Air Commodore John Sowrey
Air Commodore John Sowrey, who has died aged 90, was a member of a remarkable RAF family whose members fought in both World Wars; he himself became an ace fighter pilot in the Western Desert, and in the 1950s tested the latest jet fighters.
Flying Hurricanes with No 73 Squadron, Sowrey had his first success on June 15 1941. Supporting the 7th Armoured Division near Halfaya, his section encountered two Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Sowrey engaged them and shot one down. He was back in action that afternoon, when he shot down another.
A few days later Sowrey was distraught to learn that his younger brother, Jimmy, who was based at a nearby landing ground, had been shot down in his Hurricane and killed, just two weeks after joining his squadron.
Sowrey joined No 213 Squadron and flew during the campaign in Syria against Vichy French forces before returning to the desert a year later as a flight commander with No 80 Squadron. On May 21 1942 he and his wingman shared in the destruction of a Junkers 88 bomber, which crash-landed in the desert; two days later they accounted for another, which came down in the sea.
Near Bir Hacheim on June 10, Sowrey and his formation encountered a force of Stuka dive bombers. He shot one down but was then forced to crash-land in the desert and walk back to his base. Three weeks later, after engaging more Stukas, he once again found himself on foot in the desert.
The Eighth Army had established a defensive line at El Alamein. Late in the afternoon of July 4, Sowrey and his section intercepted a force of enemy dive bombers attacking Allied troops. He soon shot down one but, while disposing of a second, he collided with his victim and was forced to bail out. Attacked while descending in his parachute, he took two days to regain friendly lines where, due to his dark complexion, he was taken for an Italian — and again shot at.
Shortly afterwards he was rested, having destroyed five enemy aircraft and shared in the destruction of two others.
John Adam Sowrey was born in Cambridge on January 5 1920 and educated at Tonbridge School. His father and his two uncles had distinguished careers in the RFC and RAF, and John was awarded a King’s Cadetship to RAF Cranwell, graduating in March 1940.
Within weeks he was in action with No 613 Squadron, flying Lysanders on convoy patrols and dropping supplies to the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force at Calais. In March 1941 he became a fighter pilot flying Hurricanes and soon left for Egypt, where he was attached to No 73 Squadron.
After 18 months of almost continuous operations, Sowrey instructed trainee fighter pilots before going to Kenya, from where he flew communications aircraft around East Africa and the Indian Ocean. In November 1943 he was made an adviser to No 336 Squadron of the Greek Air Force, and for eight months flew Hurricanes on shipping protection and air defence duties off the Libyan coast.
After returning to Britain in June 1944, Sowrey joined No 131 Squadron to fly Spitfires on high altitude patrols, bomber escort sorties and offensive sweeps. For his long and sustained period of flying throughout the war he was awarded a DFC .
After serving as adjutant of No 603 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron, Sowrey went to Farnborough in 1951 to attend the Empire Test Pilots’ School. For three years he tested the latest jet fighters, including the Hunter, Swift and Javelin. When he flew the only surviving prototype of the Javelin (the other two having crashed), the aircraft’s only hydraulic system failed, making the flying controls virtually immovable.
Sowrey was ordered to bail out, but did not fancy a parachute descent into the Welsh mountains in winter. Instead he nursed the aircraft back to a safe landing at Boscombe Down. He was awarded an AFC, the fifth member of the Sowrey family to receive the decoration. The Gloster Aircraft Company presented him with a gold watch.
In 1955 Sowrey commanded the fighter wing at RAF Wattisham, flying Hunter day fighters and Meteor night fighters. On one occasion he led the wing over Buckingham Palace for the annual Battle of Britain Day fly-past.
After three years on the staff at Nato headquarters in Oslo, where he was able to indulge in his love of winter sports, he commanded the RAF station at North Luffenham, which housed a Thor nuclear ballistic missile squadron and a Bloodhound anti-aircraft missile unit.
In the summer of 1963 he went to Delhi as air adviser at the High Commission. During a visit to India by the Duke of Edinburgh, Sowrey acted as his personal pilot, flying him to various venues in a Dakota.
After a staff tour in the MoD, Sowrey retired from the RAF in 1968. He was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
His first wife, Audrey, was an accomplished dress designer and established a small retail outlet, Regamus, in Knightsbridge . Sowrey worked in the background, and one of his tasks was to deliver an outfit to Buckingham Palace for Lady Diana Spencer to wear for her engagement photographs.
Sowrey and Audrey bought properties in the French Alps and the Italian Riviera, later moving to Nice. He was thus able to continue skiing until late in life. He also competed in the national gliding championships in the early 1950s, and was an accomplished sailor. He owned a number of yachts and crossed the North Sea to Norway and Sweden, sailed to France and enjoyed regular sailing holidays in the Mediterranean. He was also an enthusiastic and competent painter in watercolours.
John Sowrey died on November 30. His wife Audrey, whom he married in 1952, died in 1993. In 1994 he married, secondly, Lorna, who survives him with two daughters of his first marriage. His cousin is Air Marshal Sir Freddie Sowrey.
Air Commodore John Sowrey, who has died aged 90.
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