Gordon Brettell and The Great Escape

Flight Lieutenant Edward Gordon Brettell DFC (61053) was just one of many RAF pilots to undergo training at Hatfield. However, his is not an ordinary story. The Cambridge graduate and racing driver answered his country's call to duty. Shot down and captured in one of the few instances where an entire fighter squadron was lost on a single mission (mainly due to a then unknown weather phenomenon), he played an important role in The Great Escape. An event in WWII made famous by the book and film – even if the dramatic licence of the film version has led to the real story being overshadowed. A story that directly involved Churchill, Hitler and future prime minister Anthony Eden but most of all the indomitable human spirit. People, from many nations, working together to defeat a common evil. Sadly, it also led to the murder of 50 Allied air force officers – Gordon Brettell was one of them.

Click here for the Guide to The Great Escape



Born 19 March 1915 in Woking, Surrey. According to an account by his younger brother, he nearly died from a serious illness when he was 15-years old. It was to be one of a number of times that he was to cheat death. 

Educated at Cheltenham, on 1 November 1934 he matriculated (enrolled) at Clare College, University of Cambridge initially studying English for the English Tripos (BA honours) but later switched to a general course for an ordinary BA. He passed his exams and duly graduated on 15 October 1937.

During his studies at Cambridge, Gordon Brettell established a name for himself as a racing driver. In 1937, as secretary of the Cambridge University Automobile Club, he raced at Brooklands – famous for motor racing and aviation (home to the Hawker Aircraft Company) – in his home county of Surrey. The modified Austin Seven (originally the Marquis de Belleroche's Ulster Austin, which was rebuilt by Monaco of Watford) that he raced in survives to this day. Brettell made the news at the Easter meeting when, in the first heat of the Coronation Handicap race, he lost control and went over the banking. He soon emerged walking along the rim sporting a broken arm.

Presumably neither he nor the car were too badly broken as both took part in the Short Handicap race on 10 July.

Brettell's main success as a racing driver came the following year with third place in the third March Road Handicap, and a 4.6 second win in the first (of four) Road Handicaps at the Whitsun BARC (Brooklands Automobile Racing Club) meeting on 6 June.

The looming storm clouds that eventually led to the outbreak of war put an end to racing and any career in it. Like thousands of his generation he enlisted in 1940.


In the Royal Air Force

Having joined the RAF, he did at least part of his training alongside future ace and test pilot Neville Duke (who also served under Wing Commander Ian Gleed).

In his war diaries, Neville Duke describes Gordon Brettell as: "the quiet, the incredible, the likeable Gordon. A person as deep as the ocean itself, who I am sure I shall never quite understand".

One source states that Gordon Brettell's flying career started with No.1 EFTS (then based at Hatfield) in a DH.82A Tiger Moth in the summer of 1940. This claim needs to be treated with some caution as Neville Duke (No.61054: Brettell was 61053) had made his initial training and first solo flights before the Hatfield posting. What is clear is that both men were posted here as part of their training.

On completing his training he was posted to 92 Squadron flying Spitfires from Biggin Hill. 92 'East India' Squadron was formed in October 1939 from a core of officers, led by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, from 601 Squadron (shot down over Dunkirk in May 1940, he became 'Big X' – leader of The Great Escape). Known as the Millionaires Squadron, 601 included the son of the first aerial Victoria Cross, William Henry Rhodes-Moorhouse. The 'East India' title is due to the efforts of the father of another future Great Escaper – Patrick 'Paddy' Barthropp (41542) – whose father was a judge in India and had helped lead fundraising efforts there to sponsor a squadron of Spitfires.

Gordon Brettell's confirmation in rank as pilot officer and promotion to flying officer was published in the Gazette on 14 August 1942.

During his time with 92 Squadron he flew in the Darlington Spitfire, a Mark Vb, on eight occasions between 26-31 August 1941, on what would have been the fighter pilot's standard fare for that period: scrambles (fast takeoffs to intercept incoming enemy aircraft), convoy patrols (providing air cover for friendly shipping), and rhubarbs (fighter sweeps over Occupied Europe).

The Darlington Spitfire (W3320)

The Darlington Spitfire was the subject of a book by Peter Caygill. Named after the town of Darlington which raised the £5,000 – then the nominal cost of a Spitfire – by the first week of January 1941. W3320, a Spitfire Mark Vb, was part of a batch of 450 ordered on 22 February 1940. It made its maiden test flight on 11 June 1941. On 12 July it was delivered to 92 Squadron's B Flight at Biggin Hill. Spitfire W3320 served the town and nation well and her story lasted some 3.5 years (including 16 months after being converted to LFVb specification). In total, from her first combat mission on 20 July 1941 to her last on 28 October 1944, she notched up 212 missions with seven different squadrons (92, 54, 118, 64, 611, 234 and 63) – an extraordinarily long life for a fighter aircraft in WWII.

Combat claims by her pilots (who included future wing commander and fighter ace Don Kingaby) were for 3.5 destroyed; 3 probables and 1 damaged.

Ironically, her career ended on the day of her last mission while she was parked at North Weald. F/Sgt V Nikl, a Czechoslovakian (since partitioned to become the Czech Republic and Slovakia) pilot, who had been shown incorrect wind signals, ploughed into her and another Spitfire while attempting to land his own Spitfire (MA228) at dusk in poor visibility.

Gordon Brettell's main claim to fame with 92 Squadron earned him a mention in the autobiography of legendary Spitfire test pilot, Jeffrey Quill – and a court martial. He had flown his girlfriend, a WAAF based at Tangmere, in his single seat Spitfire to RAF Biggin Hill for a squadron party. Unfortunately for him, the station commander who was there when they landed took a dim view of his actions and reported him. Among the charges at his later court martial was endangering the King's aircraft (King George VI was then on the throne). He called upon his friend, a Battle of Britain ace with a Hatfield-link, Anthony Charles Bartley (41816) for help.

Tony Bartlett was acting as a test pilot for Supermarine at the time. He later revealed in his autobiography that he asked Jeffrey Quill (Supermarine's chief test pilot) and Joseph Smith (Supermarine's chief designer after Reginald Mitchell's death) for their help. Joe Smith even went so far as to draw up some mathematical equations alleged to prove the aircraft wasn't in any danger, which Bartley presented at the court martial. Although the clinching argument was when asked by the prosecution how he could prove it, Bartley admitted to having committed an identical offence previously. Now faced with the prospect of having to prosecute two badly needed officers with a war on, the charge was dismissed. Although Gordon Brettell was transferred away from the squadron.


With the Eagles

Promoted to flight lieutenant in 1942 he joined the ranks of 133 Squadron. Formed in August 1941, it was one of the three 'Eagle' squadrons in the RAF – so called because they were mainly crewed by American volunteers who had joined up before the USA entered the war. The other two Eagle squadrons were 71 and 121.

When he joined 133 it was under the command of Don Blakeslee – a fighter ace, who is widely considered to be one of the outstanding US fighter pilots and fighter leaders in the European theatre of war.

Brettell flew with Blakeslee when the squadron was providing air cover for the Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee). The squadron flew four sorties to provide aerial support for the raid on 19 August 1942.

Also on the squadron strength and in the air on that day was another American destined for glory – Don Salvadore Gentile. He opened his score by shooting down a Fw190 and a Ju88, and went on to achieve lasting fame as the first American WWII ace to beat the 26 kills scored by their legendary WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker (six of Don Gentile's total were destroyed on the ground but some would argue that you were more likely to get shot down attacking heavily defended airfield targets than in a dogfight).

The Dieppe Raid was a military disaster but it provided invaluable lessons and experience for the D-Day landings less than two years later.

A few days after the Dieppe raid, 133 Squadron was re-equipped with the latest version of the Spitfire – the Mark IX (which showed the high standing of the squadron as only three other squadrons – 611, 401 and 402 – had received them). While they were away from Biggin Hill familiarising themselves with their new aircraft at Martlesham Heath, the squadron heard that Blakeslee had fallen foul of British military discipline and had been removed from command. For a brief while Gordon Brettell was acting squadron leader. Initially, the high-spirited and apparently lax-disciplined Americans were suspicious of the British pilot sent to impose some order but he won at least some of them over. As one American pilot later said: "Brettell was a good planner, impetuous to a fault, but a great guy." Later, Carroll Warren 'Red' McColpin returned from a tour supporting the sale of war bonds in the States and took over command.

McColpin, who was already an ace, had served with both of the other two Eagle squadrons previously. He also had another remarkable claim to fame: shooting at Rudolph Hess's Messerschmitt during the latter's bizarre flight to Britain. He eventually retired from the US armed forces as a Major General. Chesley Gordon 'Pete' Peterson, another Eagle ace who flew with Brettell, also survived the war to become a Major General.

Following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 the United States formally entered World War II. Germany and Italy, as part of the Axis Powers allied with Japan, also became officially at war with the USA. The first US Forces into action in the European theatre of operations was the US Army Air Forces (originally US Army Air Corps but had changed its name in June 1941). Throughout WWII, US aircraft operated as part of the Army, Navy or Marines (the United States Air Force only formally came into existence as a separate command in September 1947).

A decision was taken to transfer the three RAF Eagle Squadrons to the USAAF. The formal handover was to take place at Debden on 29 September 1942. RAF 71, 121 and 133 Squadrons became 334, 335 and 336 Fighter Squadrons of the Fourth Fighter Group of the US Eighth Air Force. For a couple of months, under the command of Colonel Edward W Anderson, they were the Eighth Air Forces' only fighters.

However, thanks to a rarely mentioned disaster, there was very little in terms of pilots and planes of 133 Squadron to hand over on the day.

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