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Flying Officer Adrian Warburton about to enter the cockpit of a Martin Maryland
10 March 1918|
12 April 1944 (aged 26)|
Egling an der Paar, Germany
|Buried||Durnbach Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery|
|Service/||Royal Air Force|
|Years of service||1939–1944|
|Commands held||No. 683 Squadron|
Distinguished Service Order & Bar|
Distinguished Flying Cross & Two Bars
Distinguished Flying Cross (United States)
Adrian "Warby" Warburton, DSO & Bar, DFC & Two Bars and the DFC (United States) (10 March 1918 – 12 April 1944) was a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot and flying ace of the Second World War. He became legendary in the RAF for his role in the defence of Malta.
His life and work has been depicted in the book Warburton's War by Tony Spooner and in the BBC Timewatch documentary The Mystery Of The Missing Ace. A fuller depiction of his life, The Maltese Spitfire, was written by Squadron Leader Harry Coldbeck, with an introduction by Wing Commander P.B. Lucas, both of whom knew Warburton well.
Second World War
Warburton was commissioned in the Royal Air Force in 1939 as an acting pilot officer. He was promoted to pilot officer (on probation) on 3 September 1939 and confirmed as a pilot officer on 31 October. On completing flying training, he was posted to No. 608 Squadron RAF, flying Blackburn Bothas on North Sea patrols. Warburton's criticism of the obsolete plane led to his commanding officer having him transferred to Malta as an observer, not a pilot. He joined 431 Flight, an RAF detachment flying reconnaissance sorties over the Mediterranean in twin-engined Martin Maryland reconnaissance/light bombers. Within four days of arrival, he had his pilot status reinstated. The Station Commander was short-toured and removed from flying duties.
I never knew Warburton personally, but I was his escort on many a mission in those dark days of 1942–43. I remember a particular raid when I was assigned his escort, he was flying a Maryland that raid. We took off and headed for the area that he was going to take pictures of. When we got there the target was covered in flak. "Warby" said, "Wait here, I'll be back" in a very calm voice. Some enemy fighters approached and started a dogfight with me. A few seconds later I heard, "Hurry up, I'm not going to wait for you all day". He didn't treat a Bomber like a Bomber; he treated all planes like Fighters!
Fearless and unorthodox (he seldom completed a Form 700 authorising flights), "Warby" participated in an increasing number of daring sorties. On 30 October 1940, Warburton and his two crewmen shot down an Italian CANT Z.506B seaplane. Three days later, they nearly fell victim to an attack by four Italian aircraft. Warburton was hit by a spent bullet which caused no serious injury but did render him unconscious. Sergeant Frank Bastard took control and managed to keep the aircraft flying (for which he received the Distinguished Flying Medal) until Warburton had recovered sufficiently.
He was soon back in the air and on 10 November, 431 Flight spotted a concentration of Italian battleships and cruisers in Taranto, Admiral Andrew Cunningham deciding on an audacious night attack by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish torpedo bombers. Warburton flew a reconnaissance mission on 11 November prior to the attack. Circling the harbour several times, when the cameras failed, Warburton flew so low, that his observer was able to read off the names of the battleships as they flew past. Guided by this intelligence, the Fleet Air Arm launched the Battle of Taranto that night; Warburton was promoted to flying officer on 3 December.
This officer has carried out numerous long distance reconnaissance flights and has taken part in night air combats. In October, 1940, he destroyed an aircraft, and again, early in December, he shot down an enemy bomber in flames. Flying Officer Warburton has at all times displayed a fine sense of devotion to duty.
With 431 Flight expanded into No. 69 Squadron RAF in January 1941, Warburton steadily developed a reputation within the RAF as its leading reconnaissance pilot. He located numerous enemy convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa, providing vital information to the Allied anti-shipping forces in the Mediterranean intercepting Axis supplies. His superiors turned a blind eye to many of "Warby"s eccentricities. On 14 April 1941, the Maryland was mistaken for a Ju 88 and attacked by a Hurricane flown by Flying Officer Innes Westmacott and Warburton had to force-land the damaged aircraft. Although the Maryland's guns were for defence, he and his crew were frequently involved in air combat, claiming five air victories and three enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground or afloat on the water. He crashed twice but each time walked away.
In September 1941, Warburton was awarded a Bar to his DFC. At the end of September 1941, Warburton and his crew were rested and on 3 December, Warburton was promoted to war substantive flight lieutenant. While on detachment in Egypt, he managed to 'acquire' a Bristol Beaufighter heavy fighter. Stripping the aircraft of all guns and armour, he equipped it with cameras and took the aeroplane back to Malta. He flew the plane for about a year until it was destroyed in a raid. His second tour finished in mid-March 1942 so he missed the intense battles over Malta in the summer. He was not a pilot with any degree of support from Air Vice Marshal Park, the Air Officer Commanding. Warburton was awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) on 20 March 1942 and received a second Bar to his DFC in October, by which time he was an acting squadron leader.
In February 1943, Warburton was promoted to war substantive squadron leader. He was then involved in the vital pre-invasion reconnaissance of the landing beaches for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. Now commanding 683 Squadron, he co-ordinated the photographic work with the local American forces, who were amazed at the much-decorated officer attired in dirty grey flannels, an oil-stained tunic and topped by a mop of long unkempt blond hair when he came out to greet them at Luqa airfield. He had just "returned from the dead" after being missing for three days. While photographing Bizerte his plane was disabled by flak. He struggled on to Bône and landed unhurt. After being kept under lock and key for two days suspected of being a German agent he was able to establish that he was British and was given a French plane to fly to Gibraltar. There he changed it for a Spitfire and flew back to Malta, picking up his cameras and film at Bône and shooting down a Ju 88 on the way. When he landed at Malta his first remark was – allegedly – "Sorry I'm late". In October 1943, Warburton was given command of a new photo-reconnaissance wing of four squadrons but after a car accident in late 1943, he was hospitalised for several weeks and returned to the UK.
One story of Warburton was recounted by Squadron Leader Bill Olmsted. Soon after the North African landing the "brass" wanted to know if the Bizerte aerodrome was in Allied hands, as communications had broken down. From Malta, Warby took a twin-engine bomber and when he arrived, started landing with wheels and flaps down. He escaped the heavy ground fire which greeted him. Returning to Malta he declared the aerodrome was not yet secure. This story was confirmed by British commandos who were in the position to observe the attempt to land.
Death and legacy
By the beginning of 1944, he had been promoted to the rank of wing commander and his gallantry recognised by the award of the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Bars and an American Distinguished Flying Cross. By this time he had flown nearly 400 operations and claimed 9 enemy aircraft destroyed. On 1 April 1944, he was posted as the RAF Liaison Officer to the 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group, US 8th Army Air Force, at RAF Mount Farm in Oxfordshire.
Warburton was the pilot of one of two Lockheed F-5B photo-reconnaissance aircraft (a version of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter) that took off together from Mount Farm on the morning of 12 April 1944, to photograph targets in Germany. Although, as a liaison officer, Warburton should not have been flying operations, he was given permission to fly by the American base commander, Lt-Col. Elliott Roosevelt, the son of the president of the USA. The aircraft separated approximately 100 mi (160 km) norrth of Munich to carry out their respective tasks; it was planned that they would meet and fly on to a USAAF airfield in Sardinia. He failed to arrive at the rendezvous point and was not seen again.
Years of speculation about his fate came to an end in 2002, when his remains were found in the cockpit of his aircraft, buried about 2 yd (1.8 m) deep in a field near the Bavarian village of Egling an der Paar, 34 mi (55 km) west of Munich. According to witnesses, the aircraft fell there on 12 April 1944, around 11:45. One of the propellers had bullet holes in it, which suggests that Warburton had been shot down. Parts of the wreck can be seen today in the Malta Aviation Museum. Only a few pieces of bone and the odd part of flying clothing were found. As Warburton was flying a USAAF plane with USAAF markings he was thought to be an American. Most of Warburton's body was removed from the P-38 and buried in a grave in the Kaufering town cemetery. The grave was marked "unknown American Airman" and was next to a Halifax crew who were shot down on the night of 6/7 September 1943. When the area came under Allied control (particularly American), the graves were moved.
A memorial service was held on 14 May 2003, in the St Aegidius Parish church, Gmund am Tegernsee, followed by burial at the Dürnbach Commonwealth War Cemetery. Warburton had been married in 1939 to Eileen Adelaide Mitchell. The ceremony was attended by his widow, Eileen (known as Betty) and by Jack Vowles, a former comrade who had served with him in Malta in the early 1940s. Warburton was the subject of the "Mystery of the Missing Ace" episode of the BBC investigative documentary series Timewatch, first broadcast in November 2003.
- "No. 34705". The London Gazette. 10 October 1939. p. 6797.
- "No. 34733". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 October 1942. p. 7641.
- "No. 35032". The London Gazette. 3 January 1941. p. 64.
- "No. 35073". The London Gazette. 11 February 1941. p. 832.
- "No. 35270". The London Gazette. 9 September 1941. p. 5217.
- "No. 35426". The London Gazette. 20 January 1942. p. 348.
- "No. 35494". The London Gazette. 20 March 1942. p. 1275.
- "No. 35768". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 October 1942. p. 4753.
- "No. 35996". The London Gazette (Supplement). 27 April 1943. p. 1939.
- Doe, John (20 April 2004). "Famous WWII pilot's film reel presented to aviation museum". Times of Malta. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
- Record at Durnbach War Cemetery; Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
- Certificate Reference Portsmouth Dec 1939 2b/2194
- Tweedie, Neil (14 May 2003). "RAF's wartime daredevil finally laid to rest" – via www.telegraph.co.uk.
- Timewatch episode on IMDb
- Tony Spooner Warburton's War
- Harry Coldbeck The Maltese Spitfire