The Airmen's Stories - P/O A L Winskill
Air Commodore (Pilot Officer during the Battle) Sir Archibald Winskill, who has died aged 88, flew Spitfires during the Battle of Britain before being shot down over northern France in the summer of 1941; with the aid of members of the French escape lines he evaded capture and returned to England after crossing the Pyrenees into Spain.
Later in his career, as a senior officer, he served as Captain of the Queen's Flight for 14 years.
During the summer of 1941, Winskill was the flight commander of No 41 Squadron, flying Spitfires as part of the Tangmere Wing. He was escorting a formation of Blenheims on August 14 to a target near Lille when two Messerschmitt 109 fighters attacked one of the bombers. He immediately went to its aid and engaged the enemy fighters, shooting one down.
The second scored hits on his Spitfire, which caught fire. He was forced to bale out, landing in a field close to his burning aircraft, and a French farmer immediately ushered him to a cornfield where he hid until nightfall. Eventually, the farmer's son took him to the farmhouse where he was fed.
Archie Winskill spent the next few days in a barn, where the farmer's son visited him with food each day. After two weeks in a "safe house", Winskill - dressed as a farmworker - was passed to various houses by bicycle before being put on a train for Paris. Due to the necessary secrecy, he was not aware that he was being passed down the "Pat" Line, one of the most successful escape lines through occupied France. Two other evaders had joined him, and they were taken first to Marseille and then to Aix le Therme, at the foot of the Pyrenees.
On the night of October 3, they were passed to an Andorran guide who took them over the mountains. After an arduous night-climb, they managed to reach Andorra before travelling to Barcelona, where the British Consul-General arranged to send them to Gibraltar via Madrid. Three months after being shot down, Winskill arrived back in England.
Fifty-seven years later, Winskill returned to France to meet Felix Caron, the boy who had helped him to escape. He described it as "a very emotional moment as we chatted away like long-lost brothers". The Frenchman still had Winskill's flying helmet, discarded by him as he hid in the cornfield.
The son of an early motor car dealer, Archibald Little Winskill was born on January 24 1917 at Penrith, Cumberland, and educated at Penrith and Carlisle Grammar Schools. He was very interested in technical matters and once commented: "I was born with a screwdriver in my mouth, not a silver spoon." Inspired to fly after a five-shilling flight with the Cobham Flying Circus, he joined the RAFVR in April 1937 and trained as a pilot. He was mobilised in September 1939, commissioned in August 1940 and trained to fly Spitfires.
Shortly after joining No 603 Squadron in October 1940, Winskill achieved his first success when he shot down a Me109 over Dungeness. In November he shared in the destruction of a Heinkel bomber, and on November 23 he shot down two Italian CR42 fighters. The following January he was appointed flight commander of No 41 Squadron and flew on offensive sweeps and bomber escort sorties over France. Shortly after his return from Gibraltar, he was awarded the DFC.
No longer allowed to fly over France, because of his knowledge of French escape routes, Winskill flew Spitfires in defence of the east Scottish ports. In November 1942 he was promoted to squadron leader and given command of No 232 Squadron, which was preparing to depart for North Africa. He was soon in action providing close support for the British 1st Army in Algeria and Tunisia.
On January 18 1943 he was shot down off the Tunisian coast and was forced to bale out into the sea. He managed to swim ashore behind enemy lines, and walked through the desert to rejoin his squadron. Winskill was one of very few men who evaded capture twice.
In April he shot down a Stuka bomber and shared in the destruction of a second. During May his squadron was primarily engaged in ground-strafing the retreating German army, and he destroyed two aircraft on the airfield at La Sebala. His final success came when he damaged a mammoth six-engine transport aircraft on the ground. His tour ended in June, when he was awarded a Bar to the DFC.
Winskill spent the rest of the war as chief instructor of the Fighting Wing at the Central Gunnery School at Catfoss, Yorkshire, before taking command of the school. He was granted a permanent commission in the RAF and served at the Air Ministry until 1947, when he went to Japan to command No 17 Squadron with the Occupation Forces.
In 1949 he was appointed air adviser to the Belgian Air Force for three years and formed their first Meteor Fighter Wing. As a group captain he commanded RAF Turnhouse before moving to Duxford.
After two years as Group Captain Operations at the Headquarters of RAF Germany, Winskill was promoted to air commodore in 1963 and served as the air attaché in Paris before being appointed the RAF's Director of Public Relations. He had been in the post for 18 months when he had to handle the press release following the crash of a Whirlwind helicopter of the Queen's Flight. Amongst those killed was the Captain of the Flight. On February 15 1968 Winskill was appointed as his replacement.
Winskill had the task of restoring both the morale of the Flight and confidence in the helicopter as a suitable form of transport for the Royal Family. The arrival of the very reliable Wessex as a replacement did restore confidence - within a year members of the Royal Family were using helicopters again. Winskill's arrival also coincided with the introduction of the Andover aircraft.
In 1972 Winskill arranged for the body of the Duke of Windsor to be flown from France to Benson in Oxfordshire, where it lay in state in the station's church.
Winskill was a man of great charm and courtesy. He was a particular favourite of the Queen Mother, who was once heard to say: "It was for men like Sir Archie that made it worthwhile putting on my lipstick." He made annual visits to her summer residence at the Castle of Mey in Caithness. In 2000 he was taken by members of her staff round the island of Stroma in a high-speed rib during rough weather. He commented that it had been "as much fun as flying a Spitfire".
He enjoyed golf, and he and his wife played tennis until recent years; he was still taking long walks and visiting the gymnasium until shortly before his death on August 9. He was also a keen bridge player.
Winskill was appointed CBE in 1960, CVO in 1973 and KCVO in 1980; he was appointed Extra Equerry to the Queen in 1968.
Archie Winskill married, in 1947, Christiane Bailleux, from the Pas de Calais. She survives him with their daughter; a son pre-deceased him.
With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph August 2005