B is for Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown

As usual, I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for round 19 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if I miss out some of the alphabet.

Eric 'Winkle' BrownOf all the brave pioneers of flight, perhaps the most remarkable was Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, arguably the greatest aviator who ever flew.

Brown was born near Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1919. His father had been a balloon observer and pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One and he gave his son his first taste of flight at the age of eight when he flew a single-seat biplane with the younger Brown sat on his lap.

In 1936, Brown’s father took him to see the Olympics in Berlin and it was while there that he first met Ernst Udet, the German flying ace who had become a stunt pilot after the war. He offered to demonstrate his flying skills to the young Brown which he later recalled:

You talk about aerobatics – we did every one I think and I was hanging on to my tummy. So, when we landed, and he gave me the fright of my life because we approached upside-down and then he rolled out just in time to land.

Udet was impressed that Brown took these aerobatics in his stride and said he would make a fine fighter pilot. He asked him to do him two favour – to learn to speak German fluently and learn to fly.

True to his word, Brown attended Edinburgh University the following year to study modern languages with an emphasis on German and joining the university flying club.

Hanna Reitsch in the Focke Wulf helicopter

Hanna Reitsch in the Focke Wulf helicopter

Brown returned to Germany having been invited by Udet to attend the 1938 Automobile Exhibition. By then Udet was a major-general in the Luftwaffe and he took his guest to see a demonstration of the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 helicopter flown by the renowned aviatrix Hanna Reitsch.

Brown was selected to be an exchange student at the Schule Schloss Salem and it was while there that war broke out. He was arrested by the SS and, after a short imprisonment, he was escorted to the Swiss border to return home.

He joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve where he was given the nickname Winkle, short for periwinkle on account of his short stature – he was only five foot seven inches tall. He was posted to the 802 Squadron on the escort carrier HMS Audacity. The ship was sunk by a U-boat in 1941 and after a night spent in the sea, Brown was one of only 24 survivors to be rescued.

So many were lost that the squadron was disbanded, but Brown was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross ‘for bravery and skill in action against Enemy aircraft and in the protection of a Convoy against heavy and sustained Enemy attacks’.

Eric 'Winkle' BrownAfter a spell on secondment with the Royal Canadian Airforce, Brown joined the research Royal Aircraft Establishment and was sent to Italy to evaluate captured Italian and German aircraft which he learned to fly pretty much as he went along. He then returned to Farnborough where his skill in carrier landings was put to use in testing the new Sea Hurricane and Seafire fighters.

By the end of 1943 Brown had performed around 1,500 landings on 22 different aircraft carriers and became the chief naval test pilot. Then in 1944, while testing the new Sea Mosquito, he was the first to land a twin-engined aircraft on a carrier.

He had been aware of the developments in jet aircraft as early as 1941 and was asked by Frank Whittle to suggest improvements to his jet engine to make it suitable for naval use. As a result, Brown was chosen as test pilot for the Miles M.52 supersonic research aircraft programme and was awarded the MBE in 1944 for ‘outstanding enterprise and skill in piloting aircraft during hazardous aircraft trials’.

Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly as flown by Brown

Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly as flown by Brown

In February 1945, the Aeronautical Flight took delivery of two Sikorsy R-4 helicopters and when Brown asked about being taught how to fly one, he was handed a large orange covered booklet and told: ‘Here’s your instructor’. After a few hairy practice sessions, he successfully flew the helicopter back to Farnborough.

As the war came to a close, Brown became commanding officer of ‘Operation Enemy Flight’ to acquire German technology before it was destroyed, either by the Germans themselves or by the advancing forces. They were particularly interested in getting their hands on an Arado Ar 234, the first jet-powered bomber.

They knew that several jets were based in Denmark and Brown travelled there with the intention of following the ground forces in ‘liberating’ one of the aircraft. AS things turned out, the ground forces hadn’t reached the airfield and it was still in German hands when Brown landed there. Fortunately, the commanding officer immediately surrendered and Brown took charge of the airfield and its 2,000 men until the army arrived the following day.

Irma Grese and Josef Kramer

Irma Grese and Josef Kramer

Brown’s career took an unusual twist when he was asked to put his knowledge of the German language to good use by interviewing  Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, the commandant and assistant at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Brown described them as ‘the worst human being I have ever met’ and the two were later tried and hanged for war crimes.

At the end of the war, Brown tested many of the enemy’s experimental aircraft, including the ME-163B Komet jet fighter. He also interviewed Wernher von Braun, Hermann Göring, Willy Messerschmitt, Ernst Heinkel and Kurt Tank on aviation matters.

Brown had an extensive post-war career as a test pilot, hence his record of flying 487 types of aircraft, a record that is unlikely to equalled or bettered. But even that figure is an underestimate as it doesn’t include variants of the same machine. For example, he flew fourteen versions of the Spitfire and Seafire, but they only appear once on his list.

Brown served as president of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1982-83 and his last flight as a pilot was in 1994. But until 2015 he was still lecturing and regularly attending the British Rocketry Oral History Programme. He died in February this year at the age of 97.

For further information, see Brown’s autobiography, Wings on my Sleeve, his Wikipedia page, this BBC article and obituary, his appearance on Desert Island Discs, and this DVD of his life.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • Melody Steenkamp 20th July 2016

    Another intriging person….and although I know that there are lots of them, I admire you for the effort to search for, and find, al the info… and putting it together in a blogpost thats worth reading.

    Have a nice ABC-W-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (team abc-w)

  • Trevor Rowley 20th July 2016

    Born in the 1940s, I was raised on comics in which we were entertained with stories about this type of wartime hero. Although most of us would not aspire to Eric Brown’s level of heroics, I wouldn’t doubt that there were one or two amongst us who were capable of giving it a good go. I’m not sure the same would apply now – I look at some of our young folk and they even look incapable of peeing in the right direction let alone functioning as part of a successful military unit.

    • Mr Parrot 20th July 2016

      Different days, different ways Trevor. Back then anyone with a bit of nouse could get in a plane and give it go, but the technology has moved on apace. You need a science degree to work the microwave these days!

  • Roger Green 23rd July 2016

    a great guy. one of your heroes rather than the villains you seem to fancy!


    • Mr Parrot 24th July 2016

      Just as the devil has the best tunes, villains tend to have more interesting lives!


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