THE FLYING HEPPELLS.
The Flying Heppells was the name that the local press duly dubbed a family of aviators from Newcastle upon Tyne. Philip Forsythe Heppell was a Newcastle man in the business of Chartered Accountancy. With the start of World War One, Philip F. Heppell joined the Army and was posted to the 1st/2nd Northumbrian Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. And, certainly by 1916, he had gained the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
However, a new form of warfare was beginning to make its presence felt over the Western Front. The flying machine or aeroplane had arrived as a serious weapon of war. It is unclear how or when Philip Heppell became interested in aviation: but interested he was as he transferred to the royal Flying Corps (RFC) taking the rank of Flying Officer. His civilian flying licence shows that he graduated as a pilot, September 7, 1916. If training was short: life expectancy was even shorter. Pilots were needed on the Western Front and no sooner than Philip Heppell had graduated as a pilot than he was shipped off to the fighting in France. The young Flying Officer was posted to number 18 Squadron flying the FE2b: a two-seat reconnaissance fighter.
On the afternoon of October 26, 1916, only a few weeks after qualifying as a pilot, Philip Heppell was on a routine patrol when he had the misfortune to be intercepted by Jasta 5 and, in particular, by it’s Commanding Officer Oberleutnant Hans Berr.
Oblt Berr attacked the Fe2b in the area of Transloy at around 5pm successfully enough for the Fe2b to be force landed. Philip Heppell and his observer, 2ndLt H.B.O. Mitchell were both wounded in the attack and were both lucky to get away with their lives. Philip Heppell had gunshot wounds in both thighs and wounds in the hands that later were to the lead to amputation of three fingers.
Both men were taken prisoner and taken to hospital to have their wounds treated. So serious were the wounds of Philip Heppell that he was moved through a variety of hospitals. On March 27,1917, he was visited by the Red Cross before being sent on the Holzminden Castle POW camp. Philip Heppell was to remain at Holzminden until April of 1918 when he was sent to the Hague via Ghent prior to repatriation back to England. It was reported, August 29, 1918, that he had suffered a fracture of the Femur and the amputation of three fingers and was: ‘permanently unfit for further service’. Philip Heppell’s victor, Oblt Heinz Berr, was not feted to survive the war and was killed in the area of Noyelles, April 6, 1917, ‘Defence Of The Fatherland’.
Between the wars, Philip F. Heppell was to remain in touch with the world of aviation. He became a founder member of Newcastle Aero Club, then based at Cramlington, Northumberland, and later Woolsington, now Newcastle Airport. He was also to father two children, Rhoda and Philip Whaley Ellis Heppell. Almost as soon as the young Heppell’s left school, they were taught to fly by their father.
When WW2 started, it was not without the help of the Heppell family. Philip F. Heppell was granted the rank of Squadron Leader and, as an Administration Officer, was posted to Alabama where he was involved in the training of RAF pilots for the duration of the war. Daughter, Rhoda, also a pilot, became a member of the RAFA and was involved with flying a number of various aircraft to numerous places. Philip W.E. Heppell, known as Whaley, joined the RAFVR, June 26, 1939 as a pilot under training at Newcastle. With the start of the war, he was posted to Hastings before proceeding on flying training.
Flying training was carried out at Brough, Cranwell and Number 7 Operational Training Unit (OTU). In September 1940, Whaley Heppell was commissioned and posted to 616 Squadron at Kirton-in-Lindsey. His career on 616 Squadron did not have a great beginning. Now known as ‘Nip’, Heppell landed Spitfire X 4330 down wind, October 28 1940, causing damage to the Spitfire as it overshot the runway. It earned Heppell a notation from Wng Cmdr Hartley to the effect that the accident occurred due to ‘Gross Carelessness’ on behalf of the pilot, Heppell.
Throughout 1941, Heppell was to fly with The Tangmere Wing under the command of Douglas Bader. Heppell was flying with the Wing, August 16, 1941, when Douglas Bader was shot down. Heppell was one of the pilots flying in an escort, August 19, to a bomber mission that also dropped Bader’s new tin leg. Heppell was to remain with the Tangmere Wing until the end of 1941 and was awarded the DFC, September 30, 1941.
Early in 1942 he embarked on the MV Cape Hawke at Liverpool, which transferred him, and 249 Squadron to Gibraltar where they embarked on HMS Eagle, which took them to within flying distance of their new base at Malta. April 18 1942, Heppell was shot down over Grand Harbour by ‘friendly’ AA fire and forced to spend a couple of weeks in hospital. He was later to carry out some test flying and flew with 1435 Squadron, once more from Malta. Carrying out offensive patrols against Sicily, he was once more forced to take to his parachute when a bomb ‘hung up’. He was later posted as Commanding Officer to 229 Squadron, still at Malta and, later took command of both 222 and 129 Squadrons. Whaley Heppell achieved the status of ‘Ace’ during the battle of Malta.
Heppell was posted to take command of 118 Squadron flying Spitfire 1Xs on long-range escort missions. Among his escort duties was the air cover for operation Market Garden at Arnhem. He was ordered back again; ’at all costs’ two days later to cover the dropping of supplies. Heppell was to remain on 118 Squadron until the end of the war when he took a staff position on the General Staff HQ 11 Group. Hew was awarded a bar t his DFC as well as the French Croix de Guere with three palms in April 1945.
Whaley Heppell returned to his business of chartered surveyor in Newcastle upon Tyne. However, he kept his ties with aviation taking part in aerobatic displays as well as air races with his sister Rhoda. Whaley Heppell was to die in 1987 and sister Rhoda in 2003 bringing to an end the aviation side of the family known as the ‘Flying Heppells’.