Ernest Debenham—Downed after Convoy Strike

Flight Serjeant Ernest Debenham’s daughter Lesley shared this “photo on his wedding day to my mum, Ethel Mary Debenham (née Hoyle), who he had met through scouting before the war.

Lesley Woollacott (née Debenham) wrote late last month, “I have been looking for information about my father, W/O Ernest Debenham RAF 996601, who died in 1979. I know that he was a POW at Camp 59 Servigliano and somehow escaped. He was interrogated on return to the UK at 3 P W Transit camp on 22 January 1944.

“Unfortunately, my dad didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences. He was shot down in the Mediterranean (I think he would have been navigator/gunner) flying out of Malta and walked out across the wing of his plane to be taken prisoner of war.

“I understand that he escaped by just walking out of the camp, probably with another person, and they just kept walking. He could count to 20 in Italian and ask for a box of matches, and said they somehow passed German soldiers. He was assisted by an Italian family I believe, but I’ve no idea how he got back to the UK.

“He qualified as a member of the Goldfish Club.”

A letter, dated June 6, 1944, from the Goldfish Club’s Hon. Secretary C. A. Robertson states:

“Very many thanks for your letter of May 27th. The details given have enabled yourself, P/O. Feast and F/O. Good to be elected life members of the Goldfish Club, and I am accordingly having your official membership cards prepared…. Congratulations, both on your escape after ditching, and upon your return to this country.”

Lesley wrote, “A page from my dad’s flying log book for 12 March 1943 reads, ‘Torpedo attack on convoy north of Sicily, shot down after strike, taken POW,’ and then he’s added ‘Peter Exton A.G. killed 22.30 G.M.T.’

“The Goldfish Club letter refers to P/O Feast, the pilot named in his log book, so maybe my dad was not the only survivor of the flight as I has always thought.”

Ernest Debenham is mentioned in “Details on Remaining 10 British Escapees.” In Lance-Sergeant Robert Henry Collins’ repatriation report, he explains that he left PG 59 with five other men. These are identified in the report as:

F/Sgt. Debenham
Sgt. Parker, Royal Air Force
Sgt. Greenhalgh, Royal Art Force
Sgt. Hatcher, Royal Horse Artillery
Cpl. S. Lokich (An American, identified in “Simmons’ Address Book—the Americans” as Samuel Lokich, 166-08 89th Avenue, Jamaica, Long Island, New York)

Two of these men, sergeants Parker and Greenhalgh, are shown in a news clipping in “News Feature—Four Camp 59 Prisoners.”

Robert Collins wrote that the six stayed in a comune called Amandaley, where they met an escapee from another camp, Cpl. Coomber. According to the “Alphabetical List,” Corporal F. W. Coomber (T3244658, Royal Army Service Corps) had been hospitalized at PG H206 Nocera.

I can’t find a comune in Italy with the name Amandaley, but I’m guessing it’s Amandola, which is up river from Servigliano. This would have been a typical escape route, as many of the POWs followed the River Tenna toward the mountains when then left camp.

Collins, Coomber, and Debenham moved on to Barasciano.

When Collins and Coomber decided to continue south, Ernest Debenham stayed in the Barasciano area.

Here is Collins’ full statement:

“In company with 5 others, I left the camp 14 Sept. There were still Italian sentries on guard. The S.B.O. had told all the camp just before, that they should all leave it. We were fired on by Italian sentries but they did not appear to try to be accurate. The S.B.O. then broadcast on the loudspeaker, a request to the sentries not to go on firing, they stopped. We went to a place near AMANDALEY, we had previously split up into smaller parties. I was with F/Sgt [flight sergeant] DEBENHAM RAF (was in Torpedo Bomber Sqn—Beauforts from MALTA) (same camp as me) There we stayed 4 or 5 days in a small hut on our own. Here we were found by Cpl. Coomber (T/3244655 129 Coy RASC) We went on together to BARASCIANO where we met many others (see Cpl. Coomber’s statement). We left DEBENHAM here, Coomber and I going on together, as we had heard that 300 Germans had come to the village. We got to BAGNOLE together On 27 Oct we split up. I stayed on a nearby farm till 5 Nov, when I went to TERELLO, meeting the Canadian Highland Div there.”

“On his discharge my dad was a Warrant Officer,” Leslie explained, “and I know that he had refused the offer of a more senior and permanent post.

“I’ll try to find further information about my father but there’s no one I can ask as I’m an only child, and my mother died in 1997.”

“I’ve struggled to find photos of my father—this is as good as it gets for the moment, Lesley said. “My dad is on the back row, fifth from the left. No names I’m afraid, and I don’t know what year this was taken.”

“A picture of a knife that my dad made in Camp 59,” Lesley wrote. “He was always very a practical man and could make anything!”

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