Squadron Leader Philip Algernon HUNTER (32081) DSO
264 Squadron Royal Air Force

Date of birth: 11th April 1913
Date of death: 24th August 1940

Killed in action aged 27
Commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial Panel 4
He was born at Frimley, Surrey on the 11th of April 1913, the son of Captain Albert Hunter, Royal Air Force, and Clare (nee Lee).

He was educated at the Junior King’s School from September 1922 to July 1924 and then at Rosslyn House, Felixstowe before completing his education at Bishop Stortford School.

He was married to Eleanor Margaret (nee Christie) and they lived at Chesham in Buckinghamshire.

On leaving school he joined the Royal Air Force and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on probation on the 11th of September 1931. He completed his flight training at No. 5 Flying Training School. He was posted to 25 Squadron based at RAF Hawkinge on the 29th of August 1932 and was confirmed in his rank on the 11th of September 1932. He was posted to 6 Squadron, based at Ismailia in Egypt on the 28th of February 1933 and was promoted to Flying Officer on the 11th of April 1933. He was granted a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force with the rank of Flight Lieutenant on the 11th of September 1936 and returned to England where he joined the staff of the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell on the 9th of November 1936. He was later posted to the Central Flying School at RAF Upavon as a senior instructor. He was promoted to Squadron Leader on the 1st of December 1938.

In March 1940 he was given command of 264 Squadron which was operating the Boulton Paul Defiant aircraft a single engine two seater fighter with a rear gun turret. In early encounters with the Defiant, enemy fighters made the mistake of thinking it was a conventional fighter and attacked it from behind, straight towards the guns in the rear turret.

On the 12th of May 1940 Philip Hunter and his gunner, Leading Aircraftsman F.H. King, took off from RAF Horsham with the squadron as part of Red Section for a patrol off the Dutch coast. During the patrol they sighted an enemy Ju 88 at 5,000 feet when were five miles to the south of the Hague. They attacked at 2.10pm and claimed the aircraft as having been destroyed. On the their return Hunter filed the following combat report: -

"Took off from Horsham 13.10. Arrived at The Hague and commenced patrol at 13.55 hours. Saw an aircraft approach and drop one bomb on 3 destroyers at 14.10. Immediately after bombing turned the land at 5,000. I cut him off with Red Section and gave the order No. 1 attack GO. As he turned he dived down to the ground forcing me to change over with No. 3 to the starboard side. I could see my A.G.'s bullets hitting the aircraft which finally crashed in a field with dykes round it and hundreds of cows at 14.15 hours. Took off Horsham 13.18 landed Duxford 15.30 hours."

During the evacuation of Dunkirk the squadron was based at Manston in Kent and flew daily over the beaches of Northern France during the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk.

On Sunday the 26th of May 1940 Hunter led his squadron on a patrol off Calais-Dunkirk to protect a French ammunition convoy off Dunkirk when he spotted some German tanks and road transport near Calais. He descended to investigate but was forced back by anti aircraft fire.

On Monday the 27th of May Hunter led 264 Squadron from Manston and spotted eight Messerschmitt 109 fighters, the first the squadron had seen. He ordered the squadron into a line astern formation. Hunter's gunner Leading Aircraftsman Hill opened fire with two bursts and sent a 109 down in flames. They landed, rearmed and were airborne again by 11.20am and at 12.30, while at 17,000 feet over Dunkirk they spotted twelve Heinkel 111 bombers below them at 6,000 to 7,000 feet. They formed their line astern formation, engaged the enemy and Hunter's gunner set fire to a Heinkel's engines and it was seen descending towards the French coast. On Tuesday the 28th of May 264 Squadron were ten miles out to sea when they encountered thirty 109s and were ordered into the line astern formation. Hunter and his gunner, Leading Aircraftsman King, shot down a 109.Their formation broke up and despite claiming six 109s they lost three of their aircraft and crews.

On Wednesday the 29th of May Hunter and his squadron were over Dunkirk again when they were attacked by six Me 109s. Hunter's gunner engaged the leading enemy aircraft at a range of 300 yards as it came out of the sun. It burst into flames at 200 yards. As soon as the squadron had driven off the enemy fighters for the loss of one of their own Philip Hunter saw a Heinkel 111 at 300 feet over the beaches approaching for a bombing run. He put his aircraft into a dive from the direction of the sun but then sae a large formation of Junkers 87 Stuka aircraft escorted by Messerschmitt 110 fighters approaching Calais from behind them. He yelled at his pilots to form line astern and led them out to sea, his rear gunner engaging and destroying a Me110 which caught fire and crashed into the sea. The squadron fought a running battle across the channel and claimed eight 109s nine 110s and one Stuka on their return. They landed, refuelled and were soon above Dunkirk again when Hunter saw a large formation of Stukas heading to attack the beaches. Knowing that he could not out dive them he led his formation down and attacked them as they pulled out of their dives. Hunter's gunner opened fire at 100 yards on the first enemy aircraft and it caught fire, crashing into the sea. The slower Stukas were completely outgunned and it turned into a massacre with eighteen Stukas being claimed by 264 at the end of the day for no loss. In all the squadron was credited with shooting down 38 enemy aircraft during two patrols on the 29th of May.

On Friday the 31st of May 264 Squadron crossed the French coast at 2.20pm at a height of 10,000 feet. They saw a formation of Heinkel bombers approaching but these turned away when approached. Instead they were attacked by around seventy Me 109s. They formed a defensive circle and Hunter's gunner, LAC King, caught an enemy fighter with a burst of fire and it spun into the sea. As Hunter circled the scene he counted eight parachutes and saw one of his squadron's Defiants completely break up in the air, its wing floating down after the main fuselage had crashed. At 6.40pm that day Philip Hunter day took off with A and B Flights from the squadron for another sortie to Dunkirk. On this occasion they had fighter support in the form of Hurricanes from 111 Squadron, providing cover behind them with Spitfires from 609 Squadron shadowing them to one side and above. As they approached the French coast at 7.15pm they encountered a formation of around twenty Heinkel bombers, accompanied by a large number of enemy fighters. The Spitfires of 609 Squadron immediately attacked the fighters, shooting one down. Hunter and three other Defiants attacked a bomber from the leading group at 15,000 feet. These enemy aircraft were from Stab/KG 27. The enemy bomber was riddled with fire, mainly in the belly and was seen circling down towards the sea with one of its engines on fire. It is thought to have crashed offshore with the enemy crew being reported missing. Hunter then turned his attentions to another Heinkel, 1G+AN, which was piloted by Oberleutnant Robert Kalischewski and was leading the 5 Staffel formation. Leading Aircraftsman King, Hunter's gunner, managed to damage this aircraft before returning to base.

On his return to base he filed the following combat report: -

"I was ordered to patrol Dunkirk with 111 and 609 Sqdn. I arranged to meet both these Sqdns over Deal at 18.50 hrs at 10,000 where we were to form up and I was to lead them over to Dunkirk. I arranged that 111 Sqdn should follow us in line astern and that 609 Sqdn should shadow us from behind and about 3,000 feet above. Immediately on arrival, we ran into enemy bombers and fighters. I saw 111 and 609 Sqdns immediately engage the fighters. I ordered my Sqdn to attack the HE111s who opened fire. Four of us encircled a HE111 whose undercarriage dropped out and was then seen to float down to the sea. I then turned towards another section of three and A/G fired at the leader who dived straight into the sea and with remaining ammunition fired at the other two who appeared to be unaffected. By this time I ran out of ammunition and the sky seemed clear of aircraft. I ordered my aircraft to reform in line at sea level (seven of them) and make for home."

For his leadership Philip Hunter was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and his gunner, Pilot Officer Frederick Hill was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. As a team they had achieved a tally of nine enemy aircraft destroyed and a share in one more.

The citation for his award appeared in the London Gazette on the 14th of June 1940:-

"In May 1940, under the leadership of Squadron
Leader Hunter, this squadron shot down thirty eight enemy aircraft during the course of two patrols. He personally destroyed three of that number. His brilliant leadership as well as his example and courage are of the highest standard."

The squadron's success is attributed to Hunter's idea of mixing his aircraft with single seater aircraft while on operations which confused the enemy aircraft who were surprised by the turret guns.

For a short time following the evacuation, the squadron was based in Yorkshire and in Edinburgh, before being transferred to Hornchurch in Essex on the 22nd of August.

The following evening, the 23rd of August, Pilot Officer James Bailey, a newly qualified pilot who had recently joined the squadron, was in conversation with Philip Hunter which he recorded in his memoir:-

"While Philip Hunter, our commanding officer, was drinking coffee after dinner out of the small mess coffee cups, we began to chat informally and I suggested to him that it was quite wrong that a Defiant squadron should be the first off against the enemy, as we would be expected to be the next morning. The Defiant was slow, had a low rate of climb, was a little helpless against enemy fighters but was a magnificent destroyer of bombers, We should be the last, not the first I argued. Philip Hunter did not deny the facts but he said that we were in the place of honour and must accept it. I think by this means we threw away the advantage of our peculiar aircraft".

On the morning of the 24th of August 1940 the squadron moved forward to Rochford and was scrambled to intercept a force of German Ju88 bombers which were attacking Manston. He and Hill, who were flying Defiant N1535 and were leading Red Section, were reported missing having last been seen at 12.40pm pursuing a Junkers 88 at full throttle out over the channel.

His wife received the following telegram: -

"Regret to inform you that your husband Squadron Leader Philip Hunter DSO is reported missing as the result of air operations on 24 August 1940. Letter follows. Any further information received will be immediately communicated to you. Should information reach you from any source please inform this office."

James Bailey again:-

"I was too green to be permitted to fly the next day. The squadron, however, was caught by German fighters as it took off from Rochford and Phillip Hunter was among those who were trapped against the sea and killed. This was a double disaster, for we lost our good Squadron Commander and they appointed in his place a man without the requisite experience or character."

He was mentioned in despatches in the London Gazette of the 1st of January 1941.