The Night Fighter Pilot - Staples

Lionel Staples first flew a Tiger Moth during 1938 at No 18 Elementary and Reserve Flying School at Fairoaks. One of his instructors was Flt Lt Cyril Arthur, who served as the School’s Commanding Officer for 18 years until its closure as 18 EFTS in 1953. Staples left Fairoaks at the end of August 1938 with a grading of ‘Above Average’.

By March 1940, Staples had resumed training at No 6 EFTS at Sywell making his first flight in G-ADGT on 10 April 1940, under the instruction of Pilot Officer James, who sent Staples for solo circuits following dual instruction in instrument flying. Staples few ‘GT again during May 1940 for forced landings and aerobatics.

Following his course at Sywell, Staples continued his training on the Miles Master with 8 FTS and the Spitfire with 7 Operational Training Unit, whose course he completed on 30 August 1940. September 1940 was the height of the Battle of Britain and saw Staples complete a few days’ Hurricane flying with both 85 and 242 Sqns. From 22 September 1940 onwards, Staples had settled with 151 Sqn flying the Hurricane, initially from Stapleford and later from RAF Digby in Lincolnshire.  In early October the Squadron was informed that it was to specialise in night fighting, a move welcomed with little enthusiasm by its pilots. By December, Sgt Staples’ logbook was showing a mix of the Hurricane and Boulton Paul Defiant, the latter predominating by February 1941. On the night of 9/10 April 1941, the Luftwaffe targeted Fort Dunlop in Birmingham, a factory important to the British War Effort. As the attackers approached Birmingham, Sgt Staples and his gunner, Sgt Parkin, spotted what they thought was a Dornier 17, with Sgt Parkin firing into the German’s port wing and engine. As the German went into a steep, twisting dive, Staples followed but was unable to fire any further. As both aircraft hurtled earthwards, Staples realised he was getting perilously close to the deadly balloon barrage around Birmingham and broke off the attack. A kill was claimed.

This was not Sgt Staples’ final encounter with enemy aircraft. Leaving 151 Sqn at the end of August 1941 for a period as an instructor, he joined 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight during August 1942. This unit’s role was to evaluate captured enemy aircraft and to demonstrate their characteristics to other Allied units. Staples’ logbook shows him flying captured Junkers 88, Heinkel 111, Messerschmitt 110 and Focke-Wulf 190 ‘on tour’ in East Anglia and in co-operation with the BBC Film Unit.

By August 1947, Flt Lt Staples had returned to flying with 18 RFS at Fairoaks, again flying the Tiger Moth with Cyril Arthur who was now a Wing Commander.

50 years to the day after the encounter East of Birmingham, Lionel Staples was introduced to Willi Vogt, a member of the crew of the aircraft he shot down, actually a Junkers 88 which had come down near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. The 2 men visited the Junkers’ crash site and remained friends until Lionel’s death some years later.

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