Q6 Pilot - James Robb

Posted by Chris Thompson on 19 March 2024 | Comments

Q6 Pilot - James Robb

During some recent research, we stumbled across the logbook of Air Marshal Sir James Robb.  Although he has not flown any of the airframes in the Finest Hour fleet, his use of a Percival Q6 while serving as Air Officer Commanding Coastal Command's 15 Group in 1941/2 sparked our interest in him; not only did he fly 'his' Q6 extensively but his 'hard core' flying career and the sheer quantity and variety of flying he carried out while serving in senior RAF appointments makes him worthy of a mention.

Robb 1917

Robb, 1917

James Robb joined 32 Sqn in 1917, flying the DH2 on the Western Front, where he gained one victory before being wounded and returning to UK.  Selected by Arthur Coningham as a Flight Commander on 92 Sqn, he returned to France to fly the SE5a, finishing the War with a total of 7 victories.

Sqn Ldr Robb Flt Lt Kinkhead Fg Off French 30 Sqn dH9as via airminded.org

Sqn Ldr Robb, Flt Lt Kinkhead, Fg Off French, 30 Sqn dH9as via airminded.org

During the inter-War period, he was awarded a DSO for his actions as OC 30 Sqn, flying the dH9a in Kurdistan.  His subsequent appointments include tours as both Chief Flying Instructor and Commandant of the Central Flying School; he visited Canada to lay the foundations of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Appointed Air Officer Commanding Bomber Command’s 2 Group during April 1940, Robb viewed the employment of Blenheims on unescorted daylight missions as suicidal, a view not shared by Bomber Command’s Commander-in-Chief, Sir Richard Peirse.  Robb was moved to Coastal Command, where he commanded 15 Group.  Interestingly, Peirse was removed from Bomber Command in early 1942, following a period of heavy losses for little result.

It is Robb’s period as AOC 15 Group which sparked our interest in him.  Appointed during February 1941, he first flies the Percival Q6 ‘Long awaited communications aircraft’ on 18 June.  Between then and March 1942, he uses ‘his’ Q6 to travel extensively between HQ 15 Gp at Hooton Park and the various units under his command in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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Percival Q6 X9336 (formerly G-AFGX) (Robb Collection via RAF Museum)

Robb’s logbook notes reveal something of both the handling characteristics of the Q6 and his enthusiasm for flying, Robb clearly relishing the opportunity to gain experience of any new aircraft type.  The logbook also provides an insight into the progress of the Battle of the Atlantic, his visits including the inspection of newly-constructed airfields, flying boat bases and those involved in ongoing operations.  For example, during October 1941, he flew in a Hudson to Iceland, where he used a Moth to fly himself on a staff visit from Reykjavik to Kadadarnes and back, before returning to UK onboard HMS Keppel, a Royal Navy destroyer carrying out convoy escort duties; later in the month, he used the Q6 to fly himself on a visit to Northern Ireland, to meet successful U-Boat hunting Hudson crews.

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Robb at the controls of 'his' Q6, 30 June 1941 (pic by Wg Cdr Jessop via Robb / RAF Museum)

The detail of Robb’s flying whilst AOC 15 Group is here.

Appointed Deputy Chief of Combined Operations (Deputy to Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten) on 27 March 1942, Robb had a Percival Proctor communications aircraft allocated to him, which he flew until September that year.

Robb was appointed AOC Gibraltar (on loan from Combined Operations HQ) to cover the period of landings in North Africa.  Flying out to Gibraltar by Sunderland on 20/21 Oct, Robb visited Oran and Algiers by Hudson during November and soloed a Hurricane with extra tanks from Gibraltar (“unpleasant”) before travelling by Hudson to Algiers on 30 Nov to join Allied Force HQ as Air Adviser to Gen Eisenhower.

On formation of the North West African Air Force, Robb was appointed Deputy to Gen Spaatz, who provided him with a B17 to visit the UK Air Ministry in March / April and collect kit on finding that his loan from CO HQ was indefinite.

From April 1943 onwards, Robb used a Hurricane to carry out visits and inspections, including lunch with the King on 18 June.  His Hurricane flying was not uneventful, with a number of engine and undercarriage problems; on occasion he borrowed Air Commodore Thomas Traill’s Hurricane, which he described as ‘lovely’!

July 1943 saw much Hurricane flying including ‘in Company with Jimmy Doolittle in P-38’ on 4 Jul and to Goubrine on 9 Jul to see the start of the airborne part (Albemarles) of the invasion of Sicily.

Moving with the HQ to Caserta on 30 January 1944, Robb flew his Hurricane for the last time from Marcianise on 17 Feb, viewing Vesuvius and Pompeii.  On 7/8 March, Ira Eaker loaned Robb the use of his B17 for his journey to UK, from Marcianise to Gibraltar, via Algiers.  “Perfect weather.  Fired on near Gib by HMS WARSPITE.  Thank God for the Navy.  (1944 and unable to identify a Fortress!)”.  The journey continued via St Mawgan to Bovingdon.

Robb’s next appointment was as Deputy Chief of Staff (Air) to Gen Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force.  On 10 July 1944, Robb made his first visit to the continent in his new role, as a passenger in a Dakota from Northolt to A9 (Bayeux) to visit Coningham, 2nd TAF and Broadhurst’s Group; another passenger was CIGS (Field Marshal Brooke), visiting Montgomery.  Broadhurst and Robb then used a Fieseler Storch to view the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches.

Vigilant Broadhursts Storch at Vasto Italy IWM

Stinson Vigilant and Broadhurst's Storch at Vasto Italy, the types used by Robb & Broadhurst in Normandy, 1944 (IWM)

Robb’s next visit to France was on 10/11 Aug; outbound by Mosquito to A12 (Caen) to visit Coningham and using a Stinson to view the battle area, returning to Northolt by C47.  August to November saw an increasing number of self-flown cross channel trips by Proctor; Robb was appointed Chief of Air Staff SHAEF on 15 Oct as an Air Marshal.

Robb’s final flight of 1944 was an Anson Mk II on 22 Dec, bringing his total flying time to 4110 hrs.

Throughout early 1945, Robb self flew on numerous visits to the continent in Proctors and Ansons, also bagging flying time on the Miles M38 and Fieseler Storch in-theatre.  After witnessing the German surrender, signed by General Jodl  in SHAEF at 0241, Robb handed over his duties to AVM R Carr and flew himself from Reims to Gatwick in an Anson.

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German Surrender Document, May 1945

Appointed Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command on 14 May 1945, he flew a Spitfire IX on the 16th “first flight in a Spitfire since 1939”.