Four brave Kent men who served in the Battle of Britain
PUBLISHED: 16:19 08 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:19 08 July 2019
The men who fought in the Battle of Britain included civilians who joined the RAF as reservists. Here are the stories of four brave Kent men
From the late 1920s onwards, with the Royal Air Force expanding rapidly and tensions growing across Europe, it was clear that the number of pilots signing up was far short of the figure the country needed.
In an attempt to bolster the number of trained aircrew, the Air Ministry set up a new Reserve scheme. Under this scheme, civilians - including the less well-heeled for whom flying was otherwise unaffordable - could take leave from their employers and enrol on an eight-week course, supplemented by further training at weekends.
One of the first men to sign up was Beckenham-born Joseph Kilner, who went on to fly Spitfires during the Battle of Britain as one of Churchill's Few, the fewer-than 3,000 airmen who thwarted Hitler's invasion plans by defeating the Luftwaffe in 1940.
Born in 1916, Kilner, who also served in the Battle of France and went on to win the DFC later in the Second World War, had worked for a chartered accountants, as a car mechanic and as a salesman before signing up to learn to fly.
He attended the de Havilland School of Flying at Hatfield from August 1936 until December 1937, finishing the course just as the Reserve scheme was incorporated into the RAF Volunteer Reserve, an organisation that, by May 1939, had trained an impressive - and vital - 4,394 aircrew.
Kilner was called to full-time service in May 1939, four months before the start of the war, joining No 65 Squadron at Hornchurch.
The following May he opened his account, sharing a 'probable' Junkers 88, a Dornier 17 and a Heinkel 111 as the Allies tried unsuccessfully to stop German forces advancing through France and the Low Countries.
In the Battle of Britain that followed, Kilner and his RAF colleagues were to prove more successful. During the campaign, which ran from 10 July to 31 October 1940, Kilner probably destroyed four Messerschmitt Bf 109s, destroyed a further three, damaged another and also damaged a Dornier 17.
The contribution made by those who joined the RAF as reservists was to prove significant, with figures showing RAFVR pilots shot down at least 500 enemy aircraft during the Battle.
Kilner was awarded the DFC in 1944 and released from the RAF in 1946 as a Squadron Leader.
Dover man Eric Bruce King, who was 28 when the war began, was involved in one of the better-known incidents of the Battle, an engagement that resulted in one of his colleagues winning the only Victoria Cross awarded to a Fighter Command pilot.
King joined the RAF in 1932 on a short service commission and on 16 August 1940, having converted to Hurricanes and joined No 249 Squadron as a Squadron Leader, he was flying with Flight Lieutenant James Brindley Nicolson and Pilot Officer Martin Aurel King, one of the youngest pilots to serve in the Battle.
Over Southampton the three aircraft were jumped by Me 109s, and while Sqn Ldr King managed to make a forced landing back at base, PO King was killed when his parachute collapsed after he baled out.
Flt Lt Nicolson, badly wounded and in severe pain, was about to bale out of his burning Hurricane when he spotted another Messerschmitt, slid back into his seat and attacked the enemy fighter, despite his cockpit being completely ablaze.
He eventually baled out, suffering further injury when the Home Guard opened fire.
Nicolson was awarded Fighter Command's only VC for his bravery. King died on 30 August after being shot down in combat over Rochester and crashing in Temple Street, Strood. He is remembered on a memorial plaque at Dulwich College.
Maidstone's Jimmy Corbin, who died in December 2012, had only clocked up 29 hours' flying time in Spitfires when he joined No 66 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Sent for more training, he later rejoined the squadron, which had moved south to RAF Kenley in Surrey, but within three days he was sent to join No 610 Squadron. Six weeks later, towards the end of the Battle, he was posted back to 66 Squadron, by now in Gravesend.
Corbin achieved a measure of literary fame when he was one of 10 pilots asked by their CO, Squadron Leader Athol Forbes to record their thoughts on the Battle for the book Ten Fighter Boys.
By the time it was published in 1942, five of the pilots were dead. Corbin, who was educated at St Michael's School in Maidstone and did his weekend flying training with the RAFVR in Rochester, later saw action over northern France and in North Africa.
Corbin was credited with destroying a number of aircraft, as well as lorries and a motor torpedo boat, and was awarded the DFC in 1943. Released from the RAF at the end of 1945 as a Flight Lieutenant, Corbin rejoined the RAFVR in 1948 and served until 1952, when he returned to teaching.
After 10 years at Collier Road School he joined the staff of Maidstone Technical School, retiring as a senior master in 1980. A prominent Freemason, he was honoured in 2008 when Maidstone's Corbin Business Park was named after him and in 2011 he was granted the Freedom of the Borough.
Another Kent airman who served in what was arguably the most important battle fought by this country in the last century was Eric Hugh Thomas, who lived in Tunbridge Wells and was a member of Smythe House at Tonbridge School.
Flying with No 222 Squadron in September 1940, he shared in destroying a Dornier 17 on the 15th, damaged an Me 109 on the 20th, shot down 109s on 9 and 25 October and shared in the destruction of one 109 and damaged a second on the 29th.
More success followed and, after commanding No 611 and No 133 Squadrons, Thomas was awarded the DFC. He was later appointed Wing Leader at Biggin Hill and was awarded a Bar to his DFC. He was awarded the DSO in 1943 and left the RAF in late 1944, in failing health, as a Wing Commander. He died in April 1959 and is buried in Tunbridge Wells Cemetery.
Both of Thomas's brothers were killed in RAF service in the Second World War. Flying Officer B K Thomas was shot down near Grantham in May 1941 and Flight Lieutenant C G Thomas was lost in a Lancaster of 49 Squadron in November 1943.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust
The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust is a charity that exists to safeguard the memory of the heroes who fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940, when fewer than 3,000 men of the RAF took on the might of the Luftwaffe and succeeded in keeping this country safe from invasion. In doing so they also preserved it as a springboard for the D-Day landings of 1944 and the eventual re-taking of mainland Europe. The Trust has cross-referenced as many 'Men of the Battle of Britain' entries as possible with their place of birth, and is for the first time able to reveal the stories of local Battle of Britain pilots.
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