Harborough World War Two fighter pilot dies

Squardron Leader Tony Pickering (Picture: Andrew Carpenter/001391-10) ENGNNL00120110912154948
Squardron Leader Tony Pickering (Picture: Andrew Carpenter/001391-10) ENGNNL00120110912154948

A former Market Harborough Grammar School boy who was one of Britain’s last surviving Second World War fighter pilots has died aged 95.

Tony Pickering, who grew up in Foxton, near Market Harborough, was just 19 when he was strapped into the cockpit of a Hurricane and sent out to fight the German Luftwaffe.

Squadron Leader Tony Pickering. ENGNNL00120110912155011

Squadron Leader Tony Pickering. ENGNNL00120110912155011

He once had to evacuate from his own blazing aircraft by turning it upside down and falling through the roof, parachuting safely to the ground in Caterham, Surrey, where he was immediately arrested as a suspected German spy.

It was midsummer, so he hadn’t been wearing his RAF uniform in the cockpit - just casual trousers and a short-sleeved shirt!

His widow Chris, speaking this week from the couple’s home in Rugby, said: “Tony lived to a good age and he enjoyed his life; his time in the RAF and his work as an engineer.”

Mr Pickering had two children, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

His funeral will be held at St John the Baptist Church at Hillmorton, near Rugby, on Friday, April 8, at 2pm.

He had been taught to fly as a reservist in the late 1930s, while working as an apprentice engineer in Rugby, training in aircraft such as Tiger Moth bi-planes.

He was called up the week before war broke out, and was posted to Biggin Hill aerodrome in Kent in July, 1940.

In an interview five years ago, Mr Pickering told the Mail: “The C/O called us in and said ‘Pickering, how many hours have you done on a Hurricane?’.

“I said ‘I’ve never even see one!’. He said ‘Well, there’s one outside. This afternoon you will do three circuits and bumps (circling and landing at the air strip) and then tomorrow morning you will join your squadron at a forward base in Hawkinge, near Dover’.”

The next day the young Sgt Pilot found himself in a Hurricane, flying in close formation teen feet behind the tail of his flight lieutenant, with his gun button turned off.

He said: “I understood once I was more experienced why he didn’t want me firing my guns. He feared I might fire at the wrong time and hit him!”

Fortunately the sortie went without incident and Mr Pickering was soon posted to 501 squadron at Gravesend before moving to Kenley Aerodrome, on the front line of the Battle of Britain, attacking German bombers as they conducted raids on London.

“They would come over, 150 to 200 planes at a time,” said Mr Pickering. “It was like a black cloud.

“The Spitfires would try to keep the German fighter escort off the Hurricanes while we attacked the bombers.

“We would spray them with fire but, as an inexperienced pilot, I was told never to claim any as destroyed. That was for the more experienced pilots.”

The Battle of Britain, from July 1 to October 31, 1940, was the first major defeat of Hitler’s Germany and ended any hopes the Nazis had of an invasion of Britain.

The pilots who fought in it are known as ‘The Few’, from the famous Winston Churchill speech: “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few”.

Mr Pickering went on to fly the famous Spitfire, serving in Egypt and from all over the UK, escorting bombers over occupied Europe during 75 missions.

After leaving the RAF in 1946, Mr Pickering finished his apprenticeship and eventually enjoyed a career travelling around the world, selling power stations as a sales engineer.

A keen bellringer, Mr Pickering had rung church bells as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, as well as locally in Lubenham, Foxton and Harborough.

His brother Joe still lives in Foxton.

On a return to his old school in 2011 - now Robert Smyth Academy - Mr Pickering told the Mail: “The school is exactly as I remember it.

He also said: “I’ve had enough of wars. I’ve no time for them. It’s better to get round a table and sort out your differences.”