Air Marshal Sir Denis


Crowley-Milling briefs his squadron before an op in 1943.

Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling, who died in 1996 aged 77, was a Second World War pilot of renown and twice escaped from occupied France - once by Hurricane and once on foot.

When the war broke out, Crowley-Milling was called up as a sergeant pilot. He had Iearned to fly at weekends with the RAF Volunteer Reserve while serving an apprenticeship at the Rolls-Royce aero-engine experimental unit at Derby. When France fell in 1940 his engineering apprenticeship paid the first of many dividends. Crowley-Milling found himself with the surviving Hurricanes of 242 Squadron that were stranded in France, separated from their groundcrew amid the chaos of retreat. With the help of fellow pilots, he was able to service the aircraft which they then flew home.

As the aircraft took off for England the squadron's commander was left behind at Nantes airfield, sleeping off a heavy session. The pilots left pinned to his chest a note: "We have taken off for Tangmere. When you sober up you had better join us, because the Germans are heading this way."

Back in England, under the aggressive leadership of its new commander - the legIess ace Douglas Bader - 242, essentially a Canadian squadron, was very soon plunged into the Battle of Britain.

Although Crowley-Milling had been blooded in France - almost coming to grief by mistakenly joining an enemy Me 109 fighter in formation - he learned fast. Bader indelibly impressed his personality on the squadron and particularly on CrowJey-Milling, for whom it was the beginning of a warm and close friendship.

As the fighting intensified Crowley-Milling recalled. "I felt bloody frightened as Douglas dived us, in fairly close formation, slap into masses of bombers with fighters above. The little man inside you kept telling you that this was a dangerous game, but he was drowned by Douglas's encouragement over the radio.

On Sept . 7 1940, Crowley~Milling took part in the action which marked the first employment of the controversial Big Wing tactic which Bader had advocated so ardently. This involved the assembly of between three and five squadrons, ratber than relying on piecemeal attempts at interception.

Crowley-Milling remembered: "The operation saw us plunging into a great beehive over the London docks. T'he advantage of attacking in strength was that you broke the beehive up. I felt much happier attacking as a squadron than as a section, and with Spitfires taking on the high cover we could do that. "

Before being shot down in that action Crowley-Milling destroyed an Me 110 twin-engined fighter, adding it to the He 111 bomber he had bagged on Aug. 30. Although he suffered head injuries, Crowley-Milling resumed flying within days. On Sept.14 he claimed a Do l7 bomber and the next day a Me 109 fighter, part of his overall war score of at least seven "kills".

Denis Crowley-Milling was born on March 22 1919, the son of a Lancastrian solicitor. From Malvern College he joined Rolls-Royce in 1937 as a premium apprentice. While exercising his Morgan three-wheeler he visited the Cobham aerial circus. Joyrides stimulated a passion for flying.

His first wartime posting in May, 1940, was to 615, a Gladiator biplane fighter squadron in France. Brought home to convert to Hurricanes, he had only a few hours experience of the type when, on June 8, 1940, 615 was ordered to Chateaudur. as France fell.

After returning home on June 18 and fighting in the Battle of Britain, Crowley. Milling, long since commissoned, was posted as a flight commander in June 1941 to No. 610, a Spitfire squadron in Bader's wing at Westhampnet.

On Aug 21, he flew his second operational sortie of the day as part of a Spitfire escort to 24 four-engined Stirling bombers briefed to bomb the steel works at Lille. Homebound the Spitfires were engaged in a running fight with Me 109s. His engine coolant system was hit, and he forced-landed in a field near St. Omer.

Crowley-Milling was put up for the night by a farmer who next morning bicycled with him to a friend's house where he was fitted out with civilian clothes over his uniform. He moved on to an MI 9 escape organisation safe house at Renty, but was at first suspected of being a German posing as an RAF pilot, and came close to being shot. But he was issued with a false identity card and on Aug. 27 a St .Omer shoemaker collected him by car and the next day accompanied him by train to Lille, where he joined up with a Czech sergeant pilot.

En route for Paris he was provided with new papers by the Abbe Carpentier at Abbeville. In Paris he was re lodged overnight in a brothel. In the morning, he was assisted by Pat O'Leary's escape line. He took a train for Marseilles, and there was sheltered by Georges Rhodocanachi, a Greek doctor whose son, Kostia, had by' chance been a fellow Rolls-Royce apprentice.

Shortly afterwards Crowley-Milling was conducted on foot across the Pyrenees into Spain, where he was arrested by the Civil Guard. He was held prisoner at the Miranda concentration camp and contracted paratyphoid. He was s repatriated by way of Gibraltar aud was soon able to resume command of his E flight in 610 squadron.

On Aug. 19 1942, Crowley-Milling flew several sorties in the costly air cover for the ill-fated Operation Jubilee assault on Dieppe. In September he received his first squadron command. The squadron formed at Duxford was the first to be equipped with the new Typhoon fighter bombers. The game was, after crossing thc Channel at wavetop and climbing rapidly to 10,000 feet, to dive-bomb enemy airfields in northern France. One of his pilots,"Fish Face" Haddock recalled: "Only a few years older than us (he was 23) he had masses of experience and made operations seem like a walk in the park."

The following summer Crowley-Milling received command of 16 Typhoon Wing until eyesight problems took him off operations. In the autumn of 1943 he joined the United States Army Air Force headquarters at High Wycombe to coordinate fighter operations with B-17 daylight raids. The next year he moved to an operational requirements staff appointment at the Air Ministry where he remained until the end of the war in Europe. Dropping a rank from wing commander to squadron leader he accepted a permanent commission.

In 1947 he was posted to Egypt to command 6 Squadron, made up of Tempest fighters and then Vampire jets. It was busily operational from the Canal Zone during the Palestine troubles, jousting occasionally with Israeli Spitfires.

From 1950 to 1952 Crowley-Milling was personal staff officer to the C-in-C Fighter Command, moving on to RAF Odiham. While there he led the Meteor wing in the Coronation flypast. Appointments followed at RAF Staff College, Fighter Command and Central Flying Establishment, and in 1962 he received conumand of RAF Leconfield.

In a period of fierce competition from war-decorated contemporaries, Crowley-Milling moved upwards via appointments as Air Officer Commanding Hong Kong and Air Operational Requirements Director, Ministry of Defence. From 1967 to 1970 he wa Commander RAF Staff and Principal Air Attache in Washington. While there Crowley-Milling was responsible for setting up the arrangement under which the US Navy flies Harriers.

Returning home he took command of the RAF's tactical 38 Group, moving in 1973 to 46, its transport group. Finally, he served on the Permanent Military Deputies Committee, Central Treaty Organisation, in Turkey.

In 1975 he retired and was appointed Controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund where he had introduced the International Air Tattoo, now a popular annual fundraising event, presided over for many years by Sir Douglas Bader. Following Bader's death in 1982 he worked devotedly for the Bader Foundation and its annual sponsored flying scholarship scheme to teach disabled people to fly.

He was Gentleman Usher of the Scarlet Rod of the Order of the Bath, president of the Not Forgotten Association, and in 1992 Master of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. Crowley-Milling was appointed CBE in 1963 and KCB in 1973. He was awarded the DFC in 1941 Bar in 1942 and DSO in 1943.


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