Wednesday 11 June 2014

Flying Figaro

Last November I wrote about the gay Battle of Britain fight pilot Squadron Leader Ian Gleed. I also told you about the plastic model kit I was putting together of one of Gleed’s aircraft, the Hawker Hurricane Mk1. I’ve not been rushing to complete it and its still not finished (photo below). The internet is full of forums where others have been making this model. 

With the airplane being one of the very few commercially available model kits which is of a plane flown by a specific fighter pilot, and certainly only one of the two I know about (there’s also a model kit of Gleed’s Spitfire), I thought I’d have a look at his association with the Hawker Hurricane and how it helped him to become a war hero. 

Acting Flight Lieutenant Ian Gleed acquired the specific plane reproduced in the model kit on 17th May 1940 shortly after he arrived at 87 Squadron’s base near Lille in France. The Hawker Hurricane Mk1 was one of the most reliable and rugged fighter planes in the RAF. Gleed had his Hurricane painted in standard camouflage with the squadron’s code letter LK and the individual plane letter A. 

Wartime pilots often adopted lucky mascots. Ian Gleed’s mascot was the cartoon cat called Figaro from the Disney film “Pinocchio” which had recently been released. You can’t see it on the photo above but it was painted on the other side of the plane on the detachable cockpit door. This mascot was painted on all of the subsequent planes Gleed flew as well. The picture below (by “stickman” on shows Figaro swatting a swastika with his paw, the usual pose Gleed used for his mascot and it proved so distinctive that the Hurricane soon gained the nickname “Figaro”. 
Another distinctive paint job on “Figaro” was the propeller cone. It was painted red, and the very front of the fuselage was painted with a pair of red lips so that it looked as though “Figaro” was blowing a raspberry at Nazi enemy planes. 

Gleed’s first day of operations in his new plane was the following morning, 18th May, as leader of a dawn patrol over the French/Belgian border. They encountered 5 Nazi Messerschmitts and immediately engaged them. Gleed shot down 2 of them. That was just the start of an intense period. He shot down another 6 enemy planes over the next 2 days. 

87 Squadron was based in France until the advance of Nazi troops came too close and the pilots were ordered to evacuate back to England. In the ten days that the squadron fought the attacks on the ground and in the air some 70 Nazi planes was shot down, at least. Pilots and civilians were killed. It was safer for the British pilots to be brought home. Besides, a much bigger battle was on the way, and Britain needed as many pilots as it could muster. 

As second in command of the squadron Gleed became the force behind rebuilding the team and morale. Stationed in the south of England they encountered sporadic night raids which increased over several weeks. Many Nazi planes were shot down and several 87 Squadron pilots were lost in battle. This was the prelude to the Battle of Britain.

Taking to his “Figaro” plane many times over the next months as the Battle of Britain raged on Gleed shot down 7 Nazi planes. For his actions Gleed was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. At the end of September 1940 he was promoted to Squadron Leader with full command of 87 Squadron.

During 1941 Gleed continued to take to the air in “Figaro” to engage enemy raiders. The main duty of 87 Squadron at this time was in night flying, so “Figaro” was painted black. Gleed flew over London during one of the most intensive nights of the blitz. 

On promotion to Wing Commander in November 1941 Ian Gleed left 87 Squadron and his loyal companion of the sky “Figaro”. It had been developing mechanical problems over the previous months and had not flown in it since August. Gleed had to leave “Figaro” behind with the squadron, for from now on he’d be flying mostly in the iconic plane of Fighter Command, the Spitfire. “Figaro” was decommissioned, and after Gleed was shot down and killed in 1942 his family was given the cockpit door of “Figaro” with Figaro the cat (the very one in the photo above). This is now in the RAF Museum collection.

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