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The Airmen's Stories - F/O J Tillett


James Tillett was born in 1918 and is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as 'the adopted son of Maud Reynolds of Courteenhall, Northamptonshire ' but see below. He entered RAF Cranwell College as a Cadet in September 1937.

The College's list of graduates records that he was of St Lawrence's College, Ramsgate, and was a Flight Cadet Sergeant, his sports being athletics, cross country and hockey. He graduated from RAF Cranwell and was promoted to Pilot Officer with effect from 29th July 1939.


Above image courtesy of Alexe von Brockdorff via 'A Bit About Britain'.


He joined 52 Squadron at Upwood on 4th August 1939, flying Fairey Battles. He was serving with 2 Coastal Patrol Flight from December 1939 to April 1940.

By August 1940 Tillett was serving with 12 Squadron at Eastchurch, again flying Battles. His first operational sortie was attacking shipping in Boulogne harbour at nightfall on 18th August. Tillett returned to base with a faulty aircraft.

His next sortie was on the night of 19th/20th August, again attacking shipping at Boulogne. Again his aircraft gave trouble and he returned with a faulty magneto and a leaking fuel tank.



Tillett’s third and last operation with 12 Squadron was an attack on ‘E’ Boats in Boulogne harbour at first light. It was a successful sortie.

He must have volunteered for Fighter Command as on the 7th September he was posted to 238 Squadron at St. Eval. He was shot down and killed, possibly by Major Helmut Wick, on 6th November 1940. His Hurricane V6814 glided down and made a wheels-up landing at White Dell Farm, North Wallington, Fareham in Hampshire.

Two boys witnessed the crash and later recorded what they saw:

'We saw him swoop down, he slid to a halt, dust and mud flew everywhere. When he did not emerge from the cockpit, we ran over to the aircraft. He was slumped forward over the controls, we banged on the cockpit canopy, but he did not answer or move. We tried to get the pilot out of the cockpit, but the canopy would not move, hard as we tried, it would not open. Whilst we did this we noticed that the smoking engine had caught alight. The only thing we could do was grab handfuls of dirt and throw that onto the engine cowling, in an attempt to smother the fire (we had seen this being done to put out incendiary bomb fires). In seconds, the fire had spread, engulfing the cockpit area. We knew we could do no more for our brave fighter pilot. The heat of the fire got so hot, we had to get back. We then thought about the ammunition, which might go up. It was awful ! We just had to stand there, whilst the flames consumed everything. It was the saddest day of our young lives '.

The 238 Squadron ORB recorded:

Of small and delicate stature, and a retiring nature, P/O Tillett was a good steady pilot of firm character, who gave all the promise of a useful and successful career. He is the first Cranwell officer lost from this squadron. Such losses are deplorable.

Tillett is buried in Ann’s Hill Cemetery, Gosport.










Above image courtesy of 'A Bit About Britain'.


The crash site is marked by a nearby memorial (above).




In 2019 a dialogue concerning P/O Tillett opened at which is reproduced with thanks below:

My name is Alexe von Brockdorff and my mother, Margaret, often spoke of James Tillett because she had known him when she was young. ‘Jimmy’, as she so fondly called him was a very special person to her. Jimmy was, I think, born in 1918, while my mother was born in 1924. Mum was born in Wetherby, Yorkshire, an only child, and was first brought up there; later, the family moved to Scotland, to Bridge of Allan.

There was a lady, who, I now know from your article, was called Maud, who worked for my maternal grandparents; she used to help them in the house. Mummy most probably told me her name, but, to be honest, I had forgotten. When Mummy was young, she was told that Jimmy was Maud’s adopted son and so she grew up always considering him to be that. Jimmy and Mummy spent all their time together until he eventually went off to join the RAF.

A few years ago, a few months before Mummy died aged 90, we decided to go on holiday together, to Scotland, a trip down Memory Lane, if you like. The trip just opened a flood of memories regarding her young life in Yorkshire, and that in Scotland. She told me that Jimmy, very naughtily, because he would have been in such trouble with his Squadron Leader, etc., used to secretly fly over the green hills in front of her house, where she would be waiting for him, and he would silently dip his wings to her and fly off to do his exercises, or whatever he had to do.

As soon as Mummy could, she joined and served in the WAAF, also to pay tribute to him. On our Scottish holiday, I asked Mummy if there had ever been anything stronger than just a friendship between them, because, as a family, we had always thought that maybe there had been. However, Mummy said absolutely not, she had just loved him as a brother. I feel enough time has passed to be able to say now that she was only told later that Jimmy was not Maud’s adopted son, but he had been her son, born out of wedlock, which at a time like that would have meant total ostracism for Maud. My grandparents knew the real story and accepted Maud into the family without any worries.

You ask if he is still thought about…. oh, yes, very much so…… After my holiday with Mum I started looking for Jimmy’s grave, because I wanted to take Mummy there on our next holiday together, and, thanks to the wonderful War Graves Commission, I managed to find him. Sadly Mummy passed away very soon after I had discovered the grave, but, about a year later, a friend of mine, my daughter and I drove down to his resting place and, on behalf of Mummy, we left a single rose for him. I wish she could have been there, it would have meant so much to her, but, alas, it was not to be. My mother always kept a picture of her beloved ‘Jimmy’ on the mantelpiece and my father completely accepted this, and never questioned her love for him. She was buried with both a picture of Jimmy and my father; it was what she would have wanted.

So you see, he will never be forgotten, at least as long as my generation shall live…… and my daughter’s….. he meant too much to her…… and he gave his life so that I, today, can write this to you…..


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