Letters from an Essex war hero unveiled in new book

Handwritten letters from RAF pilot

Some of Wing Commander Boulding’s many letters to author Dilip Sarkar - Credit: Dilip Sarkar Archive

Fascinated by the Battle of Britain from an early age, author and historian Dilip Sarkar realised that recording and sharing The Few’s memories was of paramount importance

'The Few' were the airmen of the Royal Air Force and aviators of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy who fought the Battle of Britain in WWII.

Winston Churchill referenced them when he said: 'Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.'

Since the mid-1980s, Dilip Sarkar has collected and researched letters to and from individual pilots. These letters now represent a fascinating primary source, confirming the close relationship the author enjoyed with his heroes and high esteem in which they likewise held him. One of 'The Few' that features in Dilip’s book is Wing Commander Roger Boulding.  

Roger was born in Grays on November 19, 1919, the son of a dentist. In 1938, Roger took at Short Service Commission in the RAF, became a pilot and first flew Fairey Battle light-bombers, going to France with 142 Squadron in 1939. After the fall of France, Pilot Officer Boulding dive-bombed German invasion preparations on the French coast before flying Spitfires. 

RAF Battle of Britain pilot with Spitfire

Flying Officer Roger Boulding of 74 Squadron, with his Spitfire shortly before being shot down over France and captured in 1941 - Credit: Dilip Sarkar Archive

Roger wrote: 

‘During the summer of 1940, the RAF needed fighter pilots, to make good losses suffered in France and already during the Battle of Britain, which started in July. I therefore answered the call and, much to my delight, converted to Spitfires. On August 22, 1940, I was posted to 74 Squadron, the famous “Tigers”, at Kirton-in-Linsey, where the Squadron was re-forming after involvement in the Dunkirk air fighting and early stage of the Battle of Britain.

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'Our CO was the highly successful fighter pilot and leader “Sailor” Malan. I first flew a Spitfire the day after my arrival on the Squadron. On October 5, flying from Coltishall, I shared a Do 215, east of Harwich, and on December 5, by which time we were operating from Manston, I got my first Me 109 over Dover.

'We got into a scrap over Margate with some more 109s on May 7,  1941, I got one and damaged another but was shot up myself in the process. My Spitfire’s petrol tank and coolant system were damaged, so I crash-landed back at base with petrol pouring into my cockpit and leaking glycol. I was flying Spitfire P7316, ZP-S. Later that day I patrolled over Canterbury, but another Section Leader collided with me, damaging the rudder and airscrew of my Spitfire, P8018, ZP-T, so I had to crash-land at Detling.' 

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The early hours of May 11, 1941 would prove eventful for Roger. Here I quote his letter of 13 December 1988: 

‘I had been on patrol for quite a while, in Spitfire Mk IIA, P8380, coded ZP-Q, throughout which time Central London appeared to be at the base of a huge pyramid of flame. I hadn’t seen a thing, except the flames, shell bursts and the odd aircraft in flames over the outskirts. Didn’t really expect to see anything with two great rows of glowing exhaust ports ruining my night vision! So, when I began to have a bit of a problem controlling the revs, I headed for base and called control.

'Almost immediately, I saw this large twin-engined thing in front of me, going the same way! I had only to line up on him and press the button - it obviously wasn’t one of ours! I hit him underneath and the effect was of an enormous burst of sparks, which I perforce flew through. The Heinkel stuck its nose down and headed for the deck, meaning that it was difficult to see against the dark background of the earth - but, of course, his rear-gunner could easily see me silhouetted against the light moonlit sky, so he opened up on me every time I got into position to give him another burst - very adjacent he was too! 

RAF Battle of Britain pilot

Pilot Officer Roger Boulding upon achieving his ‘wings’ in 1938 - Credit: Dilip Sarkar Archive

‘We carried on like this until the German pilot was indulging in some rather fancy low flying across Kent. I don’t think that I hit him again and eventually lost sight of him so circled the area and obtained a radio fix from base, which established my position, and returned to West Malling. There we found signs of damage to my Spitfire (very minor), to the debris guard over my oil cooler inlet, indicating that I had hit a small piece of debris. When my radio fix coincided with the discovery of a He 111 on the ground, it was credited to me; the rest of the Squadron had stooged around all night and saw absolutely nothing! I seem to remember a total of thirty-three were shot down that night, mostly by night-fighters – and this was the best night score to date’. 

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On January 21, 1988, Roger wrote regarding his exit from the air war.  

‘On June 17, 1941, I was on a sweep over France, flying a Spitfire VB, W3251, leading a section of four 74 Squadron Spitfires. “Sailor” Malan was leading 74 Squadron as Wing Leader, flying Top Cover. Having dived down onto some Me 109s, and in accordance with the standard drill of that time, we didn’t follow all the way down but attempted to re-form, climbing towards the sun and weaving. I was following Sailor, and another Spitfire was following me.

'After a while Sailor came on the radio telling someone to, “Look out behind!” I quickly did so and saw the chap still behind me, and screwed my head around some more, still looking for the trouble. Then I saw Sailor below me, violently rocking his wings.

'Suddenly there was an almighty bang on the armour plating behind my seat and it became rather obvious that the chap behind me had been replaced by someone rather less friendly! With controls gone I had to jump out and floated down from 15,000ft in broad daylight. Naturally I found a substantial reception committee waiting. And that was that, as the Germans kept on saying “For you ze var is over!”’ 

By then, Roger had flown 164 operational sorties. After the war, Roger remained in the service with a Permanent Commission, flying Lancasters and Vampires, serving in the Middle East, followed by various administrative command and staff jobs until retiring in November 1966. 

Letters from the Few: Unique Memories from the Battle of Britain by Dilip Sarkar is published by Air World. RRP £25. ISBN: 9781526775894 

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