August 4, 2000

 

Battle of Britain pilot who survived horrific burns and returned to the skies for revenge, shooting down a plane for each of his 15 operations

 

The indefatigable Geoffrey Page in his 56 Squadron Hurricane: "Even by Battle of Britain standards, he was the bravest of the brave"

 

 

WING COMMANDER GEOFFREY PAGE

Wing Commander Geoffrey Page, DSO, OBE, DFC and Bar, wartime fighter pilot, was born on May 16, 1920. He died yesterday aged 80

 

It is said that adversity brings out the best in some people, and a shining example of this was the Second World War ace Geoffrey Page, who was shot down and suffered severe burns in the Battle of Britain, only to return to the skies to complete a tally of at least 15 kills. "Even by the Battle of Britain standards, he was the bravest of the brave," said Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris yesterday.

At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Page was immediately called up and so distinguished himself during his advanced flying training at Cranwell that instead of being posted to a fighter squadron, as he ardently wished, he was assessed as "exceptional" and assigned to a flying instructor's role.

But when first Norway and then France were rapidly overrun, he was posted in May 1940 to 66 Squadron, which flew Spitfires - a type of aircraft which he had never seen before. An almost immediate posting to 56 Squadron then meant accustoming himself to another unfamiliar plane, the Hawker Hurricane. Although his previous flying had been exclusively in obsolete biplanes, he mastered each of these new aircraft without difficulty.

With his excellent eyesight, Pilot Officer Page had just begun to score victories when disaster struck. Flying behind his commanding officer, who was attacking a huge formation of Dornier bombers, Page's Hurricane was hit and caught fire. The fuel tank in front of him spewed burning high-octane fuel into the cockpit and all over Page. His uncovered hands and face were so badly burnt that as he descended in his parachute, he could smell his own flesh burning.

After being picked up from the icy sea in near mortal agony he eventually arrived at the hospital in East Grinstead where the pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald MacIndoe was rebuilding the bodies of disfigured servicemen. Both of his hands were burnt down to the bone, and his head had swollen to about three times its normal size. He also had leg wounds.

The next two years were agony for Page, with 15 major and several minor grafting operations. In the summer of 1941 he watched the Spitfires passing overhead heading for France. "How my heart yearned to be one of them, and not just a burnt cripple lying in a hospital bed," he wrote. "I'm scared stiff at the idea, but I'm even more frightened of what people will say if I don't go back."

Page felt great gratitude to MacIndoe, and a great affinity. By the time the surgeon was able to discharge him, the famous Guinea Pig Club had been formed, its membership limited to those MacIndoe had treated. Maclndoe himself was elected life president and Geoffrey Page was the first chairman.

Because both his hands had had to be rebuilt, it seemed obvious that Page would never again fly as a pilot. But motivated by a hatred of the enemy, he was not prepared to accept this, and succeeded in gaining first limited-flight permission and eventually full operational status. He then vowed that he would personally take part in destroying one enemy aircraft for each of his major surgical operations. "I enjoy killing," he wrote. "It fascinates me beyond belief to see my bullets striking home and then to see the Hun blow up before me."

Finding convoy patrols too uneventful, he obtained permission to take his Spitfire over Europe on "target of opportunity" ranger raids, and soon his tally began to mount. A posting to the Air Development Unit followed, and again he found means to fly on his lone sorties over occupied Europe.

There, flying a P51 Mustang, he teamed up witn the New Zealander "Mac" MacLachan, a pilot who had lost an arm early in the war, but who, like Page, had overcome this disability and was scoring well against the foe. On one sortie south of Paris, the pair, who had only one normal hand between them, accounted for five enemy aircraft.

After the Normandy invasion Page, as a squadron leader, sustained a further injury, this time being hit in the leg. Undeterred, he continued flying, until he finally broke his back, as a wing com- mander, while providing air cover for the assault on Arnhem.

After a period in a makeshift hospital in France, he was once more sent to Mac- Indoe at East Grinstead. This time, the surgeon personally made sure that he would not be declared fit to fly again, but by then Page had got even by taking part in the destruction of at least 15 Luftwaffe aircraft. After the war, however, he had to endure a further 15 operations.

In his youth, Alan Geoffrey Page's desire to fly had been discouraged. From the age of five, he had had a tremendous urge to take to the skies, yet his parents and his uncle, the aircraft designer and manufacturer Sir Frederick Handley-Page, were strongly opposed to the idea. Nevertheless, after Dean Close School in Cheltenham, Page went up to Imperial College, London, to read aeronautical engineering. He joined the university air squadron and at once proved himself a natural and outstanding pilot.

In his retirement, as well as remaining the driving force of the Guinea Pig Club, Page founded the Battle of Britain Trust. This raised more than £1 million, with which the Battle of Britain memorial over- looking the Strait of Dover was erected, to commemorate for ever those who kept Nazi Germany at bay. This, as much as the Guinea Pig Club, earned him a lasting place in RAF folklore and history. His autobiography, Tale of a Guinea Pig, went through several editions on both sides of the Atlantic. A revised edition, Shot Down in Flames, appeared last year.

Page was awarded a DFC in 1943 and received a Bar to this after his tenth kill. When he was awarded the DSO in 1945, part of the citation read: "Apart from his individual exploits, Wing Commander Page has infused the entire wing with his fighting spirit. Under his command 60 enemy aircraft have been destroyed." After the war he was made an officer of the Order of Orange Nassau by Wilhelmina, Queen of The Netherlands, for his part in the Battle of Arnhem. He was appointed OBE in 1995.

After his accident at Arnhem, Page was sent to lecture in America at the beginning of 1945, and on his tour there he was put up by the film actor Nigel Bruce (who played Dr Watson in many Sherlock Holmes films). Bruce was so impressed by Page that he encouraged his daughter Pauline to write to him. A correspondence began, and when Page returned to the United States in 1946 they fell in love at first sight, marrying in the same year. She survives him, along with a daughter and two sons.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov