The story of Pete Brothers OM – a Battle of Britain ace

Posted by System Administrator on 09 Nov 2020

Modified by Rachel Kneale on 07 Jun 2023

Pete Brothers

The following article was written by OM Jeremy Ward, who is also a member of the MGS Archives team: 

In the pantheon of famous Old Mancunians an unscientific survey suggested the present day generation are most aware of Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Nick Hytner and Michael Atherton. Politics geeks and those that follow news channels closely might know of Faisal Islam, and some at least of the small selection of OM MPs as well as figures from the past such as Harold Laski, Lord Woolton and Harold Lever. Comedy buffs enjoy Chris Addison’s talents and cricket fans also call to mind John Crawley, Mark Chilton and Gary Yates. Historians admire Michael Wood for the work he has done to popularize the subject and literary/theatrical types enjoy the plays and film scripts of Robert Bolt and perhaps remember that Harold Brighouse (Hobson’s Choice) and Stanley Houghton (Hindle Wakes) were also OMs.  A few will recognize the name of Thomas de Quincey, but even fewer will have read him! But when it comes to military matters one is hard pressed to find any name recognition at all.

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of The Battle of Britain and the 75th of the end of the Second World War, it is worth recalling that one Old Mancunian at least has the deserved status of Battle of Britain Ace and played a significant role in the history of the Royal Air Force.

On 30 September 1917, Peter Malam Brothers CBE DSO DFC and Bar was born in a pleasant Victorian villa in Prestwich. The son of the owner of a chemical business based in Trafford Park, in 1931 he made the slightly unusual decision to attend the North Manchester School instead of the MGS main campus newly arrived in Rusholme. The lengthy journey from Prestwich might well have been a factor. North, as it was usually known, was the only one of the three ”Preps” to allow boys to stay on after 14. As a result, some of the most distinguished OMs spent all their time there. (Judge Cantley of Jeremy Thorpe trial fame was another purely “North” boy).

Pete Brothers, as he was always known, left North with his School Certificate in 1935, aged 17, to enter the family business, but he had his heart set on a different career. In the 1930s, many young boys were obsessed with flying, thanks in part to the popularity of the Biggles and Ace series of adventure books, all of which Pete had read. (The latter were written by J. R. Holden OM). Pete might have been said to have taken this to extremes as in 1934, aged just 17, he qualified as Britain’s youngest pilot having trained with the Lancashire Aero Club (based ironically at AVROs airfield at Woodford, Cheshire). He longed to join the RAF, but was too young so spent a summer (1935) in Germany with what turned out to be a Nazi family. (The eldest of their three sons was already in the Waffen-SS). This opened his eyes to the true nature of Hitler’s Reich, especially when he was forced to give the Hitler salute by a couple of Nazi thugs. On return he applied for pilot training with the RAF, was accepted and his career began.

By October 1936 he had passed all his training courses with “flying” colours and was assigned as a young Pilot Officer to 32 Squadron, based at Biggin Hill, Kent. This fighter squadron was using the relatively modern Gloster Gauntlet, then the fastest aircraft in the RAF, but it was soon to be superseded by a new breed of single wing machines.  By 1939, Pete had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant and was leading one of 32 Squadrons two flights. They received the Hawker Hurricane just in time to face the formidable forces of the Luftwaffe.

Pete was probably the first OM to take to the air for a few minutes after Neville Chamberlain declared war on 3 September. The alarm was sounded as an intruder was reported heading for London and 32 Squadron took off. It was the first of many false alarms as the “intruder” turned out to be a French transport plane.

The months of the “phoney” war proved invaluable for the airmen as they honed their skills and familiarized themselves with their aircraft. By the following July, they were ready for the greatest air battle in history. Having conquered most of Europe, Hitler had only to defeat Britain to end the war with total victory in the west. The Army had been defeated at Dunkirk, leaving behind most of its equipment and a fair proportion of its experienced manpower, so only the Navy and RAF stood between Germany and triumph.

An invasion was planned but the RAF was a major obstacle to establishing a safe beachhead in S. England. Reich Marshal Hermann Goering promised to wipe it out by massive bombing attacks on its bases. From 16 July to September 15, wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers attacked the RAF airfields in southern England on an almost daily basis.  Pete Brothers and 32 Squadron were in the front line, flying four or five sorties a day to fend them off. German bombers were sturdily built and difficult to shoot down but more dangerous were the speedy Messerschmitt fighters that accompanied them. Buzzing furiously around like swarms of angry hornets, they fired cannons as opposed to the British bullets and posed a mortal danger to RAF airmen. Pete and his fellow pilots had two advantages – the enemy fighters could only spend limited time over England due to fuel limitations, and if shot down, Luftwaffe pilots would be captured whereas the RAF pilots could make their way back to base and resume flying. The aircraft were well matched – the Spitfire slightly faster and the Hurricane a little slower than the ME109.

Pete Brothers gained his first “kill” on 19 July shooting down a ME109 over Kent. It was here, and also over Sussex and Surrey, that the anarchic choreography of the battle mainly took place. My mother, watching from her garden in Tonbridge, remembered the cats cradles of vapour trails as the fighters zoomed hither and thither occasionally bursting into flames before a spectacular fall to earth. The German bombers tried to maintain their course, but many were stopped in their tracks by the “Few”. Pete was in constant action until late August and was credited with seven “kills”, as well as assisting with a number of others – more than enough to qualify for “Ace” status. As a Flight Commander he had also to nurse inexperienced young pilots through the battle – on one occasion his young wingman became so confused that he fired his guns at Brothers’ aircraft. Pete was not pleased – not because his companion had shot at him, but because he missed!

On several occasions, his home base was bombed while he was in the air. necessitating a careful landing on pock marked runways on return. By late August, after constant action, 32 Squadron was due for a rest – after four years at Biggin Hill (where Pete had met and married his wife Annette) Brothers departed for the peace and quiet of Northumberland, learning that he had been awarded the DFC. However, only a few days later he was recalled to join 257 Squadron based in Surrey, and newly commanded by the legendary flying ace Robert Stanford Tuck. Another side to Brothers was revealed as together they restored the morale of a badly shaken Squadron, whose losses in the Battle had been far worse than 32’s. After a couple of months, 257 was in fighting form again and Brothers’ capacity for humane leadership had been noted.

Although the Battle ended officially on 15 September, when Hitler called off the proposed invasion of Britain, the fighting continued as the Luftwaffe turned its attention to the cities. The Blitz initially concentrated on London but spread far and wide – Plymouth and Coventry were almost destroyed and most other cities including Manchester badly damaged. Brothers and co. now had to intercept these raids. More bombers were disposed of but too many got through – the pilots were frustrated that they could only defend so eventually in 1942 they welcomed the opportunity to go on the offensive.

Brothers, now Squadron Leader and commanding 602 Squadron based in Surrey, played a major role in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid (19 August 1942). He had converted to flying Spitfires but the German Focke-Wulf 190 was superior at this stage of the war, so the Squadron had their work cut out when flying over enemy territory. On the fateful day, Brothers and his Squadron flew four sorties over Dieppe, witnessing the unfolding disaster below as the Allied troops failed to establish a beachhead and were driven back into the sea. Ironically, one of the main dangers to aircraft was “friendly fire” as the Royal Navy gunners protecting the troops made no distinction between different types or nationalities of aircraft! RAF losses were heavy but 602 escaped lightly, losing only two aircraft. Brothers flew around one of his men who had been shot into the sea by the Navy and was pleased to see a launch rescue him speedily – he was back in action a few days later! On the third sortie, Brothers nearly ran out of fuel and had to land on an emergency strip on the cliffs of Beachy Head. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC for his efforts.

Lessons had to be learned if the Allies were to invade “Fortress Europe” successfully. It is a mark of the esteem in which Peter Brothers was held that during his next posting in Scotland, the Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command (Sir Sholto Douglas) personally visited him and asked his advice about what had gone wrong at Dieppe.  The vivid black and white stripes on the underside of Allied aircraft on D-Day to mark them out as “friendly” probably owe their origin to that meeting.

Throughout 1943 and 1944, Brothers continued to fly mostly on dangerous missions over France and the Low Countries. He was promoted to Wing Commander (Flying) at Tangmere following Douglas Bader in that role, and by D-Day was commanding Culmhead Wing in Devon. Both roles carried immense responsibility for several squadrons and many hundreds of lives. It was from Tangmere that SOE agents were flown into France. Some had been trained by Ian Bailey (MGS boy and Staff).

D-Day (6 June, 1944) arrived with Brothers flying mostly with 131 (County of Kent) Squadron from Culmhead. From one of the nearest RAF airfields to the Normandy beachhead, they flew daily sorties protecting Allied troops, accompanying Allied (mostly USAAF) bombers and attacking targets when possible. One of Brothers’ most spectacular achievements was the impromptu destruction of a dangerous flak train. By this stage of the war the Luftwaffe were running out of steam and the main danger to Allied aircraft were the very accurate German anti-aircraft batteries often manned by very young soldiers (even schoolboys) whose achievements had they been on the winning side would undoubtedly merit more praise. On this occasion, Brothers spotted the train just emerging from a cutting. He ordered 131 Squadron to fly on to avoid suspicion, but then turned back and hit the train broadside, destroying what might have shot down many fellow aircraft and their crews. Among all the carnage, Pete Brothers remained humane. His final “kill” of his 17 confirmed victims was a Focke-Wulf 190 piloted by a very inexperienced German. It made Brothers sick and he prayed that the young pilot would be able to parachute to safety. It was never about killing people simply about downing aircraft.

After 875 flying hours mostly in great peril the time had come for a change and Brothers now began the ascent to the top. Staff jobs took him to the USA, Fighter Command HQ and the Air Ministry as the war ended. He now added the DSO to his impressive medals’ bar.

In 1947 Brothers resigned his commission from the RAF. He had been marked out for further promotion but this involved attending a lengthy Staff course in Haifa, then one of the most dangerous areas in the world, as some supporters of the Zionist movement launched attacks on British targets. With a wife and young family (two daughters under six-years-old) he rejected the offer and gave up the chance to rise to the very top. He took a job as a District Officer in Kenya, flying his own small plane to get around the vast distances, but the call of the RAF was strong and he rejoined in June 1949. Demoted to Squadron Leader, he made his way up the greasy pole again, flying bombers over Malaya during the Emergency in the early 50s before repromotion to Wing Commander and command of Britain’s first wing of V-Bombers (Vickers Valiants), responsible for the nation’s nuclear deterrent. Eventually, he became a Group Captain assigned to SHAFE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Force Europe) and finally as Air Commodore (the most senior rank reached by any OM) to the Ministry of Defence as Director of Communications. He retired in 1973 having made his fourth trip to Buckingham Palace to receive a CBE.

In retirement in Devon, Pete remained active supporting RAF charities and engaging in sporting activities such as golf and sailing, but flying remained his first love and he accepted every opportunity that came his way. His last flight as a pilot (ironically in a preserved Messerschmitt) was in 2004 at the age of 87. Four years later he died having achieved heroic status among the flying community and hopefully a much wider public.

Of course Peter Brothers (and nearly all other flying men and women) did not think of himself as a hero. “We were just doing our job” was their mantra but just like NHS staff during the Covid crisis, they were putting their lives on the line every day and suffering huge mental strain in the process. Pete did have one advantage – he was an absolute natural – flying was something he was born to do. His fellow pilots recognized this. One of his wingmen wrote “he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time”.  An astonishing fact is that he never lost an aircraft throughout his long career – occasionally during the war his Hurricane or Spitfire came home battered and bruised, but always intact.

Like many but not all great men he did not regard himself as special – I think he wrote his own epitaph:

“A Lancashire man with an old fashioned sense of right and wrong, an innocent belief that virtue will prevail, and truth will triumph in the end.”

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