RAF Photo Recce Spitfire pilot Jimmy Taylor has always prefered single-seat aircraft.

Over forty years ago my parents, rightly concerned about my chances in the looming common entrance exams, engaged the services of a maths tutor for the summer. Unfortunately for them, the tutor’s knowledge of Venn diagrams and long division was equalled by his understanding of deflection shooting and managing the boost in a Merlin engine. Worse still, he was happier to bend willing ears about life on a Spitfire squadron during the Battle of Britain than he was forcing maths on a reluctant schoolboy.

No doubt Jimmy Taylor, ex-Spitfire pilot and retired history teacher has had similar experiences with young pupils who were more fascinated by his wartime experiences as an RAF pilot than they were in the Tudors and acts of succession. They’d have got their money’s worth with Taylor. The Editor and I are in Leeds, sat in Jimmy’s sitting room, beside a table laden with artefacts and documents from his war. One of these is a grey metal box with knobs on it. “That’s a T35 camera control box,” explains Taylor, “like the one that controlled our F52 and F24 cameras.” Avidly reading biographies of men like Lacey, Stanford-Tuck, Bader and Johnson has given me a pretty good understanding of what it was like to be a fighter pilot in the War, but the work of the photo reconnaisance pilot was a mystery. Of course it obviously involves taking photographs of targets and strategic subjects?but that’s about all I knew.

Or at least that was until I read Taylor’s incredible 750 page autobiography. Not only does the 91-year-old’s magnum opus tell you everything about the work of the photo reconnaisance squadrons in the period following D-day, it tells you a whole lot more; about life growing up in the 1930s, about being a pupil at Eton and ? best of all ? about flight training in America. Like Geoffrey Wellum’s First Light, Taylor’s One Flight Too Many covers what it was actually like to go through elementary flight training, describing the emotions of flying. And, like Wellum, Taylor makes it very easy for anyone who has learned to fly to relate to his experiences ? even if today many of us never go further than flying a PA-28 to Le Touquet.

Previous accounts I’ve read of WWII flight training in America made the experience sound fantastic. Crystal clear skies and a brilliant climate, girls, the movies and cars (with no shortage of fuel to put in them). Jimmy Taylor’s experience was somewhat different. “We carried out our basic flying training up to solo standard in England (Taylor’s was at 4 EFTS in Brough, Yorkshire), so that it wouldn’t be a waste of time and money sending us abroad only to discover that we had no aptitude for flying. I was sent to Turner Field in Albany, Georgia, as part of the Arnold Scheme.”

Taylor is pretty scathing about the US experience. “The problem was that the Americans in the scheme were mainly college graduates who were training to be officers as well as pilots, whereas we RAF erks were primarily there to reach the required standard of flying. As a consequence the elimination rate was absurdly high ? as much as fifty to sixty per cent ? which meant that many talented pilots who might not necessarily have followed the strict discipline or not be officer material, were bounced off the course. Those who attended the six British Flying Training Schools in the USA, which were run by the RAF but used American civilian instructors, had the best of both worlds: the glorious weather, food and hospitality and the RAF’s relaxed attitude to flying and a low wash-out rate. Unlike us on the Arnold Scheme, they all claimed to have had a wonderful time.”

Taylor is extremely modest about his own flying ability, maintaining that he never quite got the knack of landing, even after retirement when he took up gliding in the 1980s. This humility is obviously not something that he has acquired in old age because after completing his training in the USA Jimmy was selected to stay behind and become an instructor. Many would have considered this a disaster, but Taylor was pleased to be able to improve his flying skills. When he did eventually return home he had 1,000 hours in his log book.

Because Taylor kept a personal diary throughout the war (very much against the rules) the level of detail in his book is fascinating and constantly the reader, even one brought up on first hand-war stories and tales of RAF life, gets an unusually broad picture of life at the time.

On his return to the UK he was sent to the Personnel Reception Centre in Harrogate where along with hundreds of other newly-qualified pilots he hoped to be sent to an Operational Training Unit prior to joining an operational squadron.

“My thousand hours was considered the equivalent of an operational tour so I was allowed to choose which branch of the RAF I wanted to go into. The queue for fighters was enormous ? bombers considerably shorter ? but I wanted to fly alone because I’ve never been a big team player. So I applied for night fighters. Unfortunately after a few months the queue virtually stopped moving so after hearing that the Photo Reconnaisance queue was moving I applied for PR.”

All sorted, with our man now on his way to flying unarmed Spits with cameras? Not quite. In March 1944 an order came through for Taylor to report to the Advanced Flying Training School at Little Rissington. “In our first meeting the Commanding Officer told us that his sole duty was to train pilots for Bomber Command and anyone who had another idea should forget it. I crossed my fingers and kept my mouth shut.”

Fortunately, at the end of the course F/O Taylor was despatched to No8 OTU in Dyce, Aberdeenshire to learn all about photo reconnaisance and flying Spitfires.

As Jimmy explains the function of the F24 oblique camera and F52 vertical cameras that were mounted in the fuselage of a Spitfire XI, camera anorak Whiteman nods in understanding and Goodwin 
looks on with a puzzled expression. Photography and I are not good mates, but I understand the gist of it is that, in order to get the correct degree of overlap between photos, pilots like Jimmy had to make ultra precise allowances for wind and altitude in setting up the camera firing interval and adjusting the aircraft heading to compensate for drift. You don’t need to understand f-stops, focal lengths and film stocks to understand the enormous challenge that faced Taylor and his colleagues. His book is dotted with amazing photographs of rivers, airfields and transport routes that would undoubtedly have been invaluable to the invading allies as they moved eastwards.

One thing I do have a grasp of is navigation. To my mind the great unsung heroes of the RAF are navigators. The bomber crew navigators on whom half a dozen lives depended ? and men like Jimmy Taylor who were carrying out immensely important work. How on earth do you navigate your way to a bridge or rail junction while flying a high performance single-engine fighter, often in poor weather? Shrugging off the question, Taylor is characteristically modest about the challenge.

Training completed at Dyce, Taylor was posted to 16 Squadron, based at Northolt and on 26 August 1944 took part in his first operation: photographing Caen airfield flying Spitfire K954. Fifteen sorties later, on 19 November, he took off in MB957 for Rheine, a base for German jets. The weather was fine, the best for a week. Unfortunately, a bearing in the Merlin’s supercharger was on its way out. “During one of my photograph runs there was a loud bang from the engine,” explains Taylor. “It stopped, then tried to run again. Smoke was pouring out of the exhausts and oil covered the windscreen. I called Melsbroek on the radio and told them I was bailing out.”

What followed forms the defining point of Taylor’s life (although it was many decades later that he realised this). After a safe landing, he spent several days on the run in Holland before being caught by the Germans, interrogated and eventually incarcerated in Stalag Luft 1 in Barthe, northern Germany.

Before being demobbed Taylor instructed on Harvards at Upavon before finally leaving the RAF in June 1946. Cambridge University followed, with gliding in the University Gliding Club and then a career in education including a spell in Baghdad with the British Council where Jimmy joined the Iraqi Flying Club and flew the club’s Auster Autocrat over some of Iraq’s incredible historical sights.

A shattering discovery

But now we fast-forward to March 1990 and a trip to RAF Laarbruck in Germany to celebrate 16 Squadron’s 75th anniversary. On this trip Jimmy was approached by an ex-fitter called Ron Parnell who handed him a cutting from the RAF Association’s Air Mail journal.

The clipping was a request posted by someone called H Noordhuis who was asking after the whereabouts of Flt Lt James Strickland Taylor, who bailed out of Spitfire PL957 on 19 November 1944 and was taken POW. Taylor wrote to Noorduis and gave an account of his bailing out and subsequent capture. A few days later Hennie Noordhuis telephoned Jimmy Taylor. “He congratulated me on being alive and then dropped a bombshell: ‘Did you know that three Dutchmen were executed after you landed by parachute in a field in the village of ‘t Hessler?’ I was absolutely shattered. The war had been a great adventure for me, I had flown the most wonderful aeroplane and never been asked to kill anyone ? now I discovered that I’d caused the death of three innocent Dutchmen.”

For the last twenty years Jimmy Taylor and his wife Margaret have travelled to Holland regularly, each time visiting in their words “their second family” of Hennie Noordhuis and his family and friends. Incredibly, in early 1995 the remains of Jimmy’s Spitfire were found, parts including the propellor boss and reduction gear being recovered.

Although slightly wobbly on his undercarriage, Jimmy Taylor is remarkably fit for his age. The wide smile that you see in dozens of photographs in his book is still flashed regularly.

This year Jimmy had a ride in the back of the Boultbee Spitfire T9 at Goodwood. “I felt at home, but the two-seater certainly felt more sluggish and heavier than the lightweight PR Spits that I flew.” Jimmy’s last solo flight was in September 2007 at the controls of one of Leeds University Union Gliding club’s aircraft. “My age had caught up with me and my judgement and reactions were slipping. It was suggested that I could continue flying with a safety pilot, but that wasn’t for me. It was gliding solo, making all my own decisions, that was the great attraction for me.” Just as flying alone, at 25,000ft in a photo reconaissance Spitfire, had appealed more to him in 1943 than being part of a bomber crew.

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