He retired in 1975 and for the next 11 years was bursar at Summer Fields School, Oxford. Dixon was appointed CBE in 1972. He was awarded the AFC in 1958 and the Air Efficiency award in 1947. From 1968 to 1973 he was ADC to the Queen. William Dixon married first, in 1944, Mary Spence. They had three sons. She died in 1957, and he married secondly, in 1988, Margaret Collison, the Summer Fields matron.

John Behague notes: I am once again indebted to the excellent Daily Telegraph \service for the above. As I said at the beginning, ithe obit awoke several memories - first of the Wellington aircraft in which William Dixon attacked the heavily armed cruiser. The Wimpy, was the first plane I ever took off in. It was draughty, vulnerable and uncomfortable but flew like a bird, and to stand with head in the astro dome watching the wings rise and fall was an exhilarating experience for a young airman. Then there's the fact that Dixon was a member of 99 Squadron, which I joined much later in the war. Finally there's the note that he became Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Royal Malaysian Air Force in 1968. That was well after I'd left Malaysia after creating the Malayan Air Training Corps and feeding fledgling pilots to the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force and RAF. I helped to teach a Malay named Sulaiman bin Sujak to fly and he later became Commanding Officer of the Royal Malaysian Air Force. It seems odd that I never met Dixon.

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