Dr Willey’s service as sole medical officer at Tangmere Airbase has suddenly leapt to fame after sleeping modestly for sixty-three years. A new film, starring Tom Cruise, will commemorate the first American casualty of the Second World War, Billy Fiske, who was shot down in the course of the Luftwaffe raid on this Sussex airfield.
Fiske was among seventeen airmen who lost their lives on 18th August 1940. His aircraft crash landed in flames, covered from further attack by Squadron Leader Archie Hare, and he was brought, literally charred, to Dr Willey’s sick bay by medical orderlies who dragged him from the wreckage. Courtney was only able to administer pain killing drugs before sending him to Chichester Hospital, where he died later that night. The airfield, the most westerly of a ring of bases defending London, suffered serious damage, and could have been knocked out if the Luftwaffe had returned the next day.
About his own role he is characteristically dismissive. He did not see the crash and gives all praise to the orderlies whom he recommended for their heroism. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Military Cross for staying at his post during the attack and for getting all his patients to shelter when the attack was imminent. Only one airman, drunk and aggressive, defied all attempts to persuade him to take cover, and when the bombs fell he was stripped naked by the blast and "considerably sobered up by the experience." The medical station was destroyed, and after dragging himself from the rubble Dr Willey set up an emergency sick bay, and got it operational that same evening.
Together with five other surviving 601 squadron members he has been asked by the Battle of Britain History Society to sign a limited edition of 200 prints of the painting, "The American Friend", by John Worsley (detail inset) and awarded a print of his own. The Society aims to sell the prints in aid of its project to build a monument in Central London to the Allied aircrew who took part in the Battle.
The RAF’s survival of this critical trial in August 1940 was probably the turning point of the war. If the Luftwaffe had continued to focus its attacks on the airfields, the outcome might have been different, but perhaps they simply could not sustain the losses the spitfires, armed with cannon, were inflicting. Instead the attack was switched, in early September, to night time attacks on London, which fighter command, without aircraft based radar, was powerless to repel.
His experiences at Tangmere sixty-three years ago were for Dr Willey the most fulfilling of his war time career. He recalls dare-devil exploits by airmen who were "a complete menace - but they had to be that sort of man," and being flown home in Magister training aircraft across the Thames estuary. He was later posted to Northolt, where he was fed up with work at an off duty station and longed to be sent back to the front. He was even more disappointed to be posted at very short notice to Singapore, not even a war zone at that time, when he could have become a Squadron Leader - but in that way he was able to make the acquaintance of his lifelong friend, Dr John Simpson, and later to help thousands of prisoners in the Japanese labour camps.
Above, Courtney at the time of receiving the Military Cross for his valour in the action at Tangmere.
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