Heroism forged in Derbyshire - Remembering our Battle of Britain heroes 80 years on
PUBLISHED: 08:17 07 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:17 07 July 2020
george cairns @georgethefourth
Eighty years to the month since the Battle of Britain, Derbyshire’s brave are remembered.
There is a popular misconception that the men of the Royal Air Force who won the Battle of Britain were young, brave, dashing lads barely out of their teens who risked everything to take on the Luftwaffe and save the free world.
Much of that is true; they were certainly brave, many made the ultimate sacrifice and their actions certainly played a large part in ensuring this country could be used as the launchpad for the Normandy landings some four years later – but they were not by any means all young.
Some were in their late teens and twenties, but many of ‘the Few’ – as they were to become known – were in their thirties and forties, and one defiant air gunner, Pilot Officer Sydney Carlin, was 51 years old and had lost a leg in the Great War.
It is, incidentally, because the Few includes air gunners, wireless operators and other airmen who were not pilots that the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, custodians of the National Memorial to the Few at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent, is careful to refer to the men collectively as ‘aircrew’.
One of the older participants in the conflict, Derbyshire-born Arthur Victor Clowes, had joined the RAF in January 1929. After several years in a ground trade he remustered, became a pilot and had become an Ace – with five or more ‘kills’ to his name – before the Battle of Britain had even started.
Clowes, who was born in New Sawley and educated at Long Eaton Council Elementary School, signed up as an aircraft apprentice and passed out in December 1931 as a metal rigger. He later applied for pilot training, and after passing out as a Sergeant-Pilot he joined No 1 Squadron and was sent to France at the outbreak of war. He was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 1st April 1940.
His record in France was impressive. On 23rd November he shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He111, on 29th March 1940 he destroyed two Messerschmitt Bf110s, on 14th May a Bf109 and a Junkers Ju87 and on the 15th a Bf110. On the 23rd he shared a He111, on June 4th he destroyed a Bf110 and on the 14th he shot down a He111.
A few days later the squadron was withdrawn to Tangmere, but by the end of July it was once again operational. Clowes received a Mention in Despatches on 11th July 1940, the day after the official start date of the Battle of Britain, which lasted until the end of October that year.
He claimed another He111 and a Ju88, destroyed on 16th August, a Bf110 and a He111 damaged on the 30th, two Dornier Do17s and a Bf110 probably destroyed on the 31st, a Bf110 shot down on 7th September and a Do17 shared on 24th October.
Awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his contribution during the Battle of France, Clowes was commissioned in September, promoted to Acting Flight Lieutenant and given command of ‘A’ Flight on 10th October. He was later awarded the DFC and died of cancer on 7th December, still serving in the RAF.
A Derbyshire man with a very different wartime experience was Herbert David Denchfield, who was born on 2nd November 1919 at Eckington, near Staveley, and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in May 1939 to train as a pilot.
Called to full-time service on 1st September, Denchfield had various postings before converting to Spitfires and joining No 610 Squadron at Acklington on 7th October 1940, a few weeks before the official end of the Battle.
While he may not have played a major part in the Battle, Denchfield’s contribution was enough to earn him the ‘immediate’ award of the 1939-45 Star with Battle of Britain Clasp, making him one of around 2,940 members of the rightly famed Few. To qualify, aircrew had to make one authorised operational flight with one of 71 ‘accredited’ squadrons and other units under the control of RAF Fighter Command, between 10th July and 31st October. With record-keeping not a priority while runways were being cratered, sometimes-hazy records mean a definitive list of the Few is unlikely ever to be compiled.
Back to Denchfield, and while on a Blenheim escort to St Omer in February 1941, his aircraft was hit during an attack by Bf109s. Unable to regain control, he baled out at 5,000ft, landed in a field and was captured by the Germans, spending the rest of the war in a series of prisoner-of-war camps.
Released on 1st May 1945, Denchfield was flown back to the UK a few days later in a Lancaster, was released from the RAF at the end of that year and joined A V Roe in February 1946 as a design draughtsman/engineer. When he retired in 1984, he was with British Aerospace, overseeing electrical and avionics installations. He died in December 2012.
One Derbyshire pilot who had an impressive record in the Battle of Britain went on to win the DFC for an act of bravery later in the war.
Norman Taylor, born in October 1919 at Chellaston, Derbyshire, joined No 601 Squadron (Hurricanes) at Tangmere on 7th August 1940. He shared in damaging a Ju88 on the 15th, claimed a Ju87 destroyed on the 18th, shared in the destruction of a He111 on the 30th and destroyed a Bf109 on the 31st. Following that success his own aircraft was hit in the petrol tank and he baled out, unhurt.
Taylor damaged a Do17 on 6th September and, following a number of successful sorties in 1941, was commissioned in June of that year. He was awarded the DFM in July and presented with a gold cigarette case by his former colleagues at the Standard Motor Company as a mark of respect for his participation in the Battle.
After his success in the Battle of Britain, Taylor was posted to the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit (MSFU), protecting the convoy lanes from the Luftwaffe’s Focke-Wulf 200 Condor aircraft.
On 1st November 1942 he was launched by catapult from the Empire Heath to engage a FW Condor off the coast of Spain. He intercepted it and drove it off before it could attack any of the ships, and in the face of strong return fire, he shot it down from close range.
After orbiting the convoy to make sure there was no second Condor, Taylor baled out and was picked up by the corvette HMS Sweet Briar. For this action he was awarded the DFC.
Taylor left the MSFU in April 1943 and was posted to Rolls-Royce at Derby for test pilot duties, fulfilling an ambition he had held since his pre-war apprentice days. He remained at Rolls-Royce for the rest of the war, stayed on in the RAF and flew a Meteor on the Victory flypast in June 1946. After being killed in 1948 when his Harvard crashed in Germany, he was buried in Munster Heath Military Cemetery.
Battle of Britain Ace Alan Norman Feary was born in Derby in 1912, educated at Derby Municipal Secondary School and worked in the Borough Treasurer’s Department before gaining his wings on 18th November 1938.
After various postings, he found himself at No 609 Squadron at Northolt on 11th June and joined the fight against the Luftwaffe. He shared in destroying a Ju88 on 18th July, destroyed a Bf109 on 12th August and destroyed a Ju87 and damaged a Bf110 on the 13th.
The next day Feary shot down a Ju88 which had just bombed Middle Wallop, killing some airmen who were trying to close the doors of one hangar. Already airborne, he shot the enemy aircraft down about 30 seconds later.
On 25th August he destroyed a Bf110 and damaged another, on 7th September he got a probable Bf109 and damaged a Ju88, on 24th September he shot down a Do17, on the 25th he damaged another and on the 26th he damaged a Bf109.
Feary was killed on 7th October 1940, shot down in a surprise attack by Bf109s over Weymouth. He baled out but was too low, while his Spitfire crashed at Watercombe Farm, south of Warmwell. He is buried in Holy Trinity churchyard, Warmwell.
Although his career was relatively short, his score of five destroyed, one shared, one probable and five damaged made him an Ace. Squadron Leader Michael Robinson, who had recently taken over command of 609, described him as a ‘brave and fearless fighter pilot’.