The Airmen's Stories - F/O G N S Cleaver
Gordon Neil Spencer Cleaver was born in Stanmore, Middlesex on 27th April 1910 and joined 601 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force in 1937 and was commissioned in April. He skied for Britain in the years before the war.
He married Pauline Elizabeth Hepworth in Kensington, London in July 1939.
Called up on 24th November 1939, Cleaver went to Merville in France on 16th May 1940 with 'A' Flight of 601 to support 3 Squadron.
Postwar Cleaver juxtaposed these two accounts of a visit by Churchill to France in June 1940:
Extract from ASSIGNMENT TO CATASTROPHE - Vol.2 - THE FALL OF FRANCE by Major-General Sir Edward Spears.
Paris - Saturday 1st June 1940
On the aerodrome I saw a picture and received an impression of beauty unequalled in my life. The nine fighter planes were drawn up in a wide semicircle round the Prime Minister's Flamingo.
Very slight they seemed on their undercarriages, high and slender as mosquitos.
Churchill walked towards the machines, grinning, waving his stick, saying a word or two to each pilot as he went from one to the other, and as I watched their faces light up and smile in answer to his, I thought they looked like the angels of my childhood.
As far back as I can remember I have been enthralled by pictures of angels; Michael Angelo's (sic), Giotto's, Botticelli's attempts to depict these divine beings have given me great pleasure, though if the truth be told none of these great artists ever evoked the awe and love conjured up by the wide-winged angels of the prints in my nursery, to whom we children lent such serene and protective powers. Here they were, as they had been so long ago, beautiful and smiling. It was wonderful to see. These young men may have been naturally handsome, but that morning they were far more than that, creatures of an essence that was not of our world: their expressions of happy confidence as they got ready to ascend into their element, the sky, left me inspired, awed and earthbound.
The same morning as seen by one of the escort pilots (Cleaver).
We were on ordinary readiness at Tangmere, and got a signal to go to Warmwell and pick up an escort job, which duly appeared, and we found ourselves a while later in Paris, when we discovered that it was Churchill.
We were later told he was staying the night and we could go into town, take off next day would be 8 o'c. Archie (Hope) managed to borrow quite a lot of money from a pal in the Embassy, and we set out for 'Lust and Laughter'.
The next day there assembled at Villacoublay just about as hungover a crew of dirty, smelly, unshaven, unwashed fighter pilots as I doubt have ever been seen.
Willie (Rhodes-Moorhouse) if I remember right was being sick behind his aeroplane when the Great Man arrived, and expressed a desire to meet the escort. We must have appeared vaguely human at least, as he seemed to accept our appearance without comment, and we took off for England.
These are the facts as I saw them, and to the best of my knowledge are accurate. However General Spears is also no doubt an observant man, so perhaps after all his report is the more accurate, he almost certainly had a clearer eye that morning.
On the 18th Cleaver and F/Lt. Hope brought down a Do17 of 2/KG76 west of Mons, the crew being captured. The next day Cleaver's Hurricane, P2800, was hit by debris from a He111 that he was attacking over Douai and he force-landed south of Lille. 'A' Flight was then ordered back to the UK.
On the 27th, flying from Tangmere, he claimed two Me110s destroyed in the Dunkirk area.
Cleaver claimed a Ju87 destroyed and a probable He111 on 11th July, a Me109 destroyed on the 26th, a Me109 and a Me110, both probably destroyed on 11th August and a Me110 probably destroyed on the 13th.
Two days later he was shot down in combat over Winchester. When his hood was shattered by a cannon shell Cleaver's eyes were filled with perspex splinters. Somehow he managed to bale out and parachuted down at Lower Upham outside Southampton. He was taken to hospital in Salisbury. He would not fly again, being now blind in the right eye and with seriously reduced vision in the left eye. Cleaver was awarded the DFC (gazetted 13th September 1940).
On 27th May 1941 Cleaver transferred to the Administrative Branch and
was released from the RAF in late 1943, as a Squadron Leader.
He died in January 1995 in Hampshire.
There were two postscripts to Cleaver's life in 2006. The first was in January when the organisers of the Hahnenkamm, the toughest race in World Cup skiing, decided to present a “Cleaver Cup” to the highest placed British competitor in the race. Gordon Cleaver was the winner of the first competition in 1931, held on the mountain above Kitzbühel in Austria.
Cleaver, an Old Harrovian, was not even in the British team at the time which led the Austrians to conclude - wrongly - that if the Hahnenkamm could be won by someone who had not even made the team then the British must be brilliant skiers. The first international Hahnenkamm, organised "according to the British rules" of a downhill and a slalom combination, was a far more primitive affair than the modern race made famous by Franz Klammer and Hermann Maier. All downhills were off piste with competitors having to ski across country for several hours to reach the top of the mountain. The British contingent in the inaugural race was further handicapped because it was unfamiliar with the course and the organisers had forgotten to supply any marker flags. The British resorted to positioning their helpers along the run as human signposts.
Gordon Cleaver came sixth in the downhill and second in the slalom, making him the overall winner.
Another British competitor was Roger Bushell, during WW2 he organised and took part in “The Great Escape” and was subsequently one of 50 escapers recaptured and then shot by the Gestapo.
During and after the war Cleaver was monitored by various surgeons and underwent 18 operations, some to repair facial damage and some (at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London) to remove the perspex fragments still embedded in both eyes. He made a special impression on an opthamologist named Harold Ridley who, as the Forties drew on, speculated that the perspex was in fact dormant in the eyes and not being rejected. Could this mean that a lens made from similar material could replace a human lens affected by disease or cataracts ? Ridley eventually felt confident enough to perform the first IOL (intraocular lens) implant at St Thomas’s Hospital on 29 November 1949 on a female patient with a cataract in one eye. The operation has subsequently been performed many millions of times throughout the world. It is arguable that had Gordon Cleaver not been injured in this way and survived to be studied then the operation may have taken even longer to develop (if at all) as such a condition could not be replicated as an experiment.
Of course the whole story is far more complex and has now been documented, after many years research, by American opthamologist David J Apple MD in '“Sir Harold Ridley and his Fight for Sight' ISBN 1-55642-786-7
David contacted the London Monument website in order to research Cleaver and 601 Squadron and we were able to put him in touch with perhaps the last surviving pilot that served with 'Mouse' in 601 and knew him well - Jack Riddle. Jack says that the nickname 'Mouse', perhaps unkindly due to Cleavers facial features when young and before his injuries, was so embedded that Jack only discovered that his name was Gordon on reading the book.
David Apple was also greatly assisted by a post-war adjutant and historian of 601, Reggie Spooner, both Jack and Reggie were kindly invited to the UK launch of the book at a sumptuous dinner at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge in September. (David Apple is shown speaking below with Jack (L) and Reggie (R) at their table). Sadly Reggie Spooner died in December 2006 and Jack Riddle died in August 2009.