Nostalgia: Military Cross for Tangmere’s gallant doctor

Courtney Willey's medals. L-r: the MBE, the Military Cross, the 1939-1945 Star, the Pacific Star and the 1939-1945 War Medal with oak leaves denoting a 'Mention in Despatches'.
Courtney Willey's medals. L-r: the MBE, the Military Cross, the 1939-1945 Star, the Pacific Star and the 1939-1945 War Medal with oak leaves denoting a 'Mention in Despatches'.
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This article, written by David Coxon, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s curator, is the fifth in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere. More information on the museum, including opening times and entry prices, can be found on our website: www.tangmere-museum.org.uk

Courtney Willey was born into a medical family in 1912 and was educated at Harrow School and Balliol College, Oxford where he read medicine.

Flight Lieutenant Willey, back row left, with members of No 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron at Westhampnett in 1940.

Flight Lieutenant Willey, back row left, with members of No 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron at Westhampnett in 1940.

In March 1940, Doctor Willey volunteered for service in the RAF and was commissioned as a flying officer, arriving in May at RAF Tangmere where he was attached as a doctor to No 601 (Hurricane) Squadron.

At lunchtime on August 16, RAF Tangmere was warned of the approach of a large force of enemy bombers; Willey quickly transferred his patients to an air raid shelter.

The Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers arrived over Tangmere and delivered a short but devastating attack. Among the buildings hit by bombs was the station medical quarters where Willey, the only medical officer on duty, was working.

He was buried up to his waist when the chimney breast collapsed on him, but, in spite of his injuries, he carried on treating the many casualties, including a badly-burned 601 Hurricane pilot, Pilot Officer Billy Fiske, an American who sadly died the next day of his injuries. Doctor Courtney Willey was awarded the Military Cross ‘for his gallant conduct’, on this day.

A post-war portrait of Dr Courtney Willey MBE, MC.

A post-war portrait of Dr Courtney Willey MBE, MC.

During the next few months he served at other Fighter Command stations and then was posted in 
April, 1941 to Singapore.

A month after his arrival, the Japanese invaded Malaya and the first bombs began to fall on Singapore.

At the end of January, 1942, Willey boarded the 
SS Takliwa, a hospital ship, which sailed for Pelambang, Sumatra with sick and wounded personnel.

But, in mid February, Willey had to evacuate the wounded again to Java after Pelambang fell.

A young Courtney Willey, left, takes a narrow victory.

A young Courtney Willey, left, takes a narrow victory.

Here, he was captured by the Japanese but was allowed to continue his medical work – he was moved from PoW camp to PoW camp and in early 1943 found himself in Chunkai, Siam, where the Burma to Thailand railway was being constructed through 250 miles of dense jungle.

One of three Allied doctors, Willey was responsible for 1,200 seriously-sick men suffering from chronic tropical illnesses. They had only a few medical supplies.

After the railway was completed in October, 1943, he was moved to a camp in Kaorin, Siam where, following the arrival of Red Cross parcels, conditions gradually improved.

In September, 1945, a month after Japan had surrendered, Flight Lieutenant Willey and his fellow PoWs were repatriated and he arrived back at RAF Lyneham the following month.

On his arrival in the UK he was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) medal and was mentioned in despatches for his services in the Far East. Many of those who survived the horrors of life as a prisoner of the Japanese would claim these awards did not truly recognise Willey’s contribution to his work with his sick patients.

On January 4, 1946, he was released from the RAF and returned to the medical profession where he was invited by his close friend and fellow Japanese PoW, Dr John Simpson, to join him as a consultant physician to Whitehaven Hospital in West Cumbria.

The caring and modest Doctor Courtney Willey, RAF Tangmere’s gallant doctor, died in December 2004. At his funeral it was said ‘It is very difficult to pay sufficient tribute to the sheer humility of the man’.