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Battle of Britain Spitfire Ace (Hardback)

The Life and Loss of One of The Few, Flight Lieutenant William Henry Nelson DFC

Aviation > Aircraft Aviation > Pilots World History

By Peter J Usher
Imprint: Air World
Pages: 256
Illustrations: 40 mono illustrations
ISBN: 9781036106126
Published: 30th June 2024

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At 11.20 hours on the morning of Friday, 1 November 1940, nine Spitfires from 74 Squadron, the famous ‘Tiger Squadron’, were scrambled from Biggin to carry out an interception patrol I the Dover area. One of the pilots, at the Spitfire Mk.IIa P7312, was the Canadian Flying Officer William Henry Nelson DFC.

At around midday, the Tigers encountered a formation of enemy aircraft – Messerschmitt Bf 109s. In the ensuing dogfights, two of the Spitfire pilots were wounded. But for ‘Willie’ Nelson, it was his last combat. Spitfire P7312 failed to return to Biggin Hill, and Nelson, believed to have crashed into the Channel, is listed as ‘Missing’ to this day.

From Montreal, Canada, Willie Nelson had been fascinated by aviation from childhood and went to work in Montreal’s aircraft industry after high school. In 1936, at the age of nineteen, he travelled to the UK to join the Royal Air Force. He was among the few Canadians to be commissioned as a pilot long before the Second World War, joining Bomber Command’s 10 Squadron at Dishforth on 27 November 1937.

Within days of the outbreak of the war, the squadron was in action, with eight of its Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys undertaking a reconnaissance of north-west Germany along with a leaflet drop on the night of 8/9 September 1939. Nelson was awarded a DFC for his actions in the Norwegian campaign.

It was during the desperate situation of June 1940 that Nelson volunteered to retrain as a fighter pilot. He duly joined 74 Squadron at Hornchurch on 20 July 1940, ten days after the official start of the Battle of Britain. An experienced pilot, Nelson was thrust straight into Britain’s struggle for survival. Within weeks he destroyed five enemy aircraft and damaged two more. His first claim was of damaging a Bf 109 and a Bf 110, as well as destroying a Bf 110 on 11 August. Two days later, Nelson was able to claim damaging a Dornier Do 17, and he claimed three more Bf109s destroyed during the last two weeks of October, earning him the accolade of being a Spitfire Ace – the only Canadian to do so in the Battle of Britain.

Drawing heavily on his own diary, logbook and many letters home, Battle of Britain Spitfire Ace describes Nelson’s flying career from bomber pilot to fighter pilot, his captaincy of his bomber squadron’s team in Britain’s Modern Pentathlon competitions in 1938 and 1939, and even his squadron’s activities during the Phoney War. All his combat sorties are detailed as, of course, is his final flight that fateful autumn day over the South Coast.

Willie Nelson had married and had a young son when he died. The final chapter describes the voyage of discovery that his son, Bill Mcalister, took in an effort to learn about the life of the father he never knew.

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About Peter J Usher

PETER J USHER is a geographer with post-graduate degrees from McGill and the University of British Columbia who had a consulting career in environmental assessment and Indigenous land claims in northern Canada. He has since been engaged in writing and research relating to the experience of Jewish-Canadian airmen in the Second World War, inspired by the letters and diaries of the men of his own family who had served in Bomber Command. He is the author of Joey Jacobson’s War: A Jewish Canadian Airman in the Second World War, which has since been released as an audio-book. Peter has written several scholarly articles relating to his research, including an entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

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