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The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. J R Kilner


Joseph Richard Kilner was born in Beckenham, Kent on 11th October 1916, a member of the family that invented the Kilner Jar, still used extensively for food storage.

(Kilner went on to spend almost two and a half years instructing in Canada (see below). He was accompanied by his wife and two children, highly unusual in wartime, this has led to a bureaucratic error recording him as a Canadian resident and citizen. Very regrettably this was not discovered in time to prevent his name appearing on the monument under Canada. He was of course British.)


He was educated at Christs College, Finchley and then Torquay Grammar School. His first job in 1933 was with a chartered accountant and he went on to spend a year as a car mechanic and another as a salesman for mechanical calculators.


In August 1936 he was one of the earliest entrants in a scheme to provide pilots for the coming expansion of the RAF by creating a Reserve whereby prospective pilots would obtain leave of absence from their civilian employment for an eight week basic flying course at a civilian flying school and then supplement this with continuation training at weekends.



Above and below: Kilner at Hatfield (above - front row second from left)




He attended the de Havilland School of Flying at Hatfield from 24th August 1936 until 11th December 1937. The reserve scheme was subsumed into the RAFVR just as Kilner left Hatfield and took up training at 5 ERFTS Hanworth, moving again to 19 ERFTS Gatwick on 30th November 1938 and then 22 ERFTS Cambridge on 22nd February 1939.

Kilner was called to full-time service on 1st May 1939 and went immediately to 65 Squadron at Hornchurch.


Above: 65 Squadron at Hornchurch

L to R:

F/Sgt. RR MacPherson, F/O JBH Nicolas, F/O SB Grant, F/Lt. CGC Olive, Capt. Balfour (Air Ministry), S/Ldr. HC Sawyer, F/Lt. GAW Saunders, F/O T Smart, Sgt. JR Kilner


Off Calais on 26th May 1940 Kilner shared a probable Ju88 and on the 28th he shared a Do17 near Dunkirk.

On 5th July he shared a He111, on 5th, 12th and 13th August he probably destroyed Me109's, on the 16th destroyed two Me109's and damaged another and on the 20th he destroyed a Me109, probably another and damaged a Do17.

His service with 65 saw him operating from Hornchurch, Northolt, Turnhouse and Tangmere and ended on 8th December 1940 with a posting to CFS Cranwell for an instructors course.



On completion of the course he started instructing at 14 SFTS Cranfield on 10th January 1941. His time there ended in early August 1941, Kilner having being commissioned in the previous April.

On 18th August he embarked on the 'Olaf Fostenes', unusually for wartime accompanied by his wife, daughter and son, which sailed for Montreal, Canada, arriving on the 28th.

On the 31st he arrived at 34 SFTS, Medicine Hat, Alberta and instructed there until 30th October 1943 when he took up another post at 36 OTU Greenwood, Nova Scotia.



Above: at Medicine Hat


Below: Kilner's father, Richard Rosslyn Kilner, served as a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy in WW1 and was recalled to service in WW2, they were able to meet up in San Francisco while both in uniform.



In preparation for his return to the UK Kilner passed through 1(Y) Depot, Lachine, Quebec on 8th January 1944 and on to 31 PDU Moncton, New Brunswick four days later before embarking on the 'Pasteur' at Halifax, Nova Scotia on the 19th.

After arriving at Liverpool on the 31st January he was posted to 1 Personnel Despatch Centre, West Kirby before going to 13 OTU Bicester on the 15th February to convert to the Mosquito. He then returned to operations with 21 Squadron at Hunsdon on 28th March 1944.

The squadron moved to Gravesend on the 17th April 1944 and again to Thorney Island on 18th June 1944, his posting ended on 31st July that year with Kilner taking up a staff position at HQ AEF in France.

He was awarded the DFC (gazetted 5th September 1944), credited with seven enemy aircraft destroyed and four shared.

On 20th September he returned to the UK, serving at SHAEF Stanmore until 1st January 1945 when he took up his last appointment at the Air Ministry, Adastral House, London.

Kilner was released from the RAF on 31st July 1946 as a Squadron Leader.

He immediately entered the civil aircraft industry on the government side with evaluation and inspection roles, joining the Civil Aviation Authority in 1972 when it took over these functions.

He had meanwhile obtained ATP licences for jet, turboprop and piston aircraft, later adding commercial ratings for helicopters. From 1968 to 1976 he was Chief Inspector of Flight Operations, overseeing the certification of UK airlines. He retired in May 1977.

Kilner died on 11th May 1986.


Additional research and all photographs courtesy of Vivien Haley (daughter).




The following was prepared by Kilner in 1981 at the request of Southend-on-Sea branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society in connection with their Silver Jubilee:

Rochford aerodrome was used extensively during the Battle of Britain as an advance base for Fighter Command aircraft from Hornchurch and North Weald. It was nearer to the customary battle area around Deal, yet sufficiently distant for Spitfires and Hurricanes to climb to operational height before reaching the coast. I was at Rochford for four weeks in 1940 with 65 (East India) Squadron.
Rochford was not completely unknown to me as I had landed there in 1936 in a Tiger Moth and on several occasions in 1938 in a Hawker Hart. I remember it as a delightful grass aerodrome sporting a flying club, a hangar and not much else. Very different from the airport of today or, indeed, the years between 1954 and 1963 when I instructed at the Southend Municipal Flying School and flew with Channel Air Bridge, Air Charter and Tradair.

To return to 1940. We relieved 54 Squadron on 25th July and were in turn relieved by 41 Squadron on 26th August. Pilots and ground crew slept in tents on the south side of the aerodrome within easy reach of dispersed aircraft, as did the Hurricane crews of 56 Squadron located on the north side. The flying club, which to the best of my memory was somewhere near the present car ferry unit, served as the officers mess.

Most of our combat flying was in daylight and generally ended with a landing at Manston, but now and again a single aircraft was sent up at night to patrol the Thames Estuary.

I well remember the first time I had to scramble at night. And a right scramble it was. I was well into my take off run with wheels still firmly on the ground when I realised I was in coarse pitch. My fear of ridicule was so great that even then l only eased the constant speed lever gently into fine, and none too soon. As I became airborne dark shapes flashed past both wing tips. To my regret, I never did thank the flare path detail for lining up the glim lights so expertly with that gap in the trees. A few nights later one of my colleagues was not so lucky. Shortly after take off he stalled and crashed near the Anne Boleyn pub. Little was left in the burnt out wreckage.

By August the Battle of Britain was well established and hardly a day went by without meeting the enemy but not all excitement was in the air. One morning after attacking a a formation of 30 Me109s we landed at Manston and had just finished refuelling when a squadron of Dorniers flying low raided the aerodrome.

By dodging craters most of 65 Squadron managed to get airborne and join the ensuing melee, but I was caught on the ground. I delayed starting up because my oxygen bottle had not been renewed and I left it too late. All I could do was dash frantically for the nearest bomb shelter. On emerging after the raid I found that the shelter bad been straddled by bombs but, much to my surprise, my aeroplane was still fit to fly.

A particular incident in which I was involved is worth recounting as it highlights the danger of overconfidence. I had enjoyed reasonable success as a fighter pilot and when I saw a solitary Me109 below me at 20,000ft. I attacked without further thought, and that was my mistake. The German pilot saw me and took evasive action and in trying to get on his tail I pulled too much G and blacked out. I regained consciousness in cloud to find I was spinning. My mental and physical coordination unfortunately took longer to return to normal because I got out of the spin only to flick straight into one in the opposite direction. I was still spinning when I came out of cloud, but by then I was down to 5000ft. I had been warned during my conversion training about the difficulty of getting a Spitfire out of a stable spin and I decided to bale out, but to no avail. The canopy had jammed and the crash axe, which should have been clipped to the starboard side of the cockpit, was lying on the floor out of reach.

With escape not possible I set about recovering from the spin with what I can best describe as a mixture of vigour and desperation. I regained level flight, but not until I was below 1000ft., and then the reaction set in and I began to sweat.

I flew back to Rochford and was taxying to dispersal when I saw one of the crew point to a Dornier 17 approaching the aerodrome from the west. My personal discomfort forgotten I took off from where I was and positioned for a beam attack. I had to use up the remainder of my ammunition before the Dornier capitulated and landed on the aerodrome. Rumour has it that some of my rounds went through the roof of Rochford police station during the attack. On landing I was congratulated for bringing the bomber down, but when the flight commander returned he claimed it and later another pilot did likewise. As the German pilot had been taken to the officers mess it seemed sensible to ask him to settle the difference. The result was rather an anticlimax because he told us he had been badly damaged over Croydon by a Hurricane and was trying to get back to Holland.

All I had done was to make him change his mind. Although not being credited with the Dornier was a disappointment, the opportunity to engage in combat was the kind of therapy I needed to recover from my earlier shock.

Throughout our stay at Rochford the intensity of the German raids steadily increased and towards the end intercepting formations of a hundred or more bombers and escort fighters became almost a daily occurence. By 26th August it was with the feeling of a rest well earned that we bade farewell to south-east England and headed north to the quieter confines of Scotland.


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