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Air Commodore Charles Widdows

Air Commodore Charles Widdows
Born: October 4th 1909, Bradford. Died: January 10th 2010 Age: 100

Air Commodore Charles Widdows, who has died aged 100, joined the RAF in 1926 as an aircraft apprentice and commanded a night fighter squadron during the Battle of Britain; at the time of his death on January 10, he was the battle’s oldest surviving pilot.

After a series of appointments overseas, Widdows returned to Britain in September 1937 as a test pilot with the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, where he carried out extensive performance tests on the first production Hurricanes and Spitfires.

He also flew many other prototypes, and so prized was his experience that at the outbreak of war he was barred from operational flying. His determination to go into combat was eventually rewarded in June 1940 with the command of No 29 Squadron, a night fighter squadron based in Lincolnshire and equipped with the Blenheim.
Widdows quickly identified a degree of laxness and low morale among some of the pilots, whom he set about replacing. He rebuilt the squadron around a number of young pilots and radar operators who would achieve fame as “ace” night fighter crews. Although meticulously fair, he was intolerant of anything casual or familiar when his men were on duty, while his own outstanding ability as a pilot quickly won their respect. Off duty, he was relaxed, sociable and highly popular.

No 29 flew night patrols during the Battle of Britain, with modest success; the slow, outdated Blenheim – equipped with a very rudimentary air intercept radar – made little impression on the Luftwaffe bomber force that started night operations against the northern cities in September and October 1940. At the end of September, however, the squadron received its first Beaufighter, and the night air war was soon transformed.

Widdows flew the first aircraft, and trained all the pilots as more Beaufighters arrived. Success soon came, although initially it eluded Widdows. Finally, on the night of March 13 1941, he and his radar operator shot down a Junkers 88 bomber over Lincolnshire.

Activity increased in the spring of 1941. One night Widdows was scrambled, but the aircraft’s engines began to fail soon after take-off. He ordered the radar operator to bail out, but as Widdows left his cockpit he saw that his crewman had been unable to release the rear escape hatch. He returned to the controls of the aircraft and, against all odds, managed to make a crash-landing in a field, thus saving his comrade’s life. One of No 29’s pilots later wrote: “The squadron was deeply disappointed when Widdows’s cool courage went unrewarded. In our opinion his action ranked with the bravest.”

When No 29 moved to West Malling in Kent in April, Widdows was appointed station commander. A few days later he was on patrol over the English Channel when he attacked a Junkers 88. As he opened fire, his Beaufighter was badly damaged by return fire, which also put the radio out of action.

Widdows took violent evasive action, and managed to limp back to his airfield – where he discovered that his radar operator had bailed out; the man’s body was later recovered on a French beach. Shortly afterwards, Widdows was rested from operations and awarded a DFC for his fine leadership.

Stanley Charles Widdows was born on October 4 1909 at Bradfield, Berkshire, and educated at St Bartholomew’s School, Newbury, before joining the RAF as an aircraft apprentice. After training he was one of the few to be awarded a cadetship to the RAF College, Cranwell. He trained as a pilot and was commissioned in July 1931.

After two years’ flying fighters in England, in 1933 he left for Egypt and nine months later joined No 47 Squadron at Khartoum, flying the Fairey Gordon. Promoted flight lieutenant, in 1936 he was posted to RAF Ramleh, Palestine, before returning to England.

In 1942 his experiences of night fighting served him well when he played a wider role as Group Captain Night Operations first at Fighter Command’s HQ 11 Group and then at No 12 Group. After commanding a night fighter operational training unit, he joined the air staff of the Supreme HQ Allied Expeditionary Forces in May 1944 and moved to Germany as the war came to an end.

Two years in the plans department of the Control Commission in Germany was followed by a return to the fighter business in the air ministry and then as the senior air staff officer at HQ 12 (Fighter) Group. He was the air defence expert on the staff of the School of Land Air Warfare and was then sector commander at HQ Eastern Sector of Fighter Command.

After completing the Imperial Defence College course, his last appointment was a return to the air ministry as director of air defence operations. He retired from the RAF at the end of 1958. Twice mentioned in despatches during the war, he was appointed CB in 1959.

In 1967 Widdows and his wife moved to Guernsey for “the quiet life”, but he was soon very busy. He acted as Peoples’ Deputy from 1973 to 1979 and was particularly active in the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Guernsey Scout Association.
In September 2005 he attended the unveiling by the Prince of Wales of the monument to Battle of Britain aircrew on London’s Embankment.

Surprised to learn that he was the oldest surviving Battle of Britain pilot, Widdows remarked: “Well, it goes to show what a drop of whisky each day can do.”

Charles Widdows married Irene (Nickie) Rawlings on the very eve of war, September 2 1939. They had originally intended to marry on September 30, but with the outbreak of war imminent he asked her to go to the altar with just 24 hours’ notice.
His wife and two sons survive him.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 01 July 2019, 21:07