OBITUARY: Group Captain Colin Gray

Colin Gray was one of the outstanding New Zealand fighter pilots of the Second World War, reaching an unrivalled final score of at least 28 enemy aircraft shot down.

One of the features of the Battle of Britain was the large number of pilots found from the old dominions, and the colonies. This was the result of a far-sighted policy by the RAF. It found ready volunteers of high calibre, since their motivation was to become involved in the maximum action, and since the more thrusting officers saw little prospect of promotion in their own comparatively small air forces.

New Zealand, with the smallest eligible population, made the largest contribution of all the dominions to the sum total of Battle of Britain pilots. Usually their ambitions pointed to Fighter Command, although New Zealanders later also manned bomber squadrons - indeed Colin Gray's twin brother was killed in action in 1940 on one of these.

Colin Gray was born in New Zealand and followed his twin into the Royal Air Force on a short service commission. The interval between their two arrivals was caused by medical defects Colin suffered, but which he overcame with typical determination by arduous work on a farm. He was turned down twice by the RAF before he was eventually accepted for training in January 1939.

Gray was a man of strong character, brusque manner and powerful personality. These together brought him into early conflict with his superiors, but his emerging operational performance soon erased any initial doubts. He was heavily involved in the fighting over Dunkirk, sustaining near fatal damage in combat with Me109s. Thereafter he was continuously in action for the whole of 1940, finishing the year with a confirmed total of at least 15 aircraft destroyed.

These included an unusually large number of enemy fighters of approximately equal performance to his own. This was mainly attributable to the fact that, apart from his skill as a pilot, he was a superb natural shot. Many fine pilots produced disappointing results because they lacked this special ability. Among those who combined both and reaped the results were "Sailor" Malan, Johnny Johnson and the German Adolf Galland. Colin Gray was their acknowledged equal.

He continued to be involved in intensive fighting during the whole defensive campaign over Britain; and thereafter, when Fighter Command moved to the not entirely successful offensive over France, led various Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons. He finished this period of his career having destroyed 19 enemy aircraft over 300 hours of continuous operational flying. After a short spell on staff work he was transferred successively to North Africa, Malta and Sicily as a fighter squadron leader and later as a wing leader.

On returning home to Britain and after a short spell on training, during 1944-45 he successively led the Detling and then the Lympne fighter wings until the end of the war. Unusually but by no means uniquely, he was on full operational flying duties for nearly the whole five and a half years of the war, apparently without any impairment of his performance or enthusiasm. For him there was no suggestion of combat stress or trauma of which so much has been heard recently in campaigns such as the Falklands and the Gulf which lasted only a tiny fraction of that time.

After the war, Gray was granted a permanent commission and served in a number of interesting command and staff appointments, including valuable action connected with the fighting in the Malayan emergency. He was awarded the DFC in 1940, bar in 1941, and second bar and also the DSO in 1943. In 1961 he retired and returned to professional life in New Zealand.

In 1990 he came back to Britain for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. He was one of the eight escorting officers to the Roll of Honour in Westminster Abbey. No one more fully deserved that position.

Christopher Foxley-Norris

Colin Falkland Gray, air force officer: born Christchurch, New Zealand 9 November 1914; DFC 1940, bars 1941, 1943; DSO 1943; married 1945 Betty Cook (two sons, two daughters); died New Zealand 2 August 1995.