Geoffrey Wellum obituary
Youngest Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot whose bestselling war memoir was hailed as one of the most powerful and poignant ever written.
Geoffrey Wellum in 2002
In the early 1970s Geoffrey Wellum was at a very low ebb. His business had failed, his marriage was coming to an end and he had recently lost his house. Dogged by despair, he began to write a memoir about his youth: “I just wanted to convince myself that at some point in my life I had been of use.”
In 1940, when he was 18, Wellum had, as the youngest Spitfire pilot in the RAF, flown in the Battle of Britain. He had been mad about aircraft as a boy and joined the service straight out of school. Having learnt to fly in Tiger Moths, he first went solo on September 1, 1939. Two days later Britain entered the war.
Under the merciless chivvying of his instructors, he grew up quickly, although his age and cockiness earned him the nickname “Boy”. In May 1940, on the eve of Dunkirk, so bad was the situation deemed that he was posted to 92 Squadron before his training was complete.
In a recent unpublished interview with The Times he recalled: “After I joined the squadron they went to Dunkirk and by the end of that day we’d lost five people, four of whom I’d met the night before in the officers’ mess. I thought, ‘Hold on a minute, this is bloody dangerous!’ ”
At that point he had never seen a Spitfire, let alone flown one. “When I was first given one to fly,” he recalled, “my emotion was almost intimidation. It felt like a thoroughbred horse watching a new rider and wondering how much to be bloody-minded. Once I was inside, the Spitfire, quite frankly, flew me.”
His first CO, Roger Bushell, was shot down at once; “Big X”, as Bushell later became known, was executed by the Gestapo in the aftermath of the “Great Escape”. Spitfire pilots had an average life expectancy of four weeks. Wellum was stationed during the battle first at Pembrey, protecting Bristol, and then, from September, at Biggin Hill. When that base was being bombed, the squadron mess was moved to a place called the “White House” in Knockholt, where they would, as he recalled, party with girls from London until 5am and then be in their cockpits at first light. “The comradeship in a fighter squadron that has survived the Battle of Britain is something that you will never be able to understand,” he observed, “and I will never experience again. And I can’t put it into words.”
In his interview with The Times he reflected: “You know, at no time during the battle, as very young pilots, did any of us contemplate defeat. We felt the whole time that we were on top of them, we could cope with them; it was tough going and the sight of 150-plus coming in over Dungeness like a swarm of bats on a summer evening, with the 109s above, there was a feeling of anger, really.
“England was a peaceful place, all I wanted to do was watch England play Australia at Lord’s. Here they were, coming over our green and pleasant land, bombing everything in sight, I don’t know what they were up to . . . people today don’t realise that feeling; it’s all too clinical.”
Wellum, right, in 1941 posing for Cecil Beaton with Brian Kingcome at RAF Biggin Hill, Kent
Flying alongside celebrated pilots such as Brian Kingcome, Bob Stanford Tuck and Tony Bartley, and then in Sailor Malan’s wing from 1941, Wellum destroyed four enemy aircraft and damaged several others, although being bloody-minded he was not meticulous in keeping a record of his kills. Several times he narrowly evaded being shot down.
Recalling his survival technique, he said: “You make yourself a difficult target. Never stay still, never fly straight and level, chuck it around. Quite often you’d find yourself surrounded by aeroplanes and then the sky would be empty. ‘Where’s everybody gone?’ It was then that you were in danger. It was the German you didn’t see who shot you down.”
In August 1941, soon after being photographed with others in his squadron by Cecil Beaton, he was awarded the DFC. A year later, in preparation for Pedestal, the convoy operation carrying vital supplies to Malta, Wellum led a flight of eight Spitfires out to the island via north Africa. He was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from exhaustion, aged 20, having by then completed two full tours, including dozens of fighter sweeps and bomber escort details. Thereafter he briefly test-flew Typhoons and then saw out the war as a pilot attack instructor.
The reminiscences that he wrote a quarter of a century later were put away in a drawer for another three decades before he lent them to an editor at Penguin researching the period. James Holland, now a well-known historian, was struck by their “emotional punch” — rare in first-hand accounts of the Battle of Britain — and showed them to colleagues.
Wellum in 2015 with Jodie Kidd, the model, in Fairford
A few weeks later Wellum was in his local in Cornwall when the landlady handed him the phone. It was Holland: “I’ve been trying to find you in every pub on the Lizard.” He told Wellum Penguin was offering a substantial deal — “They picked me up off the floor and poured more scotch into me” — and the book, published in 2002 as First Light, became a bestseller. In 2010 it was filmed by the BBC to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle.
“I enjoyed the film to a degree,” he said later. “There is a little bit of artistic licence in it, the BBC wanted a bit of a love scene in it and as I was going to get a bag of gold — well, not exactly, something to buy me another beer — I went along with it.”
The power of Wellum’s writing lies in its immediacy and lack of artifice. His are the inchoate thoughts of a young man who grows wearily accepting of death. Although alive to the beauty of flight, there is little of the heroic romanticism about aerial combat that afflicts other memoirs of the period.
Instead, it is depicted as confused and brutal, never more so than when Wellum finds himself a target: “When I saw him, I felt fear, real stark fear. Not ‘Ooh, this is frightening’, but ‘Oh God, this bloke is going to kill me’. I’ll never know how I got away with it.” Nonetheless, the enemy are always respected; his real hatred is reserved for the politicians who send men to war: “I realise just how bloody stupid they are.”
It was not so much that Wellum was a born writer — although vivid set- pieces, such as his description of stalking a Ju 88 in the rain over the sea showed that he was — as that he had a subject about which he felt compelled to write. Although urged to continue his career as an author, he never found a theme that inspired him as much.
The book’s success reawoke painful memories for Wellum: “People say, ‘You’ve got to forget all this, it was a long time ago.’ And I say, ‘I quite agree with you, but can you tell me how?’ ” Yet he was glad of the chance to educate younger generations who knew little of the sacrifices made by his. (One journalist who interviewed him for a national newspaper asked if it was the computer in his Spitfire that told him when his ammunition had run out.)
For many years he had regarded his wartime service as the pinnacle of his life, with the rest of it as anticlimactic. That made the unexpected attention in his eighties all the more gratifying, although he always saw himself as a representative of all who had served. “It’s nice to be remembered,” Wellum said, “because being remembered covers everybody, including all those chaps who were killed. That’s what’s important, not medals or thanks.”
Geoffrey Harry Augustus Wellum was born in Walthamstow, Essex, in 1921. His father, Percy, who managed an off-licence, had fought at Gallipoli as a quartermaster sergeant before receiving a battlefield commission. He and his wife Edith’s only child was Geoffrey, who attended Forest School, Snaresbrook, where he captained the cricket XI in his last summer. From an early age young Geoffrey wanted to fly. “I used to make Skybirds,” he said. “They were wooden and you used to buy them as a kit and I had 50 of the damned things. I lived near North Weald and saw the pilots in white overalls. Dad would drive past and then, in about 1937, there was one of the new Hurricanes taxiing in, and there was the pilot with the oxygen mask on him, and I thought, ‘God, I want to be one of those.’ ”
He remained in the RAF after the war. After a brief period flying Vampire and Meteor jets, while based in Germany, he converted to heavy aircraft, notably B29 Washingtons. With 192 Squadron at RAF Watton in the mid-1950s, he flew more than 50 special operations at high altitude, gathering intelligence about Soviet air defences and Egyptian radar capability in the run-up to the Suez crisis.
After a spell as adjutant at RAF Gaydon, a V bomber base, his final posting was to North Luffenham. There he shared the responsibility with an American office for three Thor ballistic nuclear missiles. He left the service in 1961, after 22 years, in the rank of squadron leader.
Wellum had married, in 1943, Dorothy Grace Neil, with whom he was to have three children: Anna was flight attendant and now works part-time in the NHS; Deborah, who died in 2017, had a career in the music business, notably with Apple Records; and Neil has been latterly a senior marine environmental inspector and manager. The family settled in Epping, Essex. Wellum joined a family haulage business, but this went bust and afterwards he worked as a sugar broker in the City. His marriage ended in divorce in 1975 and six years later he retired to Mullion, on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall.
He sang in the choir in Mullion and liked to help the cove fishermen. Wellum eventually became the deputy harbourmaster.
He was a regular at his local pub, having never lost his taste for English bitter. Wellum insisted that the drink be served in a tankard with a handle, the same as it had been at the White Hart in Brasted during the height of the Battle of Britain.
Geoffrey Wellum, wartime fighter pilot and author, was born on August 4, 1921. He died on July 18, 2018, aged 96