News - Our eldest veteran takes to the skies for the last time

Spitfire pilot, poet, family man and friend to the Trust Flt Lt William Walker AE died in hospital on Sunday. At 99, he is thought to have been the oldest surviving Battle of Britain veteran.

Active until the very end, despite the aches and pains associated with his advanced years, William had been planning to attend the Trust’s End of the Battle Gala Dinner in the presence of the Patron, HRH Prince Michael of Kent GCVO, on the previous Thursday but suffered a stroke and was taken to hospital.

His absence saddened the gathering at the dinner and was made even more poignant by the fact that in recent years it had become traditional for William to raise a toast to his fellow Battle of Britain pilots after reading his poem “Absent Friends”.

That poem was one of a collection published in 2011 in aid of the Trust’s Wing Appeal by a man whose sparkling wit and generous manner was enjoyed by all those who met him.

The collection also includes “Our Wall”, inspired by the Christopher Foxley-Norris Wall at the National Memorial to the Few, Capel-le-Ferne, where the names of all those who flew in the Battle are listed.

At the 70th anniversary commemorations in July 2010, Prince Michael of Kent unveiled a copy of the poem carved in stone at the left hand edge of the wall. William, who read the poem to the many thousands of spectators, described it as a very proud moment.

Born on August 24, 1913, William joined the RAFVR on September 2, 1938 at Kidlington, Oxford, as an Airman u/t Pilot and flew his first solo there on the 28th. He was called to full-time service on September 1, 1939 and posted to No 1 ITW, Cambridge on November 15.

He went to 2 FTS, Brize Norton on February 17, 1940 and at the end of the course he was commissioned and posted directly to 616 Squadron at Leconfield on June 18.

During the late morning of Monday August 26, 1940, a large German bomber force, with heavy fighter escort, was heading towards targets in England including the RAF fighter stations at Kenley and Biggin Hill. The force was engaged over Kent and the coast by Defiants, Hurricanes and Spitfires.

At Kenley, Spitfires from No 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron were scrambled to the Dover/Dungeness area and found themselves in a fight with Messerschmitt Bf 109s. William’s plane was hit and badly damaged and he baled out, landing in the Channel with a bullet in his right ankle.

William clung to a shipwreck on the Goodwin Sands before being rescued by a fishing boat, transferred to an RAF launch and brought ashore at Ramsgate, where he was greeted by a large crowd and presented with a packet of cigarettes by an elderly lady.

In later life William enjoyed recounting the story of how, as the surgeon prized the armour-piercing bullet from his ankle during his stay at the RAF Hospital, Halton, it shot out and hit the ceiling. He kept the bullet as a souvenir.

After recovering from his wound, William’s postings included joining a squadron engaged in anti-aircraft co-operation duties and one with the Sector Gunnery Flight at Gatwick.

William had celebrated his 27th birthday two days before he was shot down and so was rather older than many of his comrades. He had begun his business career in 1931 as a pupil brewer at the Aylesbury Brewery, learning brewing, malting, bottling and cooperage.

Two years later he joined Ind Coope’s brewery in Burton and after the war he rose to become its Chairman. He never lost his liking for a good pint and enjoyed many in the RAF Club in Piccadilly.

Bright, witty and writing poetry to the last, William attended numerous events with and on behalf of the Few, including the 2012 Memorial Day at Capel-le-Ferne. He donated the proceeds from his book of poetry to the Trust’s appeal to raise money for The Wing, its new visitor centre, and signed many copies.

While “Absent Friends” and “Our Wall” are better known, his “Preface 2011”, which introduces his book of poetry, sums up his philosophy:

When I retired and work was done,
I started writing odes for fun.
Finding words to scan and rhyme,
Occupied much leisure time.
Senility is kept at bay,
Throughout a versifying day.
Never let the mind be idle –
To do so could be suicidal!