SERGEANT PILOT WILLIAM BURLEY HIGGINS
The transition from village schoolteacher to fighter pilot may seem an abstract notion. For William Burley Higgins however this notion was to become a reality in the dark days of 1930's England. Our Hero (for that is surely what he was) made the ultimate sacrifice flying a Hawker Hurricane over the enemy laden skies of Kent at the height of the Battle of Britain. This is his story...
Born at Sherwood Cottage, Belph, Derbyshire.
Soon after he was born his family moved to 5 Queens Road, Hodthorpe, Derbyshire. Grandfather Botham who was a farmer/butcher at Creswell, Derbyshire, owned number 1 Queens Road (former premises of Leams Butchers).
His formative years were spent at Hodthorpe Church of England School and - as a result of a scholarship - Brunts School, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.
Burley Higgins was regarded as a superb sportsman and excelled at football, cricket and athletics.
In the absence of municipal baths in the village youngsters had to trek sometimes long distances to bathe. The nearest stretch of open water for Burley and his pals was at Welbeck and Carburton lakes.
During his late teens he became an uncertificated teacher at Whitwell Church of England School where he continued his love of sports by managing the school football and cricket teams to some impressive local victories.
Living in a predominantly rural environment (if one ignores the several colliery sites in the area!) it was perhaps inevitable that he would possess a love of shooting and field sports. Having Grandfathers farmland to wander upon would help. He could be seen on most days riding his motorbike through the village, armed with shotgun and spaniel 'Tiger' sitting on the tank. (His naming of the dog 'Tiger' caused some confusion during my research until I discovered that the mid thirties was the heyday of Harold 'Tiger' Stevenson the doyen of dirt track (speedway) motorcycling...)
Not all of the rabbits' shot would go to the farmer. Burleys younger brothers and sister would deliver them to Hodthorpe residents for 1 shilling a time. He was a proficient marksman with the shotgun. His ability to draw a bead on a moving target would have been of tremendous help later as a fighter pilot. A former pupil who accompanied him shooting one day remembers Burley hitting one high pigeon dead in the air. As the bird fell lifeless to the ground he remarked that if he had to go then it would hopefully be a quick end - just as the pigeon. These words were an ominous portent of what was to occur just a few years on.
Amongst his busy schedule Burley also found time to maintain an allotment garden situated on the footpath from Hodthorpe to the railway station. As well as vegetables he also kept a few ducks, geese and hens there. Burleys sister Pam remembers that the Christmas after his death thieves broke into the site and stole all of his cockerels. Pc. Knapp, the village bobby did not solve this one...
The attic of his home at 5 Queens Road was Burleys bedroom where his efforts to keep fit involved the construction of a mini gymnasium.
In September 1934 he left to commence a two-year teacher-training course at Culham College, Abingdon, Oxford. This austere Church of England establishment trained teachers in the principles of academic excellence with a regime of strict daily life including fines for infractions such as being seen without a tie on your afternoon off! This photograph of a swimming group taken from the Culham era possibly reveals Student Higgins' response to this rule...
Despite this he was tasked with responsibility as bell and post monitor. The unfortunate soul smitten with this task could be heard at 7.15am each day starting the daily toil of students by walking around the dorms ringing a hand bell and shouting, "Turn out fellows!"
His college record shows that he failed the Archbishops Divinity Examination - a result that may have gone some way towards raising his credibility in the eyes of fellow students. In the summer of 1936 he left Culham College as a certificated teacher being described as a... 'Fine athletic Englishman, open air type and kind, good natured.'
He was fortunate enough to get a job at Whitwell School where he duly took charge of class 1 as a temporary certificated teacher. School statistics show that his class had 30 scholars with an average age of 13 years 5 months.
During the summer of 1937 Burley joined the growing throng of weekend flyers attracted to the RAF Volunteer Reserve. He was posted to Number 27 Elementary and Volunteer Reserve Squadron stationed at Tollerton Airport near Nottingham - about 15 minutes flying time from Whitwell. This was the start of an era when every airman flying near the village was of course Burley Higgins.
The 3rd September 1939 saw the start of World War 2 and the call to arms of all volunteer flyers. Sergeant Pilot 741927 duly answered the call.
Six months of training in the skills of airmanship commenced in December 1939 at RAF Sealand, Chester. It was no doubt with some pride that part way through the course he was streamed for fighter aircraft, the wish of every pilot.
Towards the end of the course his brother James who was a pilot on Bristol Blenheim light bombers visited him at Sealand. James had landed his aircraft and presented himself to the course leader with a request that he be allowed 10 minutes to speak to his brother. A cold-hearted leader refused his request so James made his way back to his aircraft to wait a little while. After some time it was clear that Burley could not get away from his studies so James fired up the twin engines and taxied toward the runway. Whilst waiting for permission to take off he was startled to be tapped on the shoulder by Burley who had run across the field and climbed through the Blenheims access hatch. A hurried conversation ensued with demonstrations of the various levers and controls. Sadly this brief meeting was the last that the brothers would have.
A wings ceremony in June 1940 preceded a posting to number 32(Hurricane) Squadron at Biggin Hill, Kent. With hindsight this was a time and place that every right thinking Englishman would hope to experience given the chance. Squadron Leader John Worral was one of the better fighter leaders of the period and fate had delivered him and his squadron into the heart of the battle that was about to begin - the Battle of Britain.
Under the 'sharp end' tutelage of Pilot Officer 'Polly' Flinders, Sergeant Higgins was immersed in the ways of the 32nd Pursuit - a title used in deference to the American Fighter Squadrons of the time and perhaps promoted by the squadron flight leaders Mike 'Red Baron' Crosley and Peter Brothers.
The retreat at Dunkirk had occurred a few weeks earlier with everyone expecting imminent invasion. Burley might be considered as fortunate in that for the first two weeks at least the squadron was involved in routine patrols or convoy protection duties over the English Channel. This would provide the necessary time to get used to his aircraft - just two months later novice pilots would be put to battle with only a few hours flying experience. A high price was exacted on them but these were desperate times.
A typical day for the squadron would have been a 3 or 4am start and a short flight down to the forward airfield at Hawkinge situated on the cliffs near to Dover. So close to the enemy was Hawkinge that occasionally shells from the large guns at Calais would be directed at the airfield. It was also ideally situated for sneak hit and run raids of enemy aircraft. Tactically 32 and its sister squadrons operating from Hawkinge were at a disadvantage as raids were invariably too close for fighters to effectively intercept them. This led to a standing patrol system that was very debilitating for air and ground crew alike.
This picture from late July shows pilots of 32 Squadron resting on their dispersal at Hawkinge. The photograph comes courtesy of a Fox film unit at the base to make an instructional film. Flight Lieutenant Peter Brothers can be seen at the centre clearly sporting his silk scarf – an accessory for pilots who suffered the chafing caused by Messerschmitt neck.
The 3rd July brought his first taste of blood. A Dornier bomber involved in an attack on Manston Aerodrome on the north coast of Kent was attacked and brought down by three aircraft of Burleys flight. He was awarded a half kill for this combat.
On Saturday the 20th July 1940 (just 10 days into the battle proper) Burley attained what was to be his first, and very nearly last, kill. Flying Hawker Hurricane P3679 his squadron was scrambled at 6pm to protect a convoy that was under attack by Junkers 87 – Stuka – dive-bombers. Top cover for these vulnerable aircraft was provided by over 50 Me109 and 110 fighters. The Hurricanes were no real match for the faster Me109 and more heavily armed Me110 fighters. Having said that it is perhaps indicative of the man that he attacked and shot down one of the Me110’s.
Unfortunately for Burley Higgins whilst concentrating on the attack he could not see Hauptman Horst Tietzen (Staffel Kapitan) in his 109 slide in behind his aircraft. The resulting burst of gunfire damaged Burley’s aircraft and he received an injury to his hand. He broke away and limped back to base. Tietzen was a fighter ace with over 20 aircraft to his credit. He was however destined to die a few weeks later on the 18th August in the sea off Whitstable.
Monday 12th August saw Burleys second full kill when a 109 was brought down over the South Coast.
Note: yet another Fighter aircraft. This occurred on a day when the forward base at Hawkinge was heavily attacked by formations of bombers
1.20a.m. Sunday 18th August 1940 Hodthorpe was bombed. It is almost certain that Burley was on home leave at this time and may possibly have been for the whole week returning to Biggin Hill on Monday 19th. Les Yaw, a resident of Hodthorpe at this time recalls seeing Burley near to the site of the damage on King Street. Burley explained that a possible reason for the attack was that Hodthorpe from the air could resemble a factory complex. Others were convinced that the Germans knew that Burley was home on leave and were out to get him!
Another witness, Mrs. Joyce Evers, visited 5 Queens Road to ensure that everyone was all right. She remembers seeing Burley who was very tired on this Sunday.
Mr. E. P. Gallagher, a fellow teacher at Whitwell School also saw Burley as he rode past on his motorbike. He was laughing and shouted to him "They’ve been, they've been!"
32 Squadron was also badly hit on this day with five aircraft written off in combat and 2 others damaged but repairable.
On Saturday 24th August at 4.25pm. 32 Squadron became involved in a dogfight with Me109’s over Folkstone. He latched onto the tail of an enemy and sent it crashing into the sea, his third victory over this superior machine.
Sunday 25th August 6.20pm. 32 Squadron, consisting of just 8 aircraft, took off to intercept 12 Dornier bombers escorted by 36 fighters. Two aircraft did not return. Pilot Officer Rose parachuted into the sea. The other aircraft flown by Pilot Officer Keith Gillman was never seen again.
It was during this period that Hitler had launched his second phase of the battle against the aerodromes that were stopping him from executing the final phase of his plan – the invasion of Britain. Pilots were placed under extreme pressure in that not only were they expected to meet death face to face in the air but were witnessing the killing on their home bases. Personnel shelters at both Biggin & Hawkinge aerodromes were hit causing dozens of deaths.
32 Squadron had become so decimated that on Tuesday 27th August 1940 they were retired north to Acklington in Northumbria to recuperate. The surviving pilots describe this as a very sad day as the squadron had been associated with Biggin Hill since 1936. A sister squadron replaced them – Number 79, which also flew Hurricanes.
Despite obviously being very weary and having lost nearly all his squadron colleagues either dead or seriously injured Burley volunteered to stay on with 79. It is almost certain that he would have been given leave at about this period although 79 entered the battle with a bang as 2 of its aircraft were shot down on their first day.
The usual routine of 3am. starts and movement to Hawkinge would have continued with the Squadron returning to Biggin at dusk. A photograph taken during this period shows the strain on Sergeant Pilot Higgins’ face.
Hawkinge and other bases continued to receive visits from the enemy almost daily, an incident occurred on September 6th that I feel would have appealed to Burleys humour. At about 5.30pm. this day the base came under attack from bombers supported by a Staffel of Messerschmitt fighters. A battalion of the Buffs regiment were tasked with protecting the base at this time and had become very trigger happy after several weeks of almost continual daily attacks. One of the fighters piloted by Feldwebel Werner Gottschalk received a hit in the engine that stopped it dead. The quick thinking pilot lowered his undercarriage and coaxed his aircraft over the airfield boundary before landing totally unnoticed by defenders. The Messerschmitt rolled across the grass towards a hangar almost as if it had every right to be there. As Gottschalk jumped to the ground one of the more observant gunners noticed that the markings on his aircraft were different whereupon every machine gun on the aerodrome opened up on the luckless pilot determined not to let him get away. He ran towards the hangar where he was quickly, and I should imagine gratefully, captured.
On Monday 9th September his transfer proper came through and Burley joined 253 Hurricane Squadron based at Kenley a few miles south of London near Croydon.
This Squadron was very quickly in the centre of the battle that was rising to a crescendo with more and more enemy aircraft coming over in waves to knock out Britains fighter defence.
At 3.30pm. Wednesday 11th September Burleys new Squadron was scrambled to intercept a raid that was coming over the Sussex coast. He joined combat with 109 E4 (1641) piloted by Hauptman Wiggers. He sent the aircraft spiraling to earth and the unfortunate Wiggers was killed when he crashed at Houndean Bottom, Lewes. The combat report submitted after this aerial encounter provides the interested observer with some clues as to the tenacity and fighting spirit of Burley Higgins.
"...I was Yellow 2, the squadron attacked a large
formation of enemy bombers in sections echelon.
The break-away from each individual attack (carried out over
Maidstone, the E/A proceeding towards London) was so swift, no-one was able
to ascertain the extent of his own particular burst.
However 3 or 4 of the bombers did definitely go up in flames.
After this first attack I was separated from the remainder of the
squadron, finding myself very busy in a duel with an Me. 109 which I
finally set on fire inland near Newhaven, when the E/A crashed in flames.
I then returned towards the Thames Estuary making contact with 12
Me. 110's, manoeuvering myself until it was possible to get in a 2 sec's
burst, the results being clouds of white smoke issued from the rear.
It was impossible to ascertain the real extent of the damage as I
was attacked by several Me. 109's from which I broke away to return to my
Contemporaries of his would no doubt have warned against returning to the battle area as a singleton and then attacking 12 enemy aircraft single handed.
Saturday 14th September 1940 was destined to be his last day alive. At about 4pm. flying Hurricane P5184 Sergeant Pilot Higgins set off with 253 Squadron to engage with 109’s over the Isle of Sheppey. He was seen to go down at Swanton Farm, Bredgar, by a Mr. Kirkpatrick of Sittingbourne. This gentleman motored over to the spot in an apple orchard where his aircraft lay crashed and on fire. Mr. Kirkpatrick dragged his body from the cockpit but noted that he appeared to have died in the air. We are very fortunate to have a copy of a letter sent by this man to Dorothy Fryer, Burleys girlfriend, the following day.
24th September 1940
In studying life and service of Burley it has been made clear to me on several occasions by people who knew him that he was indeed hero material. Possessing a tremendously fit body and positive view of life it is not difficult to see why he chose Fighter Command and fast aircraft in which to carry out his duty to King and Country. My story is, as yet, far from complete but these words will I hope convey to the interested observer an idea of the individual who was Burley Higgins and the great debt which is owed to him and to his kind who answered the call during this country's '...darkest hour'.
If further information is required, or you have information that may add to the story of William Burley Higgins then please contact me at: mj.hopkins/a/ntlworld.com Please replace /a/ with @ to use
Burleys formative years were spent at Hodthorpe C of E School and later at Brunts Grammar School, Mansfield. His ability at sports and athletic events was cultivated at school. His desire to retain a fit body stayed with him until his death, the attic room of his house was at one point converted to a miniature gymnasium. A period of further education was undertaken at Culham College Abingdon prior to him obtaining a teaching post at Whitwell C of E School that was then under the headship of Mr. Dan Harding.