Book Review: ‘Winkle, The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot’

Review by Duncan Lunan

front cover of the book with an image of Winkle in his flying gear

Paul Beaver, Winkle, The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot, Michael Joseph, 2023

In ‘Space Notes’, ON April 9th 2023, I wrote about the extraordinary life of the late Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, basing the article on his autobiography Wings on My Sleeve  (second edition, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006) and on his lectures at the annual Charterhouse Conferences of the British Rocketry Oral History Programme, in the 2000s.  Eric was the designated test pilot for Britain’s attempt to break the Sound Barrier with the Miles M.52, before the programme was cancelled by the Ministry of Supply in mysterious circumstances in 1946.  Last week, drawing on the book Miles M.52, Gateway to Supersonic Flight  (Spellmount, The History Press, 2012), by Eric Brown and Dennis Bancroft, I went into detail about that and quoted Wings on My Sleeve about his interest in the subsequent USAF and US Navy rocket aircraft programme at Edwards Air Force Base in California  (where I saw the Space Shuttle land in 1984 – ON July 31st 2022). 

Over 40 years, up to his death in February 2016, Eric was a close friend of Paul Beaver’s and gave him full access to his archives, on condition that nothing would be published until after his death.  Although the book runs to 516 pages, 50,000 words had to be cut from it before publication, and it’s to be hoped that some of that will see the light of day in due course, because it contains a great deal of new information and already more facts are coming to light.

One revelation is that although Eric accepted the title ‘Scotsman of the Year’ before his death, strictly speaking he wasn’t one.  Born in Hackney and abandoned by his single mother, he was the only boy on a trainload of children sent to Scotland for adoption.  Although he chose to keep that secret, personally I regard that as irrelevant.  I was born in Edinburgh but have never lived there, and I describe myself as a ‘loon fae Troon’.  (People born here may say I’m not a Troonite because I moved here at 3½, but that’s Troon for you.)  As regards Eric’s nationality, I’m proud that he chose to regard Scotland as his ‘place and station’.  He wouldn’t let it go even to fulfil one of his deeply held ambitions  (see below);  and if anyone wants to be sniffy about it, I’d reply with the words of the late John Braithwaite.  “On the day we get our independence, anyone on this side of the Border is a Scot, wherever they may originally have come from.”

Even the background of Eric’s adoptive father is not what we’ve been led to believe.  Though he claimed to have been a Flight Lieutenant in World War 1, and subsequently styled himself ‘a retired Squadron Leader’, he was actually a ground-based labourer in the observation balloon section of the Royal Flying Corps, and the story that he gave Eric his first flight on his knee in a fighter aircraft is a fabrication.  Eric’s own English birth certificate survives and has been heavy modified, showing that he falsified his age by a year, with 25 alterations to make it look Scottish.  Since Winkle came out, it’s emerged that this was because he wanted to  – and did – play rugby for Scotland as an adolescent  (Susan Swarbrick, ‘The secret life of Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown – war hero with an extraordinary story’, The Herald, June 10th 2023.)  There was definitely something about pilots of that time and rugby:  on seeing the injuries to his legs, Douglas Bader’s first thought was, “Damn!  I won’t be able to play rugger on Saturday.”  (Paul Brickhill, Reach for the Sky, William Collins, 1954.)

In 1937, after his acceptance to study languages at Edinburgh University, Eric raised funds for his studies as a Speedway rider.  His speciality was riding the Wall of Death carrying a full-grown lion, and when the RSPCA put a stop to it, he complained that nobody had asked the lion for his opinion.    Among less well documented events  (!)  there’s his claim to have flown in the Spanish Civil War between December 1938 and February 1939, flying multiple aircraft types, accumulating a remarkable number of hours and scoring several ‘kills’.  Though his logbook accounts are detailed, there’s so little official confirmation that it’s open to question which side he was on.  There’s a similar lack of confirmation for his claim to have seen Jesse Owens win at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  (That doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen – there are enough oddities for the words ‘military intelligence’ to resonate in my mind.)

There’s no doubt about his prewar patronage, if not sponsorship, by the First World War ace Erst Udet.  Given his familiarity with current German aircraft and his mastery of German technical vocabulary, it remains extraordinary that he was allowed to leave Germany at the outbreak of World War 2, keeping his MG sports car only because the SS ‘didn’t have spares for it’.  However you look at it, this was an extraordinary mistake, because it made him a natural to test and evaluate downed, restored and captured German aircraft – sometimes still in their original markings, such was the priority, with RAF escorts to make sure nobody shot him down over England.  The stories told in this book are only a handful of the ones I’ve heard from him, either at his Charterhouse lectures or face-to-face.  Then came the no less extraordinary period at the end of the war in which he was responsible for retrieving and testing as much as possible of the German jet and rocket aircraft technology, at the same time as interrogating many of the German High Command and particularly the heads of those very advanced programmes.  All of it made him a natural for selection as the pilot for the M.52, though he said himself it was only “because I was the smallest man in the room”.  Seemingly the nickname ‘Winkle’ is attached to the smallest man in any Naval unit, and is short for ‘periwinkle’.  

Fig. 2. Messerschmitt Me-163B (USAF)

As I described in my April 9th article, he was the only allied pilot to fly the Me-163 fighter under rocket power  (Fig. 2), and seemingly that has been questioned because there’s no actual record of it.  But there’s no doubt that it happened, from the very detailed description that he gave, and there were very good reasons for keeping it secret, as I explained.  Nevertheless, it brings us to the one contradiction in Paul Beaver’s book, and it bothers him as well as me.

In his lecture on the postwar interrogations, he mentioned Hanna Reitsch, the test pilot who was a star of the Third Reich.  He said she had little interest in the science of test flying, never formally qualified as a test pilot, and only cared about accumulating as many aircraft types as possible in her log-book.  When they met again 20 years later, her only interest was in trying to get Eric to revise his opinion of Adolf Hitler, for whom her adulation was undiminished.  Having mentioned Irma Grese, the woman Commandant of Bergen-Belsen  (“The most evil person I have ever met – fortunately, I had Pierpont, the official hangman with me”), he went on to say, in my hearing, “Hanna Reitsch and Irma Grese left me with a very unfavourable impression of German womanhood”.  Though he doesn’t use that quotation, Paul Beaver does note that nevertheless, in his postwar Naval career, Eric spent many years in Germany, enjoyed it thoroughly and made many friends, both professionally and socially.

The disparagement of Hanna Reitsch also contradicts the assessment of her by Walter Dornberger, the head of the V2 rocket programme, and Mano Ziegler, a surviving Me-163 pilot, in their respective books  (Walter Dornberger, V2, Hurst & Blackett, 1954;  Mano Ziegler, Rocket Fighter, The Story of the Me 163, Macdonald, 1963), to say nothing of her glamorous portrayal in the opening sequence of the 1965 film Operation Crossbow.  That dramatises how she flew a piloted version of the V1 flying bomb  (Fig. 3)  through rocket launch, to discover the reason for its control problems in flight  (R.V. Jones, Most Secret War, British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945, Hamish Hamilton, 1978;  Air Chief Marshal Sir P. J. de la Ferté, Rocket, Hutchinson, 1957).   Operation Crossbow puts this episode on the day before the RAF’s major bombing raid on Peenemünde, but actually it came later.  She was also one of the very few pilots to survive an Me-163 crash, though with a broken back, and was awarded an Iron Cross, though she had never flown it under power.

Fig. 3. V-1 flying bomb, Wikipedia Commons

However, Paul Beaver tells us that she was a regular at Ernst Udet’s prewar parties. 

He was particularly impressed to see her conduct the first public demonstration of a helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa 6, on 18th February 1938.  When she was captured and Eric told her during interrogation what he had seen at Bergen-Belsen, she refused to believe it – Himmler had told her it was untrue – and Eric said, “Her devotion to Hitler and a form of German nationalism made my blood run cold.”  They met again in 1971 and continued to exchange letters and phone calls until her suicide in 1979; 

And it certainly wasn’t something he admitted to in front of the Charterhouse audience, many of whom were of his own generation.

As I said on April 9th, Eric Brown was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most experienced test pilot with 487 different types, not counting variants such as 14 marks of Spitfire and Seafire.  He was the first pilot to land a jet on an aircraft carrier, and during his career he made 2407 carrier landings  (another world record), including the extraordinary experiments landing a De Havilland Vampire ‘wheels-up’ on a rubber carrier deck.  Winkle covers much of that and other parts of his career, from different points of view.  For instance, there’s no mention of the attempted UFO interception in 1956, or of the Tudor airliner which entered service against his recommendation – three of them disappearing without trace, at least for many years in one case, in incidents which were blamed on UFOs in the Andes and on the Bermuda Triangle.  There isn’t space to review or summarise it all here.  But concentrating on rocket and space connections, the book provides several more.

Fig. 4. Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, unattributed

In Wings on My Sleeve, Eric reveals that when he was with the US Flight Test Division at Patuxent River, Maryland, in 1951-52, “I followed with particular interest the high-speed work on the rocket-propelled Douglas Skyrocket  (Fig. 4)  at Muroc in California”, at Edwards Air Force Base, at the time when Scott Crossfield was working up to Mach 2 and William Bridgman was taking altitude records up to 18 miles in it.  “Having been robbed of his place in history with the Sound Barrier”, I wrote, “and since he was a Navy pilot and the Skyrocket was a US Navy programme, one can’t help wondering whether he might have taken his revenge by claiming Mach 2 if he’d gained a flight in the Skyrocket for himself.”  In Winkle we learn that while he was at Pax River, he still had the insubordinate streak which had caused him to loop a Seafire around all three spans of the Forth Bridge in 1943, getting away with it because the Seafire was still secret and the RAF was blamed.  At Pax River, having finally broken Mach 1 in an F-86 Sabre, he celebrated by breaking the Admiral’s greenhouse with a low-level sonic boom, and in a ‘recreational’ flight in Grumman Bearcats, he and his wingman looped a bridge, then flew low over a beach and the base itself.  That wingman was Alan Shepard, later to become the first American in space, and although Eric taught him all he knew about jet operations from aircraft carriers, he also got Shepard into so much trouble that he nearly lost his commission.

All of which makes it more remarkable that during his time at Pax River, Eric also went to Edwards AFB, becoming acquainted with Chuck Yeager, who had been first to break the speed of sound, as well as with Bridgman and Crossfield.  He briefed Crossfield on his Me-163 experience and that was a real help to him in reaching Mach 2 in 1953.  How close he got to flying the Skyrocket himself is not on record, but one wonders how far he might have pushed it if he had.  Crossfield was tempted to a similar breach of the rules some years later, when flying the X-15 rocket aircraft, which was a complete departure from conventional aircraft shapes  (Fig. 5), because of what had been learned from the Douglas Skyrocket and fatally with the Bell X-2.  On one of the prototype tests, he realised he had enough power in reserve to become not only the first man to reach Mach 2, but the first to reach Mach 3 and live.  He would have made the history books, but finished his professional career  (at least with North American Aviation), so he restrained the impulse.  (Scott Crossfield with Clay Blair Jr., Always Another Dawn, Hodder & Stoughton, 1960.)

Fig. 5. USAF-X-15 No. 3

By 1955, Crossfield had left the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, before it became NASA, to become chief engineering test pilot at North American, particularly on the X-15.   It was a difficult decision for him, because when the X-15 was handed over to NACA he wouldn’t be able to participate in the high-speed and high-altitude flights to come;  but his belief in the importance of the X-15 overcame his personal ambitions.  With his qualifications and experience Eric Brown could easily have joined the 12 pilots who did fly it.  The X-15 was one of the only two aircraft which he really wanted to fly but didn’t  (the other was the SR-71 Blackbird).  But to do so he would have had to take US citizenship.  NACA invited him to do so and Crossfield urged him to it, but he couldn’t give up being a Scot.  Paul Beaver adds, “So the cockpit of the fastest aircraft in history eluded him through his own choice;  it says much about his character and his sense of honour”.  One of the 12 pilots who did fly the X-15 was Neil Armstrong  (Fig. 6), with the result that he and Eric became lifetime friends.  Seemingly they never discussed spaceflight, sticking only to flying and engineering.  One thing that united them was a cordial dislike of Chuck Yeager, evidently reciprocated, because when Eric died Yeager took to social media to ask ‘Why the interest in Winkle?’

Fig. 6. Neil Armstrong with X-15

In my From the Moon to the Stars  (2019), I wrote, “I never met Yuri Gagarin, but I knew people who met him, like the late Capt. Eric Brown, John Brunner and Reginald Turnill; and I’ve met people who knew him, like Michael Lisun, the intended commander of Salyut 5”.  I had the impression that Eric’s meeting with Gagarin had been little more than a handshake, like John Brunner’s, because they didn’t speak each other’s languages.  But actually the meeting was at Eric’s office in the Admiralty, with an official interpreter, and the conversation grew warmer as it went on.  One thing that left Eric unimpressed was that Gagarin had no active control during his flight in Vostok 1, where the only switch activated was for an emergency retrofire, taped over and never used.  This may have been the beginning of Eric’s lack of interest in spaceflight, and may explain why he wasn’t more forthcoming to me about the meeting, out of politeness, knowing how deep my own interest was and is.  He never mentioned Neil Armstrong to me, nor Alan Shepard, and I wonder now how he would have felt about the dedication on my book, where he and Scott Crossfield are ranked along with the various astronauts and cosmonauts that I’ve met. 

Talking of books, however, Paul Beaver has cleared up one minor mystery for me.  When he gave me a copy of Wings on My Sleeve, Eric took it back off me to make sure it was the second edition. He said it was because the second edition contained details of the Spitfire rocket-launch, on which he’d just been lecturing, but actually there was only a photograph.  It turns out that the first edition was ghost-written, for Royal Navy public relations, and the second contains much more of his own words – including his incorrect account of his adoptive father’s RFC background, curiously enough.  But I’ve also learned that there are four other books, including a collaboration with Neil Armstrong on close calls in flying, titled Too Close for Comfort:  One Man’s Close Encounters of the Terminal Kind  (Blacker, 2015).  Now that is one I must get hold of!

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