Obituary: Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling

Click to follow
Denis Crowley-Milling first became interested and then fascinated by flying as a premium apprentice at Rolls-Royce, where he specialised in aero- engineering. Like so many of his contemporaries (he was born in 1919 and educated at Malvern), he had his first experience of it with Alan Cobham's Flying Circus, whereby the pioneer aviator would travel round Britain giving people air experience.

At the outset of the Second World War, as a sergeant in the Volunteer Reserves, he was sent on a refresher course at Hullavington and gained his wings and later a commission; among the few select pilots on the course who were later to make their names in the RAF were Christopher Hartley and Leonard Cheshire. His first operational posting was to number 615 Auxiliary Squadron in France. Still under 21, he had the privilege of first engaging the Luftwaffe while flying a bi-plane, the splendid but totally obsolete Gladiator.

Despite a most gallant fight against odds, the RAF was chased out of France as comprehensively as was the Army. Crowley-Milling escaped to Tangmere and was next posted to 242 Squadron at Coltishall. Like most of its fellows, the Squadron had taken a bad beating in France. Leadership had been lacking and morale among the largely Canadian-manned squadron was low. The redoubtable legless pilot Douglas Bader was posted in to command and to pull the squadron together.

Among those on whom he left a deep and lasting impression was Crowley- Milling, who flew as his number 2 and was present at the initiation of the Big Wing (325 squadrons) concept of which he became a strong and fervent advocate in the long controversy that raged over its merits and defects - and indeed still does to this day. He became an ardent admirer and later a close friend of Bader and on the latter's death in 1982 was a strong supporter of the Bader Foundation for the Physically Handicapped.

In 1940, Crowley-Milling's personal score of victories against the Germans grew steadily, in spite of being shot down himself. In 1941, he became a Spitfire flight commander in 610 Squadron again under Bader, who was by now his wing leader.

In August, while escorting daylight bombers over France, Crowley-Milling was again shot down, but through the good offices of the French Resistance and after many hair-raising adventures, he eventually escaped through Spain. After considerable hardships and serious illness there, he was eventually repatriated through Gibraltar and immediately resumed his flight command.

In this he was heavily involved in the air fight over Dieppe. His next appointments and promotions were successively to command a squadron and then a wing of typhoon fighter bombers, a devastating new weapon but one that involved great risks to the pilots, including in the early days a lot of trouble with the aircraft's engine. The last two years of his war was spent on air planning with the United States Air Force and operational requirements in the air ministry. He received a permanent commission and his post-war career included interesting and important appointments in Egypt, Washington, Hong Kong and Turkey.

As a staff officer he showed the same determination and forcefulness as he had while on operations. He was a man of strong principles and convictions and many of his arguments were stated with considerable heat, but never any noise - he was always polite and quiet spoken. When he believed he was right, he was a difficult man to shift. His boyish appearance concealed a great strength of character.

He retired from the RAF in 1975, although in his case retirement was perhaps not the right word, for he remained remarkably active. For the first five years, he was an energetic and successful Controller of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, introducing as a fundraiser the now famous International Air Tattoo. In turn, and indeed at the same time, he was involved in the Not-Forgotten Association, the Escaping Society, and the Battle of Britain Fighter Association - and also, most individually, with the Douglas Bader Foundation.

Additionally, he was Chairman of the Governors of Malvern School, Gentleman Usher of the Scarlet Rod of the Order of the Bath and Master of the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators. His peacetime career fittingly crowned his wartime record. He was awarded the DFC in 1941, a Bar in 1942 and the DSO in 1943. He was appointed CBE in 1963 and KCB in 1973.

His invaluable partner, who shared much of the burden of his work was his lifelong partner, Lorna, whom he married as his childhood sweetheart more than 50 years ago. They had two daughters.

Denis Crowley-Milling, RAF officer: born 22 March 1919; DFC 1941, Bar 1942; DSO 1943; CBE 1963; KCB 1973; Gentleman Usher of the Scarlet Rod 1979-85; Registrar and Secretary, Order of the Bath 1985-90; married 1943 Lorna Jeboult (nee Stuttard; two daughters and one son deceased); died 1 December 1996.