18 December 2020

From Sapper to Spitfire Spy - Sally-Anne Greville-Heygate


Rather fortuitously, and I am forever grateful for I have had my head buried in several manuscripts of late, this review was first published on Aircrew Book Review’s supporting Facebook page on 15 December. Colin Ford is the erudite ‘Historian by Appointment’ of No. 268 Squadron and the author of its epic history ADJIDAUMO - 'Tail-in-Air' the History of No. 268 Squadron Royal Air Force 1940-1946 (which will, hopefully, one day, be published as a widely available edition). His knowledge of the unit’s tactical reconnaissance work, and the intricacies therein, and intimate understanding of the careers of many of the pilots who flew with the squadron, makes him the perfect reviewer for a book about a ‘Spitfire Spy’. A couple of years ago I edited his comprehensive look at the only two Australians to fly the reconnaissance variant of the Hawker Typhoon (the FR.IB) into a 3000-word feature article for Flightpath magazine. The depth of his research was phenomenal and surely must be one of the very few (only?) comparisons of this version of the great ‘Tiffie’ with the almost ideal (for Tac/R) Mustang Mk.I/IA and Mk.II. Enjoy, then, this review written by quite the cluey chap! Andy Wright.


This biography of Flight Lieutenant David Greville-Heygate DFC has been written by his daughter, Sally-Anne Greville-Heygate, and is largely based around his personal correspondence, diary entries, pilot’s logbook, squadron records and other documentation. During the writing of this biography, where the source material didn’t contain, or the detail of what was noted in the source material was not clear to the author, she made good use of a number of aviation specific forums, especially ‘RAF Commands’, to post questions and seek answers. 


The overall account is an interesting one and despite the publisher’s hyperbole of the subject‘one of the few men who served in both the army and the Royal Air Force during the Second World War’it was a more common occurrence than is generally known (my examination of the aircrew rosters of RAF Army Co-operation Command, and later Second Tactical Air Force Tac/R squadrons, shows a variation between units of 20-35 per cent of their RAF/RAFVR pilots at various times being ex-Army or seconded-Army). What we have is a story typical of many young men who had joined the Army just before or at the outbreak of the Second World War, who then answered the call for aircrew trainees from 1940 onwards. What is more interesting in this instance is the subject followed the path open to commissioned Army officers seconded for aircrew training with the expectation from the Army the role he would find himself in, when he qualified as a pilot, would be with one of the RAF's Army co-operation squadrons in support of Army operations and activities. Also, not surprisingly, a number of them did not always end up in the ACC or Tac/R type roles and could be found in the aircrew rosters of transport squadrons and Special Duties units, as well as being represented in smaller numbers in fighter, bomber and Coastal Command squadrons.


In David Greville-Heygate’s (DGH) case, completing his flying training in the UK, he passed through the Army Co-operation/Tactical Reconnaissance 41 OTU at Old Sarum and eventually joined No. 16 Squadron. There he initially flew Westland Lysanders in support of Army exercises in the UK, then when the squadron re-equipped with the Allison-engined North American Mustang Mk.I in April 1942, he flew the wide range of operational sorties being conducted by RAF ACC squadrons at that time. This included shipping reconnaissance, low-level photographic reconnaissance, Rhubarbs, Rangers and Populars, plus continuing support and participation in Army exercises in the UK including Exercise Spartan in early 1943.


In July 1943, with the disbandment of ACC, and the interim period before 2TAF was formed, there was the opportunity for him to sample the Supermarine Spitfire in the shape of the PR.IV. At that time, it was proposed 16 Squadron would move from the low-level to high-level reconnaissance role, however, due to a number of factors, that ended up being delayed so operations continued on Mustangs until early 1944.


In early November 1943, DGH was deemed to be tour expired and was sent to fill an instructor’s role at 41 OTU. That brought its own challenges and frustration, especially being ‘on rest’ when D-Day occurred. Seeking a way back to operational flying, DGH went down the path of converting onto the Hawker Typhoon, the demand for pilots for the 2TAF Typhoon squadrons being high at the time due to the number of combat losses. So, in early December 1944, he joined No. 168 Squadron flying the Typhoon largely on armed recces at low altitude over the Netherlands and western Germany. 

However, due to a chance encounter with an old friend, and a bit of old fashioned ’string pulling’, he was able to get himself posted across to No.II (AC) Squadron (‘Shiny Two’), as a part of No. 35 (Recce) Wing, flying Spitfire XIVs. This is where he saw out the remainder of his wartime operational flying which included first-hand experiences relating to Operation Bodenplatte—the Luftwaffe attacks on Allied airfields on 1 January 1945—and the series of Allied operations, including the forced crossing of the Rhine, leading to the eventual defeat of Germany. Naturally enough, with hostilities over in Europe, there is the period of uncertainty that follows and the change from a wartime to peacetime Air Force, but with developing tensions with the Soviet Union in the areas of Europe they had occupied and the conflict still ongoing in the Far East.

There are a couple of areas in this biography where I felt somewhat uncomfortable reading his views on certain people. That partly arose from knowing a number of those people personally or, in a few instances, knowing the other side of the story as to why certain decisions and actions were being taken. For example, DGH objects to the demands for pilots to fly a certain number of hours and the introduction of specific training programs after VE-Day and berates his OC of the time regarding this. The OC, however, was following the TAF HQ/British Air Forces of Occupation requirements which dictated that aircrew who may be required for deployment to the Far East, or if the situation in Europe destabilised, were to maintain their operational skills and readiness through regular flying and training activities. This was not helped, of course, by the rapid drawdown in many squadrons caused by the repatriation of aircrew from Allied Air Forces (RAAF, RCAF, RNZAF etc) with the conclusion of hostilities in Europe.


As well, there are a few other places in the narrative where, given the focus of the biography, the bigger picture and the part DGH, and the units he was with, played is not particularly clear. Someone who may not have read about the role of ACC and 2TAF may be left wondering about certain aspects of what is conveyed and why things were done the way they were. As an example, the biography gives some detail of the low-level photography of the French coastline including Normandy conducted by DGH but does not explain the reasons for it, why this specific type of photography was required and why obtaining it was so risky for the pilots involved.


The other thing to be aware of is that, as a large part of the narrative is drawn from diary entries, letters and other documents of the time, some of the views and sentiments expressed by those at the time may seem out of place or somewhat incongruous in the current day; it’s all about how we view things now and how they were viewed then. 

Photos from DGH’s wartime logbook and personal collection, plus those sourced from the family of wartime friends, combined with a number of photo extracts from the logbook and maps showing his key areas of operation, help round out and literally illustrate the story.


Overall, a good biography that is probably somewhere between autobiography and biography due to the high percentage of first-person source material used and the author’s obvious connection to the subject. For those interested in a different type of WWII pilot biography, and a view into a different part of the air war in Europe, this book will provide that difference.


ISBN 978-1-47384-3-882

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