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The Airmen's Stories - P/O T A Vigors

 

Tim Vigors, who has died aged 82, served as a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain and in the Far East before embarking on a successful and flamboyant career as a bloodstock agent. The scion of a long line of Anglo-Irish landowners, Vigors spent much of his youth in England; but he never lost his sense of Irishness, and had his country's tricolour painted on the nose of his Spitfire. Despite his evident heroism, he claimed never to have been "possessed of that uncaring patriotism which caused so many young Englishmen . . . unselfishly to lay down their lives for their country".


Timothy Ashmead Vigors was born at Hatfield, Hertforshire, on March 22 1921. His father was originally a stockbroker, but the family had been landowners in County Carlow, Ireland, for centuries, and Tim's grandfather was clearly something of a rake: when his wife caught him in bed with a maid, he attempted to excuse himself thus: "If one is going to appreciate Chateau Lafitte, my dear, one must occasionally have a glass of vin ordinaire." Tim was brought up near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Aged eight, he was hunting with the Mendip when his pony hit the top of a stone wall and turned a somersault: "Unfortunately, I had landed with my face on a jagged stone," he recalled. "Lots of blood. My mother jumped off her horse, threw me back on my pony with the words: 'On, on Tim!' "


After leaving Eton, Tim enrolled in January 1939 as a cadet at RAF Cranwell - his godmother, an air enthusiast, had taken him flying, and he had immediately caught the bug. In February 1940 he joined 222 Squadron at Duxford, flying Spitfires.


One of Vigors's engaging characteristics was his frankness about what it meant to be a raw young pilot during the Battle of Britain. He later reminisced about how, at 4 am on May 29, he had bade farewell to his lurcher, Snipe, and then accompanied 10 other pilots to receive instructions from their commander, Squadron Leader "Tubby" Mermagen, who told them that they were to head for Dunkirk.
"I walked over to my aircraft to make sure everything was in order. My mouth was dry and for the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the expression 'taste of fear'. I suddenly realised that the moment had arrived . . . Within an hour I could be battling for my life . . . Up until now it had all somehow been a game, like a Biggles book where the heroes always survived the battles and it was generally only the baddies who got the chop. I knew I had somehow to control this fear and not show it to my fellow pilots."


When he reached the coast of France, and came under fire from a Me109, his first reaction was "extreme fear which temporarily froze my ability to think. This was quickly replaced by an overwhelming desire for self-preservation". He survived the encounter, and the next day shot down a Me109, feeling the same satisfaction as on the occasion when, on the family estate at Clonmel, he had "pulled down a high-flying pigeon flashing across the evening sky with the wind up his tail". Two days later, also over Dunkirk, he shot down his first Heinkel 111. On the night of June 19 1940 Vigors returned from a night out somewhat the worse for wear for drink, and retired to bed at his base at Kirton in Lindsey, Lincolnshire. When a Tannoy message called for a volunteer to intercept German aircraft which had crossed the coast, Vigors took to the air wearing his scarlet pyjamas under a green silk dressing-gown. He shot down another Heinkel.


Flying from Hornchurch, Essex, 222 suffered heavy casualties during the summer of 1940, and Vigors was twice forced to crash land his damaged Spitfire. But his successes over the Thames Estuary mounted, and by the end of September he had destroyed at least six enemy aircraft with a further six probables. In October 1940 he was awarded the DFC.


On October 30 Vigors destroyed two Me109's over Kent, but any satisfaction was dissipated by the loss, in the same action, of his fellow pilot and close friend, Hilary Edridge. "A wave of misery swept over me," Vigors recalled. "I just couldn't get my mind to accept it . . . I started to cry."


Two months later he was posted to Singapore, joining 243 Squadron as a flight commander. A year later he took temporary command of 453 (RAAF) Squadron, and immediately became involved in one of the most distressing events of his RAF career. On the afternoon of December 8 1941, the Royal Navy's Force Z - which included the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales - sailed north from Singapore to provide support against possible Japanese landings at Singora. 453 had been designated the Fleet Defence Squadron, and Vigors had established radio procedures with Prince of Wales. Despite this, Admiral Phillips, the commander of Force Z, maintained radio silence and did not call for support. On hearing of Japanese landings at Kuantan, Phillips changed his plan and, still maintaining radio silence, altered course. In the meantime, Japanese reconnaissance aircraft had located Force Z.
When an attack against the ships appeared imminent, Phillips broke radio silence on December 10, and Vigors finally got the order to scramble his 11 Buffaloes. But it was too late: when he arrived, Repulse had gone down, Prince of Wales was sinking, and there was no sign of Japanese aircraft. All Vigors could do was to fly over the survivors in the water and provide support for the rescuing destroyers. He always felt bitter about the failure of the naval forces to call for his assistance.


After this, Vigors led his squadron to northern Malaya. On December 13 1941 he had just landed at Butterworth when Japanese aircraft arrived to attack the airfield, and he ordered his six pilots to take off immediately to intercept the bombers. He attacked a large formation, and some reports claimed that Vigors hit three bombers in the melee. Eventually, his Buffalo was hit in the petrol tank and he was forced to bale out. Although repeatedly attacked by Japanese aircraft as he swung below his parachute, Vigors managed to land in the mountains near Penang. His position was not promising - he was severely burned and a bullet had passed through his left thigh - but he was found by two Malays, who carried him down the mountain to safety. After being evacuated to India, Vigors held a series of flying training appointments before assuming command of RAF Yelahanka, responsible for converting Hurricane pilots to the Thunderbolt ground-attack fighter. He finally returned to England in 1945, taking part in the fly-past for the anniversary of the Battle of Britain on September 15. He retired from the RAF in November 1946 as a wing commander.


Vigors began civilian life by setting up a photographic agency in Ireland, but then joined the bloodstock auctioneers Goffs. In 1951 he left to start his own bloodstock agency, quickly establishing a reputation for flamboyance: when commuting between Ireland and America, he would hire a Super-Constellation from Aer Lingus, using the back half as his bedroom and the front as his office. As one of the first people to foresee a future for private aviation, Vigors also set up, in the late 1950s, a firm specialising in private and executive aircraft. Based at Kidlington, near Oxford, he had the agency for Piper aircraft. When his firm was taken over by CSE Aviation, Vigors returned to the bloodstock business.


He was a considerable player in this market. In 1964 he broke a 10-year record for Newmarket's December sales when he bought Chandelier for 37,000 guineas. Two years later, again at Newmarket, he paid a record 31,000 guineas, on behalf of an international partnership, for a yearling colt by Charlottesville. He also bought Glad Rags and Fleet, who won the 1,000 Guineas in 1966 and 1967 respectively.


Shortly before the war, Vigors's father had returned to Ireland, in 1945 buying a farm in Co Tipperary called Coolmore, where he trained racehorses. After inheriting Coolmore, Tim Vigors moved there in 1968, and it was he who began building it into the famous stud farm which it is today. Among the stallions standing there were Rheingold (the Arc de Triomphe winner whom Vigors bought in 1973 for more than £1 million), Thatch, Home Guard and King's Emperor. An old friend of Vincent O'Brien, in the mid-1970s Vigors sold two thirds of Coolmore to O'Brien and John Magnier, continuing to work in partnership with them and with Robert Sangster. Later, having sold his remaining interest to Magnier and O'Brien, Vigors went to live in Spain, although he continued to work in the bloodstock business. He returned to Newmarket 20 years ago, remaining there until his death on November 14.


In 1990 Vigors became racing adviser to Cartier, and it was he who initiated the Cartier Racing Awards, given annually to mark the performances of individual racehorses.


Tim Vigors was an outstanding ukelele-player, and knew how to enjoy himself. When he was 72 he described his ideal night out as "a Lloyd Webber musical, dinner at San Lorenzo and a bop with the lovely wife at Annabel's". When he was working on his (so far unpublished) memoirs, he confided to a friend, "It's so embarrassing - I'm only 21 and I've got to page 530."


He married his first wife, Jan, with whom he had three daughters, in the North West Frontier Province of India in 1942. They divorced in 1968, and in the same year he married Atalanta Fairey, widow of the aircraft pioneer Richard Fairey; they had a son. In 1972 he married, thirdly, Heidi Bohlen, with whom he had two daughters. In 1982, in Las Vegas, he married his fourth wife, Diana Bryan, who survives him.

 

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph November 2003

 

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