In September 1940, a haunting photograph was taken at Fowlmere airfield in Cambridgeshire of an exhausted-looking Spitfire pilot – arguably an iconic photograph from the Battle of Britain. Used to illustrate countless publications, captions were usually generic, failing to identify the young pilot concerned. Many years ago I came by a book, ‘Spitfire! The Experiences of a Fighter Pilot’ by a ‘Squadron Leader BJ Ellan’. Immediately I realised that this was the mystery squadron leader in the famous photograph. Further research identified him as Squadron Leader Brian John Edward Lane DFC, an exceptional fighter pilot, ‘ace’ and the highly respected leader of 19 Squadron. So began an incredible journey, identifying individuals and locations blocked out by the wartime censor in Brian’s book – and the sad discovery that he was reported missing in action on 13 December 1942, on a futile low-level offensive sortie over the Dutch coast. He was twenty-five years old and left behind a widow, the pre-war racing driving champion Eileen Ellison.
Over time I traced all of the surviving 19 Squadron pilots and supporting personnel from the 1939-41 period, enjoying close friendships with all. In 1990, this work became the subject of my first ever book, ‘Spitfire Squadron’, launched at the RAF Battle of Britain Hall on 13 May in that 50th anniversary year.
Nearly thirty years and over that many books later, I am currently completely re-writing and updating ‘Spitfire Squadron’ – with the benefit of twenty-eight years more experience, knowledge, and a huge archive of correspondence, interviews and photographs provided by the veterans – all of whom are sadly now deceased.
The new ‘Spitfire Squadron’ is not just another day-by-day micro history of a Spitfire squadron during the Dunkirk and Battle of Britain period, but set within the much wider social, political and military context, proliferated with previously unpublished material, including first-hand accounts and a detailed reconstruction of Brian Lane’s last, fateful, flight. The book will also update on the fates of those involved, and relevant commemorations, including the erection of a blue plaque at Brian’s Pinner home organised by local resident and enthusiast Paul Baderman in 2013.
Sadly Eileen also died prematurely, in 1971, but from her estate I have in my possession Brian’s silver cigarette case and what is believed to be Brian’s personal copy of ‘Spitfire!’ – the only known tangible links with his brave but sadly short life.
An inspirational story – of a truly great leader, incredible men, and derring-do.
To be published by Pen & Sword in 2019.