William Downing

Also known as: Bill.

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William was born at Lilley Terrace Irthlingborough (Northamptonshire) on 6 March 1920 the first child of a shoemaker, Joseph and Miriam (a talented amateur soprano). He enjoyed his childhood in Irthlingborough and later in South London growing up with his brother John and various dogs and then being known to many in the family as Billy.

William left school at 13 and had various jobs in offices and factories before undertaking training as a draughtsman. He liked being active enjoying cricket, cycling and fishing but his passion was always aircraft and flying. In summer 1939 he enlisted as an AC2 with the Royal Air Force and commenced initial "square bashing" - he said that on pay parade at the time he used to be given half a crown for his week's endeavours of which he had to immediately return one and nine pence back to cover the costs of sporting and other activities.

He qualified as an armourer and then on promotion to LAC became an Instructor on what he described as “various armament paraphernalia” before spending the Battle of Britain arming Hurricanes and Spitfires on airfields in the South east of England. These were of course frequently subject to aerial attack and he achieved a particular ability to see any small hollow in the ground to dive into when necessary. By this time on a visit back to Irthlingborough he had met Joan a schoolteacher and daughter of the local Policeman and he was clearly smitten. In 1941 he was accepted for flying training and embarked to Southern Rhodesia. On August 18th he flew his first solo in a Tiger Moth and then started further training on Harvards - on one occasion crash landing in a cornfield after losing part of the tail. He spent much time with a local farmer and his family and loved the landscape and countryside always thinking that he would like to return at some stage. He returned to England in spring 1942 having gained his "Wings" and being promoted to Sergeant Pilot. His first solo in a Spitfire was at 61 Operational Training Unit on 27th June and in November he transferred to 41 Squadron and undertook many operational sorties in a Spitfire Mark 12 although the time was disrupted by a 2 month spell in hospital with a fractured elbow.

In June 1943 he received a posting to Malta to support the Italy landings. Joan and Bill married in Irthlingborough on 8th June and a few days later he embarked to Algiers arriving in Malta on 4th July. On 19th July in a dogfight off Catania in which he destroyed 2 ME 110's his spitfire was shot down. He bailed out and Sicilian fishermen subsequently retrieved him from his dingy about 9 hours later. Following transportation through Italy (during which he twice jumped from the Train and wandered for days before recapture) he was held as a POW at Fallingbostel and Stalag Luft 3, Hyderkrug in East Prussia until the end of the conflict. Following "release" in April 1945 and walking west along a road amongst columns of former prisoners they were attacked in what would now be termed a "friendly fire" incident. There were many casualties – he always felt that he had had good fortune to jump into a field on the left of the road to avoid the worst of the carnage.

Arriving back in England Bill did not find acclimatisation back into "normal life" to be straightforward but he and Joan enjoyed a much delayed honeymoon in Salcombe, Devon devouring the local "grub" and gaining fitness with long walks around Bolt Head. He joined the Northamptonshire Constabulary and despite passing out "top" of his training course did not find himself to be a natural Policeman. By 1950 he was the father of two children Jenny and Dick and his usual form of transport was by motorbike to which he added a sidecar to hold Joan, the children and a dog. In early 1951 he responded to advertisement in the Daily Telegraph for former aircrew and resumed his career in the RAF flying various aeroplanes including many hours in a Wellington. In 1953 He was commissioned as a Flying Officer at Dishforth, Yorkshire before being posted to 114 squadron at Fayid in Egypt. There for three years he undertook many trips in a Valetta throughout the middle east but always endeavoured to take an opportunity to get back to England to see his young family who were then at home in a Council house at Crow Hill in Irthlingborough.

Bill found his circumstances at that time to be a strange contrast with life in1950's Britain. Living in a houseboat on the Bitter lake his posting culminated in his appointment as the ADC to the Air officer commanding the Middle-East forces and this required him to attend many military and diplomatic functions. He was always very grateful for the care that Joan and her mother and father devoted to the family at that time whilst he was away. On returning to Britain Bill discovered that his legs were too long to be safely accommodated in the then modern fast jets and after a spell at JARIC at Brampton in Huntingdonshire during which his third child Elizabeth was born he was posted in early 1958 to Shepherd Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, Texas as a technical Instructor where he and the family remained for the next 2 and half years. Despite having a primarily ground based function he continued to fly whenever possible whilst in the States usually in a C47 Dakota "gooney Bird".

Returning to England he was stationed for a time at Northolt in North London flying a Pembroke for the Metropolitan communication squadron. In October 1961 he had an adventure he often recalled with both pleasure and trepidation when he piloted a Pembroke from Aden to Northolt in many hops across east and central Africa. With the family then residing at Hazeldene the house he purchased in Higham Ferrers, his third daughter Anne was born earlier in 1961. There followed a period of 5 years in Yorkshire that he always recalled with pleasure, stationed at Dishforth and Topcliffe where he was flight commander of the Northern communications squadron flying Ansons, Doves and latterly the Bassett. During this time his golf improved markedly on the Starbeck course in Harrogate and he formed a firm friendship with a local farmer Stan Ward and his family. In 1965 he was promoted to Squadron leader and posted to RAF Luqa on Malta to command the Communications squadron there. Following a period of ill health he eventually retired from the RAF in early 1968.

On leaving the RAF he initially spent many hours renovating the newly acquired family home at 6 High Street Blisworth before renewing acquaintances with the Northamptonshire Police and taking a clerical job in their Wootton Hall Headquarters. Over the next 6 years he carried out many functions as the chief "civilian" on the Force before transferring to the Education department of the County Council and clerking school Governors meetings until his retirement in 1980.

6 High Street became the regular meeting place for members of his growing and extended family and Bill always revelled in the wide-ranging debates that inevitably took place around his breakfast room table. He and Joan celebrated their Golden wedding in 1993 and Diamond anniversary 10 years later. They enjoyed regular holidays in Walberswick on the east coast always in the company of their small dog "Tip" and made many trips to Lizzie and her family in Kent.

During his retirement Bill was a very productive fruit and vegetable gardener spending much time hard at work in his greenhouse. He had a great talent as a woodworker with items he turned on his lathe a particular speciality. He also enjoyed drawing and painting and often had a round of golf at the much-loved course in the park at Stowe – when he was 74 he succeeded in shooting a score of 73 and he also won a few of their monthly competitions. During this time Bill mourned the early loss of his daughters Anne and Jenny.

In the later years Bill learnt how to use a computer and submitted a regular order to Waitrose the delivery of which was always a highlight of the week and occasionally included some "surprise" items. Latterly he devoted himself to caring for Joan during her illness and decline. After severely breaking his ankle in October 2008 and a period in hospital and care Bill moved to live with Lizzie and her family in Kent. He loved his time there forming a close bond with Cola the Labrador and keeping remarkably "fit". During 2009 he returned to Northamptonshire for Joan's funeral in August but also for the happy events of two of his grandchildren's weddings. He maintained regular contact with many of the family by telephone and by "skype" on his computer.

Added by: Richard Downing on 18th May 2010.


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Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund
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Registered Charity No. 1081009