In the skies over southern England in August 1940 Flight Lieutenant Ian Gleed was flying as Red Squadron Leader, strapped into his Hurricane, a rattling metal crate armed with eight .303 caliber Browning machine guns, the snarl of its propellers, a streak of fury crossing Dorset’s sunny sky.
It wasn’t long before his fellow squadron leader Tim Mitchell noticed huge German formations heading towards them from the deep blue.
‘Green 1 to Red 1,’ came over Gleed’s headphones, ‘there they are. There’s hundreds of them.’
Cooly Gleed replied: ‘Red Leader here, OK, I’ve got them. Let’s surround the bastards!’
Gleed was the RAF’s fastest ace that summer, clocking up several ‘kills’ during this dog fight. On the ground his reputation was equally racy, although for different reasons.
Speaking to the BBC in the late 1990s, Christopher Gotch, who was posted to Gleed’s RAF station, confessed that soon after meeting the dashing 24-year-old pilot ‘[he] gave me a kiss, which took me by surprise but, being a product of a public school, it wasn’t exactly strange. So we started having sex together.’
In hotel room billets which men conveniently had to share, under blankets in bivouacs, on Britain’s darkened streets where the blackout was an unforeseen serendipity, love was entirely possible. And from princes to aces and tight-stockinged WAAFs to salty technicians, a great many of the men and women who fought the Battle of Britain 75 years ago were gay or lesbian.
But do we celebrate them? Or do they just not fit the narrative of wartime heroics, relegated to the status of victims or camp concert-party turns?
Gleed wasn’t just a war hero, and he was by any standards; when he was approached by some of his gay literary friends to write a memoir in 1941, it was hoped he would inspire the nation with his tales of a real-life Biggles.
Whatever playwright W Somerset Maugham and journalist Hector Bolitho, an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, expected, Gleed’s account was initially a little too candid for an over-sensitive publisher. All that jumping into bed naked with other men and bathroom shenanigans promised no conventional romance… So he invented a fiancée called Pam, much to the surprise of his family.
When in 1943 Gleed was shot down and killed over Tunisia, ‘Pam’ received letters of condolence from the public.
Gleed, Gotch and Bolitho were not the only sexual bandits in the RAF. Bernard Williams, who became the life-long partner of gay rights activist Dudley Cave, himself a survivor of the Japanese ‘Railway of Death’, was also an RAF veteran of the Battle of Britain.
Others found their way onto court martial records, although in the heat of war they weren’t always discharged or imprisoned.
In the 1930s the bisexual brother of the King, George, Duke of Kent, and had been arrested alongside theatre legend Noel Coward under suspicion of prostitution for trolling round the West End of London dressed as women.
Kent demoted himself from Air Vice-Marshal to Staff Officer when war broke out so that he could be on active service and allow more experienced men to strategize the Battle of Britain. Yet his scrapes with blackmailers and 20-year affair with his ‘dearest darling Noel’ were hushed up after his death in a plane crash in 1941.
Women found new purpose in the Forces too, if official accounts are to be believed. In early 1940 a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) report busied itself with the knotty question of lesbianism and came to the conclusion, in a refreshing tone of resignation: ‘Naturally, it is a vice that is going to be impossible to keep out of the WAAF altogether.’
The famous, though possibly apocryphal, story, related by Randy Shilts, of how General Eisenhower’s order to his WAC Sergeant Johnnie Phelps to wheedle out the lesbians from her regiment was greeted with the retort that she’d be the first on the list, could have been said of much of the WAAF during the Second World War.
Wartime diaries talk of fingers and tongues in non-regulation places, and one woman claimed she was on Cloud Nine serving in the WAAF with its intoxicating mix of danger, lipstick and tomboy haircuts.
Ralph Hall, a working-class lad from East London drafted into the RAF in 1940, wrote hundreds of passionate, gossipy, endearing, sad and comforting letters to his boyfriend, Monty Glover, a well-to-do architect and decorated veteran of World War I.
He wrote about manning a gun battery during German night raids on his airbase in 1940 and sharing cake Monty had sent him with his comrades, and how they would rib him good-naturedly about Monty when he called out for him after too many pints of beer. He longed for the war to end and the comforting corral of his lover’s arms.
He was in every respects just like other men of his time, writing letters to their sweethearts, sketching out their lives together when peace came.
But Hall and Gleed and Gotch and Bernard Williams and thousands of others weren’t like everyone else. Tolerated during wartime, when they might be useful, downright heroic even – come the peace, come the pain.
The police, which had better things to do in 1940, now raided and bullied and prosecuted on an unprecedented scale. If they didn’t just run for cover, politicians, who’d urged men to fight and die for freedom regardless of their sexuality, broke that promise. For gay men, war had been a liberation of sorts, peace was a prison.
As Dudley Cave told gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell: ‘They used us when it suited them, and then victimized us when the country was no longer in danger.’
Never has so much been done to so few by so many.