ONE HUNDRED, NOT OUT

Spitfires.com celebrates the 100th Birthday of Warrant Officer Peter Hale.

Spitfire pilot Peter Hale

Peter Hale has been a regular flyer at Goodwood over the past 15 years, flying in all sorts of aircraft from the Chipmunk to Spitfire. Whenever he got the chance, he would be up and away! In 2017, Spitfires.com was honoured to be able to fly Peter in our TR9, G-ILDA to celebrate his 95th birthday.


Peter Hale standing by a two seat spitfire after his spitfire experience
Peter Hale standing in front of G-ILDA after his flight for his 95th birthday in 2017 (Photo by Mark Hillier).

Peter had been at school in Chichester before the outbreak of WWII and in later life lived in Portsmouth. For his 100th birthday, we are again privileged to be able to host Peter for a celebration with us. Many are not aware of his connection with the Spitfire, 41 Squadron and RAF Westhampnett. 41 Squadron was based at RAF Westhampnett and nearby RAF Merston a number of times and eventually were equipped with the Mk XII Spitfire at Goodwood. Peter although not based at Westhampnett, did fly into the airfield on a few occasions to pick up replacement aircraft.


Two seat Spitfire GILDA used for spitfire flight experiences at Spitfires.com
G-ILDA in flight over Portsmouth, being flown by Group Captain Jez Attridge with Peter Hale in the rear seat.

This month’s blog about Peter Hale is written by well-known author and historian Steve Brew, an Australian with dual Swiss citizenship who is official historian for 41 Squadron RAF. He has lived and worked in Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and speaks, in addition to his English mother-tongue, fluent High German and Swiss German. His books on 41 Squadron “Blood Sweat and Courage” and “ Blood Sweat and Valour” detail the history of 41 Squadron and its association with both the Spitfire and the local area.


An Admirable Century


In July 2022, a good friend of many at Goodwood, Peter Hale, will be reaching a milestone most of us can only hope to achieve: his 100th birthday.


However, some may not be aware of the extent of Peter’s RAF career. As an NCO pilot on 41 Squadron, he took part in several crucial campaigns in the European theatre during 1944 to 1945, most notably Operation Diver (anti-V2 defence of Britain), Operation Big Ben (the search for V1 launch sites), Operation Market Garden (Arnhem), Walcheren, the Oil Campaign and Operation Varsity (crossing of the Rhine).


During the last six months of the war, Peter ventured deeper into the Continent with 41 Squadron, mainly deployed against ground targets behind the advancing front. The Squadron was also regularly involved in brief but aggressive skirmishes with the Luftwaffe as it fought for its survival. By mid-April 1945, they were based in Germany, operating from Celle Aerodrome, about 225km by air due west of Berlin.


Peter was there when the RAF met the Russian Air Force (VVS) in the air for the first time, on the 24th of April 1945. Gp Capt ‘Johnnie’ Johnson had led the Wing (41, 130 & 350 Sqns) towards Berlin on reports of a large concentration of airborne German aircraft, only to find that they were in fact Russians attacking retreating German troops.


Peter recalls the sight: “They were all over the sky with no obvious formation. They suddenly appeared in the sky like a swarm of bees.” 41 Squadron joined the Russian ground attack in what was the first of only a handful of contacts between the RAF and the VVS during the war.


As the Allies closed in on Berlin from the east and west, the roads filled with convoys of retreating troops, motorised transport and armour. But far from being defeated, there was still much fight left in the German military and the Luftwaffe was defending the Fatherland with everything they had.


An intelligence summary for the 25th of April 1945 records, “A bewildering variety of aircraft were attacked today in the narrowing area of Germany between the Russian advance and our own. Only two sizeable formations were seen. A few of the other sightings, including jets, were on recce and the remainder were doubtless composed of various test, training and communication flights. The number and variety of these suggest that some airfields are still carrying on with their old routine, oblivious of the fact that they are now in the front line. An efficient and centralised control would not have allowed this state of affairs to continue and it is indeed possible that this control no longer exists. […] All airfields appear to be full of aircraft, although it may be doubted if more than a small portion of these are fit for operations.”


Given the array of aircraft now being pressed into service, it was perhaps no surprise when Peter came across an airborne Heinkel He111 bomber a few days later, though he had not personally seen one before. What was a little more astounding, though, was that this would be the first He111 engaged by 41 Squadron since July 1941.


He was one of a section of four, undertaking a late afternoon armed reconnaissance in the Parchim-Lübeck area when they sighted the bomber flying northeast at an altitude of just 400 feet. The quartet was divided in pairs at the time, with the leader and his wingman at 2,000 feet and Peter and his own wingman watching their backs at 4,000. The leading pair dived at once to attack it and Peter and his colleague followed them down.

Peter Hale preparing for a Spitfire Flight
A photo of Warrant Officer Peter Hale of 41 Squadron (41 Sqn Via Steve Brew).

Given their speed and altitude, the Heinkel stood no chance. Under their overwhelming fire, both engines caught fire, and another fire started on the wing between the starboard engine and fuselage. Before long, it crash-landed near Niendorf.


This was the climax of Peter’s wartime service. Five days later, the Squadron claimed its final victory of the war and, just two days after that, all RAF operations ceased under the terms of the German surrender in northwest Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Peter had been on active duty for almost a year, throughout one of the most intensive periods of the war but there was a time when he never thought he would get here, let alone witness the end of the war first-hand.


Born in Harpenden on the 28th of July 1922, Peter grew up to stories of his father’s service in World War I and it was something that he always respected. When the next war broke out, he wanted to serve as well but, at 17, he was still too young to enlist. But the Army was not for him; he wanted to fly, and a few months after his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the RAF.


Peter completed his elementary flying training in England and was shipped to Canada just before Christmas 1941 to undertake his service flying training. Celebrating both Christmas and New Year’s Eve at sea, he landed in Halifax on New Year’s Day 1942 and entrained for the icy plains of Saskatchewan.


He was one of 49 flight cadets who began the 14-week course at Swift Current in late January. During the first three months of the year, the temperature seldom peaked above freezing and monthly snowfall averaged six inches. Poor winter weather regularly limited flying activity or stopped flying for days in a row.


Peter graduated on the 24th of April 1942 and was presented his Wings and promoted to Sergeant Pilot. Hoping to return home to fight, he was disappointed to learn that he would be kept in Canada as a flying instructor. In fact, he would not be home for another 18 months and it was a further ten months after that, that Peter would finally be posted to an operational unit.


Following a Flying Instructors’ course at CFS at Trenton, he was posted to 31 Bombing and Gunnery School at Picton. When that posting ended in early October 1942, he was sent to 31 SFTS at Kingston as a staff pilot. Nine months later, having often sought permission to be released to operational flying, his wish was finally granted.


But it was not as simple as that and Peter had to complete operational training before he could be posted to a front-line unit. However, even that did not get him shipped home and in mid-July 1943, Peter marched into 1 OTU at Bagotville, Ontario, as one of 41 pupil pilots on Course 15. The school was equipped with Hurricanes, so at least, finally, he was flying fighters!


When the course culminated two months later, Peter was one of only 29 pilots that graduated. At last, he was posted home and soon entrained for the east coast port town of Moncton, New Brunswick, to await a troopship. However, as aircrew training in Canada reached its peak around this time, more personnel were being moved across the Atlantic than ever before. Consequently, two weeks after Peter arrived in Moncton, he had still not been allocated to a vessel.


To alleviate the bottleneck, Peter was sent to New York City by train to take a ship from there instead. Finally, on the 10th of October 1943, almost two years after he had arrived in Canada, he embarked on the troopship Queen Mary, bound for the Clyde. The majestic vessel was the largest ship in the world at the time and regularly carried 10,000-15,000 troops on a single voyage. She was also one of the fastest, which protected her from U-boat attack and negated the need for an escort.


Peter disembarked six days later and headed home to Bognor Regis on some well-deserved leave. Unfortunately, though, his retention in Canada had meant the peak in aircrew demand had passed and a surplus of pilots had now been trained. Consequently, aircrew intakes were reduced, and pilot training extended. While that meant that better trained pilots were reaching front-line units, the result was that Peter now had several more months of training ahead of him.


Spitfire squadron waiting to scramble at Spitfires.com
41 Squadron pilots at Lympne, in front of a Mk XIV Spitfire, late September 1944. On the wing: Flt Sgt Peter Hale, Flt Sgt Arthur Appleton; Back row, standing: Flt Sgt Jack Bradshaw USA, Plt Off Peter Gibbs, Flt Lt John Refshauge RAAF, Fg Off John Wilkinson, Fg Off Don Tebbit, Fg Off Richard ‘Monty’ Norman (Eng Off), Flt Lt Lord Gisborough (Int Off), Flt Sgt Bob Fleming, Fg Off Harry Charnock, Flt Lt Bob Anderson RAAF, Plt Off Jimmy Payne, WO Jimmy Ware RAAF; Front row, seated: Flt Lt Bill Stowe RCAF, Fg Off Harry Cook, Flt Lt Ross Harding, Flt Lt Terry Spencer, Sqn Ldr Doug Benham, Flt Lt Jack Henry RNZAF, Fg Off ‘Jackie’ Fisher, Fg Off Daniel Reid RAAF, and Plt Off Eric Gray RAAF. Crown Copyright expired (via Steve Brew)

While pilots trained in 1941 went straight to front-line units on completion of operational training, pilots by this time of the war were now required to complete a regimen of advanced training. In Peter’s case, this was once again not so straightforward and one could well understand his frustration when he was posted to a second operational training course. This was undertaken at 53 OTU at Kirton in Lindsey and commenced in late November 1943. It was here, however, that he flew the Spitfire for the first time.


Peter completed the course in late February 1944 and was sent to a Tactical Exercise Unit for a four-month tactical training course. Commencing at 4 TEU at Annan, he completed his course at 1 TEU at Tealing. By the time he graduated in late June, he had been promoted to Warrant Officer and Operation Overlord was well under way.


His training now complete, Peter was posted to 83 Group Support Unit (GSU) at Redhill. This was a holding unit for pilots and aircraft awaiting allocation to the Group’s operational squadrons to replace losses and fill aircrew rotations and pilots’ tenures relied solely upon demand. Two weeks later, Peter was transferred to 3501 GSU at Cranfield and there he was compelled to wait impatiently for yet another six weeks.


Finally, on the 6th of August 1944, Peter received the news he had been waiting so long for and was posted to 41 (F) Squadron, then flying Spitfire XIIs from Lympne, Kent. The unit had been deployed on home defence since late June and was busy defending the country against the V1 menace.


He had enlisted in January 1941, in the wake of the Battle of Britain but that campaign was now a distant memory; the tables had now turned and the second front was firmly established in France. It had taken around three-and-a-half years for Peter to get to an active squadron but he would be in the thick of the action from this point forward.


He moved forward with the unit as the front crept eastwards. 41 Squadron moved to the Continent in December 1944 and was initially based at Evere. They then moved to Diest, Ophoven, Volkel, Eindhoven, Twente, and finally to Celle in Germany, where Peter saw out the end of hostilities in May 1945.


Peter remained with the unit until August 1945 and was then posted out to India, where he arrived in mid-October. As Japan had already been defeated, the posting made little sense - even more so when he was shipped home again only two weeks after he got there. He was demobbed in June 1946 and never flew a Spitfire again. Joining the Met Office in February 1947, he spent the ensuing 35 years with them and retired in 1982.


Peter is staunchly and justifiably proud of his active service with 41 Squadron, which I have covered in some detail in my book, ‘Blood, Sweat and Valour’ (Fonthill 2012). I first met Peter while preparing the book and his input and advice lend to its authenticity and accuracy. I have known many of the Squadron’s veterans over the years but Peter is now the unit’s very last pilot who saw active service in World War II.


It is with great pleasure that I congratulate him on his 100th birthday.


Steve Brew

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