Dambusters hero who twice saved the lives of his colleagues passes away aged 90Posted: May 14, 2014
By Darren Devine,
John “Des” Phillips loved holding forth on his war memories at family reunions and get togethers.
But few among his seven children, 19 grandchildren, 23 great grandchildren and one great great granddaughter really appreciated the extent of his contribution.
For the flight engineer, who joined the No 617 “Dambusters” squadron in 1944 just a year after it made its name with the famous attack on German reservoirs, helped sink the pride of the Nazi navy – the Tirpitz.
The Tirpitz was Germany’s bulwark against an Allied invasion of Norway and the Soviet’s Baltic fleet.
In addition to his role in the three missions to destroy the Tirpitz Cardigan-born Phillips twice saved crewmates when their Lancaster got into trouble.
Daughter Amanda Perkins said she and her father’s six other children grew up with his stories.
After a 40th reunion get together for the Dambusters in 1983 she realised there was much more to the tales than bravado.
She said: “He used to tell us lots of stories and as young children we perhaps didn’t appreciate what he was telling us.
“I went to one of the reunions and all the pilots and air crew were there, and some of the actual Dambusters. They remembered crash landings in Scotland and things like that and I realised perhaps he wasn’t telling big stories.”
Amanda, 51, from New Quay, Ceredigion, who was the youngest of her father’s children, said: “At the time you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone. That’s quite upsetting really.”
During the second attack on the German battleship his decisive action saved the Lancaster when it had a power failure after taking off carrying a 12,000 bomb.
Describing the incident Tom Bennett in his book The Dambusters at War wrote: “The aircraft was taking off … when the port engine cut to less than half power. Quickly Des closed down the starboard outer engine, and then gradually reopened the throttles to bring all four engines into synchronisation.
“The swing was arrested, the aircraft straightened, and managed to stagger off the ground.”
As a flying officer on the aircraft Tony Iveson said of Phillips’ quick-thinking: “He knew his aircraft”.
Phillips flew with Iveson as his skipper on all the Tirpitz attacks.
The last came in November 1944 when they finally sank the battleship in Tromso fjord.
Before the mission to destroy the Tirpitz Phillips left school at 15 and worked as a mechanic until he was called up for service with the RAF.
He trained as a flight engineer and in 1944 was posted to 617 Squadron and assigned to Iveson’s crew.
Following their success with the Tirpitz they were told to focus their efforts on U-boat pens at Bergen, in Norway, in January 1945.
But the crew was taken aback to find Bergen heavily defended by Focke Wulf fighters, which set upon Iveson’s Lancaster, strafing its tailplane and rudder with cannon fire and setting its left inner engine ablaze.
In his autobiography, Iveson, who was later to become a squadron leader, wrote: “The fire produced a lot of flames and smoke and it must have looked to others in the squadron and the enemy fighters that we were goners.”
Iveson instructed the crew to stand by to bale out.
Two gunners and the wireless operator thought he had given the order and abandoned the plane, without anyone noticing.
Iveson added: “The main actor in the drama was the flight engineer.
“Taffy feathered the engine immediately and stopped the prop. Then he fired the Graviner switch which sprayed the engine with carbon dioxide and put out the fire.”
It was only when the crisis was over that the remaining crew members discovered that three colleague were missing. Between them Iveson and Phillips flew the heavily damaged aircraft back to base.
When the war was over Phillips went to work for the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Aberporth.
After meeting wife Mary at a local dance, in 1948, they had children, Stewart, Patricia, Brian, Russell, Barry, Pamela and Amanda.
The couple celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary only a few days before Phillips died aged 90 in April.
After 15 years at RAE he joined the National Coal Board as an engineer, before a spell in Saudi Arabia where he worked on aviation projects for Lockheed aircraft until retiring home to Machynlleth, in Powys.
Daughter Pam Vaughan, 56, echoed her sister, saying: “He was a character. When there was a new member of the family they were always introduced to my dad and he would collar them and give them the patter.”
His funeral was held in Chapel Degwell, St Dogmeals Ceredigion, where he married wife Mary on April 10, 1948.
Sourced by Wales Online