John Nichol Introduces Five Heroes Who Flew the Spitfire
Today, as the RAF mark their centenary celebrations with centrepiece commemorations including the RAF100 parade and flypast, John Nichols, author of Spitfire: A Very British Love Story, introduces five heroes of British military aviation history.
Most people will recognise the name Spitfire because of the iconic fighter aeroplane’s involvement in the Battle of Britain in 1940. But the redoubtable fighter’s incredible career amounted to so much more than fighting of the Luftwaffe raiders over the south east of England.
The fighter, and the incredible pilots who flew it, saw action in England, Northern France, Malta, Italy, Burma, Australia and Russia to name just a few of the theatres of war they served in.
Here are my top five heroes who flew the Spitfire:
Alan travelled from New Zealand in 1941 to defend what he regarded as his “homeland”, even though he had never left New Zealand. He flew the Spitfire in battle in Tunisia, Malta, Sicily and Burma. To my mind he is one of the greatest unsung heroes of WW2. In Burma, he took off with his wingman to defend his airfield against a Japanese attack by what they thought were four incoming fighters. It quickly transpired that the Japanese had sent twenty aircraft and his wingman was shot down within seconds. Alan battled the raiders for 25 minutes until they ran short of fuel and retreated. His account of that aerial battle is one of the greatest untold stories of military aviation.
Allan joined the RAF in 1939 and flew through the whole of the war. He is the last surviving Spitfire Ace (5+ kills) from the infamous Siege Of Malta in 1942. He told me, "We had no real thoughts of death; - we were young and perhaps callous. Someone would get the ‘chop’ [killed] and you just accepted it, didn’t really think about it. I certainly never thought about my own survival - I just wanted to get in the air and shoot Germans down".
Diana Barnato Walker
Socialite Diana had learned to fly before the war at Brooklands, Surrey, where as a child she watched her racing driver father, Woolf, speed round the motor-racing circuit. In 1941 she decided to join the Air Transport Auxilliary which was charged with delivering the RAF’s planes from the factories direct to the front line. There were not enough men to do the job so women were invited to apply for the job. Diana turned up for her ATA flight test wearing her stepmother’s leopard-skin coat and was told that she looked far too attractive to know much about flying. She flew flawlessly and was immediately taken on; Diana had at last found a way to contribute to the war effort. She delivered hundreds of aircraft over the course of the war.
Group Captain Sir Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas was 19 when he joined the RAF. Nicknamed ‘Cocky’ because of his resemblance to a Rhode Island Red Rooster, he first saw action over the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 during the chaotic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. A legendary fighter pilot, he was promoted to squadron leader at the age of 21, wing commander at 22, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1941 and the Distinguished Service Order in 1944. At 24, became one of the youngest group captains in the RAF. His skill as an aviator is still spoken about by the current generation of fighter pilots.
Flt Lt Antony Parkinson
This one is a bit off the wall as Parky is a recently retired RAF pilot. Known to everyone - including his wife - as ‘Parky’, he joined the RAF at the age of 18 in 1983. He recently retired from the RAF after an astonishing and unrivalled carer flying countless aircraft like the Euro Fighter Typhoon, the F4 Phantom, the F16, the Tornado F3 and the Red Arrows. Flew with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight for ten years flying the Spitfire and the Hurricane; he is one of the country’s most experienced Spitfire pilots. Now the Senior Pilot for all Spitfire Operations with Aero Legends, he spends his time taking customers on their trip of a lifetime in a two-seat Spitfire.