PATHFINDER and POW
Born near Warrington in Lancashire, he signed up for the RAF near the start of the Second World War, on his mother’s birthday. He was just 19.
After square bashing in Blackpool, he was sent to work in operations at Hooten Park, Birkenhead. Then he volunteered, and was accepted, to train as a pilot.
He was transferred for training around the country and gained his wings in Canada. After coming back to the UK, he first went to Oxford and then to RAF Scone, near Perth in Scotland.
There he met local girl Irene Spinks.
By now he was regarded as a very capable pilot, who rose quickly in the ranks. He was selected to be a ‘Pathfinder’, based at RAF Graveley near Huntingdon. These were planes that flew ahead of major night bombing raids on German territory, to lay targets for the bombers to aim for. They were very brave and very successful (with only an estimated 33% chance of survival) – they increased accuracy and reduced Allied casualties. He was Captain of his own Lancaster bomber crew.
He picked up the nickname ‘Sherl – E’, a part reference to Sherlock Holmes) his amazing ability to always find his target and drop accurate markers.
And then Ernie’s luck ran out. He was pathfinding for a 275-plane raid on Dortmund, his 22nd flight. He was by now considered a veteran despite being just 24 years old.
His Lancaster started to struggle over the sea, so he jettisoned his bombs. But the engine still struggled – and then he was attacked by a plane flown by Oberleutenant Heinz-Wolfgang Schaufer, known as ‘The Spook of St. Trond’, Germany’s top flying ace in the war.
He was shot down over Holland and parachuted to safety. Unfortunately five of his crew were killed. He landed in a field near Middelbeers in the North Brabant area of Holland. It was only later he was told the Nazis used this same field for bombing practice.
The two crewmen who survived with him were Derrick Coleman and Frank Tudor.
Not knowing what to do he spoke to a passing woman. Before he knew what had happened the Dutch Resistance picked them up.
They were sheltered in the attic of the village school for a couple of days before being moved to the farm of Fons Van Der Heijden, on the outskirts of the village. The three airmen were kept there, hidden by the farmer, his wife and their 5 children, until they were taken onto an ‘evacuation’ route.
But they were betrayed and were arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. They were sent to the prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft 3.
This was where ‘The Great Escape’ took place from. Ernie was not one of the escapees on that occasion.
As the Russians advanced towards the end of the war, Stalag Luft 3 was shut down and all the prisoners sent on a long march westward, in freezing winter conditions, with inadequate food or clothing. Many died, but Ernie survived. He always considered himself extremely lucky.
At the end of the war, he was repatriated from Lubeck. It was then that he learned of the terrible Nazi reprisals on the Van Der Heijden family. The Gestapo had burst into the Middelbeers church during a Sunday service and had dragged the whole family outside. They would all have been shot but the priest intervened. Only the father, Fons, was executed.
This weighed heavy with Ernie for the rest of his life. He contacted the Van Der Heijden children – and they remained close friends for the rest of his life.
Ernie also learned he had won the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross).
Ernie returned to Perth, where he married Irene. They were to have two children, Alison and David.
Ernie stayed in the RAF. He joined Transport Command and consequently was one of the pilots involved in the Berlin Airlift, delivering essential supplies to the beleaguered city.
Then he became Chief Instructor for both Glasgow and St. Andrews University Air Squadrons.
He finally left the RAF in 1962 but remained in the RAF Reserve for another 33 years.
Then he was employed by Airwork Services, based at Scone Aerodrome, becoming a civilian flight instructor.
In 1964 he was in a Cessna with two Iraqi students, Kamil Al-Jarrah and Rayadh al-Freeig. Their plane overshot the runway during take-off, ploughed through the boundary fence and crash landed into a field of bulls. It then burst into flames.
Ernie was thrown clear but the two terrified Iraqis were trapped inside. Ernie returned to the plane and rescued both men. They were unscathed but he received serious burns to his face and hands.
He was rushed to a nearby hospital burns unit and operated on. He always believed the plastic surgeon saved his life. His daughter said, “He was lucky to survive.”
Once he recovered Ernie founded a flying school in Uganda. But his eyesight began to deteriorate so he was forced to give up his pilot’s licence and return to Scotland.
There he retrained as a social worker and got a job in Perth Prison, which was extremely tough. It was classed as the toughest prison in Scotland.
At an extremely old age, Ernie was involved in the debriefing of pilots in both Gulf Wars.
He was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France and the Medal of Remembrance by the Dutch Government.
There is a permanent memorial where he crashed in Holland.
In retirement, Ernie and Irene moved into a care home together. There, Irene died in 2019.
Also in 2019, Middelbeers opened a memorial chapel to Fons Van Der Heijden and named a street after him. Ernie was the guest of honour and opened the chapel. (He loved the attention he got from Fon’s granddaughters).
There was a big celebration for Ernie’s 100th birthday. He was awakened in the morning by a piper playing outside his bedroom window. Then the Queen and Prince Charles sent him a personalised message with a bottle of malt whisky. There was a fly past involving both a hurricane and a spitfire.
Finally, the headquarters of the East of Scotland University Flying Squadrons, based at Leuchars, was renamed the ‘Holmes Building’ as a tribute to Ernie.
Three of the Van Der Heijden family, all now in the Dutch military, attended the ceremony.
Ernie died a fortnight after his big celebration. A very devout man, he died with his Stalag Luft 3 bible by his side, which he had always kept close to himself. He donated his body to medical science so there was no official funeral.
His memorial service was extremely well attended (including all 5 of the Van Der Heijdens).
At his memorial service, Scottish military historian and writer, Ken Bruce, who described Ernie’s story in his book ‘From Sky to Summit’, and had become a good friend, spoke. He said, “I know that Ernie was so very proud that he was one of an elite group of Pathfinders…Bomber Command during World War Two could never have achieved its objectives without the skills and professionalism of Ernie Holmes and the Pathfinders.”
Group Captain Alastair Montgomery also spoke at the funeral. “By the age of 24, Ernie had experiences that are beyond the imaginations of most people. He was a man of great humility and solid determination who understood the futility of war. We owe Ernie and his generation nothing less than our freedoms today. He was an amazing gentleman and will be greatly missed by us all.”
Prince Charles sent a message. “Ernie was a very special gentleman, both popular and respected, and will be very much missed by all who knew him.”
The RAF said, “We salute you, Sir. Rest in peace.”
RIP – RAF’s Intrepid Pathfinder