FAMOUS TANGMERE PILOTS

Tangmere Station had some of the nation's most famous fighter pilots serve there. Below are brief profiles of five such inspirational people...

Royal Air Force


Douglas Bader

DOUGLAS BADER

Possibly the most famous British fighter pilot of WW2, Douglas Bader was born in St John’s Wood, London, on Feb 21st 1910.

He joined the RAF as a Cranwell cadet in 1928, and proved himself an above average pilot and an outstanding sportsman, excelling in both rugby and cricket. Commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 1930, Bader was posted to Kenly, flying Gloster Gamecocks and later, Bristol Bulldogs.

In December 1931, whilst visiting Reading Aero Club, Bader, an accomplished aerobatic pilot, crashed while performing a slow roll low over the airfield. He was rushed to hospital, where both his legs were amputated. In 1932 , after a long period of convalescence, Bader was transferred to the RAF hospital at Uxbridge, where after much painful effort; he learned to walk again using a pair of artificial legs. That same year he was passed fit for flying duties, only for the RAF to reverse their decision a year later and invalid Bader out of the service.

When war broke out in 1939, Bader used his Cranwell connections to rejoin the RAF, and despite official reticence, his stubborn persistence paid off, and he was eventually passed fit for flying duties.

After a refresher course on modern types of aircraft, Bader was posted to 19 squadron at Duxford with his original rank of Flying Officer. In April 1940, he left 19 squadron to become a flight commander with 222 squadron, and it was here that he had his first taste of combat, downing an Me109 whilst on patrol over the Dunkirk beaches.

At the end of June he was promoted to Squadron Leader and given command of 242 squadron. It was with 242 that Bader really started to make his mark, taking a group of pilots with low morale, that had suffered heavy losses in France, and turning them, during the course of the Battle of Britain, into one of the RAF’s premier fighting units.

It was while with 242 at Duxford that Bader became a passionate advocate of the Big Wing theory – where a group of squadrons under a single command could inflict maximum damage on the large formations of German bombers over South East England.

In 1941 Bader was promoted again to Wing Commander, and posted to Tangmere to command the ‘Tangmere Wing’ – one of the first positions of this type. He led his wing of Spitfires on sweeps and circus operations over North West Europe throughout the summer, and by August had 22 confirmed victories – the fifth highest total in the RAF at that time.

On August 9th 1941, Bader was shot down over France and taken prisoner, in circumstances which are still uncertain to this day.

Despite his disability, Bader made a number of unsuccessful escape attempts, and was such a thorn in his captor’s side that he was eventually incarcerated in the maximum security prisoner of war camp at Colditz. And it was here that he spent the remainder of the war.

After the war, Bader was immortalised in the book and subsequent film of his life, “Reach for the Sky”, and in 1976 he was knighted for his services to the disabled. Douglas Bader died in 1982.  

crown Caesar Hull

CAESAR HULL

Caesar Hull was born into a farming family, in the town of Shagani, Southern Rhodesia, on 26th February 1914.

When he was still in his early teens, the family moved to Swaziland and he completed his schooling at St John’s college, Johannesburg.

Flying was already Caesar’s passion, and after leaving school he applied to join the South African Air Force, but was turned down because he couldn’t speak Afrikaans. Undaunted, he applied for and was granted, a short service commission by the RAF in 1935, and on completion of his training, was posted to No.43 squadron at Tangmere for flying duties.

During those halcyon days in the prelude to the Second World War, Caesar proved to be an outstanding pilot; he became heavily involved in aerobatics, culminating in being named the RAF’s champion aerobatic pilot during a display to celebrate the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

When the inevitable happened, and war was declared on 3rd September 1939, the adjutant of 43 sqn walked into a hushed mess to deliver the news. Amongst the sombre faces there was one exception as Caesar jumped to his feet shouting “Wizard!” – His usual expression of joy!

In November, 43 sqn was sent together with their Hurricane fighters to Acklington near Newcastle, and it was here, on January 30th 1940, that Caesar Hull participated in the shooting down of a Heinkel bomber for 43 sqn’s first kill of the war.

In May 1940, Caesar was posted as a Flight Commander to the Gloster Gladiator equipped 263 squadron who departed aboard the carrier HMS Furious for Norway. During the short but bitterly fought Norwegian campaign, Caesar again excelled both as a pilot and as a leader of men. He had been credited with 5 confirmed kills in his obsolete Gladiator, when on May 27th his luck ran out, and he was forced to crash land, wounded in both head and leg, having been shot up by an Me110.

He was evacuated back to the UK, and on the 17th June, while recovering from his wounds, received a telegram confirming his award of the DFC for his exploits over Norway.

After being declared fit for operations, Caesar was posted back to 43 squadron and Tangmere at the end of August 1940. His arrival could not have been better timed, 43 had been in the front line of the Battle of Britain for some time and had suffered severe losses in the previous weeks, a situation made worse still by the loss of the C.O., Sqn Ldr Badger, shortly after Ceaser’s arrival.

Caesar was immediately promoted to command 43. There was no one better suited to take over the hard hit squadron and revive morale.

Caesar led the squadron with typical flair and skill for one short week, until on the 7th September; he was shot down and killed while leading his men into an attack on a formation of heavily escorted Do17 bombers. He was last seen diving to the aid of another Hurricane, which was being attacked by an overwhelming number of enemy fighters – an action typical of this courageous Rhodesian.

Caesar Hull was buried at St Andrew’s church in the village of Tangmere.

crown Jean Offenberg

JEAN 'PYKER' OFFENBERG

Jean 'Pyker' Offenberg was born at Laeken, Brussels in Belgium on 3rd July 1916.

Offenberg joined the Aeronautique Militaire as a pupil pilot and graduated on 1 March 1938, trained as a fighter pilot. He was posted to 4/II/2 at Nivelles in March 1939, equipped with Fairey Firefly biplanes.

Ironically, Offenberg's first taste of ‘action' during World War 2 was in opposition to the RAF. On the night of 8/9 September 1939, two Whitley bombers on their way home from leaflet dropping duties over Germany strayed into, still neutral, Belgium airspace. Along with fellow pilots of his unit, Offenberg took off in his Firefly to intercept, and firing a green flare at one of the bombers, forced it to land on their own airfield at Nivelles, where the crew was briefly interned.

In the early hours of 10 May, Germany invaded Belgium , and the IIème Group was ordered to evacuate from Nivelles to Landing Field No 22 at Brustem. At 06:05 five Fiat CR.42s, including Offenberg, took off from Brustem to provide cover for the airfield, attacking Dornier Do17 bombers and a Bf109. Offenberg claimed one destroyed Do17, and fired on one other aircraft, which dived away.

After a few days, the remains of the unit withdrew to Chartres, France . From here Offenberg and Sergeant Alexis Jottard flew to Montpelier on 19 June, and then on to Algeria the next day, where they joined the Belgian flying school which had been set up at Oujda. Finding morale low here, they decided to make their way to Britain, reaching Liverpool on the 16th July.

Offenberg was commissioned in the RAF on 30 July and went to No. 6 OTU at Sutton Bridge on the same day, here he converted to Hurricanes and on 17 August he joined 145 Squadron at Westhampnett together with Jottard.

With the RAF, his nickname of 'Peike' became anglicized to 'Pyker'. Offenberg claimed his first victory with the RAF on the 1st November, when he shot down the Me109 of Oberleutnant Hermann Reiff-Erscheidt, Staffelkapitandauml;n of 1./JG2.

He submitted one more claim during his time at Westhampnett with 145. On the 9th November, Offenberg together with another pilot intercepted a Ju88 near the Isle of Wight , which was attacked and claimed damaged jointly by the two pilots.

He was appointed 'B' Flight commander in May 1941, and in June, became the first Belgian to receive a DFC. On 17 June he was posted to 609 Squadron where an unofficial Belgian flight was forming. Offenberg flew sweeps and ‘circuses' with 609 through the summer of 1941, and on 21st July 1941 he was decorated with the Belgian Croix de Guerre by the Belgian Minister of Defence at Wellington Barracks. At the end of July, Offenberg took command of 'B' Flight and on the 30th July was promoted to Flying Officer.

Whilst on a training flight with a new pilot on 22 January 1942, he was subjected to a mock attack by a pilot of 92 Squadron. The latter's aircraft collided with Offenberg's Spitfire, cutting off the tail, and it crashed vertically into the ground, killing him. A tragic end to the life of this outstanding flyer. He had claimed a total of 5 and 2 shared victories at the time of his death.

Offenberg's journals of his time as a fighter pilot were later edited into a book, ‘Lonely Warrior'.  

crown Billy Fiske

BILLY FISKE

William Meade Lindsley Fiske III was born into a wealthy New York banking family on June 4th 1911.

He finished his education at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and returned to England in1938 to work in the London office of a firm of New York bankers. There, he learnt to fly and married the former Countess of Warwick. Previously, Fiske, an accomplished sportsman, had led the US bobsleigh team to consecutive gold medals at the 1928 and 1932 winter Olympics.

In 1939, Fiske was recalled to his firm’s New York office, but was persuaded by an English friend and member of No. 601 squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force, to return to England & enlist in the RAF. In his diary Fiske recorded that “I believe I can lay claim to being the first US citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.”

Of course, as a US citizen, Fiske was not eligible for the RAF, but through his contacts and no small amount of luck, an entrance interview was secured, which he duly passed.

On the 12th July 1940, upon completion of his training at Brize Norton, the newly commissioned Pilot Officer Billy Fiske was posted to No. 601 (County of London) squadron at Tangmere.

There was some initial scepticism within 601 of “this untried American adventurer” but Fiske soon won them over with his enthusiasm and lack of pretension.

On 16th August the Hurricanes of 601, including Billy Fiske, were scrambled to intercept a raid by Ju87s on their home airfield at Tangmere. When the combat had ended and the squadron began landing back at Tangmere, Fiske’s Hurricane was seen to glide over the boundary, before belly landing and catching fire.

Billy was pulled clear having suffered from severe burns and taken to The Royal West Sussex hospital in Chichester, where he succumbed to his wounds the following day – the first American to die in the service of the RAF in World War II. He was buried a short distanced from Tangmere at Boxgrove Priory.

A memorial tablet installed in St Paul’s Cathedral reads: “An American citizen who died that England might live”  

crown Paul Richey

PAUL RICHEY

Paul Richey was born in Chelsea, London, on 7th May 1916, son of an Irish father and Australian mother.

From a young age, Richey had a desire to fly and to join the RAF, and after twice just missing out on the Cranwell entrance examination, he eventually joined the RAF on a short service commission in 1937. After completion of his training, Richey was posted, in March 1939, to the Hawker Hurricane equipped No.1 fighter squadron based at Tangmere, commanded by Sqn Ldr Patrick Halahan, known to everyone as the ‘Bull’.

On Friday 8th September, 5 days after the declaration of war, No1 were ordered to France as part of the air component of the BEF, where they flew patrols from their base at Vassincourt for the duration of what became known as the Phoney War. During this period, Richey experienced combat for the first time, and scored his first victory, downing an Me109 on the 29th March 1940.

On the 10th of May, the Phoney War came to an abrupt end with the German Blitzkrieg invasion of France and the Low Countries. Richey, along with the rest of No1 was thrust into the action against overwhelming odds from the outset. Richey flew 4 patrols on the 10th, sharing in the destruction of a Dornier bomber, and on the 11th flew a further two, the second of which, saw five Hurricanes of No1s A flight, take on 15 Me110s. Richey managed to shoot down two, before he was himself shot down and forced to bail out.

Suffering from concussion, Richey didn’t fly again till the 15th, when he claimed two more Me110s, but was again, forced to bail out after being hit by another of the German fighters.

On the 19th, Richey flew his last sortie in France, he had just downed his third He111 in short order, when he was hit by a burst from the bomber’s rear gunner, forcing him to crash land having sustained a serious bullet wound to the neck. Richey was taken to a hospital in Paris, where the bullet was removed, but he was to remain hospitalised till mid-June, before finally making his way home to the UK, where he found that he had been awarded the DFC for his exploits in France.

Richey now underwent a long period of rehabilitation, ‘flying a desk’ while he recovered from his injuries. And it was during this period that he wrote his much acclaimed memoirs of the Battle of France, ‘Fighter Pilot’.

Finally, in the Spring of 1941, Richey got what he craved, being declared fit, and a posting back to operational flying with 609 squadron at Biggin Hill, who at the time were commanded by Richey’s lifelong friend, Michael Robinson. Richey spent the next four months flying a total of 53 missions across the channel, before being posted to Fighter Command for a well earned rest.

In June 1942, he was posted back to 609 squadron, now based at Duxford, as it’s commanding officer, with the purpose of training the squadron up to an operational level on the new Hawker Typhoon. Richey succeeded in the position, before being posted, once more, in October 1942, to the position of Wing Commander, Fighter Ops, at HQ, Bengal Command, in India. Further postings in the Far East, to take command of No165 wing, and then No189 wing followed, before Richey, who had suffered from severe sinusitis during his time in India, was finally invalided home in February 1944.

After some time recovering in hospital, Richey took up a post at SHAEF, before finishing the war at HQ, 2nd TAF.

Paul Richey died in 1989 aged 72, at which time the tenth edition of ‘Fighter Pilot’ was about to be published. A fitting testimony, both to him, and the many others like him, who gave so much for their country.  

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