Charley Fox, Spitfire pilot
David McKittrick, The Independent (UK), November 2008
Charley Fox was one of the foremost Canadian air aces of the Second World War, who in particular is credited with taking Germany’s most celebrated general, Erwin Rommel, out of the war. It is highly likely that it was one of his attacks which badly injured the field marshal and ended his military career some weeks after D-Day. But such was Fox’s reticence that he did not publicly disclose his involvement in the attack until many years later. By coincidence his death, at the age of 88, was the result of a car accident.
Rommel was badly injured when his staff car crashed after Fox attacked it from his Spitfire. Attacking vehicles on the ground was very much Fox’s speciality, and he did much damageto the Nazi war effort in a relatively short but intense combat career which twice earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Aircraft which he flew were themselves damaged 14 times during his 220 missions. One of his citations gives an idea of his effectiveness: “This officer has led his section against a variety of targets, often in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire. He has personally destroyed or damaged 22 locomotives, with a total of 153 vehicles destroyed or damaged. In addition, he has destroyed at least a further three enemy aircraft and damaged two others.”
He was born in Ontario, the idea of flying catching his imagination at the age of 14 when five RAF fighters flew low over his home. “They were silver-coloured fighter biplanes,” he recalled. “Five of them came zooming over the top of College Hill, glinting in the sunlight. Then, swoosh, they were gone. But I never forgot it.”
He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force when war broke out, inevitably acquiring the nickname “Flying Fox”. He spent several years as a flight instructor, during which time he had a narrow escape and had to bale out after a mid-air collision with another plane. He finally saw action with 412 Squadron as a flight lieutenant, revelling in flying Spitfires.
From early 1944 he showed a marked talent for inflicting accurate destruction with ground-attack sorties. He flew against the rocket sites which were launching V1 and V2 rockets at English cities, as well as carrying out reconnaissance and escort duties. He also excelled at missions, both before and after D-Day, aimed at disrupting German communications by targeting enemy locomotives, convoys and vehicles, including tanks. He flew three missions on D-Day itself. Later he would take part in the “Bridge Too Far” manoeuvre aimed at driving through the Netherlands.
It was a month after D-Day that Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, had the misfortune to appear in the Flying Fox’s gunsights. The German general, who had made his reputation with the Afrika Korps, was attempting to drive the Allies back to the Channel.
The incident took place near the French city of Caen after Rommel had visited some of his troops. Brushing aside suggestions from another officer that he might be less conspicuous if he avoided main roads and used a jeep, he travelled in his large open staff car instead. Fox’s squadron, meanwhile, left their Normandy airfield on the hunt for targets of opportunity, which he defined as “anything that was moving”. Fox recalled: “I saw this staff car coming along between a line of trees on a main road. I did a diving, curving attack down and I probably started firing at about 300 yards.
“I timed the shots so that I was able to fire and get him as the car came through a small opening in the trees. I got him on that pass. We were moving pretty fast, but I knew I got him. I saw hits on the car and I saw it start to curve and go off the road.”
Rommel, who was sitting in the front of the vehicle, suffered serious head injuries. Within months he had died – not from his injuries but by his own hand, as he fell under suspicion of involvement in an assassination attempt on Hitler.
A number of other pilots claimed they had hit Rommel’s car, but it was more than half a century later that Fox’s name was publicly mentioned, after research identified him as the most likely candidate. He said after the revelation: “It’s something that I never wanted to make a fuss about. Throughout the years others have claimed it, but I never wanted to make anything out of it and I do feel a little bit uncomfortable.
“There are so many what-ifs. What if I hadn’t been airborne at the time? What if I hadn’t shot him up? Would that have changed the war? Or would it have lengthened it?”
After the war, Fox went into the shoe business in Ontario, working with the firm Tender Tootsies Ltd until his retirement in 1998. He maintained a keen interest in flying, but for many years he did not speak of his wartime experiences. Many factors may have contributed to this. He was shaken, for example, when the mother of Andy Howden, a childhood friend who had been killed in the war, approached him and asked, “Why my Andy, and not you?” Fox’s son, Jim, said that the question haunted him, so much so that when he died he was writing a book entitled “Why Not Me?”
For the last decade and a half of his life he threw himself into giving talks at schools, colleges and other venues, explaining what he and other Canadian veterans did during the war. His family said that describing his experiences gave him a new purpose in life.
“Talking about what he had been through seemed to form an answer in his own mind,” said Jim Fox. “Maybe the reason he did survive was to share the stories, share the experiences and let other Canadians know what role our veterans had played in past wars.”
He was wearing his uniform when he died, killed in a car crash just after addressing a meeting of an aircraft association. Following his funeral service, a fly-past of military planes included a Spitfire.
Charley Fox, fighter pilot: born Guelph, Ontario 16 February 1920; married 1942 Helen Jean Doughty (one son, two daughters); died Tillsonburg, Ontario 18 October 2008.
412 VIP Transport Squadron writes:
Charley’s career with the R.C.A.F. commenced in the spring of 1940. He soon became a flight instructor at Dunnville, Ontario where he taught from October 1941 to May 1943. After instructing he went to an Operational Training Unit at Bagotville, Quebec. While there, on June 1st, he had a narrow escape when a Hurricane collided in mid-air with the Harvard he was flying. Although injured, he was able to bail out safely.
In August 1943, Charley went overseas and was checked out on Spitfires. In January 1944, he began his tour with 412 Squadron. Charley served continuously on operations until January 1945. His duties included escort, armed recce and dive-bombing. On D-Day, Charley flew three times.
On June 18, 1944, the squadron moved to B4 airstrip in Normandy at Beny-Sur-Mer.
Charley specialized in ground attack and prided himself on accurate marksmanship. His success at this is neatly summed up in the official commendation for a bar to his DFC:
“This officer has led his section against a variety of targets, often in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire. He has personally destroyed or damaged twenty-two locomotives and thirty-four enemy vehicles, bringing his total to 153 vehicles destroyed or damaged.
In December 1944, Flight Lieutenant Fox led his squadron on an attack against enemy airfields in the Munster area and personally destroyed another enemy aircraft, bringing his total to 4. Through his quick and accurate reporting, a further 4 enemy aircraft were destroyed. Since the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, this officer has continued to display outstanding skill, coolness and determination.”
Charley ended his tour in January, 1945 at Heesch in Holland, after which he did a six week stint as a test pilot for # 410 Repair & Salvage Unit. He then became Operations Officer in the Intelligence Section of 126 Wing. He was a member of the flight of four who flew the last operational sortie of the war for 126 Wing. (Landing at eight a.m. on May 5, 1945)
In the peacetime R.C.A.F. Charley served with 420 Reserve Squadron, flying Harvards, P-51 Mustangs and T-33 jets. He was instrumental in helping the squadron win the McBrine Marksmen Trophy for air to air and air to ground firing.
In September 1956, he began a career with a large shoe & slipper-manufacturing firm. He retired in 1998.
His love of flying has been pursued for many years as a member and past president of the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association. Charley still acts as ground control for Harvard Formation Flypasts on special occasions. He also did colour commentaries at airshows throughout the United States and Canada.
On 30 April 2004, Charley Fox was invested as the Honorary Colonel of 412 Squadron, which had become the VIP Transport squadron of the RCAF. The Canadian tradition of appointing honoraries to units originated with the British military but has only been in practice in Canada for a little over a century. As the Honorary Colonel of his old squadron, Charley invested enormous energy guarding Squadron traditions and history, promoting the unit’s identity and ethos, and mentoring the Commanding Officer.
In December 1935 a young teenager walked slowly home from school. His name was Charles “Charley” William Fox. Because he was young and he played on nearly every sports team at school, he normally strode down this road quickly, but today he was dragging his feet. He was reluctant to go home because he had just received his report card and, unfortunately, some of his marks weren’t good.
“You’ve got the brains, Charley,” his father always told him. “You just don’t apply yourself enough.”
Charley knew what his dad was talking about. Although Charley rarely found school work difficult, he preferred sports to studying. Sometimes he let his marks drop by playing too much baseball, hockey, or basketball, his favourite. He always promised himself he would study harder “next week,” and after that “next week, for sure,” but before he knew it the term was over and the marks were in.
Now Charley glanced at his report card and shuddered. His parents wouldn’t be pleased. Charley was so worried about his marks that at first he didn’t notice an unusual low-toned rumble slowly growing louder.
When he finally did hear the noise, he looked around but couldn’t see anything. The roar grew louder and louder until it felt as if the ground under his feet was shaking. Charley turned in time to see three silver biplanes rise majestically over the hill behind him as they followed the road west toward the small city of Guelph.
Aircraft were still a rare sight over rural Ontario, but these planes were especially unusual. Metallic silver, they glowed like shiny spear points in the clear blue sky, and the red, white, and blue roundels of the Royal Air Force were proudly displayed on their sides and wings. Charley didn’t know it then, but these planes were British Hawker Furies on a cross-Canada publicity tour.
The Furies were so low that Charley could make out the faces of the pilots in the open cockpits. The airmen wore brown leather helrnets and jackets and had big square goggles to protect their eyes from the wind blasting backward from the planes’ propeller blades. Charley waved to the speeding aircraft as they passed overhead, and one of the pilots waved back.
As the planes receded from sight, Charley wondered what it would be like to fly. “Don’t suppose I’ll ever get a chance to find out,” he muttered to himself as he resumed the slow trudge down the long dirt road that led to home. He was only a schoolboy in rural Canada with a bad report card, he reminded himself. “The only flying I’ll be doing is out to the shed when my folks see my marks.”
Flight Lieutenant Charley Fox
Spitfire pilot who destroyed or damaged 22 locomotives, 153 vehicles, at least four aircraft and Rommel’s car
The Telegraph (UK), 4 November 2008
Flight Lieutenant Charley Fox, who has died aged 88, was one of Canada’s most successful fighter pilots, credited with destroying many trains and vehicles in addition to shooting down at least four aircraft in combat; among the vehicles he destroyed was a German staff car, and recent research suggests that one of the passengers was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Late on the afternoon of July 17 1944 Fox was leading another Spitfire from his squadron – No 412 RCAF – on an armed reconnaissance sortie over Normandy when he spotted a large staff car carrying four people in addition to the driver. Fox dived on the car and opened fire with his 20mm cannons. The driver lost control of the Horch convertible and Fox and his wingman saw it crash into a ditch.
Later that evening reports were received that Rommel had been severely injured following an attack by Allied aircraft, and by nightfall the pilots of a USAAF fighter, two Typhoons and a Spitfire had claimed the credit. Fox had already submitted his mission report but, on hearing that Rommel’s car had been destroyed at the same time as his attack, he and the squadron intelligence officer were convinced that he was responsible. He entered it in his logbook, but rarely mentioned the incident afterwards.
There was some disparity between the various pilots’ accounts, and the “Who got Rommel?” debate led to numerous theories and much debate. In 2004 a Canadian aviation historian carried out a detailed assessment of the official RCAF and German military records, and the latter specifically mentioned a Spitfire rather than an American aircraft. After confirming the times, location and sortie profiles, he reviewed the claims of others and concluded that it was Fox who had delivered the damaging attack.
Charles William Fox was born on February 26 1920 at Guelph, Ontario, and educated locally. He started work as a decorator but enlisted in the RCAF in October 1940. On completion of his pilot training he was assessed as above average and retained as a flying instructor. In May 1943 he finally achieved his wish to be a fighter pilot and began training in Quebec. During the course his Harvard was involved in a mid-air collision, and he was forced to bail out. He arrived in England in August, and after further training joined 412 (RCAF) Squadron in January 1944 to fly Spitfires.
Fox led many ground attack sorties in the lead-up to D-Day – including three on the day of the invasion. On June 18 his squadron flew to an improvised airstrip in Normandy, from where it was heavily involved in attacking enemy vehicles and locomotives. During the summer offensive he shot down two enemy fighters and damaged four others, but most of his sorties were against ground targets. Many of these were in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, and he was awarded a DFC for his “exceptional courage and skill in pressing home his attacks against the enemy”.
In December 1944 Fox led No 412 on an attack against enemy airfields in the Munster area and shot down a Focke Wulf 190. Three days later he accounted for another German fighter and damaged a bomber. By the time he was rested at the end of January 1945 he had been credited with destroying or damaging 22 locomotives and 153 vehicles, in addition to his successes against aircraft. He had flown 224 operational sorties, and in February was awarded a Bar to his DFC.
In August 1945, after a period on operational staff duties, during which he managed to fly a few more operations in Spitfires, Fox returned to Canada. He was released from the RCAF a month later. In the peace that followed he joined the RCAF Auxiliary and served with No 420 Reserve Squadron flying Harvards, Mustangs and the early jet fighters. He later transferred to fighter controller duties, finally completing his service in May 1961. Fox was appointed an honorary colonel with 412 Squadron in April 2004, and presented with a painting by Lance Russwurm of his Spitfire attacking Rommel’s car.
On his return to Canada after the war Fox had been approached by the grieving mother of a friend of his who had been killed in action. The distraught woman grabbed Fox and asked him: “Why my son, and not you?” – to which he had replied: “I don’t know why not me.” This encounter affected him deeply, and he committed himself to recounting the stories of fellow Canadian veterans. His crusade to inform school children, historical societies and serving troops became known as Torch Bearers Canada. Fox travelled widely to fulfil speaking engagements and he fought tenaciously with school boards to ensure that Remembrance Day ceremonies continued to be held.
He also campaigned hard for the recognition of Polish veterans who had worked closely with the 1st Canadian Army; and at the time of his death was raising money to send 5,000 Canadian schoolchildren to Holland in 2010 to mark the 65th Anniversary of the Canadian Army’s leading role in its liberation. In an interview with The Maple Leaf, a newspaper dealing with defence issues, he said: “I have a passion for seeing groups of veterans recognised, and we must do something to give our fallen heroes the recognition they deserve.”
Fox continued to fly for many years and was a member and past president of the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association. In later years he acted as a ground controller for the association’s flypasts and was a regular commentator at air shows.
At the time of his death Fox was in the process of telling his story and those of other veterans in a book entitled Why Not Me? His family hopes to complete the work.
Charley Fox died at the wheel of his car in southern Ontario on October 18 while driving from a meeting at the local airport to attend lunch with his Harvard Association colleagues. At his funeral, a formation of nine Harvards, accompanied by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, flew over in salute. His wife Helen died in 1993, and he is survived by a son and two daughters.