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Gladiator Ace: Bill “Cherry” Vale, the RAF’s Forgotten Ace

by Brian Cull, Haynes Publishing, Sparkford, England, 2010, $34.95

The classic image of the RAF fighter pilot is that of an upper-class, public school–educated young man who flew a Spitfire. Squadron Leader Bill Vale, whose score of 30 victories plus three shared ranks him among the 10 most successful RAF fighter pilots of World War II, was none of those things.

Vale never flew Spitfires, and in fact only flew the Hawker Hurricane fairly late in his career. Much of his combat flying was in Gloster Gladiators, fixed-gear biplanes whose only modern amenities were a sliding canopy and four machine guns. But in spite of their obvious obsolescence, Vale managed to score 10 of his victories in Gladiators.

Part of the reason that Vale’s story has never been told until now was his own reticence about his combat career (even his immediate family was unaware of many of the details). Beyond that, many of the British records of the campaigns in which he participated were lost, especially during the 1941 evacuations of Greece and Crete, so plenty of qualifiers—such as “probably” and “may have”—creep into Brian Cull’s biography. In his effort to piece together Vale’s story, Cull has delved deeply into German, Italian and French records, as well as the personal papers of RAF fliers. The result is probably as complete a record of the events in some overlooked theaters of operation as can be found today.

In 1930 Vale enlisted in the RAF at the age of 16 as an apprentice. He worked his way up to fitter (engine mechanic) and aerial gunner before being transferred to Egypt in 1935. There he received flight training, and was posted to a squadron as a sergeant pilot. His first combat experience consisted of supporting the British army in Palestine in the campaign against Arab dissidents during the Arab Revolt of 1939.

Vale’s fighting career against the Axis began in June 1940, when Italy declared war on Britain and invaded Egypt. From then on, he was in almost continuous combat for more than a year over Egypt, Libya, Syria, Greece and Crete. His opponents included not only Italians and Germans, but also the Vichy French over Syria. Among his squadron mates were future writer Roald Dahl and the enigmatic South African Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle, who at the time of his death during the Greek campaign in April 1940 may well have been the most successful RAF fighter pilot of WWII.

Gladiator Ace is much more than the story of one man. It encompasses the experiences of a handful of airmen with whom Bill Vale served, and chronicles the desperate campaigns in which they took part. Much of that history has never before been fully explored, partly due to incomplete records and partly because some of those campaigns were so disastrous for the Allied cause that many writers and historians have tended to pass over them. But if the airmen of the Battle of Britain are remembered as “The Few,” then perhaps their contemporaries serving in the Middle East deserve their own special honors—as “The Even Fewer.”


Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.