Jimmy Corbin: Last surviving Spitfire pilot from the Battle of Britain

He admitted that when he was in his Spitfire he was 'scared bloody stiff, all the time'

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The Independent Online

Jimmy Corbin was the last alive of 10 Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots – members of Churchill's “Few” – who together wrote a bestselling book even as the aerial dog-fights over southern England continued. By the time the book was off the presses in 1942 five of its co-authors were dead, killed in action.

Ten Fighter Boys was the idea in November 1940 of Corbin's commanding officer, Squadron Leader Athol “Ethel” Forbes, and Corbin wrote the third chapter. Duggie, Durex, Jimmy, Bogle, Bob, Max, Dizzy, Athol, Pickle and Claude were all from 66 Squadron, based at Biggin Hill in Kent, which Corbin had been sent to join in August 1940 while it was still at Kenley aerodrome in Surrey, with only 29 hours' Spitfire flying under his belt. So many men and aircraft were being lost that he was one of four inexperienced recruits who began with the Squadron at once.

Forbes's predecessor as CO, Rupert “Lucky” Leigh, appalled, immediately sent the new boys away again to quieter duties in the north of England, and Corbin told an interviewer: “There's no doubt Rupert Leigh saved my life. When I returned a few weeks later half the pilots were dead or seriously wounded. He decided I just didn't have enough flying experience.”

Corbin's chapter was written before the encounter with 30 Messerschmitts about four miles off Dover in 1941, about which he wrote: “When you are jumped from behind you do a very quick turn with no regard to direction and almost black out in the process.” Also still to come were the battles over North Africa during the Allied landings in 1943, called Operation Torch, which cumulatively won him a Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. Flying with No 72 Sqn from Gibraltar, then Souk al Arba, and Souk el Chemis, he shared in the probable shooting down of a Me 109, and damaged another.

He admitted to being “scared bloody stiff, all the time”, but was promoted from sergeant pilot to Pilot Officer in June 1942 and ended his RAF career as Flight Lieutenant. His DFC was announced in July 1943. “In truth, despite all the brave words, I just wanted to survive. We all did,” Corbin said. “I am not a religious man, but I prayed for good fortune.”

Corbin also came to view the tight formation-flying of the early months of the war as a mistake: “They were so busy flying in formation that they didn't know what was in the sky until somebody shouted something – it was every man for himself.”

The editor's 1940 introduction to Corbin's chapter says: “He is a keen pilot, and one of our best section leaders. Although he has been on a vast number of operational trips, he didn't have as much luck as some of the other blokes in the way of getting confirmed Huns.” A pilot had to see the crash of the aircraft he had shot down to claim a score, but wisdom advised getting away from the scene fast, so this was not always possible.

Corbin was nicknamed “Binder” because he would complain that he was “brassed off”. A plumber's son from Maidstone in Kent, he recounts in his chapter his first solo flight, as well as an embarrassing occasion for which he was ribbed for weeks, when one oleo leg (a telescopic shock absorber) of his aircraft got stuck in a bomb-hole on landing and he spun round and round.

Of his first flight in a Spitfire he said, “To me it seemed like handling so many pounds of lead on a thread of cotton.” His first operational trip was, he wrote, “early one morning; dawn was just breaking. We climbed to 15,000 feet to intercept the supposed enemy. I must admit I had a curious feeling in my stomach.” Oxygen starvation above about 15,000 ft, when a pilot would resort to a tube to help him breathe, struck him as “a bit like drinking alcohol; you quickly understood how much you could take.”

Corbin had wanted to join Coastal Command, but all the places were taken, and he chose Fighter Command in preference to bombers (the other option was Balloon Command), because, he later explained: “bombers were not good at defending themselves. At least in a fighter plane you had a chance to hit back.” He came to love the Mark II Spitfires the men flew from Biggin Hill, and when at the end of February 1941 he was posted to Exeter, he not only regretted the loss of London as a place of entertainment near by, but also having to use “someone else's clapped-out old Spit I's.” The Mark II, he noted, “had been a dream to fly.”

Corbin, the youngest child of four, with three older sisters, had nurtured an ambition to fly from an early age, and remembered begging his family at the age of 12 in 1929 to let him go and see Sir Alan Cobham's Flying Circus, which was visiting Maidstone. He attended St Michael's Church of England School in Maidstone, followed by Maidstone Technical School. He decided before the war broke out that he would earn his living as a teacher, and obtained his Teaching Diploma from Shoreditch College, part of the University of London.

The Air Ministry rejected his first request to train as a pilot, but he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve at Rochester Airport in 1938, and remembered: “I had flown an aircraft for the first time on my own two days before I was called up. I had completed just 17 hours of flying time and now I was at war.”

After the war, in which he also served with 610 Squadron in the north of England, and spent a year as a gunnery instructor, he taught engineering at Colyer Road School in Northfleet, Kent. He met his wife Jeanne on a blind date at the Queen's Head pub in Maidstone High Street. She had thought she was to meet his best friend, but fell for Jimmy instead, and the couple married in 1955.

Corbin never spoke of his wartime experiences while his children were growing up. On being decommissioned from the RAF reserve he gave up flying and took pleasure instead in cabinet-making, crafting a wardrobe and other pieces of furniture for his family. He began playing golf at the age of 50 and got down to a handicap of 7.

He made one last flight in 1985 when, while visiting his son, then working in the Far East, he piloted a friend's four-seater private propeller aircraft from Singapore across to Malaysia. He was made a Freeman of Maidstone in 2010, only the 38th person to be so honoured in more than a century, and wrote the introduction to a new edition of Ten Fighter Boys, published in 2008, as well as an autobiography, Last of the Ten Fighter Boys, in 2011.

William James Corbin, aviator and teacher: born Maidstone 5 August 1917; DFC and Bar; married Jeanne (one son, two daughters); died Bearsted, Kent 10 December 2012.