A Salute to One Of the Few: The Life of Flying Officer Peter Cape Beauchamp St John RAF
Simon St John Beer
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In a quiet churchyard in Amersham is the grave of an airman who lost his life fighting in the skies over southern England in October 1940. The author happened to come across this grave in 1998 and after some initial enquiries discovered that nobody in the town was aware that 'One of the Few' Battle of Britain pilots lay at rest in their parish. He determined to discover more about the short life of this hero and undertook several years of research to piece together this biography.
Peter joined the RAF in November 1937 on a four-year short service commission at the age of twenty. In July 1938 he was posted to No. 87 Squadron being equipped with the then new Hawker Hurricane fighter. After war had been declared the Squadron was posted to Boos in France in support of the British Expeditionary Force, becoming operational on 10 September 1939. In March 1940 he was transferred to 501 Squadron in Tangmere and then again in April to 74 Squadron as an operational pilot at Hornchurch, equipped with Spitfires. It was from here that he fought his part in the Battle of Britain. For those who may have forgotten 'The Few', this stirring and yet sad story tells of the all-too-short life of one of the 544 young men who gave everything to defend Great Britain from Nazi aggression.
become very attached to their aeroplane and its occupant. Most of the ground crew are older than the boys who fly the aircraft; they are protective towards their pilot. If he returns having shot down an enemy aeroplane, it is their jointly shared victory. If their charge – their specific aeroplane and its occupant – fails to return, they feel the loss greatly. It is personal to them. They are an intimate little fighting team. Malan, characteristically, never asks about his aeroplane; he just
that Fighter Command is now blind, they do not expect heavy opposition. In fact, the hole in the radar coverage was repaired less than twenty-four hours after the attack. Now 54 Squadron meets its unsuspecting enemy as it crosses the coast between Dover and Dungeness. A violent air battle ensues. Against such odds, it is impossible for the Hurricanes to prevent some of the bombers reaching their target, but nevertheless a lot don’t. In all, today, 2,000 enemy aircraft have been hurled against
electorate has thrown out President Herbert Hoover, blaming him for the continuing economic depression. And now Portugal has fallen: following Italy’s lead, it has turned fascist. Antonio Salazar, a former professor of economics, has become Portugal’s Premier, with total power to run the country as a dictator. But it’s not all bad news. Another record is set as Amelia Earhart flies her Lockheed Vega from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland in sixteen hours, becoming the first woman to fly solo
few days are dull. Peter has to wait for a replacement aircraft. Convinced that he will miss out on the opportunity to join in the next air battle, he is forced to carry out the menial duties necessary to keep the Squadron flying. He hates the paperwork and he hates the enforced grounding. And then, out of the blue, the Squadron is ordered to move again, to Seclin, ten miles south of Lille. It is a much better station than Merville, and it will be nice to be out of the mud. Peter, minus his
days. Now cut along, I have work to do.’ Peter, seething: ‘Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.’ Back with the Adjutant: ‘Come on, I’ll take you over to the Mess and introduce you to some of the new faces.’ Peter is to be assigned to ‘B’ Flight. He is introduced to his Flight Commander, Paddy Treacy, a mad, extrovert, very likeable Irishman. As an individual, Treacy is often unkind and most unhelpful as far as the new boys are concerned. It quickly becomes evident that another Irishman in the Squadron,