When the Battle of Britain began on 10th July 1940, no-one knew whether the 331 remaining Spitfires and Hurricanes that had survived the Battle of France and evacuation of Dunkirk - as well as its small pool of experienced and newly recruited pilots - would be able to withstand the onslaught from superior numbers of Luftwaffe.
Hilary Patrick Michael Edridge was typical of those RAF pilots facing a successful, confident and determined enemy. Born on 20 January 1919, Edridge joined the RAF in 1939 as an officer on a short service commission aged just 20 years old. After the completion of his flying training, he was posted to 222 ‘Natal’ Squadron at their Duxford base in March 1940. Hilary became best friends with P/O Tim Vigors, both of whom flew under their then Flight Commander, Douglas Bader.
His squadron first engaged the enemy over the Dunkirk beaches and Hilary was able to claim a Messerschmitt 109 as a ‘probable’. His father, Dr Ray Edridge, wrote up his son's recollection of that day over Dunkirk:
"Hilary was over Dunkirk during the evacuation. He told me there was no need to set a course. You steered for a vast black pillar of smoke. They were told to do as much damage as they could to the Jerries. He said the sea was a marvellous sight, covered with all kinds of craft, large and small. He saw a transport blown-up, and he told me of many other things that I forget. I think he brought down his first German ‘plane that day. It was the only time he mentioned bringing anyone down. He chased this ‘plane, but the pilot evaded him for a long while. Then he got on his tail again, going (I think he said?) at ‘twelve boosts’ [sic] and getting within two hundred yards he gave him the works. He looked at me and flushed. “It was bloody. He just burst in the air….” And then he talked about something else…..
Despite the squadron's attempts to protect the soldiers' evacuation from the beaches at Dunkirk, 222 squadron had taken a battering as had many others. It was withdrawn to a quieter sector in the north of England but was ordered south again to RAF Hornchurch on 29th August as RAF losses became increasingly critical.
Like the majority of pilots, Hilary Edridge hadn't accumulated a significant record of kills - just 3.5% of RAF fighter pilots accounted for 30% of these - but he continued to fight when the odds of his own survival were looking increasingly slim. On an almost daily basis from late August until October, losses and casualties within 222 Squadron reflected the hectic pace of the air fighting. Tim Vigors recorded one such example:
….A stream of tracer was flashing past my starboard wing tip and I hurriedly whipped my Spitfire into a left-hand diving turn and then pulled hard back to try to get above him. I saw him go fast and away below me, and at that moment a Dornier 17 appeared in front of me, about a couple of hundred yards away. As I prepared to fire, the Dornier exploded and a Spitfire, with guns still blazing, followed us down. I just saw the registration letters of Hilary’s aircraft on the side of the fuselage. I yelled with delight !
It is probably this event of which Dr Edridge also wrote, telling of dining at his club with his son and and Hilary's girlfriend, Kit:
…….He was taking Kit to a dance afterwards at the Assembly Rooms. During dinner she told me how excited her father had been when he had seen two Spitfires bring down a Dornier at Maidstone. I saw Hilary’s face redden. He asked when and what time it had been and Kit gave him the details. “One of those pilots was me” said Hilary, but vouchsafed no more than this. Later, Major Roberts (Kit’s father) told me more about this, telling how both Spitfires had converged on the German, giving him bursts of machine gun fire that brought him down in flames. He said that he would have been much more excited had he known that it was Hilary up there.
And yet on the same day, Hilary had also had a very close experience of being killed himself. Hilary’s father recorded that:
"He was hit in the petrol tank which immediately caught fire and the flames came back into the cockpit. He made a good get-away, electing to fall very much further than was pleasant before pulling his rip-cord. Jerry had been machine-gunning parachutist that day and he preferred to drop clear of that possibility. When he was first in difficulties his first reaction was thankfulness that it was all over. He put up his hand to make the sign of the cross, but then felt his parachute harness and realised that he must try to bale-out. He landed in Broome Park at Barham in Kent, just through a gap in the trees…."
His friends in the squadron were unaware of what had happened to Hilary at the time and were anxious about whether he had survived. Tim Vigors, found that his usual sang-froid at the loss of squadron comrades deserted him when Hilary had failed to come back from that early-evening sortie:
"None of us had seen him get into trouble and I waited anxiously for news. Deaths had become everyday occurrences by now, but as I paced up and down outside the dispersal hut I found it difficult to treat the possibility that my good friend had been killed with that same studied lightness which, like everybody else, I had learnt to affect in these circumstances. Hilary and I had grown very close over the last few months and now, confronted by the stark reality that he might have been killed, I suddenly realised how much I relied on his sympathy and humour. Luckily, my anxiety on this occasion was short lived.
“He’s OK, Tim” yelled Johnny Hill from the doorway of the dispersal hut. ”Biggin Hill have just called to say that he baled out. He’s a bit burnt, but they say not too bad.”
Hilary's face had indeed been burnt, but as these were comparatively superficial wounds, he spent a week in the Kent & Canterbury Hospital followed by ten days leave. His father recorded that Hilary was his usual bright and happy self. However his realisation that his chances of survival were slim was articulated during this leave when he said goodbye to his friend, Steve Sedgewick, telling him that he was going to die and would not see him again.
Writing in 1979, Tim Vigors was very clear about his friend’s state of mind but also his determination to continue in the face of such heavy losses in Fighter Command:
"The first time he was shot down he shouldn’t have come back so quickly, but he realised we were very short of pilots and insisted on flying again. I tried to talk him out of it, but he was an obstinate devil."
Mentally, too, he seems to have been preparing for what he believed to be inevitable during those last precious days of leave at his Bath home. Quiet and thoughtful, Hilary spent time immersing himself in music - playing the violin, flageolet, recorder and penny whistle and listening to Gilbert & Sullivan. He shared his time, too, amongst special friends and family, no doubt inwardly saying his farewells, but only openly sharing that ‘goodbye’ with Sedgewick. His strong Roman Catholic faith, too, was important to him at this time and Dr Edridge tells of his son’s attendance at Mass and Holy Communion on the last day of his last leave. It was here that he also requested of the celebrant, Canon Sugden; “What about a spot of confession, Canon?”
Under the circumstances, Edridge's father said that his son was dealing with the situation calmly and with dignity but he later wrote of his inner fears following Hilary’s departure back to his squadron during late October with the following words:
If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come…
That time came on Wednesday 30th October, 1940 - the penultimate day of the Battle of Britain.
At around 11.15 that morning, S/Ldr. Hill had led the squadron off from Hornchurch to patrol base at 30,000ft and to act as rear-guard for 41 Squadron. Very soon they were vectored to meet an enemy raid in the vicinity of Dover at 25,000ft and then further west towards Hastings. One squadron pilot who managed to survive the engagement, told of its ferocity in a letter home to his mother. In it, P/O John Carpenter wrote:
…I was absolutely peppered with cannon shells and machine gun fire. My instrument panel broke up in front of me, for the fire came from over my shoulder. The engine started thumping and vibrating so that I thought it might shake the wings off…but I managed to struggle back to the aerodrome. When I got out and inspected the aeroplane the Flight Sergeant counted over three hundred holes in the fuselage. In fact, it looked something like a sieve.
A little further to the north, over Northiam, Daisy Lloyd was walking back to her home at Great Dixter as it was coming up to lunchtime. The sound of battle above was, by now, commonplace and almost ignored, but the noise of an approaching aircraft drew her attention. It circled, low, as if the pilot was looking for a landing place and then, terrifyingly, roared straight towards her home. In the last seconds it lifted up over the roof, but then vanished from view into the little valley beyond. Then came the sound of a crash. As she rushed indoors to telephone for an ambulance, her gardener, chauffeur and electrician raced down to the scene. Here, they found a badly wrecked Spitfire with its wounded pilot trapped helplessly in the crumpled cockpit. It was Hilary Edridge. Struggling with his harness, and cutting him free of his parachute, many pairs of caring hands lifted him clear as the local ambulance bounced down the track to the scene.
Ambulance driver, Bert Norris, supervised the gentle removal of Hilary to the ambulance, and then drove off at high speed towards Brickwall House on the other side of the village. Once a private stately home it had been transformed into a RAMC Field Hospital, and Hilary Edridge would become its first real war-casualty patient. Tragically, and despite the care and attention he received, Hilary did not recover from his severe wounds and injuries.
On the next day, Bert Norris felt compelled to write to Hilary’s parents:
"I want to assure you that everything possible was done for his comfort. I myself held blankets to screen him from the wind while the first aid party dressed his wounds. He crashed around 11.30 am, was found at once and cut out of his parachute and his wounds dressed and then taken to hospital. He passed on about 1.30pm, but I know he was unconscious all the time and knew nothing of what happened, I am sure. The reason, I think, of his crash was a bullet wound in the head."
Seemingly, Hilary Edridge had been wounded in combat and, despite his injuries, had tried to get his Spitfire down. From all the evidence it seems likely that he had selected his field and was on final approach when control was lost in those last moments.
For Tim Vigors, the shock of loss was an almost intolerable blow. He had watched as his friend’s Spitfire was hit off to his right whilst protecting the squadron’s rear. An ugly cloud of black smoke momentarily engulfed the aircraft before it veered away from him heading earthwards. Back at Hornchurch, and haunted by the sight of the stricken Spitfire, he paced up and down muttering “He must have got out, he must have got out…!” When news finally came through that Hilary was dead, Tim Vigors sat on the grass outside the squadron dispersal hut and wept.
In 1979, he recalled that fateful day:
"I can remember going pretty well berserk the afternoon Hilary was killed and making myself a thorough nuisance to the enemy as a result. Once I had got it out of my system, I was absolutely calm again but I missed old Hilary for many years to come. I still do. It was a very bad day."
Just over a week later, and almost appropriately on 11th November, the tattered remnants of the squadron were withdrawn to RAF Coltishall to rest and reform. During the period of the Battle of Britain, Tim Vigors recalled the drain of pilot losses:
During this period we went through about 100% of our pilot strength and I was the only pilot left who flew back to Coltishall who had flown down to Hornchurch from Kirton-in-Lindsey that August. We got so short of experienced pilots that on two occasions, and as a nineteen year old Pilot Officer, I found myself leading the Hornchurch Wing. My dear friend knew that he would die. I felt sure that I would, too, but fate decreed otherwise and left me, all of these years, to mourn poor Hilary.
Mourning Hilary, too, were his parents and family. "Dr Edridge wrote:
"Hilary is dead. He will never come back to us again. He was one of the most cherished possessions of our lives. Hilary eating. Hilary sleeping. Hilary kneeling at mass. All these things have suddenly ceased. This piece of life has been arrested, as the horologist with interjected finger arrests the beating of a clock. No amount of mental preparedness is proof against the dreadful blow when it falls. We loved him exceedingly, and still love him. We, the least courageous of parents, find that the honourable manner of his courageous passing makes it all the easier to bear."
In that ‘honourable and courageous passing’ F/O Hilary Edridge became the penultimate casualty of the 544 men lost from RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.
Photos and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website and research undertaken by Andy Saunders