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Squadron Leader Peter Townsend: A portrait

The Battle of Britain created many distinguished flying careers and heroes of the day. Amongst this illustrious crew was Squadron Leader Peter Townsend.

Even in the very early days, Townsend had earned the reputation of being one of the most capable Squadron Leaders in the Battle of Britain. By May 1940 he had taken command of 85 Squadron, which was operating from Martlesham, on the North Sea coast.

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend with RAF colleagues

Fearless in action and yet acutely aware of the terrible losses from war, Townsend actually went to hospital to visit the German survivors of a Heinkel bomber, which he shot down in February 1940, the first German aircraft to crash on English soil in the Second World War.

Thirty years later he collaborated with crash survivor, Karl Missy, on Duel of Eagles, about the Battle of Britain.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar in 1940. On July 11 1940 Townsend was shot down over the North Sea but managed to parachute into the sea, and was fortunately rescued by a passing mine-sweeper.

85 Squadron was eventually moved to Croydon under Townsend's command. Of the 20 men he took to Croydon 14 had been shot down within 14 days, two of them twice. Townsend was also shot down over Tunbridge Wells on 31 August and was wounded in the foot but despite this he continued to lead his unit on the ground.

Battle weary and after almost 20 months of continuous flying, 85 Squadron was withdrawn from the front line and posted to Church Fenton, Yorkshire but determined to lead from the air and not from the ground, Townsend soon returned to the South to help protect London from the onslaught of German bombers.

In June 1941, Townsend finally relented and was given a staff job as Wing Commander Night Operations but unable to simply sit behind a desk for too long he was soon flying again – this time Spitfires with 611 Squadron. He passed away, aged 80, on 19 June 1995.

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