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Reverend George Wood RAF

Reverend George Wood. Flight Lieutenant, 263 Squadron RAF. 1922-2020

Reverend George Wood, Flight Lieutenant 263 Squadron RAF, 1922 – 2020


George Wood was born in January 1922 in East Grinstead. He became a Wolf Cub, then a member of the 3rd Wimbledon Scout Group. In August 1939 he set out to attend a Scout camp in Groeningen, Holland, having to leave suddenly on the second day because of war preparations. He volunteered for aircrew in March 1941 and was selected to train as a pilot.

Initial flying training was in Perth, Scotland. George went solo in a Tiger Moth in October 1941 and was then sent across the Atlantic to join the US Army Air Corps as a UK Aviation Cadet in Montgomery, Alabama. Here George flew Stearman biplanes, then Vultee and Harvard monoplanes, receiving his American Wings in August 1942. They were replaced by RAF Wings when the cadets returned to England via Canada. George’s ship, the Awatea, was damaged in a collision with a US Navy destroyer which failed to avoid a torpedo and sank with no survivors. The Awatea had to return to Halifax, from where George went by train to New York to board the RMS Queen Elizabeth, together with 15,000 US soldiers bound for the war in Europe.

263 Squadron during Operation Starkey. George Wood is standing 4th from the left.

263 Squadron during Operation Starkey. George Wood is standing 4th from the left.

After Operational Training in England George was posted to 263 Squadron RAF at Warmwell in Dorset to fly Westland Whirlwind fighter-bombers. The Whirlwind was a light, fast and well-armed aircraft with twin Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines. In addition to its four 20mm cannon in the nose, it was able to carry two 500lb bombs. Targets for 263 Squadron were enemy installations on the French coast and enemy shipping. Such attacks meant flying for 40 minutes across the Channel, usually at very low level and in tight formation, before facing intense flak.

On the 23 September 1943 George, in a Whirlwind borrowed from Squadron Leader Reg Baker, flew to Plujean airfield near Morlaix, Brittany where a dive-bombing attack was planned for midday when Luftwaffe personnel would all be at lunch. Not all were relaxing however because the Squadron encountered very heavy flak. As George began his dive towards the target his aircraft was hit and its bombs exploded, completely destroying the Whirlwind in a huge ball of fire. George found himself trapped in the cockpit section, falling towards the airfield. He could not release himself and in desperation shouted: “Oh God help me!”.

Instantly, the cockpit split open and George found himself falling free. He remembered his instructors saying “it won’t mean a thing if you don’t pull the string” and so pulled the ripcord to deploy his parachute.

Despite being fired at from the ground, George landed safely. He ran toward the airfield boundary and could not understand why he was not chased by German troops. He later found that he had crossed a minefield. After successfully hiding from search parties George hid in a barn where he was found by Resistance workers. False papers were quickly produced and George became ‘Pierre Floch’, a deaf and dumb student. He was taken to Carantec, near Roscoff, and welcomed into a French family who heroically cared for him at the risk of their lives.

Requin as now displayed at the Crantec Musée Maritime, Brittany

Requin as now displayed at the Crantec Musée Maritime, Brittany

The resistance network “Sibaril” had already managed to repatriate 183 escapees across the Channel in boats built secretly in a local shipyard. A 24ft boat, the Requin (Shark) was built in 11 days for George and others. On the night of 31 October Requin was launched, nearly sinking at first, then made its way in stormy conditions down the dangerous estuary past German outposts. After several hours under sail, the old car engine was started and Requin headed for Plymouth, being intercepted 21 hours later by a Royal Navy minesweeper near the Eddystone lighthouse.

George’s family and friends had been told that he was missing, presumed dead, so his arrival in England was a great surprise. After some leave, in December 1943 George rejoined 263 Squadron, now at Bolt Head where the Whirlwinds were being replaced by Hawker Typhoons. Cross Channel attacks continued into 1944 and operating from Hurn on D-Day, where 263 Squadron had joined 146 Wing of the 2nd Tactical Air Force. Following the successful landings, 263 Squadron then moved to B3 airfield, at Ste Croix-sur-Mer, to take part in the Battle of Normandy and, eventually, the drive through France, Belgium, Holland and finally into Germany.

George completed his first tour of operations and was posted to Egypt to conduct tropical trials on the new Tempest ll aircraft. With the end of the European war, he returned to England as an instructor. This life was not for him and he resigned his commission as Flight Lieutenant in the RAF Volunteer Reserve in November 1945.

George asked his civilian employer to send him to their Capetown branch. So began a long association with South Africa where his appeal for Divine assistance caught up with him. Friends suggested that George should train for the Christian Ministry. After a year at St.Mary’s Mission, Namibia, George answered his calling and went to study at Theological College in Grahamstown. He was ordained in December 1955 in St.Alban’s Cathedral, Pretoria. In October 1956 he married Joan Van Straaten whom he had met on a blind date four years earlier.

St. Alban's Cathedral, Pretoria, South Africa

St. Alban’s Cathedral, Pretoria, South Africa

There followed years of demanding work in Zululand where George and Joan ran considerable risks as outspoken opponents of Apartheid. They were under surveillance by the Bureau of State Security (BOSS), and their home was watched by two BOSS personnel from a parked car. Joan went to offer them cups of tea. Joan and George had five daughters, “the splinters” as George called them.

After returning to England, George worked for the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG) then as a parish priest in Littlehampton. George retired from full-time ministry in 1987. Joan died in 1988.

George was involved in the formation of the Typhoon Entente Cordiale Trust (TECT) and in the creation of the Typhoon Memorial at Noyers Bocage, Normandy. He served as Chaplain to TECT in its early years, always revelling in the company of other Typhoon veterans. Eventually, physical frailty and blindness demanded full-time care and George moved into the College of St.Barnabas near Lingfield, a home for retired clergymen. However, George was not finished yet! 

George Medal01

George's Legion d’Honneur on display in Carantec, Brittany following its presentation to the town.

George’s Legion d’Honneur on display in Carantec, Brittany following its presentation to the town.

In 2015 TECT was instrumental in arranging an investiture when Normandy Typhoon veterans would be presented by the French Government with the Legion d’Honneur. Seven veterans attended the ceremony, held at the Jet Age Museum, Staverton. George decided to be different. He planned to present his medal to the people of Carantec in Brittany who had protected him in 1943. So, on the evening of the investiture, a party crossed the Channel and drove to Carantec. There, George, his family and friends were welcomed by the whole town. George was taken flying by the local flying club over the scenes of his escape exactly 72 years before. Then, after a huge parade through the town, we joined the local people in the hall of the Maritime Museum, where George’s boat Requin was on display. The Legion d’Honneur was presented by a French General. Celebrations lasted into the evening, then, after Mass in the Carantec church on Sunday morning, George presented his medal back to the people of Carantec. It is now displayed, together with other memorabilia and details of the 193 escapes organised by the “Résau Sibaril”.

George at the launch of the Hawker Typhoon RB396 project at Goodwood, 29th October 2016

George at the launch of the Hawker Typhoon RB396 project at Goodwood, 29th October 2016

George was an enthusiastic supporter of the RB396 project, attended its launch event at Goodwood and then was a guest of honour at other events at Uckfield.

George passed peacefully away just two days before his 98th birthday.

The Project Team would like to thank Anthony Knight, Secretary of the Typhoon Entente Cordiale Trust (TECT), for this moving obituary.

You can find George Wood’s WO 208 Escape & Evasion Reports on the unofficial 263 Squadron website: WO208 – George Wood dated 23/11/1943, WO208 ‘Secret Counterpart’ George Wood dated 19/11/1943.

 

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