Last night I welcomed almost 300 distinguished guests to the Imperial War Museum for the launch of Heroes of the Skies, my latest book on gallantry.
As the title suggests, this is a book about bravery in the air by pilots and aircrew in combat. It features astonishing stories of courage by fighter pilots, bomber pilots and crew, reconnaissance pilots and helicopter pilots – and even tales of valour on the ground by men who were shot down and either tried to evade capture or who, as PoWs, tried to escape.
In the splendid – and highly appropriate – surroundings of the Imperial War Museum, I was privileged enough to have five special guests who feature prominently in the book, and all of whom are undoubtedly worthy to be called Heroes of the Skies.
Ted Maslen-Jones MC, DFC was awarded both his decorations in 1945 for bravery during the Burma campaign. As a reconnaissance pilot, he flew Austers alone, unarmed and without a parachute to carry out observation flights in support of the 14th Army’s operations. Even now, at 92 years of age, Ted still drives, and enjoys gardening, fly-fishing and singing in his local choir. “I was a bit of a Biggles: an old-fashioned flyer,” he told me, adding he only remembered the “enjoyable bits, not the nasty bits” of his Second World War service.
Bill O’Brien DFM was awarded his decoration in 1982 during a remarkable military career that spanned 38 years. As a Royal Marine and a helicopter pilot, he had the distinction of winning the only DFM of the Falklands War. He was awarded his medal for bravery flying repeated day and night supply and casualty evacuations, firstly during the attack on Darwin and Goose Green and, subsequently, during the numerous battles that followed. Remarkably, in 2010, and by then affectionately known as “Uncle Bill”, he served with the Royal Naval Reserve in Afghanistan and, aged 55, became the oldest Apache pilot to fly operationally.
Jeff Niblett DFC, another Royal Marine, was also awarded his decoration in 1982 for bravery during the Falklands War when serving as a helicopter pilot with the Commando Brigade Air Squadron. In one incident, he was leading a pair of Scout helicopters attempting to evacuate a casualty – no less a man than Colonel ‘H’ Jones VC – during the battle for Darwin and Goose Green. Not only did Colonel H perish, but so too did the pilot in the accompanying helicopter, shot down by one of two Argentine Pucara aircraft that attacked them. Jeff, however, flew skilfully and courageously to avoid being hit before returning for the badly injured comrade from the downed helicopter, and eventually, the body of the other pilot, a fellow Royal Marine officer and close friend. For his service throughout the conflict, Jeff received the first ever DFC awarded to a Royal Marine.
Bill Scarratt DFC was awarded his decoration in 1975 for courage in Northern Ireland. He had the distinction of being the first DFC of the Troubles. Indeed, only three such decorations were awarded during the entire campaign. Bill, who as a young man learnt to parachute from the incredible height of 20,000 feet, flew his helicopter skilfully and courageously after it was ambushed while dropping off a four-man patrol in South Armagh: so-called “Bandit Country”. Not only did bullets enter the helicopter’s fuel tanks, but one bullet shot clean through the intercom lead hanging down from his helmet, thereby rendering his radio useless.
Shaun Wyatt DFC was also awarded his decoration for bravery in Northern Ireland. His award in 1994 came after he, too, flew skilfully and bravely when his Lynx and two other helicopters were ambushed in South Armagh. No less than 30 terrorists based in at least five firing points tried to bring a helicopter down. Wyatt not only survived but he then pursued some of the terrorists in a cat-and-mouse gun battle throughout “Bandit Country”. After one massive firefight lasting 20 minutes and despite one of the biggest ambushes of the Troubles, Wyatt and his comrades survived unscathed.
My other guests last night represented worlds as diverse as the military, politics, business, the legal profession, the media, charities and many more areas besides. The RAF was well represented and Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach KCB CBE FRAeS was kind enough to make the introductory speech.
One intended guest who was, sadly, unable to be present was Marshal of the RAF, Sir Michael Beetham GCB, CBE, DFC, AFC. He wrote the Foreword to Heroes of the Skies, generously describing it as “a book to be cherished and savoured.” A decorated Second World War bomber pilot, I got to know and admire Sir Michael in his capacity as President of the Bomber Command Association.
I have enjoyed a half-century interest in bravery, in general, and gallantry medals, in particular. This passion saw me build up not just the world’s largest collection of VCs and a substantial collection of Special Forces medals, but also the largest private collection of British, Commonwealth and other Allied medals for courage in the air. More than 80 groups of gallantry and service medals have formed the basis of the write-ups in my new book.
Heroes of the Skies will raise money for a cause close to my heart. I have decided that every penny of my author’s royalties will be donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund. The fund is the RAF’s leading welfare charity, and looks after serving and former members of the RAF, as well as their partners and dependent children.
Furthermore, the RAF Benevolent Fund also became the custodian of the new Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, which I and others supported ahead of its unveiling by The Queen this summer. If you want to support a truly worthy cause, then please buy a copy of the Heroes of the Skies: I hope very much that you will enjoy the book too.
* Heroes of the Skies by Michael Ashcroft is published in hardback by Headline and costs £20 (RRP). It is available from all good bookshops or visit: www.amazon.co.uk. For more information on the book, visit: www.heroesoftheskies.com. The book is coming out in association with a six-part Channel 5 series of the same namethat begins on September 20 at 8pm.