Battle of Britain profile of courage: Flying Officer Paul Brooks Pitcher

Biography / September 1, 2015

By Major Bil March

No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force

Paul Brooks Pitcher was a native “Montrealer” – he was born in 1913 and raised in that vibrant Quebec city. The son of Harriet Brooks, a pioneer in the study of radioactivity and often referred to a Canada’s first woman physicist, Pitcher was an excellent student. He was bitten by the flying bug in December 1935. An expanding Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had authorized the formation of No. 15 (Fighter) Squadron (Auxiliary) in Montreal on September 1, 1934, and for Pitcher and some of his chums, this hometown unit was a good way to experience the thrill of flight in one of the squadron’s four de Havilland DH-60 Tiger Moths.

A little less than four years later, in September 1939, Flying Officer Pitcher, a McGill University graduate and practicing lawyer, volunteered for full-time duty with the renumbered No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron.  

Pitcher’s squadron was absorbed by No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron just eight months later, and the 26-year-old pilot found himself flying Hurricane fighters out of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on convoy escort duty. This occupation was short-lived, as No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron was sent to England in June 1940 in response to the looming German threat to England. A period of intense training followed before the squadron was declared operational and sent to Northolt, Middlesex, on August 17, 1940. Although Pitcher and his fellow Canadians were relatively experienced pilots – indeed they had many more hours in the cockpit than most of the replacements then arriving at Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons – they had a lot to learn about combat. This fact was driven home on August 24, when members of No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron mistakenly attacked three RAF Blenheim bombers, shooting two down (with the loss of three crewmen) and severely damaging the third.

Back in action on August 26, the Canadian squadron gave a good account of itself by destroying three enemy aircraft and damaging a further four – albeit with the loss of Flying Officer R.L Edwards. Pitcher was part of this action, but made no claims. It was the start of a frustrating period for the Montrealer who flew often but never seemed to be able to close with the enemy to good effect. However, the stress of pending combat has a palpable effect on the pilots and he remembered that “every time the telephone rang in the dispersal hut, [our] stomachs rolled over.”

Nor was danger confined entirely to the actions of the enemy. Pitcher recalled that:

“In the first Wing take-off at Northolt, the three squadrons stationed there – 303 Polish, 1 RAF and 1 Canadian – were lined up for take-off at their respective dispersal areas in three different parts of the field. Due to a confusion in take-off orders, all three squadrons opened throttle simultaneously and headed towards the centre of the field where the thirty-six aircraft met!

“By some miracle, no aircraft collided with another or with the ground, although the turbulence from slipstreams was unbelievable. The station commander, who was witness to the scene, had to be helped into the officers’ mess for alcoholic resuscitation. I seem to recall that part of the confusion arose from the fact that two No. 1 Squadrons were involved. In any event, all Canadian squadrons overseas were renumbered thereafter and given ‘400’ numbers, 1 becoming 401.”

Flying Officer Pitcher’s combat “drought” ended during the second scramble of the day on September 15, 1940, in what is often referred to as the climax of the Battle of Britain. One of 11 members of the squadron in action that afternoon, Pitcher closed with a Heinkel 111 and fired several bursts, after which the enemy aircraft was last seen with smoke pouring from its fuselage and one engine. However, the attack was broken off before the fate of the enemy bomber could be determined. Twelve days later, Pitcher scored again during a mix-up with enemy bombers near Biggin Hill. According to Pitcher, he “attacked one Do215 [Dornier] from port quarter astern and slightly above, closing to dead astern. After several seconds of fire from astern he [the Dornier] pulled up steeply and smoke was issuing from his engines. I broke off and made a…shot on another from starboard with no visible effect, and finally one attack on [the] same aircraft from astern above, when [my] ammunition ran out.”   

His final claims were made on October 5, when No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron, in company with No. 303 Polish Squadron, engaged some 30 German fighter aircraft south-west of Maidstone, Kent. At 21,000 feet (6,401 metres) he “encountered four Me [Messerschmitt] 109s in line astern and attacked the last one…closing to astern about 100 yards [91 metres]. I fired about 12 seconds in three bursts, in the last burst large bits were seen to fall off e/a [enemy aircraft], his undercarriage dropped and he rolled on his back.”

With this enemy aircraft credited as destroyed, Pitcher followed his victory with an attack on the last of a gaggle of three Me 110s. He damaged his target with “one burst of about four seconds” before his guns ran dry, but “strong return fire was encountered” and he “broke way and dived down violently.” A few days later, No. 1 (RCAF) Squadron was transferred to Scotland to rest and refit.

Flying Officer Pitcher survived the Battle of Britain and went on to command 401, 411 and 417 Squadrons. He served in Europe, North Africa, the Aleutian Islands as part of Western Air Command, and with the 2nd Tactical Air Force during the Normandy invasion. Retiring as a Wing Commander in November 1944, he returned to Montreal and his career in law. He died in Vancouver on September 11, 1998, and is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Quebec.

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