The vanished figure of Guy Gibson VC, the Second World War Dambusters' leader, killed in action in 1944, looms over the life of Group Captain Ronnie Churcher, a fellow Mosquito pilot on the fatal sortie. A taller, less acerbic man than his former CO in 106 Squadron of the RAF's admired No 5 Group, Churcher lived on to taste the high life of the 1950s and '60s that Gibson might have relished.
The 6ft, moustached, dark-haired Churcher, like Gibson a veteran of attacks with Lancaster bombers across Western Europe, dispelled the shadows of that conflict with glittering years at peace, serving first as a pilot of the elite King's Flight, and then twice, in newly married bliss, as Britain's Air Attaché in Rome.
His exploits had won him the DSO as well as DFC and Bar, and he was one of the handful of fliers deemed skilled enough to have entrusted to their safekeeping the persons of Winston Churchill and Princess Margaret Rose, and then, after the death of George VI in 1952, when the King's Flight became the Queen's, to carry the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen herself. He flew them in a Vickers Viking fitted with the latest innovation, jet engines, and received the Queen's personal honour, membership of the Royal Victorian Order. The royals' names are recorded in one of his blue-jacketed log-books, underlined in red.
But behind the dolce vita of the elegant new era, the young husband, who was now also a father with two sons and a daughter, could never forget the horrors that had taken place less than a decade before, claiming the lives of 55,000 airmen in Bomber Command. On the raid over Rheydt in western Germany from which Gibson failed to return on 19 September 1944, Churcher was Deputy Controller and Marker Leader. The men were flying fragile wooden-framed de Havilland Mosquito two-seater fighter-bombers of the specialised target-marking 627 Squadron, and Churcher had the task of identifying enemy railway marshalling yards that were to be destroyed.
No 5 Group, as part of which Churcher also flew with 619 Squadron, is credited in official histories not only with the Dambusters raid by its specially formed 617 Squadron on 17 May 1943, but with other important ones including three between 17-24 October 1942, soon after which Churcher, then a 20-year-old Flying Officer with 106 Sqn, was awarded his first DFC, dated 27 October 1942.
They were on a low-level dusk raid on 17 October which targeted the Schneider armaments works at Le Creusot in central France, and to which 86 Lancasters flew without fighter escort; another on 22 October, which took 85 Lancasters following a Pathfinder force to Genoa; and a daylight attack on Milan on 24 October by 74 Lancasters, in which many carried 4000lb bombs. Churcher added the Bar to his first decoration on 24 December 1943 when he was Squadron Leader with 619 Sqn, soon after 15 of its Lancasters bombed Berlin.
His DSO, awarded when he was still only 22, on 13 April 1945, followed an unaided raid by No 5 Group on 23 March that drew high praise from Monty himself. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, at that time chief of the Allied 21st Army Group, had his advancing troops poised to cross the Rhine as Nazi Germany crumbled, and recorded: "The bombing of Wesel last night was a masterpiece and was a decisive factor in making possible our entry into the town before midnight."
Churcher's four-year association with No 5 Group lasted from his joining the RAF in 1941 to the end of the war. He first flew Manchesters and Hampdens from RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, then had tours based at Woodhall Spa nearby, before being posted to group HQ Operations Staff at Morton Hall an hour's drive away near Swinderby.
He then expressed a desire – as Gibson also did – to fly the much-praised Mosquito, and in July 1944 joined 627 Sqn at Woodhall Spa, taking only a couple of hours in the air with one Flt Lt Rutherford to convert his skills to piloting the "Mossie". With the Mosquito he flew operations to Nuremberg in October 1944, and Munich in November. In December, flying out of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, he marked targets for the raid that damaged the German light cruiser Koln in Oslo Fjord.
Ronald George Churcher was the eldest of four siblings from a modest background on the south coast, where he attended several grammar schools, excelling at French and German, before working at a local treasurer's office. The RAF career begun at the height of the war absorbed him for more than 30 years after it, taking him to Malaya, where he was a Station Commander during the Emergency of 1950-60, and then back home to Lyneham, Wiltshire as Commanding Officer of the first RAF Transport Command Jet Squadron of Comet T2 aircraft.
He also flew the first British jet-powered fighter aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, and worked for a spell at the Ministry of Defence. On retiring in 1977 aged 55, he did fund-raising work, made furniture, and in his seventies completed an Open University Humanities degree.
He was diffident about applying for the recently instituted Bomber Command clasp – an award considered paltry by many of those eligible, being less than a medal – but was persuaded by his wife Lyn, who, when it failed to arrive, made a special plea to the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Downing Street replied to her letter, and the clasp arrived soon afterwards in July, only weeks before Churcher died.
Ronald George Churcher, RAF bomber pilot: born Worthing, Sussex 9 May 1922; DSO, LVO (1954), DFC and Bar; married 1945 Shelagh Constance (died 1981; two sons, one daughter), 1981 Lyn Chamberlain; died Sunningdale, Berkshire 25 October 2013.