How Kent novelist HE Bates told the stories of the Battle of Britain’s famous ‘Few’
PUBLISHED: 16:02 17 September 2020 | UPDATED: 16:02 17 September 2020
© Getty Images
80 years after the Battle of Britain, Richard Bates recalls the role his father H.E. Bates played in telling the stories of the famous ‘Few’ | Words: Richard Bates
This month we celebrate the 80th anniversary of The Battle of Britain – only the second threat of invasion of our island in the last 1,000 years. Victorious though we were to be in 1940, it was the closest we have ever come to defeat as a nation.
My father – the novelist H.E. Bates – was living in Kent with his wife and four children and was too old to be called up for service when war was declared in 1939.
However, by 1940 he was itching to ‘do his bit’. He eventually joined the Volunteer Reserve of the RAF and was posted not to the battlefield but to Air Ministry in Whitehall.
There he joined a department named PR3 together with a group of men of similar age. They were a motley crew of poets, painters, photographers, cartoonists and writers.
At first it seemed that Air Ministry had little use for them, but then as the war became more threatening the authorities realised they needed to educate the public about the very serious possibility of a second World War developing.
To give the country some assurance that Britain was not alone in this conflict, H.E. was charged with visiting a number of Fighter and Bomber stations across southern England, where he would interview pilots who had escaped from neighbouring European countries that were already under the deadly heel of the Nazis.
At first he found it hard to gain the confidence of these brave men and had to ask Air Ministry for a beer allowance so that he might take them to a local pub where they could talk more easily after a pint or two.
The allowance paid off and the ministry was delighted with the stories, which were published in a national newspaper (the News Chronicle) under the pseudonym of ‘Flying Office X’.
Many pilots can be traced through his stories, including the Czech ace Karel Kuttlewascher and Romualdus Marcinkus, the only Lithuanian in the RAF. Others came from Belgium, France, Austria and Ireland and many more from The Commonwealth – some 500 in number.
Civilian morale stayed firm and with the defeat of the Luftwaffe by Fighter Command in 1940, the German invasion plan was cancelled – a major turning-point in the history of the war.
The 20 or so stories that make up the Flying Officer ‘X’ collection are a unique record of a group of young men – the famous ‘Few’ – who gave their all and often their lives to protect Great Britain in its darkest hour. You can read one of these stories below.
It’s never in the papers
Every morning when I came downstairs I sat in the mess and looked at the papers. ‘Last night our bombers,’ I would read. ‘Yesterday evening at dusk a strong formation.’ But what I really looked for was never there.
I used to consider the case of Dibden. Dibden was twenty-five. He was a pilot with thirty-three operational trips and a D.F.C. to his name. He flew Stirlings and looked more than anything else like a dark, very handsome little Eskimo. You felt that it was a pure accident that he was flying a bomber instead of doing a roll in a kayak or having a snooze in an igloo.
Dibden was a good type, and a very good pilot indeed. But there were some who would not fly with him. Navigators, changed from their own crew, would suddenly develop violent toothache or trouble with their ears. Dibden was rather proud of the way he could land a Stirling in fair imitation of a golf-ball.
Once, on circuits and bumps, Dibden began to come in for landing with his air-speed down to ninety. He pulled her off again and did a sickly turn over the telegraph posts on the railway line and came back to land on the established golf-ball principle, hastily. ‘It was quite a moment,’ Dibden said.
There was nothing about that in the papers. Nor, of course, was there anything about the way he had all his operational hours carefully added up. His thirty-three trips amounted to a hundred and fifty hours.
Very soon, with another fifty hours, Dibden would be a veteran; an old man of twenty-five who had watched others do their three and five and perhaps fifteen trips and not return. Dibden always returned; like a ball thrown at a wall he came back, and the harder you threw him the faster he returned.
Once or twice a week, when not on ops., Dibden got a little whistled but the papers, of course, did not mention this either. You came into the mess late at night, tired, perhaps, after a spell of duty, to find Dibden bouncing from chair to chair, table to piano, like a smiling, cherubic little Eskimo chasing an invisible bear.
At intervals, he stopped being the Eskimo and became the bear, rushing up to other people, especially newcomers, to embrace them. ‘Bad type, bad type!’ he would say. ‘Seize him, knock him down. Bad type!’
We were all bad types when Dibden was whistled, but the papers, of course, did not mention this either. We are very good types really.
After these adventures others came down to breakfast with faces looking the colour of the sheepskin on their flying-boots; they looked at the mess of kidneys and bacon and said: ‘My God, I’ve had it,’ and crawled away.
But not Dibden. He bounced in very late, more cherubic than ever, charmed the first overworked waitress into bringing him crisp rashers, potatoes, kidneys, fresh toast, and coffee, looked at the clock and said something about five minutes to make the hangars, and then began to eat as if he had returned from a hunting expedition. ‘Pretty whistled last night, boys,’ he would say.
‘Rather off my feed.’
He spent most of the rest of his life being brassed off. ‘Good morning Dibden.’ you would say.
‘How goes it?’
‘Pretty much brassed off, old boy.’
‘Oh, what’s wrong?’
‘Just brassed off, that’s all. Just brassed off.’
This phrase, which, of course, was never in the papers either, covered all the troubles of Dibden’s life. It covered all his troubles with his kite, his crew, his ops., his leave, his food, his popsie.
He was brassed off when ops. were on because of the increasing monotony of trying to prang the same target; he was brassed off when ops. were scrubbed because there was no target at all. He was brassed off because there was fog on the drome or because his popsie could not keep her date.
But however brassed off he was, he succeeded in looking always the same; cherubic, grinning, bouncing, handsome, too irresponsible and altogether too like a schoolboy to be engaged in the serious business of flying an expensive bomber.
One afternoon Dibden was out over the coast of Holland on a daylight. It was his thirty-third trip; the veteran adding another four or five hours to his flying time. Down below, off the coast, he saw what he took to be an enemy tanker and he went down to have a look-see.
The tanker opened up at him with a fury of flak that surprised him, holing his port wing. I do not know what his emotions were, but I imagine that he was, simply, and as always, just brassed off.
He went in, attacked the tanker with all he had, bombing first and then diving to machine-gun the deck. The tanker hit back very hard, clipping a piece out of the starboard flap, but the more the tanker hit the more Dibden bounced back, like the ball thrown hard against the wall.
His rear-gunner was very badly wounded, but Dibden still went in, firing with all he had left until the flak from the tanker ceased.
The next day there was in fact something about this in the papers. It did not sound very epic.
‘Yesterday afternoon one of our bombers attacked a tanker off the Dutch coast. After the engagement the tanker was seen to be burning.’
It did not say anything about the holes in Dibden’s wings or the way the outer port engine had cracked coming home. It did not in fact really say anything at all about that brief, bloody and very bitter affair in which Dibden had bounced back repeatedly like an angry ball, or about the long journey home.
It did not say anything about Dibden landing on three engines with damaged flaps and a dying rear-gunner, or about a very tired, very brassed off Dibden coming in very late, with an unexpected hour on his flying-time, to boiled beef and tea.
Nor did it say anything about what happened that night. A little after midnight I came into the mess and there, under the bright lights of the ante-room, Dibden was doing some acrobatics. It was a very nice little party. At one end of the room two leather settees were placed endwise against each other, and then against them, endwise again, two chairs.
As I came in, Dibden, more cherubic, more smiling, more like a handsome Eskimo than ever, took a drink of light ale and then did a running somersault over the long line of furniture, landing after a wild whoop on his feet.
After him one or two other pilots tried it, but none of them was really good, and the only one who was good landed on his head. Then Dibden tried it again, and the fat, smiling ball of his body went over as easily as a bird.
Perhaps there was no connection between the schoolboy Dibden joyfully arranging a somersault and the veteran Dibden angrily pranging a tanker.
But as I saw Dibden hurling his fat little body into the air I felt suddenly that I understood all about his thirty-three trips, his golf-ball landings, his affair with the tanker, and the long, hard journey home. I understood why he flew, and why he flew as he did, and I understood the man that he was.
But there was nothing about that, of course, in the papers.
This short story, selected by Richard Bates and written by his father H. E. Bates under a pseudonym, is from The Stories of Flying Officer X, and first appeared in 1942. The stories created an immediate sensation, selling more than two million copies worldwide.
Copyright Evensford Productions Ltd.