Herbert Bates – writing the war stories as Flying Officer X

HE Bates in his RAF uniform
HE Bates in his RAF uniform

Herbert Ernest (HE) Bates was born on May 16 1905 in Rushden, Northamptonshire and educated at Kettering Grammar School.

After leaving school he worked as a reporter on the Northampton Chronicle and began to write short stories.

Squadron Leader James 'One-armed Mac' MacLachlan

Squadron Leader James 'One-armed Mac' MacLachlan

His first novel, The Two Sisters, was rejected by eight publishers before being accepted on the recommendation of Edward Garrett, a Bloomsbury editor.

Bates was 20 years old.

More novels and short stories followed but did not pay well and he struggled to make a living.

When war came, Bates wrote to his long-time friend David Garrett, Edward’s son, about military service.

Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher

Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher

David was working in the Ministry of Aviation.

Bates applied for a commission in the RAF Reserve and was accepted as a writer in the Public Relations Branch of the service with a roving brief to talk to airmen and write short stories about them.

His pseudonym was to be Flying Officer X.

He was commissioned in the RAF in October 1941, carried out his training at RAF Uxbridge, and was posted to RAF Oakington, Cambridgeshire, a Bomber Command base, to gain material for his stories.

Bates transferred to RAF Tangmere in March 1942.

He spent five months at the station, based at Shopwyke House, now the main house of Westbourne House School, which in 1941 was the Officer’s Mess.

Unlike Oakington, he found the Mess at Tangmere to be unfriendly.

In his autobiography he said he “wandered about for days in a state of lonely misery, scarcely speaking to a soul”.

There was no bed for him in the Mess and he was accommodated in an otherwise empty house some distance away.

However, his morale improved when he met a young squadron leader who had lost the lower part of his left arm, which had been replaced with a metal prosthetic.

Bates described it as “looking like a complicated egg-whisk”.

The squadron leader was James MacLachlan (One-armed Mac) commanding officer of No 1 Squadron, a Hurricane night intruder squadron based at RAF Tangmere.

‘Mac’ had made his name in the Battle of Malta and Bates describes how he lost his arm in the short story The Beginning of Things where MacLachlan is renamed McAlister.

Bates in his autobiography describes how MacLachlan introduced him to members of the squadron.

One was Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher, ‘Kut’, a pre-war Czechoslovakian Air Force pilot who joined the RAF after a long and dangerous journey via Poland where he was imprisoned for a year in a Russian concentration camp, then via Turkey, Syria, Egypt, South Africa and finally Gibraltar.

Bates described the journey in his story The Disinherited.

During the time Bates was at Tangmere, the night successes of MacLachlan and Kuttelwascher were reported in the national newspapers.

They reported the growing number of victories (20 enemy aircraft destroyed) whilst operating over German occupied airfields where nightly they shot down enemy bombers, many of them in the act of landing back at their bases.

In his story There’s Something in the Air, Bates writes about the successes of ‘Mac’ and ‘Kut’ (named in his story as Anderson and Auerbach) and the leaving of the squadron at the conclusion of its tour at Tangmere.

Bates later served in India.

He died in 1974, aged 68.

This is the 40th in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere. More information on the museum can be found at www.tangmere-museum.org.uk

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