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  • Through Adversity - 'Lives of Three Operational Pilots' by Alastair Goodrum

    The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots

    My seventh and latest book tells the stories of three pilots from widely differing places: Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and South Africa, and social backgrounds: sons of a country JP, a market gardener and a vet. They are typical of the composition of the RAF and their individual military careers link to present day in a dramatic perspective of the period from the fragile biplane-age when the Royal Flying Corps/ Royal Naval Air Service (RFC/RNAS) was created in April 1912, through the First World War, Inter-war, Second World War and up to the strategic, atomic-age jets of the RAF V-Bomber force, at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. One introduced air reconnaissance in BE2s over the battlefields of France; another flew Hurricanes and Spitfires in combat; while the fourth tested and introduced air-to-air refuelling for Valiant bombers that gave the RAF V-Force its global capability.

    BE 2a '272' was first allocated to No. 3 Squadron at Larkhill in March 1913 then passed to No. 2 Squadron at Montrose in May 1913, where it took part in the squadron deployment to Ireland. (Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Major Leonard Dawes learned to fly at his own expense in 1912, gaining Royal Aeronautical Club (RAeC) pilot certificate number 228, on a Bristol Boxkite, marking him as one of the very earliest 'fledgling' airmen. He joined the Royal Flying Corps's (RFC) first aeroplane squadron (No.2) in whose frail BE2 biplanes he made many ground-breaking long-distance flights throughout England, Scotland and Ireland before the outbreak of the First World War. He attended the embryo Central Flying School, training alongside airmen - including Hugh Trenchard and other famous names in aviation – many of whom established the formative organisation and traditions of the RAF and went on to occupy its highest echelons.  Leonard flew his aircraft to France as part of the first RFC operational deployment to the battlefront upon outbreak of war in August 1914. Having been in some of the very first air-to-air combats - firing rifles and pistols at equally primitive German aircraft; decorated by the British and French governments while flying some of the first air reconnaissance patrols of the First World War; because of his experience, Leonard was posted back to England in 1915 to raise new squadrons and prepare them for battle over the Western Front. In the course of this training phase, he became associated with several squadrons that still exist today in the RAF, such as No.2 Squadron (Leonard's own first squadron; now flying Typhoons) and No.29 Squadron (He was its first CO; Typhoons).

    Ex-Battle of Britain Hawker Hurricane I, R4118 in the markings of 605 Squadron. Wg Cdr Dickie Barwell flew Hurricane R4115 with 242 Squadron, as wingman to Sqn Ldr Douglas Bader during the Battle of Britain. (Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Gp Capt Dickie Barwell volunteered and learned to fly with the RAF in 1926.  He became the youngest Group Captain when in 1942 he took charge of Biggin Hill, the RAF's most famous fighter airfield, at a crucial period of the air battles of the Second World War. Having been schooled in the unique, traditional inter-war method of on-squadron flying training, his exceptional flying skill was quickly recognised and he was sent to the Central Flying School, first as a student for Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI). When later called back to join its staff, Barwell became a member of the crack CFS Air Display team at the RAF Hendon Pageants.  After further training as an aero engineer, he returned to flying duties in the 1930s, rose to command No.46 Squadron, the fighter squadron he had joined as a novice in 1926. When the Second World War began in September 1939, he gained fame and a DFC as the victor of the Battle of Spurn Point, the first major air battle of the Second World War, fought off the east coast of England in October 1939. With his skills and experience, Dickie was earmarked for high rank and promoted to command RAF Sutton Bridge and after a spell at No.12 Group Fighter HQ, became station commander of RAF Biggin Hill. Always keen to get a slice of the action and see how his subordinates did their work, he flew combat sorties in the Battle of Britain as wingman to the legendary Douglas Bader and even as a station commander, flew on highly demanding fighter 'sweeps' over France in 1941/42, during which he was always in the thick of the action and credited with shooting down enemy aircraft. It was a sad end to his brilliant career when he was himself shot down and killed in 1942 by a novice Spitfire pilot in a tragic case of 'friendly fire'.

    Brian Fern in Vickers Valiant WZ376 refuels Avro Vulcan ZX478, 1959. (c. Brian Fern Collection, Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Born in Mafeking, South Africa and educated in England, Sqn Ldr Brian Fern joined the RAF and learned to fly at the British Flying Training School in Ponca City, Oklahoma, USA during 1942. Returning to England, he was selected for training at the Central Flying School (CFS) to became a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) for multi-engine aircraft, after which he trained hundreds of other pilots destined for Bomber Command during the Second World War. Made redundant from the RAF - like thousands of his contemporaries - at the end of the war, he joined the Tanganyikan Police Force for five years but with the advent of the Cold War, Berlin Air Lift, and Korean War, the RAF found itself very short of aircrew and mounted an advertising campaign for recruits. Out in Africa, Brian responded and with his past experience, was gratefully accepted by the RAF, eventually becoming operational on the Canberra and Valiant bombers at the height of the Cold War. Having served as aircraft captain of a Valiant bomber he was deployed frequently to distant parts of the British Empire. When the RAF decided it should become a global-reach, nuclear-equipped, jet-bomber force it required a new approach to the question of in-flight refuelling in order to achieve this strategic aim. As a Flight Commander of 214 Squadron, at this point Brian became one of the earliest exponents of air-to-air refuelling operations in the RAF's new V-bomber force, carrying out lengthy operational trials with the Valiant as a flying tanker, including claiming its first long-distance flying record. He later trained Valiant and Vulcan pilots how to re-fuel in the air, a technique vital, not only to the strategic aims of the RAF, but also to the many record-breaking long-distance flights made in that era to all corners of the Commonwealth. Brian ended his RAF career as deputy station commander of RAF Gatow in Berlin where, among his diplomatic duties, he carried out spying sorties, for BRIXMIS, at the controls of the innocuous DH Chipmunk trainer aircraft flying at low level over East German territory in the Berlin Corridor.

    Alastair Goodrum's new book Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots is available for purchase now.

  • School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain by Alastair Goodrum

    My latest book, School of Aces (Amberley; 2019), tells the story of how RAF Fighter Command prepared for battle. It takes an in-depth view of the creation and development of its premier fighter pilot and air gunnery school, located at RAF Sutton Bridge. This station is where, for example, the RAF prepared for the air Battles of France and Britain, a decade before they were actually fought. The story that unfolds throughout my book is nothing, of course, without the pilots themselves. Who were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them? These are a few of the questions the book addresses. It is interesting to discover, too, that by the time the Second World War was into its stride, RAF Sutton Bridge was training pilots of every nationality that served in the RAF. This first blog post uses the story of nineteen-year old Plt Off Denis Wissler, from Greenwich, England, to illustrate just what these young men – fresh from No.6 Operational Training Unit at RAF Sutton Bridge – were asked to do.

    Plt Off Denis Wissler Hurricane 1940. (School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Together with sixteen companions, Denis learned to fly the Hawker Hurricane on the first course run at RAF Sutton Bridge. That course lasted six weeks but the deteriorating situation in France cut subsequent courses to a mere three weeks duration. Denis was posted to 85 Squadron on Lille-Seclin airfield in France on 27 April 1940 but, recognising his lack of experience, his CO, Sqn Ldr John Oliver, ordered him to fly only to get himself accustomed to the local area. The CO considered there was no pressing need at the moment for Wissler to go on operational patrols and he would be much better occupied putting in some more hours on the Hurricane; familiarising himself with squadron routine and generally making himself useful on the ground.

     

     

     

    Plt Pff Denis Wissler, 17 Sqn, 1970. (Courtesy B. B. M. London, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    When the Germans rolled into France on the morning of 10 May 1940, Seclin was bombed, causing many casualties on the ground but fortunately most of the pilots were already in the air on patrol. Left behind, Denis Wissler literally had to run for his life for a slit trench when the bombing started and soon found out what war looked like when he helped to rescue the casualties afterwards. With mounting pilot casualties, too, his CO had no option but to commit Plt Off Wissler to combat operations and Denis took his place alongside his comrades in the air – and managed to survive. During his first patrol on 12 May, Denis became separated from his flight and got lost. Landing on what – fortunately – turned out to be a French Air Force aerodrome he had to ask for directions back to his own base. No sooner had he returned than he was airborne again for another patrol. That night Denis wrote in his diary: ‘I now have had just six hours sleep in the last forty-eight hours and have not washed for over thirty-six hours. My God, I’m so tired, and I am up again at 3 am tomorrow.’ Next day, 13th, he was indeed up at the crack of dawn for a patrol from which he returned safely. His second sortie of the day was part of a flight led by Sqn Ldr Oliver. They were jumped by enemy Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and John Oliver was shot down. Denis Wissler made a bee-line for the cover of clouds and emerging cautiously, found himself alone and unsure of his whereabouts – again. Landing on another French airfield, this time Cambrai, it was pointed out to him that his Hurricane was leaking oil badly. For once, he was able to sleep soundly in the French officers’ mess while RAF ground-crew were sent to fix his aeroplane. Just four days had elapsed in which Denis had to try to learn to do all the things needed to simply get himself airborne from a bombed airfield; fly his Hurricane in combat; avoid being shot down and – as if that wasn't enough – then find home when he had spent most of his time pulling such tight turns that he hardly knew which way was up. Tired he was – weren’t they all? – but he survived until the squadron was withdrawn to England (RAF Debden) on 22 May. But Denis was not quite done with France yet. At Debden he was posted to 17 Squadron on 8 June and it was still operating in France, covering the British withdrawal while flying from Le Mans airfield. He flew out to join the squadron on 9 June and survived the final days of the RAF campaign in France, finally withdrawing via Dinard and Jersey once more to Debden airfield on 19 June.

    Hurricane Is of 111 Squadron up from Northolt, in July 1938. (Courtesy ww2images.com, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Denis Wissler remained with 17 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, scoring his first success on 29 July when he shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111 bomber. By September he was now considered an experienced fighter pilot but, in combat with Bf 109s over the Thames estuary on 24 September, after shooting at one ’109, he went for a gaggle of four more and in the ensuing scrap, his Hurricane took a cannon shell hit in the port wing. The explosion damaged the flaps on that side and a shell fragment wounded him in the left arm. Denis dived hard to escape the fight and flew back to Debden where he made a flap-less landing. His Hurricane ran into a pile of rubble which added to his woes by causing cuts and bruises to his face. After a couple of weeks in Saffron Walden hospital he returned to flying duties on 10 October. It was in the closing stage of the Battle of Britain, when 17 Squadron moved to RAF Martlesham Heath, that Fate finally caught up with Denis. On 11 November 1940, while leading a section of his squadron into action, he was shot down and posted as missing in action during an engagement off the Essex coast near Burnham-on-Crouch.

    Alastair Goodrum's new book School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain is available for purchase now.

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