‘The Few’ become fewer – the death of Geoffrey Wellum, the youngest RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain

RICHARD MADDOX

Wellum© IWM (HU 112488)

PORTRAIT BY CECIL BEATON of two Battle of Britain fighter pilots, Flight Lieutenant Brian Kingcome (left), commanding officer of No. 92 Squadron Royal Air Force and his wingman, Flying Officer Geoffrey Wellum, with a Supermarine Spitfire at Royal Air Force Station  Biggin Hill, Kent in 1941. Copyright IWM. IWM Catalogue reference HU 112488. Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205304556

GEOFFREY WELLUM, the youngest Royal Air Force pilot to serve in the Battle of Britain died on 18 July 2018 at the age of ninety-six at his home in Cornwall, England.

He joined the RAF in August 1939 at the age of 18 – ‘two weeks after ‘leaving school.’ (1) Overall the average age of a fighter pilot at that time was 20 years old. (2)

Posted in May 1940 to No. 92 Squadron (commanded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of ‘Great Escape’ fame who was shot down on 23 May 1940 over Calais, France) he took part in the defence of London and southern England.

Interviewed by author James Holland in 2001 (in Wellum’s local pub!) the following comments show something of the pressure on a new pilot – many of whom could fly a Supermarine Spitfire or Hawker Hurricane before they could drive a car.

Recalling his feelings at his first flight in a Spitfire – an aircraft that had no capacity for an instructor to fly with the new pilot – he told the author of his excitement and the pressure not to damage a front-line fighting machine, as well no doubt of the fears of being judged as not capable by his fellow pilots…

… It was a day that you had been waiting for for a long time but it wasn’t until my flight commander briefed me: you better take this aeroplane. I’ll come out and show you the cockpit. I’ll show you round it and if you break it there’ll be hell to pay…

No instructor in the back. You had to get it right… once my flight commander had started explaining it to me you settled down a bit and thought well this is what it’s all about.

So many things. If you stay too long taxiing on the ground the engine overheats. Be careful of the brakes because they’re nose-heavy on the ground. They tip on…

You think God I don’t want a helmet, I want a shroud in this bloody thing.

But anyway then I remember him getting off the rig and I said ‘Excuse me Sir’.

‘You don’t call me Sir, not any more. I’m a flight commander. You can call me Brian’.

I said ‘Alright, excuse me but how do you start it…?’ (3)

Having mastered the intricacies of flying he would later recall the almost serene feeling he could experience returning from a operational flight

‘Smoke is coming up from the chimneys in cottages, and you feel a sort of unknown presence, a feeling of tremendous peace…

Then you get a sense of beautiful loneliness and think, I’ve got to get down because my mates are on the ground’ (4)

large_© IWM (CH 4097)

GEOFFREY WELLUM (standing far right) with colleagues and guests from No. 92 Squadron RAF. Amongst those pictured are Wing Commander John A. Kent (nicknamed ‘Kentowski’ as he had previously served with No. 303 (Polish) Squadron RAF ), Flight Lieutenant Anthony Bartley, Mrs Trevor Wade, Flight Lieutenant Robert Holland, Pilot Officer Trevor Wade and two unidentified ladies. Standing with Wellum are Pilot Officer Sebastian Maitland-Thompson, and Flying Officer Tom Weiss (Intelligence Officer). Image copyright IWM. IWM catalogue reference CH 4097. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210118.

Wellum would later become part of Brian Kingcome flight flying in support of him. This would continue as Kingcome became No 92 Squadron’s acting squadron commander before being confirmed in the post in 1941.

Sources and further information:

(1) BBC television news report 21 July 2018

(2) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-44895703 – retrieved 21 July 2018

(3) http://www.griffonmerlin.com/wwii-interview/geoffrey-wellum/ – retrieved 21 July 2018

(4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1162204/The-girls-base-knew-pilots–Now-radio-heard-screams-crashed-earth.html – retrieved 21 July 2018