Flying into history
PUBLISHED: 06:25 18 August 2014
Archant © 2011
More than 70 years ago Air Commodore Alistair Panton spent six perilous weeks flying reconnaissance missions over France. Shot down four times, he was finally captured and taken prisoner on July 14, 1940.
He was just 22.
This month his memoir of that summer is finally published, edited and introduced by his granddaughter, Victoria Bacon.
Alistair Panton flew risky missions to discover enemy positions. He describes the fear, despair and daily expectation of death with compelling precision.
He was first shot down in May and Victoria says: “He describes in detail how he managed to slow the fall of the plane by taking it through some trees.” Badly burned himself, he saves the lives of his two crew. By the time thousands of troops are evacuated from Dunkirk, and France is over-run by the Nazis, they are back in the air – only to be shot down again by friendly fire.
His memoir ends with his plane being shot down for a fourth time. He is taken prisoner, but his air gunner is burnt alive. “I believe my grandfather was utterly devastated he could not save him,” says Victoria.
Victoria, wife of South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, explains: “The memoir fell into my hands after my own father died, back in August 2012. My father was a prolific maker and collector of model aeroplanes, particular wartime planes, and I found my grandfather’s story in a box with some of the planes. I read it and was captivated.”
She knew it deserved a wider audience and Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer is published on July 22. It captures the fear, loneliness, pain and terrible sadness Alistair Panton and his comrades suffered through the summer of 1940, as well as the bravery and camaraderie which helped make it more bearable
Panton survived but many of his friends and comrades did not, and the grief never left him.
“He didn’t talk about his wartime experiences very much,” says Victoria, “But I don’t think he would have taken the trouble to write it down in the way he did if he didn’t eventually want it to be read. So I think he would have been amazed and very pleased it is going to reach a wide audience now.”
She has added three short stories he wrote about life as prisoner of war which she believes are based on fact. “I know, for example, having seen his prisoner of war file, and through referencing from other books, that he was a serial escapee and these stories tell of a prisoner of war who tried to escape.”
By 1940 Panton had already been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and his bravery was later recognised with an OBE and a CBE.
After the end of the war he commanded several different RAF stations, including one in Hong Kong, and in Bircham Newton in Norfolk. He eventually retired to North Wales where he managed a Norman castle for the National Trust, and then ran a second-hand bookshop in Yorkshire until his death in 2002.
Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer has been endorsed by the former head of the British Army, Norfolk man General Richard Dannatt, Baron Dannatt, who says: “The late Alastair Panton and his granddaughter, Victoria, have combined to produce a gripping account of the traumatic early days of World War II. Six weeks of Blenheim Summer tells an amazing story of bravery and courage in the air and on the ground.”
Former RAF Squadron Leader, and double amputee Duncan Slater, who lives near Diss, says: “To be shot down again and again and to keep going is beyond words. Alistair Panton’s courage, determination and professionalism in terrible circumstances is astounding, it is because of men like Alistair that I’m so proud to have been part of the RAF.”
Norfolk author Louis de Bernieres says: “One can’t help feeling awe and reverence for people like this. There are enough adventures here for a lifetime, let alone six weeks.”