Published:

AshcroftBy Lord Ashcroft, KCMG

Last night I welcomed almost 300 distinguished guests to the Imperial
War Museum for the launch of Heroes of
the Skies
, my latest book on gallantry.

As the title suggests, this is a book about bravery in the air by pilots
and aircrew in combat. It features astonishing stories of courage by fighter
pilots, bomber pilots and crew, reconnaissance pilots and helicopter pilots –
and even tales of valour on the ground by men who were shot down and either
tried to evade capture or who, as PoWs, tried to escape.

In the splendid – and highly appropriate – surroundings of the Imperial
War Museum, I was privileged enough to have five special guests who feature
prominently in the book, and all of whom are undoubtedly worthy to be called Heroes of the Skies.

Ted Maslen-Jones MC, DFC was awarded both his decorations in 1945 for
bravery during the Burma campaign. As a reconnaissance pilot, he flew Austers
alone, unarmed and without a parachute to carry out observation flights in
support of the 14th Army’s operations. Even now, at 92 years of age,
Ted still drives, and enjoys gardening, fly-fishing and singing in his local
choir. “I was a bit of a Biggles: an old-fashioned flyer,” he told me, adding
he only remembered the “enjoyable bits, not the nasty bits” of his Second World
War service.

Bill O’Brien DFM was awarded his decoration in 1982 during a remarkable
military career that spanned 38 years. As a Royal Marine and a helicopter
pilot, he had the distinction of winning the only DFM of the Falklands War. He
was awarded his medal for bravery flying repeated day and night supply and
casualty evacuations, firstly during the attack on Darwin and Goose Green and,
subsequently, during the numerous battles that followed. Remarkably, in 2010, and by then affectionately known as “Uncle Bill”, he served with the Royal
Naval Reserve in Afghanistan and, aged 55, became the oldest Apache pilot to
fly operationally.


Jeff Niblett DFC, another Royal Marine, was also
awarded his decoration in 1982 for bravery during the Falklands War when
serving as a helicopter pilot with the Commando Brigade Air Squadron. In one
incident, he was leading a pair of Scout helicopters attempting to
evacuate a casualty – no less a man than Colonel 'H' Jones VC – during
the battle for Darwin and Goose Green. Not only did Colonel H perish, but so too did the pilot in the accompanying helicopter, shot down by one of
two Argentine Pucara aircraft that attacked them. Jeff, however, flew skilfully
and courageously to avoid being hit before returning for the
badly injured comrade from the downed helicopter, and eventually, the body
of the other pilot, a fellow Royal Marine officer and close friend. For his
service throughout the conflict, Jeff received the first ever DFC awarded to a
Royal Marine.

Bill Scarratt DFC was awarded his decoration in 1975 for courage in
Northern Ireland. He had the distinction of being the first DFC of the
Troubles. Indeed, only three such decorations were awarded during the entire
campaign. Bill, who as a young man learnt to parachute from the incredible
height of 20,000 feet, flew his helicopter skilfully and courageously after it
was ambushed while dropping off a four-man patrol in South Armagh: so-called
“Bandit Country”. Not only did bullets enter the helicopter’s fuel tanks, but
one bullet shot clean through the intercom lead hanging down from his helmet,
thereby rendering his radio useless.

Shaun Wyatt DFC was also awarded his decoration for bravery in Northern
Ireland. His award in 1994 came after he, too, flew skilfully and bravely when
his Lynx and two other helicopters were ambushed in South Armagh. No less than
30 terrorists based in at least five firing points tried to bring a helicopter
down. Wyatt not only survived but he then pursued some of the terrorists in a
cat-and-mouse gun battle throughout “Bandit Country”. After one massive
firefight lasting 20 minutes and despite one of the biggest ambushes of the
Troubles, Wyatt and his comrades survived unscathed.

My other guests last night represented worlds as diverse as the
military, politics, business, the legal profession, the media, charities and many
more areas besides. The RAF was well represented and Air Chief Marshal Sir
Stuart Peach KCB CBE FRAeS was kind enough to make the introductory speech.

One intended guest who was, sadly, unable to be present was Marshal of
the RAF, Sir Michael Beetham GCB, CBE, DFC, AFC. He wrote the Foreword to Heroes of the Skies, generously
describing it as “a book to be cherished and savoured.” A decorated Second
World War bomber pilot, I got to know and admire Sir Michael in his capacity as
President of the Bomber Command Association.

I have enjoyed a half-century interest in bravery, in general, and
gallantry medals, in particular. This passion saw me build up not just the
world’s largest collection of VCs and a substantial collection of Special
Forces medals, but also the largest private collection of British, Commonwealth
and other Allied medals for courage in the air. More than 80 groups of
gallantry and service medals have formed the basis of the write-ups in my new
book.

Heroes of the Skies will raise money for a cause close to my
heart. I have decided that every penny of my author’s royalties will be donated
to the RAF Benevolent Fund. The fund is the RAF’s leading welfare charity, and
looks after serving and former members of the RAF, as well as their partners
and dependent children.

Furthermore, the RAF Benevolent Fund also became the custodian of the
new Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, which I and others supported ahead
of its unveiling by The Queen this summer. If you want to support a truly
worthy cause, then please buy a copy of the Heroes
of the Skies
: I hope very much that you will enjoy the book too.

* Heroes of the Skies by Michael
Ashcroft is published in hardback by Headline and costs £20 (RRP). It is available
from all good bookshops or visit:
www.amazon.co.uk . For
more information on the book, visit:
www.heroesoftheskies.com . The
book is coming out in association with a six-part Channel 5 series of the same
name that begins on September 20 at 8pm.

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