Two South Americans in 97 Squadron, PFF

Near to one another in Cambridge City Cemetery lie two South Americans who were once Pathfinders in 97 Squadron.

Geoffrey Wood, a gunner, came from Chile. Chile borders Argentina, the homeland of his last pilot, Roderick Stanley Emerson, known to friends and family as Derick.

pathfinder badge two portraits
‘Derick’ Emerson in the Pathfinders. Courtesy of George Emerson (‘Tony’)


Derick Emerson (as he was always known) was born in 1916 in Argentina, the third of four brothers.

In 1881 at the conclusion of the Indian Wars (known in Argentine history as The Conquest of the Desert) tracts of land in the Pampas were given by the government to those who financed the wars and those who served in them.  Derick’s grandfather, John Emerson, then resident in Uruguay, bought one such tract from a former officer.

Derick’s father, George, was educated at Tonbridge, where he was a contemporary of E M Forster (hence his name being borrowed for the hero of ‘A Room with a View’), and then volunteered to serve in the Boer War.  At its conclusion he decided to convert his father’s tract of uncultivated Argentine land into an estancia, which he named Estancia La Ema.

By the time Derick was of school age, George was running three estancias, of which two were owned by Derick’s mother, the daughter of a Manx financier who had settled in Argentina.  Derick had been put down for Harrow, and was taken to England at the age of nine to be educated at Orley Farm.  In those days there was no air travel, so Derick and his brothers spent term time at school, and their summer and Easter holidays with relatives in Sussex and the Isle of Wight.  Every November their parents sailed from Argentina, and after a family Christmas with Derick’s uncle they used to go skiing in Gstaad.  As a result Derick’s mother said that she spent twenty years without ever seeing a summer.

Derick passed common entrance into Harrow and went to Newlands, whose housemaster was the legendary Reverend Digby Kittermaster.  Derick was no academic, but a multi-talented sportsman.  He established a new Harrow School swimming record which stood for thirty years, he played fly half in the Rugby Football XV, and batted in the cricket second eleven.  Sadly he never got to Lords.

After Harrow Derick returned to Argentina, where he was appointed to be segundo mayordomo (i.e. under-manager) of one of this mother’s estancias.  It was not a very onerous job, and he found plenty of time to be an amateur jockey and to learn to play polo.  In 1938 he formed a polo team with his two elder brothers and the old master, Lewis Lacey, which won the Summer International Tournament in Uruguay.

When World War II was declared in 1939, it seemed a distant European affair, but after the fall of France the danger to Britain was obvious, and Derick and his eldest brother Malcolm sailed to England as volunteers.  They were recruited into the Royal Air Force Volunteer reserve.  Malcolm’s eyesight did not allow him to be a member of an aircrew, but Derick trained to be a pilot in Bomber Command.

While training he met Gwyneth Acland, the daughter of an Old Harrovian, whom he would marry.  He passed out as a pilot so well that he was sent straight to an instructor’s course, and for the next eighteen months his sole contribution to the war effort was training other pilots.  Maybe sole contribution was an exaggeration.  In December 1942 a fellow instructor asked him to deliver a serious amount of Champagne to the fighter base at Biggin Hill for a Christmas party.  This was best achieved in the bomb bay of a Wellington bomber: unfortunately the party was held during a downpour, and when the time came to return the bomber had sunk into the grass runway.  For two and a half years the Luftwaffe had tried to close Biggin Hill with no success: Derick showed that Champagne was the key.

Derick was very frustrated at not being in the front line of the war effort, but his applications to transfer to active operations were repeatedly turned down.  Eventually the formation of the Pathfinder Force gave him his opportunity.  […]

Derick’s first operation with 97 Squadron was as 2nd Pilot on the terrible night of 16/17 December 1943 when so many others on the Squadron were killed:


JB361A  P/O V.S.Flack, F/L R.S.Emerson (2nd Pilot), Sgt J.H.Hare, F/O A.P.Rand, F/O R.G.Boston, Sgt R.Ferguson, F/Sgt H.Dunnent, F/Sgt G.W.Wood.  Up 1700  Down 0035.  2 LBTI Green, 2 x TI Green, 1 x 4000lb, 4 x 1000lb.  Target bombed from 19,500’.  10/10ths cloud, vis good.  TI reds and Wanganuis well concentrated but covered an area of possibly 5 miles in diameter.  Cloud prevented observation of results.  Weather at base on return very bad.

Thereafter, Derick flew several operations in his own aircraft. It was the operation to Stuttgart on 21 February 1944 which saw the tragic loss of the entire crew: Emerson Crew


GEOFFREY WOOD – Emerson’s Mid-Upper Gunner

geoffrey wood with sauvage
Geoffrey Wood (far left) when on Johnnie Sauvage’s crew, Sauvage (far right).

Geoffrey Wood came from Patagonia in Chile and is remembered on the memorial in Punta Arenas Municipal Cemetery.

geoffrey wood

The inscription is a little difficult to read in the photograph so here it is in full:

In Memory

Of Those From Magallenes

Who Made The Supreme Sacrifice

Whilst Serving With The

British Forces

Magallenes is the Province in Chile covering the land either side of the Straits of Magellan.

Henry Pye Wood, Geoffrey Wood’s grandfather, emigrated to Chilean Patagonia with his wife and children in 1883 to set up sheep farms in partnership with his brothers and brothers-in-law, (the Patagonian Sheep Farming Company). They had about 1,500,000 acres at Punta Delgarda and at Tierra del Fuego another 900,000 acres, with about half a million sheep in all.

Geoffey Walter Wood was born in 1910.   Like a lot of British living in South America, the family kept UK passports, and thus it was that Geoffrey Wood volunteered to serve in the RAF during the Second World War. He had no need to do so, and could have remained safely at home.

Information and memorial photograph from Kit Read.

With thanks to Henry Pedersen, who originally pointed out the connection between Geoffrey Wood and the Sauvage crew, and that there is a mention of Geoff Wood in Eddie Wheeler’s book, ‘Just to get a Bed’ (page 87). Sparing of description, Wheeler writes simply that Geoff was very shy.