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Britain's most heroic Spitfire pilots from World War II
Now an iconic and much-loved symbol of British strength through times of adversity, the Spitfire’s groundbreaking design and finely-tuned engineering helped defend the skies above Britain throughout the summer of 1940. The precision-built machine was an engineering marvel for the time. The success of the Battle of Britain is often credited to the sleek and speedy aircraft. However, while it was the superior machine of the skies, the Spitfires would have been nothing without the brave members the Royal Air Force that piloted them.
The average life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain was just four weeks. Despite this alarming figure, aspiring fighter pilots continued to join the RAF throughout the conflict, supporting the efforts of ground troops and defending their country.
Here are three Spitfire pilots whose heroics went above and beyond the call of duty.
Sir Douglas Bader
Having lost both his legs early on in his RAF career, Douglas 'Dogsbody' Bader didn’t think he’d ever fly for the RAF again. Eight years later, following the increasing tensions in Europe and the looming threat of war, Bader was allowed a test flight to ascertain whether he was eligible to re-join. After displaying his exquisite aerial abilities, Bader was very quickly reintegrated into the RAF and began his training in the new Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes at RAF Duxford.
One advantage that Bader had over his fellow fighter pilots in training was courtesy of his amputations. The high g-force experienced by pilots throughout combat often caused them to pass out as the blood was forced to drain from their brains and into their legs. Bader’s dual amputation meant that he didn’t lose as much blood to his lower extremities, allowing him to maintain blood pressure and stay conscious for longer.
It didn’t take long for Bader to climb through the ranks, and within a matter of months, he was promoted to wing commander. Credited with 22 aerial victories, over 10 shared and probable victories, and another 11 confirmed damaged enemy planes, Bader was a fierce and fearless pilot. His rule of the British skies ended on 9th August 1941, when he was shot down over the French coast.
Interred as a prisoner of war in the infamous Colditz Castle, Bader was well received by his German captors. He was so respected that they even allowed him to sit in one of their own Messerschmidt fighter planes while he chatted with Luftwaffe pilots. Despite his positive reputation, Bader was determined to make his imprisonment as difficult as possible for his captors. After multiple escape attempts and generally belligerent behaviour, Bader was finally freed when Colditz was liberated on 15th April 1945.
When George Beurling first tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, he found himself rebuffed due to his limited academic qualifications. Having left school at 15 to start a career and help support his family, Beurling had always wanted to fly. Within a year of leaving education, he had already amassed 150 flight hours and passed all the qualifications needed to become a commercial airline pilot.
Working for an airfreight company out of Ontario when war broke out, Beurling joined the Royal Air Force in September 1940. His skill and aptitude for combat flying quickly became apparent and he was sent to be stationed in Malta.
Beurling’s tally of downed enemy combatants could not be rivalled. Within five days of his first taste of combat, he had joined the elite ranks of ‘aerial ace’ - a term given to those who downed or killed at least five enemy pilots. Beurling quickly became known as a violently skilled combat pilot who took high risks with each sortie. With a combination of fearless flying, excellent eyesight, and the ability to manoeuvre his aircraft in highly advanced ways, his tally of confirmed kills far surpassed that of any other pilot in Malta.
His daredevil antics and persistent harassment of the enemy aircraft eventually caught up with him on 14th October, when his Spitfire came under heavy fire. Riddled with bullet holes, Beurling aggressively beat back his enemy until his Spitfire caught fire after being hit from below. Shot through the heel, elbow, and ribs, Beurling bailed out over the sea - a risky choice as many pilots lost their lives through drowning or cold shock from entering the water.
Despite his severe injuries, Beurling was able to inflate his dinghy and await rescue. He was immediately hospitalised and sent back to Britain. However, further disaster struck when the transport aircraft he was travelling in was shot down, crashing into the sea off the coast of Gibraltar. Beurling was one of the only three people onboard to survive.
Upon his return to Britain, Beurling became a celebrity. His distinguished service, bravery, and dogged determination inspired the British public, and he became involved in the drive to sell war bonds. His final confirmed kill total was 27, the highest of any fighter pilot in the Maltan skies.
Johnnie Johnson’s pathway to becoming a Spitfire pilot was a messy one. After learning to fly at his own expense, his multiple applications to the Auxillary Air Force and Royal Airforce Volunteer Reserve were overlooked every time. Joining the Territorial Army out of frustration, Johnson was determined that his contribution, if war were to break out, would not be spent “building air-raid shelters or supervising decontamination squads".
In August 1939, Johnson was finally accepted to the RAVR and started flight training immediately. Just one year later, he was flying his first Spitfire. However, an old rugby injury in his collarbone that hadn’t healed properly meant he was unable to withstand the high forces placed on the body during flying. Opting for surgery to ensure that he could continue to fight, Johnson was out of action until the end of 1941 - missing his chance to fight in the Battle of Britain.
This didn’t hold him back and he was back in the air by 31st December. As part of the larger Tangmere wing, commanded by Douglas Bader, Johnson’s first contact with enemy combatants ended in embarrassment and a severe dressing down from his commander during the post-flight debrief.
Despite the false start, Johnson went on to get his first aerial victory in May of that year and continued to rack up successful fights one after the other. As the war progressed, Johnson was promoted to wing commander and, by the end of 1945, had a total of 34 confirmed destroyed, seven more shared downs, three probable downs, and 10 damaged - the highest count of any pilot in the RAF.