HE was the youngest of the Few – aged just 18 when he took to the skies in a Spitfire to fight for his country in the Battle of Britain.
Fellow pilots nicknamed the fresh-faced youngster “Boy”, but Geoffrey Wellum did the work of a man.
Geoffrey Wellum was nicknamed ‘Boy’ by his fellow pilots, but he became a man fighting the Germans over the Channel
Rex Features The former squadron leader served on the front line with 92 Squadron
The hero shot down four German planes, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross then, in his later years, wrote a best-selling memoir that brought the desperate days of war back to searing, vivid life.
His death on Wednesday aged 96 means there are just nine men left whose RAF exploits thwarted Hitler’s invasion and led Winston Churchill to declare: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Ken Wilkinson one of the last four surviving Spitfire pilots from the Battle of Britain has died aged 99
Geoffrey Harry Augustus Wellum, the son of an off-licence manager, was born in Walthamstow, North East London, in 1921.
During his final term at school he captained the cricket team then as soon as he could, in August 1939, he joined the RAF.
PA:Press Association/PA Images A squadron of Spitfires patrolling the south coast of England during the Second World War
PA:Press Association Prince Harry flying in a Spitfire during a sortie over the Isle of Wight
By the following May, the RAF was so short of pilots that young Geoffrey was posted to 92 Squadron before his training was complete.
He had never seen a Spitfire, let alone flown one.
Battle of Britain anniversary
Geoffrey would later remember: “Somebody said, ‘Here’s a Spitfire. Fly it — and if you break it, there will be bloody hell to pay’.
“Once I was inside, the Spitfire, quite frankly, flew me.”
Geoffrey Wellum DFC, the youngest Spitfire pilot to fight in the Battle of Britain, holding his Freedom Certificate after receiving the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall in central London
Within weeks he was battling for his life in dogfights high above the south of England as wave after wave of Luftwaffe planes blitzed cities to try break the country’s spirit.
Of one mission, facing hundreds of enemy aircraft, he recalled: “My leader and I had somehow got split up from the main squadron. There were two of us.
On board the Battle of Britain flypast
“I looked up and I saw this massive gaggle in the distance, like a lot of gnats on a summer evening.
“I thought, ‘Where do you start in on this lot? These chaps mean business’. The Germans aren’t doing this, raid after raid, with numbers like that for the fun of it.
PA:Press Association/PA Images Geoffrey Wellum DFC enjoying a joke with the Prince of Wales during a reception at Church House following a service at Westminster Abbey
“After all, the Germans have conquered wars, bombed everything through Europe, now they were doing it to our country.
“And you thought, ‘What are you doing over here? England is a peaceful place. You’re interfering with the cricket!’”
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Geoffrey was “shot up” three times and faced death on every mission.
He said of one occasion when he found himself the target of a German fighter: “When I saw him, I felt fear, real stark fear. Not, ‘Ooh, this is frightening’ but, ‘Oh God, this bloke is going to kill me’. I’ll never know how I got away with it.”
Rex Features Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum seen here as a young man
� IWM (CH 4097) Geoffrey Wellum (back row, right), during a pilots’ gathering at Biggin Hill in 1941
But he said of the risk of death: “You were totally reconciled. You were doing a job of defending this country of ours against the King’s enemies. A ruthless King’s enemy.”
And he added: “Sometimes you got a great of sense of peace when you were flying which you couldn’t define — peace from an unknown presence.”
Battle of Britain remembered
Meanwhile, down on the ground he got a great deal of attention.
He said of the atmosphere in the Fleur de Lis pub in Canterbury, Kent, where girls flocked around the young pilots: “I remember cigarette smoke curling and tinkling jewellery. We couldn’t do much wrong.”
Geoffrey Wellum, left, talks about the Spitfire with Squadron Leader Mark Discombe at RAF Northolt during the RAF Benevolent Fund’s commemorative dinner
Later he said that his life had peaked at “21 or 22”.
After the war he stayed in the RAF, retiring in 1961 with the rank of Squadron Leader. But back on civvy street, things fell apart.
His marriage and his haulage business failed and he lost his house.
In the days before PTSD was diagnosed, he said: “Everything I touched turned pear-shaped. In the Sixties I hit the bottom.”
Geoffrey Wellum portrayed in a BBC dramatisation of The Battle of Britain
To deal with his depression he wrote his memoirs, before throwing them in a drawer and forgetting about them for two decades.
Then a Battle of Britain researcher tracked him down in Mullion, Cornwall, where he had retired after working as a deputy harbourmaster.
He handed over the dusty manuscript to the historian, who showed it to friends at publisher Penguin — who were amazed.
Desperate to sign up Geoffrey immediately, the firm rang every pub on the Lizard peninsula trying to find him.