Flt. Lt. Jimmy Corbin, who died recently, was the last of the “Ten Fighter Boys” whose story was told in a book published in 1942.
One of ‘the Few’ who saw off the Nazi invasion in 1940, Jimmy lived in Maidstone, where he taught until he retired in 1980. A few years ago, journalist Ian Read interviewed Jimmy Corbin for a national newspaper. Ian has kindly allowed the Trust to reproduce that fascinating interview here…
THE sound of a Spitfire engine stirs mixed memories for 91 year-old Jimmy Corbin because it reminds him of when he lived life on the edge.
For Jimmy is one of the band of pilots Winston Churchill dubbed the ‘Few’- the men who won the Battle of Britain.
But as Jimmy ruefully admits, they are getting fewer every year.
The former Sergeant pilot is unique as he’s the last survivor of ten young men who put down their innermost impressions of those hectic days.
When Ten Fighter Boys came out in 1942 it was an instant success, but by that time five of the authors were dead.
Last year he wrote his own autobiography and when that was a success the original book was reprinted with Jimmy writing the foreword.
During his operational career from August 1940 to mid 1943 the former schoolmaster was credited with at least five enemy aircraft, earning a commission and a Distinguished Flying Cross on the way.
But in August 1940 he was a ‘sprog’ Sergeant pilot with just 29 hours experience on Spitfires. Amazingly, at the age of 23 he was the second oldest pilot on 66 Squadron.
Before arriving the only time he’d fired his guns was at a sandbank in the middle of the Dee Estuary near Chester.
When he arrived at RAF Kenley his commanding officer, Squadron Leader Rupert Leigh, was appalled and rapidly posted him to a quieter sector in the North of England.
Jimmy said: “There’s no doubt Rupert Leigh saved my life. When I returned a few weeks later half the pilots were dead or seriously wounded. He decided I just didn’t have enough flying experience.”
The unit to which the young pilot was posted had just come out of the front line on rest. Its pilots sported medal ribbons hard won in the early part of the Battle of Britain. They would teach Jimmy the art of survival which they learned in the heat of battle.
In the couple of weeks he was at RAF Acklington he took part in his first combats. Then it was back to the dangerous skies over the South East where prowling German fighters would soon account for the unwary.
When he went back to 66 Squadron it was based at a flying club near Gravesend. Leigh had gone to be replaced by Squadron Leader Athol Forbes.It was his idea to write the book.
Jimmy said: “Squadron Leader Forbes wanted to be a writer after the war so he got a few of us to write down our experiences.”
Although the RAF had blunted the German attacks the Luftwaffe kept coming and 66 Squadron were flying more than four sorties a day.
Jimmy said:” I got away with it because I was lucky. You could be in the mess having a drink with somebody and 20 minutes later he could be dead. You didn’t dwell on it.”
During his first few sorties Jimmy found himself in the middle of a whirling mass of aircraft. He said: ” You would dive into 30 to 40 aircraft and you’d fire if you got the chance. All the time you were checking your mirror to make sure nobody was on your tail.”
There was no time to confirm ‘kills’ by going down to watch a victim crash-that was a recipe for certain death because at any time the unwary pilot could hear cannon shells crashing into his Spitfire.
Kent born Jimmy has no idea whether he hit anything during his early dogfights over his home county.
He said: “One minute you could be in the middle of a massive dog fight and the next you could be alone. When that happened the smartest thing to do was bugger off home because you were easy meat.
“You had moments when you were shit scared but I was never shot down and I never crashed. You couldn’t work out who would live and who would die. I had a few scares. I was very lucky but I became a skilled pilot – survival taught you that. You had to be very skilled to stay alive.
I never made claims because I was never sure what I’d hit.” To claim an aircraft a pilot had to see it crash.
Just after the Battle 66 Squadron was posted to Exeter Jimmy intercepted a Heinkel bomber and sent it plunging vertically into a fog bank. Because he didn’t see it crash he was only granted a ‘probably destroyed’.
He said: “I didn’t think it was going to get back to its base because I’d given it a fair old pasting but I didn’t see it crash. Some years later I got a letter from Canada from one of the aircrew. The aircraft smashed into the sea and he was the only one who got out. He got into a dinghy and drifted onto a beach in Devon where he was picked up by the local policeman. He got in touch with me because I was the only pilot who attacked a Heinkel that day.”
The book dispels the myth that the Battle was won by a group of public school boys.
Jimmy had taught near his home in Maidstone before joining the RAF Volunteer Reserve where he learned to fly.
As a group they fought hard and they partied hard because the next day any one of them could be dead. In 66 Squadron there were no distinctions between the Sergeant pilots and the officers.
Jimmy’s pal, Flying Officer ‘Bogle’ Bodie, was an ace pilot who shot down Germans but had a habit of forced landing in fields across Kent. “He used to say any landing you walk out of was a good one,” Jimmy said.
“He had a shock of hair and always wore a battered roll neck sweater with a bright scarf around his neck. He was one of the finest blokes I ever met. Sadly he was killed in a flying accident later in the war.”
Jimmy’s flight commander was Flight Lieutenant Bobby Oxspring, whose father served with 66 Squadron in the first war. They served together in the Battle and during the invasion of North Africa, still flying Spitfires.
Jimmy said: “He was a very fair bloke and a very good pilot. We lived in two different worlds. On the ground you were relatively safe having a beer with your friends and then minutes later you could be fighting for your life. They were wonderful people. I can’t believe I’m the last one left.”
Although the fliers received public adulation for their deeds, they didn’t realise how vital their work was until much later.
Jimmy said: “We did drink and go out with girls but if you were on early readiness you had a couple of beers and went to bed. Being a pilot you weren’t short of girls and everybody wanted to buy you a beer.”
To boost morale Jimmy and his mates flew an impromptu ‘beat up’ of Maidstone on the way back from a sortie. Jimmy suggested the idea to his leader and 18 Spitfires swooped low over the town.
What they didn’t know was the place had just been bombed. He said: “We thought it was jolly good fun. Word reached us the townspeople were not impressed so I never told my parents.”
After the war, looking at captured German records he realised how important the sacrifices made were. He said: “At the time I didn’t particularly hate the German pilots because they were doing the same job as us. You got them or they got you – it was the luck of the draw.”
After completing 553 operational hours against the Germans Jimmy taught gunnery to young pilots, giving them a better chance than he had. After the war he went back to being a schoolmaster in his home town, retiring in 1980.
He said: “We got away with it through a mixture of flying ability, luck and self-preservation. You don’t get that experience cheaply.”
Jimmy wrote down his memories in Last of the Ten Fighter Boys after his son got him to do it. He said: “I had a lovely lady editor who came over and recorded my thoughts into a tape recorder. The book was a success so Ten Fighter Boys was released.”