“Winkle, The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot” by Paul Beaver (published by Michael Joseph)

Air ace landed in hot and cold water

Author Paul Beaver first met famed flier Eric “Winkle” Brown in 1978, developing a close friendship that spanned almost 40 years. In 2009 Brown agreed to let Beaver write his biography with access to his archive, but with the strict caveat that it would be only after he died. That day arrived on February 21, 2016 and the 20-plus chests of documents, flight records, photo albums and memorabilia revealed secrets, mysteries and stories even more astounding than those that had already seen Brown gain national treasure status.
23. July 2023 7:17

He was the guest in November 2014 when the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” radio program celebrated its 3000th episode, and broadcaster Kirsty Young told listeners that his exceptional flying career in one of the most dangerous jobs possible – first a fighter pilot then a test pilot –  was so remarkable that it “makes James Bond seem like a bit of a slacker”.

Indeed, she was talking about a man who had narrowly evaded internment in Germany at the outbreak of the Second World War, who escaped drowning in the Atlantic after his aircraft carrier was torpedoed, and who was shocked by the horror of the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Further, Bond never flew 487 types of aircraft, more than anyone else in history, or held the world record for the most aircraft carrier deck take-offs and landings performed (2407 and 2271 respectively). These landings were his speciality and included the first by a twin-engined aircraft and by a jet, plus he flew almost every category of Royal Navy and Royal Air Force aircraft: glider, fighter, bomber, airliner, amphibian, flying boat and helicopter.

During World War Two he piloted captured German, Italian, and Japanese aircraft, including new jet and rocket airplanes. Perhaps 007, adept as he was at getting out of tight corners, never escaped death by the skin of his teeth no fewer than 23 times, as Brown did, and perhaps more according to Beaver. Brown kept alive by tempering courage with caution.

But he was also arrogant and had an impetuous, show-off streak. While flying in an escort for Winston Churchill’s aircraft he became bored and so flipped over, an act caught on camera by the Prime Minister’s private secretary. Soon after, pulling a similar upside-down stunt, his engine went bang and he crashed into the Firth of Forth. Breaking his nose and bruising his arm, he gathered his wits, opened the cockpit and swam to safety.

He drew official displeasure on many occasions, sometimes swooping under bridges, buzzing airfields and flying without permission, and his hard-bitten professionalism often made him unpopular with men under his command whom he wasn’t kind to if they couldn’t match his mastery. It rankled with Brown that despite his immense skill and bravery he was seen as a lowly figure by the top brass. For instance, after risking his life to accomplish the considerable feat of landing a wooden Mosquito on aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable, a first, he found that while all the VIPs had been given cabins, he had the wardroom couch.

The author sifted through thousands of documents in the archive, and alongside patient detective work he uncovered revelations that Brown didn’t want the world to know while he was still alive. The biography was some six years in the making and is a hefty 544 pages with good maps and pictures. Even so, the original manuscript required rewriting and editing to keep down the word count. Some 50,000 words were cut but the publisher partly solved this with detailed captions on a hundred photographs, many not seen before.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the treasure trove of material was Brown’s illegitimate birth, a considerable stigma at that time. He arrived in Edinburgh in 1920 as a months-old baby in a train carriage full of very young unwanted children sent to Scotland by the National Children Adoption Association. He had been born to a single mother on January 21 that year in the Salvation Army’s Mothers’ Hospital in Hackney, London, and was adopted by Robert and Euphemia Melrose Brown, devout lower-middle-class Presbyterians, of Leith, a port area in the north of the city of Edinburgh.

This was a fact that Eric took to his grave, never telling his wife Lynn and son Glenn and omitting it from his autobiography, “Wings On My Sleeve”, first published in 1961. Beaver found other details that “didn’t add up” following Brown’s death in 2016, aged 97, after the family handed him all the papers. Brown’s military records as a Navy pilot gave his year of birth as 1919, as Brown would say, but actually it was 1920. Also, the records revealed for the first time his true birthplace.

The family didn’t have a birth certificate, only a certified copy. Beaver contacted the registration office in Alloa, which holds records from across Scotland dating back to the mid-19th century. They found 25 errors or “amendments” on the birth certificate, which was actually an English one that had been doctored to make it look Scottish.

Although born within the sound of Bow Bells, and thus technically a Cockney, the revelation didn’t change his Scottishness, according to Beaver – he just happened to not be born in Scotland. He had a scholarship to the Royal High School in Edinburgh, studied at Edinburgh University and commanded a squadron and an air station at Lossiemouth. Beaver believes Brown doctored his birth certificate to be eligible to play rugby for Scotland in the 1930s.

Brown knew from adolescence he wanted to be a pilot. His father took him on teenage trips to Germany and he met the legendary Ernst Udet, the highest-scoring surviving fighter ace of the First World Wa,r and by then a world-renowned aerobatic pilot. A young Brown even joined Udet in the cockpit for a thrilling flight at a German air show.

Brown was staying in Augsburg in early September 1939 when the Second World War began, seeing him arrested by the German state security service, the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD. It became among the many lucky escapes he would have over the course of the war: saved through reciprocal exchange arrangements organised by the Red Cross to repatriate British and German students to their homelands. Had they not released him, he would have been interned for the duration of the war and there would be no biography of Eric Brown.

When the 19-year-old aspiring pilot reported to the Royal Air Force recruiting office in Edinburgh, he was told sign-ups were at capacity and there was a three-month wait. So, learning that there was a shortage of pilots in the Royal Navy, in 1939 Brown joined the Fleet Air Arm and began his illustrious career. He was nicknamed “Winkle” because of his short stature: only 5ft 6in (167.6 centimetres) tall. “Winkle” is short for “periwinkle”, a thumbnail-sized sea snail, and it was tradition in the Fleet Air Arm to name the shortest pilot thus. Taller fliers would have lost their lives or broken their necks in the crashes he survived.

He would see action in the Battle of the Atlantic and became involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen because there were rumoured to be some German jets nearby that he wanted to see. His excellent German-language skills saw him briefly pressed into action as a translator at the camp, its stench of death remaining with him the rest of his life..

His first brush with death came on his first combat mission, above the Bay of Biscay in October 1941 when Brown, then only 21 and in a Martlet fighter, came face-to-face with a German Condor bomber, which bristled with guns. His side windscreen exploded under fire and he briefly lost consciousness but rallied sufficiently to limp the stricken plane back to the aircraft carrier HMS Audacity and land safely on the heaving warship. Pieces of plexiglass lodged in his cheek and mouth that couldn’t be removed and stayed there until his death.

In December 1941, Audacity was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. Seventy-three men perished that night, with Brown, always a well-prepared man, fairly  insulated against the cold sea and  among the 225 survivors.

He was a pioneer of jet technology into the postwar era, testing ground-breaking technology and chasing ever-faster speeds. He was very bitter that Britain allowed the “glittering prize of supersonic flight” to be snatched from it by the Americans, with US Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager becoming the first human to break the sound barrier in 1947. Brown was devastated at missing out.

Biographer Beaver acknowledges that it can be tricky to write a warts-and-all narrative of a famous person if you have been close to them for a long time. Perhaps there’s a lot more here on Brown’s achievements rather than his personal life, but the warts aren’t avoided.

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