Flight Lieutenant James Pickering AFC (1915-2004)

James Pickering AFC a renowned pilot of some 80 aircraft during WW2 and a Fellow of both Geological and Antiquaries Society.

flight lieutenant james pickering afc (1915-2004)
Flight Lieutenant James Pickering AFC (1915-2004)

1915 James Pickering was born in Hinckley, Leicestershire.

James would be educated at Wyggeston Boys School in Leicester.

1930s James travelled to Dresden Germany to study the printing and packaging business; Germany was where the most modern technology was being introduced for the printing industry. While in Germany he attended the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. He noticed that there was unrest with the Germans, and especially the newly formed Nazi party headed up by Adolf Hitler.

April 1937 He was convinced that Hitler represented a threat which could lead Germany to war. James returned to England and joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as an airman u/t (under training) Pilot. Training started at RAF Desford in Leicestershire, he would learn how to fly the de Havilland Tiger Moth before progressing to other aircraft.

1937 James was attached to the 769 Naval Air Squadron, a Fighter School and aircraft pool unit at Eastleigh in Hampshire.

April 1939 James earned his wings as a Sergeant Pilot.

1st September 1939 Due to the shortage of pilots, the unit James was attached to was sent to the Fleet Air Arm at RAF Donibristle in Scotland. He joined the Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance Flight where he flew Gloster Gladiators (biplane), Blackburn B-24 Skuas and Blackburn B-25 Rocs.

James was sent for Aircraft Carrier deck-landing training on HMS Argus in the Western Mediterranean. The attachment he was assigned to ceased and he returned to the RAF being posted as a staff pilot to No.3 Bombing and Gunnery School at RAF Aldergrove at Belfast in Ireland. He would be training in techniques of bomb aiming and aerial machine gunnery.

4th May 1940 James was recalled to the Fleet Air Arm, he joined 759 Training Squadron at RNAS Eastleigh (HMS Raven) in Hampshire for a refresher deck-landing course.

23rd May 1940 James was assigned to 804 Squadron at RNAS Hatston (HMS Sparrowhawk) in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, which was a land based operational squadron of the Fleet Air Arm.

June 1940 He was recalled to the RAF and posted to No.7 Operational Training Unit at RAF Hawarden in Flintshire, Wales.

hurricane reinforcements being ferried to malta
Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta.

1st July 1940 After converting to fly the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.I, he was posted to 64 Squadron at RAF Kenley in Surrey.

10th July 1940 The 64 Squadron took part in the fighting over Convoy 'Bread', recognised by the RAF as the first day of the Battle of Britain, and was heavily involved in the early part of the battle.

James was given orders that he was to report to RAF Uxbridge in west London where he joined a group of nine sergeants and one officer. James and the group would be flown to RAF Hullavington near Chippenham, Wiltshire. They would be issued with Hawker Hurricanes, and would have to fly them to RAF Abbotsinch at Glasgow, Scotland. Once refuelled they would fly to the British aircraft carrier HMS Argus (I49) that was moored just north of Scotland at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands.

Once on-board HMS Argus they would be joined by four more officers. They were told that they now formed a part of a force of 12 Hawker Hurricanes and two Skua fighters, and assigned to 418 Flight RAF. The mission was 'Operation Hurry', which was to reinforce Malta's handful of outdated Gladiators and few surviving Hurricanes, and defend the garrison at Malta in the Mediterranean from the Italians who were part of the axis-forces.

23rd July 1940 HMS Argus set sail and join 'Force H' at the Royal Naval Base at Gibraltar.

31st July 1940 HMS Argus left Gibraltar and sailed to Malta as part of 'Force H' which consisted of British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, three battleships, two cruisers and 10 destroyers.

2nd August 1940 At dawn HMS Argus was just of the west of Sicily, James along with the rest of 418 Flight RAF took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier and flew to Luqa in Malta.

gloster gladiators (faith, hope & charity) on malta
Gloster Gladiators (Faith, Hope & Charity) on Malta.

16th August 1940 418 Flight RAF and the Malta Fighter Flight which now consisted of three flyable Gladiators and three Hurricanes were amalgamated into 261 Squadron, which consisted of just 22 fighter pilots on the island.

The Squadron would carry on the defence of Malta against Italian and German bombing missions, which were being launched regularly only 60 miles away from Sicily. Due to James' earlier experience flying Gladiators, he would fly both the Gladiator and the Hurricanes for the next eight months.

19th January 1941 During a battle, James had shot down a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber, Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined fight/bomber and a CANT Z.506 Airone seaplane.

7th April 1942 James left Malta and flew to Egypt as a passenger in a Vickers Wellington bomber, he flew a Hurricane from Egypt to Athens in Greece.

He was assigned to No.1 Aircraft Delivery Unit at Takoradi which ferried aircraft from the West African Gold Coast and Port Sudan to various other locations.

When James was in Cairo, he would meet up with the Flying Tigers (1st American Volunteer Group), they were to collect some Curtiss P-40B Warhawks that were flown in from an American aircraft carrier. James along with two other RAF ferry pilots applied for leave, they would go to Accra with the Flying Tiger pilots to collect the P-40B's. They would fly to Kunming, via Karachi and Calcutta.

5th May 1942 James along with the other RAF ferry pilots and the Flying Tigers arrived at Kunming, they would be one of the earliest flights by single engined fighters over the Himalayas, known as the 'Hump'.

pickerings family-owned business in hinckley
Pickerings family-owned business in Hinckley

After a few days James, the other RAF ferry pilots and General Stillwell flew back to Egypt. On their return to Egypt they were fined their pay allowances for the time that was spent in India and China because they were overdue from leave.

James would fly a P-40B from Cairo to Karachi, he would then pick up a Douglas Boston which was a light bomber, and would have to deliver it to Basra. While he was flying the Boston he flew through a sandstorm, the aircraft started to give trouble, it was found the aircraft was running short of fuel. James tried to make radio contact with the lead aircraft, but could not through before he had to divert east to Persia. He landed the Boston on a short beach, the nose wheel dug in the sand as it came to a stand-still. The tide was coming in and James and his passengers could not move the aircraft clear of the sea, the problem that dawned upon them was that their position was unknown and they would be reported as missing. It would take three weeks before they were found and picked up by the Royal Navy.

November 1942 James returned to operational flying with 80 Squadron in the Western Desert at El Alamein, he would be flying Hurricanes.

December 1942 James would be moved to 145 Squadron to fly Spitfires.

June 1943 When the allies achieved victory in North Africa, James would be returned to England. He would be assigned as a test pilot with No.3501 Servicing Unit at Cranfield, he would test modifications to the Spitfire, he would also test a number of North American P-51 Mustangs.

April 1944 James became a Chief Test Pilot at No.511 Forward Repair Unit, it was the largest unit of this kind in the RAF. He would later take command of the Unit.

November 1944 James was serving as a Chief Test Pilot with No.151 Repair Unit (Aircraft), a detachment of the 2nd Tactical Air Force at Wevelgem in Belgium. The airfield had been previously used by the German flying ace Baron Von Richthofen in the First World War, more recently, the Luftwaffe Jagdgeschwader General Adolph Galland.

james pickering doing aerial archaeology
James Pickering doing aerial archaeology.

October 1945 James was released from the RAF as a Flight Lieutenant and was awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC). During his time he had flown 80 different types of aircraft during the war.

He returned to his family-owned printed packaging business in Hinckley, and also served as an outside Director of the largest Building Society in Britain.

December 1945 James joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve once again, and continued to fly with the RAF. This included in the training of students at Newton near Nottingham.

1965 James retired at age 50, after spending his working career at the family-owned printing and packaging business in Hinckley.

James had an interest in archaeology, his uncle Arthur J. Pickering was Leicestershire’s first prominent prehistorian, James began to photograph sites and meet other people with the same interest such as Derrick Riley and Arnold Baker.

1974 He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

1st September 1975 James retired from the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve having reached the mandatory age limit of the age of 60.

June 1976 James would fly his aircraft for hundreds of hours during the hot summer months of June, July and August doing aerial archaeology, looking for crop-marks in the fields across the country and photographing them.

James would also fly across newly-accessible parts of Europe, such a Germany and Hungary with Otto Braasch. Otto was also a pilot with a strong interest in archaeology and history.

james pickering with a photo of the gloster gladiators
James Pickering with a photo of the Gloster Gladiators.

1986 James along with the University of Leicester published the recordings of 200 of the known crop-marks across the Leicestershire region.

1986 James along with other practitioners had found and recorded 200 crop-marks across the Leicestershire region, a summary of this list would be jointly published by James and the University of Leicester.

1998 During this year he made his last flight, he made the decision to give up his Pilot's Licence in 2000.

Now grounded, James would spend time studying this air photograph collections on archaeology, and contributed memoirs to several books that were being written on flying during his time in the war. He would attend a number of ceremonial gatherings with other pilots from the war years.

6th October 2004 James Pickering died, leaving his daughter Penny, son Guthrie, and grandson James. James would be reunited with his wife Wanda after eight months, she died in June 2005.

James had held a private Pilot's License since 1938, he had flown thousands of hours and was an expert on geological and archaeological research from the air. He was also a Fellow of both the Geological Society and the Society of Antiquaries.


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