Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Squadron Leader William Joseph ‘Bill’ Hickey DFC, RAF no. 32035

9 May 1907 – 21 December 1940

Image kindly provided by David Park.

William Joseph Hickey was born in Sydney Australia on 9 May 1907. He was educated at St. Aloyoysius’ College, Milsons Point, Sydney from 1921 to 1926 where he was an outstanding athlete. He was a member of the school’s 1st XV in 1924 and 1925, its 1st VIII in 1926 and a member of the school’s Athletic Team from 1921 to 1926 placing in the top three at the school athletic championships at various times in the 100 and 200 yards sprint, the hurdles, the high jump and the long jump.

In 1927 and 1928, he attended the University of Sydney and studied engineering but left without graduating to concentrate on a flying career which had been his life long passion as it had been with fellow classmate and friend James Connolly (later with Hawker Aircraft Company, British Aircraft Manufacturing Company and the British Air Ministry). His sacrifice is recorded on the Honour Roll of the University.

During the years 1926 to 1928, Bill Hickey served voluntarily as an aircraftsman in No.3 Citizens Air Force Squadron then stationed at Richmond, New South Wales. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a Cadet on 9 December 1929 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 2 April 1930.

On 12 May 1931, he was together with Ron Rae (later Air Vice Marshall) seconded from the Royal Australian Air Force to the Royal Air Force on five years attachment under the pre-war scheme for the interchange of pilots.
The following day he was granted a Short Term Service Commission as Pilot Officer on probation.

After completing training at No 3 Flying Training School at Grantham he was posted to 1 Squadron.

On 26 September 1931, he was posted to 43 Squadron at Tangmere (43 Squadron was at Tangmere from February 1927 to October 1939).

He was promoted to Pilot Officer on 13 May 1932 and to Flying Officer on 13 November the same year.

On 2 January 1933, he was then posted to Calshot for instruction and spending time on flying boats before being posted to Malta.

He was posted to 210 Squadron on 4 June 1933 and was still on strength in April 1935.

On 31 March 1935, he was Supernumerary at RAF Depot.

A posting to 9 Flying Training School in Yorkshire as an Instructor followed (on 30 March 1936 he was on the staff of this unit).

He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 1 April 1936 (gazetted on 21 April) and granted a Permanent Commission on 13 May the same year.

On 8 June 1936, he was qualified as Cat B Instructor at CFS Uphaven and on 2 February 1937 he was re-categorised as A2 Instructor.

On 1 December 1937, he was Supernumery at 1 Group.

He was promoted to Squadron Leader on 1 December 1938.

In 1939 he was posted to the Middle East.

Squadron Leader Hickey took command over 80 Squadron on 27 August 1940 replacing Squadron Leader Patrick Dunn who had left the Squadron on 19 August to form 274 Squadron (the temporary commander was Flight Lieutenant Edward Jones). The unit was at the time equipped with Gloster Gladiators and operating in the Western Desert.

On 12 September, he took off at night to intercept a lone bomber attacking Mersa Matruh. As it was being illuminated by searchlights he was able to fire a couple of burst at it but failed to observe any results.

At 07:55 on 3 November, three Gladiators from 80 Squadron were sent out to attack a motor transport concentration near Garn. Two of the aircraft, Squadron Leader Hickey in N5823 and Flying Officer George Kettlewell in N5858 attacked whilst Pilot Officer P. T. Dowding (N5854) stayed above. The attack was most successful and much damage was done. Flying Officer Kettlewell reported that he suffered stoppage to two guns. The three pilots returned to base between 09:20 and 09:35.

80 Squadron was ordered to Greece and on 18 November the ‘B’ Flight of 80 Squadron left Egypt and reached Athens with at least nine Gladiator IIs led by Squadron Leader Hickey and including Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle, Flying Officers Greg Graham and Sidney Linnard, Pilot Officers Samuel Cooper, 'Heimar' Stuckey and William Vale and Sergeant Charles Casbolt.
“A” Flight of 80 Squadron led by Flight Lieutenant Edward Jones left Egypt for Greece on 23 November.

Shortly before midday on 19 December, Squadron Leader Hickey led 14 of 80 Squadron's Gladiators up to Yanina, followed by the ground party in a Ju 52/3m. After refuelling, 13 of these fighters were off to patrol over the Tepelene area where five S.79s of the 46o Stormo were seen, escorted by CR.42s and G.50bis. The British pilots at once engaged the bombers, believing that they had shot one down (no loss was actually suffered), but return fire struck N5785 and it went down in flames, Pilot Officer Samuel Cooper being seen to bale out. Squadron Leader Hickey thought that he had shot down one of the escorting CR.42s, which now attempted to intervene, but he then went down to land on a waterlogged field near Argyrokastron to look for his missing pilot. With the aid of some Greek soldiers, the badly wounded Cooper was located, and was transferred to hospital in Argyrokastron, where he died that evening. Meanwhile Sergeant Edward Hewett’s N5827 had been hit and badly damaged by AA fire, and he was obliged to force-land 20 miles north of Yanina during the return flight; this Gladiator was later salvaged.
No escorting CR.42s were actually lost in this combat.

At 10:30 on 21 December 1940, 80 Squadron took off from Yanina for the front in Greece. They were led by Squadron Leader Hickey and flew in three sections. The first comprised four aircraft and was led by Hickey, the second of three was led by Flight Lieutenant ’Pat’ Pattle and the third trio was led by Flying Officer Sidney Linnard.
Near Argyrokastron three enemy trimotor bombers were seen. They were identified as S.79s, and then three more aircraft with twin tails were seen, recognized in this case as Fiat BR.20s. All six were in fact Cant Z.1007bis aircraft from the 47o Stormo B.T. from Grottaglie. The Italian bombers were attacked by the Gladiators and Pattle believed that he had hit one.
At this moment however 15 CR.42s of the 160o Gruppo appeared on the scene. Maggiore Oscar Molinari, the Gruppo commander, was leading these Italian aircraft on an offensive reconnaissance over Yanina, Paramythia and Zitsa. Seeing the bombers under attack by an estimated 20 Gladiators, the Italian attacked, joined by six other CR.42s from the 150o Gruppo led by Capitano Luigi Corsini so that 80 Squadron pilots assessed the number of their opponents at 54!
After 25 minutes, the air battle broke up and eight of the British pilots returned to claim eight confirmed and three probables. Pilot Officer ’Bill’ Vale claimed three, one of them in flames (according to Pattle this was the fighter that shot down Flight Lieutenant Ripley). Vale’s own aircraft was riddled by explosive bullets during the combat. Vale reported:

‘At 1050, ten Gladiators took off from Yannina on an offensive patrol, flying in three flights of four, three, and three aircraft. I was flying in No.3 in the third flight led by F/O Linnard.
On reaching the patrol line “Tally-ho!” was immediately given for three bombers seen going from west to east. The leading flight led by S/L Hickey immediately went into action. At the same moment three more bombers were seen approaching from our port beam. The leader of the second flight, F/L Pattle, immediately turned left and carried out a head-on attack, and my flight leader followed.
I was able to get in a short burst before breaking away. On turning to follow, I observed a large formation of CR42s diving down from above. We immediately climbed to attack and a general dogfight started. I singled out one enemy aircraft who tried to dive away and dived down firing a burst at long range. He pulled up and I got in a full deflection shot from underneath and noticed flames coming from underneath his engine. The enemy aircraft went down out of control and finally hit the ground in flames. I then noticed a single Gladiator low down in a valley being attacked by five CR42s. I dived down and engaged two of them and managed to get behind one and fire a long burst until it suddenly spun out of control and crashed into the valley.
I was then attacked by more CR42s who carried out frontal quarter attacks on me with the superior speed that could out-climb me. I carried out one evasive action and noticed that the Gladiator below me was on fire and spinning down out of control
[this was Sqn Ldr Hickey’s aircraft]. I dived down towards it and saw the pilot leave the aircraft and use his parachute. I was again fired at by a CR42 from above who carried out his attack and then headed away north. When I again looked down I saw the Gladiator in flames on the ground with the pilot going down in his parachute. At the same time I saw a CR42 dive on the pilot and twin streams coming from behind his aircraft. I dived down and managed to get in a surprise attack as he pulled away from the parachutist. I got on his tail and fired a long burst from a single fuselage gun until he turned over out of control and went straight down to crash in the valley.
As I pulled up another CR42 came down very close to my machine, out of control, and crashed quite near to the burning Gladiator. I gained altitude and saw another Gladiator circling above me, and as I was short of ammunition I joined formation and found the other pilot to be F/S Richens, who had shot the CR42, which went past me. I noticed the position of the crashed Gladiator in respect to Argyrokastron and then returned to base.
On landing I inspected my aircraft and found that my lower and upper starboard mainplanes had been hit twice by explosive bullets, one of which had entered the wing ammunition tank and had exploded inside but had done no apparent damage to the structure of the mainplane. The fuselage was hit in several places but with no structural damage.’
Sergeant Charles Casbolt claimed one CR.42 during the combat, which blew up and another, which spun down (later downgraded to a probable). Sergeant Donald Gregory claimed another two, again one in flames, but his own aircraft was badly shot up with the engine and the undercarriage damaged by a series of frontal attacks from a CR.42s that had also wounded him in the right eye and was barely able to save himself from a “desperate position”. He however managed to return to Yanina and reproted:
‘Turning round in a stall turn I observed the leader [of the 42s] diving vertically whilst the remaining two had split, No.2 going up, No.3 down. As I had the advantage over the lower aircraft I decided to attack this first. He attempted to come up under me but as I was near to stalling, I had no difficulty in bringing my sight round to get in a deflection shot and then turn astern on him. Followed him down. At the same time I observed the leading aircraft crash on a hill and burst into flames. This dive was very steep, so much so, that I very nearly hit the ground with the 42. When I pulled up sharply out of this dive the third 42 came past and then pulled up underneath me into such a position that we could both get in quick deflection shots.
This happened three times and each time we missed colliding by inches, so that after each attack I had to find him again. Quite naturally this developed into a head-on attack, the first of which I slid out of. As the following attack was also head-on I became rather worried. I brought him into my sights, fired, ducked down behind my engine for cover, at the same time pulling back on the control column.
Immediately after this my right eye became warm and I found I had lost my sight in this eye. It took me some seconds to get used to this, as I would try to look towards the rear on the right side, but all I saw was the extensive damage to the centre section, starboard lower plane and a flying wire that had broken. I seem to remember at this point that he came at me from below and we had another deflection shot at each other, but as I had seen him so often in this position it may have stuck in my mind. However, I do remember I decided that my position was desperate and I weighed up the ground that was to receive me below. When I was overcome by a wave of determination, possibly due to the fact that when I was hit and saw the blood I turned my oxygen on at full strength. I pulled up in a loop and rolled off the top into a tight turn back into the direction I had come from. I looked at my compass but it seemed blurred. Although I could see the sun, I could not convince myself which direction to fly.
Diving down into the valley seemed to be the only means of escape. I was unable to look behind, as this brought on pain in my eye. At one period my sight was so blurred that I could not decide whether I was being chased by CR42 or if it was AA fire. Fortunately it was the latter. I discovered my position to be ten miles north of Valona at four thousand feet. As I could use only sixteen hundred revolutions due to damage to the rocker arm, causing excessive vibration, it took forty minutes to return to base where a landing was made under difficulties due to damage to eyesight and to undercarriage.’
Sergeant Gregory was recommended for an immediate DFM. Pattle and Warrant Officer Sid Richens also claimed one CR.42 each, Pattle reporting that his victim fell in flames, whilst Flying Officers W. B. Price-Owen and F. W. Hosken both claimed probables. However Flight Lieutenant Henry Derek Ripley (RAF no. 70575) in N5854 was seen to be shot down in flames and killed, while Squadron Leader Hickey was spotted bailing out of N5816; sadly his parachute caught fire, and he died from injuries soon after reaching the ground. Greek troops recovered the bodies of both pilots. Of Hickey’s death Vale reported:
‘The Gladiator was flat-spinning too. Suddenly the pilot hurled out of the cockpit like a black ant and the white burst of his parachute spreading in a puff … the parachute burst into flames and the sudden black smudge as its slow speed became a lightning streak of charred smoke and the black figure of the Gladiator pilot hurtling two thousand feet down to the black earth.’
Linnard's aircraft (N5834) was also badly hit and he was hit in the left calf by an explosive bullet and was taken to hospital after landing at Yanina. Flight Lieutenant Pattle noted:
‘Enemy fighters used a definite plan of attack. Attacking from superior height they maintained that height by attacking the Gladiators singly and in quick succession and climbing after each attack, the Gladiators, forced to evade, were unable to climb.’
And also
‘for fully five minute I was kept on the defensive without being able to fire a shot in return.’
In return the 160o Gruppo pilots claimed six Gladiators, two each by Maggiore Molinari and Tenente Edoardo Crainz (in CR.42 '394-7'), and one apiece by Tenente Eber Giudici (his aircraft was damaged by enemy fire) and Capitano Paolo Arcangeletti. Probables were claimed by Tenente Torquato Testerini, Sergente Maggiore Francesco Penna and Sergente Maggiore Domenico Tufano. The 150o Gruppo pilots claimed two more Gladiators when Capitano Luigi Corsini claimed one Gladiator and a probable while Sergente Maggiore Virgilio Pongiluppi claimed one Gladiator; both pilots were from the 364a Squadriglia. The 47o Stormo gunners claimed one more and a probable. As in the case of the British fighters, actual Italian losses totalled only two aircraft, Tenente Mario Gaetano Carancini and Tenente Mario Frascadore of the 160o Gruppo being lost, while Maggiore Molinari was wounded in the right foot and force-landed near Tepelene in a dry river-bed with a damaged engine (it seems that the aircraft was written off).

On 17 January 1941, Hickey was awarded a posthumously DFC.

At the time of his death, Hickey was credited with 1 biplane victory.

Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  19/12/40 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator   Tepelene area 80 Squadron

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 destroyed.
(a) No escorting Fiat CR.42s were lost in this combat.

Ace of Aces: M T StJ Pattle - E C R Baker, 1992 Crécy Books, Somerton, ISBN 0-947554-36-X
Air war for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete - Christopher Shores, Brian Cull and Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-948817-07-0
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Gloster Gladiator Home Page - Alexander Crawford.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Additional information kindly provided by David Park.

Last modified 08 December 2015