AIR MARSHAL SIR FREDERICK SOWREY, who has died aged 96, saw service in the Second World War and was the last survivor of a remarkable family whose members had served in the RAF for an unbroken period of 65 years. His father and two uncles had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 and each saw considerable active service in France. Freddie, as he was always known, was the son of the second brother, who had shot down a Zeppelin over Essex in September 1916 and who went on to be a fighter ace on the Western Front. The next generation of Sowrey boys also joined the RAF. Freddie’s eldest cousin, John, became a fighter ace in the Second World War and retired as an air commodore, while his younger cousin, Jimmy, was shot down and killed while flying a Hurricane in the Western Desert.
Frederick Beresford Sowrey, the son of Group Captain Frederick Sowrey DSO, MC, AFC, was born on September 14 1922 at Grantham and was educated at Charterhouse, where he was an active member of the Officer Training Corps. His platoon was attached to the Local Defence Volunteers during the Battle of Britain. At the earliest opportunity he enlisted in the RAF and trained as a pilot in Canada. On his return to England he flew Lysanders and Tomahawks in the army co-operation role before joining 26 Squadron flying Mustangs on reconnaissance sorties over France.
In September 1942 Sowrey suffered a serious eye infection and was sent to the RAF Convalescent Hospital housed in the Palace Hotel at Torquay. On the morning of Sunday October 25 the hotel was attacked by two German fighter-bombers. Nineteen staff and patients were killed and many were injured, including Sowrey, who had to be dug out of the rubble. After further convalescence he returned to 26 Squadron in December. When he finished his tour in November 1943 he had completed 200 hours flying Mustangs and Tomahawks.
Sowrey became a flying instructor before he reported to a Heavy Glider Conversion School, where he became a flight commander and instructor on heavy gliders and their Albermarle tug aircraft. He was Mentioned in Despatches. After converting to jet fighters, Sowrey joined 615 (County of Surrey) Auxiliary Squadron, based at Biggin Hill, as the training officer in May 1946. The squadron’s honorary air commodore was Winston Churchill, who lived at nearby Chartwell, and the squadron became known as “Churchill’s Own”.
Sowrey was assessed as an “exceptional” gunnery instructor but it was at this time that the stiffness in his neck was diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis, worsened by his injuries suffered in the Palace Hotel bombing. Treatment met with only modest success, although he was comfortable seated and his flying was not affected. He recognised that he would suffer severe injuries if forced to eject but chose to take the risk and continue flying. He attracted great respect for this courageous decision and for the rest of his career was known throughout the RAF with great affection as “Bent Fred”.
Sowrey served as an instructor at the Central Gunnery School before returning to Biggin Hill to take command of 615 Squadron flying Meteor fighters. During his period in command the squadron was awarded the Esher Trophy, an annual award to the most efficient of the 21 Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons. He was awarded the AFC, the fifth member of his family to receive this award.
After two years in the Air Ministry, Sowrey took command of 46 Squadron, flying the delta-wing Javelin all-weather fighter in the defence of the UK. Sowrey’s dynamic leadership and his excellence as a pilot led to the award of the Ingpen Trophy as the best night-fighter squadron. Later in the year he led a formation of 90 aircraft of Fighter Command on seven consecutive days at the 1959 Farnborough Air Show.
In 1960, Sowrey became the personal staff officer to the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Thomas Pike. This period coincided with major cuts in Fighter Command in the wake of the Sandys Defence Review and the development of Bomber Command’s V-force and Thor missile programme. Recognising that his experience was centred on fighters, he visited the bomber stations for briefings and to fly the Valiant and Victor bombers.
In December 1963 Sowrey assumed command of the large RAF Transport Command base at Abingdon. This provided a very different type of flying and, with his usual boundless energy and enthusiasm, he participated in every aspect of the base’s operations. He flew the huge Beverley transport aircraft and the Hastings on worldwide routes, and made parachute jumps with the resident Parachute Training Squadron. On an enforced delay in Aden he took the opportunity to fly a Beverley of 84 Squadron (his uncle’s former squadron) on re-supply sorties to desert airstrips. At the end of his tour he was appointed CBE.
After attending the Imperial Defence College, Sowrey was sent to Aden as the senior air staff officer in February 1966, two weeks after the Labour Government had announced Britain’s withdrawal from the protectorate by the end of 1967. Typically, he completed a conversion course to the Hunter fighter so that he could fly with the resident squadrons and “see for myself” what up-country operations involved. The airbase at Khormaksar was one of the largest in the RAF and housed fighter, transport, bomber and helicopter squadrons. Sowrey planned the final withdrawal, a complex operation involving the evacuation of thousands of personnel, including families, heavy stores, equipment and a phased withdrawal of the squadrons while maintaining an essential operational capability. Sowrey worked closely with his Navy and Army colleagues and the final plan was executed satisfactorily. With his Army counterpart he was the last to step off Aden soil when he boarded the final Hercules to leave on November 30 1967. Shortly after, Sowrey was appointed CB.
The following February he returned to MoD, this time to head a tri-service team in the defence policy staff. With his fellow directors he was charged with reviewing the future size and shape of UK armed forces. During this period Sowrey was appointed chairman of the RAF Club, tasked with making it financially viable after a series of major changes to the structure and management. A three-year plan was adopted which transformed the fortunes of the club.
In May 1970 he was given responsibility for all RAF training matters, which included implementing radical changes to the training of officers at the RAF College Cranwell. He was also responsible for planning and implementing the pilot training programme for the Prince of Wales. Sowrey was a hands-on commander and took every opportunity to visit the flying schools and fly all the aircraft under his command.
Throughout his career, he had maintained his interest in international and political/military affairs, and so his appointment as commandant of the National Defence College was much to his liking. He was determined to develop the course for senior officers and offer opportunities for them to meet military, political and industrial leaders. He also introduced a series of demanding exercises, all designed to identify those who could make the most significant contribution to the British military in their later appointments. Throughout all these changes he recognised the value of inter-service exchanges at work and socially, and he and his wife Anne were immensely popular.
For his final appointment, in October 1977, Sowrey was promoted to become the UK Permanent Military Deputy to the Central Treaty Organisation, Cento, with headquarters in Ankara. This coincided with a period of considerable change, with British military forces withdrawing from the region, the exile of the Shah from Iran and the ensuing power vacuum, which led to the withdrawal of Iran from Cento, followed shortly by that of Pakistan, causing the eventual running-down of the organisation. Throughout the turmoil, Sowrey maintained close links with the US and remained convinced that the links established through Cento would continue to facilitate influence in the region. He retired at the end of 1980, having been appointed KCB.
Sowrey and his wife bought a farm and restored the Victorian buildings. The farm carried rights of common on Ashdown Forest and they bought 50 acres of the adjacent ancient woodland, which they maintained. He was soon invited to stand for election to the Board of Conservators and over the coming years he served for three separate periods of five years, elected by his fellow commoners.
With a childhood and long career spent in the RAF, Sowrey had a deep interest in the history of the service. He became the “founding father” of the RAF Historical Society, its vice-president and finally its president. He rarely missed the twice-yearly seminars and his infectious enthusiasm, military insights and personal anecdotes were a highlight of his concluding remarks.
Motor cars fascinated Sowrey throughout his life. In his younger days he was a successful racing driver in his Cooper 1100cc. On September 21 1956 he established a world record for a standing start over a mile course when he achieved a 93.88mph average and was clocked at almost 200mph as he crossed the finishing line. He was passionate about restoring old cars and was a regular participant in the annual London to Brighton rally, driving his 1901 6½ horsepower Darracq Tonneau. With his son Peter he completed the 2011 event as the oldest competitor with the oldest car.
His deep interest in First World War aviation, and his family’s unique contribution to the development of night flying, never ceased. He was the long-serving chairman of Cross and Cockade, the First World War Historical Society, and in 2004 he joined senior RAF and French Air Force officers to dedicate a memorial at St Omer, the site of the HQ of the Royal Flying Corps 90 years earlier. He addressed the audience in the presence of many local dignitaries and a large RAF contingent.
The current chairman of the 46 Squadron Association summed up the feelings of Sowrey’s many admirers; “It was Sir Freddie’s inspirational and charismatic leadership and support that kept us going.”
Frederick Sowrey married Anne Haviland in 1946. She died in 2014 and their son and daughter survive him.
Sir Frederick Sowrey, born September 14 1922, died July 24 2019