On July 25, 1941 – aged three years younger than I am now – my great-uncle Hubert was killed on a bombing mission over Germany. It was the day after his 27th birthday.
A black-and-white photograph of Hubert survives: smiling in his aviator helmet, I have his eyes and nose. Indeed, looking at the picture is surreal, like examining one’s past life – one I was thankfully spared.
Sgt Hubert Dearnley was an air gunner aboard a Wellington, mortally wounded on an operation over Brest en route to attack the German battlecruiser Gneisenau. Despite studying the Second World War, I had never considered the planning that went into such a daring operation; the brave pilots who flew unarmed and unarmoured planes – with only their flying skills for protection – to photograph targets.
It was this that led me to the story of a certain, long-forgotten Spitfire.
During wartime there was nothing remarkable about the Spitfire with the military serial number AA810. When it crashed into a snow-strewn Norwegian mountainside on March 5, 1942, its loss was tragically predictable: few aircraft flown on behalf of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) – the clandestine band of fewer than 1,500 who gathered same-day intelligence for the Allies – lasted more than six months on active service. As for their pilots, many of them younger than my great-uncle, 48 per cent who flew were killed during the War: one of the worst death rates of any unit in the entire conflict.
No, it was the manner of its survival that made the aircraft so exceptional. Resting amid ice-capped peaks overlooking the port city of Trondheim – where it had been shot down by the Luftwaffe over 75 years before – it was still 70 per cent intact when it was recovered in 2018, a rare survivor buried beneath a compacted layer of peat and ice.
Fast forward four years, and Project AA810 – overseeing the restoration of the Spitfire and the Sandy Gunn Aerospace Careers Programme, an initiative to promote young people’s interest in engineering, named after the aircraft’s final pilot (who survived, only to be shot in April 1944 by the Gestapo after the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft 3) – launched yet another project. This would spearhead a national monument to the PRU, calling on the Government to allow the unit to finally be commemorated in a central London location, which reflects its strategic intelligence contribution and its vital role in the planning of operations like the Dambusters Raid and D-Day.
In summer 2021, a formal application was received and a Westminster Hall debate held. All the major political parties gave their support. The motion passed unopposed. Then something unexpected happened.
Until then, there were only two PRU pilots known to still be alive, both over the age of 100. But then, amazingly, another reached out: 98-year-old George Pritchard.
Uncovered – like the Spitfire – from relative obscurity, George’s story was, and is, extraordinary. The only one out of his intake of 21 to survive three months in the PRU, he now lives alone – independently – on a quiet residential street in Northampton, after his pre-War sweetheart and wife of many decades passed away several years ago.
A few hours in his company is to see the 20th century not through the camouflage of celluloid or the printed word, but as lived experience. Born in Croydon in 1924, one of his early memories is seeing the Hindenburg passing over his home in 1937. “We were frightened out of our wits,” he recalls. “Our grandparents had told us about Zeppelins during the Great War. Somebody ran indoors to warn my grandmother: ‘We’re going to be bombed, Granny!’ The airship went to Crystal Palace, and from there to New York, where it caught fire.”
Always obsessed with aeroplanes, George used to make models as a child, and his first job was at a cardboard factory next to the airport. It was there he was working when the War began. His eyes sparkle at the memories of his “pals” – all tragically killed in an air raid on the airport. George vowed to avenge them as soon as he was old enough.
Before joining up, he assisted his father in recovering injured and dead civilians from the rubble of the Blitz. When he turned 18, he was initially selected to be an air gunner – like my great-uncle. During his training he met Clark Gable, stationed at the same airfield, then one of the world’s biggest film stars. On failing an eyesight test, George was made a ground engineer, but continued to request a transfer to pilot training until he was accepted. Selected for bombers, he converted to the Wellington – another echo of my great-uncle – and used to fly decoy radar-jamming missions over occupied territory. Proven a capable pilot, he was sent to Scotland to move to the Mosquito aircraft, dispatched to join the PRU to fly unarmed reconnaissance missions over Europe.
Such missions, he tells me, often started with a rude awakening at 4am. “A cup of tea from a duty corporal” meant it was your turn to go, whatever the weather and however dangerous the circumstances: such early starts usually meant a previous pilot had not returned. The enemy knew you were coming.
George shivers remembering one instance when he learned he had to fly hundreds of miles to Germany in driving sleet. It was “bloody freezing”, he recalls, and – worse still – he had had “one too many beers” the night before. “The runway only had little glim lamps that lit blue as you were taking off or coming in to land; they were hardly recognisable when the weather was throwing all it could at you. If the engine cut out, that would be it. When I think about it now, it was suicidal!”
If Bletchley Park was the ears of Britain, then the PRU was its eyes. Over the course of the War some 20 million photographs were taken by the unit, many of them filtered straight to Churchill and his generals in the Cabinet War Rooms. Frequently armed with little more than a compass strapped to the knee, taking accurate photographs over a target was immensely challenging. As George describes: “We had to fly at a fixed speed, 300mph, very steadily. At a precise moment the navigator would say ‘now’, and I would count the seconds that the cameras would be working, approximately 15-second bursts. Then I had to do a barrel roll, before another 15 seconds of camera burst.”
Death was a constant companion. “Many of my mates were killed flying Mosquitos. Some didn’t get home due to running out of fuel, others were shot down.” George himself was nearly killed several times; the closest instance when a large part of the canopy was blown off by anti-aircraft fire. “This was a desperate thing to happen as the cockpit was pressurised, so suddenly, at 27,000 feet, we found ourselves without air. My oxygen mask, which had been dangling around my neck, was blown off in the blast. It only took us a couple of minutes to drop down to 7,000 feet in order to breathe again, but that frightening feeling of gasping for air seemed to last for ages before I could take a full breath. As frightening as it was, we soon got over it at the time, but this was to affect me deeply in later life, giving me nightmares for many years.”
He tells me of a time on the London Underground when the rush of an incoming train triggered a panic attack. “I couldn’t wait for the lift; I ran all the way up the 300 steps of a spiral staircase without a breath and collapsed on the ground outside.”
Despite these horrors, he never lost his love of flying; his vivid storytelling resurrects remarkable sights: “I flew over D-Day +6 in the evening with another pilot. Where we were flying above the clouds, it was bright sunshine, but down below, it was dark due to the angle of the sun as it was setting. As we looked down we could see fire and gun flashes on the ground from all the fighting that was going on down there.”
Some memories, however, are harder to recall. A talented linguist (“when you’re meeting German women, it doesn’t take long to learn the language, you know?”) he became an RAF liaison, taking him to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp only days after it was liberated. “I went there with four other guys in a Jeep. We arrived and there were still bodies in the trench. There must have been a thousand in there. All skin and bone. We couldn’t let the other inmates out because of typhus. It was a shocking experience. The whole area was dead. No birds sang. And the smell…”
An indelible sense of duty motivated him throughout the War, so much so that leaving the RAF afterwards was a struggle – he did it for his wife. After some time carrying out aircraft inspections, he went to work for Lucas, entering the next chapter of his remarkable life. Dedicating his career to science and technology, he went on to be instrumental in the development of the first pacemaker, the Melrose heart-lung machine, and developing switch control systems for the nuclear deterrent. Setting up a large engineering company of his own, he stills works to this day, and is only now in the process of selling his business interests – his latest invention was a safety lighting system for tail-lift vehicles. In his spare time, he writes children’s books for Great Ormond Street Hospital and, most significantly, campaigns for the permanent monument to all those who flew, and in most cases gave their lives, for the PRU.
“I still think of the guys. We were losing people at the same rate, or worse, than Bomber Command – and everywhere.”
Whilst Spitfire AA810 will be flying again in 2024, he knows time is running out to see a memorial erected in his lifetime. But he remains optimistic; he is healthy and determined – and doesn’t look a day over 80, let alone two months off his 99th birthday. His mind remains razor sharp. I asked him for his hard-earned wisdom on current events – from Brexit (“the greatest thing ever”), modern politicians (“I met Churchill and don’t rate today’s MPs at all”), Ukraine (an invasion triggered by “bloody criminals”, not ordinary Russians), young people (“ten years younger than we were at the same age”), and the future (“hydrogen”). He remains better informed than most people half his age.
As George served me another Eccles cake, my second, I wondered whether, had he lived, I would have shared similar memories with my great-uncle Hubert. Elements of the past, like George, like the Spitfire, hidden in plain sight, made extraordinary by their actions and their survival.
“Now promise me you’re not going to make a hero out of me,” said George, smiling, handing me an ice-cold bottle of beer.
For more information about the campaign for a PRU national monument, visit www.spitfireaa810.co.uk/national-memorial. You can learn more about their schools programme at www.ACP-aa810.co.uk. George’s memoir, Here We Go Again! is available now from Amazon.
You can support Armed Forces veterans through the Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI) – one of four charities supported by this year's Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Action for Children, Age UK and Macmillan Cancer Support. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927