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Winged Warrior

The First World War has now gone from living memory. Slowly but surely the Second World War is going too. The men and women who were old enough to have served in the armed forces are reaching the end of their lives, passing away, and taking their first-hand memories with them.

This loss has just happened to one of the most remarkable pilots ever to have served in any air-force anywhere in the world: Eric Brown, born in Leith, Scotland, in 1919 and now passed away at the age of ninety-seven. His military record sounds as though the experiences of a dozen pilots have been crammed into one. Serving in the Fleet Air Arm, he flew 487 different types of aircraft and landed on aircraft carriers 2,407 times. Both are still world-records.

He crashed eleven times, but unlike many of his friends and comrades he emerged from the war unscathed to undertake perhaps an even more dangerous job: that of test-pilot for the new, fast and highly dangerous generation of jet aircraft that were then being developed. Only 5 foot 7 inches tall, he earned the affectionate nickname of “Winkle” in the war, after the small shellfish known as the periwinkle, and he himself said that his small frame allowed him to curl up in the cockpit and survive crashes that might have killed a taller man.

But his achievements don’t end there. In 1936, still in his teens, he travelled to Germany with his father, who had served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, and attended the Olympic Games in Berlin. He met Ernst Udet, a famous German flying veteran of the same conflict, and struck up a friendship with him. Udet encouraged him to become a pilot and to learn the German language. On return to Britain, Brown followed both pieces of advice in time to apply his skills during the Second World War. On the German side, Udet became a leader in the Luftwaffe, or German airforce, but he committed suicide in 1941, despairing at the wickedness of the Nazi regime he served.

Brown saw that wickedness for himself, because he was present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the notorious concentration camp that represented the horrors of the Holocaust for several generations of British people. With his fluent German, he was asked to help in the interrogation of the camp commandant, Josef Kramer, and some of the camp guards. He described them as “loathsome creatures” and was no doubt relieved when that part of his service was over. He began his post-war career as a test-pilot while still in Germany, flying captured German aircraft to learn their aerial capabilities and becoming one of the few men able to compare the performance of aircraft on opposing sides of the conflict.

But despite the advanced design and high speed of aircraft like the jet-powered Messerschmitt-262, he named his favourite aircraft of the war as the propeller-driven de Havilland Hornet. The Hornet was so powerful, he said, that it felt like “flying a Ferrari in the sky”. And he certainly knew what piloting a Ferrari on the ground was like, because he was also a fan of sports-cars. Indeed, when he appeared on the 3,000th edition of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs at the age of ninety-five, he revealed that he had just bought a new sports-car.

His courage and piloting skill brought him many honours, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Air Force Cross and an OBE. His evident gusto for life and adventure also brought him many friends and admirers, and not the least of his many achievements was his longevity. He faced death many times both during and after the war, but survived to become one of the most celebrated pilots in history. It is a cliché to say that we will not see his like again, but in Eric Brown’s case that is almost certainly true. Britain – and his homeland Scotland in particular – has lost a true hero, a warrior with wings whose example will shine in the pages of history for future generations to marvel at.