Excerpts from the WWII stories of Will "Killy" Kilpatrick (193 Squadron)

as told by his nephew, Tony Knight, to Tim Darling (November, 2007) (email)

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F/O Will "Killy" Kilpatrick was a co-pilot in my grandfather's log books; he was shot down on August 7, 1944. According to Rod Davidge, he was the only pilot to survive some the major engine and tail problems of the Typhoon aircraft *. Kilpatrick was shot down and briefly captured. When he escaped, he took a group of 30 German and Austrian prisoners with him. Rod Davidge, who was also shot down twice but landed on allied land both times, believes he must have been a good talker!

* These two problems were not related: the early engine failures arose from poor quality control in manufacture and poor tolerances on the sleeve-valves. These faults were put right, partly by the take-over of Napier by English Electric and partly by the use first of Bristol Aircraft technology (their sleeve-valve radial engines were very reliable) and then by the use of American machine tools. The tail failures were a mystery at the time. Various "fixes" were tried, including the strengthening of the rear fuselage transport joint with a rivetted metal band - known in the Squadron as "Killy's mods". At one time a number of broken tail units from other crashes, all fatal, were lined up at Farnborough, the UK research establishment, awaiting tests. The real cause, metal fatigue in the mass-balance bracket, was discovered too late to make any real difference, and a new tail unit, taken from the Tempest fighter, was later used on Typhoons. Killy and his colleagues firmly believed that, as a result of Killy's accident and his survival to tell the tale, the faults had been fixed, but they had not. Had he known that at the time, he would not have got into another Typhoon!

March/April, 1943

Will "Killy" Kilpatrick, an Irishman, was possibly the only pilot to have survived the infamous "tail-off" failure of the Typhoon. The Typhoons weighed 6 tons and had one 2250 horsepower [Napier Sabre, 24 cylinder sleeve-valve, H-formation] engine. On the ground, it had such great torque that it pulled hard to the right and was hard to taxi straight and keep it away from the control tower. The torque of the engine and prop was enough to roll the aircraft over if the throttle was handled roughly; additionally, the torque from the high-revving engine (4,000 rpm - very high for an aero engine) caused a massive swing as the tail-wheel came off the ground. Finally, the gyroscopic effects from the 14ft prop caused the starboard undercarriage to compress. Once airborne, the engine could stop and parts of the tail section would fall off, though these were unrelated issues.

The tail failure, listed as a "structural failure" in the official records, would happen without warning. Because Typhoon operations were mainly at a low altitude, the pilots had no chance. Another pilot described such a failure in a companion aircraft "we were suddenly flying through a cloud of bits". Killy was saved by being at high altitude when the tail of MN510 failed.

And indeed, there were many engine failures, some on take-off. Killy had such a failure later, when he was instructing at the Fighter-Leader's School at Tangmere (commanded then by Douglas Bader, who flew Killy's aircraft). During a formation take-off, before he became airborne, Killy's engine failed. The aircraft were approaching the end of the runway, with a public road ahead and he had no good way of slowing down in time. Killy tried to retract the undercarriage, but the wheels would not come up, so he swung the aircraft from side-to-side to break off the undercarriage legs, and the aircraft slid to a halt. When his nephew asked him to describe this incident, he said "it was nothing - happened all the time"

Killy was flying a new aircraft, MN510, which had just delivered to 193 at Harrowbeer; the Squadron was not yet operational and no ID letters had then been allocated.

Killy was at 30,000ft over Dartmoor, which was unusually high for a Typhoon. He said that he was "trying it out", but the aircraft performed badly at that height, with little power and on the edge of stalling. However, it was a good day and the view was magnificent. Killy could see from the Isle of Wight right across to Lands End, so, to see better, he put his harness on "half release" and raised the seat. This, and because he was very tall, probably saved his life. He attempted to intercept a suspected incoming raid; he overheard Exeter Control on the radio, and announced that he had a fully-armed aircraft and was ready to go. He was told "you are non-operational" and was ordered to land.

Frustrated, he dove the aircraft towards Harrowbeer. At 27,000 ft, he throttled back and began a diving turn. The tail snapped off due to fatigue failure of the elevator mass-balance bracket and Killy was projected through the canopy and pulled back by his safety harness. The harness was slightly loose, the seat was high, and Killy was tall. When the tail came off, the aircraft performed a "bunt", a sudden downward dive. Killy's head broke through the Perspex (acrylic) canopy. At that time the oxygen supply tube and the radio wires were brought out of the flying helmet at the front. When his head broke through the canopy, the helmet acted like a small parachute, pulling the wires and tube across his throat. [Subsequently, the RAF arranged for the wires to be brought out at the back of the helmet.]

His head was in the slipstream at 400mph and he was strangled by the wires and fell unconscious. His last memory of the aircraft was of the altimeter - the face of which was later found on the ground by a farmer, in whose field the aircraft crashed. He said, describing the crash later, "Ah, it were all mangled up" in his Devon accent.

The aircraft descended to about 6,000 feet, entered cloud, and then fell into a flat spin. This released the pressure on the harness, and Killy regained enough consciousness to release himself. He was thrown out of the aircraft and his parachute, possibly already damaged and partly deployed, opened itself. He landed at Meavy, near Harrowbeer, where he lay until he was found by a local man. Eventually the Squadron Medical Officer, Dr. Wilf Chapman, came in the Squadron ambulance.

Killy was badly injured and was in Plymouth hospital for two months before rejoining the Squadron. He was subsequently asked to go to the Hawker factory at Langley to be interviewed by the test pilots and to explain what had happened. This explains a later entry in the Typhoon flight-test program, where Roly Beamont carries out diving turns at high altitude and speed - presumably to see if the tail would come off!

A model of MN510 was presented to Killy (on BBC Devon TV) at the crash site by DARRT, the Devon wreck and research/recovery group. Mounted with the model are parts of the aircraft, including the shattered Perspex of the canopy.

Killy (on left) at Harrowbeer meeting his rescuer
and receiving the model on TV. (More)

August 7, 1944

On August 7, 1944, flying from B3 at Ste. Croix S.Mer, 193 Squadron joined the tank-busting Squadron 245 in the battle of Mortain. Killy, in the Typhoon marked DP-A, was bombing German transport when he was hit by flak. He managed to fly some distance towards allied lines, but the engine siezed and he had to force-land in a French field at Le Mesnil Tove [50 miles SW of Caen].

This field is 14km SW of Vire, but Killy reported his location as 4km from Vire because the townspeople had changed the local signposts to confuse the Germans! As he hid under the tank he could see out between the tracks. At the top of the lane was a signpost, which said "Vire 4 km". He subsequently reported this in his debriefing and was congratulated on his accurate navigation, so he was mortified to learn, 50 years later, that he had been wrong!

Killy's Thypoon, DP-A, in Le Mesnil Tove, France, 1944. Photo courtesy Tony Knight.
The tank was under the tree behind the aircraft, in a sunken road. (Click here for a larger image).

He landed under fire from both sides, as the village was under attack by American forces. Killy saw another Typhoon, marked MN-R, on its back in the same field. This was Bob Lee of 245 Squadron. Bob had been badly injured at St. Barthelemy and his aircraft had managed to land itself on the upward slope of the field; however, it had turned over, trapping him in the cockpit. All the official accounts say that its tail collapsed trapping Bob Lee. Killy reported that when he saw the plane, it was standing upside down on the tip of its tail-fin. The tail must have collapsed later possibly due to gunfire.

Bob Lee spent several days inside the cockpit before being dug out by American troops. Killy ran for a hedge where he found a German tank under which he hid for some hours. He was spotted there and arrested at gunpoint.

This began an epic adventure, as he travelled through the Falaise Gap battle [near Chambois where the Allied forces encircled the retreating German Army at the end of the Battle of Normandy], meeting an American pilot (later discoverd to be Emil Birza, a Thunderbolt P47 pilot). The two of them managed to persuade their captors that life was much better on the Allied side and so they travelled north with their captors while aiming to escape.

The shiny buttons
Killy and Emil Birza were resting with their German escort, who had been persuaded to defect, when a party of 24 fully armed soldiers marched towards them. Naturally, it was feared that the game was up. These soldiers were Austrian, and had shiny buttons on their uniforms. Killy, mostly in sign language, drew attention to a fighter-bomber formation rapidly approaching and convinced the soldiers that their buttons could be clearly seen by the pilots, and things were about to get very nasty (air-ground attacks were almost incessant at that time). The soldiers threw down their weapons and ran for a nearby barn. Killy and Emil picked up a couple of rifles, headed for the barn, and captured the whole group! Killy, towards the end of his life, suffered badly from bronchitis and had difficulty breathing. When he told this story to his nephew, he was almost apoplectic with laughter and nearly fell off the sofa "'twas like herding sheep" he gasped.

So the two pilots eventually handed the 30 Germans and Austrians, now their prisoners, over to Free French forces near Le Mans! Here Killy met "Major Neave", actually Airey Neave [who was responsible for locating and repatriating Allied personnel, many of whom were in hiding near Paris] and hitched a ride back to B3 on American transport. He had been missing for many days and his colleagues had assumed the worst. It was evening, and the mess-tent bar was about to close. As Killy walked in, the CO saw him and yelled "keep the bar open!". Killy remembered little after that until he woke up in a local bedroom that had been commandeered for use as a hospital. Dr. Wilf Chapman had "sedated" him.

January 26, 1945: Awarded Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

During World War II the DSO was awarded to 870 RAF officers for service under fire. T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) received one during WWI. The citation reads:

George the Sixth, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, Sovereign of the Distinguished Service Order, to our Trusty and Well beloved

Alfred William Kilpatrick, Esquire
Flight Lieutenant in Our Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

Greeting Whereas We have thought fit to Nominate and Appoint you to be a Member of Our Distinguished Service Order We do by the Presents Grant unto you the Dignity of a Companion of Our said Order. And we do hereby authorize you to Have, Hold and Enjoy the said Dignity as a Member of Our said Order, together with all and singular the Privileges thereunto belonging or appertaining. Given at Our Court at St James's under Our Sign Manual this Twenty sixth day of January 1945 in the Ninth Year of Our Reign. By The Sovereign's Command.