September 15 is now commemorated as Battle of Britain Day, and on Tuesday, a village will remember its own aviator hero who was shot from the skies exactly 80 years ago on September 15, 1940. Chris Lloyd reports

“Few Tommies succeeded in penetrating our fighter escort,” wrote Leutnant Roderich Cescotti of the events of September 15, 1940, when he was piloting one of 114 bombers, protected by a phalanx of Messerschmitt escorts, heading across the Channel for London.

“I saw a Spitfire dive steeply through our escort, level out and close rapidly on our formation,” he said with admiration for his enemy.

“It opened fire, from ahead and to the right, and its tracers streaked towards us. At that moment an Messerschmitt 109 appeared behind the Spitfire and we saw its rounds striking the Spitfire’s tail.”

The Spitfire was piloted by Flying Officer Arthur Peter Pease, a member of the famous Darlington family who had so excelled at Eton and Cambridge University that high office was expected of him. To make his story even more compelling, he was engaged to one of the most beautiful debutantes in the country who was the daughter of one of England’s greatest sportsmen.

So a young man like Pease, 22, would not be put off by a few rounds smacking into his tail.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

His short career on active service had begun on July 6, 1940, and on July 30, he’d bravely made it home after being hit during the shooting down of a Heinkel III. On September 3, he had brought down a Messerschmitt 109, and on September 7, he had been so badly damaged in the skies over London that he had been forced into a belly landing at RAF Hornchurch. Although his Spitfire had been badly damaged, he had, of course, made it safely out.

Just eight days later, he was back in the thick of the battle over Kent, trying to prevent 114 German bombers from dropping their deadly cargo on the capital. As he plunged into the Messerschmitts escorting the bombers, he was hit once again – but not deterred.

Lt Cescotti continued: “The Tommy continued his attack, coming straight for us, and his rounds slashed into our aircraft. We could not return fire for fear of hitting the Messerschmitt. I put my left arm across my face to protect it from the plexiglass splinters flying around the cockpit, holding the controls with my right hand.

“With only the thin plexiglass between us, we were eye-to-eye with the enemy’s eight machine guns.

“At the last moment, the Spitfire pulled up and passed very close over the top of us. Then it rolled on its back, as though out of control, and went down steeply trailing black smoke.”

Pease’s plane had taken one bullet too many. It was now in its last, fatal spin. With smoke pouring from it, it plummeted towards the village of Kingswood, about 20 miles inland from Dover, and appeared to be destined to crash into a bungalow.

However, villagers on the ground reckoned that seconds before impact, they heard the engines rev as the pilot tried valiantly to steer the doomed plane beyond the bungalows.

He succeeded, but at 3.05pm exactly 80 years ago on Tuesday, the Spitfire smashed into a field at 300mph. Pease’s body was retrieved later from the wreckage, although the accident report noted: “Engine and cockpit left in crater, too deep to recover.”

Twelve days afterwards, Pease was buried in the family plot at St Michael and All Angels Church in a full military funeral at Middleton Tyas, near Scotch Corner, where his sacrifice will be remembered on Tuesday.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

He was the great-great-grandson of Joseph Pease, whose statue still stands in the centre of Darlington. His branch of the family were descended from Joseph’s son, Arthur who lived in the Hummersknott mansion, and they had made a huge fortune in coalmining and railways.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Arthur’s son, Sir Arthur Francis, served as Additional Civil Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, taking charge of the nation’s dockyards. For this service, he was knighted, and he became the first Baronet of Hummersknott – Peter, if he had survived, would have become the third.

Most of Sir Arthur’s interests took him away from Darlington, so from 1907 to 1936, he rented Middleton Lodge – once the home of Tyas’ Hartley family who led the village’s copper mining – as his North-East home.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Consequently, Peter was born in London in 1918. His, though, was the generation that had its youth snatched away. While at university, he joined the voluntary reserve of the RAF, and when war broke out, he entered full time service.

At a skating party in Cheshire, he met Denise Woosnam, who was serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She was the daughter of Max Woosnam, who won an Olympic gold for tennis, a Wimbledon doubles title, captained Manchester City and England at football, scored a century at Lords at cricket, made a 147 break at snooker, and once defeated Charlie Chaplin in a table tennis match using a butter knife instead of a bat. Little wonder he is often billed as “England’s greatest sportsman”.

Peter and Denise quickly became engaged because, in those days, life happened at hundreds of miles an hour. For instance, Peter’s sister, who was known as Pixie, had become a widow after just three weeks of marriage in May 1940 when her pilot husband’s plane crashed.

Peter himself was on a similarly rapid trajectory: just nine weeks into his flying career, he’d already shot down two enemy planes and had himself been hit twice.

The third time was the unluckiest, as he was struck while attacking the German bombers on September 15, 1940. Although outnumbered and surrounded, he fought to the very end.

Lt Cescotti in the Heinkel witnessed that fight and concluded: “The action lasted only a few seconds, but it demonstrated the determination and bravery with which the Tommies were fighting over their own country.”

Pieces of Pease’s plane have been retrieved from the ground, and a single lime tree was planted over the crash site in 1990. In 2017, a plaque was erected at the entrance to Middleton Tyas churchyard in his memory, and on Tuesday – Battle of Britain Day – at 3pm a short graveside service will be held on the 80th anniversary of his death.

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 restrictions, only 30 people can attend the service. Please book a place by calling Steve Hill on 01325-377700.