The Airmen's Stories - P/O P Chesters
Born on the 29th April 1919, Peter Chesters was the son of William and Kate Chesters living at 12, The Broadway, Thorpe Bay, Essex. He attended Haileybury College in Hereford between 1933 and 1935, excelling in sport as a member of the College Rugby and Swimming Teams (being an excellent diver as well). He represented the College in shooting at Bisley in 1935.
His father William was in the ‘silk trade’ in the City of London and introduced Peter into the same trade. Peter spoke and read German and went to Germany pre-war in order to carry on the business.
His father also bred Labrador dogs and was helped by Peter who had a passion for animals. This love for dogs would continue during his RAF service as he would be the one to feed and look after the dogs associated with his Squadron, no. 74. His sister, Jean (Maltby), remembers an Alsatian he had who would go everywhere with him on the airfield and waited for him to return from his sorties. Peter Chesters developed an interest in flying and during the weekends would visit Rochford Aerodrome talking to the RAF pilots about flying.
One of these pilots was W/Cdr. John Freeborn DFC* (then a Sergeant with 74 Squadron) who recounted in November 1999:-
He was always pestering the other pilots to teach him to fly, eventually he joined up and gained his ‘wings’, he was a superb pilot and loved flying and we became very good friends.
Peter Chesters joined the RAFVR as an Airman/U/T Pilot (754228) in 1939, and was sent to No 5 Elementary Flying School, then No 5 SFTS and onto 7 OTU at Hawarden before being posted (at his request) to 74 Squadron on the 29th September 1940. The next day Chesters was practising his ‘circuits and landings’ in Spitfire P7366 between 1750 and 1850 hrs.
His first patrol during the Battle of Britain would take place from Coltishall between 1140 and 1300hrs in Spitfire P7306 on the 2nd October. This was the fourth and final stage of the Battle where the Luftwaffe would make night bombing raids on London and one third of its fighters converted into fighter-bombers, the 109’s with a 250kg bomb and the 110’s with up to a 700kg load.
His next flights were Sector Recce’s and Air Drills between the 3rd and 10th October, carrying out a patrol lasting 20 minutes during the late afternoon of the 10th. Between the 11th and 13th October he carried out more Landing Practice and Deflection Attacks and Air Drills, again making a patrol during the late afternoon of the 13th.
On the 15th October 74 Squadron were moved back to Biggin Hill, the most heavily bombed aerodrome in Fighter Command, Chesters landing in Spitfire P7292 at 1320 hrs after a 40 minute flight from Coltishall. His next patrol was between 1400 and 1505 hrs on Monday, 21st October, when 74 were sent up to intercept lone raiders sent to London and the South Coast. From now on the Squadron ‘scrambled’ on interception flights almost daily.
He was on patrol again between 0830 and 1000hrs on Friday 25th October as the weather had improved leading to an increase in the number of fighter clashes over London and the South East Coast. The next day Chesters made two sorties, one at 0900hrs in Spitfire P7367 lasting 40 minutes, the other during the afternoon in the same aircraft.
Sunday the 27th October would be a memorable day for Peter Chesters, for he would be engaged in a dogfight with a Me109 in the South East skies where he would became the victor, forcing his defeated opponent to land, where they would stand facing each other on the ground
Chesters was one of 12 Spitfires from ‘A’ Flight ordered off from Biggin Hill at 0750hrs with instructions to rendezvous with 66 Squadron and patrol the Maidstone area at 30000ft. Whilst flying over Ashford 30 Me109’s were spotted and intercepted, S/Ldr. ‘Sailor’ Malan leading the attack out of the sun.
Chesters was flying as Yellow 4 in Spitfire P7494, and quickly singled out a Me109, his Combat Report stating:-
The enemy aircraft which I attacked was diving down to the clouds and I followed him. He saw me and tried to get on my tail, I managed to turn inside him and put a burst into his engine causing it to stop. I jockeyed him earthwards, and he landed on Penshurst Aerodrome with his wheels in the ‘up’ position. I fired two three second bursts at 150 yards. As I did not know my position and was short of petrol, I landed on the same aerodrome. This engagement took place at 3000ft.
What were not included in the report were facts related by W/Cdr. Freeborn some 59 years later:-
After shooting down the Me109 at Penshurst, Peter landed beside the aircraft and dragged the German pilot from his cockpit, who promptly spat in Peter’s face! A fistfight started with Peter and the Luftwaffe pilot swearing at each other in German. It was only broken up by the arrival of a police officer, soldier and someone from the ARP. Peter managed to pull off the Iron Cross from the pilot’s jacket as a souvenir but was made to return it by the policeman. Peter demanded a trophy and took the first aid kit from the cockpit of the 109 which he kept in his Spitfire from then onwards.
This whole incident must be unique in the annals of the RAF.
The Me109E (3525) was from 3/JG52 flown by Feldwebel Lothar Schieverhofer (pictured below) as Yellow 4, who was reported as missing at first, later being confirmed as a POW.
Peter Chesters was back up for another patrol the same day between 1710 and 1815, landing at Kenley Aerodrome. During the afternoon of Monday 28th October, eight Gruppen of 109’s were sent over Kent and Thames Estuary, 74 Squadron including Chesters being sent up on patrol between 1400 and 1600hrs. On Tuesday 29th October, Chesters was on patrol in Spitfire P7353 at 0720hrs, with six other Spitfires led by Flt Lt Mungo-Park looking for reconnaissance aircraft over the coast.
After breakfast he was up again with his friend John Freeborn at 1030 hrs, on patrol and then engaging with 109’s that were protecting the Staffel of fighter-bombers on their way to London. During the same afternoon 74 Squadron were engaged in a massive dog-fight over East Grinstead led by Flt Lt Mungo-Park where several claims were made.
Wednesday 30th October was to be the last day that 74 (Tiger) Squadron were engaged in patrols during the official dates of the Battle of Britain, Chesters taking part in three of them in Spitfire P7306.
The fighting continued at the same tempo for the ‘Tigers’ during November, despite the changing tactics of the Luftwaffe.
P/O Chesters took part in two Interception Patrols against 109’s from the elite JG26 during the morning of the 1st over the Maidstone and Dover areas. During this engagement Flt Lt Nelson DFC was shot down and killed possibly by Major Adolf Galland.
On the second day of November, Chesters was on patrol during mid-afternoon for 15 minutes only, the majority of the squadron resting after another large scale dog-fight over Ashford engaging 60 plus Me109’s with the help of 92 Squadron.
From the 3rd to the 13th November the only entries in the Squadron ORB’s are ‘Nothing to Record’. P/O Chesters is shown on patrol on the 5th and 6th, his next patrols being on the 15th between 0915 and 1040hrs and 1230 to 1355hrs.
The Luftwaffe continued their fighter-bomber attacks and on this day they launched attacks on the Woolwich Arsenal and Silvertown area as well as attacks on Southampton and the Isle of Wight.
74 Squadron were scrambled from Biggin Hill as 109’s from the ‘Richthofen’ Geschwader were spotted over the South Coast at Bognor Regis and Littlehampton.
During these engagements five Me109’s were claimed by the ‘Tigers’.
The next day no flying took place for the squadron, mainly due to the weather, giving the pilots and ground crew a welcome rest.
The weather improved on the 17th which allowed the Luftwaffe to attack targets around the Thames Estuary. 74 were scrambled at 0900 to meet these attacks, Chesters taking part flying Spitfire P7367.
During the afternoon, several squadrons including the ‘Tigers’ were scrambled, again to intercept German fighter sweeps involving Me109’s from I/JG27, along the Sussex Coast.
Flt Lt Freeborn and F/O HM Stephen gave a display of shooting down a Me109 between them over Brighton Pier, much to the amusement of the public on the promenade.
Peter Chesters next flew patrols on the 23rd November, the day that the Italian Air Force decided to make another foray over the UK since their unfortunate experience of the 11th November. The Italians were spotted over Dover at 1140 hrs, travelling west, and 603 Squadron were ordered up to ‘stop them in their tracks’, Chesters and his section by this time had already landed at 1105hrs. More squadrons were then alerted to the presence of free-hunting packs of Me109’s spotted over the Channel and Kent Coast.
74 Squadron were again scrambled from Biggin Hill, twelve Spitfires led by S/Ldr. Malan taking off at 1225hrs along with others from 92 Squadron.
They were ordered to patrol at 25000ft sweeping the Maidstone and Dover areas. S/Ldr. Malan eventually saw two 109’s at 27000ft, midway between Dover and Cap Gris-Nez which he engaged, destroying one of them, Chesters acting as his ‘wingman’.
P/O Chesters next patrols were at 1305 hrs on the 26th November lasting an hour and a half and another one at 1605hrs lasting one hour, both flying Spitfire P7306. Fog was hampering many operations on this day which was spent looking for raiders in the Thames Estuary.
This was the first day with a new Air Chief Marshal at the helm of Fighter Command, Sholto-Douglas replacing Dowding after he refused to accept the ‘Big Wing’ theory proposed by Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Douglas Bader during the Battle of Britain.
The bad weather of the two previous days cleared, giving the Luftwaffe the opportunity to send over several large fighter sweeps on the 27th.
During the early afternoon, JG51 flew sweeps across the Dover Straits and several squadrons were scrambled at 1530 hrs to deal with them.
S/Ldr. Malan led 74 Squadron over the Isle of Sheppey at 25000 ft to investigate anti-aircraft bursts and spotted two Me109’s heading southwards. The squadron turned and gave chase, Malan immediately engaging them at 50yds, resulting in one disintegrating and falling into the sea, the other smoking badly.
During this dog-fight over Chatham, Peter Chesters Spitfire P7306 was hit, badly damaging his controls and he suffered wounds and burns to his leg.
Despite this P/O Chesters remained with the crippled aircraft until he was clear of the built-up areas, finally taking to his parachute over open countryside below, the aircraft crashing on the mud at Blacketts Marshes, Essex.
Chesters landed in the mud at Conyer Creek and began to sink with the weight of his clothing and Mae West. The whole incident was witnessed by a local man, Bob Hodges, who worked at Eastwoods Brickworks nearby and who ran to assist him.
Fifty six years later Bob Hodges recalled the incident for his local paper The East Kent Gazette and Times:-
In the early afternoon there had been an air raid. We were lying under the sea wall taking cover when we saw this Spitfire shot down, the pilot baling out. His plane went down over Blacketts Marshes and he fell into the mud flats about 100yds away. I rushed over to the edge of the creek and began walking over the mud. I had learned the technique of squishing my feet in circles to avoid being sucked down. I reached the pilot who was sinking fast and badly injured in one leg, but still conscious, I put my arm around his neck and pulled. I couldn’t pull him up at first because of his boots, but after they came off we struggled together and I took him to my house in Conyer. We gave him a bath, got some dry clothes, and called the Orpington Military Hospital who came to get him.
Whilst Chesters was in hospital a letter from the people in the village of Conyer was sent to the commanding officer of Biggin Hill, Gp/Capt. ‘Dickie’ Grice:-
I and the people of Conyer would very much like to thank the unknown pilot of a fighter plane for staying at his controls and steering the damaged plane away from the village and a factory before baling out.
On the 10th December 1940 Peter Chesters wrote from Ward 5 at Orpington Military Hospital to Bob Hodges;-
Please forgive me for not writing sooner but I had to have an operation directly I got back and things were not so good for a few days. It’s not possible for me to express my gratitude fully, whether in words or in ink, but please believe when I tell you that all my life I shall remember you and owe you a very great debt. If any of the other pilots could have seen the welcome which you and the people of Conyer gave me, I’m sure they would agree with me when I say that alone is worth dying for. I will write again directly I am able to walk, meanwhile thank you again.
True to his word, P/O Chesters again wrote to Bob Hodges and accompanying this letter was a watch with an inscription on the reverse;-
With grateful appreciation
from Pilot Officer Chesters
Bob Hodges wrote back:-
I hardly know how to reply to your very nice letter. It’s not myself who wants thanking for so small a deed but you and your fellow pals who show such splendid courage above our heads from dawn till dusk. Please believe me when I say you and your pals will always have a pair
of willing hands down here if any of you have to bale out whether in mud water or fire. Best of luck.
It did not take Chesters too long to recover and get up to his usual pranks. W/Cdr. Freeborn again recalls:-
In November 1940 Peter was shot down, being wounded in his leg and losing his trousers which had caught fire. He landed safely by parachute landing near the Medway. F/O Wally Franklin and myself visited him in hospital and took him out for a trip to London in Franklin’s car. Whilst driving along the Old Kent Road we saw a mounted policeman who had stopped at red lights. We drew up beside him and Peter lent out of the window and hit the horse on its rear, making it bolt!
The events of P/O Chesters baling out and subsequent rescue over Essex were published rather more dramatically (although anonymously) in the Sunday Express of the 24th January 1941 under the heading:-
700 MPH DIVE TO SAVE HOMES
The Operational Record Books for 74 Squadron during January 1941 show little or no activity, P/O Chesters did not return to flying until the 17th January 1941 when he took part with his friend, John Freeborn, in Air Firing and Formations.
His next operation was between 1315 and 1435 hrs on the 2nd February when he took part along with 12 other Spitfires in a ‘Circus’ over the Boulogne area, S/Ldr. Malan and Sgt Payne each claiming a Me109 as destroyed.
There was no flying on the 3rd and 4th but Chesters was one of six aircraft of ‘A’ flight to take off at 1320hrs on the 5th February for a patrol at 10000ft over the Dover area. Whilst flying Spitfire P7591 as Yellow 2 he engaged with other members of the squadron a Do215* which was eventually destroyed, Chesters being given a ‘shared kill’.
His combat report recorded:-
I was flying No 2 in Yellow Section when we sighted a Do215 at 1500ft and south of Dover. Red 1 made three attacks. When Red 1 had finished, Yellow 1 and myself attacked. Both of us delivered beam attacks, yellow 1 from the port side and myself from the starboard. About three-quarters of the way through this attack the e/a ceased to return our fire. I then delivered another attack from astern whilst Yellow 1 did a beam attack from the starboard. The port engine of the e/a blew up as I fired at point blank range. I delivered my third attack from the port beam and finished the attack from astern, my ammunition ran out when I was about 70 ft from the sea and the e/a crashed in. When the e/a was about 200 ft from the water one of the crew climbed out onto the port wing stub whilst I was firing, he dropped off before e/a crashed. I fired 2 four second bursts and one eight second burst, but my No 1 port gun jammed after 175 rounds had been fired. (1975 in total rounds fired).
* A Do 17Z-2 U5+BS (Werk No 3386) of III/KG2 was lost on this day - Fw Walter Gottschlich and crew recorded as missing.
During the same afternoon he was back on patrol at 10000ft over Manston but no enemy aircraft were sighted. Peter Chesters next sortie was on the 10th February when he was one of 12 Spitfires to take off at midday for another ‘Circus’ operation, and during the afternoon a patrol over Manston, although the ORB’s show ‘Nothing to Record’.
On the 11th February he was one of 12 aircraft from 74 Squadron to take off from Biggin Hill at 1325hrs for a patrol at 20000ft over Maidstone and Canterbury, flying Spitfire P7591, but again no enemy aircraft were seen.
He was back up on patrol in the same aircraft at 1615hrs with 10 other Spitfires in company with 66 Squadron for another ‘Circus’ over Boulogne to Cap Gris Nez. Two Me109’s were spotted, but owing to their height no engagements took place.
On the 14th February Chesters made two patrols over Manston at 25000ft in Spitfire P7591, again with no activity. His next two patrols took place again flying Spitfire P 7591, on the 20th and 21st in between the squadron moving to Manston.
The 24th February shows Chesters as being on patrol between 0955 and
1045, on this day Sgt Morrison failed to return and Sgt Rogowski crash-landed at Eastbourne.
On the 1st March, P/O Chesters was on patrol at 1035 hrs along with five other Spitfires, during which 3 Me109’s were destroyed, two by F/O Spurdle and Sgt Glendinning claiming the other.
Throughout March he made another 42 patrols, many times being engaged in combat but making no specific claims.
The records for April 1st show that Chesters was on patrol between 1025 and 1140hrs flying over base below the cloud level, with no engagements. He was up again the next day at 1650hrs, flying a two man patrol over Manston at 5000ft, with Sgt Mallett, having already completed a weather test on his own at 0900hrs. Chesters was up early the next day, the 3rd, engaged on Convoy Patrol at 0730hrs and was then detailed for Aerodrome Protection just before midday.
The 4th April shows him on another two man patrol, this time with Sgt Hilken, and lasting for one hour in the early evening. P/O Chesters was again on patrol at 1620hrs, on the 9th, with three Sergeants, Mould, York and Hilken, flying Spitfire P8047 over Manston at 5000ft for an hour.
Thursday April 10th 1941 would see the sun rise at 0615 but, sadly for Peter Chesters, he would not live to see it set.
During the day there were a number of fighter sweeps over Kent, Chesters first patrol of the day taking place over Manston between 0935 and 1005hrs. He made a two man Convoy Patrol with Sgt York at 1125hrs lasting for just under two hours, landing in time for lunch.
At 1645hrs 12 Spitfires were ordered to patrol the Folkestone area of Kent, Chesters flying Spitfire P7854. A number of Me109’s were seen in the area escorting bombers on their way to bomb Canterbury and 74 Squadron dived on them. P/O Chesters engaged a Me 109E (5670) from the 2nd Staffel of Jagdgeswader 51, (‘Black 8’) piloted by Feldwebel Friedrich Maoller. Chesters shot it down and it crashed at Frost Farm, St Nicholas at Wade, Kent, killing the pilot.
Peter Chesters was so jubilant with this success that he attempted the forbidden ‘victory roll’ over Manston Aerodrome but misjudging his height he crashed onto the parade ground, killing himself instantly.
W/Cdr. Freeborn recalls:-
Only his family attended the funeral, no-one from the squadron could bear to go as Peter was so well liked and it was very upsetting how he died.
It would seem that these thoughts were not echoed by all members of the squadron. Bob Spurdle DFC and bar, also a Pilot Officer with 74 at the time, makes several references to Chesters in his autobiography ‘The Blue Arena’, describing his demise thus:-
There were one or two in my flight who delighted in ragging others who, because of their nature or physical size, couldn’t retaliate. It got beyond a joke; our flight was not a happy one.
One day one of our chief tormentors shot down a Jerry from over 30,000ft, and, misjudging his height, did a ‘Victory’ roll right into the parade ground. I paddled in the firefighter’s foam and the unburnt oil; kicked debris around and rejoiced. Ashamed of myself, nevertheless I faced facts. We were becoming stark realists – sentiment and sorrow were for friends only and I had hated the oaf.
Peter Chesters is buried in Plot R Grave 12135 at the Sutton Road Cemetery, Southend-on-Sea, Essex.
The headstone is quite eroded and is likely to be replaced in time by the CWGC.
P/O Peter Chesters name is inscribed under 74 Squadron on the oaken reredos to each side of the altar at St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance at Biggin Hill, Kent.
©Simon Muggleton December 2004.