Flight Lieutenant William Walker: The oldest surviving pilot from the Battle of Britain


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The Independent Online

William Walker, who has died at the age of 99, was one of the last of The Few to whom so much was owed by The Many.

He was the oldest surviving pilot to fly in the Battle of Britain, and late in life he wrote a poem in tribute to his comrades which forms part of the memorial on the cliffs of Dover at Capel-le-Ferne, a stone inscription that contains 2,937 names. "Our Wall" tells of the "many brave unwritten tales / That were simply told in vapour trails".

On 26 August 1940, the Spitfire pilot was scrambled as a large German bomber force, with heavy fighter escort, was heading towards targets including the RAF fighter stations at Biggin Hill and Kenley. The force was engaged over the Kent coast by Defiants, Hurricanes and Spitfires. "I think anybody who flew a Spitfire knew they were flying something rather special," Walker once said.

"We were scrambled to patrol Dover – Dungeness," Walker recalled in a long interview he gave to the WW2history website ,"when we met a whole squadron of Messerschmitts. Teddy Snorbin was shot down, very badly burnt but he survived, although he was killed later. Sergeant Ridley, my great friend, was killed, and I got a bullet in my leg and my plane was shot to pieces. I realised that I would have to bail out, so I opened the hood and pulled back the cover and tried to jump, but I'd still got my helmet on which was plugged into the radio which pulled me back, so I took my helmet off and fell out and I was still at 20,000 feet. "

Walker bailed out over Goodwin Sands, where he swam over to a shipwreck and sat on it – "but it was at a rather acute angle and I kept slipping off, and after about half an hour or so a fishing boat arrived and took me off and gave me a large cup of half-hot tea and whisky." The fishing boat took him to Ramsgate Harbour, where, he said., "a crowd had collected, and they all cheered, and a dear old lady came forward with a packet of cigarettes which she handed to me."

He was taken to Ramsgate Hospital, which had been badly bombed and had no kitchens – "all they could provide me with was a cup of tea and some bread and butter." He was suffering from hypothermia: "I was put to bed under a whole lot of electric light bulbs and it was some 12 hours before I was able to feel anything at all ... I admired the people there. They ... had been so badly bombed and were still carrying on with their normal duties."

The next day he was taken by ambulance to a military hospital, and he asked if he could visit his squadron headquarters nearby en route. "There was nobody there," he recalled. "They'd all been shot down or killed. My squadron had in fact, in the 10 days prior to my being shot down, lost ten pilots. Five killed and five wounded. There's no question in my mind ... that the heavy losses in so short a time was in no small measure due to the fact that the pilots were less trained than they should have been."

As a surgeon extracted the armour-piercing bullet from his right ankle at the RAF Hospital, it shot out and hit the ceiling. He kept the bullet as a souvenir.

He was born William Louis Buchanan Walker in Hampstead, north London, in 1913, the son of a brewer. After leaving Brighton College, where he was a contemporary of the actor Sir Michael Hordern, he joined his father in the brewery trade. He joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in September 1938 at Kidlington, Oxford and flew his first solo flight there a few days later. He was called up for full-time service in September 1939 and posted to Cambridge in November. He went to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, in February 1940 and, at the end of the course, was commissioned and posted to 616 Squadron at Leconfield in East Yorkshire.

While he was still in training the Germans showed up. "I realised I'd never fired a gun, nobody had even shown me how to fire a gun, and I had no idea what happened when you did fire the guns," he said. "There was a button on the joystick which said 'fire on and off'. I thought I'd better turn it onto on, and I approached a Dornier ... There was a trace of bullets flying all over the place all appeared to be hitting the Dornier, which caught fire and I saw it crash into the North Sea, and I was absolutely thrilled."

However, when he landed he was also brought down to earth metaphorically. "The flight sergeant came in and said, 'Excuse me sir, did you know your guns weren't loaded?'" He realised the plane had been hit by two of his comrades.

He regarded the Germans dispassionately. "They were simply the enemy and shooting down a German meant little or nothing in terms of inner feeling," he said. "But I remember when for some time I flew with some Poles, and their hatred had to be seen and heard. A great friend of mine was Jeffrey Page, who was terribly badly burnt. We were in hospital together and I can remember him saying – he had something like over a dozen operations – that his ambition in life was to kill one German for every operation he had. And he succeeded."

After being shot down, Walker took to the air again after six months' treatment, joining an aircraft ferry unit before transferring to 116 Squadron. He was demobbed in September 1945 and received the Air Efficiency Award.

After the war, he returned to the brewery trade, eventually following in his father's footsteps as chairman of Ind Coope. He wrote poetry later in life, including tributes to his fellow fliers. The poems were published in 2011, with the proceeds going to the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, of which he was a staunch supporter. Well into old age he attended the annual service of remembrance at Capel-le-Ferne, which usually concluded with Walker reciting one of his poems.

William Louis Buchanan Walker, RAF pilot and brewery executive: born Hampstead, London 24 August 1913; married 1941 Claudine Mawby (separated; died 2012; five children, and two children deceased); died London 21 October 2012.