Sqd. Ldr. Geoffrey Wellum DFC
August 4 1921 - Juy 18 2018
Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, who has died aged 96, was flying a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain before he was 19 years old.
During the fierce air battles over northern France in May 1940 there was an urgent need to replace fighter pilots lost in combat. Wellum had barely completed his training as a pilot when he was rushed to join No 92 Squadron. He had never flown a Spitfire and his squadron commander, Roger Bushell, of Great Escape fame, was not impressed to receive “half-trained youngsters”.
Wellum, right, photographed by Cecil Beaton with his mentor in No 92 Squadron, Brian Kingcome
CREDIT: CECIL BEATON/ALAMY
The following day, four of the squadron’s pilots, including Bushell, failed to return from a combat over Dunkirk. “It gave me my first intimation of what war is about,” Wellum later wrote. Within days, he had his first flight in a Spitfire, which he described as “absolutely wonderful, you didn’t get into it, you strapped it on”.
No 92 was soon flying patrols from an airfield in South Wales, then on September 9 the squadron was sent to Biggin Hill at the height of the Battle of Britain. After one scramble on September 11, Wellum was flying as his flight commander’s wingman when they intercepted 150 bombers escorted by a large force of fighters.
In his evocative memoir, First Light (2002), he wrote: “I look into the far distance, the vast panorama of sky. There it all is, the whole arena for bloody battle, and there they are, the enemy. A swarm of gnats on a warm summer evening … the whole spectacle frightens yet fascinates.”
During the hectic fight that followed he sighted a lone Heinkel 111 bomber, pursued it and shot it down off Dungeness. He was immediately attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 109; he had run out of ammunition and he had great difficulty escaping after his Spitfire was badly damaged.
The next few days proved to be the climax of the battle and Wellum was in constant action, sometimes flying three sorties a day. Given his youth, and a certain cockiness, he was known as “Boy” Wellum, a nickname conferred by his friend and mentor, Brian Kingcome. In rare off-duty moments, he relaxed and allowed the strain of fighting to ebb away by joining his colleagues at the nearby White Hart Inn: “You had a couple of pints and had to snap out of it.”
Wellum in 2002 during the launch of his autobiography, First Light
CREDIT: ANDY PARADISE/THE INDEPENDENT/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
Three loves emerged from Wellum’s account of that fateful summer: his country, his comrades and flying a Spitfire. As he fought against hordes of enemy fighters he compared the ugliness of his situation set above the beauty of the English countryside he loved.
The thought of occupation horrified him: “These are the King’s enemies,” he wrote. “These are Huns attacking England, our small country, our island, intent upon invasion and eventual occupation. We are on our own against this Teutonic monster, this arrogant bully, the invader of small nations.”
He always said that the friends he made during this period proved irreplaceable, and he mourned the waste of their young lives. On hearing of the death of one of his closest friends he wrote, “Why take young lives like Peter’s? What is this life on earth all about? Give me a sign, God, anything.”
As the battle came to a close at the end of October he was able to enjoy a rest and some leave with his family, but he missed his time on 92 Squadron, which he recorded as being the pinnacle of his life.
Geoffrey Harris Augustus Wellum was born at Walthamstow, on August 14 1921. He was educated at Forest School, Snaresbrook, where he was captain of the cricket XI in his last term before joining the RAF on a short service commission. Within eight months he was flying with No 92 Squadron.
After the Battle of Britain, the squadron continued to fly from Biggin Hill, and during November Wellum damaged at least three enemy bombers. From early 1941, Fighter Command went on the offensive, flying sweeps over northern France, sometimes escorting small bomber formations, all with the intention of drawing the Luftwaffe into combat.
During the summer of 1941 Wellum engaged Bf 109s and claimed one destroyed, one probably destroyed, and a third probably damaged. In August he was awarded the DFC for his “great skill and determination”.
After a year of constant combat, including 50 sweeps over France, Wellum was rested and sent to train fighter pilots. He found it difficult to appreciate that his days on 92 Squadron were over and he missed the intensely close relationships he had forged with the air and ground crews. He wrote: “Will I ever know quite the feeling and trust and comradeship in a front line Spitfire squadron, and in such a period of our country’s history, ever again? Nothing can possibly quite rise to such heights.”
Wellum returned to operations in February 1942 as a flight commander with No 65 Squadron, flying sweeps over France and Belgium. During one fierce combat over Cap Gris Nez, his Spitfire was badly damaged and he suffered from a severe headache but was determined to carry on the fight.
At the end of July he joined others on the aircraft carrier Furious in the Clyde and sailed for the Mediterranean. During the passage of the vital re-supply convoy to Malta, Operation Pedestal, Wellum flew patrols over the convoy and the island and attacked ground targets in Sicily, but his headaches became severe and he was grounded with sinusitis.
Doctors recognised that he was exhausted after three years of intense flying. As Wellum put it, “I’d shot my bolt.” He was evacuated to England: “Something inside me gave way and I broke down. I grieved for my lost friends and I cursed that I had reached the pinnacle of my life before the age of 22. I’d gone over the top. A medal and a royal handshake didn’t seem important any more … I felt destroyed by the war.”
Wellum with the Prince of Wales during a reception at Church House following a service at Westminster Abbey to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain CREDIT: JOHN STILLWELL/PA
After a rest he was loaned to the Gloster Aircraft Company to test-fly the Typhoon fighter, and later in the war he became an air gunnery instructor.
Wellum remained in the RAF after the war and served in a number of appointments in Fighter Command before serving as a weapons specialist in the Second Tactical Air Force in Germany. In 1953 he converted to jet aircraft and six months later joined No 192 Squadron flying the Canberra on reconnaissance sorties. From October 1957 he served at RAF Gaydon, the home of a V-Bomber conversion unit, and before retiring from the RAF in June 1961 he served on Thor ballistic missile squadrons in East Anglia.
He joined a firm of commodity brokers in the City of London before retiring to live in Cornwall.
During the early years of the war Wellum had jotted down some reflections and these formed the basis of First Light. Max Hastings in The Sunday Telegraph rated it “one of the best memoirs for years about the experience of flying in war”. The book became a bestseller and was adapted for a 2010 drama-documentary to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Wellum was a great supporter of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust. In a documentary to mark the 100th anniversary of the RAF he recalled seeing Spitfires at a fly-past. “Their cockpits were full of ghosts,” he said.
Geoffrey Wellum married Grace Christian in September 1943. The marriage was later dissolved. Their son and daughter survive him and a second daughter predeceased him.
Geoffrey Wellum, born August 4 1921, died July 18 2018
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
If you have additional information or photographs to add to this Obituary please contact us.
We also seek to commemorate all those not published by The Daily Telegraph and would be pleased to receive your contributions.
Article prepared by Barry Howard.