Harry Melville Arbuthnot “Wings” Day GC DSO OBE (AM exchanger)

b. 03/08/1898 Sarawak, Borneo. d. 11/03/1977 Malta.

DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 09/11/1918 Cape Trafalgar.

Harry Melville Arbuthnot “Wings” Day (1898-1977) was born on 3rd August 1898 in Sarawak, South East Asia, where his father Henry was the Sarawak Resident under the White Rajah, Charles Brooke. Sadly, tragedy struck the family in 1905, when Harry’s only brother passed away from polio. This had a devastating impact on his mother Anna, who suffered mental health difficulties for the remainder of her life. Harry’s great-uncle was George Fiott Day VC.

Harry M A “Wings” Day

Harry was educated in England at Haileybury College (where there is a plaque in his memory). At the age of 17 he joined the Royal Marines Light Infantry (1st September 1916) as a Probationary 2nd Lieutenant and served on HMS Britannia which was torpedoed off the coast of Gibraltar in November 1918, the incident which resulted in the award of his Albert Medal.

On 9th November 1918, HMS Britannia was torpedoed by the German submarine UB50. THere was a second, more violent, explosion as the ammunition went up and several fires were started, resulting in the spread of smoke and fumes throughout the ship. Shortly after the explosions, Day went down to the wardroom to search for any wounded. He heard groaning forward of the wardroom, but found that the heavy wooden door had jammed and was immovable. He then burst open the trap hatch to the wardroom pantry and climbed through it. He discovered Engineer Lieutenant Stanley Weir and a steward alive and conscious, but unable to move. Fearing he would hurt them if he tried to drag them through the trap hatch single-handed, he climbed back into the wardroom aft and up on to the quarter deck; finding two or three stokers, he returned with them and they eventually carried the dying officer and steward on to the deck and up to the forecastle. During his first visit to the wardroom Day was alone, in the dark, while the ship was already listing; also the fire was close to the 12 inch magazine. While carrying out this rescue, he inspected all scuttles and dead-lights in the wardroom and cabins before it, ascertaining that all were properly closed before leaving.

He was gazetted for the Albert Medal on 7th January 1919 and received the medal at Buckingham Palace from King George V on 13th February 1919 (only the third Royal Marine to receive the AM). He then served on several ships until 1924 before he joined the Fleet Air Arm. While on duty as a Lieutenant he married Doreen Holgate aboard HMS Tamar which was permanently moored in Hong Kong and they had a daughter June (who later became a classical ballet dancer).

By 1929 he had qualified as a pilot and made a name for himself when he flew In the Hendon Air Show Synchronised Aerobatic Team. He then transferred to the RAF as a Captain on 21st June 1930. Unfortunately, his marriage broke down and there was a divorce. He then met and married Doris Johnson on January 29th 1931 who had two children of her own. Posted to Egypt for two years, he took Doris, her two children and June with him. With Doris, he later had a daughter, Shawen Allana, who would pre-decease him.

As a Wing Commander in October 1939, he was flying with 57 Squadron on reconnaissance when he was shot down. He was taken to Dulag Luft – a transit camp – where he became friendly with Commandant Rumpel – as there was a strong feeling of respect for RAF Officers at the start of the war. During his time at Dulag Luft he was the Senior Officer not only in rank but considerably in years and part of the British Permanent Staff. He with his fellow officers kept discipline, set up a coding system via letters home and then planned the first escape. Ironically Rumpel once bet him a bottle of whiskey that he couldn’t escape. Of course he did, was recaptured but won the bet.

Determined to escape, “Wings” as he was nicknamed, made three unsuccessful attempts resulting in him being moved to Stalag Luft III. One of the first responsibilities he had as the Senior Officer was to investigate accusations of treachery against Casinov, an RAF Officer, who could speak fluent German. Wings collected reliable lawyers in the camp and they declared Casinov innocent. It was here that in March 1944, that the “Great Escape” attempt was made. At the time of the attempt, Harry was not the Senior British Officer as he had been succeeded in June 1942 by Group Captain Herbert Massey. Massey and Day ran the escape committee but did not mastermind the actual escape. The escape was masterminded by Roger Bushell, Wally Floody, Peter Fanshawe and George Harsh. Because of his seniority Harry was not shot on recapture but sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, his companion, however, a Polish Officer, was shot. At Sachsenhausen he spent a month manacled to the floor, and daily expected execution.

Harry Day was one of only two men to be awarded the DSO for services whilst a prisoner of war. (The other was Mike Sinclair, who was shot and killed on his last attempt to escape from Colditz Castle). In all it took nine escapes before Harry was able to escape from Flossenberg (his last camp) and cross over into Italy and then it was with the aid of a German guard who could see the end of the war was nigh. On 28th December 1945 he was gazetted for his DSO and was also awarded the OBE for services as a Prisoner of War. He was later awarded the US Legion of Merit and promoted to Group Captain.  In the mid-1950s, he acted as Technical Advisor for the film “Reach for the Sky” telling the story of Douglas Bader.

Whilst he was a POW, his mother died and also sadly Doris chose to leave him. After the war he divorced Doris and later married Linda Boyt (nee Stevens), but again that marriage didn’t last. For the remainder of his life, he lived with Margo Pollock (nee Holmes) in Monaco until finally moving to Malta. In 1971, after the change in the Royal Warrant, Harry chose to exchange his Albert Medal for a George Cross. Harry passed away on 2nd December 1977 in Malta and was buried in Ta Braxia Cemetery. A memorial service was held at St Clement Dane’s Church in Aldwych on 14th January 1978.

Harry’s medals including his GC, DSO, OBE, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, War Medal 1939-45, 1977 Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal and the US Legion of Merit are held by the Royal Marines Museum, Southsea, Hampshire.