Obituary: Air Marshal Sir Edward Chilton
Thursday 20 August 1992
ALTHOUGH deep thinking, foresight and prophecy were rare attributes among junior regular officers in the years leading up to the Second World War, the RAF threw up the occasional thinking man's pilot. Edward Chilton was a leading example. Coincidentally, his early career nudged that of the supreme example of the genre, Frank Whittle, the pioneer jet-engine inventor.
The flying-boat development unit and high-speed flight at Felixstowe, on the Suffolk coast - partly because it accommodated Schneider Trophy teams - attracted, in the career sense, the RAF's 'high-fliers' of the later 1920s and early 1930s, Chilton and Whittle among them. Felixstowe, with its emphasis on floatplanes and flying-boats, fired Chilton's enthusiasm for maritime aviation which found its final fulfilment in responsibility for RAF Coastal Command and associated Nato appointments in the 1950s.
Research carried out while he was at Felixsowe introduced Chilton to the flying-boat experimental pilot Wing Commander John Porte of the Royal Naval Air Service, whom he was to describe in a biographical paper as 'naval officer, pilot and aircraft designer extraordinary'. It appalled him to discover that as early as 1912, Porte had written a forward-looking paper, 'The Aeroplane Against Submarines', which had gathered dust for years and never been followed up. Porte's death soon after the end of the First World War, aged 35, from pulmonary tuberculosis contracted during submarine service, lessened the likelihood that his ideas would be reviewed.
During the Second World War Chilton was much involved with anti-U-boat operations in the Battle of the Atlantic and the Battle of the Bay (Biscay) and it irked him how much knowledge and experience had been lost and remained unheeded in the inter-war years. He preached the importance of such lessons until the end of his life and received rousing applause when last autumn he addressed a packed RAF Historical Society symposium on the Battle of the Atlantic at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell. His theme was that the air force and navy would have been so much better equipped to confront Admiral Donitz's U-boat offensive early in the war had Porte been taken seriously.
Chilton grew up in Portsmouth and was education at its grammar school from which he was granted a cadetship at the RAF College, Cranwell. Commissioned in 1926, he flew maritime aeroplanes at Calshot, near Southampton, was posted to Felixstowe and specialised in navigation until he joined No 209, a flying-boat squadron based at Plymouth and equipped with the Blackburn Iris biplane, at the time the RAF's largest aircraft.
In the 1930s The RAF Quarterly - now sadly discontinued as an economy measure - offered an outlet for service writers. Chilton, who was navigation instructor at the Central Flying School at the time, published a paper in the Quarterly in the mid-Thirties calling attention to the vulnerability of the torpedo-bomber, citing the historical precedent of fireships. He warned, unheeded, as RAF and Fleet Air Arm experience would all too soon confirm, that at the moment of release a torpedo aircraft would be an easy target for ships' guns. This was demonstrated by the horrendous losses of Swordfish biplanes in their ill-fated attacks on the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during their successful 'Channel Dash'.
At the beginning of the war, Chilton was on Bomber Command's navigation staff. Following subsequent appointments covering operational work at the Air Ministry and at Flying Training Command he received command in 1943 of the Coastal Command station at Chivenor, in North Devon. Day and night, his squadrons harassed U-boats sailing from and returning to bases on the French Atlantic coast. In anticipation of the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944 he took over the key Senior Air Staff Officer appointment at Coastal Command's No 19 Group Plymouth headquarters.
During the rehearsal period US anti-aircraft gunners almost succeeded in depriving Coastal Command of its future leader. Possibly it was excusable that they thought the biplane Tiger Moth elementary flying trainer he was piloting was a practice target. But 'Chilly' Chilton, as he swam in the Bristol Channel, was chagrined to say the least.
Chilton completed his war service with commands in south-east Asia. Gibraltar followed from 1952 to 1953. An Air Ministry policy interlude preceded a return in 1954 to Coastal Command as Senior Air Staff Officer, command in Malta in 1957 and his appointment as Air Officer Commanding- in-Chief Coastal Command in 1959.
Chilton helped to see his service through the shoals of Lord Mountbatten's efforts to deprive Coastal Command of its aircraft and concentrate maritime aviation in the Royal Navy which had lost out in 1918 when the RFC and RNAS were merged into the new RAF.
After he retired in 1960 Chilton served IBM (Rentals) as a consultant and a director until 1978.
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