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Was the youngest Battle of Britain pilot from Essex?

PUBLISHED: 11:10 04 June 2019

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (c) Steve Slater, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (c) Steve Slater, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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The Battle of Britain is a pivotal moment in our nation's history, but recent research has shown that it may have been an Essex man who was the youngest to give his life for the cause

The Battle of Britain is arguably the most important battle fought by this country in the whole of the last century and saw fewer than 3,000 aircrew successfully defend these shores against the might of the Luftwaffe.

It was a remarkable victory, achieved against the odds by men whose bravery and sacrifice throughout the summer and early autumn of 1940 persuaded Hitler to abandon his invasion plans.

It is often said that the aircrew (to refer to 'pilots' is to ignore the contribution made by those in multi-crewed aircraft such as the Bristol Blenheim) were all young.

That is not strictly true, as there were a number of older aircrew, including some in their thirties, although many were not just young, but also very inexperienced.

One such, Flight Lieutenant Ron Smyth, was only a teenager when he volunteered to switch from Blenheims to single-engine fighters and was sent to join No 111, the first RAF Squadron to be equipped with Hurricanes.

The only problem, as the CO quickly discovered when the keen volunteer arrived, was that Flt Lt Smyth had never flown a Hurricane.

Despatched for a training course, he mastered the aircraft sufficiently to be transferred just three weeks later to No 249 Squadron, where he helped defend London from RAF North Weald, near Epping Forest.

Geoff Wellum on the balcony of The Wing at the Bsttle of Britain Memorial in KentGeoff Wellum on the balcony of The Wing at the Bsttle of Britain Memorial in Kent

While Flt Lt Smyth was 19 during the Battle of Britain, some aircrew were as young as 18, and with records nowhere near as carefully kept in 1940, naming the youngest has proved a difficult task and may never be done decisively.

However, Essex can claim to be the birthplace of both the pilot many commentators believe (wrongly) to be the youngest and the man who, according to recent research by the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, looks likely to actually hold that honour.

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC was affectionately known as 'Boy' Wellum because of his relative youthfulness, and he was certainly one of the youngest pilots to take part in the Battle of Britain.

Born on August 14, 1921, in Walthamstow, Sqn Ldr Wellum was a month or so short of his 19th birthday when the battle began on July 10, 1940, and, perhaps because of his high profile as the author of the acclaimed autobiography First Light, has for many years been considered the youngest pilot in the Battle of Britain.

Most of the national media continued to refer to Sqn Ldr Wellum in this way when this much-loved member of Sir Winston Churchill's 'few' died on July 18, 2018, despite the uncertainty that surrounds many of the 'facts' around the events of 79 years ago.

Even what would seem to be a reasonably straightforward enquiry as to how many aircrew took part in the battle will produce a cautious response from the experts, including those at the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust.

In the chaos of war, and without the computerised systems that exist today, the records kept back in 1940 were handwritten, subject to error and were often only approximations at best.

Martyn Aural King was born in West MerseaMartyn Aural King was born in West Mersea

To qualify for the Battle of Britain Clasp, an airman had to fly at least one operational sortie with an accredited unit of Fighter Command between the required (admittedly arbitrary) dates of July 10 and October 31, 1940.

As such, shooting down an enemy aircraft on November 1 or tangling with the Luftwaffe while on a training flight didn't count.

Even today, new claims are made by families of pilots who think their grandfather or great-grandfather should be listed on the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, just outside Folkestone in Kent.

Such claims are carefully investigated and, if the evidence is there, the name will be added and the clasp awarded, but it's not a regular occurrence.

The ultimate reference book listing those who took part in the conflict is Men of the Battle of Britain by Kenneth G Wynn, recently updated and published in a third edition by the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust following a huge amount of new research.

Continuing research has since revealed the man who may turn out to be the youngest pilot to have flown in the Battle of Britain - although it would be rash to make that an absolute claim.

Ron SmythRon Smyth

The discovery of his birth certificate proves that Martyn Aurel King, born in West Mersea on October 15, 1921, was the youngest pilot in the Battle of Britain with a proven date of birth. Born two months after Sqn Ldr Wellum, he was well short of his 19th birthday when the battle began, a salutary thought for anyone with teenage children today.

Although born in Essex, Pilot Officer King was educated in China before joining the RAF on a short service commission and, after flying training and converting to Hurricanes, joined No 249 Squadron at Leconfield on June 9, 1940, a month before the battle began.

Sadly he was not just the youngest to fly in the battle, but is also thought to be the only pilot to have been killed at the age of 18, shot down by enemy fighters over Southampton on August 16. He baled out but was killed when his parachute collapsed during the descent. His Hurricane, P3616, is believed to have crashed at Toothill, near Lee.

Until last year Pilot Officer King's gravestone and his entry in Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) records showed his age at death as 19, but following the recent research, the CWGC has agreed to amend its records.

Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel le FerneBattle of Britain Memorial at Capel le Ferne

Serving with No 92 Squadron throughout the Battle of Britain, Sqn Ldr Wellum achieved considerable success and was awarded the DFC. He later joined No 65 Squadron and was posted to Malta in the summer of 1942.

After retiring from the RAF in 1961, he was involved with a family haulage business and later worked in the City, but he is best known as the author of First Light, perhaps the leading autobiography by a Battle of Britain pilot. It was published in 2002 and inspired a later BBC TV film.

Find out more

For more information about the Battle of Britain Memorial, see www.battleofbritainmemorial.org

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