Ben Bennions DFC: Battle of Britain Fighter Ace
Author: Nick Thomas
Publisher: Pen & Sword Aviation, first published 2011, new format 2022, paperback, RRP £14.99
George “Ben” Bennions was so outstanding in his initial wartime role that, had he not been seriously wounded in the Battle of Britain, he would have been “the top scoring fighter pilot in the war”. If “it takes one to know one”, that opinion should be regarded very seriously. It was expressed by the high-scoring New Zealander Al Deere in his book, Nine Lives.
The author of this work, Nick Thomas, has developed a speciality in well-told stories of the exploits of the Few. There have also been volumes from his hand on Teddy Donaldson and “Hawkeye” Lee.
The RAF career of Ben Bennions is told in considerable and exciting detail, providing meat for anybody who laps up accounts of combat and heroism as the finest hour struck. There is selective reference as well to Bennions’ personal life in the Potteries as an adopted Yorkshireman, post-war schoolmaster and dedicated member of the Guinea Pig Club and the Battle of Britain Fighter Association.
Thomas helpfully explains the complications of the family name, whereby it has sometimes been spelt “Bennion” and sometimes “Bennions”.
As teenagers, Bennions and his friend Ralph Carnall had dreamed of flying in the RAF. Their route to achieve the ambition was to become Halton apprentices. Both were eventually accepted for pilot training. In the Battle of Britain Carnall was an NCO pilot with No 111 Squadron. He was shot down, suffered awful “Hurricane burns” and, like his friend, became a Guinea Pig.
Having served with No 41 Squadron since 1936, Bennions was commissioned in the spring of 1940.
Thomas credits him with 11 kills, flying Spitfires, by 1 October that year, a day on which he was due to go on leave. However, Pilot Officer Bennions was still at dispersals when a scramble was called and, “I thought I’d like to shoot one more Hun down before going for a rest.”
Eventually Bennions spotted a formation of Hurricanes about to come under attack from around 40 Messerschmitt Bf 109s.
On his own Bennions attacked the last aircraft in the German formation and shot it down. As the enemy pilot baled out over Henfield, Sussex, “a cannon shell exploded in Bennions’ cockpit, red-hot shell splinters, piercing his skull, destroying his left eye and damaging the other, causing deep burns and multiple lacerations.”
Bennions, too, took to his parachute. On the ground a number of farmworkers summoned help and did what they could to bandage the terrible injuries. A gate was turned into a makeshift stretcher to carry Bennions to the point reached by an ambulance.
One of those who came to Bennions’ aid wrote to “OC 41 Squadron RAF” explaining what had happened and commenting, “(Bennions) is a brave pilot and a credit to his squadron and may God help him to get well, as I being an ex RAF man I am proud to think we have such brave lads in the RAF.”
In the hospital at Horsham, the plastic surgeon, Archie McIndoe, visited Bennions and deemed him a suitable subject for his specialist unit at East Grinstead.
The patient would later write of McIndoe, “He was God, Really. A remarkable man. Nothing was too much trouble for him when he was caring for the needs of the aircrew he was looking after. He could have got us to do anything.”
Ben Bennions fought his way back, to further flying in limited circumstances. He was wounded again, though not in the air.
One man who does not come well out of this account is Squadron Leader Donald Finlay, the CO of 41 at the time Bennions was shot down. Nick Thomas suggests that Finlay, perhaps through inexperience, failed to join Bennions in attacking the 109s and did not order other 41 pilots to assist.
In the next chapter the author argues that Bennions should have been awarded a bar to the DFC gazetted on the day he was wounded. Finlay is presented as being tardy and perhaps half hearted in supporting further recognition for Bennions.
The impact of the wounds suffered by the eventual Squadron Leader Bennions naturally stayed with him for the rest of his life, however successfully he overcame them. That is the sobering thought that ran alongside my enjoyment of a stirring and recommended tale.