Derby's Forgotten Ace - World War II pilot Alan Feary
PUBLISHED: 12:18 18 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:18 18 November 2014
Investigating the life of a World War II pilot
Over 30 years ago I wrote my first article for Derbyshire Life, a piece on Battle of Britain ace pilot, Derby-born Alan Norman Feary. I called him ‘the forgotten ace’ as I believed, and still do, that he never received the full credit for his exploits as a Spitfire pilot during that summer 74 years ago when Britain fought alone. Alan, tall and slim, a sportsman with an interest in amateur dramatics, and well at home in female company, worked in the Derby Borough Treasurer’s office, and with the formation of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, learned to fly in his spare time at Burnaston airfield; he was the first of the local RAFVR volunteers to gain his pilot’s ‘wings’ in 1938. When war broke out he completed his training, and in June 1940 was posted, as a sergeant pilot, to 609 (West Riding) Spitfire Squadron, based at Middle Wallop in Wiltshire. 609 was an Auxiliary unit, one of several peacetime elite formations of amateurs once derided as ‘rather snobbish preserves of the rich,’ but its pilots had suffered heavily over Dunkirk, and losses had been made up by adding regulars and VR’s.
Throughout the ensuing summer Alan was the only NCO pilot serving in the squadron, which must have been something of a lonely trial, but he swiftly showed his flying mettle. His baptism came on 18th July when he was one of a trio vectored onto a lone Junkers 88 off the Dorset coast. The enemy bomber duly crashed into the Channel under hits from all three Spitfires, but Alan’s two companions were shot down by the German rear gunner, though both survived, one baling out and the other force-landing on a nearby beach. On 12th August he despatched a Messerschmitt 109E off the Needles, and shot down a Junkers 87B Stuka dive-bomber over Lyme Bay the following day.
The events of the 14th August were significant in Alan Feary’s service, and form the basis of this article. That evening at around 5pm Alan was piloting Spitfire 1 L1065 (PR-E) on base patrol over Middle Wallop at 15,000 feet, as Yellow 2, led by Flying Officer John Dundas, above an almost unbroken layer of heavy cloud. Radar contacts had been picked up showing enemy aircraft heading in their direction, but the Junkers 88s of Lehrgeschwader 1 arrived over the airfield unmolested, diving through the murk to deliver their lethal bomb loads. One bomb scored a direct hit on No.5 Hangar, demolishing it and killing three brave airmen who were struggling desperately to close the massive steel doors to protect the Spitfires inside, whilst other servicemen suffered serious injuries from the blasts.
Dundas engaged one of the enemy bombers, somehow misidentifying it as a Messerschmitt 110, but it evaded him in the clouds. Alan recognised it more accurately as a Junkers 88, noting the black crosses, and pursued it through the cloud layer, hoping to intercept the bandit as it cleared the gloom. Down to 8,000 feet, and emerging into clear air, he saw another Ju 88 to his right which had just attacked the airfield. Oberleutnant Wilhelm Heinrici was the enemy pilot whose bombs had caused the havoc; pulling out of his dive, he headed for the safety of the overhead clouds, but Feary was now close on his tail and his life was about to end in a lengthy burst from the Derbyshireman’s eight Browning machine-guns. Closing to 250 yards, Alan saw most of his 2,800 rounds slam into the fleeing raider, coded L2+-H, which fell away in a steepening dive to crash and burst into flames on open downland at Turf Hill, North Charford, some five miles from the airfield. Pilot Officer David Crook, whose fine book Spitfire Pilot later detailed 609’s part in the Battle of Britain, took off as one of a wild squadron scramble as the attackers departed. He turned south-west to investigate the blazing funeral pyre of Heinrici’s Junkers, later reporting that he ‘had never seen an aeroplane so thoroughly wrecked; it was an awful mess,’ The amazing fact was that though the German pilot and two others of his four-man crew died in the impact, Gefrieter Eugen Sauer beat the odds, somehow surviving the devastating smash relatively uninjured, to face a long captivity.
Feary landed back at base at 5.25pm to refuel and rearm, seeing the dust clouds from the explosion of the enemy bombs still hanging above the smashed hangars. He took off a second time and climbed to 11,000 feet, aiming to clear the cloud base carpeting the district. He quickly picked out four Junkers 88s in diamond formation heading south-west above him, and climbed to intercept. The raiders eventually turned southward, and Alan launched an attack on the starboard warplane. Though he shot off all his ammunition at his target, and at two other bombers, he saw no positive results, nor any return fire as he broke away in frustration; he was only airborne for 20 minutes and landed at 6pm. John Dundas also attacked the same aircraft but identified the hostiles as Dorniers!
After another speedy turnaround Alan was airborne for a third time as odd enemy aircraft were still buzzing around. Circling Wallop below the cloud base, he was almost immediately in action again, as another Junkers 88 approached the airfield and released a string of bombs. Opening his throttle the Derby pilot closed with his quarry who rapidly sought sanctuary in the nearby cloud cover. Feary plunged into the murk behind the German, and fired off short intermittent bursts from his eight guns as pursuer and pursued emerged briefly through gaps in the overcast clouds. The elusive Junkers eventually disappeared, and a disappointed Alan came home when instructed by Control. He had fired on no less than five bandits, but could only claim one very definitely confirmed.
Apart from Alan’s ‘kill’ Crook and Dundas finished off a limping Heinkel He 111 which was carrying two Luftwaffe Obersts (Colonels) including the commander of Kampfgeschwader 55, and the Chief of Staff for V Fliegercorps, both of whom perished alongside KG55’s navigation specialist. Middle Wallop had been hard-hit, but was speedily cleaned up, though Hangar 5 remained derelict for the rest of the war. Alan went on to claim further victories in the Battle, including a Messerschmitt 110 shot down over Coombe Keynes on 25th August, and another 110 off the Isle of Wight on 24th September. He almost certainly destroyed another Messerschmitt 109E of JG51 on 7th September, which crashed in Kent, but could only claim a ‘probable,’ whilst five other enemy aircraft also suffered damage from his multiple Brownings.
Sergeant pilot Alan Feary was sadly killed on 7th October 1940 when he left it too late to bale out from Spitfire N3238 following combat damage, falling to earth in a semi-opened parachute at Watercombe Farm near Warmwell. The Squadron Diary perhaps encapsulated his attachment to the aeroplanes he flew, and some prescient hand wrote of him that ‘He seemed to regard his Spitfire with the kind of jealous care and affection that some others bestow upon animals’ crediting this trait with his reluctance to abandon his doomed machine. He was buried with full military honours in the small churchyard of Holy Trinity, Warmwell where he still lies. Tributes from his fellow pilots were both generous and sincere. David Crook wrote of him in his later book that he was ‘a very good and resolute pilot’ whilst the unit diary described him as ‘a very good pilot ... steady and painstaking.’ His squadron leader, Horace Darley later recalled him to me as ‘Most reliable at all times. I never found a single fault in him.’ Frank Ziegler, who chronicled the history of 609 in the Second World War in Under the White Rose, mentioned his ‘distinction that should have earned him a decoration’ yet for all these plaudits, when five of his fellow pilots received Distinguished Flying Crosses later that autumn, there was nothing for the sole NCO flyer in the unit.
With six combat victories, including one shared, plus one ‘probable’ and five damaged, Feary’s record was little different from that of those awarded DFCs. His success certainly inspired other Derbyshire-born pilots; his own half-brother, Harry, whilst viewing a display of salvage from German aircraft in the town market that autumn in support of the Derby Lord Mayor’s Fund, including a rubber dinghy rescued from Alan’s shot-down Junkers 88, determined to follow him into the RAF. Regrettably Harry himself was killed flying a Spitfire with 41 Squadron in the summer of 1941. Happily I was able to belatedly commemorate Alan’s contribution to victory in 1940 by persuading Derby Industrial Museum to mount a display to his memory, an exhibition opened by the city’s Lady Mayor in July 1987. The memorial was an apt tribute to one of Derbyshire’s 20th-century sons and warriors, whose Spitfire fittingly flew into battle powered by a Merlin engine designed and built by the city’s world-famous engineering firm.