“AIR MARSHAL SIR PAUL HOLDER took part in the Second World War defence of Habbaniya, Iraq, when the RAF’s station there was attacked and besieged by the Iraqi nationalist rebel Raschid Ali.
When, following his Baghdad coup in April 1941, Ali attempted to seize the base which accommodated No 4 Flying Training School, Wing Commander Holder was the station’s senior administrative officer.
The flying school’s training aircraft – mostly a variety of obsolete biplanes – were assembled in three ad hoc squadrons. A fourth squadron of open cockpit biplane Audaxes, fitted with front and rear guns and bomb racks and commanded by Holder, was provided by the headquarters unit and readied on the station polo ground.
On May 2, Habbaniya’s motley force of Vincents, Gordons, Gladiators, Audaxes and Oxford twin-engine trainers began to attack Iraqi elements ranged by Raschid Ali on a commanding plateau, and carried out continuous dive-bombing attacks throughout that day.
Holder’s Audax was hit, wounding his air-gunner, Aircraftman Taylor, and stopping the engine, but he managed to glide over the airfield perimeter fence. As he and Taylor scampered for the nearest trench, a shell blew up the aircraft.
Two days later the petrol tank of Holder’s second Audax was hit, drenching him in petrol. Holder crash-landed upside down on Habbaniya’s station golf course and was trapped with his head in the sand of a bunker. Taylor – whose wounds had been patched up – scrambled clear, and with considerable effort managed to raise the aircraft’s tail and free Holder. The two men ran for their lives; they had made some 100 yards when the Audax blew up.
Paul Davie Holder was born on September 2 1911 at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where his father was the chief electrical engineer and managing director of the tramway company. When young Paul was two, the family returned to their native Somerset.
Holder was educated at Bristol Grammar School and Bristol University where, in 1931, he graduated with a BSc in civil engineering. He worked as a junior technical assistant at the government building research station at Garston, Herts, and received an MSc in 1933 and a PhD in 1935, before taking up a Robert Blair Fellowship at the University of Illinois.
From America, Holder applied for a permanent commission in the RAF, and in 1936, after serving briefly as a pilot with No 57 – a Hind biplane light bomber squadron – was posted to No 108, also equipped with Hinds.
In 1938, Holder sailed for the Middle East where he joined No 84, a Vincent biplane bomber squadron policing Iraq from Shaibah at the head of the Persian Gulf. In June 1939, he moved to Habbaniya in Iraq.
Following the relief of the siege, Holder was posted home where, in November 1941, he received command of No 218, a Wellington bomber squadron shortly to be re-equipped with four-engine Stirling heavy bombers at Marham in Norfolk. His first sorties were against the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, sheltering in the heavily defended French port of Brest.
Later, the squadron laid mines in Danish and Norwegian waters. On one trip a shell exploded in the Stirling, killing the wireless operator. Holder and his crew were unharmed and he brought the aircraft back with wind howling through a hole in the fuselage.
After moving from Marham to Downham Market, No 218 was briefed to attack U-boat pens at low level and in broad daylight at Lubeck. On the way out, Holder’s Stirling, weaving continuously – as was his practice and instruction to crews – was attacked by three Me 109s closing in line astern. He turned to meet them head on. As their fire wounded his navigator the Stirling’s gunners sent one of the fighters spiralling down.
Reaching the target, Holder noted a surprising lack of flak and, going in low, scored direct hits on the target area. On the way home he took a nap in the bomb aimer’s position, only awakening to land. It was his 65th and last operational sortie.
In January 1943 Holder attended staff college and five months later he moved as a group captain to Turkey, as chief of staff of Force 686, a secret planning unit at Ankara. After a year Holder received the unusual and tricky task of forming and training, at Benina in Libya, No 351, a Hurricane squadron composed of Yugoslav air and groundcrew loyal to Marshal Tito. Once the squadron was declared ready for operations, Holder returned to Britain to join the directing staff at the RAF Staff College.
From February 1945, Holder took charge of a Transport Command Station at Broadwell in the Cotswolds until the following May when he was appointed vice president of the RAF Selection Board. In 1948 he moved to Spitalgate, Lincs, as chief instructor of an officer cadet training unit.
In 1950, Holder returned to the operational mainstream as commander of the busy RAF base at Shallufa at the bottom end of the Suez Canal – no sinecure, given Arab-Israeli, Anglo-Egyptian and Anglo-Persian tensions in the region. Two years later, in an unexpected and emergency posting, he was ordered within a day to Kabrit, an RAF station on the Great Bitter Lake to the north of Shallufa, where morale was at a low ebb.
From 1953 to 1955 Holder was deputy director, Air Staff policy, at the Air Ministry. There followed a year at the Imperial Defence College, and in 1957 he was appointed AOC in Singapore where, as a relief from duties relating to the Malayan Emergency, he learnt to fly a Sunderland flying-boat.
Towards the end of the year, Holder was appointed AOC Hong Kong, returning to the Air Ministry as Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Training. This led to command, in 1963, of Flying Training Command’s No 25 Group, mainly responsible for the university air squadrons.
In 1965, Holder was promoted Air Marshal and took over at Coastal Command (and tangential Nato posts) where he encouraged the introduction of Nimrod, a maritime reconnaissance version of the Comet, which entered service in 1969, a year after he retired.
On retirement, Holder set about converting and enlarging the family’s new home at Churt in Surrey. He took lessons in carpentry, plumbing and electricity and drew the plans himself. He also created a garden, developing its natural pond for trout, and later carp.
Holder was elected to the Farnham ward of the district council. More recently, he devoted himself to cosmic study and prepared a paper, The Theory of Interstellar Particles. Challenging Newton on gravity, Holder contended that particles rather than gravity push bodies together and enable the light of the sun to reach earth.
Holder was appointed KBE in 1965. He was awarded the DFC in 1941, the DSO in 1942 and appointed CB in 1964. In 1966 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
He married, in 1940, Mary Elizabeth Kidd. They had two sons.” (Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)
Sir Paul can be seen in this Pathe newsreel:
“G.V. Inside Grosvenor House with everyone seated at the tables for Anglo-American Friendship Ball. V.S. Of the guests at the tables and those seen include: Lord Shackleton and Lady Lindley, Major Gen. Hardy of U.S.A.F., Sir. Charles Elworthy, Air Chief Marshall Sir. Hugh Constantine, Managing Director of ABPC C.J. Latta, Colonel W. D. Gray, Air Marshal Sir. Paul Holder and two squadron leaders, R. Sweeney and Robert Payne. Then Paul Getty with Lady Ramsey, King Peter II of Yugoslavia, the Marquis of Amodio, Sir. Billy Butlin with his wife Norah and Mr. Latta talking to Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling. V.S. General dancing in progress in the ballroom.”