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The Airmen's Stories - S/Ldr. T P Gleave

 

Group Captain (Squadron Leader during the Battle) Tom Gleave, who has died aged 84, was a gallant fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain in which he was grievously burned.


Shot down in flames over Kent at the height of the battle in the summer of 1940, Gleave became one of the first "Guinea Pigs" - burns patients of Sir Archibald McIndoe, the RAF's celebrated wartime consultant in plastic surgery, at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. Gleave had arrived there suffering from "standard Hurricane burns" to face, hands, arms and legs. McIndoe ("the maestro" as Guinea Pigs called him) immediately set about growing him a new nose. Gleave's seniority, as a regular squadron leader and "elderly" fighter pilot of 32, assured him the office of Chief Guinea Pig for life.


For more than half a century he inspired the club's fund-raising and welfare activities, ever mindful of the needs of surviving members as they entered old age. The years of aftercare were the legacy of the spirit fostered in Ward 3, where McIndoe introduced a regime quite alien to the lie-to-attention, stand-by-your-beds attitude that had prevailed until then. Visitors to Ward 3 often retreated in horror - not because of the appalling nature of the Guinea Pigs' injuries, or the grotesque disfigurement of rhinoplasty patients growing new noses from other parts of their bodies, but at the discovery of beer barrels in the ward and regular "grogging parties" at weekends.


German cannon shells had ignited the right fuel-tank of Gleave's Hurricane as he attacked a formation of bombers over Kent; the fire engulfed him rapidly. He felt for the revolver which he wore in the cockpit as a last resort. His clothes were on fire, the skin of his hands and wrists blistering in white bubbles and the flames licking at his legs, but he rejected the option of suicide and struggled to escape, only to be thwarted by his oxygen tube, which refused to disconnect. Clawing off the helmet to which it was attached, he opened the canopy. Then an explosion ejected him more suddenly and forcefully than he would have wished. Having landed by parachute near the fighter station at Biggin Hill, Gleave was taken to Orpington Hospital. He came round from an emergency operation to find himself not in but under a bed. There was an air raid, and he could hear the noise of the bombs.
Shortly afterwards his wife arrived. Confronted by her husband bandaged like a mummy with slits for his eyes (the lids were burnt) she asked him:


What on earth have you been doing with yourself ?


I had a row with a German, replied Gleave.

His answer later became the title of his short book about his wartime experience.

Thomas Percy Gleave was born on Sept 6 1908 and educated at Westminster High School and Liverpool Collegiate School. He joined the Sefton Tanning Company in 1924 and four years later earned a pilot's "A" licence at the Liverpool and Merseyside Flying Club. Later that year he went to Canada, where he worked for a tannery. On his return home in 1930 he was commissioned into the RAF. Passed out as an "exceptional pilot" in 1933 - and subsequently as an "exceptional fighter pilot" - Gleave was soon a member of the RAF's aerobatic team. In 1933 he determined to enter the record books with a flight to Ceylon. but was obliged to crash-land his Spartan in mountainous Turkish terrain. The next year he qualified as a flying instructor. After several postings as an instructor, he joined Bomber Command on New Year's Day 1939.


When war broke out Gleave agitated for a fighter squadron until eventually his wish was granted. He commanded 253, a Hurricane squadron, from June to August 1940 when he handed over to Squadron Leader H Starr. After Starr was killed on Aug 31 Gleave resumed command. Before Gleave was himself shot down his official score was one confirmed and four probable: postwar investigation raised this to five Me109’s on August 30th and a Ju88 on August 31st.


Fighter Command's preferred policy during the Battle of Britain was for Spitfires to tackle the escorting 109’s while Hurricanes took on the bombers. For a Hurricane pilot to destroy a 109 was in itself an achievement but to bag five in one day was astonishing. The action in which Gleave shot down his 109’s would have been sufficient, had confirmation been available, to rate him at least an official DFC. Gleave was promoted Wing Commander while he was lying in bed at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Partially repaired by the maestro, he was restored to non-operational flying in August 1941: a pale patch on his forehead indicated the provenance of his new nose. Operationally fit by October, he was given brief command of the fighter station at Northolt before taking over Manston, the frontline airfield on the Kent coast. From there, on February 12th 1942, he dispatched six Swordfish biplane torpedo-bombers of 825 Squadron Fleet Air Arm on their ill-fated attempt to sink the battle-cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’ and the cruiser ‘Prinz Eugen’ as they made their "Channel Dash". All six Swordfish were shot down in the Channel. Convinced that circumstances had obliged him to send his men on a suicide mission, Gleave stood alone at the end of the runway and saluted each Swordfish as it took off.


Before leaving Manston in September 1942 Gleave pleaded for a long, wide runway of concrete or tarmac to save the crippled and short-of-fuel bombers which, having struggled across the Channel, were unable to reach their bases, Gleave's runway is still maintained for emergency military and civilian landings.


Gleave next joined the planning staff of "Operation Round Up" (later "Overlord"), the proposed invasion of Normandy, This entailed a promotion to Group Captain Air Plans, Allied Expeditionary Air Force. For his vital contribution to the invasion Gleave received the CBE and the US Legion of Merit (later changed for the Bronze Star). From Oct 1 1944 until July 15 1945 he was General Eisenhower's Head of Air Plans at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. After VE Day Gleave returned to the "Sty" for further repairs. He later served as Senior Air Staff Officer, RAF Delegation to France, from 1945 to 1947. After further staff appointments at home he underwent more plastic surgery at East Grinstead and was invalided out of the RAF in 1953.


Thereafter Gleave joined the historical section of the Cabinet Office, where he was engaged on official histories of the Second World War. He spent more than 30 years on the task, mainly as a member of the Mediterranean and Middle East team. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was air historian and deputy chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. He also served the Blond McIndoe Centre for Medical Research and the East Grinstead Trust.


Gleave was twice mentioned in despatches, received the French Legion of Honour and Croix de Guerre, and was awarded the wings of the Polish and French air forces.


He married and had a son (who died in a canoeing accident in Canada) and a daughter.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph 1993

 

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