Squadron Leader “Stapme” Stapleton. DFC Dutch Flying Cross
Born: May 12th 1920. Durban, South Africa. Died: April 13th 2010. Age 89.
Tall, blond and sporting a splendid handlebar moustache, Stapleton was the epitome of the dashing fighter pilot. As the Battle of Britain opened in July 1940, he was flying Spitfires with No 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron and saw action off the east coast of Scotland. He shared in the destruction of two German bombers before his squadron moved to Hornchurch in late August as the Battle intensified.
Within a few days Stapleton had engaged the enemy fighter force escorting the Luftwaffe’s bombers, and was credited with probably destroying two Messerschmitt Bf 109s. By the beginning of September No 603 was one of the most heavily involved squadrons, and Stapleton accounted for a Dornier bomber on September 3 and a Bf 109 two days later – the latter flown by Franz von Werra, who later became famous as “The One who Got Away”, being generally regarded as the only Axis PoW to escape from Canada and make it back to Germany.
On September 7 Stapleton’s Spitfire was hit by enemy fire, but he managed to force-land his badly damaged aircraft. A young couple having a picnic in an adjacent field gave him a restorative cup of tea before driving him back to his airfield.
On September 15 (Battle of Britain Day) Stapleton shot down a Dornier bomber and damaged a fighter. By the end of the Battle on October 31, he had destroyed two more Bf 109s and probably a further three. On November 11 he gained his final success when he shot down a Bf 109 over Ramsgate. A few days later he was awarded a DFC.
During that summer of 1940, 13 of his colleagues were killed and others seriously wounded – including his friend Richard Hillary (later the author of The Last Enemy), who was badly burned.
When reflecting on the Battle in later life, Stapleton observed: ‘Despite the casualties, when I look back, I recall we also had great fun. It was an exciting time and we made the most of our opportunities to live it up. We tended to treat each occasion as if it were our last.’
Basil Gerald Stapleton was born in Durban, South Africa, on May 12 1920 and educated at King Edward VI School in Totnes, Devon. He entered the RAF on a short service commission in January 1939 and, after a brief spell flying Blenheim night fighters, joined No 603 Squadron.
It was while he was with 603 Squadron that Stapleton got his nickname, ‘Stapme’. It derived from the exclamation habitually uttered by the newspaper cartoon hero ‘Just Jake’ whenever he spotted an attractive girl. Much to the irritation of his flight commander, Stapleton would pin the daily cartoon strip to the squadron’s notice board.
In March 1941 Stapleton was rested, but he soon volunteered to fly Hurricanes catapulted off the deck of a merchant ship sailing with the North Atlantic convoys. He completed four trips without seeing any action before embarking on a second tour of operations as the flight commander of a Hurricane squadron (later Typhoon), flying bomber escort operations over France.
In August 1944, after a period as a gunnery instructor, he was put in command of No 247 Squadron, operating from advanced landing grounds in Normandy – where he discovered ample supplies of Calvados; he not only enjoyed drinking it, but also found it effective fuel for paraffin lamps and his Zippo lighter.
He soon arranged for the squadron intelligence officer, an excellent artist, to paint a logo on the nose of his Typhoon. It showed a Nazi swastika topped by a burning eagle – the result of a strike by a 60lb rocket in the centre of the swastika. He named it ‘Excreta Thermo’, but the more prudent intelligence officer did not include this wording in case Stapleton crash-landed in enemy territory. In the event, this proved a wise decision.
Stapleton flew his first operation on August 27, when his rocket-firing Typhoons attacked barges on the river Seine. Within days, No 247 started heading eastwards to occupy abandoned German airfields as the Allied armies advanced towards Paris and Brussels. Stapleton and his pilots attacked enemy transports and armour against fierce anti-aircraft fire.
On September 17 the squadron was briefed for ‘a very important task’: the support of the airborne operations at Nijmegen and Arnhem. Stapleton led the initial attack by eight Typhoons against German gun positions threatening the British Second Army’s advance along the road to Eindhoven.
Over the next two days Stapleton led more formations against the enemy, but bad weather forced some sorties to be aborted. The squadron then moved to Eindhoven, where the Typhoons landed between the bomb craters.
After a rowdy night, when much champagne was consumed, his Jeep ran out of fuel returning from the officers’ bar and he had to jump clear as the following vehicle failed to stop in time. Stapleton hit his head on the kerb and needed eight stitches above his eye.
For the next two months Stapleton led many formations against gun emplacements, road and rail traffic and ferries before the German Army launched its counter-attack in the Ardennes on December 17. For days the weather prevented any flying; but finally it cleared sufficiently for eight Typhoons to carry out an armed reconnaissance sortie on December 23.
Despite still dreadful weather, Stapleton pressed on and attacked a train at low level with rockets; but the flying debris from the exploding steam engine punctured the radiator of his Typhoon and his engine failed. He was fortunate to find an area of open farmland in which to make a forced landing.
He had come down two miles on the wrong side of the battle lines and was taken prisoner. He was taken to Stalag Luft I, and remained a PoW until May 2, when the camp was liberated by the advancing Russian Army.
On January 1 1946, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands awarded Stapleton a Dutch Flying Cross for his part in the operations at Arnhem. A month later he left the RAF, believing that he would not fit in with a peacetime air force.
Stapleton joined BOAC, flying West African routes for three years before returning to South Africa. There he spent six years as a technical representative with Dunlop, then seven years as works engineer with Sprite Caravans. Whilst living in Botswana he escorted tourists on photographic safaris in southern Africa before returning to Britain in 1994.
To many people Stapleton was one of the real ‘characters’ to survive the war. His favourite aircraft was the Spitfire, and when a colleague described it as ‘beautiful and frail, yet agile, potent and powerful’ Stapleton responded: ‘I always wanted a lady like that.’
He was a great supporter of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and in 2007 one of the Flight’s Spitfires carried his personal markings. He was also a regular at many Battle of Britain commemorative events; but his greatest devotion was to the No 603 Squadron Association. With his flamboyant ties, large floppy hat and luxuriant moustache, he was immensely popular at the many events he attended.
A biography, Stapme by David Ross, was published in 2002.