The Kiwi ‘Red Baron’

by David Lomas / 30 April, 2011
Brian Carbury was one of the top five fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain. But because of a fall from grace the flying ace has been given little public recognition.

He was a teenage shoe salesman at Auckland’s Farmers department store who headed to England in 1937 in search of adventure. Three years later, Brian Carbury, 22, became an exceptional, but now often overlooked hero of the Battle of Britain.

For nine weeks in 1940, from August 27 until the end of October, Carbury flew his Spitfire fighter, which he named Aorangi, into battle against the waves of Luftwaffe aircraft during the pivotal German air assault that was intended to soften British resolve before Adolf Hitler’s planned land invasion of England.

Carbury was one of Sir Winston Churchill’s “few” – the 3000 defiant RAF pilots who defended Britain in its darkest hours and who were eulogised in one of the then British Prime Minister’s memorable speeches. Churchill said on August 20, 1940, midway through the Battle of Britain, that “the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The RAF lost 544 airmen during the battle and 1547 aircraft were destroyed (some on the ground). The German toll was 2698 dead and 1887 aircraft destroyed.

During the fight for air supremacy, Carbury shot down 15 German fighters, a total that put him among the top five aces for the battle. But making the New Zealander extra special was that all his “kills” were German Messerschmitt 109 fighters. Other aces had among their kills the softer-target bombers, including crippled craft returning to Germany without fighter protection.

British war historian and RAF expert David Ross, who is researching a book on Carbury, says the New Zealander was a “brilliant and exceptional” pilot and “one of the special guys” of the Battle of Britain. But says Ross, Carbury’s combat flying career came to a premature end because “his social life was a bloody disaster”.

He married an Englishwoman who, Ross says, loved the social life – “and he couldn’t afford it – simple as that”. She ran up debts and Carbury wrote cheques to cover them, but there was no money in his account. He was charged with fraud. It was alleged he had passed between nine and 17 false cheques, an offence that at the time could attract a lengthy prison sentence. At his court martial, he was found guilty.

On October 21, 1941, almost a year after the Battle of Britain ended, the London Gazette announced: “Flg Off B J G Carbury, DFC (40288) to be dismissed from the Service by sentence of General Court-Martial 1st Oct 1941.”

But Carbury’s personal fall from grace did not lessen his combat achievements, according to Ross. Carbury’s success against the Messerschmitt 109, a plane with a similar performance to the Spitfire, was awe-inspiring “if you consider [Me 109s] were the prey our youngsters were most scared of”, says Ross. “But he went after them because that was what he wanted, that was the greatest trophy – ‘sod the bombers, I want the 109s’. For him to go through the whole battle and shoot down 15 109s – and you can have another pilot who does not get anything in the whole Battle of Britain – that is extraordinary.”

Carbury was also one of only two “aces in a day” (shooting down five aircraft in one day) from the battle. He downed five Messerschmitt 109s* on August 31, 1940, a day on which he flew three missions, quitting only when, as his combat report succinctly detailed, “an Me 109 got on my tail, received one cannon shell and the air system punctured so came home”.

He received a leg wound – the only time his plane was hit by enemy fire. Unlike many “aces”, Carbury was never shot down. After being injured, he took one day off then returned to action.

British writer Stephen Bungay, in his book The Most Dangerous Enemy, says Carbury’s claim of five kills in a day would “coming from most pilots, have been dismissed as exuberance. However, it was already clear that Carbury was a man to take seriously, and, unlikely as the total might be, all were confirmed.”

New Zealand author Max Lambert, in his new book, Day After Day – New Zealanders in Fighter Command, says Kiwi pilots of the calibre of Colin Gray, Alan Deere, “Hawkeye” Wells, Bill Crawford-Compton and Johnny Checketts “had enormous publicity during and after the war and remain fixed in the public mind. Carbury, because he was so good, should be as well known and it is unfortunate that he’s not.”

Carbury’s flying success resulted from keeping things simple and by not engaging the enemy.

Australian pilot Richard Hillary (killed in 1943), who was mentored by Carbury, wrote in his book The Last Enemy that Carbury instructed him on combat patrol “you don’t have to look for them, you have to look for a way out”. On another occasion Carbury stated the skill to staying alive was “knowing when to break off”.

Ross says Carbury stuck to a simple plan. “He’d get as much altitude as he could. He’d dive on the enemy and then he’d recover altitude and repeat the process.”

Carbury, according to Ross, had the three requisites of a good fighter pilot – “courage, the ability to shoot and sticking to a simple tactic”. His steely self-control was such he was able to get in “unbelievably close before opening fire. In some cases that meant 15 feet [5m]. Some of his combat reports are amazing reading. ‘Open fire at 75 hundred yards broke off at five’, and you say ‘wait a minute that is World War I biplane stuff’. Von Richthofen. He would get within 15-30 feet before he would slaughter his prey. [WWI German pilot Baron von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’, who is considered the ‘ace of aces’ with more than 80 ‘kills’]. Brian Carbury was doing that from high altitude at speeds in excess 360mph [580kph].”

Carbury was also one of the few who knew when and how to fire. “Most of the guys would not hit a barn door,” says Ross. “They really wouldn’t. Some that I have interviewed said, ‘I fired a lot of pellets in the general direction of the Germans and I got shot down and that was my Battle of Britain.’

“Aerobatics had nothing to do with it. There is a lot of exaggeration regarding dogfights. The truth of what happened is you got altitude if you were lucky, you used that altitude, you dived and you climbed up and then, bloody hell, the sky is empty – what a big place it is. Easy.”

Following his dismissal from the RAF, Carbury appears to have helped train pilots in Scotland. Ross is researching this part of his life. He also remarried.

Carbury stayed in England, never returning to New Zealand where, according to Ross, his father had disowned him for bringing disgrace to the family. In 1948, Carbury was fined for ferrying aircraft to Palestine. Later he became a salesman. In 1961, aged 42, he died of leukaemia.


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