MANY of those who gathered for Armed Forces Day in Rugby on Monday have stories to tell - but few will be more remarkable than those of 91-year-old Squadron Leader Tony Pickering.
When he was 19, Tony was flying Hawker Hurricanes all over the South of England as he helped repel the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Tony was an apprentice at BTH when he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve as tensions in Europe rose before the outbreak of the Second World War.
He said: “I was paid two shillings a week to train as a pilot flying biplanes and Tiger Moths.
“I wanted to join the air force because I didn’t want to be in the army.”
War broke out and Tony finished his training and moved around several RAF bases before being stationed at Gravesend, where he was scrambled for his first combat flight. It remains a very clear memory.
“I was just 19 and I was very excited,” said . “I would be flying right behind the Squadron Leader who was much more experienced than me.
“He told me not to turn my guns on until we were in the air in case I hit him by accident.
“We got to the London docks and I saw a huge black cloud which turned out to be hundreds of German aircraft.”
“It was our job to go for the bombers. We flew through the cloud and someone would say the name of a town and that’s where we would regroup for another run.
“We were probably in the air for around 20 minutes before we got back.”
With the rank of Flight Lieutenant, Tony flew around 100 combat flights during the Battle of Britain and even survived being shot down over Surrey.
“I remember four of us pilots slept in a room together, one got shot down, then another the next day then I went down not long after. But I was young and I didn’t think about the loss as perhaps I would now. We just had a job to do.”
And Tony didn’t make it through the Battle of Britain completely unscathed.
Recalling the events of one flight in September 1940, he said: “We were flying over Surrey chasing bombers when four of their gunners were concentrating their fire on me - and smoke started pouring out from the engine.”
“I immediately turned the petrol off and started to descend to around 5,000 ft but that was when the smoke turned to flames and I had to get out.
“The cockpit was open and I pulled the pin holding the seat in and was ejected up through the flames.”
It took several minutes for Tony to reach the ground and he landed at the Guards depot at Caterham.Yet rather than being welcomed and treated, staff suspected he was a Nazi pilot and he was forced to prove his identity to the Guards’ Colonel.
It took a phone call to his aerodrome to identify him, whereupon events took a decidedly more gentlemanly tone.
The Colonel sat Tony down and produced a bottle of whisky and two tumblers from his desk drawer and they had a drink before Tony was driven back to his base in the Colonel’s car ready to fight another day.
After leaving the RAF with the rank of Squadron Leader, spells as a test pilot for repaired aircraft and a stint out in the Middle East as an instructor, Tony returned home to continue his apprenticeship with BTH.
He now lives in Hillmorton with his wife Chris in their home full of RAF and Battle of Britain portraits and paintings, some signed by his fellow veterans who are sadly reducing in number as the years go on.