Eric “Winkle” Brown

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Eric “Winkle” Brown went on to become a war hero and Britain’s greatest test pilot:

Eric’s father had served in the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War and, along with all former RFC pilots, received an invitation from the newly formed German Luftwaffe to visit the 1936 Olympics.

A promising scholar at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, Eric had recently lost his mother, so his father decided to take the boy to Germany to see the Games.

Among those hosting the RFC delegation was the charismatic Great War ace Ernst Udet, who had become a famous stunt pilot. He took up Eric for a spin — ‘Terrifying stuff’ — and the teenager was hooked.

‘When we landed, Udet gave me the old fighter pilot’s greeting — “Hals und Beinbruch!” [Break your neck and leg] — and told me to learn to fly.’

Eric went on to Edinburgh University, where he studied German and joined the university’s air squadron. During a student trip to Germany, he wrote to Udet, by then a senior Luftwaffe general, who invited Eric into his social circle. The wide-eyed student was introduced to some of the leading lights of the Luftwaffe — including their formidable test pilot and world gliding champion Hanna Reitsch — having no inkling that, within a couple of years, they would be his sworn enemy.

‘Udet was like a schoolboy who regarded the whole world as a friend,’ says Eric. ‘He had these riotous evenings at his flat in Berlin. One of his party tricks was a shooting game where you had to fire a pistol at a target behind you, using a mirror. It made a mess of the wall, but he was very good at it.

‘I often wondered what the neighbours thought — but I suppose you didn’t complain if your neighbour was a Nazi general.’

In 1939, having recently arrived in Germany on a teaching exchange, Eric received a knock on the door one morning. ‘Our countries are at war,’ said an SS officer, before taking away Eric for interrogation.

Fearing the worst, he was pleasantly surprised to be dumped at the Swiss border, from where he made his way home as fast as possible to sign up with the RAF.

Like all young pilots, Eric was itching to get airborne and was frustrated by the lack of RAF planes and postings. But there were plenty of vacancies for pilots in the Royal Navy following the loss of the aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous, with more than 500 men, in the opening weeks of the war.

So Eric transferred to the Fleet Air Arm — where he was nicknamed ‘Winkle’ — and retrained as a naval pilot. Before long he was on HMS Audacity, an aircraft carrier escorting vital convoys between Britain and Gibraltar.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

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