Updated: Dec 28, 2022
Peter Wooldridge Townsend, one of seven children, was born in Rangoon on 22nd November 1914, where his father was a member of the Burma section of the Burma Civil Service. He was educated at Wychwood Preparatory School, Bournemouth and Haileybury College. He entered the RAF College Cranwell in September 1933 as a Flight Cadet. He was a Prize Cadet in that year.
After graduating on 26th July 1935 with a permanent commission, Townsend joined No. 1 Squadron at Tangmere. He was posted to 36 (Torpedo-Bomber) Squadron in Singapore in January 1936 but was posted back to the UK for health reasons, as by 1937 he had developed acute eczema.
On the voyage home, though, his eczema cleared up completely. He was delighted to return to flying fighters at Tangmere, this time with 43 Squadron, save that his skin immediately erupted again in protest.
Later in the year he was sent for a course to the School of Navigation, Manston and afterwards posted to 217 Squadron at Tangmere, a general reconnaissance unit. He became ill, considered resigning but, after a long sick leave, he re-joined 43 Squadron in September 1938.
Townsend was appointed ‘B’ Flight Commander on 31st August 1939. He shared in the destruction of a He111 on 3rd February 1940. It crashed near Whitby, the first enemy aircraft to fall on English soil during the war. He claimed He111s destroyed on 22nd February and 8th April and on the 10th he damaged another. Townsend was awarded the DFC (gazetted 30th April 1940).
On 23rd May 1940 he was posted to Debden to command 85 Squadron, which had just returned from France. On 11th July Townsend was shot down into the sea three miles off Southwold during an attack on a Do17, in Hurricane P2716. He was rescued by the Cap Finisterre and landed at Harwich. The Do17 was damaged. Townsend received a Mention in Despatches (gazetted 11th July 1940).
On 11th August he destroyed a Do17 and damaged a Me110; on the 18th destroyed two Me109s and a Me110, on the 26th he shared in the destruction of two Do17s; on the 28th and 29th destroyed two Me109s; on the 30th damaged a Me110; and on the 31st he probably destroyed a Me109. On this day Townsend was shot down by a Me110 over Tunbridge Wells. He baled out, wounded in the foot, and landed at Cranbrook Road, Hawkhurst. He was admitted to Hawkhurst Cottage Hospital and later transferred to Croydon. His Hurricane, P3166, crashed at Bedgebury Park, near Badgers Oak, Goudhurst.
Townsend was awarded a Bar to the DFC (gazetted 6th September 1940) and re-joined 85 at Church Fenton from sick leave on 21st September. After the Battle of Britain 85 Squadron went over to night-fighting.
On 25th/26th February 1941 Townsend destroyed a Do17, 85’s first night victory, on 9th/10th April he probably destroyed a Ju88 and on 10th/11th April he damaged another.
He was awarded the DSO (gazetted 13th May 1941) and posted to HQ 12 Group as Wing Commander Night Operations.
Peter Townsend by Eric Kennington In April 1942 Townsend was made Station Commander at Drem and in June he took command of the reformed 605 Squadron at Ford. He went to RAF Staff College in October and in January 1943 he took command of RAF West Malling. Later in the year he commanded 23 ITW and then went to 2 FIS Montrose for an instructors course.
In mid-February 1944 Townsend was appointed Equerry to the King.
The three months contract was extended, and in 1945 Townsend was accorded a 'grace and favour' house, Adelaide Cottage, in the Home Park at Windsor Castle. In 1949 and 1950 he entered the Kings Cup air race under Princess Margaret's name on the second occasion beating the world speed record over a closed circuit.
He was created CVO in 1947 and served until the King’s death in February 1952, continuing then as Comptroller to the Queen Mother until July 1953, when he was appointed Air Attaché in Brussels. This posting followed a period when the possibility of Townsend marrying Princess Margaret was being openly discussed. Townsend later wrote of "an unnatural move to an obsolescent post in which my RAF career was to end". On 31st October 1955 Princess Margaret issued a statement in which she said, "I have decided not to marry Group Captain Townsend" and referred to his status as a divorcee and the Church of England's attitude against such a marriage.
Townsend retired from the RAF on 18th November 1956 as a Group Captain. He wrote an autobiography, Time and Chance, which appeared in 1978. He was a Commander of the Order of Orange Nassau, an Officer of the Légion d’Honneur and a Chevalier in the Danish Order of Dannebrog.
Townsend died on 19th June 1995.
He is buried at St.Leger-en-Yvelines in France.
Photos and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website