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WWII RAF Ace Pilot Athol Stanhope Forbes

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Athol Stanhope Forbes was born on April 4, 1912, to William Dick Forbes and Isabella Margaret Barr (born Gibb.) While many sources indicate that he was born in Hanover Square, London, the General Records Office (GRO) reports that he was born in Stratford upon Avon, England.

Records also indicate that he attended “Throwthorne Towers” in Berkshire but this was likely a misspelling of Towers School on Waterloo Road in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Forbes was educated at Dover College, a public boarding school located in Dover in southeast England. At the school, he was a contemporary of Group Captain John Hamar Hill CBE (1912–1997) who was Squadron Commander of 504 Squadron and 222 Squadron in the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) in 1940.

In 1935, Forbes entered Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) Initial Officer training in 1936 and moved to becoming a Under Training (U/T) Pilot at number 10 Flight Training School (FTS) Ternhill on February 1, 1936. Forbes became an instructor and staff pilot at the School of Army Co-operation on August 28, 1937. This operation provided training for air officers supporting troops on the ground.

In the spring of 1939, Forbes married Ernestine Mary Yvonne Lorraine Forbes (born Carter) on May 27, 1939, in London, according to the General Records Office. She went by the first name of Lorraine.

As a member of the 66 Squadron, Forbes was stationed at Coltishall in May 29, 1940. In July 1940, Forbes was posted to No. 6 Operational Training Unit (OTU) for a fighter conversion course, and then to the new No. 303 Squadron as a British flight commander. The squadron was formed that month and then deployed to the RAF Northolt airfield in West London as part of an agreement between the Polish Government in Exile and the United Kingdom.

The squadron initially comprised of 13 commissioned officer and 8 non-commissioned officer (NCO) pilots and 135 Polish ground staff. The Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader Ronald Gustave Kellett and the Flight Commanders were Flight Lieutenants John Alexander Kent (Fight A) and Forbes (Flight B.) The squadron included many Polish pilots so that they would become familiar with RAF Fighter Command language, procedures and training. The pilots flew Hawker Hurricanes and claimed the largest number of German aircraft strikes than any of the other 65 Allied fighter squadrons. Forbes himself was credited destroying seven enemy aircraft, sharing credit for two, and one that was “probably destroyed.”

In the book Ten Fighter Boys, Forbes describes a particularly harrowing experience of being shot down over the English Channel, suffering several wounds, and making an emergency landing on September 7, 1940. He relates that “…I felt the judder of some Hun’s slugs going into my machine. Next moment a cannon shell burst on the starboard wing root, and at the same instant there was this damned unpleasant feeling in my leg.” He added “I began to think more clearly now and realized how lucky I was that the machine was not on fire. If it’d caught fire and even if I had baled out, I would have burnt to a cinder, my clothes and parachute being by now absolutely saturated in petrol.” He successfully landed on British soil, was treated for his wounds and returned to the squadron. (Forbes, Athol Stanhope, and Allen, Hubert, editors; Ten Fighter Boys, 1942.)

His combat report for the incident was more succinct: “I broke away, and whilst in a steep turn, a shell hit my starboard wing root and exploded. I felt my leg was wounded and there were 3 or 4 glycol and hydraulic system leaks in the cockpit. I decided to return to an Aerodrome and got the machine down whole. I succeeded in regaining Northolt and landing without mishap.” (F/Lt Forbes; Combat Report, 7/9/40 Flight B, Squadron 303 Polish, Polish Squadron emembers;

Arkady Fiedler recounts a mission in which Squadron 303 was caught between German bombers below them and Messerschmitts above them. He related that “This was one of the most memorable episodes of the war: six fighter pilots desperately struggling for their lives, their tenacity appearing to triple their strength, held off a vastly stronger enemy force. By all normal expectations, they should have been instantly crushed, torn to shreds. Those six fighter pilots parried the Messerschmitts so effectively that they formed an impenetrable barrier, under whose protection the other six Hurricanes could ponce on the bombers from the rear.” (Fiedler, Arkady; 303 Squadron: The Legendary Battle of Britain Fighter Squadron, 2010.)

In October 1940, Forbes was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.) A newspaper announcement reported that he was “A splendid leader. He has displayed great keenness and has destroyed seven enemy aircraft. His home is at Marlow, Bucks.” (Press and Journal, October 18, 1940.) Later that month, he was given the command of No. 66 Squadron. One month later on November 3, he earned a second D.F.C., manifested by a “bar” to the first medal. The citation noted: “This officer has participated in numerous operational sorties during the last five months. In addition to many arduous convoy patrols he has led wing formations as escort to bombers on missions over France; he has also carried out many attacks on enemy ground targets with a large measure of success.” In that same year, Eric Kennington painted his portrait which is now included in the Battle of Britain London Monument.

On January 16, 1941, Forbes along with his other Squadron Leaders Ronald Gustave Kellett and John Alexander Kent were decorated with the “Virtuti Militari,” the highest Polish award for gallantry. Medal was awarded by General Sikorski, Polish Prime Minister and Commander of the Polish Forces. (“Polish V.C. For R.A.F. Officers,” Aberdeen Evening Express, January 16, 1941.)

In October 1941, Forbes was posted to HQ No. 10 Group. In July 1943, he was promoted to Wing Commander and posted to No. 165 Wing in No. 222 Group I India. In August 1944 he was posted to HQ No. 221 Wing in Burma. Forbes left the RAF in 1948 as a Group Captain. (Fiedler, Arkady; 303 Squadron: The Legendary Battle of Britain Fighter Squadron, 2010.)

In 1942, the book Ten Fighter Boys was published and included the stories of the pilots of Squadron 303. The book was edited by Wing-Commander Athol Forbes, DFC, and Squadron Leader Hubert Allen, DFC. As Allen explained in the introduction, “the original idea was that all the pilots in the squadron should write a few thousand words about their experiences in flying and combat.” (Allen, Hubert; Ten Fighter Boys, 1942.) In his description of Forbes, Allen wrote “Without a doubt, Athol is one of the most pleasant blokes alive – I never knew him in a bad mood” and “Absolutely without fear, he is exceptional as a leader., having that happy knack of inspiring his pilots to great efforts…” (Allen, Hubert; Ten Fighter Boys, 1942.)

In July 1943, Forbes was promoted to Wing Commander and posted to No. 165 Wing in No. 222 Group in India. In August 1944 he was posted to HQ No. 221 Wing in Burma. Forbes left the RAF in 1948 as a Group Captain. From September 1940 to August 1941, the aerial victories officially credited to him were seven destroyed, two shared destroyed, and one probable destroyed enemy aircraft. (Fiedler, Arkady; 303 Squadron: The Legendary Battle of Britain Fighter Squadron, 2010.)

On January 1, 1944, Forbes was honored as an Officer of the British Empire (O.B.E.) He left the R.A.F. in 1948 and became operations manager for Cameroons Air Transport Ltd. He and his wife settled in Alcester, Warwickshire and died in hospital in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon on 18th April, 1981. (Ashcroft, Michael; Heroes of the Skies, 2012.)

"Dywizjon 303" actor Kirk Baker as Athol Stanhope Forbes

The feats of Forbes and his “fighter boys” lived on in the book 303 Squadron: The Legendary Battle of Britain Fighter Squadron written by Arkady Fiedler and published in 2010. This book was adapted for the 2018 film Dywizjon 303 (Squadron 303.) The role of Athol Stanhope Forbes was portrayed by actor Kirk Baker.

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