(20 November 1919 – 27 December 2000)
‘AIR VICE-MARSHAL “BIRDIE” BIRD-WILSON overcame terrible burns from an air crash to take part with great distinction in the Battle of Britain; after shooting down six enemy aircraft in the summer of 1940 he became the 40th victim of the Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland.
Raked by the guns of Galland’s Me 109, Bird-Wilson’s Hurricane fell blazing into the Thames. “I knew I’d been hit,” he recalled. “Flames came into the cockpit, the hood perspex was all gone. I pulled the hood back and leaped out. Two of my section orbited round me. I was burned, but picked up by a naval motor torpedo boat.”
Although still carrying shrapnel from this encounter in his head, Bird-Wilson went on to destroy a further five enemy aircraft during the war. Bird-Wilson’s war record was the more remarkable for his having recovered from a crash shortly after the outbreak of war.
He was piloting a B A Swallow, a light civilian aeroplane being used for communications service, when he crashed in foul weather at Cranwell. He was fortunate to survive the accident, in which his passenger, a fellow pilot, was killed.
Treated for serious burns at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Bird-Wilson was among the earliest aircrew “guinea pig” patients of the plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe. For some months he walked around without a nose. But, he recalled, “my fighter pilot friends accepted me and so did my girlfriend. They were not put off by this embarrassing sight.” On its foundation he was welcomed into the East Grinstead pioneers’ Guinea Pig Club.
Periodically he returned to East Grinstead, where eventually McIndoe offered him the nose of his choice. By April 1940 his face was restored and he quickly returned to fly a Hurricane operationally. He helped cover the Allied retreat in France in May and June 1940. At the last opportunity, he flew home from Brittany via the Channel Islands.
Later, reflecting on events in 1940, he marvelled at his survival. “I was still only 20. We’d lost a lot of the older chaps in France. We hadn’t the experience of the German pilots like Galland who’d fought in the Spanish Civil War.
“So we’d fly around in pre-war Hendon pageant formations. The RAF hadn’t had a Spain, nor the intelligence to learn from the tactics it produced. It hadn’t kept pace with German thinking and the Gallands of the Luftwaffe.
“Once during the Battle of Britain when we lost a CO he was replaced by an intelligence officer from behind a desk at the Air Ministry. He brought the idea with him that you should attack head on. He tried out this tactic and regrettably it did not work. We found his shirt in Weymouth harbour.”
Bird-Wilson retained a vivid memory of attacking formations of more than 100 enemy aircraft as one of a force of only 12 Hurricanes. “Your throat dried up as you got nearer,” he remembered. “I don’t believe any man who said he wasn’t afraid.”
When the Battle of Britain ended that autumn it shocked Bird-Wilson that “there was hardly anybody left of the pilots who started out with me. All one’s friends had gone.”
“I had no qualms about admitting to nightmares. Sleeping at dispersal near my Hurricane I would often wake from a very frightening dream of flying at night. I would be sitting up in bed and sweating like a pig.”
Harold Arthur Cooper Bird-Wilson was born on November 20, 1919, son of a Bengal tea-planter. He was sent to a boarding school in England at the age of four and a half while his parents remained in India. His reaction was to build a protective shield round himself and develop early self-reliance. He went on to Liverpool College, and was commissioned in the Royal Air Force in 1937.
Bird-Wilson was still only 18 when he joined No 17 Squadron in August 1938. At first he learned his fighter skills in the squadron’s biplane, the Gloster Gauntlet. In June 1939, the squadron was re-equipped with Hawker Hurricanes, a change which allowed Bird-Wilson just 10 weeks to convert to the far speedier, modern eight-gun fighters.
After the Battle of Britain, he spent two periods in 1941 as an instructor and then in command of a training squadron at No 56 Operational Training Unit. In between he served with No 254 Squadron, flying Spitfires in offensive sweeps over northern France. The next year, he received his first two squadron commands, Nos 152 and 66 Squadrons. These gave air cover to convoys and escorted day bombers over France.
In 1943 Bird-Wilson began a brilliant period as a leader of aggressive fighter wings. Rested in the New Year of 1944, he attended a command and general staff course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In April he was again in the thick of it with No 83 Group. First he led the Spitfire wing at Harrowbeer in Devon and then a Mustang wing at Bentwater in Suffolk. He shot down his last enemy aircraft (a much-advanced model of the Me 109 which had set his Hurricane on fire in 1940) while escorting daylight raids in support of the invasion of Normandy.
Moving onto jets before the end of the war he received command in 1945 of No 1335, the RAF’s first jet conversion unit. This led in 1946 to command of the Central Flying Establishment’s air fighting development squadron. In 1948 he was posted to the Middle East operations staff.
The next year, Air Chief Marshal Sir John Baker, Middle East Air Force Commander-in-Chief, appointed him as his personal staff officer.
Further Central Flying Establishment posts followed from 1952 to 1954, when he joined the British Joint Services Mission in Washington. He was at the Air Ministry from 1961 to 1963, then commanded the Central Flying School, and in 1965 was appointed air officer commanding Hong Kong.
He was at the Ministry of Technology from 1967 to 1970, when he received command of No 23, a training group. He retired in 1974.
He devoted the next 10 years to bringing his great operational research and staff experience to bear on Britain’s aerospace responsibilities in Saudi Arabia.
Bird-Wilson was awarded a DFC in 1940, a Bar to it in 1943, a DSO in 1945, an AFC in 1946 and Bar to it in 1955. He was appointed CBE in 1952, and was also awarded a Dutch DFC and a Czechoslovak Medal of Merit.
He married first, in 1942, Audrey Wallace. She died in 1991; they had a son and a daughter. He married again in 1994, to Margaret McGillivray Butler.
Birdie was the second member of The Guinea Pig Club.
The Guinea Pig Club, established in 1941, was a social club and mutual support network for British and allied aircrew injured during World War II. Its membership was made up of patients of Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex, who had undergone experimental reconstructive plastic surgery, including facial reconstruction, generally after receiving burns injuries in aircraft. The club remained active after the end of the war, and its annual reunion meetings continued until 2007.
We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
“Per ardua ad astra”
We’d rather drink than fight.
John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields the knife.
And if they are not careful
They’ll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand ready
For all your surgeons’ calls:
And if their hands aren’t steady
They’ll whip off both your ears.
We’ve had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles.
We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians –
Ah! That’s a different thing.
They couldn’t stand our accent
And built a separate Wing.
We are McIndoe’s army,
(As first verse)
by John Gillespie Magee Jr. (9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941)