Ernest Mitchelson Mason was born in Darlington, Co. Durham in July 1913 and was educated at Blackpool Grammar. His father died when he was young so he was raised by his mother, grandmother and an aunt. As a child, he was full of curiosity and energy; he followed a succession of interests with passion and commitment. At eight he could build a radio receiver cable of sending and receiving transatlantic messages and he was found at all hours swapping messages with a variety of fellow radio enthusiasts.
Speed fascinated him and his bicycle was never going to be fast enough. He acquired a motorcycle and spent every waking moment tuning it, wringing from it every morsel of speed he could. At just 14 years old he was racing, and at 15 he was nearly winning but a crash on the final lap robbed him of victory. He was tough, hard as nails by all reports, and even injury could not stop him.
He learned to play the saxophone and loved to play in bands, something he pursued his whole life, often jamming with the house bands at Cairo and Maltese nightclubs both before the war, and during. Money seemed to mean little to him, though his letters often mention it in terms of managing his budget and living within his means. He enjoyed poker and often won; though one suspects that like most gamblers he preferred to talk about the wins rather than the losses.
Out of school he was apprenticed to a firm of marine engineers but his passion for speed led almost inevitably to aircraft, and thence to the Royal Air Force. And so, in March 1938 he joined the Royal Air Force on a short service commission. During his training at Abu Sueir in Egypt he exhibited superior airmanship and gunnery. Upon completion of his training though, he was posted to No. 45 Squadron, a bomber unit.
In earlier letters home he had professed a wish to fly bombers, or fly Army Cooperation, or anything except fighters so one would surmise that he would have been quite happy with this posting.
Somewhat unexpectedly then, at the first opportunity he switched with another pilot to join No. 80 Squadron, a fighter unit.
Italeri [AMT] 1/48 Curtis P-40E Kittyhawk
The first time I made a version of Mason’s aircraft was in 2003, and the original version of this article appeared the same year on the earlier version of this site. Here’s a couple of pics of it;
War Begins, September 1939
At the outbreak of war in September, 1939 Pilot Officer Ernest “Imshi” Mason – a nickname he acquired through his habit of yelling “imshi” at the children and beggars in the markets, its meaning roughly translating to “scram” in arabic – was Adjutant of No. 80 Sqn.
The leisurely peace-time pace of life in the squadron changed little though, despite war in Europe; in fact Mason was able to take a skiing vacation to Palestine in January 1940. In June that year, at the time of the fall of France he even complained in a letter home that “…One gets fed up with nothing but war news on the radio and in the newspapers…”
Things began to change though with the fall of France and Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940. With the realization that action would soon begin for the Desert Air Force, Mason wrote to his Mother on June 12 of that year to try and reassure her he was in good spirits.
“…I want you to realize that if I do get shot down, I am not unduly perturbed by it. I am treating it as a business with a very high prize if I can make it. (High rank and future assured). If I can’t, well it is just too bad…
I hope you understand my point of view. So if I do get killed, the only cause for regret will be that we have not seen as much of each other as we should have done lately had things been normal. No point in being sorry for me as I wouldn’t be in a position to receive it!!!
Do hope all this is clear. By the way, doing the work we are doing over our own territory, ‘Missing’ –‘Believed Killed’ – etc. would almost certainly mean killed.
This letter is not meant to be cheerful, it is meant to be practical, so I hope you take it in the right spirit.”Ernest Mason, June 12 1940
In late 1940 Mason was detached to No. 274 Squadron and went into action on the first day of Wavell’s Libyan campaign on 9 December 1940. “Imshi” quickly established himself as an effective fighter pilot contributing to the destruction of an S-79, damaging of another, and a C.R. 42, over Sidi Barrani. By the end of the month he had shot down two more S-79s, two C.R. 42s, and a Ca. 310, in addition to damaging others, mainly in combats fought over the Bardia and Capuzzo areas. He summed up this action in a cable to his Mother on December 23 in typical style.
“THANKS FOR CABLE STOP HAVE GROWN BEARD STOP THREE CONFIRMED ONE UNCONFIRMED IN FIVE DAYS STOP LOVE TO ALL MASON“Ernest Mason, 23 December 1940
After a one day leave to Alexandria Mason was immediately back in action, shooting down a SM.79 and a CR.310. He also added some nose art to his Hurricane, having the Mess Corporal paint Blackpool’s (his hometown) coat of arms on a piece of aluminum sheet and having it bolted to the side of the fuselage.
Through January 1941 Mason was in fairly constant action. Immediately following Christmas, Mason and Lieut. Robert Talbot, a South African, were detached to what he called in his letters home a “famous place” (Tobruk). Their mission was to roam “freelance” over the Libyan Desert from their base in Egypt at Sidi Barrani attacking targets of opportunity.
Mason developed his own favoured style of attack during this period, embarking on long range missions to attack enemy bases far behind the lines. Mason described a typical attack in a letter dated January 17, 1941.
“We decided to go over Italian aerodromes a long way away. The first day we went over an aerodrome; in the morning I ground strafed some 42’s and Bob shot down a 79 taking off; in the afternoon we went there again and circled over the aerodrome. Suddenly I saw two CR.42’s approaching to land. I dived down and came up behind. I gave the leader a burst and as I shot past him he turned slowly and dived straight into the middle of the aerodrome and exploded. In the meantime the other chap had turned and came for me head on. I gave him a short burst and he did the same thing. This time on the edge of the aerodrome. By then five more, also returning home, had seen me and were diving on me so Bob shot down the leader and they dispersed. … Of course, we were disobeying orders going to these places…“Ernest Mason, 17 January 1941
On the 26th he shot down three C.R. 42s but was forced to land immediately after when his engine cut out. Upon landing, the Hurricane burst a tire and flipped up on to its nose. Mason was given a ride back to base by some Australian Army troops who had witnessed the combat.
By the end of January Mason’s score stood at fourteen confirmed kills, he was the leading allied ace in the Middle East and he was subsequently awarded the DFC on February 1, 1941. His success attracted the attention of the press and was featured in several published stories that mentioned his his beard, the wearing of such was strictly against RAF regulations, and how his personal runaround at base was a captured Italian tank!
The London Gazette of 11 February 1941. The recommendation states:
‘This Officer has shot down 13 enemy aircraft confirmed and other probables. On 26 January 1941, he shot down 3 enemy aircraft thereby preventing the enemy formation of 9 from attacking forward troops. Flying Officer Mason has pursued the Italian Air Force for months in both the air and on the ground and he was responsible in a large measure for heavy losses caused to enemy aircraft on Aerodromes and retreating M.T. Convoys. He has continually displayed a fine aggressive spirit with outstanding initiative, dash and courage especially during special missions. This immediate award is being held against the Middle East Command allotment for January.’London Gazette, 11 February 1941
That fourteenth victory also could have been Mason’s last however, he was lucky to sustained only a slight wound in downing a CR.42 near Benghazi. This time flying with F/O Patterson (a Canadian pilot from Toronto who was later killed in the first advance to Benghazi), Mason attacked the patrolling Italian, in his own words, much too fast. On his first pass Mason overshot and the dogfight developed into a series of head-on passes. On the fourth pass the Italian pilot came straight on instead of pulling away and as the two aircraft passed each other Mason “felt a crash and a bump.” Thinking he had collided with the now burning Italian, Mason checked his aircraft and found a cannon shell had hit his aircraft. Fortunately, the aircraft frame had absorbed most of the impact and what little shrapnel had hit Mason had done little harm.
Malta, March 1941
In March 1941 No. 274 Squadron with Mason transferred to Malta, sending the following to his Mother;
CABLE ADDRESS RAF STATION MALTA
LETTERS AS BEFORE
LOVE. MASONErnest Mason, 28 March 1941
In a subsequent letter home dated 5 April he described Malta as a “very nice place… quite a change to see green fields and trees.” Bearing in mind he had been in the desert for almost three years by now, the contrast would have been quite marked. He also described life there as “quiet” and he took advantage by sampling the night life. However, apart from enjoying an appearance on Radio Athens playing the saxophone and frequent sets with the local cabaret bands, he was clearly itching to be doing something, “I am already rather fed up with doing nothing.“
Only a few days later, in April there was very much to do indeed as the Luftwaffe had arrived in force in the skies over Malta. On 13 April, Mason was on patrol with one wingman and one other attacked four Bf 109s. He was attacked in turn by Oblt. Klaus Mietusch of JG 26 and shot down for the German’s eighth victory. Mason described the fight in a letter home dated June 6, 1941.
“…I had another chap with me and surprised four ME109’s. I came out of the sun into them and got my chap beautifully. He dived straight down. However, as my other chap saw no Germans, did not see me waggle my wings and go down to attack, but blissfully continued on patrol, I got no support there!
As I broke away from my attack one of the other three got a lucky shot at me and hit my hand and shattered my windscreen. I was now 15 miles from land, fiver miles high and helpless, so I had to fight my way back as best I could with this chap firing at me all the time. The instruments smashed up in front of me and the controls went funny, bullets flying through the cockpit. (He kept attacking from the beam). My right hand was numb.
Finally, when I was twisting and turning a few feet above the sea, the motor stopped and the left side started burning. So I landed in the water, foolishly undoing my straps.
I broke my nose on the windscreen frame and climbed out before it sank. The other chap flew over low, quite content with his victory and made no attempt to shoot me.“Ernest Mason, 6 June 1941
Mason suffered a bullet through his right hand at the wrist, some shrapnel to his leg and head plus the broken nose. He convalesced for six weeks in Malta before receiving his next posting and a promotion to Squadron Leader commanding No. 127 Squadron at Habbaniya in Iraq which, along with some personnel and equipment from Malta, moved to Shaibah in support of the occupation of Iraq, for Operation “Y”.
“LETTERS RECEIVED MANY THANKS LOVE NOW SQUADRON LEADER MY ADDRESS IS No 261 SQUADRON RAF“Ernest Mason, 1 August 1941
His mother must have worried however as the Air Ministry wrote to her on 21 August;
Air Ministry, London. 21st August, 1941
I am directed to refer to your letter of 4th August regarding the address of your son…. and to inform you he is safe and well at Headquarters, Royal Air Force, Iraq.The Air Ministry, 21 August 1941
Painting the Camouflage
Iraq, August 1941
The squadron’s work involved maintaining standing air patrols over the oil ports of Abadan and Khorramshar and attacking enemy aircraft in the area; Mason scored a victory on 26 August, shooting down a Hawker Nisr.
Mason wrote home saying how much he was enjoying training a new squadron and putting some of his own ideas to practice with the new pilots, writing they;
“…have only done the Battle of Britain stuff against mass raids, and the usual island [Ed – Malta] stuff, but I am carrying out training on my lines and all is coming on nicely.“
Months later, in October 1941 he wrote how pleased he was with the progress the Squadron was making;
“…I can see it improving every day and I feel like a mother with a child, watching it grow up…”
At the beginning of 1942 No. 261 Squadron was sent to the Far East to aid in the defence of Singapore (though by the time it got as far as Ceylon it was too late to be of any use), but Mason stayed behind and was sent back to the the Libyan desert, this time commanding the inexperienced No. 94 Squadron.
Markings and Clear Coat; Why EM?
Return to the Desert, January 1942
Mason joined his new squadron in Egypt in late January. At the time they were on a defensive posture and flying Hurricanes. Soon though, in either late January or the first few days of February the squadron exchanged their Hurricanes for newly arrived Curtis P-40E Kittyhawks. This exchange was to facilitate a new role for the squadron, that of an offensive ground attack force. However, none of the squadron’s pilots, including Mason had flown the type before and consequently they began an intensive familiarisation program with their new aircraft, their new role and new Squadron Leader.
On 14th February, after only perhaps only two weeks of working up their new Kittyhawks, the Squadron moved forward to Gambut airfield southeast of Tobruk in preparation for offensive ground attack operations. The very next day Mason led eight No.94 Kittyhawks on their first combat sortie to attack the German airbase at Martuba. This is eagerness to engage was entirely consistent with Mason’s offensive fighting spirit but it was in this case spectacularly and tragically ill-advised.
Their raid itself was ineffective and one can imagine Mason’s disappointment in a lack of tangible result as they turned for home. Perhaps he was distracted as a result. Whether he was or not, as the squadron turned for home a single Messerschmitt Bf109F, piloted by Oberfeldwebel Otto Schultz got off the ground. Mason’s flight was, according to reports flying inexplicably straight and level as if on a training flight and Shultz was able to position himself directly behind the rear-most flight of four Kittyhawks without being detected. With clinical precision he then simply shot the entire flight down. Shultz, who at the time was credited with 39 kills was convinced he had attacked a group of inexperienced pilots and was dumbfounded when he learned Mason was among his victims that day.
The next day the press reported the action;
The communique issued from RAF headquarters Middle East stated:-Fighter aircraft maintained their activities in the forward areas of Cyrenaica throughout yesterday… From these operations five of our aircraft are missing.Special Correspondant, Cairo
The number of missing was later revised to four. Initially Mason, along with P/O JRV Marshall, Sgt. CL Belcher, and Sgt. E Weightman, were all posted as missing. Air Ministry sent the following to Mason’s mother;
IMMEDIATE FROM THE AIR MINISTRY KINGSWAY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON ACTING SQUADRON LEADER ERNEST MICHELSON MASON DFC IS REPORTED MISSING AS THE RESULT OF AIR OPERATIONS 15TH FEBRUARY 1942. ENQUIRIES ARE BEING MADE THROUGH THE RED CROSS GENEVA AND ANY FURTHER INFORMATION RECEIVED WILL BE IMMEDIATELY COMMUNICATED TO YOU. LETTER CONFIRMING THIS TELEGRAM FOLLOWS.Air Ministry, London, 21 February 1942
Ten days later, on February 25 1942 an Army patrol found Mason’s body inside his crashed Kittyhawk and buried him where he fell. The same day, his mother received the following telegram;
FROM AIR MINISTRY KINGSWAY
DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON ACTING SQUADRON LEADER ERNEST MITCHELSON MASON DFC IS NOW REPORTED TO HAVE LOST HIS LIFE AS A RESULT OF AIR OPERATIONS ON 15TH FEBRUARY 1942 STOP LETTER CONFIRMING THIS TELEGRAM FOLLOWS STOP THE AIR COUNCIL EXPRESS THEIR PROFOUND SYMPATHY STOP
UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE AIR MINISTRYUnder Secretary of State Air Ministry, 25 February 1942
Imshi was the leading ace in the Desert Air Force when he was killed and his loss so weakened the moral of No. 94 Squadron that it was withdrawn from action. Under their new S/L Ian MacDougall the squadron regrouped and retrained for three weeks before resuming operations. It is unfortunate that the eagerness to engage precluded a proper training period prior to moving up, but three weeks could be found to re-train as a result of the losses that day.
Letters written to Mason’s mother after his death paid testament to Imshi’s ability, leadership, charter and fighting spirit. They were written by Squadron Leaders, Wing Commanders, Air Vice Marshals and all expressed both a love of, and admiration for Ernest Mitchelson Mason, known by all simply as Imshi. As a representation of the sum of those letters, below is the letter written by S/Ldr. MacDougall who flew with Imshi at No. 94 Squadron, and took over the squadron after his death.
My Dear Mrs. Mason,
It is very difficult to tell you in a letter how very sorry I am for the loss of your son and what a great loss it is, not only to you and to his friends, but also to the service, for he really was one of the greatest fighting men the war out here has produced.
The name of “Imshi” Mason is famous throughout the Middle East for his raids of amazing audacity; he was far better known by reputation than in person, for whenever talk of desert fighting cropped up, someone would have some amazing story to tell of him.
In the push of 1940 a small band of fighter pilots of the finest type, faced by vastly superior numbers, showed such a spirit of audacity and offense that the Italian Air Force was defeated and its morale suffered a crushing blow from which it has never recovered. These people did more than “their bit“; they did a great deal towards winning the war for England, not only by shooting down great numbers of the enemy but by paving the way for future pilots by establishing the complete superiority of the British fighter over the enemy.
Your son was probably the greatest of them all, for there are many more stories told about him than about any of the others. On one occasion he flew single-handed 100 miles behind the enemy lines and shot down an enemy machine in flames over Benghazi. He used to go out alone, or with one other, and strafe enemy airplanes many miles behind the lines and return safely – no one knew how.
On one occasion the Group Captain Rang him up and asked him to strafe a certain enemy aerodrome – to which the reply was that it had already been done, before breakfast.
Stories like these, almost unbelievable, but readily confirmed by those in his squadron, can only help to show what a great fighter he was; and he is said to have shot down 16 enemy aircraft, and destroyed 70 on the ground in strafing raids. This ground strafing record has never been equalled and never will be again, I am sure.
In addition to his amazing fighting record, his extreme modesty and quiet personal charm made him immediately liked and that, as well as his great confidence, inspired those under him.
When I first met him I could not help liking and admiring him immediately. I got him after much persuasion to give me some very useful hints on desert fighting, but in no way could get him to talk about himself, to my disappointment. On one evening we went out on a party which was not going very well until he took over the saxophone and completely livened up the whole show. He was an asset wherever he was.
A short time ago he took over this squadron and on the unfortunate day, was shot down leading his squadron on an extremely bold raid on an enemy aerodrome. I think you will be glad to know that he was killed instantly and could not have known anything.
I think I can hardly say more than I, among many others, was proud to have known him.S/Ldr. I. N. MacDougall, No. 94 Squadron, RAF Middle East Forces 10th March, 1942
The Finishing Touches
Mason wasn’t forgotten after the war, at least in the theatre in which he made his name. During the early 1950’s the allied Air forces ran a gunnery competition called the “Imshi Mason Contest“. I think he would have been pleased by that.
Shop Making History
A print commemorating S/Ldr E. M. “Imshi” Mason is available for sale as a fine art quality print. Please follow the link to Shop Making History for more details
In addition to the print shown above, the model featured in this article is also available for sale.
References and Credits
- “IMSHI – A Fighter Pilot’s Letters to his Mother” by Alys Meyers. Published April, 1943.
- “Fighter Squadrons of the RAF and their Aircraft” by John Rawlins Macdonald
- “The War in the Desert” by Richard Collier and the Editors of Time-Life Books
- “February 1942: Britains Darkest Days” by Adrian Stewart
- Terry Clements; Terry has some excellent information used in the 2003 article from the IPMS Seattle web site regarding desert painted Kittyhawks. Check the September 2002 Newsletter.
- Terry Mcgrady & “Buzz”; both of whom provided information and scans on No. 94 Squadron Kittyhawks for the 2003 article.
Copyright: I claim original work and Copyright 2020 for the text on this page and the photos of the model except where noted (typically, italicised text denotes quoted content). I am indebted to the authors of the listed reference sites and books for their research. Except where noted otherwise, I sourced all other images and photos from the internet and are used under fair-use. Any copyrighted images will be removed or credited forthwith upon request by its rightful owner.
Categories: Feature Article