We All Need Heroes…
I am a great believer in heroes. I think they are vitally important to us as human beings.
They enthrall us, amaze us, inspire us; giving us something to aim for – to try to make us a better person.
I have a couple of heroes. One is very famous – the explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. His story is amazing and his leadership ability to see his crew safely home after a series of misfortunes – not least his ship (The Endurance) being crushed by the Pack Ice.
But as I say, his story is famous.
My other hero, however, is much less well know. His name is George “Grumpy” Unwin. He was a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain…but went on to finish his career as a Wing Commander, before living a full and active life and dying at the age of 93 in 2006.
His story is fantastic. And not at all well know.
He was the son of a miner born in 1913, near to Barnsley, who joined the RAF in 1929 as an Administrative Apprentice. A Sergeant in 1935, he was selected for pilot training and by 1938 he was a member of 19 Sqn which was the first operational Spitfire squadron and George was one of the first to fly the aircraft. Indeed as part of the trials for the new aircraft, after an engine failure he deliberately crash landed his aircraft to avoid a childrens playground.
He was a Flight Sergeant in 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain still with 19 Sqn, when this picture was taken. It is my favourite picture of all time. Showing George and his squadron commander, Sqn Ldr Sandy Lane. Sandy himself was just 23, and the strain of the Battle can clearly be shown in the picture. In this picture, they’d just returned from a sortie and by the end of 1940, George had gained 13 confirmed kills, 2 shared kills, 2 unconfirmed kills and 2 probables.
But it is not actually this that makes him my hero. It’s more. It’s the fact that he was a human being. And it’s al down to his character – and the character that gained him his nickname.
As you may know Douglas Bader was also posted to 19 Sqn, and George was his wingman for a while. Famously Bader had “tin legs” and one evening he stopped up late into the night filing his legs to make them fit better. Unfortunately George was in the next room and was kept awake by the noise of the squeak, squeak, squeak of Badar filing the tin! The next day on the squadron, George let everyone know about the noise and his lack of sleep and he quickly gained the nickname “Grumpy”. This stuck with him for the rest of his career, even after he’d managed to get a commission and become an officer.
The thing I love about George’s story is that he was just a man doing his best. And his best was good enough to gain a DSO and DFM with a Bar. He was proud of his heritage and was proud to remain an NCO (he was only persuaded by the commission once he knew he could get extra pay).
He was a no-nonsense airman who is an example to us all to do his best and to get the job done – not suffering fools in the process. He is all I would like to be – to me, he was a complete airman. The modern RAF holds the Core Values of Respect, Integrity, Service and Excellence. To me, George “Grumpy” Unwin embodies those Core Values, and is a shining example of them. He was a man doing his job, and he was very, very good at it.
His dog, “Flash”, became the squadron mascot, and you can bet – that when I can finally live in a place that allows dogs – I’ll be getting a dog, and you can guess what the name of my puppy will be.
Yes. George. But I’ll probably call him “Grumpy”…