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Air Chief Marshal Sir Basil Edward Embry was a senior Royal Air Force commander and Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command from 1949 to 1953. From 26 May 1940 when his plane was shot down over Saint-Omer Embry's life became an incredible series of escapes and recaptures.
Records show Basil was born in Gloucestershire in 1902 to the Reverend J Embry, and developed a keen interest in aviation as a young boy while attending Bromsgrove School in Worcestershire. He joined the Royal Air Force as an Officer in 1921 and was sent into Iraq the following year, where he served under future Air Marshals Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and Robert Saundby.
In 1926 Embry was awarded the Air Force Cross and appointment to a permanent commission. Promoted to Flight Lieutenant, Embry returned to Britain in 1927 as an instructor at the Central Flying School, Uxbridge. He served on the North West Frontier in India and was made a Squadron Leader in 1935. He commanded air support for the Second Mohmand Campaign of 1935, and was awarded a DSO for operations in Waziristan in 1938 before being promoted to Wing Commander and returning to Britain in 1939.
When war was declared on Germany Embry was the Commanding Officer of No 107 Squadron flying the Bristol Blenheim bomber. Embry was an incredibly charismatic leader tended to lead his squadron from the front. He saw extensive action in Norway and France and led many dangerous low flying daylight raids. These included three precision bombing raids on Gestapo headquarters in Aarhus, Copenhagen and Odense, freeing captured resistance fighters and British agents
On 10 May 1940 Germany ended the so called ‘Phoney War’ by invading the Low Countries. Embry's Squadron scrambled together and flew intensively against the German advance, with each crew flying two or three sorties across the Channel to France daily. Embry’s superb leadership during this intense period of fighting earned him a second bar to his DSO. Embry was then ordered to take an operational 'rest' and was grounded by promotion to Group captain, giving him command of R.A.F. West Raynham.
On 26 May 1940, Wing Commander Embry disobeyed direct orders and set off on his last ever combat mission. During one of his incredibly dangerous low flying daylight raids against advancing German columns he was shot down over Saint-Omer. His gunner, Corporal Lang, was killed while Embry and his Observer, P/O Whiting, were captured. Within moments of their capture, Embry grabbed the wheel of the car transporting them and tried to crash it.
This first escape attempt, although unsuccessful, would by no means be his last. Soon after, while being marched in a column of Allied POWs, Embry saw a road sign reading ‘Embry, 3 km’. Embry took this as an omen and rolled unnoticed into a ditch by the road side. He waited for hours until he was convinced that the coast was clear before heading south in attempt to find an allied unit. He did not realise that the liberation of France was already a lost cause and that the B.E.F were desperately fleeing the continent out of Dunkirk.
Embry successfully swam across the river Somme during his journey south before he was recaptured by a German patrol and locked up in an abandoned farm. Determined to re-join the fighting at any cost he did not give up and instead formulated a plan. According to a 1950 report in the Gloucester Citizen he decided “if I have got to die they shall pay for it”. Embry began to beg for water, and when a soldier came to investigate Embry killed the guard with his bare hands and took his rifle, which he used to dispatch the remaining two guards.
Embry then hid in a nearby pile of manure for several hours until the German soldiers searching for him moved on. He performed surgery on his own leg to remove “two pieces of Perspex” that became embedded in his flesh when he had crashed and set off on the 125 mile walk to Paris.
Embry was captured yet again, but was remarkably able to persuade his interrogators that he was an IRA operative wanted for a bombing in London. He was released after "proving" his story with his ability to speak Gaelic, when he was actually asking for a whiskey sour in Urdu.
He reached Paris disguised as a mechanic with the help of French civilians and is thought to be the only Englishman to witness Hitler enter Paris. He eventually met up with a fellow English escapee and the pair decided to head for Spain. The pair built bicycles out of spare parts, cycled all the way to the South of France avoiding detection, and smuggled themselves into Spain in the boot of a car.
After nine weeks, five days and 700 miles, Embry and his companion had made it back to England where they “stood in an Ipswich bar, glasses of beer in their hands” and parted quietly, being “not men of words”.
After the war Embry was made president of the RAF escaping society, was knighted and was Commander in Chief of Fighter Command from 1949 to 1953. In 1948, accompanied by his wife Hope, he returned to France in search of those who had helped him and 1956 he wrote his autobiography entitled ‘Mission Complete’.
In March 1956 he emigrated with Hope to Australia to begin a new life as a sheep farmer, before passing way in Boyup Brook, in 1977.