Flt Lt Humfrey Ewan Symons RAFVR
No 3 Air Mission (Phantom)/G.H.Q. Liaison Regiment

Town Memorial World War II

Royal Air Force

Flight Lieutenant

Service Number 72952
Died 28/05/1940
Aged 40
Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
Son of Ernest and Nora Symons; husband of Joyce Dorothy Symons, of Que Que, Southern Rhodesia.
Location: Surrey, United Kingdom
Number of casualties: 20275
Cemetery/memorial reference: Panel 5.

The undermentioned are granted commissions for the duration of hostilities; as Pilot
Officers on, probation on the dates stated : —
31st.Aug. 1939.
Humphrey Ewan SYMONS (72952)

Humfrey Symons is listed on the South African War Graves Project website:

Killed in action, torpedoed and sunk in the North Sea while evacuating UK and Belgian soldiers, airmen and civilians from Ostend on the last day of the Battle of Belgium. As [the] Abukir slowly headed west for England, Luftwaffe aircraft bombed her for an hour and a half but failed to hit her.

Then at 0115 hrs on 28 May a 44-knot (81 km/h) Kriegsmarine E-boat, S-34 commanded by OLt.z.S Obermaier, attacked her off Nieuwpoort near the Westhinder or the Noordhinder light vessel. Abukir's Captain, Rowland Morris-Woolfenden, took a zigzag course by which the coaster avoided two torpedoes from S-34.

The coaster sighted S-34 off her port bow 20 minutes later. Morris-Woolfenden changed course to ram the torpedo boat, but with a top speed of only 8 knots (15 km/h) Abukir was too slow. S-34 fired two more torpedoes. The first missed, but the second hit the coaster amidships, blowing her in two. Abukir burst into flames and sank within a minute. She was the first Allied ship to be sunk by an E-boat.

Son of Ernest and Nora Symons; husband of Joyce Dorothy Symons, of Que Que, Southern Rhodesia. Author of at least three books Two roads to Africa [Jan 1939], How to Pass the Driving Test [Jan 1935] and Monte Carlo Rally.

The website shows an image of his name inscribed on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede to those Air Force men and women who died in WW2 who have no known grave.

DUNKIRK by AD Divine DSM, gives more detail about the Abukir at Dunkirk:

The first casualty of the day was not actually a Dunkirk ship, but she was on the Dunkirk route—the northern route as it was called—and her loss is the first recorded sinking during the operation of an important ship by E-boats. On May 25th the s.s. Abukir had sailed for Ostend. She arrived there to find the sea front in ruins and the town in flames following heavy air raids. The pilot who berthed the ship informed her master, Captain R. M. Woolfenden, when the ship was alongside, that apart from a few French naval officers there was no one of any authority in the port.

In his report her master says: "I interviewed these officers who apparently had no knowledge of my ship, but suggested that I should start discharging at daybreak. On the way back to the ship I met a British Army lorry driver who told me that a Lieutenant Harris with thirty-eight British troops who were adrift from their units were standing by at a farm about 5 miles outside the town. We went out and brought them in but on our arrival back at the ship we were bombed so intensely—the quay being the target—that I decided to abandon the ship until daylight."

"At 2 a.m. on May 26th I managed to get into telephone communication with the British Mission at Bruges, who instructed me to commence discharging, which I did with the assistance of the troops and the ship’s crew. We were bombed off and on throughout the day. Later on the British Mission informed me that a British bomber had made a forced landing at Ostend and would I try to make contact with her crew. Lieutenant Harris and myself located these men at the Stane aerodrome. After firing the machine, the two officers and two men who formed her crew joined my ship later on in the afternoon, bringing with them the machine-guns and instruments of the destroyed bomber. On the way back from the aerodrome we picked up another twenty-five British troops who had also been separated from their units, also two wounded R.A.F. men."

"At 8 p.m. on May 26th the bombing became so intense that once again we abandoned the ship until daybreak [May 27], resuming work with the assistance of Dutch Army men. Throughout the day German aircraft were continually bombing us and at 3 p.m. they started dive-bombing and machine-gunning us so heavily that once again I decided to abandon the ship, having had two casualties, one being an R.A.F. gunner shot in the arm and a Belgian civilian shot in the left eye. Getting through to Bruges again they instructed me to cease discharging and to load what army vehicles I could, the rest to be destroyed, also the British Mission had decided to evacuate by my ship that night."

"I suggested sailing after dark at 10 p.m., to which they agreed. The Mission boarded me and at the stated time I cut my lines and sailed with approximately 220 people on board including crew, soldiers and Belgian refugees. I was followed out of the port by the British s.s. Marquis. On clearing the entrance enemy aircraft flew overhead dropping Very lights and bombs. A call for assistance was sent out as Mr Newman of the British Mission had previously informed me that an escort consisting of two destroyers would be waiting for me off the port. This attack lasted for half an hour when the aircraft returned to Ostend." 

"Avoiding the regular channel, I steered direct for the North Goodwin Light Vessel hoping to miss any enemy craft that may have been waiting for me off the buoys. At 12.15 a.m., [May 28] when approaching the North Hinder Buoy, I heard the second officer, Mr. Rust, give the order hard a-starboard and I saw a torpedo crossing our course about 50 feet ahead of the ship. The machine-gun was manned immediately by R.A.F. gunners whom I ordered to fire immediately on sighting the craft, while the ship’s gunner, Church, was sent aft to stand by the smoke boxes. An S.O.S. was sent out and we commenced zig-zagging, no sign of the escort having appeared."

"About half an hour after the first attack we avoided a second torpedo which was fired from the port side and passed about 20 feet astern, followed almost immediately by a third which also missed us. Five minutes after the third attack I sighted the enemy craft which turned out to be a coastal motor-boat about 300 feet on the port beam. The order was passed to the gunners to fire immediately they got the enemy on their sights and I went hard a-port to try and ram the craft. Our machine-gun got a burst of fire in but the motor-boat withheld her fire until we were about 150 feet off her when she fired her fourth torpedo which I was unable to avoid, being so close. This torpedo struck us at an angle underneath the bridge on the port side."

"The concussion was terrific and I had a vague idea of the bridge collapsing and finding myself down the fore hold, fortunately floating out and clear when the ship settled by the head. After the ship had foundered, which I reckon she did in a minute and a half, the E-boat turned her searchlight on us and machine-gunned us. There must have been quite a few killed then. At daybreak three or four ships passed us without seeing us, but at 7 a.m. a flotilla of H.M. destroyers picked us up. The kind treatment we received on board is beyond all praise."

So what exactly was Humfrey Symons doing in France? The following article describes the unit he served with and how its importance grew. Someone with his driving and navigation skills, evident self-reliance and language ability would have been a pretty obvious fit:  
Now It Can Be Told! - Phantom Patrols: G.H.Q. Liaison Regiment
The War Illustrated, Volume 9, No. 211, Page 172, July 20, 1945.

Commanded by Lieut.-Col. A. H. McIntosh, this remarkable organization founded by Maj.-Gen. Hopkinson (killed while commanding the 1st Airborne Division in Italy) began secret operations early in 1940, in France, and its existence was not revealed until May 1945. How the 150 officers and 1,250 other ranks gathered and swiftly passed back vital information throughout the war in Europe and elsewhere is told here.

Beating the speed of normal communications by hours, patrols of the Phantom Regiment (officially, G.H.Q. Liaison Regiment) did their “recce” work up with, and sometimes in advance of, our front-line troops, keeping Army, Army Group and Base H.Q. informed almost minute-by-minute of all that was happening. In no other way could such complete and speedy “picture” of the progress of operations have been presented to those immediately responsible.

Messages were sent from under the noses of the enemy by means of very small and special wireless sets, invented for the purpose by Captain Peter Astbury. These “scrambled” the coded messages, in which condition – if intercepted by the enemy or any other unauthorized person – they were, of course, quite unintelligible. Transformation to sense came at the other end. During the eleven months of fighting on the Western Front, Lieut.-Col. McIntosh's “Phantoms” sent more than 70,000 of these messages from the battle areas to the headquarters of the 12th and 21st Army Groups.

When circumstances required it, men were dropped by parachute – sometimes behind the enemy lines at night – with their very small wireless sets. And if either operators or codes fell into enemy hands the enemy would be left none the wiser. Codes were changed daily, the men being kept informed of the changes in a highly ingenious manner.

When the secret regiment came back from Dunkirk, and other places, after the fall of France, sections were deployed around the coasts of England where invasion was most probable. They were to speed the news of any attempted landing, and their headquarters were in very innocent-looking surroundings in St. James's Park, London. Here were the base wireless sets to which the Phantoms worked, information being passed there from to the G.H.Q. Home Forces and what ultimately became the 21st Army Group.

The headquarters in St. James's Park comprised also some pigeon lofts containing carrier-pigeons which supplemented the Regiment's wireless. “There”, said Lieut.-Col. McIntosh, “we had an engine which would run a lighting set and wireless sets if the main current of London were cut off by bombing, and an air raid shelter in which the work could be done”.

Towards the end of 1940 a squadron of the Regiment left this country for Greece, and until almost the whole squadron was made prisoner they were in wireless contact with London. Adopting a commando role, a squadron joined the raid on Dieppe, and suffered rather severe casualties; one patrol failed to return and nothing since has been heard of them. In November 1942 two squadrons went with the 1st Army to North Africa and operated throughout the campaign, finally joining up with the 8th Army.

There they listened-in to the wireless “talk” of the tanks, gleaning every scrap that was of interest and weaving this into a running commentary, so that out of the fog of confused battle there was presented to headquarters a clear outline of positions, casualties and strengths.

Early in 1944 a squadron was trained for parachute work. This was the squadron which had been in action at Dieppe, and special volunteers were called for. After the parachute training they joined the S.A.S. (Special Air Service – see page 350, Vol. 8) as their “communications”, and finally dropped with the S.A.S. parties behind enemy lines. Then in June 1944 came the greatest test and ordeal of the organization.

Some of the Phantoms were parachuted into France before D-Day, others went in with the assault troops. First news of the Normandy landings were sent back by them. By July the complete Regiment was in France, deployed with the British, Canadian and American Armies.

How Phantom, “one of the brains trust units of the British Army”, as it has been called, became a Lend-Lease service from Britain to the U.S.A. in military operations in north-west Europe was revealed in June 1945. In the early stages of the assault on the Normandy beaches General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, visited the British 2nd Army H.Q., then located near Portsmouth, and was considerably impressed by the complete picture of operations which was available.

He asked how it was done. The answer was, “Phantom patrol”. It was explained to him how the organization flashed back by wireless to England the positions of brigades and battalions in the beach-head battles. Gen. Eisenhower immediately asked if he could have a Phantom unit for work with the U.S. formations.

“There was a Phantom squadron in Scotland”, said Capt. K. W. Satler, commander of a Phantom patrol in the 2nd Army, “and that squadron, within 24 hours, was brought south and sent across the Channel, complete with officers, other ranks, vehicles and equipment to join formations of the U.S. Army. Throughout the campaign those patrols worked with the American divisions and corps and did a great deal to give a full picture of the battles to higher commands.” The Americans had planned to build up their own U.S. Phantom organization, modelled on the British, but the campaign was won before they had an opportunity to put their own Phantoms in the field.

The map-room of General Crerar (1st Canadian Army) secured a substantial proportion of its information from the Regiment, General Patton (U.S. 3rd Army) acknowledged a very great deal of assistance, and our own 2nd Army was also greatly benefited. They were with the parachute troops at Arnhem, patrols went with the assault parties across the Rhine and into Germany, and “due to us”, said the Commanding Officer of the Regiment, “nearly everybody knew exactly where all the leading troops of all the Armies had got to and a firm grip on the situation was kept”.

Hour by hour during the Ardennes breakthrough every move of German armour was reported by these men who wear a small “P” on the right shoulder. The closing of the Falaise Gap became news through their efforts. They made known the first details of the German concentration camps and prisoner of war camps. The last spectacular event was the link-up with the Russians; a Phantom patrol was directed by the U.S. 1st Army to a certain point where the link-up was expected to take place, and the moment it became an accomplished fact the news was put through.

Now the patrols are in Hamburg, Bremen, Copenhagen. They flew to Norway, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague. And the curtain is now waiting to go up on what will be the final scene of all.

[A glamorous member of Phantom later in WW2 was Major David Niven.]

The Tatler - Wednesday 26 June 1940
The Late Humfrey Symons FLIGHT-LIEUT. H. E. SYMONS, well-known motor writer and traveller, was killed during the Dunkirk evacuation. This news will be a sad blow to his many friends not only in this country, where he was universally liked, but also in France, Africa and America, where he was well known to the motoring fraternity.

Humfrey was a good companion if ever there were one. It is just about a year ago that I accompanied him on the last J.C.C. Rally to America, our car being a Rolls- Royce Phantom III. On this trip Humfrey played the role of motoring ambassador, publicist and bon viveur. The fame of his record-breaking run from London to the Cape on the Wolseley car, in the course of which he and his team-mate, H. B. Browning, ran off a bridge into a crocodile-infested river, had spread to the States, and though often tired after a long day's run, it was never too much trouble for Symons to grant interviews to the journalists who met us at every stopping-place.

Besides African adventures in Morris, Wolseley and Rolls Royce cars, so vividly and humanly described in his book Two Roads to Africa, Humfrey had driven in many Alpine trials. He started his motoring career on the staff of the Motor, and even then possessed a sparkling and amusing style. Later he became the motoring correspondent of the Sunday Times and also of The Sketch. Among his many attainments was an intimate knowledge of French and a pleasant touch with the camera or cine. And now, he is gone, though not forgotten.

Newspaper cutting 13/7/1940: SYMONS. - In May 1940, reported missing, believed killed, FLIGHT LIEUTENANT HUMFREY E. SYMONS, RAFVR

Humfrey's life and career

Humfrey's parents were  Ernest Charles Symons, b 1866 and Nora Emilene Lawrence Humfrey b 1871. His birth was registered in London in July 1899. He was baptised on 23 September 1899 in Ashley, Cheshire. In the 1901 Census the family is recorded in Knutsford, Cheshire.

Humfrey's marriage to Joyce Dorothy Cameron at St Martin's, London was registered in March 1928. A son Peter Humfrey Cameron Symons (1930–2005) was born on 27 Feb 1930 in London. In 1937 the family were living in Surrey and in 1938 were at The Cutting, Givons Grove, Leatherhead. According to Humfrey's grandson, Peter Symons, they also had a daughter (see below).

Joyce Dorothy Cameron (1905-1990) was born in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa and died in Harre [Harare?], Zimbabwe. Her father was George Henry Cameron b 1861 d 8 Jun 1940 and her mother was Dorothy Margaret Crockett b 1878 d 19 Nov 1945 in London. She had a brother John Marten Cameron b1909. She arrived in the UK on 30 Jan 1924 at Southampton.

How an 18.85HP Wolseley Has Been Prepared in an Attempt to Reach Cape Town Overland in 17 Days [from London]

"In my research I was able to find out that Humfrey Symons attended Tonbridge School in Kent from 1914 – 1917. Thanks to Beverley Matthews, Archivist at Tonbridge School for helping me with the information. In the School House photograph from 1917, Humfrey is in the second row from the back, 3rd from the right, together with his school record.

SYMONS, Humfrey Ewan 1914-17. School House. Younger son of Captain Ernest Charles Symons ASC b1899. Served in 1914-18 War and in N.Russia (Archangel), 1919. A journalist; sub-editor of "The Motor" for some years; subsequently Advertising and Publicity Manager , Laguna Motors Ltd. 1939-45 war: - Gazetted to the RAFVR, 1939: Fg Offr, 1939; Flt Lieut 1940. Killed in action, 18 June [sic], 1940."

The reference to Humfrey Symons' WW1 service is interesting. A WW1 British War Medal 1914-18 medal with the name Lieut. H E Symons RAF inscribed on edge can be seen on the internet:

"Original era manufacture. Silver medal with original ribbon, named on the edge, LIEUT. H.E. SYMONS RAF.Normal age and wear.I did a little looking around on the net, and found a casualty listing for Flight Lieutenant Humfrey Ewan Symons, 72592, age 40, who died 28-05-40 when the British coastal transport SS Abukir was torpedoed by the German E-Boot S-34. The ship was transporting soldiers and airmen during an evacuation attempt from Belgium. He would have been eighteen in 1918, perhaps this is the man."

This silver or bronze medal was awarded to officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918 inclusive. This was later extended to services in Russia, Siberia and some other areas in 1919 and 1920.

Approximately 6.5 million British War Medals were issued. Approximately 6.4 million of these were the silver versions of this medal. Around 110,000 of a bronze version were issued mainly to Chinese, Maltese and Indian Labour Corps. The front (obv or obverse) of the medal depicts the head of George V.

The recipient's service number, rank, name and unit was impressed on the rim.

To return to the 'Cape Town' blog, a grandson Nick Symons wrote:

23 December 2019: Just to put the record straight. I am one of the grandsons of Humfrey Ewen [sic] Symons and follow the posts on this site with great interest, as do my brothers. Bertie and Humfrey were great friends for many years and lived close to each other near London. Both were married men. Humfrey wrote many books in his time, one of them called Two Roads to Africa, which covered the recording breaking trip to the Cape, something that gives us great pride.

After Humfrey's death, Bertie consoled Joyce, Humfrey's widow, so much so, he ended up in her bed. However, he was unable to divorce his own wife, it wasn't the done thing back then, so Joyce and Bertie went off to Rhodesia to start a new life, leaving Joyce's son, my father Peter, behind in the UK to fend for himself. They didn't even tell him they were going. Joyce's daughter, my father's younger sister, was taken with them. Once in Rhodesia they lived together for many years. A year before Bertie's death, his own wife in the UK died and he was then able to marry Joyce. Somewhere along the line a great friend of Joyce in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) came into possession of Bertie's diary's and these were later found by the current owners when that person died.

Humfrey Ewan Symons is remembered on the following Memorials:

Leatherhead RBL Roll of Honour
Leatherhead Town War Memorial
Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede
South African War Graves Project
Phantom on-line Roll of Honour
Tonbridge School Memorial 


s.s. Abukir

the website editor would like to add further information on this casualty
e.g. a photo of him and of any recollections of him

last updated 25 May 20