Frederick Higginson OBE DFC DFM

The Man Who Fell to Earth

St Clears is a lovely place, certainly on a sunny day. So go there. Head towards Laugharne and on the left hand side you will find your destination, the Church of Mary Magdalene. It is opposite the historic Town Hall and you will pass through a beautiful lych gate into a tranquil timeless world. The church has a long history. It was founded in 1100 as a priory and apparently contains the best Norman stone carving in Carmarthenshire. And yet in all that time there can have been no one buried there who has had such a dramatic life as the man whose grave you have come to see.

 It isn’t difficult to find. It is a modern headstone erected in 2003 and it shines brightly on the left hand side as you walk down the path towards the church. It is a stone which summarises a life but which is unable to give you a full picture of the quite remarkable career of Wing Commander Frederick Higginson OBE DFC DFM (1913-2003), fighter ace.  As you will see, if anyone lived a life which might have been scripted for them in Hollywood, then it was ‘Taffy’ Higginson.

He was born in Gorseinon near Swansea in 1913, joined the RAF as an apprentice in 1929 and was accepted for pilot training in 1935. He was a young man living a dream but all too soon he was living a nightmare. By 1940 he had been promoted to Flight Sergeant and was fighting over Dunkirk before moving on to the Battle of Britain over the green fields of Kent. He was awarded the DFM and became one of only thirty six British fighter pilots during the whole of World War II to shoot down more than twelve enemy aircraft – and this at a time when government planners estimated the average life expectancy of a fighter pilot at only three weeks.

However Higginson ran out of luck whilst escorting a formation of Blenheim bombers raiding Lille in June 1941. His Hurricane was hit by a cannon shell and spiralled out of control near St Omer. He parachuted out and the adventure began.

“I pulled the rip-cord, the parachute opened, and after the tremendous noise all was peace and quiet. The countryside below looked delightful in the summer sunshine.”

He floated gently into a wood northwest of Fauquembergues, where he was detained by a German officer and sergeant who had watched his peaceful descent from their motorbike and sidecar.  With considerable professional pride they stuffed their prize capture into the sidecar. But they couldn’t pull their eyes away from the drama of the skies above them and so, when they were distracted by a low-flying German fighter, Higginson grabbed hold of the handlebars, over-turned the vehicle into a ditch and disappeared into the woods. Suddenly he was on the run.

Higginson was picked up by the French Resistance and taken to Captain Harold “Paul” Cole, apparently a survivor of Dunkirk and local co-ordinator of the underground escape route. Cole took him to a priest, Abbé Carpentier in Abbeville, where he was provided with false identity papers. Higginson then travelled to Paris where he lodged in a brothel for a month waiting for escape procedures to be finalised. The established escape route was into Vichy France and then over the Pyrenees into Spain and so Cole escorted Higginson to the south. Everything went to plan until they were questioned by a pair of German soldiers at the station in St Martin le Beau.

Despite his best efforts, the soldiers were strangely unimpressed by Cole’s explanation that Higginson was a mentally-impaired relative looking for work, a deception designed to hide his limited language skills. But when the soldiers searched his suitcase their examination was little more than cursory. They were reluctant to explore its contents which were covered in chocolate that had melted in the summer heat. When Cole opened his own bag they failed to discover a pistol and incriminating documents which had been hidden in tangles of dirty laundry, and so they were sent on their way.

Once they entered Vichy France, Higginson made his way to Marseilles where he was accommodated in a safe house for a while. However he  was impatient to get home and so caught a train to Perpignan, where with a disguised Australian Army Corporal, he hired a local Catalan guide to take them across the border to Spain. It was not a success.  When they were stopped by gendarmes  Higginson, in his frustration,  hit one of them. This was not wise. He was imprisoned for six months for having false papers.

In March 1942, he was about to be released when he was further detained in reprisal for an air raid on the Renault factory at Billancourt. He was then imprisoned in Fort de la Revere above Monte Carlo. Conditions were dreadful and his weight fell from eleven stones to seven.

Back in London the authorities were very keen to be reunited with a valuable resource. A pilot with his exceptional record was an asset they needed desperately.  Consequently he became part of the Special Operations Executive Operation ‘Titania,’ designed to recover allied airmen.  Father Myrda, a Polish priest, smuggled a hacksaw blade into the prison and on 6 August 1942 Higginson and four others – under the cover of a diversionary and noisy prison concert – dropped through a coal chute, down into a moat and out through a sewage pipe to a safe house. Perhaps the weight loss was useful after all.

Then, disguised as priests, Father Myrda took the group to Marseilles and handed them over to the  French resistance who took them to Canet Plage, near Perpignan. In September the group were picked up from the beach by a dingy, taken out to a Polish fishing trawler and then transferred to a SOE fast patrol boat, HMS Minna. This took them to Gibraltar, from where Higginson was flown home to RAF Greenock on 5 October 1942 to join a Typhoon squadron. Soon he was fighting in the skies once more, his skills undiminished. A year later in 1943 he awarded Distinguished Flying Cross.

What an adventure. Sadly Paul Cole who had escorted him into Vichy France and to whom he owed so much, was not what he seemed. He was not a stranded Army captain at all but a sergeant who had deserted during the retreat to Dunkirk, together with mess funds and had gone into hiding. Furthermore under interrogation by the Germans, Cole had betrayed members of the escape organisation including Abbe Carpentier who was then executed.

After the war Higginson was promoted to Wing commander and was involved in staff training until he retired from the RAF in 1956. He worked at Bristol Aircraft Company as its military liaison officer and then as sales and service director of the Guided Missiles Division. His work in developing overseas markets for guided weapons systems like the Bloodhound ground-to-air missile was recognised with an OBE. Frederick Higginson never lost contact with his past and always retained a respect for the German pilots who had once tried to shoot him down, fighting for their country just as he had fought for his.

When he retired he learned about farming with the same enthusiasm that he learned to fly and moved to a large estate at Penycoed in Carmarthenshire. He lived there with his wife Jenny “Shan” Jenkins, whom he had married in 1937, and their four sons.  He died aged 89 in February 2003, a few months after Shan, following a mercifully quick decline. And when he was buried in St Mary Parish Church in St Clears, his achievements were recognised by an RAF fly-past, honouring the remarkable story of a man who was truly one of their own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.