Battle of Britain profile of courage: Pilot Officer George Henry Corbett

Biography / August 19, 2015

By Major William March

66 Squadron, Royal Air Force

George Henry Corbett’s parents came to Canada in 1914 and settled in Saskatchewan, where he was born on November 4, 1919. Around his tenth birthday, the family moved to Oak Bay, British Columbia, and it was in this small coastal community that he graduated from high school in 1935.

An avid builder of model aircraft and possessing a keen interest in flying, Corbett took advantage of a family holiday to England to apply to the de Havilland Aircraft Company’s Aeronautical Technical School at Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Even with a busy schedule studying aircraft design and manufacture, he found the time to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) Volunteer Reserve in November 1937. Two years later, with his studies nearly complete, Corbett was visiting family in British Columbia when Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. He immediately returned to England and the RAF.

After completing his training at No. 9 Advanced Flying Training School, he was posted to No. 7 Operational Training Unit at Hawarden, Cheshire, on July 7, 1940. This unit focused on one thing and one thing only: the training of Spitfire fighter pilots. A combination of personal talent and operational need meant that Corbett’s stay was short; on July 26, the young Canadian found himself reporting to No. 66 Squadron at Coltishall, Norfolk.

The squadron had already engaged the Luftwaffe in the skies above Dunkirk and was ready to “have a go at Jerry” over home turf. Although Corbett participated in a number of combat patrols, his first true combat experience came on September 9, 1940, and it was not a pleasant experience. Dodging often heavy rain showers, Pilot Officer Corbett was part of a group attacking German bombers, escorted by enemy fighters, intent on attacking London. After already damaging a Messerschmitt 109, he was positioning his aircraft for a rear attack on a bomber when he was bounced by three German fighters. With the cockpit filling with smoke and the controls jammed, he found himself in a severely damaged, uncontrolled aircraft plummeting toward the ground in a tight spiral dive. At 12,000 feet (3,658 metres), the Canadian pilot bailed out, suffering a slight injury in the process.

Corbett quickly returned to the fray, and on September 27 he and his squadron mates intercepted German bombers attacking London. In the midst of heavy British defensive fire from anti-aircraft guns below, he got a quick burst into one bomber before breaking off the attack and leaving the damaged enemy aircraft to other RAF fighters. He then selected a lone Junkers 88 as his next target, closed to within yards of the German aircraft, and opened fired. The enemy aircraft fell away, its port engine burning fiercely, but the smoke was so thick that Corbett had to break off the attack.

He had little time to enjoy his victory because his Spitfire was damaged by friendly fire when an artillery shell burst nearby, destroying one elevator and riddling the fuselage and starboard wing with shrapnel. He skillfully executed a forced landing in the London district of Orpington, emerging from his damaged but repairable Spitfire with a new-found respect for anti-aircraft gunners and a Junkers 88 claimed as destroyed. Two London bobbies who came to his assistance had witnessed the combat, and confirmed Corbett’s claim.

More combat followed, but this young man who had survived being shot down twice would not be so lucky the third time. On October 8, 1940, Pilot Officer Corbett, wearing a new watch sent by his parents as a 21st birthday gift, was climbing with his squadron to intercept yet another formation of German raiders when they were surprised by a large number of Messerschmitt 109s. In a slashing attack, Corbett and one other 66 Squadron pilot were shot down near Bayford Marches, Upchurch; neither pilot survived.

According to Mike Gunnill, a freelance writer in the United Kingdom, on that day the Reverend William Joseph Wright was at his church, St. Margaret of Antioch, and witnessed the dogfight. When the Pilot Officer Corbett’s aircraft crashed, the clergyman ran to the site, hoping to provide assistance. But “…it was clear, due to the bullet damage around the cockpit, that George Corbett had been killed instantly before the crash. [Wright] offered prayers and a blessing, and stayed until the body was recovered. The pilot’s own parachute was used as a shroud.”

Back in Oak Bay, in a cruel twist of fate that often happens in wartime, Pilot Officer Corbett’s mother, Mabel, received a letter from her son days after being officially informed that he had been killed. Gunnill notes that the young Canadian tried to comfort his family’s fears in a letter that made light of his two earlier brushes with death, and explained the importance of what he was part of.

Corbett wrote, “Having got out OK, my confidence has tremendously increased and I want you to be confident also. We’re seeing plenty of action here every day and I’ll be back in the fight tomorrow. The Jerries are a long way from getting supremacy in the air, and until they get it, there’ll be no invasion.”

Pilot Officer Corbett’s sacrifice touched people on two continents.

In Canada, his family commissioned a stained glass window in St. Mary the Virgin Anglican church in Oak Bay. The window depicts Pilot Officer Corbett in his RAF uniform. He wears a life preserver and clutches a flying helmet and earphones, and gazes upward at an image depicting the Ascension, when, the Bible teaches, Jesus rose to Heaven following his crucifixion. Amid a number of impressive stained glass windows, this one stands out because it is the most modern and because it is the only window dedicated to a member of the local community. On the Sunday closest to Battle of Britain Day (September 15), a single rose is placed beneath Pilot Officer Corbett’s window.

An ocean away, in St. Mary the Virgin churchyard at Upchurch, Kent, where Pilot Officer Corbett is buried, a community tends to the young Canadian’s gravesite, remembering a life freely given so many years ago.

In an email, Mike Gunnill related a quick anecdote that underlines the shared bond that individuals such as Corbett created. “As a resident [of Upchurch], I walked through the churchyard yesterday,” he wrote. “I went past [Pilot Officer] Corbett’s grave and there was another resident standing there talking to him. He explained that he came often, just for a chat. ‘Please don’t think I am mad,’ he said, ‘I just enjoy my visits.’”

 Pilot Officer George Corbett was 20 years old.

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