Like so many others in Britain’s far-flung empire, at the tender age of 15, Basil Gerald Stapleton was sent from his home to attend school in England. As he sailed away from South Africa’s sunny shores, he expected to come back to the land of his birth and become a farmer. It would be many years—and many hair-raising adventures—later before he would return. In 1939, while he attended a civilian training course at White Waltham, international events set his life in an unanticipated direction. As war clouds gathered, Stapleton was commissioned in April as an acting pilot officer in the Royal Air Force and eventually found himself posted to No. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron where he first took the controls of the aircraft that he would quickly master—the Spitfire.
It was not long before “Stapme,” as he was called by his squadron mates, had a chance to test his skills during the Battle of Britain. His first taste of action was off the east coast of Scotland on July 3, 1940. During the mission, he joined two others in downing a Junkers Ju-88A, and a little more than two weeks later he and squadron mate Flying Officer Robin M. “Bubble” Waterston shared a victory over a Dornier Do-17Z.
One of Stapleton’s fellow pilots, Richard Hillary, later described the young South African in his classic account of the war in the air, The Last Enemy. “Another from overseas was Hugh Stapleton, a South African,” Hillary wrote. “He hoped to return after the war and run an orange farm. He too was over six feet tall, thick-set, with a mass of blond hair which he never brushed. He was twenty and married, with a rough savoir-faire beyond his years, acquired from an early unprotected acquaintance with life. He was always losing buttons off his uniform and had a pair of patched trousers which the rest of the Squadron swore he slept in. He was completely slap-happy and known as ‘Stapme’ because of his predilection for ‘Popeye’ in a Daily Mirror comic strip, his favourite.”
While Stapleton was generally happy with Hillary’s description, there were a few mistakes that he later corrected. His name was never Hugh, and while the nickname came from a Daily Mirror comic strip, it was not “Popeye.” The comic Stapleton favored was in fact one that featured a cartoon lovely who was notorious for removing her clothes at the slightest provocation. His favorite character was the lecherous Captain ReillyFfoull, whose frequent pronouncements of “Stap me, what a filly!” always tickled the pilots, particularly Stapleton.
It was while flying from Montrose, Scotland, that Stapleton and his colleagues received an open invitation from Lord Dalhousie to spend days off at his hunting lodge in Glen Esk. During one of those retreats, Stapleton met the “Tarfside kids,” who were described in Hillary’s book.
“How Stapme and Bubble had first come upon them I never discovered, but from the moment that I saw those children I too was under their spell,” Hillary wrote. “I lost my heart to Betty Davie, aged 10.”
The children, whose ages ranged from 6 to 16, lived in Tarfside and went to school close to where Stapleton’s squadron was stationed. Four pilots—Hillary, Stapleton, Waterston and Pilot Officer Roland “Razz” Berry—formed a very close relationship with the children and played with them regularly. “The legend of the children of Tarfside soon spread through the Squadron,” recorded Hillary, “and no three machines would return from a practice flight without first sweeping in tight formation low along the bed of the valley where the children, grouped on a patch of grass by the road, would wave and shout and dance in ecstasy.”
By August 1940, the squadron had moved south to Hornchurch for the second phase of the Battle of Britain. Between September 3 and November 11, Stapleton shot down two Do-17s, four Messerschmitt Me-109s, seven probable Me-109s and a probable Me-110. In recognition of those successes, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on November 15, after a very close call.
On September 7, his Spitfire had been bounced by a gaggle of Messerschmitts over Kent. Cannon shells ripped through the starboard wing between the central pair of guns, which along with the ammo boxes were thrown back over the wing by the force of the explosion and trailed behind. Aileron control was soon lost, making a crash landing unavoidable. Stapleton spotted a hop field and was able to bring his doomed Spitfire to earth.
Although rough, the landing did have its advantages. As soon as Stapleton crawled out, he ran into a group enjoying a picnic. Unfazed by their unexpected guest, the picnickers gave him a cup of tea. Stapleton then called his brother, an air vice marshal at the Air Ministry, for a car to come get him.
Ten days later, Stapleton was patrolling with his squadron at 20,000 feet when he encountered a mixed force of German fighters and bombers. “I was diving to attack them when I was engaged by two Bf-109s,” he later wrote. “When I fired at the first one I noticed glycol coming from his radiator. I did a No. 2 attack and as I fired I was hit by bullets from another Bf-109. I broke off downwards and continued my dive. At 6,000 feet I saw a single-engined machine diving vertically with no tail unit. I looked up and saw a parachutist coming down circled by another Bf-109. I attacked him from the low quarter. He dived vertically towards the ground and flattened out at ground level. I then did a series of beam attacks from both sides and the enemy aircraft turned into my attacks. He finally force-landed. He tried to set his radio on fire by taking off his jacket and setting fire to it and putting it into the cockpit. He was prevented by the LDV [Local Defense Volunteers].”
Stapleton’s defeated foe was 1st Lt. Franz von Werra, an eight-victory ace. Sent to a prison camp in Canada, he escaped on January 21, 1941, and made it back to Germany on April 18, 1941, earning him the distinction of being the only Axis prisoner captured in the UK to make his way back to the Reich.
By December, the Battle of Britain having been won, Stapleton returned with his squadron to Scotland. He finally left 603 in March 1941, and for a while enjoyed the relative safety of transporting aircraft with No. 4 Delivery Flight.
Stapleton’s respite was short. Restless in such an inactive posting, he volunteered for service in a merchant ship fighter unit, dubbed “Churchill’s Atlantic Suicide Squad.” Members of this unusual unit sailed in merchant ships equipped with a “catapult” and a Hawker Hurricane. The idea was that as soon as one of the Luftwaffe’s predatory Focke Wulf Fw-200C Condors appeared on the scene, the embattled vessel could send its Hurricane aloft to fend off the enemy.
“We were not in fact on a catapult, although that’s what it was known as,” Stapleton clarified. “The Hurricane was sent into the air along a rail by a series of 13 rockets that fired in sequence. First nine, then two followed by another two. As each set of rockets fired, the Hurricane sped down the ramp and latches were released.”
The Hurricane’s speed picked up with each controlled explosion. The ship’s mate, who was responsible for controlling the release, would fire the first rockets as the ship was in a downward roll. By the time the Hurricane reached the end of the ramp, the roll would be upward. By then the speed of the aircraft was supposed to be about 80 mph—enough to get the fighter into the air. The problem was, of course, that after driving off the enemy there was no easy way to rejoin the ship; the pilot then had the choice of bailing out or landing in the sea.
As luck would have it, Stapleton’s four convoy trips were peaceful. Now a flight lieutenant, in January 1942 he was sent to No. 257 Squadron, which was transitioning to Hawker Typhoons.
This was proving difficult for the former Spitfire and Hurricane pilots in Stapleton’s new squadron. Apart from the greatly increased power of the 24-cylinder Napier Sabre engine, the airscrew of the new plane rotated the opposite way from their previous aircraft. “As it had become automatic to correct the swing on takeoff something had to be unlearned,” Stapleton remembered. “The result was that early Typhoon takeoffs were nearly always in a climbing turn.”
Once he was comfortable with the Typhoon, Stapleton spent time as a squadron leader and gunnery instructor at Kenley and then at the Central Gunnery School. He did not return to combat until August 1944 when he was posted to No. 247 Squadron. The squadron was part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) and operated from a series of airstrips in France and Belgium. Performing a role similar to the Republic P-47s of the U.S. Ninth Air Force, the 2nd TAF stayed just behind the front lines and advanced with the ground forces, attacking anything that moved with the Typhoon’s impressive array of rockets, bombs and four 20mm cannons.
After a while, Stapleton became squadron commander and, operating from an airstrip at Eindhoven, Holland, was involved in close support during the latter phases of Operation Market-Garden. For his contribution to this valiant but doomed operation he was awarded the Dutch Flying Cross.
Having enjoyed a fair amount of success against enemy air and ground forces, on December 23, 1944, Stapleton said he shot himself down. During an attack on a fast-moving locomotive, the South African fired a rocket that, he recalled, went straight into the firebox. “The train blew and I flew through the bits.” Unfortunately for Stapleton, his radiator was punctured, and he was forced to land in a field behind the German lines close to München-Gladbach.
“Two very old German soldiers, I think they were Volkssturm, came up,” Stapleton remembered. “One got up on the wing and then I blew up the IFF [identification, friend or foe radar] system and frightened the German so much that he fell off. The other chap started laughing and I started laughing too and there were the three of us all laughing our heads off. They took me to a command post and I was ferried from there to a Luftwaffe aerodrome where I was questioned by three beautifully dressed Luftwaffe officers and there I was, a bit scruffy. I just crossed my arms and said nothing.”
After passing a night in Cologne during an air raid, Stapleton eventually ended up at Stalag Luft I near the village of Barth, between Stettin and Rostock. The camp contained 13,000 American, British and Commonwealth prisoners and was liberated by the Russians in May 1945.
Even in victory, Stapleton’s adventures continued. Busy with other things, the Russians simply left the newly liberated men to their own devices. “For three days we were virtually free,” Stapleton remembered. “There were no Germans and no Russians. In that time we acquired ourselves a motor car. It was an Adler and we tarted ourselves up with red tabs and we had the camp tailor make us hats. Out we drove past the one Russian sentry who was at the main gate. Eventually we got to the Canadians, I think it was at Weimar, and when we got there we ate 12 fried eggs each!”
After returning to England, Stapleton was released from the service in early 1946 with the rank of squadron leader. He returned to Africa and started flying Douglas Dakotas and de Havilland Doves and Herons for the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) on West African routes until 1948. He then worked in South Africa, first for Dunlop and then Sprite caravans, following those posts by escorting tourists in sub-Saharan Africa. A period of retirement was spent in Natal, South Africa, but in 1994 he and his wife returned to England.
In 1996 Stapleton was contacted by David Ross, who is currently writing the history of No. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron. In his research, Ross tracked down the surviving Tarfside children, and that year Stapleton and his wife journeyed to Scotland for a reunion. There he met up with four of the originals, including Betty Davie, to whom Richard Hillary had lost his heart 50 years before. In a newspaper report at the time, one of the “kids,” Angus Davidson, recounted: “We used to sit in the old straw loft at Migvie and I think they tried to outdo each other with their stories. I remember it as if it was yesterday.”
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.