No forgetting brave airmen from South Shields

A Spitfire fighter plane.
A Spitfire fighter plane.

The day after RAF fighters stemmed, what local historian Dorothy Ramser describes as the Luftwaffe’s concentrated attempts to bring Britain to its knees, Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw for himself the bravery of the Allied fliers.

Visiting an operation room in the south east, he watched RAF crews, including Pilot Officer Douglas Winter and Flying Officer Oswald St John Pigg (of 72 Squadron), who had close ties to South Shields, clash with their numerically-superior enemy in a deadly struggle in the skies over Kent.

It was on leaving that he spoke the words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few.”

Dorothy says: “On August 31, 1940, 72 Squadron moved to Biggin Hill, to be part of 11 Group to help to protect the south east of England and London during the Battle of Britain.

“Between August 18, 1940, and January 7, 1941, Biggin Hill was attacked 12 times.

“Despite the enormous damage there it remained operational, although only one squadron could use it throughout the whole of the decisive air battle.

“Due to the extensive damage to the aerodrome and runways at Biggin Hill, 72 Squadron was moved to Croydon.”

It was there that Pilot Officer Pigg made his final sortie.

On September 1, 15 Spitfires were scrambled and, according to the squadron’s operations record book,came into contact with the enemy at 30,000ft.

During the subsequent sortie over Maidstone and Beachy Head, Douglas Winter shot down a Heinkel 113 while other enemy planes were destroyed.

Sadly, as a result of the clash, 21-year-old South Shields-born Oswald St John Pigg was reported missing.

In his combat report, Douglas Winter put the number of enemy aircraft destroyed on that day as approximately 100 fighters and 40 bombers.

His fellow flyer, Oswald St John Pigg was later confirmed as killed in action.

“His Spitfire had been shot up by a Messerschmitt 109 and Oswald was unable to bale out and crashed in his aircraft at Elvey Farm, near Ashford, in Kent.

“He is buried in St Oswald’s Church’s graveyard, in Durham City.”

Just three days later and the crew of 72 Squadron were back in Croydon where they were immediately called into action.

“At almost 1pm, nine Spitfires took off on patrol and 20 minutes later the enemy was sighted in the Tenterton-Tunbridge Wells area.

“An attack went in, and three Junkers and six Messerschmitt were destroyed, without the loss of a single Spitfire. Group Commander Keith Parks wired congratulations to 72 Squadron.

The next day brought no rest for the airmen and women – and tragedy for one of the crew members.

“At 1.20pm, seven aircraft headed out on patrol at 25,000ft where enemy Messerschmitts were sighted. However, during the dogfight that followed, Pilot Officer Douglas Cyril Winter, RAF No.43372, was killed.

“He baled out of his Spitfire too late and his parachute failed to open as he plunged to the ground. His Spitfire X4013 crashed into Covert Wood, Elham, in Kent.”

Douglas, who left a young widow, Marjorie (nee Stewart) ,who he’d married in 1939, and was living in their cottage in Alnmouth, was praised for “his gallantry and devotion to duty”.

In a newspaper report of September 12, his grieving family requested that mourners attending his funeral that day make donations to the South Shields Spitfire Fund, instead of laying wreaths.

He was buried in a military grave in Harton Cemetery, in Section O, grave 11795.

“His family must have been heartbroken,” added Dorothy. “However their steadfast support for the war effort in the air continued, because in a newspaper dated September 21, Mr & Mrs DC Winter, of Lyndhurst Street, South Shields, donated £12-10s-6d to the Spitfire Fund in memory of their son.

“Thanks to men like Douglas and Oswald, our island had not been conquered and we could fight on.

“He died before he could be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross or Distinguished Flying Medal in recognition of the number of enemy planes he shot down, but he is a Battle of Britain Spitfire ace and his name is inscribed on the Battle of Britain Memorial, in London.”