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17th July 1940: The inexperience of youth

Charles David Peel was born on 3rd May 1919, the younger son of Lt Col. Willoughby Ewart Peel and Alice Peel. Charles Peel attended Cheltenham College in 1932 and, after leaving in 1937, was apprenticed to A & J Robertson, Accountants of Edinburgh. At the same time, he also joined 603 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force in December 1937 and began his initial flying training. (see photo left, courtesy of and copyright the David Ross Collection).

Like his other Auxiliary pilots, Peel was called to full-time service at the end of August 1939. He was attached to RAF Montrose on 14th January 1940 where 603 had some aircraft operating on aerodrome defence. Peel was unable to accumulate meaningful flying experience in this period due to being admitted to the Officers Nursing Home in Edinburgh on 16th February for a knee operation. He was discharged and attached to RAF Turnhouse on 8th March as non-effective sick and supernumerary. He was passed fit by the Central Medical Board and returned to 603 squadron on the 24th May. Following his lengthy absence, a Flying Instructor posted to 603, F/O John Young, wanted to post Peel to an OTU for further training but he was kept with the squadron. David Ross, in his history of 603 squadron, recorded that significant pressure was put upon his instructor by Peel's parents, saying that their son was not only suitably equipped, but also desperately keen, to fly operationally.

"Colonel Peel and his wife had a house near Drem and I had recommended that as Peel was so inexperienced he should be sent to an Operational Training Unit for further training. The Peels put on a party at which they tried to get me to rescind my decision, but the long and short of it was that, in my judgement, Peel's flying, was inadequate and this was born out when he died while flying from Montrose.'

(David Ross, 'The greatest squadron of them all: The definitive history of 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, RAUXAF, Vol I)

Peel was reported ‘Missing’ after failing to return from an operational sortie from Montrose in Spitfire K9916 on 17th July 1940. An Anson made a search in the Bell Rock area off Aberdeen but reported that it could see nothing because of adverse weather conditions. On that day there were other instances of squadron movements being hampered by bad weather. The exact circumstances of Peel's disappearance will never be known - he may have lost his way, suffered a mechanical failure, run out of fuel or been hit by return enemy fire - but the North Sea became his grave. Suffice to say that his chances of meeting his death so early in the Battle of Britain may well have been avoided had he received more operational training on Spitfires.

Peel was 21. He is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial, panel 6.

If you would like to hear more about the experiences of fighter pilots such as Charles Peel and others in 603 squadron on either a London walking tour or whole day tour in East Kent, please get in touch now. You can also visit the website, call 07852 765901 or email

Photos courtesy of the Battle of Britain monument.

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