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© 2007-2010 The Spitfire Society and respective copyright holders.
Reg. Charity No: 299033


The Spitfire Society Interview

Travels and Tribulations


Len Stillwell

The following article by Len Stillwell first appeared nearly ten years ago in issue number 29 of our Form 700 Regional Newsletter, and tells the story of a young man's ambition to fly, his operational training, and of service life on an RAF Squadron overseas during the war. It is now reproduced below, in full, and we do hope that you enjoy the following piece as much as we enjoyed rereading it.

For many people the training route to becoming a pilot was much the same, and so this story will hopefully bring back fond memories, and for those of us too young to have served during the war, it provides a wonderful insight for which we owe our thanks to Len.

Len flew Spitfire Mks VIII and IX, with their distinctive white flash on the fin, over Italy and Austria, with the famed Battle of Britain Squadron, no. 92. What Len does not mention here is that whilst on a sweep over Italy his Spitfire was hit by an anti-aircraft shell severely wounding him in both legs; an injury which always remained with him. In spite of this, Len was back flying again after a short R&R break.

Sadly, during a spell in hospital, Len Stillwell died in early December 2008.

We feel that the following article is a fitting memorial to our dear friend; an obituary will appear in the next Form 700 Newsletter.

Len served on the Eastern Region Committee for many years right up until the last months of his life and was always pleased to help younger Committee Members with valuable words of advice and wisdom.

In June of 2008, Len’s wife Dorothy (or Dot to all who knew her) died after bravely battling illness for some years, during which time Len was her pillar of strength. Since the early days of Eastern Region, Len and Dot were always a familiar sight at Society events and air shows and in common with our other ‘Regulars’ have helped to raise many thousands of pounds for the Spitfire Society.

Len and Dot were two of the most loved members of our team and always represented that which is best about the Spitfire Society.

P.W. December 2008


Becoming a fighter pilot is not and never has been easy - even with the urgency and impetus of war. We all are, at times, beneficiaries of luck or good fortune in whatever we undertake and I certainly had my fair share of both - I hope this story will show that, but I must explain that it will say very little about my combat experience. More, perhaps about the journey I undertook (in common with so many) and the things that happened along the way.

L.S. June 1999


As a child in the early 'thirties I dreamed of flying and piloting a plane and my father took me on two occasions to the Hendon Air Display. I thrilled to see wonderful biplanes such as the Bulldog and Fury perform aerobatics in neat formations and joined together by coloured tapes.

My first experience of flight was at Blackheath in South London. Alan Cobham's Flying Circus was on the Heath and my sister and I took joyrides in a large twin engined biplane. I was a boy scout and longed to join an air scout troop, but they were few in number then.

In 1938 the Air League formed the Air Defence Cadet Corps, which was more to my taste. Our uniform was based upon that of the RAF and we attended parades and lectures given by RAF personnel and visited local RAF Stations. It was at RAF Biggin Hill that I remember first seeing the new Hurricane fighter.

War came in 1939 and I was at school in London. I tried to join the Auxiliary Fire Service but was rejected as being too young. I did, however, during the Blitz, drive a mobile canteen around Air Raid Shelters when no other driver was available.


Then the Air Training Corps was formed from the nucleus of the ADCC and I immediately joined the local squadron.

Training and instruction in many disciplines was more professional and examinations for Proficiency Awards were held. Many weekends were spent at RAF Balloon Command HQ at Kidbrooke, where cadets helped out with many non technical tasks. I spent much of my time in the Signals section where messages and orders were received and passed on to Balloon sites.

The visits I enjoyed most were the annual camps in 1941 and 42 at RAF Biggin Hill. It was here that I had a flight in a Magister and the pilot allowed me my first hands on experience of flying. I also sat in a Spitfire while a fitter leaned into the cockpit and started the engine - a great thrill.

At the age of 17 I volunteered for air crew training. At that time you could not apply for pilot training only but had to apply for the group which included pilot, navigator and bomb aimer (known as PNB). Your suitability for your eventual trade was supposed to be determined by aptitude during your training period.

We had Aldis lamp practice in a local park and range shooting with rifle, revolver and sten gun. Clay pigeon shooting also featured heavily in the syllabus. Vigorous physical training was interspersed with long cross country runs up and down the local hills and we played inter flight rugby. At the end of the course we went on leave a bit wiser and a lot fitter.


Whilst on leave, I became unwell and on my return I reported sick. I was sent to the sick bay which was located in a local hotel, which had been requisitioned by the RAF as a hospital and convalescent centre. As I sat in bed, one Sunday afternoon, looking out to sea, I noticed three low flying aircraft heading for the shore. I felt sure they were friendly, when suddenly every anti aircraft gun in the area opened up. They turned out to be Me109f's.

In spite of big red crosses prominently painted on the roof of the hotel, they bombed and strafed the building, killing and wounding many of the occupants. We later learned that they had earlier attacked the local district of St Marychurch and scored direct hits on a church hall full of children. Many were killed.


On being passed fit for duty I returned to the ITW and having passed the course, was posted to Grading School at Theale near Reading. This was where my aptitude as a pilot would be assessed. I carried out 12 hours dual instruction on Tiger Moths where all the basic manoeuvres of climbing, turning, spinning, stalling and descending were taught and examined. Twelve hours in a real aeroplane - I just had to pass!

We also had to take turns on night guard duty as well as setting out the flare path when the instructors were night flying. A dash of rum in the hot strong cocoa helped to wash down the doorstep bully beef sandwiches.

The completion of the course saw us sent home on embarkation leave. Saying goodbye to family and friends without the slightest knowledge of where you are going or how long you are likely to be away is not easy, so it was with some trepidation that I left home for Heaton Park, Manchester, just hoping I had made the pilot grade. Four of us were billeted together in a house at Salford. Our days were spent rather aimlessly at Heaton Park, our weekends mainly in a YMCA canteen in Piccadilly, Manchester.


After three weeks we were paraded and given our grades. I was selected for pilot training and posted in a draft bound for Southern Rhodesia. We were sworn to secrecy and then issued with tropical kit and subjected to numerous inoculations. Very early one morning we piled into trucks and were taken to the railway station where we caught a packed troop train for Glasgow. After many hours we arrived at Gourock on the Clyde and were transported by tender to our new home - a converted cargo liner, the 'Llangibby Castle', which was dwarfed by the presence of the 'Queen Mary'.

Crammed into the lower decks with several hundred men, we were shown how to stow our kit and provided with hammocks and life jackets. Once on, I don't think we took the latter off, even when sleeping, fully clothed.

Conditions were grim and became even worse when we ran into bad weather. Battened down below we were violently sea sick and the constant rolling and pitching of the ship sent the buckets provided sliding all over the wet floor. No one could eat and we fervently prayed that there were no U Boats in our area.

As the gale subsided we were allowed on deck for brief periods and we could see the other ships in the convoy and our escorting aircraft carrier and accompanying naval vessels. Despite the heavy seas, the carrier flew off several Swordfish and we watched one miss the arrester wire as it landed and it bounced off the flight deck into the sea. No rescue was attempted.

We had little to do, other than write letters which were heavily censored and wait hopefully for our ship to reach a port. Our hopes were cruelly dashed. Our ship was suddenly diverted from its course down the west coast of Africa into the Mediterranean -without even stopping at Gibraltar. All available transport was needed for the invasion of Sicily and we were joined by numerous other transports and warships.

Along with the others our ship was heavily armed and frequently we were herded below when at Action Stations and heard and felt our guns firing. No damage occurred and the only aircraft we saw were American P38 Lightnings. After several days of this we arrived at Port Taufiq at the southern end of the Suez canal, where we disembarked. The first part of our voyage was thankfully over.


We were sent to a transit camp where we slept under canvas and were plagued by flies and the intense heat. Water was issued once a day and the food was of doubtful quality - dry bread, margarine and cooked meat, which the cooks assured us was stewed camel.

Toilets were just pits with multi holed seating, but our one luxury was a communal shower. We were marched for about an hour to the ablution area and then stood around awaiting our turn. Water was delivered to this point in pipes laid under the sand, so was reasonably hot. Eventually we were marched into a canvas screened area, stripped off and walked on duckboards under pipes gushing water. What bliss to be clean again.

The unbearably hot day was in sharp contrast with the bitterly cold night and our single blanket did little to keep us warm. Very soon many of us were suffering from dysentery because of the conditions and I suffered a scorpion bite to the throat and was dispatched back to base hospital. By the time I had recovered, my draft had moved on, so I had to wait for another ship to take me on to Durban.

Joining the 'Empire Trooper' I found it contained mainly South African troops, but there were a few RAF trainees aboard and it was here that I met Dennis Richardson, who was to become a very close friend during our service together and later into civilian life.

As we sailed down the east coast of Africa the stifling heat forced us to sleep on deck and it was a great relief to enter Durban harbour. We were greeted by the sound of a wonderful female soprano voice and were astonished to see a lady dressed in white and wearing a broad brimmed red hat singing unaccompanied to the convoy as it sailed in. 'Land of Hope and Glory', 'Roll out the Barrel' and many other favourites were delivered across the still water.

I later found out that her name was Perla Siedle Gibson and from 1940 until 1945 she provided this unique welcome to many thousands of service personnel who arrived in Durban this way.


We spent a short time in Claremont Transit camp and then joined a very long train for the journey through the magnificent scenery of the Drakensberg Mountains and past Lady smith. After two nights on the train we arrived at Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia and were sent to Hillside Camp - a former cattle market - where we were billeted in the former cattle stalls. I spent Christmas 1943 at Hillside, having Christmas dinner served to us by the officers.

We were given a further ground course at Hillside ITW and then posted to No.25 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at Belvedere, near Salisbury. We trained on Cornell PT26's and our training was often interrupted by the flooding of the airfield, during the rainy season. I remember being caught by a massive thunderstorm, whilst flying dual and we were forced to land at a tiny satellite field and take shelter in a thatched hut. A field telephone link told us when it was safe to return.

At the completion of our EFTS course Dennis and I were selected for single engine aircraft. Those selected for twin engine training left us to go their separate ways. We moved across Salisbury to No. 20 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at RAF Cranborne, where we flew Harvards.

Cranborne was an airfield with a hump in the runway - much like Biggin Hill. During take off you could not see the far side of the field until you had topped the rise, so both take offs and landings were fairly interesting.

Living accommodation at SFTS was very much better and we had the use of the sergeant's mess. Our training now included sessions in the Link Trainer learning instrument flying and ground controlled approach as well as numerous cross country flights by day and by night.

One moment of light relief was the making of a film by the Ministry of Information about the contribution that Rhodesia made to the Empire Air Training Scheme. We were posed in groups around aircraft listening to instructors and filmed climbing in and out of the cockpit, as well as taxiing along the runway. The climax of this film was a mass formation of Harvards (all flown by instructors). Every serviceable aircraft took part and most impressive it was to watch.

Flying finished at noon on Saturday and we were free to spend the remainder of the weekend in Salisbury. We stayed at the Troops Hostel and swam in the open air pool. We also got to know some local families who offered us friendship and hospitality, which was much appreciated. Much of our time was spent at the cinema, where we avidly watched newsreels of the progress of the war.


My time at SFTS was drawing to a close and examinations and final air tests by the CFI led to qualification as a service pilot. A few of our mob failed and we didn't see them again as they were sent off to remuster. The day of the Wings Parade came and we made commendable efforts to look smart and tidy as we received our Wings.

Following the parade we returned to our billets to find the next draft of sprog pilots moving in. Leave followed, and my friend Dennis Richardson and I caught the train to Livingstone and went to see the Victoria Falls.


Returning from leave we received our postings. Ten of us (Dennis included) were posted to an OTU in Egypt. We left Cranborne in a Lockheed Lodestar (in BOAC markings) for Kano in Nigeria and the following day flew on to Khartoum in the Sudan. The final leg of our journey took us to Cairo where we were billeted in the Heliopolis Palace Hotel. We spent some time in Cairo, enjoying ourselves in the French quarter and guarding our belongings from the skill of the fellaheen who could divest an unwary victim of anything without being detected.


Our period of luxurious living ended when we were moved to a tented transit camp and subjected to numerous fierce sand storms. From here we eventually travelled to 71 OTU at Ismailia in the Canal Zone. Here we flew Hurricanes and it was on 15th January 1945 that I achieved my ambition when I flew my first Spitfire - Mark V EP708. I cannot remember my feelings at the time, but it seemed a significant milestone in my career.

At the end of our course we went on a further period of leave and managed a trip from Cairo to Jerusalem (a train journey I wouldn't want to repeat). The Holy Land was slightly disappointing and it even snowed when we were in Bethlehem.

We left Egypt by Dakota for Rome, via Malta, and on arrival I was posted to a Refresher Flying Unit (RFU) where I converted to Mark IX Spitfires. Our runway was a section of a straight tree lined road, which was heavily cambered. Take offs and landings in the much heavier and more powerful Spitfire were quite hair raising at times.

We flew and practiced battle formations and at the end of the course I was officially a fighter pilot, although I didn't feel like it at the time and realised that I had a lot to learn.


From the RFU I was posted to 92 Squadron, part of 244 Wing. This was a fighter/bomber squadron and our principal task was close ground support of our forward troops. All the squadrons on the Wing had to be totally mobile in order to keep up with the rapidly changing situation. This meant that everything that was necessary to support operations had to be capable of being packed into a lorry or on a trailer. Even unserviceable aircraft were moved on 'Queen Mary' low loaders.

Ground conditions varied enormously and we relied on the Royal Engineers Airfield Construction Units to move forward - often under fire - and lay Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) for runways. Landings had to be very precise because if you ran off the end or sides the aircraft might easily tip over or end up in a quagmire. Personnel were billeted under canvas or in whatever buildings were close at hand. The quality of the food we ate varied enormously, but a resourceful Mess sergeant could very often conjure up fresh meat and vegetables instead of the dreary and unappetising tinned M & V, bully or baked beans.

The intense heat found us wearing nothing but shorts, except when we flew. Then long sleeve shirts and trousers were the order of the day. The longer our aircraft stood in the sun, the hotter they became and it was necessary to wear gloves, even to touch them. Sitting in the cockpit at readiness or waiting engine start up wearing helmet, Mae West, parachute and tightly strapped in with the Sutton harness was absolute agony. How we longed for the fan to start turning. Once the engine was running, we got off as quickly as possible to avoid overheating in such temperatures.

Things were so different in the winter and the rainy season. The rains seemed to last for weeks on end and what had been fine, choking dust became thick squelching mud.

Getting around was impossible and we rarely took off our flying boots - except when we flew that is, as they were never worn for that purpose. Our clothes were permanently damp and it was also exceptionally cold. If we managed to find a relatively undamaged building to live in, we relied on our ground crew to rig up a rather dangerous drip feed heater, which used petrol or kerosene. The fumes were dreadful but the cold was even worse.


The end of the European war found me in a field hospital, recovering from wounds inflicted by flak. When I returned to the Squadron there was speculation that we might be shipped off to the Far East to fight the Japanese and we were glad when that conflict also ended.

From Bellaria we moved further north to Treviso and the Wing was stood down for a month. We relaxed in rest camps set up in

Venice and Cortina and skiing became quite popular. Our mobility was curtailed, however, when the German and Italian Army vehicles we had 'liberated' were all confiscated.

One notable memory that I have of that time was the Open Day that we organised for the local population. We set up marquees and the cooks excelled themselves by producing large quantities of sandwiches, cakes and jellies. Within an hour of hundreds of local people and children arriving the whole lot had gone - hardly surprising in the circumstances.

The good times did not last long as we were moved to Zeltwig in Austria. There was tension between the Allies and Marshal Tito, who had taken power in Yugoslavia, over disputed Italian territory. The Wing was put on stand by in case of trouble. Our base was a former Luftwaffe airfield and there was a huge pile of wrecked German aircraft on the dump. We were billeted in wooden huts and conditions were tolerable in summer as we were about 5,000 feet up a mountain valley.

The winter was bitterly cold and flying became difficult and dangerous. Constant snow clearing of the runway was necessary and life seemed to be one long working party. Thick snow in the mountains cut us off from our supply base and we were reduced to very basic rations, although we did manage to supplement these with some game birds that we shot and scrounged turnips and potatoes.

Because of the Tito emergency our tour expired and demobilisation leave was suspended and this caused a great deal of anger and resentment, especially with those who had many years service. An officer of Air Rank was flown in to try and reduce the tension and we were all paraded to be told that the situation would soon be resolved, but in the meantime the Riot Act would be formally read to us. This having been done the top brass smartly disappeared. Fortunately the situation was stabilised shortly afterwards.


Some six weeks later I left the Squadron for the UK. We travelled by train from Klagenfurt to Calais in an unheated baggage truck, riding on top of wooden boxes. We stopped every few hours when food was dispensed and after two days arrived at Calais. The crossing to Dover was very rough but we came on deck to see the White Cliffs through the mist. After a short journey to Shorncliffe Camp we caught trains for home.

It was good to be home again after three years away from England. To swop experiences with friends and family and to try and settle back into some sort of normality. I was posted to RAF Oxbridge where I did nothing except report every morning and then return home.

When my demob number came up I travelled to Preston and was demobilised. My wartime service as an RAF Fighter Pilot was over. When I look back I realise that although I had to endure difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, the situation was just as bad, if not worse for many of those who had to stay and continue to work at home.

We were all in the war together and this is just one tiny, insignificant story of life in those times.



You might like to know that signed drawings / photos of Len and his aircraft are available from the Spitfire Society. You can find further details here:

Spitfire Art

The Spitfire Society Interview with Alex Henshaw can be found here:

Alex Henshaw

& previous interviews with Bert Harman:

Bert Harman

& Audrey Morgan:

Audrey Morgan

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