Operation: Defence of the Realm: Battle of Britain
Date: 15 September 1940
Unit: 603 Squadron (City of Edinburgh) 'Gin Ye Daur' (If You Dare)
Type: Spitfire 1
Base: RAF Hornchurch
Location: Over Kingswood Kent
Pilot: F/O Arthur Peter Pease 72447 RAFVR Killed
REASON FOR LOSS: Shot down defending the Realm against the King's enemies massed in air attacks on what has become known as 'Battle of Britain Day'.
Arthur Peter Pease, the son of Sir Richard and Lady Pease of Richmond, Yorkshire was born on 15th February 1918 in London and educated at Eton where he excelled in all subjects and was an outstanding singer, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History. There he was a contemporary of DJC (Colin) Pinckney (1918-42), another well-known fighter pilot. Both joined the University Air Squadron.
Pease was commissioned in the RAFVR in September 1938
Called to full-time service in October 1939, Pease completed his flying training and was posted to 1 School of Army Co-operation at Old Sarum in late May 1940. There he met Richard Hope Hillary (1919 -1943) – who later immortalised Pease in his book The Last Enemy – during initial training at Old Sarum where the two became close friends. Pease and Hillary were posted to 5 OTU Aston Down where they converted to Spitfires, and their kinship with Colin Pinckney resumed when all three airmen joined 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron at Dyce. Dyce was tasked with defending major targets in Scotland, including Glasgow.
Flying Officer Pease was considered one of the top fighter pilots in his squadron and shared in destroying a He111 on the 30th. One one occasion he was hit by return fire but returned to Montrose, unhurt.
603 Squadron was transferred down to Hornchurch in 11 Group to join the thick of the air fighting over the Home Counties. On 3rd September Pease claimed a Me109 destroyed and on the 7th his Spitfire (L1057) was hit by a burst of fire during a fierce engagement with the Luftwaffe over London and he was fortunate to return to RAF Hornchurch to make a forced landing.
On 15 September 1940 his luck ran out.
603 Squadron was scrambled from RAF Hornchurch at 2.45pm to combat a large force of enemy bombers bound for London and encountered numerous Dornier 17 and Heinkel 111 bombers over Maidstone; during the battle, Peter’s Spitfire Mk I (X4324) was hit and became barely controllable. He crashed at Kingswood, near Chartway Street, Kent.
Reports claim that after being hit and close to the ground, the engine of his Spitfire was heard to rev: Pease, in a final act of bravery to spare civilian life, had taken the Spitfire clear of the houses in the village of Kingswood for which it had been headed. Pease was still in the cockpit when his blazing fighter dived into fields nearby at 3.05pm.
He was found dead at the site of the crash.
Planted in 1990, a single lime tree (right) now marks the site in Kingswood, where the Spitfire crashed to earth. A simple sign – 'touching, but humble' – explains its significance.
He was just 22 and is buried in the churchyard of St.Michael and All Saints at Middleton Tyas, Yorkshire.
Among the mourners, and simply identified as Mrs Hannay, was Peter’s sister Aline Thorne Hannay – whose husband F/O Patrick Hannay had himself been killed in Blenheim L1516 that May, just weeks after their marriage.
Many in the list of those attending had titles familiar to the public. Among them, of course, was Miss Denise Maxwell Woosnam, Peter Pease’s fiancée.
Left: Grave of Peter Pease Right: All Saints Middleton Tyas
Both Flight Lieutenant D.J.C. Pinckney and Flight Lieutenant Richard H. Hillary were killed later in the War.
Twenty-six Old Etonians are known to have participated in the Battle of Britain – the highest number from any Public School of the time - eight of whom were killed. The name of Flying Officer A.P. Pease and that of the seven other Etonian casualties of the Battle can be seen on the Eton War Memorial in the Colonnade.
For Leutnant Roderich Cescotti (see Kracker Luftwaffe Archive on this site), piloting one of the German bombers that day, it was an experience he would never forget; the courageous Spitfire pilot he describes in the following account was consistent, both in manner and time and place, with the death of Flying Officer Pease :
“Few Tommies succeeded in penetrating our fighter escort. I saw a Spitfire dive steeply through our escort, level out and close rapidly on our formation. It opened fire, from ahead and to the right, and its tracers streaked towards us. At that moment an Me 109, that we had not seen before, appeared behind the Spitfire and we saw its rounds striking the Spitfire’s tail. But the Tommy continued his attack, coming straight for us, and his rounds slashed into our aircraft. We could not return fire for fear of hitting the Messerschmitt. I put my left arm across my face to protect it from the plexiglass splinters flying around the cockpit, holding the controls with my right hand. With only the thin plexiglass between us, we were eye-to-eye with the enemy’s eight machine guns. At the last moment, the Spitfire pulled up and passed very close over the top of us. Then it rolled on its back, as though out of control, and went down steeply trailing black smoke. Waggling its wings, the Messerschmitt swept past us and curved in for another attack. The action lasted only a few seconds, but it demonstrated the determination and bravery with which the Tommies were fighting over their own country.”
Some 75 years after these events, John Oakley, a Professor of Law at the University of California, became fascinated by Pease’s story. John Oakley read The Last Enemy and was drawn not only to the story of Pease and Hillary but also that of their fellow pilots Colin Pinckney and of Billy Fiske, the American pilot who had won double bobsleigh gold in the Winter Olympics.
After a visit to the Pease grave, he commissioned and paid for a new memorial which now stands only a few metres from the place where his Spitfire crashed in 1940. Prof Oakley’s researches were much helped by Mrs Doreen Patterson, as Denise Woosnam had become, who passed away on July 29 2015, aged 97.
The memorial was created by local Kent stonemason, Gordon Newton, and unveiled by local Kingswood Councillor, Jill Fort, on what would have been Pease’s 100th birthday.
John Oakley salutes the heroism of Pease and his fellow pilots:
'The Battle of Britain was in a very vivid sense a battle for national survival. It was as if Isis was multiplied 1,000-fold and camped 20 miles away. Those pilots knew that it was very likely they were going to die. The idea of German tanks bulldozing those lovely country villages would have got me into a plane, too. It would have been a barbaric state run by a madman.”
Denise Woosnam was the daughter of Max Woosnam, one of sport’s truly great all-rounders. He had captained Manchester City and England, won the Wimbledon doubles and an Olympic gold at tennis, scored a century at Lord’s and achieved a 147 break at snooker. Denise was a great beauty and as a debutante had been presented to Edward VIII. The King was apparently so taken by her beauty that he announced all the other debutantes could 'consider themselves presented' and went off to play golf with Wallis Simpson, instead.
Denise became an ATS officer, and had met Pease at a night skating party in Cheshire. It was love at first sight and the couple were soon engaged.
'Everything happened so quickly in the war,' she once said. 'You saw everything as through a telescope at the wrong end.'
After Pease’s death, she regularly visited his friend Richard Hillary in hospital, himself horrifically burned after being shot down.
During a long and agonised recuperation, Hillary wrote The Last Enemy, the acclaimed account of war that has never been out of print. He dedicated this to Denise Woosnam, his muse.
'For me she was the very spirit of courage,' Hillary wrote. 'Her inner beauty and serenity, her perfection of carriage and grace of movement were strikingly reminiscent of Peter. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.'
The Times published a lengthy obituary of an amazing woman. 'She was a beauty to the end,' it said.
Pinckney himself was so smitten by Denise Maxwell that, out of loyalty to his dead colleague and to avoid being in the company of Denise, asked to be posted to the Far East. He was himself killed over Burma.
Thus passed our heroes. We shall not see their like again.