Operational fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain lived with the prospect of death each and every day. Even when not in operational combat, the risks associated with their own flying inexperience or that of others; mechanical failure of the aircraft or vital equipment such oxygen; as well as accidents in training meant that they lived their lives in close proximity to death. Pilots understood what it was to lose close friends and squadron colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, many men experienced an even greater urgency to make the most of time when it was presented. Hector Bolitho, an Intelligence Officer in the RAFVR and close friend of pilots in 85 and 43 squadron described this in his book, "The Finest of the Few: The story of Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot John Simpson"
"Pilots may know how to fight, but they are equally wholehearted in their pleasures. One of their talents is in being able to turn quickly from their battles in the skies to their pleasures on the earth. Again and again through John's letters, one finds him describing... a combat with an enemy and then telling of some foolish party or some lively jaunt into the neighbouring town."
Bolitho wrote of several pilots who were friends of John Simpson and spent time at Bolitho's home when off-duty. These include more experienced leaders such as Peter Townsend, Richard 'Dickie' Lee and Caesar Hull.
(Peter Townsend and Caesar Hull)
“The party was a great success. Peter and Caesar did their wonderful ‘La Chaquita’ dance to the gramophone record that we bought from Tangmere. It is a cross between a rumba and an apache dance and they throw each other all over the room, crash, bang! They jump over the tables and chairs while they are dancing. We drank eight bottles of champagne."
In his letters, Simpson also spoke of the high spirited antics of more junior pilots including Tony Woods-Scawen (pictured above) and Harold 'Knockers' North:
“I fly with a wizard little chap in as my number two. He used to fly with Caesar [Hull] in the old days however so I have something to live up to. His name is Tony Woods-Scawen (killed two September 1940). He is the biggest and smoothest flirt that I have yet come across. His room is surrounded with pictures of naked jobs much to the delight of ‘Knockers’ North DFC (reported missing early in 1942) who was in my flight and a bloody good type. He hails from New Zealand.”
Harold 'Knockers' North (left)
In a letter to his would-be girlfriend, Bunny Lawrence, Tony Woods-Scawen himself made clear the dangers that pilots faced in the air and the subsequent temptations that followed on the ground:
"One of the Sergeant pilots got written off the other day - he spun into the deck. Rotten luck because he was a cracking type." However the temptations were plentiful. "We had a colossal session in the local large town. Gosh the girls are pickative... and my, is it hard on the morals."
(Ralph Barker, 'That Eternal Summer," p111)'
The attitude to the prospect of death was often one of acceptance rather than of depression, and many instead chose to make the most of life while they could. Bolitho recorded that:
"I have never found a sign of morbidity over death among pilots. When war was declared, pilots did not expect to live very long. Death had already become their companion when training and afterwards, flying with air squadrons. The experience of death was not new to them when the war began. It merely intensified.
I think that the risk of death which was always with them made them all the more grateful for life. Each time they landed, they gave thanks. Perhaps it was in the form of a drink. They drink to celebrate, never to stimulate false ecstasy or to drown depression. Life and death are not so very far apart from them. The habits of the pilots show a frank openhearted acceptance of certain facts: that the price of double happiness must be paid for with the coin of double risk. So every living moment must be exhausted in joy. .”
(Tony Woods-Scawen, 2nd left and Caesar Hull, 3rd left with other members of 43 squadron)
If you would like to hear more about men like Tony Woods-Scawen and how they coped with fighting in the summer of 1940, why not sign up for 'Battle of Britain Tours' now?
Text and photos courtesy of the Battle of Britain monument.