The Kiwi pilot who inspired Tom Hardy’s character in the movie Dunkirk and who was the first pilot to shoot down a Bf 109 from a Spitfire, once had a pile of sewerage to thank for saving his life.
Alan Deere is arguably New Zealand’s most famous and lucky fighter pilot of WWII despite several events almost clipping his wings before he got them. He joined the RAF in 1937 after convincing his Mum to override his father’s decision not to sign the RAF’s under 21 application form. Before starting his flight training, he failed his medical test due to a high blood pressure result. Re-tests were normal, and it was decided the high result was caused by his over excitement at the prospect of flying. He then joined the RAF’s boxing team and was due to fly to South Africa to compete, but his flight training took priority. This proved to be fortuitous for Deere when sadly the teams plane crashed killing most on board.
Wing Commander Alan Christopher 'Al' Deere, RAF, July 1944
Deere was awarded his wings in May 1938 and after a few months flying Gloster Gladiators he took his maiden flight in a “marvelous” Spitfire on March 6th, 1939. This led to the first of many near fatal incidences. During a familiarization flight he blacked out while climbing at 27,000 feet and regained consciousness as his plane was diving towards the sea. He made it back to base and discovered that failing to increase his oxygen as he gained altitude was the cause of his black out.
His first experience in combat was over Dunkirk covering the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and was where he became the first Spitfire pilot to shoot down a German Bf 109. In late May after shooting down six German planes in the previous four days, Deere himself was shot down by a Dornier rear gunner he was attacking. He was knocked unconscious during his emergency landing on a Belgian beach, but after coming to, safely made his way on foot to Oost-Duinkerke where his head injuries were dressed. He hitched a ride to Dunkirk on a British Army lorry, boarded a boat to Dover, took a train to London, then travelled to Hornchurch where he’d taken off 19 hours earlier. Less than a day later he was back in the air.
Between July and August during the Battle of Britain he shot down eight planes and was downed twice himself. In one incident while lining up to attack a fighter, a German plane headed straight for him in an aerial game of chicken. Neither pilot would give way and the collision severely damaged his engine, bent his prop blades backwards and partially stoved in the canopy. As his cockpit filled with smoke he crash landed in a cornfield. After a struggle to open the damaged canopy he just escaped before the Spitfire burst into flames.
After shooting down a Bf 109 near Calais he was outnumbered by five German fighters. He managed to get to the English coast but had to bail out of his bullet-ridden Spitfire.
“Bullets seemed to come from everywhere and pieces flew off my aircraft. Never did it take so long to cross the Channel. Then my Spitfire burst into flames, so I undid my straps and eased the stick back to gain height before bailing out. Turned my machine on its back and pushed the stick hard forward. I shot out a few feet but somehow became caught up. Although I twisted and turned I could not free myself. The nose of my aircraft had now dropped and was pointing at the ground which was rushing up at an alarming rate. Then suddenly I was blown along the side of the fuselage and was clear. A hurried snatch at the rip cord and, with a jolt, the parachute opened.”
His fast descent to the ground under the damaged parachute ended with a soft landing in a sewerage farm. Luck always seemed to be on Deere’s side during his flying days, helping him survive nine crash landings.
A Supermarine Mk IX Spitfire owned by the Deere family of Marton. The fighter was restored by the family and decorated in honour of Alan Deere.
Deere flew as a fighter pilot until the end of the war, finishing with a tally of 22 kills, 10 probables and 18 damaged. He was awarded 10 medals including three Distinguished Flying Crosses (two British, one American), a Distinguished Service Order and an OBE. Following the war, he stayed in Britain and held a variety of distinguished positions in the RAF, also serving as the Queens Aide-de-camp from 1961 to 1964. In January 1965 he was given the honour of leading fellow Battle of Britain fighter pilots in the main funeral cortege for Winston Churchill.
In 1995 at the age of 77 Deere passed away following a battle with cancer. Fittingly, his ashes were scattered over the River Thames from a Spitfire of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Published in 1959 and again in 1991, Deere’s autobiography “Nine Lives” chronicles his aviation adventures and makes for fascinating reading about this amazing Kiwi aviator.