September 25, 2000
Fighter ace in the thick of the action from the beginning of the air war in France in 1940
ONE OF the highest-scoring RAF pilots of the first half of the Second World War, Dennis David notched up the astonishing total of 11 combat victories in May 1940, before the Battle of Britain had even begun. His Hurricane squadron, No 87, had been posted to France in the early days of the war, as part of the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. There, throughout the Phoney War months, September 1939 to April 1940, it saw little of the enemy apart from the odd reconnaissance machine.
All this was to change with dramatic suddenness on May 10, 1940, when the full fury of the German Blitzkrieg burst on the frontiers of Holland, Belgium and France. David was in action from the opening hours of the German invasion, performing with incredible coolness against Luftwaffe pilots, many of whom had honed their combat techniques in the Spanish Civil War.
In the opening hours of the battle he shot down a Do17 bomber and later on that first day had a half share in an He111. By the time the squadron was pulled back to British airfields towards the end of May, he had won the DFC and Bar - both within the space of a few days.
Utterly exhausted after a fortnight of continuous air combat, on his return to England he went to bed and slept for 36 hours. The experience had not merely matured but aged him. In France, squadron messes were depleted daily as casualties mounted in the cauldron of the terrific battle the RAF's pilots were fighting against overwhelming odds. Men developed mental carapaces around them. David said later: "I had stopped making friends, because it was so painful to lose them."
William Dennis David grew up at Tongwynlais in the Taff Valley north of Cardiff, but started his working life in a wholesale clothing business, run by an uncle in London. He also studied at night school and in May 1937 was accepted at one of the new Reserve Flying Schools, at Hanworth.
The upshot was that when war broke out in September 1939 David, aged 21, was immediately sent to France as a frontline fighter pilot, flying a Hurricane with 87 Squadron. For the pilots of No 87 there was to be little respite once they had regrouped in England after the end of the Battle of France.
David continued to fly during the Battle of Britain, for which 87 Squadron was moved to Exeter, where it saw heavy fighting and took a severe toll of the enemy.
David continued his remarkable run of combat victories. He shot down two aircraft on August 11, a Ju88 and a Messerschmitt 109. He was credited with two more, a Ju87 "Stuka" and a Messerschmitt 110 twin-engined fighter, besides having a half share in another Me110 on August 15; this was the day of Germany's heaviest losses in the air, and was ever after referred to in Luftwaffe circles as as der schwarze Donnerstag - "Black Thursday". No 87 played its part in repelling the 1,786 sorties that were launched at Britain that day. David's third "two-kill" day was August 25, when he shot down another Ju88 and a Messerschmitt 109.
In October, he was posted as a flight commander to 213 Squadron, another Hurricane squadron, also based at Exeter. David's final kill was on October 19 when he shot down a Ju88 to bring his score to 20. In November he was posted to No 152, a Spitfire squadron.
Thereafter he spent two years training pilots, many of whom were Poles, Free French, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians and Americans who had joined the RAF.
In 1943 he was sent to the Western Desert to command 89 Squadron, equipped with night-fighting Beaufighters. He was then ordered to take the squadron to Ceylon. There, fresh fruit and vegetables banished the sores acquired in the desert, and "it seemed like the Garden of Eden".
In 1944 he was promoted to group captain and posted to the Burma theatre. There, in the early days of 1945, a colossal air and naval bombardment was being prepared as the precursor of a full-scale attack on Akyab Island, which was known to be occupied by three Japanese battalions. In a final recconnaissance before this attack was launched David and an artillery spotting officer flew over Akyab and noticed a complete absence of Japanese aircraft on the airfield there.
David and the artillery officer promptly landed at Akyab, where the headman told them that the Japanese had gone. Thus, the assault, which would probably have killed innocent villagers, was called off. David and the officer had, effectively, "captured" Akyab themselves.
David remained in the Far East after the war, and was in charge of Allied air operations in Java. It was a difficult time. The Japanese had demonstrated to the indigenous populations of the region how vulnerable their European colonial rulers were. Java was seething with Indonesian nationalists, some of whom - notably the Black Buffaloes - perpetrated savage acts, especially against Dutch women and children. Ironically, David, like Mountbatten elsewhere, found himself relying on Japanese officers and their troops to maintain order and evacuate Dutch civilians.
Back in Britain he was posted to command RAF White Waltham in Berkshire, but returned to the desert in 1948 to command El Adem, a major staging post. Later he was assigned to plan the training of crews for the V-Bombers: the Valiant, Vulcan and Victor. While doing this, he was also asked to act as aide to the blind but otherwise formidable Lord Trenchard, the father of the RAF.
Halfway through this posting he was surprised to be asked whether he would like to go as air attaché to Hungary. While he was there, the political situation deteriorated, and in October 1956 erupted into open revolt. The Soviet Union replaced its occupying troops, who might have been tainted by life in Hungary, with enormous forces from other theatres. These incoming troops told David it was all because of the Suez Canal (some actually thought the Danube was the canal).
David's autobiography, published last May, throws new light on the bloody and one-sided Hungarian revolution. His own part in it included fixing a Union Jack to a broomstick on his RAF car and leading a convoy of 39 other cars full of diplomatic wives and children, and a few displaced businessmen, to safety in Austria. The Hungarian freedom fighters called him "the Light-blue Pimpernel".
Subsequent postings included the command of RAF Tangmere, from where he had flown during the Battle of Britain, and Chief of Air Plans at Naples.
He left the RAF in May 1967, intending to settle down restoring antique china and furniture, but was soon asked to become the expert adviser to the films The Battle of Britain and the First World War epic Aces High.
Dennis David was a Freeman of the Cities of London and Chichester. He is survived by his wife, Margaret.
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
Go to: Obituaries
© 2000 by Neil Mishalov