Tony Iveson: Second World War pilot who served in the Battle of Britain in a Spitfire and helped sink the 'Tirpitz' in a Lancaster


Tony Iveson flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain and later the Lancaster Bomber, in which he was part of the group which sank Hitler's flagship, the Tirpitz. Serving as a flying instructor for two years after the Battle of Britain, he then flew many missions over Germany as a member of the 617 Squadron – the "Dambusters". His love affair with the Lancaster continued for the rest of his life and he flew the last remaining Lancaster at the age of 89. He then wrote Lancaster – the Biography (2008) with Brian Milton in 2009. But nothing in his life became him more than the memorial for which he campaigned tirelessly in his final years for his comrades in Bomber Command, around 55,500 of whom gave their lives to keep Hitler from these shores.

Born in Yorkshire, Thomas Clifford Iveson had dreamed of flying from his early teens and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in September 1938. During the Battle of Britain he was a sergeant pilot on Spitfire fighters with 616 Squadron and survived ditching his Spitfire into the sea on 16 September 1940. He was then sent to Rhodesia to train young pilots.

After training in Lancasters he joined 617 Squadron in July 1944 and became a squadron leader with Bomber Command in October of that year. His achievements included keeping his severely damaged bomber airborne in January 1945 and landing it in Shetland after half the crew had bailed out, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in March 1945.

But the highlight was the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz, which Churchill had made his priority, in the Norwegian fjords. At the 2012 Oldie Soho Literary Festival he told a riveted audience about the events which culminated, after a few attempts had been aborted because of bad weather, on 12 November 1944. "The day dawned bright and clear", he said. "We realised the conditions were perfect for what we needed to do. We also realised that they were equally perfect for the German fighters who would be scrambled to pursue us."

The Tirpitz was not so much sunk – the water was not deep enough – as overturned. The bombs created a hole in the hull through which several German sailors were able to escape with their lives. Iveson was relieved at that and remained in touch with some of the survivors.

Immediately after the war Iveson was seconded to BOAC, flying converted bombers to the Far East. He left the RAF the following year, but later joined a field squadron of the RAF Regiment in the RAAF and commanded a light anti–aircraft squadron before the force was disbanded in 1957.

On civvy street Iveson had a long career in television and public relations. He was involved in the production of early programmes for Granada, and undertook PR work for some of the country's leading companies, including Littlewood's Pools. It was Iveson who handled the publicity in 1961 when Viv Nicholson won £152,319 (nearly £3 million in today's money) and promised to "spend, spend, spend"; Iveson was unable to prevent her from doing just that and spending the lot in less than five years.

He was the perfect gentleman in both conduct and appearance, and it was not easy to upset him. But one thing was guaranteed to, although he never raised his voice. At the Oldie night in Soho there was a member of the audience who had clearly taken a front row seat to specifically in order to protest about the bombing of places like Dresden, and complain that the bombing of dams, which caused widespread flooding, should not have happened.

Iveson had no time for what he called "self-appointed armchair historians" who criticised operations in which he saw close friends die. "Total war – and that is what we were forced into – is a brutal business, a total breakdown of civilisation, where you fight terror with terror or die," he once told me. "After the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, in which 43,000 civilians were killed and many more injured, Bomber Command began taking the air war from over the rooftops of London and other British cities into the skies over Germany.

"It was the only British force which could inflict war on the enemy heartland ... between Dunkirk and Normandy and keep it there until the end in 1945. By driving the enemy air force on to the defensive, by forcing him to build fighters instead of bombers, London and other cities were spared from further devastation. The Luftwaffe, equipped with bombers, would have rendered the South Coast preparation areas untenable, leading to the invasion of Europe being postponed or abandoned."

This was the spirit which made him go into battle in his nineties for what was to be his final triumph: to see the completion of the Bomber Command Memorial opposite the RAF Club at Hyde Park corner. The bravest of the brave received neither a campaign medal nor a knighthood, but were it not for Tony Iveson and Bomber Command I might not be here to be writing this, and I am very proud to have known him.

Thomas Clifford Iveson, RAF pilot and flying instructor: born Yorkshire 11 September 1919; married 1941 Christine Green (marriage dissolved; three daughters, and one son deceased), married secondly (died 1995); partner to Mary Kimpton; died 5 November 2013.

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