Five of “The Few”: Emanuel’s Battle of Britain Pilots

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Emanuel School educated 5 of “The Few” who defended Britain against German invasion in the summer and autumn of 1940 in what became known as The Battle of Britain. By October 1940 around 544 Fighter Command pilots, including one Old Emanuel, had been killed.

Horace Stanley “George” Darley 609 Squadron

Darley, H S 32 c

History tells us that George Darley (OE1925-32) was a pilot “Ace” which means he had been involved in destroying at least 5 enemy aircraft. His totals are: 3 destroyed; 3 probables and 2 damaged. One of the Spitfires he flew in the Battle of Britain currently hangs from the ceiling of the Imperial War Museum. Darley was an Emanuel School all-rounder, as well as being Captain of Boats he also represented the school at rugby, fives, swimming and shooting. The shooting was to come in handy as Darley was a tremendous pilot and is often mentioned in books detailing the Battle of Britain, including James Holland’s recent book which pays tribute to the clever flying tactics Darley used. After leaving Emanuel and having gained Certificate “A” in the Officer Training Corps George applied for a commission in the RAF, and by the time the war started he was training other pilots in France. After being mentioned in Despatches he escaped back to the UK and was to fly continually through the Battle of Britain. Here Darley explains in his own words what he observed and how he came to make the vital change in tactics which subsequently reduced the number of pilots being killed:

“On return to the UK in June 1940 I was posted to a spitfire squadron in Essex. After 3 sorties I had discovered how NOT to command a fighter squadron, and on 28th June was pleased to be given Command of 609 spitfire squadron. This squadron suffered casualties in Dunkirk, and I closely questioned the pilots on how the losses were incurred. To me it was apparent that the main causes were too rigid a formation and no knowledge of deflection shooting. With my flying instructor background I considered these and other causes as yet another flying problem which eventually led me to examine all aspects of a fighter sortie from take off to landing. The squadron was then moved in July where I was to put my unproven theories into practice.”

In the following months he led more than 80 successful missions, with the loss of only 7 pilots.

In an interview years later another 609 Battle of Britain pilot John Bisdee remembered the role Darley played, “We got a rarely good regular Air Force CO called George Darley who really pulled the squadron together, we’d lost all these experienced pilots, they had probably been lost because lack of training, a lot of them never saw what hit them…under George Darley we were sent to Middle Wallop, this fellow Darley was an absolute first class chap and he worked at us and did a very good job at getting the squadron re-established and trained and then of course the Battle of Briatin was on us…” He continued by describing Darley’s tactical contribution, “The great contribution of people like this chap George Darley to us was that he flew as a target and trained us to attack from out of the sun to do quarter attacks to do head on attacks and so on…”.

1940 Buckingham Palace - receiving the DSO[1]

Darley proved to be an exceptional leader, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), for his contribution to the Battle of Britain, in the autumn of 1940, and his achievement is noted in the Emanuel School Magazine The Portcullis.

Colin Dunstan Francis 253 Squadron

Colin Francis140

Whereas Darley went on to fight throughout the war, in amongst other places the Far East, the life of Colin Francis (OE1932-39) was cut very short in that fateful summer of 1940. Sadly, the law of the RAF jungle dictated that rookie pilots often flew the oldest, slowest or most damaged planes. Also, statistics showed that there was a very high mortality rate of novice pilots flying in their first five missions: there was no such thing as beginners luck in the Battle of Britain. Sadly, Francis died on his maiden voyage of August 30th. He was killed under exceptionally brave circumstances, he had set off on a sortie with two other fighters to attack a much larger force of bombers and fighters. Being his first encounter with the Luftwaffe it is hard to imagine how he must have been feeling that morning. He was shot down and reported missing, however, his body and plane were not discovered until 1981 when an excavation in a Kent farm uncovered Hurricane L 1965 with a pilot’s body still in the cockpit. It proved to be Francis, whose body and craft laid untouched in time for 41 years. He was buried with full military honours at Brookwood Military Cemetery, and the story was widely reported in the press at the time as “The Lost Boy”. He was flying one of 3 planes who went up against 75 German aircraft, Group Captain Gleave who survived the battle stated: “after Brown was shot down, Colin and I went in by ourselves. We went right into the middle of them and I never saw him again. He was a damned fine kid and full of guts.” Pilot Officer Carthew added “we were close friends and were known on the Squadron as Tweedledee and Tweedledum”. These days the term hero is bounded around far too easily and frequently, actors, rich sports stars and spoilt musicians are quite undeserving of this monikor, however, the likes of Colin Francis certainly are.

Colin francis funeral

Harry Arthur Robin Prowse 266 & 603 Squadrons

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Harry Prowse (OE1932-39) also joined the RAF straight after school, where he was a scholar, a musician and an actor, his final performance being in “Saint Joan” in the Winter of 1938. When he died aged 89 the obituary in The Guardian noted “As a handsome Spitfire pilot, he rarely had to buy his own drinks. But at the age of 19, he was fighting in the Battle of Britain, and by the time he was 20 he had been shot down twice, interrogated by the Gestapo and shipped off to the notorious Stalag Luft III PoW camp”. After being shot down for the first time in northern France Harry escaped back to England. However, after shooting down two Messerschmitt Bf-109s he was himself shot down on 4 July 1941 by none other than Luftwaffe ace Josef “Pips” Priller, who was later depicted in the film The Longest Day. Like many others Harry found it difficult to talk about his wartime experiences. After surviving a forced march through Poland in January 1945 he arrived back in the UK around VE Day. He rejoined the RAF after the war, however, he found it difficult to settle in the UK and emigrated to Brazil to grow oranges, where he remained until his death. At his funeral, the Brazilian Air Force staged a fly-past.

Harry Prowse talking with Rolf Pringel whilst Josef Priller  looks

Harry Prowse (left), shortly after his capture with Luftwaffe pilots Rolf Pringle (centre), and Josef Priller (right).

Brian Robert Noble 79 Squadron

Noble, B R_33

Brian Noble (OE1927-33) was both a rower, and like many future service men, a member of the Officer Training Corps. On 28 August 1940 he claimed a share in shooting down a Heinkel 59. On 1 September he was shot down after Combat with Bf 109’s over Biggin Hill, and baled out of Hurricane L2062. He was wounded and landed at Marley Lake Riverhead being admitted to Sevenoaks Hospital. Having needed surgery for his wounds he became a member of the famous Guinea Pig Club for RAF pilots who had been badly burned in the process of fighting and who required facial reconstruction. He was released from the RAF in 1946 but rejoined and retired with the rank of Wing Commander in 1969.

Kenneth Milton Millist 615 & 73 Squadrons

Millist, K M_35b

Kenneth Millist (OE1931-35) is another OE who had a celebrated school career. He was both a top rugby player and rower and was part of a very strong rowing squad in the mid 1930s recording many good wins at Staines, Twickenham, Reading, Richmond and Kingston Regattas. He appears in a slew of school rugby and rowing photos, littered with fellow boys who were to die in the coming war. Millist joined the RAF in 1939 and flew in squadrons 73 and 615 in the Battle of Britain, before seeing further active service in Libya and the Middle East where he was killed. In February 1941 he was shot down over Benina and evaded capture for 3 days by trekking 60km in the desert before meeting friendly Australian forces. After returning to his squadron he was killed in action on Monday 7 April 1941. It is believed that he was shot down by ground fire. He was 22 years old, and is remembered on the Alamein Memorial and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His commanding officer provided further details on the award: “Attacking an enemy aircraft and driving it off, then landing after the raid without exterior aids. PO Millist displayed exceptional courage, initiative and devotion to duty throughout the whole of the raid and showed complete disregard for his own safety.”

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They defended their country when they were in their early twenties. They were remarkable young men who sacrificed so much for so many and they deserve to be recognised. From the corridors and classrooms of Emanuel School on Wandsworth Common to the skies above Britain they contributed no small part to saving western civilisation from Fascism.

Daniel Kirmatzis and Tony Jones.

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