From Sapper to Spitfire Spy

02nd October 2018

Fl/Lt David Greville-Heygate DFC would have been very familiar with viewing Goodwood from the air. In the autumn of 1944, desperate to return to squadron life, he arrived at No.83 GSU based at Bognor, Thorney Island and Tangmere. While awaiting an overseas posting, he flew low-level dive-bombing exercises over Sussex in the iconic tank-busting Typhoon. 

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David's love of aircraft was sparked at school when aircraft developed for 1927 Schneider Trophy roared overhead. At Cambridge, David signed up for the Cavalry but when horses replaced tanks he resigned in protest. Just before war was declared, David was called up by the Army, but after a ‘bit of a row’ with his Brigadier he transferred to the RAF as an 'Army Rebel'.

David trained on Tiger Moths, Masters, Hurricanes and Lysanders. In 1942, posted to No.16 Army Co-Operation Squadron, he learnt the skills required of a recce pilot including low-level flying, pinpoint navigation and accurate observation of enemy positions. One of David’s first flying accidents was during an exercise when Home Guard soldiers jumped up in front of him as he attempted to land, quickly pulling up the Lysander's tail-wheel hit a bank. David returned to the airfield with the tail-light in his pocket as a souvenir of a lucky escape.

Although considered less glamorous than the 'Fighter Boys,' when 16 Squadron re-equipped with Mustangs their role expanded and they were soon flying daring low-level photo/recces, over the French coastline in preparation for D-Day. Several pilots were shot down; one rescued after a dramatic four-day search of the Channel. Sent off in terrible weather to take urgently-needed pictures of a radar tower, David lost his No.2 but was able to return with the photos. In 1943, failing decompression tests in preparation for high-level flying, David reluctantly left the squadron and was posted to Hawarden as an instructor.

A year later, David joined No.168 Squadron in Holland but was never entirely happy shooting-up steam trains. After a chance remark while visiting friends he transferred to No.2 Squadron. For the rest of the war David flew Spitfire XIVs behind enemy lines photographing enemy troop movements.

By the time David was demobbed in 1945 he had flown 22 types of aircraft (including an Auster, a Battle, a Harvard and a Magister), landed at 69 airfields, had had 3 crashes and lost over 60 friends and his older brother, a Blenheim pilot. David never flew again and died aged 84.

David's biography 'From Sapper to Spitfire Spy is published by Pen and Sword Books.

  • raf westhampnett

  • Goodwood Aerodrome

  • WWII

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