Fighter Pilot – Farmer – Gentleman
Tribute by his Son, Roger Bird
This week the words so many people have said to us are “He was a Lovely man.” He was a lovely man, he was a gentleman, a modest man. A private man.
Born in 1920 at Appleby owing to the tragic early death of his Grandfather. Moved back to Birdby in 1926. No electricity, or running water and the road was unmetalled. Grew up through the Depression – hard times. His father was a Violent alcoholic with recurring malaria. A man described by his own Dr as “The most unpleasant man you could meet.”
He got into the Grammar School but his father made him leave early to work on the farm. His Mother had a Heart weakened by childhood scarlet fever and had prolonged periods of poor health was not the force she might have been.
Learnt to fly at Carlisle before the War in the Volunteer Reserve. He said “High Flight” the poem was how it felt to fly. 37 left Carlisle he was one of 7 who returned. One of the seven seeing his brother for last time said “Arthur Bird was a damn good pilot.” Selected for RAF Cranwell, on ability, one of 2 selected from 100.
On active service during the Battle of Britain but too far West for much action, but that soon came as a Night Fighter flying Intruder missions over Germany, eventually flying Mosquitos, the Wooden Wonder.
He literally had a price on his head as any German shooting one of them down could claim a double victory.
Longest Intruder Flight, to Griefsweld on the Baltic, Control Tower went to bed assuming he was lost. He returned with a minutes fuel left. He did lose so very many very close friends and he said “You always still miss them.” The book Boston At War: Sent on a near suicide mission, a lone aircraft sent to deal with over 30 enemy aircraft over their own airfield on a particularly filthy night. He engaged 7 of them and was too modest in the claims he filed. He also appears briefly in The Nuremburg Raid, the night of the greatest losses the RAF ever suffered, and he was there.
He was awarded the DFC and his contemporaries were shocked he wasn’t awarded it a second time, bit but even in the middle of war there is office politics and my father was not a man for scheming and back stabbing or pushing himself forward. He wanted to stay flying and not be pushed into a desk job and promotion. He was asked to give a lecture on night fighters to a hanger full of bomber crews many of whom didn’t even know the intruders were below at night. He asked why he had to do it, and was told it was because he was one the senior surviving intruders, he was 22.
He took General Paton for a low level joyride along the South Coast in his Mosquito. He was speaking to Douglas Bader at a party the night before Bader was shot down and captured. He always thought himself unlucky, despite having flown down the Ruhr Valley, “The Valley of a thousands guns,” he said it felt very personal, that each one was after him. In the end having survived three tours of duty, when so many did not survive one, he was taken aside by a senior officer who said “You’ve done your bit I’m posting you to where you won’t be shot at.” Then was his chance to see something of the world, he had good memories of seeing the pyramids and getting as far as India.
A period of instructing, able to teach pupils to flying 14 different types of aircraft and the drop of a hat, each one a very complicated system in its own right. Everything from a Spitfire to a Lancaster. A pupil recalled how calm and effective he was landing their plane when it was on fire, even instructing has its dangers.
Post war a career in civil aviation should have followed, but his parents wanted him back on the farm and again he did his duty and returned. His love of flying continued, but private flying is extremely expensive, he couldn’t afford it, but he found ways round that, teaching at gliding clubs at Siloth and Kirkbride on the former RAF airfields that were such a part of my childhood. I have happy memories of flying with him from a very early age.
He didn’t Speak of his experiences until After he had Delayed Battle Fatigue or PTSD as it is now known. A condition which almost resulted in his suicide. You cannot go to war aged 19 for 6 years, see what he saw and not have consequences. We always loved his recollections, and as school boys both my friends and Heathers friends were spellbound by them.
He flew for a parachute club unpaid so that he could put in the hours required to keep his flying licence.
Some there were a bit gung ho about his experiences and he pulled them up saying “Remember I have killed men and I have to live with that.” Certainly he had no cartoon book hatred of the Germans, he knew that most of the opposing pilots were men like him doing their duty. He knew first hand the horror of war, over Germany at night the only thing lit up were the camps and the pilots knew what they were.
He and his fellows were always remarkably modest, we were the ones so very proud of him.
He said he Rushed into Marriage at 43, for 57 years. They were only ever separated by one of them being in hospital. Mum made up for his experience of his own family. Shortly before he died, he said to Mum “I was lying here just thinking what a wonderful wife you’ve been to me.”
Things were very uneasy in the early days with my Grandfather living in. As an example, Grandfather stood with his shotgun and produced two cartridges saying to my parents “One for you and one for you.” They had to sleep in the car down a lane for the night. He was always threatening to disinherit either Dad or his brother, so they agreed to put it right whichever way it went. He disinherited my father and it stayed that way, it is a terrible thing for a father to disinherit a son. He never spoke of it in public it was humiliating for him though he was the innocent party.
He never expected to be a father at his age and he was a much better father than his own. He feared that we would fall out as they had, but we never did. I won’t pretend he was a saint. Once facing a garden full of bullocks, he expressed some forceful opinions in choice language. Only to discover that the figure in the familiar coat was not Mum but his mother in law who had borrowed it!
He had other interests, after flying, his daily crossword up to his final illness. Watched live motor racing between the wars. He always followed Formula 1. He had a smart phone and a tablet.
He had a serious injury playing ice hocky. He was an artist with a dry fly and knew the river like the back of his hand. He loved the river, a true Countryman. I have very happy memories of being there with him in all seasons , all weathers and all hours. He used to say he could hear chimes from three Churches there. Game Shooting, crouched in the intense cold of the river bank a small bird perched on his cap! So many things we did together. Singing In the Eden Singers, something he and Mum could do together.
On his second hip operation Carlisle an acquired infection nearly did what the Luftwaffe Couldn’t. Thanks to Mum going every day and the intervention of Dr Gavin Young, we had the bonus of another decade.
He loved the sunshine, and I’m convinced the conservatory I built extended his life as he spent so much of that last decade in there.
As I come home from work I will always look down there expecting to see him. He made it to 100 and gave a coherent speech without notes at his party in the village hall.
I will miss his dry, gentle sense of humour, never at other peoples expense. He had a collection of favourite Expressions, some pure Cumbrian, some his own inventing. He was always obsessed with weather, so critical to Pilots and Farmers. He’d say “It’s faired up worse.”
Faced with a table full of noisy talkative family, he would say “You’ve got to think of some thin words round here to squeeze them in.” Or when we were excessively noisy children, he’d say “Just nip to the top of Crossfell and see if I’m there.”
There are many kinds of heroes and the term is much over used today. But my father was a hero, he was my hero and I will miss him.
Poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Reading: Isaiah 40.28-31
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Address by Revd Stewart Fyfe, Vicar
By the standards of any age and on any definition, William Arthur Bird was a gentleman. He was a gentleman by birth and lineage: the first entry in the marriage registers of Morland, from 1535, is a Bird of Birdby. But far more importantly, he was a gentleman by manners. They say that “Manners maketh man” and Arthur’s manners made him a most delightful and humane man. I’m reminded of Hazel’s father saying, after she first introduced Arthur to the family circle, that he was the first real man she had brought home. And in so many ways that was true. He was a very real man. Strong, dependable and brave, but also sensitive, kind and caring. Without those gentler manly virtues, we simply become brutish, but Arthur Bird was a true, gentle-man.
And just as he held together those two sides of manhood, with such easy grace, he also held together so many of the other apparent contradictions of life. Gentleness and strength, humility and dignity and war and peace. When asked by the late Barbara Castle how he could live with the knowledge that he had killed men in war, he replied, “No-one was going to take away my little bit of England.” I am reminded that the name Adam, in the Bible, means “drawn from the earth” and in Arthur, also drawn from the soil of Eden, it was as though the earth itself had risen in fury to defend its rights and its people. Yet, the lives he took did bother him. They were part of the cost he paid. But, for all his instincts of peace, he knew that there are some things that need to be fought for.
It gives you a different perspective on life, being a fighter pilot. I remember him saying that when you’ve been hurtling through the air at 300 miles an hour, being shot at from all sides and deliberately making yourself a target, nothing else ever really frightens you again. His wartime experiences gave him a broader perspective on life, able to look at it, as it were, from above.
Another contradiction with which he was able to live was that he recognised the full horrors of war, such as most of us can only imagine. Yet, it was also the most fun he ever had in his life. At a time when university was not the norm for young people, the war performed a similar role for Arthur’s generation. It was an escape from a difficult upbringing, a chance to do something different, learn new skills and to meet friends from all over the country, indeed all over the world. It was also, of course, a chance to play with some very fast machines. Arthur and I shared a love of speed, both of us being avid Formula 1 fans, and I can’t help feeling slightly envious of his days flying Mosquitos and Spitfires, flinging his “eager craft through footless halls of air”.
How could Arthur live with such horror and yet such fun at the same time? I suppose he recognised that life doesn’t often tie up neatly together. You take what comes and make the most of it and try to live the right way in the time that’s allotted to you. The war taught him a great deal about life.
Yet I cannot speak of Arthur without proclaiming that he was also a hero. I can only echo the words of Prime Minister Churchill to remind us that, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Arthur was one of the last of “the Few”, one of a generation of great nobility and valour that has been slipping away from us at an alarming rate while the world has been pre-occupied with Covid. Their stories are not being told as they should be and I regret that so few are able to be here today to hear Arthur’s story and pay our respects.
We owe Arthur and his generation a huge debt, which we can never repay. As time has gone on, I have come to value the stories of our war heroes more and more. When I was young, every man of a certain age had a war story. They seemed common-place, but as time has gone on I have realised that these stories are far from common-place. Just as it can be hard to recognise a true saint when they are in our midst, so it is hard to recognise a true hero. We expect, perhaps, that they should be a flawless character from a Greek myth, or perhaps someone of other-worldly power from a Marvel comic. But true heroes, like true saints, are in fact deeply human. They are flawed, just as we are. We can even be jealous of them being given hero status, because they appear so ordinary. Yet that is also precisely what makes them heroic.
Arthur’s war-time flying was distinguished indeed. The number of flights he undertook, the skill he showed in the air, the care he took of his comrades and the impact he had on the war, were extraordinary feats of brilliance. And he did it all as a nineteen year old farmer’s son from Morland, terrified out of his wits. But he did it! And his contribution to the war was very significant.
But we also owe him our gratitude because he bore the wounds of war on our behalf for over three quarters of a century. These were not wounds we could see, or even begin to understand. They were not wounds we could dress or assist with surgery or prosthetic technology. They were borne deep in his soul for the rest of his life. I caught a glimpse of them each year on Remembrance Sunday. I was in the privileged position of facing the congregation as the two minutes silence fell, and the look on Arthur’s face at that moment will always live with me. Anyone who thinks that Remembrance Sunday glorifies war just needed to see that look to know the truth. For a moment the years rolled away and he was back with the many, many friends that he lost. For him, those familiar Remembrance words had a particular clarity and meaning: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left, grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” Such a tiny fraction of those airmen survived. And those who did, like Arthur, carried the memories of all those who died, in their hearts for the rest of their lives, every day as the sun rose and every time it set. I’m not sure I could bear that. But I’m profoundly grateful to Arthur that he bore it for me.
I am reminded of those lines from Isaiah that spoke of the pains Jesus bore for us: “he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” While Jesus bore our sins in the complete and ultimate way that only God can, Arthur nonetheless bore the wounds of our transgressions and the cost of our peace. And perhaps it is what St Paul meant when he spoke about us sharing the sufferings of Christ.
Every instinct in me says that Arthur should have been repaid with honours and wealth, glory and ease. Yet, that was not the case. Like countless other war heroes, he was demobbed and left to fend for himself. And life dealt him some pretty tough blows, which he simply had to bear, including cruel and manifest injustice. Despite all his hard work and sacrifice for others, he never reaped much personal benefit from it. It saddens me deeply to think of it.
But it also inspires me, because I see in Arthur a true representation of the Christian life, a life of dedicated sacrifice and service, for that is the true nature of love and the true vocation of man. And like so many Christians, he could bear the injustices because we believe in a higher justice. We turn the other cheek not because we are weak and uncaring, but because we trust to the justice of God and place our faith in his coming kingdom when every wrong will be set right and those who have given without counting the cost will inherit treasure, not weighed in silver and gold, but of such infinite value that no earthly minded person could ever imagine. Our pity should, in fact, be reserved for those who are content with such meagre rewards as earthly goods. Arthur, however, will now receive his reward and it will be great. “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”
And it must be noted that Arthur himself was not bitter. Like the old fighter pilot he was, he was able to leave far behind such earth-bound cares, and through forgiveness, was able to slip high into the heavens and reach out his hand to God.
Arthur served without counting the cost and doing so allowed him to find deep peace and joy. He was blessed with a happy marriage, a family he cared for deeply, a home in the community he loved and had defended with his life, and so many other reasons to be thankful.
And now, like the faithful servants in Jesus’ parable, having been faithful with a little, he will be given much. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and enter the joy of your master.”