Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown’s extraordinary flying career saw him shoot down Luftwaffe bombers from the deck of a carrier in the Battle of Britain, narrowly escape death on a torpedoed aircraft carrier, achieve a litany of new and never-to-be-repeated world records and firsts as a test pilot, and fly over 400 different kinds of aircraft – more than any other pilot in history. Additionally, Brown faced imprisonment in Germany at World War Two’s outbreak, and after the Allied victory his fluent German saw him interviewing senior Nazi officials and participating in the liberation of Belsen concentration camp.
Brown was the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated living pilot; one of the only pilots who, on top of his campaign medals, earned both the Distinguished Service Cross and Air Force Cross. A rival to Chuck Yeager and hero to astronaut Neil Armstrong, Brown last flew in 1994, and by the time of his death in 2016 aged 97, had become a legend in his own lifetime.
In his book, Winkle: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot – our Book of the Month for June 2023 – author Paul Beaver draws on Brown’s own papers and fascinating new research to uncover surprising new information, creating a definitive account of this globally revered, legendary pilot. Here we explore 10 interesting facts about Brown’s extraordinary life and flying career.
1. He was at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, leading to a meeting with a German fighter ace
In 1936, Brown’s father took him to see the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, during which Brown witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens. At the time, Hermann Göring had recently announced the existence of the Luftwaffe, and Brown and his father (a former balloon observer and pilot in the Royal Flying Corps) met and were invited to join social gatherings by its members.
At one of these events, they met Ernst Udet, a former First World War fighter ace. Udet was fascinated to meet Brown’s pilot father and offered to take his son flying with him in a two-seat Bücker Jungmann plane, where Udet performed an array of aerobatics. Impressed at Brown’s handling of this, Udet told him he’d make a great fighter pilot, and to learn to speak German and learn to fly.
2. He rode in a ‘wall of death’ stunt – with a real lion
Having been born in Leith, near Edinburgh, Brown went on to become a student at Edinburgh University studying modern languages – with an emphasis on German. While there, he became a stuntman rider to earn extra money. One of his more memorable feats was his ride in a ‘wall of death’ with a lion in his motorbike sidecar.
3. He was a fluent German speaker, and interrogated Himmler and Göring
In 1939, Brown was an exchange student at Schule Schloss Salem and became fluent in German. One September morning in 1939, he was woken up with loud knocking on his door and told, “our countries are at war”. Soon afterwards, the SS arrested Brown, imprisoned him for 3 days, then escorted him to the Swiss border in his MG Magnette sports car where he was released. Brown thus returned to Britain and carried out his war service.
During the war, Brown’s fluency in German and expertise on aircraft made him valuable in interviewing many important figures, including captured German pilots – gathering crucial information about their aircraft, tactics and training. As a fellow airman, he knew the right questions to ask, consequently gaining invaluable insights.
He later became involved in interrogating Nazi war criminals, including Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring and Josef Kramer, the commandant of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He also encountered Irma Grese, Kramer’s assistant, whom he described as “the worst person I ever met”.
4. His fellow pilots nicknamed him ‘Winkle’
Brown received his affectionate nickname ‘Winkle’ (short for ‘Periwinkle’) from his Royal Navy colleagues, due to his short stature of 5ft 7in. However, Brown partly attributed his survival of dangerous incidents to his ability to “curl himself up in the cockpit”.
5. He was one of two people to survive the sinking of HMS Audacity
Brown was a member of the 802 squadron aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Audacity when it was torpedoed on 21 December 1941 by a German U-boat. Only Brown and a fellow pilot survived. Brown attributed this to the buoyancy of his larger ‘Mae West’ lifejacket which kept him and his fellow pilot upright in the Bay of Biscay’s cold waters. Other squadron members with only inflated tubes round their waists suffered from hypothermia then drowned.
It was partly for his service on board Audacity that Brown was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
6. He tested experimental Nazi planes
During the war, the Nazis developed a variety of experimental aircraft – including several powered by jets and one by a rocket. Brown was one of the only non-German pilots to make extensive test-flights in planes like the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the world’s only rocket-powered plane in operational service.
Brown also tested all three of the Nazi’s more conventionally jet-powered warplanes too, including the wood-constructed Heinkel He 162, making notes on their safety.
7. He was the first person to land a jet on an aircraft carrier
On 3 December 1945, Brown successfully landed a de Havilland Sea Vampire plane on HMS Ocean. Landing any aircraft was a challenge at the time, but landing on an aircraft carrier presented even greater difficulties, and remains renowned as a particularly challenging feat due to the limited landing deck and absence of visual references.
In Brown’s era, aircraft designers were still developing planes to handle carrier landings, thus Brown faced considerable danger while mastering this skill. Many of the features found in modern military planes that assist with carrier landings are a result of the techniques and technology tested by Brown and his colleagues. Brown made a staggering 2,407 carrier landings in total – a Guinness World Record that no-one has come close to breaking.
8. He flew a helicopter home hours after reading the instruction manual
In 1945, Brown and his colleague Anthony F Martindale, were tasked with bringing two Sikorsky R-4B helicopters from RAF Speke to RAF Farnborough. Although they’d never flown these aircraft before, they were simply handed a manual by the American master sergeant who said, “Here’s your instructor”.
After reading it they began experimenting with the R-4Bs, and eventually, feeling they ought to get back to Farnborough (and after a stiff drink), they took off together in one helicopter each.
9. He favoured an ‘over-powered’ aircraft
Brown had two favourite aircrafts. When it came to piston-engined planes, Brown favoured the de Havilland Hornet (which he said was “over-powered” and like a “Ferrari in the sky”); when it came to jets, Brown preferred the F-86 Sabre Model E (which had a moving tailplane that helped pilots manoeuvre at very high speeds).
10. Brown flew more aircraft than anyone else in history
During his flying career, Brown flew 487 different types of aircraft – many of them as a test pilot, when the designs were still mostly experimental and thus potentially very dangerous. (For comparison, today’s test pilots average fewer than 100 flights – any number over 50 is considered substantial).
Not only did Brown not have the benefit of high-tech simulators, but flew the aircraft with the benefit of a slide rule rather than the array of modern computers available today. He was also one of the first test pilots to attach notes to his leg, helping remind him which one he was flying.
Paul Beaver knew Eric Brown for nearly 40 years. In fact, Eric initially inspired Paul’s writing career, offering him expert advice on aircraft carriers and naval aviation for Ark Royal, his first book. The collaboration later included Eric’s foreword for Paul’s best-selling Spitfire People. As a well as being author, Paul has been a war reporter, journalist with Jane’s, a Parliamentary advisor and served for 27 years in the Territorial Army rising to the rank of Colonel in the Army Air Corps (V).
Winkle is published by Penguin Books Ltd, and is available from 8 June 2023.