Our brave Battle Of Britain pilots remembered

An iconic Spitfire.
An iconic Spitfire.
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During the summer of 1940, the RAF repulsed the might of the German Luftwaffe in daring dogfights high above the land and sea in what became the Battle Of Britain – and through their efforts helped changed the course of the war.

Two of those brave airmen, Douglas Cyril Winter and Oswald St John Pigg, have their roots here in South Shields.

Spitfires from 72 Squadron lined up before a sortie.

Spitfires from 72 Squadron lined up before a sortie.

Today, local historian Dorothy Ramser begins her fascinating account of the men and their missions, and the ultimate price they paid in helping prevent Hitler and his Nazi troops invading this land of ours.

“Douglas Winter was born in 1914 and attended Westoe Secondary school,” explains Dorothy.

“He joined the RAF in September 1929 when he was only 15, training as an aircraft apprentice. He went on to qualify as an engine fitter in 1932, and was posted to Egypt and then Palestine to service aircraft.

“In the same year he competed in the King’s Cup as a member of the RAF’s athletics team, and quickly came to the attention of his commanding officer, who recommended him for pilot training.”

From pilot training school, Douglas passed out as Sergeant Pilot Winter, and was posted to 72 Squadron which flew Gloster Gladiators.

In April 1939, the squadron converted to Spitfires, and was tasked with air defensive duties and convoy protection in the north of England until June 1940, when they moved south to help in air cover for the Dunkirk beaches.

“Douglas (Snowy) Winter’s first operation during the war came on October 27, 1939, when flying a Spitfire on an operational patrol.”

Just six months later, on May 26, 1940, he was involved in one of the most dramatic incidents of the war – the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat to Dunkirk.

“On June 2, Douglas and his comrades (including South Shields-born Flying Officer Pigg) were ordered to patrol over Dunkirk and, on arrival, engaged a formation of six Junker 87s - also known as Stuka dive bombers.

“Squadron Leader R.B. Lees, Flying Officer Pigg and Pilot Officer Winter, along with Sgt B. Douthwaite, each destroyed a Stuka dive bomber.”

Dorothy said Flying Officer Pigg was born in South Shields in 1918. The son of a clergyman, he attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

He joined 72 Squadron in 1937. A month later, and the squadron was back in England.

“On July 1, at 6am, the squadron was scrambled to intercept an unidentified aircraft eight miles east of Sunderland.

“It wasn’t long before a white twin-engine biplane, a Heinkel 59 (a four-crew aircraft used by the enemy for mine-laying) was spotted.

“An attack went in at 200 yards, then at 30 yards, when smoke was seen to pour out from the fuselage.

“Another attack went in and the enemy aircraft lost height and landed on the water about four miles east of Hartlepool.

“One of the squadron pilots had seen some small articles strike the water – it was thought they were small bombs.

“One of the Spitfire pilots flew to a light cruiser which was leading a convoy in the vicinity and directed the ship to the spot where the enemy aircraft was slowly sinking tail-first.

“Three of the enemy crew were seen to leave the aircraft in a dinghy and rowed towards the cruiser.”

Later that day and on subsequent days, patrols were made over the Farne Isles, Woolsington and Blyth, said Dorothy.

“They were scrambled to intercept a suspected enemy raid east of Blyth on July 5 and then later near Seaham Harbour.

“On July 6, Pilot Officer Robert Deacon Elliott lost consciousness at about 20,000ft because of lack of oxygen when he was over the Cheviots, diving quickly to 17,000ft.

“Thankfully he came to about 1,000ft above the hills, and managed to return to the aerodrome, where the Spitfire was found to be so strained and twisted that it was declared a write-off.”

Despite the pilot’s lucky escape, there was no rest for the rest of the squadron which was brought to readiness just two hours later when it was reported that a strong force of enemy aircraft were moving in a concentrated attack towards the Firth of Forth.

Thankfully, an hour later, the all-clear was sounded as the threatened attack reportedly dispersed.

“The following day even more enemy aircraft were reported, and the squadron was again scrambled.

“Routine patrols continued throughout July, covering an area from Berwick to Sunderland, with missions including the protection of shipping convoys.

“For the next two weeks, the Spitfire pilots settled into a routine of patrols, searching for enemy aircraft and protecting Allied shipping.”

* Tomorrow: Hitler attempts to bring Britain to her knees.