The unsung heroics of an RAF pilot who took part in a top secret mission in World War Two have been revealed after his medals were put up for sale by his family.
The fascinating story of a gallant war heroe is being uncovered by the auction of his never before seen photos, flight logs and first-hand accounts of his heroic flight when he took on German bombers and Stukas in his biplane. The Battle of Britain stands as the most pivotal moment in the seemingly unstoppable progress of Hitler’s military power. A small RAF with frantically working ground crew and factories stood between the imposing power of the Luftwaffe and Britain. The extent of the many classified missions and valiant actions undertaken by this brave band of pilots may never be fully known, and it is certain that there are unsung heroes of the war who have been lost in the mists of time. One such gallant pilot however will neither be lost nor forgotten. Herbert Horatio Kitchener, or ‘Kitch’ undertook awe inspiring feats during the Battle of Britain. Born in 1914, shortly after the outbreak of WWI, his patriotic family named him after the iconic field marshal Lord H H Kitchener. He was set for a life in local government, until the rumblings of war urged him to join the RAF Volunteer Reserves in 1937.
As the RAF were frantically trying to gather together their resources amidst the heightening chaos on the continent, Kitch was undergoing many gruelling hours of practice flights from Gravesend and Rochester Elementary Flying Training Schools. By October 1939, he joined Squadron 263 – who were remarkably equipped with only outdated biplanes; Gloster Gladiators. The operations record book notes that after only 19 days of flying ‘the standard reached is now very nearly on par with a fully trained Squadron’, despite many of the pilots coming direct from flight training schools. This is noted as being due to the ‘exceptional keenness shown by the pilots’. The Few were in preparation for one of the most momentous events in British history.
These Few were giving their all, despite long hours, outdated planes and a much tested and hurriedly assembled system of defence. The Germans were gaining in dominance and confidence in Europe, and on April 9th, invaded neutral Norway in a highly provocative move. Squadron 263 were set to be part of a highly mysterious movement of pilots and British planes to Norway. They were chosen perhaps for their singular planes, which happened to suit the frozen conditions. Eighteen aircraft and pilots from 263 set off from Scotland, with a destination of a frozen lake at Aandelsnes in Norway.
This ill-fated mission is shrouded in secrecy – log books and records surrounding the mission have been destroyed ‘on instructions from the Commanding Officer’ prior to their evacuation from Norway. However, newspaper clippings and first-hand accounts do survive, and illuminate a tense and fast paced battle. The eighteen pilots and Gladiators arrived at the designated frozen lake near Aandelsnes in May – they were expecting a skeleton ground crew to have been arranged with an improvised base, but found no facilities, little fuel, and no acid from their starter batteries, with just one armourer to service all 72 of their guns. Something was evidently amiss. They noticed that the ice at one end of the lake was beginning to melt, and saw two aircraft approaching, which were seen to have Norwegian markings upon inspection. These ‘Norwegian’ planes were evidently piloted by Germans, as from 3am the next morning, German fighters were closing in on the unprotected British below. They fought bravely back, taking it in turns to take off, attack the German planes, whilst those on the ground were refuelling and rearming. Thick drifts of snow and no cover made movement impossible; the pilots had to crawl through the drifts, and soon their clothes were sodden and freezing on their backs. The bombardment continued until 8pm that evening – one by one the planes were destroyed and the pilots brave pilots badly burnt, so they fought back from the ground with a single machine gun found nearby. As ammunition ran low, the pilots still valiantly got into the air to make feint attacks on the Germans, aiming their slow, old-fashioned and by now defenceless biplanes at the Germans’ modern and well-armed Stukas and Heinkel dive-bombers, forcing them to swerve to avoid collision. Their dogged determination and bravery in the face of gross disadvantage was with the aim to protect the sole British airfield in Nazi occupied Norway. Around fourteen German fighters were taken down that day, and the day after the British made continued reconnaissance flights with considerable success.
The second Norwegian expedition consisted of similar heavy fire, numerous successful sorties and German fighters taken down. In total, the two expeditions counted around 50 victories, with only two pilots and planes lost to the Germans. A success against all odds. The evacuation of Norway found 263 Squadron taking 20 planes and embarking onto the unfortunate HMS Glorious – later that day the carrier was sunk with great loss of life. By a stroke of incredible luck Kitchener was not one of the pilots who had been assigned an aircraft, and returned home with the ground crew. He was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his outstanding bravery and resilience throughout the Norway campaign. He was also one of only 42 British citizens, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, to be awarded the Norwegian Cross (the equivalent of the iconic English Victoria Cross) for outstanding service to Norway in its time of need.
His remarkable stoicism in the face of German adversity was again displayed on the eve of his investiture at Buckingham Palace. He was set to catch a train from Cornwall to London on the 13th March 1941, and offered to cover for his colleagues ‘on ready’ on the 12th, it being quiet in the skies. Typically, he was required to go up and intercept an aircraft flying over their base. Unexpectedly, he encountered a German Junkers 88, and immediately gave chase. They exchanged fire, and flew into deep cloud – Kitchener recalled that his plane had one engine knocked out and he needed to land. However he was over the sea, and ‘as it is thought that Jerry picks up most of our wireless messages, knowing that they would love to know they had got a Whirlwind I gave up the idea and decided to try to reach and land at a half-finished aerodrome much nearer than St. Evel’. This brave decision almost cost him his life - crash landing on the airfield, the ground crew pulled him from his plane moments before the engine exploded and the plane was engulfed in fire. He suffered a broken arm and fractured skull, spending months in hospital and convalescent homes. For the rest of the war he worked in operations, not before finally attending Buckingham Palace for his investiture, and making front page of the Daily Mirror for proposing to his girlfriend almost directly beneath the eyes of the King! This fantastic collection of ephemera, medals and official accounts relating to one of our unsung heroes of the war draws a picture of an extremely loyal, dedicated and brave man. The collection includes his medals, flying goggles and hat, photographs, official and unofficial letters, log book and other related items. Specialist Timothy Medhurst expects it to fetch in the region of £5,000-£10,000. Timothy commented, ‘For me, this is one of the most awe-inspiring archives I have ever had the pleasure to handle. It is always amazing to delve into the past and highlight the bravery of men and women during the First and Second World Wars. This group is particularly exciting, as it is the first time this archive has ever been offered for sale’ The collection is going under the hammer on March 9th as part of Duke’s specialist Coins, Militaria and Ephemera auction. For more information, please contact Dukes on 01305 265080 or email [email protected].