Obituary: Gp Capt George Denholm

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The Independent Online
As leader of 603 Squadron George Denholm was involved in the shooting down of the first German aircraft over British soil at the start of the Second World War. This was at Port Seton in East Lothian, the aircraft a Heinkel 1-11 bomber which had orders to destroy the three-cantilever Forth Railway Bridge.

A year later during the Battle of Britain, in September 1940, Denholm had to bale out of his Spitfire over Kent, just after he had shot down a couple of raiding German planes. Weeks afterwards, he was yet again shot down, after engagement in combat. He was promptly awarded, in October 1940, what was described by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur (later Lord) Tedder, as an outstanding Distinguished Flying Cross.

The high moment of Denholm's war service in Scotland came on 10 May 1941. Betty Denholm, a lady of much achievement in public work in Central Scotland, then his young wife of a couple of years, tells the story: "George came home to Bo'ness, and said, `You'll never guess what happened today.' `Well, no, I cannot guess.' `We forced down and captured the Deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess.' `You did what?' `We forced down Hess!' " The whole story is elegantly set out in Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's book Motive for a Mission (1971).

George Denholm was born at Tidings Hill, Bo'ness, the house in which he died 88 years later, into a well-established family of coal exporters and pit-prop/timber importers, based at Bo'ness, on the Forth, from medieval times until the late 19th century the third largest port in Scotland. Educated at Cargilfield Prep School and Fettes (where he was less than happy), he went to St John's College, Cambridge, where he was supremely happy, and had the good fortune to have C.W. Guillebaud, most practical of Cambridge economists, as his supervisor in Part I of the Tripos. Guillebaud took a lasting interest in Denholm, but advised him to do Part II Law.

It helped greatly that his family were determined that he should have some experience of life and business between school and university - not a fashionable concept in those days. Denholm was despatched "to learn a thing or two" at a tough Glasgow office, so that he could appreciate Cambridge and his good fortune the more.

At Cambridge, much of his time was devoted to the guns and artillery section of the University Cadet Corps. This gave him a taste for fighter- flying, and prompted him to join the 603 Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in 1933, learning to fly at the MacMerry / East Fortune Aerodromes in East Lothian. Going full-time in August 1939, Denholm was a natural choice to lead 603 Squadron on the outbreak of war.

Denholm counted his luck as a survivor of the Battle of Britain. The only occasion that this quietly formidable man was slightly curt with me was when as a teenager I asked him, "And what did you do when friends or other pilots were not there to eat in the mess, after failure to return from a mission?" "We accepted it, and got on with the job."

In 1941, Denholm was assigned to a bizarre and extraordinary ploy which, like a number of notions from the fertile imagination of Winston Churchill, ended in farce. He had to fly Boston bombers out of Acklington aerodrome armed with huge searchlights, which could be turned on, once radar had picked up enemy bombers, so that night fighters could then shoot them down. Denholm reminisced dryly with the understatement that was his style, that "the scheme was not a success".

He was then transferred to an activity no less perilous for the pilots than the Battle of Britain. In the 18-month run-up to D-Day, it was the task of the Mosquito fighter-bombers to strafe enemy positions in the Pas-de-Calais and throughout northern France. This was trebly dangerous - ack-ack fire, the occasional German Messerschmitt, and the difficulties associated with low-flying itself exacted a heavy toll. Denholm was brave and lucky.

Surviving this, he became the Station Commander at North Weald. Perhaps it was not altogether fortuitous that it was the base of the Norwegian and Danish wing. Denholm, who had been sent by his father to Copenhagen for a year in the 1930s, to look after the Scandinavian end of the shipping and timber business, had a passable knowledge of Danish, at a time when not all Danes were fluent in English. Moreover, his young wife, Betty Tooms, with whom he was to be supremely happily married for 58 years, was partly of "Viking extraction". Their friendship with the Norwegian Commanding Officer, Helge Nehre, was to last for decades. It was particularly fitting that Denholm should be one of the Allied officers who received the German surrender in Norway at Garda Moen Airbase outside Oslo.

Demobbed in 1947, Denholm devoted himself for the next three decades to J&J Denholm. As a Bo'ness town councillor for a short period in the 1950s, he strongly opposed the decision to close Bo'ness Docks in favour of Grangemouth. But once the decision - misguided, in retrospect, in my opinion - was taken, the firm moved to Grangemouth and Glasgow.

His last public appearance was on 27 October 1996 at the ceremony for the rededication of the replica Spitfire - in the colours of 603 Edinburgh fighter squadron - at which he was venerated, and rightly so, because he was beloved by the men he led. Wing Commander Bob Kemp said, "If the auxiliaries had not been in place in 1939 it is fair to say we would not have won the Battle of Britain."

Tam Dalyell

George Lovell Denholm, air office officer and businessman: born Bo'ness, West Lothian 20 December 1908; DFC 1940; managing director, J&J Denholm 1947-80; married 1939 Betty Tooms (two sons, two daughters); died Bo'ness 15 June 1997.