LAC Thomas Dent Henderson 628120 RAF
From his service number, Tom Henderson joined the RAF as a civilian sometime in December 1938 or early January 1939, at the age of 17 or so—the peacetime minimum age for direct entry as an airman being 17 years and 3 months. By Christmas 1939, he had turned 18, qualified as an Armourer, and had been posted overseas to join 211 Squadron in the Middle East. Henderson was one of several County Durham men to serve with the Greyhounds.
He was to be well known among the groundcrew: serving in the Western Desert, Greece, Palestine and the Sudan from 1940 to 1941; then on to Sumatra and Java in January 1942 until the Squadron dispersed there in March.
Tom was one of the lucky ones at the last in Java, to be among the Tung Song evacuees arriving at Fremantle in Western Australia in March 1942. The survivors were soon moved back to India, where he was among the group photographed some time before their final scattering. Although the Squadron did re-form in India, with Bristol Beaufighters from August 1943, by then all the old hands had moved on.
Cpl TD Henderson, centre, cap aloft, India May 1942 (Fryatt collection)
Enlarged from the large Derha Dun group photograph, prints of which were held by the late Jim Fyratt (another Armourer of the Squadron) and by Ron Dudman.(Fitter II/Engine).
In the course of correspondence several years ago about Fred Joerin’s time with the Squadron, Brian Cull was kind enough to give me not only Joerin’s Flying Log Book but also a deeply interesting letter from Tom Henderson dating from the early 1980s (all now returned). Since then, my UK friend Ian Carter has kindly dug through his own 211 Squadron collection to send me cracking copies of some of Tom’s photographs.
Here then, is the vivid narrative of Leading Aircraftman Tom Henderson, an Armourer of No 211 Squadron RAF from desert landing ground to jungle airstrip. I’ve chosen to omit the personal salutations and another aside, and the usual lavish capitalisation. Apart from a few silent spelling corrections, omissions and comments of mine are shown in the usual way, [thus].
[Narrative of a Greyhound]
“I always regarded myself as a fortunate person joining 211 Sqn at the age of 18 yrs, Christmas of 1939 and seeing service with them until disbandment on Java in February 1942 [sic: March].
On a personal note, this service covered the Western Desert (Wavell's campaign), Greece, Crete (Heraklion), Iraq (Raschid Ali's Rebellion), [the Free French action in Syria], Sudan, Sumatra, Java, Australia and India.
I still regarded myself as a de facto 211 Sqn member until leaving India in 1942 to commence a long overdue Pilot's course in Rhodesia (successful I'm happy to say!) and finished the war on Lancasters operating over Europe.
Up until the latter half of 1942, the RAF saw fit to employ me as an NCO Armourer and Ground Gunner. I was 20 years old at the time of the Far Eastern fiasco, therefore any information I can give you [Brian Cull] is limited to the limited capacity I was experiencing at this period.
Naturally I'm biassed, being a true "Greyhound" of somewhat jealous disposition. If any part of this communication will help do feel free to use it [see Bloody Shambles Ch 1 p72]. The only stipulation I make is please return the photographs, such as they are. At least they show what some of us looked like and where we were. Nothing exciting I'm afraid, due to lack of film. [...]
[The photographs which follow may or may not be those which Tom referred to. He did later make some available to Ian Carter, who kindly gave me copies which I have used here to illustrate Tom’s narrative.]
[Concert Party c October 1941 (TD Henderson via I Carter)
Taken at Port Sudan. Hot and thirsty. Drinks in evidence plus festive garlands.
Front row, sitting: Bob Livesey, unknown, Chico Broadbent, F/Lt Homes-Lee.
Some of the other faces seem to be familiar from the indoor beano shot, also taken at Port Sudan, in Jim Fryatt’s collection.]
Before I start being technical, do pass on my respects and salutations to AVM Bateson. Having no more military ambition I now feel free to state how much I enjoyed his command and what a jolly good type he was. [Bateson died in March 1986, which at least places Tom’s letter to a date before that].
To the late Sqn Leader Ken Dundas, a special salute. In earlier and happier days this officer gave me hours and hours of his time preparing me as a more plausible candidate for the highly desirable state of Sergeant Pilot. His death on the 10th of February  was a hard blow to we longer serving members who held him in great esteem as an officer and a truly good man.
Fortunately, for part of the period in question I kept a few hurried notes (Not a Diary! Who am I to disobey KRs and ACIs) which at least will keep things in chronological order.
[211 Squadron airmen 1941 (TD Henderson via I Carter)
Possibly Port Sudan sea-front, a Sergeant (front, kneeling) with a cheerful party of airmen.]
Comments on Ops Resumé 211 Sqn Feb 1942
There is little I can state that will improve your [Brian Cull’s] resumé. To my knowledge dates and operations are correct. The 6th of February, to my memory, indicated six Blenheims on convoy escort. Otherwise you seem to have it all correct [however, from the sum of other available records of the time, the date for the convoy escort task was in fact 7 February].
Here—for fun—is the "official" squadron song
To the tune of "Everyone's doing it"
Early in the morning when the sun begins to show,
See all the Blenheims standing in a row,
Watch the Flight Mechanics turn a little handle,
Chuff, bang, crash and away we go.
Two Eleven's panicking, panicking, panicking,
Two Eleven's panicking, panicking, panicking,
See that cloud of grit right over there,
That's the Greyhounds doing their share,
We'll get a salmon sandwich when we get there,
Two Eleven's panicking now.
[This is a rather different version of the 211 Song than seen elsewhere. It's worth noting that the reference to panic is wry rather than coldly proscriptive, bearing in mind that, for example, the issue steel helmet was called (among other things) a panic hat or a panic bowler.]
The reference to a salmon sandwich harks to the Desert campaign where we dined on tinned fish (type unknown) and raw Egyptian onions for six months. This brought on a rare tropical ailment that could only be cured by Stella beer. [Greek beer!]
“Oh to be in England” [Wadi Gazouza, late 1941] (TD Henderson via I Carter)
[“Mush” Hale (534599 Cpl Hale G, Armourer) gazes out over the desert floor of Wadi Gazouza towards the Red Sea Hills of The Sudan.]
And so on to business. Extracts from personal records.
The Squadron departed Wadi Gazouza, Sudan on 24th December 1941 en route for RAF Helwan, Egypt. Journey by Nile paddle steamer and train. Some of the Australian aircrew we had trained at Wadi Gazouza came with us as part of the re-fitted Squadron.
[In fact the 72 OTU Movement Order dated 19 December directed that the main party was to entrain at 1800hrs on 20 December. No other Orders are present in the 72 OTU Operations Record Book.
The Roll attached to the 19 December Order names 292 airmen, many of them old hands from the Desert and Greece. Included among the Armourers is one “628120 LAC Henderson TW”, plainly a typing error for Thomas Dent Henderson 628120.]
Lots of panic at Helwan, promised the world but ended up with very second hand Blenheims. Much work getting them operationally ready.
Wild speculation as to our next operational destination, Singapore and Far East odds-on favourites. Extra aircrew and groundcrew joined 211 Squadron here (Helwan) to replace large number of 5 year tour expired chaps returning to the UK.
Main body of 211 Sqn departed RAF Helwan on January 16th 1942. Sailed for Far East on SS Yoma, intending to arrive at destination to greet flying party of 24 Blenheims due to leave Helwan on 25 Jan. However, due to SS Yoma persistently breaking down (convoy problems, escorted by HMS Cornwall and HMS Exeter), whole programme shot.
[The Air Party was staged into four Flights of six, departing over four days from 25 January, perhaps as much in response to the worsening situation in Malaya. Moves to set up the Group HQ on Sumatra were in train by 17 January].
Singapore fell [under siege 31 January, surrendering 15 February] so disembarked Sumatra, Port Oosthaven, Friday 13 February (unlucky for some) [The Merchant Shipping Movement card for HMT Yoma records her arrival date as 14 February, as does Grp Cpt Nicholetts’ February 1942 report Evacuation of RAF Through Oosthaven, AIR 23/2158].
At this stage rifles and a few machine guns (Lewis's) issued and entrained for Palembang [some 200 miles to the North]. Rumour has it that we have lost most of our aircraft and Japanese advance units are somewhere between us and Palembang.
Before reaching Palembang train stopped, all off, and route march through swamp and jungle to a deserted rubber plantation. Slept here then paraded at first light. Machine gun and rifle party to stay behind, remainder to return to Oosthaven.
Our party, for reasons unknown or invented, now called Major Grahams Rearguard Party. Morale very high, Medical Officer Doc Dawson still with us, he has a fund of delightfully smutty stories. Our Armament Officer (a W/O), first name Ginger, wish I could remember his surname also enthusiastically involved. [possibly W/O DM Fogg, ex Wadi Gazouza and a very old hand on 211 Squadron]
A good company of officers, NCOs and men, most of us old 211 boys, now moved to an old rope factory, the rubber plant [sic] now in flames. Date 16th February 1942.
Spent the remaining 48 hours blowing up ammo dumps, huts, etc. Last train passed through towards coast and received official permission to sabotage railway and to make as best we could for nearest port [ie return Oosthaven]. Armament Officer "acquired" a large American Pontiac and bristling with small arms drove off in style.
A lot of air activity at this time, mostly Japanese, although we did see a Catalina flying boat.
February 17th 1942
Oosthaven busily exploding and burning [by demolition parties before evacuation] but taken aboard SS Silver Larch and a quick dash to Java.
[Silver Larch had succeeded in reaching Oosthaven from Singapore, where she had arrived in late January carrying a very wide assortment of ordinance. The story is recounted in Campbell & Lovell’s So Long Singapore. Hugh Campbell would have been fascinated to hear of a 211 aboard her.]
Rode on an ammunition train (mostly AA) to Batavia, highly uncomfortable but plenty of real food en route. Plenty of air activity.
Now operating from Kalidjati, all but the most thickheaded realise we are once more up to our ears in the proverbial. It looks as if its going to be Crete all over again, but stickier.
The main body of the Sqn remained in and around Batavia until February 26th 1942, entertained mainly by the Japanese Air Force who seem to be having things all their own way. They favour Vic formations, three boxes of nine at high and medium altitude, although some of their fighters are getting cheeky and doing some low level strafing.
On February 26th we were once more paraded and told the worst, not that we didn't expect it. Our chaps more annoyed than upset! Everyone to hand in all guns to station armoury at Dutch Artillery Barracks, named I think Lamthrepeli; Dutch have evidently packed in.
[Possible confusion here: the Japanese landed on Java on 1 March. The Dutch surrender order was made at 0900hrs on 8 March, wef from 1430hrs that day. The intent and extent of effect was subject of some dispute, post-war, but the effect was the same. Tjilatjap fell on 7 March, and for some period thereafter various ingenious endeavours to escape were made, some successful, some disastrous.]
However, Fred Slaughter, Jock Clark, self, and Squadron Armament Officer [w/o Fogg?] took guns in at main door and passed them out through the back door to those willing to have a go at getting off the island. Have hung onto an almost new SMLE [Short Magazine Lee-Enfield] with a special aperture sight and a genuine Thompson .455 submachine gun! Ah well, it takes all kinds.
Later in the day, another famous panic; off by train towards Southern part of island where rumour has it we are going to be shipped to another island (no names this time) and recommence operations with new (American?) aircraft.
Train stopped at Poerwokerto. Large volcano here. Marched into an old sugar refinery. By now, malaria and other assorted bugs are having their effect. Quite a few really ill. This is really a delightful spot, all the locals very friendly. A Eurasian chappie gave me a list of all the edible fruit that can be used to keep body and soul together, plus where and when to get them. "Just drink coconut milk" he said. And very nice too!
[211 Squadron members, Poerwokerto sugar refinery 2 March 1942 (TD Henderson via I Carter)
A splendid shot. Good cheer in adversity. No names, unfortunately.]
Squadron remained at Poerwokerto until 3 March [sic: 2 March], in same old sugar refinery. Local native population highly curious about us but very friendly and happy together.
An Advance Party is being organised to proceed southwards by road. Self and a few of my immediate hard core on this and off we go by lorry to Tjilatjap [the South coast port, about 35 miles away by road], which when we arrive has already seen some loving care and attention from the Japanese bombers.
Shipped aboard a funny looking vessel (coastal boat) name of Tung Song. From somewhere an RAF ensign has appeared and at last we have a decent MG, a Vickers K no less. We have acquired a few odd bods from other units and the latest gen is destination Australia.
Sure enough that's where we set course for. I think we are too small for either Jap subs or aircraft to bother about. We might just make it.
After a shark escorted journey we sighted land where we hoped it would be. All I've seen in the "chart room" is a School Atlas. However, it would have proved very difficult to miss Australia.
[The story has been also been told by others, more than once. In fact Tung Song was serving the RAF. Requisitioned under charter from 1939 as No 205 (Flying Boat) Squadron's sea-going tender, she ranged as far as Rangoon, the Nicobars, Singapore, and Oosthaven in support of the Squadron. The necessary Admiralty charts and Pilot volumes were not necessarily left lying about in plain view.].
5 ED Personnel Occurrence Report March 1942 (NAA Series 10605)
Tom, listed among the evacuated airmen Armourers of 211 Squadron, safely accounted for at 5 Embarkation Depot Fremantle, along with Jim Fryatt, This time, he’s PD Henderson 628120. Such is the fabric of history.
We were told later that we had gaily sailed through a minefield just off Fremantle! Flat bottoms are not to be laughed at!
All the above events are lifted out of an old school exercise book and represent only the events as they occurred about me. The whole may not be of much use to you but use what you wish.
I have only met four survivors over the last 30 years, although I do know that most of the Squadron ended up in PoW camps. One or two contacted me after the Far Eastern war and I picked up scattered pieces of information that mostly made sad reading. One chappie was a PoW at Nagasaki when the bomb dropped. He died of associated illness in 1954.
I left the RAF in 1954 [sic] retiring as a Fg/Off and joined the Colonial Service, enjoying 13 years on the Gold Coast, but there were no Desert Lilies.”
Toujours à propos
By his own accounts, Tom Henderson returned to the UK and ended the war flying Lancasters, though apparently as a senior NCO rather than as a commissioned officer (in the absence of any matching entries in either the London Gazette or Air Force List to 1945).
By coincidence, one Sergeant Thomas Dempsey Henderson 808269, also of County Durham, had been appointed to a commission from May 1942 as an Air Gunner and Wireless Operator. Pilot Officer TD Henderson 122975 was made Flying Officer on probation wef November 1942, and promoted Flight Lieutenant in May 1944: This TD Henderson remained in the RAF until at least October 1945.
In June 1950. the Korean War broke out after a period of tension and cross-border incursions. In July 1950, ex-211 Squadron Corporal Thomas Dent Henderson 628120 was at last appointed to an RAF commission, as a Navigator II Pilot Officer with effect from 25 May—and with the same service number. His Short Service Commission was for a period of five years on the active list and four on reserve.
In May 1952, Tom Henderson was promoted to Flying Officer in the Aircraft Control Branch, where he continued on the active list in the RAF Reserve of Officers until at least April 1957. After 20 years RAF service in war and peace, Flying Officer Thomas Dent Henderson 628120 finally relinquished his commission in May 1959, retaining his rank.
In 1969, Tom Henderson met his match in Olga, with whom he enjoyed 18 years of happily married life. In late 1983, James Dunnet’s Flypast article on his old Squadron’s trials in Greece caught Tom’s eye. Soon he was writing to the magazine (his letter appearing in the January 1984 issue) and to James, his letters making a significant contribution to the final chapters of James’ ms of Blenheim Over the Balkans.
Soon after that he was in touch with Ian Carter who, then as now, lived only a few miles away. About that time he was also writing to Brian Cull about the Squadron’s difficult days in the East Indies (as recorded here), and thus also made a contribution to Shores, Cull and Izawa’s Bloody Shambles Vol II. However, Tom passed away on 12 April 1988, long before its publication in 1993. He would have been very interested to hear of Hugh Campbell and Ron Lovell’s efforts from 1994 over the Tung Song story, So Long Singapore (published in 2000) and to see Blenheim Over the Balkans published (in 2001)—but that was not to be.
Tom Henderson was survived by his wife Olga, who later married Ron Miller, an ex-Wellington man, whom she met through a cousin of Tom’s. Ron himself passed away on 29 June 2012. Although coping with arthritis in both hands, Olga writes the most kindly and wonderful letter, with fond memories of her “two wonderful husbands”. My sincere thanks go to her and, for that matter, to Ian Carter (whose long-standing friendship with Tom was one of the influences that led him to take such a big part in matters Blenheim and 211 Squadron).
TD Henderson personal correspondence with B Cull, c1984
TD Henderson letter Flypast January 1984 issue
O Miller personal correspondence 2013
I Carter personal correspondence; photographs from TD Henderson
B Cull correspondence with author
5 Embarkation Depot RAAF Personnel Occurrence Reports 1942 (NAA Series 10605)
72 OTU Operations Record Book TNA AIR 29/686 (Movement Order & Roll 19 December 1941)
Merchant Shipping Movement Card SS Yoma 1939—1946 TNA BT 389/32/212
Report: Evacuation of RAF through Oosthaven, Sumatra/Grp Cpt Nicholetts TNA AIR 23/2158 (via L Richards @rcre)
Air Ministry Index to Airmen and Airwomen UK National Archives TNA AIR 78/74
Air Force List October 1945, April 1957
London Gazette issues 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1950, 1952, 1959
Campbell and Lovell So Long Singapore (Campbell 2000)
Dunnet Blenheim Over the Balkans (Pentland 2001)
Shores, Cull and Izawa Bloody Shambles Vol II (Grub Street 1993)
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