One of the RAF’s most colorful characters became an ace during the desperate days of the Battle of Britain.
Flamboyant Royal Air Force ace Basil Gerald “Stapme” Stapleton was one of those men who seem to have been born to fill a particular role in life. His des- tiny: to become a World War II fighter pilot.
Born in Durban, South Africa, on May 12, 1910, to an English father and South African mother, Stapleton was educated at the King Edward VI School in Totnes, England. He was one of many wartime pilots to have been inspired by Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus, a traveling airshow that did much to encourage interest in flying among the British public during the 1930s. Offered a place at Oxford University, Stapleton instead opted for a bit of adventure. In January 1939 he joined the RAF.
After flight training and various assignments, in December 1939 he was sent to No. 603 (“City of Edinburgh”) Squadron, based at RAF Turnhouse, near the Scottish capital. Although it was an auxiliary (reserve) squadron, No. 603’s pilots had been flying Supermarine Spitfires since September of that year, which apparently came as a surprise to the Luftwaffe pilots they successfully engaged over the Firth of Forth on October 16.
A section of 603 was later based at RAF Montrose on Scotland’s east coast. On July 3, 1940, Stapleton, along with Flying Officer Brian Carbury and Pilot Officer Ronald“Ras” Berry of B Flight, was sent up to investigate reports of an enemy aircraft nearby. Together the three RAF pilots shot down the German plane, a Junkers Ju-88, and were jointly awarded their first kill before the Battle of Britain had officially started. (Most sources now agree the battle began on July 10, 1940, although the official Air Ministry account published in 1941 dates it from August 8.)
In David Ross’ 2002 biography, Stapleton recalled: “Montrose was a very exciting time for us because we had German aircraft to intercept. We had a lot of German aircraft over on reconnaissance missions and that was when I shared a Dornier Do 17 with Bubble [Flying Officer Robin McGregor Waterston, who was shot down and killed on August 31, 1940].” Around that time Stapleton acquired his nickname, “Stapme,” based on a frequent exclamation by a character in the cartoon strip “Just Jake.” He would also become known for his signature handlebar mustache.
Something of Stapme’s devil-may-care attitude can be gleaned from one incident at Montrose. Without transport but in need of a ride into town for a drink, he “borrowed” a refueling vehicle. No doubt after a few beers he then drove it back to the airfield. At a time when smoking was the norm, the risk of an explosion must have been high—but Stapleton clearly enjoyed life on the edge.
On August 27, 603 Squadron was sent south to Hornchurch, on London’s outskirts. The Battle of Britain was in full swing, and the squadron encountered enemy fighters for the first time. Though the pilots were new to dogfighting, their experience in the north had given them some basic combat techniques.
During a sprawling dogfight over Kent on September 5, Stapleton was one of several claimants to bringing down German ace Franz von Werra. Managing to land his crippled Messerschmitt Me-109E-4, von Werra was taken prisoner. After several unsuccessful escape attempts in England, he was sent to a POW camp in Canada. He escaped from there, making his way to South America, then through southern Europe to Germany—the only Axis prisoner to make a successful escape. His story was chronicled in the book, later made into a movie, The One Who Got Away.
By the end of the Battle of Britain, Stapme had claimed six enemy aircraft destroyed, eight probables, three shared destroyed and two damaged. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in November 1940.
In August 1944 Stapleton took command of No. 247 Squadron, which was then providing air cover for Allied forces advancing through northern France. By September 17 the Allied ground campaign had pushed into the Netherlands, and the 82nd and 101st U.S. and 1st British Airborne divisions began to capture a number of strategic targets as part of Operation Market-Garden. The British objective was to capture and hold the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem, while pilots of 247 Squadron, flying Hawker Typhoon Mark IBs armed with rockets, supported them.
Faced with a determined German defense, British ground forces had no real hope of holding their “bridge too far,” even with the help of 247 Squadron, and ultimately withdrew. Despite this Allied setback, Stapme was awarded the Dutch Flying Cross for his part in the Arnhem campaign, although he would not learn of the award until after the war.
Stapleton’s luck finally ran out on December 23, 1944, during an attack on a railway locomotive. When he fired a rocket into its firebox, the locomotive exploded, damaging his aircraft. He was forced to crash-land behind enemy lines, where he was taken prisoner and eventually sent to Stalag Luft I.
With hostilities drawing to a close in Europe, the guards at the camp departed, abandoning their prisoners as the Soviet Red Army advanced. Within days Stapme and a few other POWs, dressed as Russian soldiers, drove out of the camp in a car they obtained in exchange for a Red Cross parcel. They met up with Canadian forces and were flown back to England, arriving at RAF Cosford on May 10, 1945, two days after the war in Europe officially ended.
Stapme soon realized that the RAF would not provide a suitable peacetime career for a man of his restless spirit, so in the spring of 1946 he went to work for British Overseas Airways Corp. Two years later he moved to Africa, where he worked as a travel and tour guide. He returned to Britain in 1994, and was a perennial guest at airshows and RAF reunions until his death on April 13, 2010.
The air war known as the Battle of Britain lasted until October 31, 1940, by which time the Luftwaffe had turned more and more to night raiding, a tacit admission that it could not, as the official account of the battle put it, “establish and maintain air supremacy.” Had it not been for Gerald Stapleton and others like him, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, Hitler might well have realized his dream of a Nazi empire covering the whole of Europe.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.