Air Commodore Alan Christopher “Al” Deere, DSO, OBE, DFC & Bar
(12 December 1917 – 21 September 1995)
(extracted from Wikipedia)
Deere was born in Auckland, the third son of Terrence (known as Joe) and Teresa (née Curtin) Deere, while his father was employed in the Post Office. The family returned soon after Alan’s birth to the family’s home town of Westport, where Joe took up a position with the New Zealand Railways.
Deere attended St Canices School in Westport before the family moved to Wanganui where the family established a home at 43 Plymouth Street, which allowed Deere to grow up in a semi-rural environment while he attended Marist Brothers’ School and Wanganui Technical College. At the age of eight he saw an aircraft fly overhead and sprinted to see it land on a nearby beach. The pilot allowed him to sit in the cockpit and Deere determined to become a pilot.
After a school career dominated by success in sports, representing his school in rugby, cricket and boxing, Deere spent two years as a law clerk. Encouraged by his family doctor to follow his chosen career, Deere persuaded his mother to sign the under 21 application for entry into the Royal Air Force. He passed selection under Wing Commander R A Cochrane in April 1937 and sailed for England on the Rangitane in September, but was admitted to hospital with high blood pressure.
Deere began flying training on 28 October 1937, at the De Havilland Flying School at White Waltham, the No 13 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School.
On 9 January 1938 he was granted a short service commission as acting Flying Officer and started initial officer training at RAF Uxbridge. He was selected for the RAF boxing team to tour South Africa, but flight training took priority and he was posted to 6 Flight Training School on 22 January. The aircraft he was to have travelled in crashed at Bulawayo with the loss of all on board.
Deere was promoted to Flying Officer on 28 October, and temporarily posted to No. 74 Squadron RAF on 20 August, before joining No. 54 Squadron RAF in September where he was joined by Colin Gray, who was to become New Zealand’s top scoring pilot of World War II. Both squadrons operated Gloster Gladiators, the RAF’s last biplane fighter.
World War II
The squadron remained in England until May 1940, tasked with home defense, having converted to Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1s at the beginning of 1940. Deere was enraptured of the Spitfire, like most pilots, describing it as “the most beautiful and easy aircraft to fly.” He was later given a chance to fly a captured Messerschmitt Bf 109 (called a Me 109 by Allied pilots) and found the Spitfire superior:
- “In my written report on the combat I stated that in my opinion the Spitfire was superior overall to the Me 109, except in the initial climb and dive; however this was an opinion contrary to the belief of the so-called experts. Their judgement was of course based on intelligence assessments and the performance of the 109 in combat with the Hurricane in France. In fact, the Hurricane, though vastly more manoeuvrable than either the Spitfire or the Me 109, was so sadly lacking in speed and rate of climb, that its too-short combat experience against the 109 was not a valid yardstick for comparison. The Spitfire, however, possessed these two attributes to such a degree that, coupled with a better rate of turn than the Me 109, it had the edge overall in combat. There may have been scepticism by some about my claim for the Spitfire, but I had no doubts on the score; nor did my fellow pilots in 54 Squadron.”
France and Dunkirk
On 23 May 1940, during the closing phases of the Battle of France, Deere and Pilot Officer J. Allen flew Spitfires escorting Flight Lieutenant James Leathart across the channel in a Miles Magister to rescue 74 Squadron’s commanding officer, who had made a forced landing. In sight of Leathart and White, Deere claimed his first combat victories, shooting down two Bf 109s. Later the same day he shot down a third Bf 109.
On 24 May he added a Bf 110 over Dunkirk and on the 26th claimed two more in the same area.
On 28 May Deere was shot down by a Dornier Do17 he was attacking near Dunkirk. He was knocked unconscious when making a forced landing on a Belgian beach. Rescued by a soldier, Deere made his way on foot to Oost-Dunkerke where his head injuries were dressed. He hitched a ride on a British Army lorry to Dunkirk, and (after receiving some criticism from soldiers about the effectiveness of the RAF’s fighter cover), boarded a boat to Dover from where he took a train back to London, 19 hours after taking off from Hornchurch with his squadron.
Together with Leathart and Allen, Deere was awarded the DFC on 12 June 1940. The medal was presented at Hornchurch by King George VI on 27 June. The Citation read:
- “During May 1940, this officer has, in company with his squadron, taken part in numerous offensive patrols over Northern France, and has been engaged in seven combats often against superior numbers of the enemy. In the course of these engagements he has personally shot down five enemy aircraft and assisted in the destruction of others. On one occasion, in company with a second aircraft, he escorted a trainer aircraft to Calais Marck aerodrome, for the purpose of rescuing a squadron commander who had been shot down there. The trainer aircraft was attacked by twelve Messerschmitt 109s whilst taking off at Calais, but Pilot Officer Deere, with the other pilot, immediately attacked, with the result that three enemy aircraft were shot down, and a further three severely damaged. Throughout these engagements this officer has displayed courage and determination in his attacks on the enemy.” London Gazette – 14 June 1940.
Battle of Britain
No. 54 Squadron took part in the defence of channel shipping against Luftwaffe attacks designed to draw out and destroy RAF Fighter Command.
On 9 July Deere shot down a Bf 109 over the channel, but then collided head on with a Bf 109 of 4 Staffel Jagdgeschwader 51 flown by Oberfeldwebel Johann Illner. The propeller blades of Deere’s spitfire “Kiwi” were bent backwards, the engine disabled, and much of the fin and rudder lost. Nevertheless, he managed to glide back to the coast near Manston where his forced landing in a paddock ended against a stone wall.
The colour scheme of this aircraft (P9398, KL-B, named, like all Deere’s aircraft, “Kiwi”), was accurately recorded and in consequence it has been a favourite with modellers and manufacturers. The remains of this aircraft have recently been excavated and are to be rebuilt.
After Adlertag (Eagle Day) on 11 August he shot down a Bf 109, two more plus a Bf 110 the next day, and on the 15th added another Bf 109 over the Channel. However he was then trapped in an unequal dogfight with Bf 109s which attempted to block his return to England. Deere made the coast but was forced to bail out at low altitude, and was admitted to Victoria Hospital with minor injuries. He discharged himself the following day. Deere was shot down again on 28 August – this time by a Spitfire – but parachuted to safety. A frustrating combat on the 30th saw him claim a probable Do 17.
The following day the Luftwaffe raided Hornchurch. Deere led a section of three Spitfires which attempted to take off during the raid. A bomb destroyed all three aircraft. Deere’s Spitfire was blown on its back, trapping him. Pilot Officer Eric Edsall, though badly injured when his own Spitfire had been destroyed, crawled to Deere’s aircraft and freed him. Seeing Edsall’s injuries, Deere then carried his rescuer to the sick bay.
Deere was critical of the lack of training given to new pilots:
- “We were desperately short of pilots. … We were getting pilots who had not been on Spitfires because there were no conversion units at that time. They came straight to a squadron from their training establishments. Some of them did have a few hours on the Hurricanes, a monoplane experience, but not on the Spitfire. For example, we got two young New Zealanders into my flight. Chatting to them I found they’d been six weeks at sea coming over. They were trained on some very outdated aircraft, I can’t remember, out in NZ. One of the pilots had taken them up to see the handling and brief them on the Spitfire. Then they’d go off for one solo flight and circuit, then they were into battle. The answer of course is that they didn’t last. Those two lasted two trips and they both finished up in Dover hospital. One was pulled out of the Channel. One landed by parachute.”
Such was the toll on men of 54 Squadron that on 3 September, before the peak of the battle, the squadron was withdrawn from 11 group and moved to the northern airfield at Catterick to rest and recover.
A Bar to his DFC was awarded on 6 September 1940. The Citation read:
- “Since the outbreak of war this officer has personally destroyed eleven, and probably one other, enemy aircraft, and assisted in the destruction of two more. In addition to the skill and gallantry he has shown in leading his flight, and in many instances his squadron, Flight Lieutenant Deere has displayed conspicuous bravery and determination in pressing home his attacks against superior numbers of enemy aircraft, often pursuing them across the Channel in order to shoot them down. As a leader he shows outstanding dash and determination.” London Gazette – 6 September 1940.
Squadron Leader, America
While training new replacement pilots in January 1941, Deere collided with one of them, losing most of his tail to the Sergeant pilot’s propellor. When bailing out, Deere was trapped against part of his aircraft, and his damaged parachute failed to fully open. Deere landed in an area of open sewerage which broke much of his fall. As a result of this incident he was rested from active flying, but promoted to Acting Squadron Leader and tasked as Operations Room Controller at Catterick. An unusual honour was having his portrait painted by official war artist Cuthbert Orde that February.
On 7 May 1941 he was posted to Ayr as Flight Commander of No. 602 Squadron RAF. On 5 June he suffered engine failure over the North Sea and glided back to another forced landing on the coast, crawling out the small side door after the Spitfire flipped on to its back, destroying the canopy and temporarily trapping him. At the end of July he took over as Squadron commander of 602 Squadron, and on 1 August it moved back to Kenley. On the same day he shot down another Bf 109.
In January 1942 he was sent on a lecturing and public relations trip to America teaching American pilots fighter tactics learnt in the Battle of Britain.
Biggin Hill Wing Leader
Deere returned to action on 1 May, taking command of a Royal Canadian Air Force squadron, No. 403 Squadron RCAF, at North Weald. In August he went on a course at RAF Staff College and was subsequently posted to Headquarters 13 Group on staff duties.
He engineered a return to operations, somewhat unofficially, as a supernumerary with No. 611 Squadron RAF at Biggin Hill. He shot down an Fw 190 soon after, but wrote of his great respect for the type and its pilots.
He was given command of the Kenley fighter wing, but this was changed at the last minute to keep him as Wing Leader at Biggin Hill. While there, Deere was awarded the DSO, the citation reading: “This officer has displayed exceptional qualities of skill, which have played a large part in the successes of formations he has led. His fearlessness, tenacity and unswerving devotion to duty have inspired all with whom he has flown. Wing Commander Deere has destroyed 18 enemy aircraft.” London Gazette – 4 June 1943.
Deere led 121 sorties during his six months as Wing Leader, and added another four claims to his total.
Later war experiences
On 15 September 1943 he went to RAF Sutton Bridge to command the Fighter Wing of the Central Gunnery School. He received a staff job in March 1944 at 11 Group but at the request of General Valin, abandoned this to take commanded of the Free French fighter wing, leading it over the beaches on D-Day, and subsequently in its pilots’ return to France. When the fighter wing moved further into Europe, he was posted to HQ 84 Group Control Centre as Wing Commander Plans until July 1945 when he became Station Commander at Biggin Hill. He was awarded the OBE on 1 June 1945.
At the end of the war Deere was given command of the Polish P-51 Mustang Wing at Andrews Field, Essex, presiding over its disbandment in October, before becoming Commanding Officer at Duxford. Deere received a permanent commission in August 1945, and was promoted to Squadron Leader on 26 March 1946. In 1947 he was on the staff of AHQ Malta, subsequently joining the headquarters of 61 group before becoming Operations Officer, North-Eastern Sector, RAF Linton-on-Ouse.
Alan Deere was promoted to Wing Commander on 1 July 1951, and became Commanding Officer of RAF North Weald the following year. In 1955 he was on the directing staff of the RAF Staff College. He was promoted to Group Captain on 1 January 1958. He was Aide-de-camp to the Queen in 1962, and was appointed Assistant Commandant of the RAF College at RAF Cranwell in 1963. Promoted to Air Commodore on 1 July 1964, Deere took command of (East Anglian) Sector.
On 30 January 1965 he was given the signal honour of leading fellow Battle of Britain fighter pilots in the main funeral cortege for Winston Churchill. In 1966 he commanded No. 1 School of Technical Training at RAF Halton. He was consulted for the movie Battle of Britain.
Alan Deere retired from the Royal Air Force on 12 December 1967. He then took up the civilian position of Director of RAF Rugby, which subsequently was expanded to Director RAF Sport. During this period he was Chairman of the RAF Rugby Board and a member of the Combined Services Rugby Team selection panel. A team selected while he was on the panel played the New Zealand All Blacks at Twickenham. He eventually retired to the village of Wendover, near Halton.
He died on 21 September 1995 aged 77 years from cancer, a disease which also claimed his grandfather and four of his brothers. His ashes were scattered over the River Thames from a Spitfire of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Deere married Joan Fenton on 18 September 1945. They had two children, Jaqueline (born July 1946) and John.
Deere was the third of six sons, Pat, Brian, Leslie (known as Jimmy), Kevin and Des. Four of his brothers served in the armed forces during the Second World War.