By the age of 21 Geoffrey Wellum knew his life had peaked. It was downhill from here on in. He was a squadron leader and had won a DFC. Moreover, he had lived through the Battle of Britain. Today, he is one of the few of ‘The Few’ left to tell the tale of how they won the battle 70 years ago this summer.
Waiting for Wellum in his local hotel bar, perched on the cliffs of Mullion Cove, I watch the rifle-green Channel grinding on to the rocks below. I’m reminded of the watery graves of the many fellow pilots he pays tribute to in his bestselling memoir First Light. In it he details his days as the youngest Spitfire pilot in the fray. The BBC has now adapted the book to mark the anniversary.
As he bundles in, silver hair reaching for the sky in the drizzly gale, I’m caught both by his military bearing — straight of spine and dapperly decked — and his mischievous grin. He turns 89 next month but his wartime nickname of ‘Boy’ is still apt. He apologises for being late, chuckles and explains that he had a dispute with his fly zip.
He tells me, over the first of several pints of bitter, that Cornwall is his sanctuary. ‘I thought, “If ever things go a bit pear-shaped, I’ll bale out, leave them to it and come here.” And they did.’ Thirty-five years ago his business went bust and divorce beckoned. His mind instinctively tracked back: ‘I thought, “Well I have been of some use,” and I sat down and wrote.’
Back in 1940 being of use wasn’t his initial aim. In First Light he confesses to being a rather precocious young man who just wanted to fly. ‘So could you give me a job please?’ he asked the Air Ministry. At 18 he was in the sky, in a Spitfire and in the thick of it. Posted to the celebrated 92 Squadron, he bounced between Northolt and Duxford before settling at Biggin Hill. Twenty-four hours after his arrival the squadron scrambled out to Dunkirk. ‘When four got shot down on the first day,’ he says, ‘I thought, “You’ve got to think about this.”’ The trick, he realised, was never to fly straight and level for more than 20 seconds.
Did his young age help at all? ‘I suppose it might have done. But I’d left the cloistered existence of a public school into a totally different world,’ he says. ‘I had a fortnight’s cricket and then the next thing I knew I was being strapped into a Tiger Moth. As I’m looking at you I can see the back of my instructor’s head in the front cockpit with his goggles strapped round. “Good day for it,” he says. I thought, “I’m glad you think so.”’
He sums up most books written on the campaign as ‘a load of balls’. His own languished in a drawer for two decades. All that changed in 2002 when, as he puts it, ‘a chap came to see me’. James Holland, an editor at Penguin and now a celebrated historian, was researching the period. Wellum lent him his manuscript, leading to a story that is now publishing legend. ‘I was in a pub one day having a drink and the phone rang,’ he says. ‘The landlady, who was a bit of a skylark actually, she looked around and said, “Yes he’s here,” and handed me the phone. A voice came over the phone. “Is that Geoffrey Wellum? I’ve been tracing you over every pub on the Lizard.”’ Eleo Gordon, Penguin’s editorial director, offered him a substantial publishing deal. ‘Well, they picked me up off the floor and poured more scotch into me and that’s how it started.’
Wellum comes out fighting when journalists question his memory. ‘If you get an 18-year-old, you say, “There’s a Spitfire, go and fly it and if you break it, there will be bloody hell to pay,”’ he says. ‘Are you trying to tell me that you can’t understand how I can remember every detail? I can see it.’
It’s just one of a number of complaints levelled against the media. ‘I once had an interview with a bloke who was going to put an article in the Sunday Times Magazine,’ says Wellum. ‘He said, “How did you know when you’d run out of ammunition? Did it come up on your computer?” I said, “You’re taking the piss.” I looked at him and I said, “Well the guns stopped going bang and the bullets didn’t drop out of the end.”’
Three loves emerge from Wellum’s account of that fateful summer: for his country, comrades and flying. In First Light, Wellum’s devotion to the nation is set in harsh contrast to the battle. Caught up in a spiralling dogfight with a swarm of Messerschmitts, he despairs at the ugliness of his predicament high above the beauty of the English countryside: ‘Trout streams, water meadows, waders, fast-flowing water, the pretty barmaid at the inn. Dear Jesus, why this? I am hot and uncomfortable.’
The enemy remained an abstract notion. ‘You looked upon it as being a target,’ he says. ‘I saw a lot of people bale out of a Heinkel one day and I thought, “Christ, there’s blokes in that.” But you got a bit cross actually. There they were coming in over Kent, a peaceful place.’ In contrast, Wellum’s relationship with his Spitfire was that between man and noble beast. ‘You didn’t get into it, you strapped it on,’ he says. ‘Once you got used to its little idiosyncrasies it was the most wonderful, friendly, I’m-on-your-side aeroplane.’ Although he last flew a ‘Spit’ in 1952, since the success of his book the RAF has provided him with the opportunity to fly other craft. ‘You never lose it,’ he beams.
Wellum is surprisingly generous in his view of today’s youth. ‘When the chips are well and truly down,’ he says, ‘where no quarter is given and there is a national crisis, together with the true belief in the justice of their cause, they will respond just as we did.’ When I pick him up on the ‘justice of the cause’ comment he laughs and asks if I get his gist. Of the current conflicts he simply admits to having concerns.
He has little time for revisionist theories on the battle’s importance. This, he asserts, was the first time the Germans ‘were denied their aim and that’s worth remembering’. It was, he believes, the ‘bloody-mindedness’ of the RAF that defeated the Luftwaffe. It’s a trait that frequently got him in trouble. He describes authority figures as his ‘bête noir’. On meeting his first squadron leader, Roger Bushell (immortalised by Richard Attenborough in The Great Escape), he was instantly belligerent: ‘I told him 92 was my squadron as well as his. I always shoot my very great trap off.’ Bushell called him ‘a cheeky cocky little bugger’.
Wellum continued with the squadron, running sweeps over France and Belgium, until 1942 when he led a flight off HMS Furious during Operation Pedestal, the convoy mission to liberate besieged Malta. Exhaustion hit. ‘By the end of 1942,’ says Wellum. ‘I’d shot my bolt.’
The friends he made during the battle proved irreplaceable. ‘What one had to contend with,’ he says, ‘was the fact that one day they weren’t there.’ Of the trio of pilots with whom Wellum bonded during training all had been killed by August. ‘The comradeship in a fighter squadron that has survived the Battle of Britain,’ he says with measured solemnity, ‘is something you will never be able to understand and I will never experience again. And I can’t put it into words.’
As he describes a tr ip to a Canterbury inn shortly after the battle he does find those words, ones that underline in his staccato fashion that unique solidarity. ‘The evenings at the Fleur-de-Lis,’ he says. ‘Chaps in their best blues, having had a shave and a wash, combed their hair. Tinkling jewellery. Rather attractive women. Smoke going up to the ceiling. The squadron. 92 Squadron. Together.’