Four Boys' Own style World War Two heroes to fire your imagination

Some well known, and some you've probably never heard of

This week marked the 97th birthday of one of the world's greatest ever airmen, Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown RN, who flew nearly 500 different types of aircraft. Here's a quick look at some notable daredevils from World War Two.

Eric “Winkle” Brown

Captain Brown began his aviation career after being taken for a flight in a Bucker Jungmann by WWI German fighter ace Ernst Udet in 1936.

Hooked on flying from that moment onwards, the young Brown later joined Edinburgh University's air squadron and went on to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a pilot, being one of just two aircrew to survive the sinking of aircraft carrier HMS Audacity in 1941.

Brown went on to become a test pilot specialising in naval aviation. He made a total of 2,407 carrier landings during his distinguished career, which also – thanks to his German language skills – included interrogating the commandant of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Hermann Göring, Willy Messerschmitt (designer of the Me 109) and Wernher von Braun (who helped develop the V2, the world's first ballistic missile).

In 2013 he gave an in-depth interview to the Daily Mail about his remarkable life.

Jack Nissenthall

One of World War Two's many unsung heroes, Jack Nissenthall was a self-made Cockney radar technician who went on one of World War Two's most daring raids – with orders that he should be shot dead by his own side if it looked like he would be captured by the enemy.

Sailing into occupied France along with 5,000 Canadian soldiers, Nissenthall's mission was to break into a German radar station at Bruneval, just north of Le Havre, on France's Channel coast, and to dismantle and retrieve the vital components of the station's new Würzburg radar set.

The Allies could not risk Nissenthall being captured because he was one of the RAF's best radar technicians, having worked closely with radar expert Robert Watson-Watt before the war on the RAF's Chain Home system.

Under the cover of a fake identity, as “Flight Sergeant C W H Cox”, Nissenthall and his Canadian escort got into the radar station but had to break off and run as German troops threw back the Allied assault. Nissenthall sabotaged the radar set and fled, making his way back to the beaches just in time to escape Occupied Europe.

Although the Canadians won three Victoria Crosses for their gallantry during Operation Biting, Nissenthall was never decorated for his exploits because of the veil of secrecy thrown over his participation.

Nissenthall's story can be read on the BBC People's War website and a wider overview of Operation Biting can be seen here.

Victor Gregg

Vic Gregg was another remarkable British war hero. A committed socialist, Gregg served as an infantryman in the Rifle Brigade in India before being transferred to Popski's Private Army (an SAS-style long range reconnaissance and raiding force) in the Western Desert.

Joining the 10th Battalion of the fledgling Parachute Regiment in 1944, Gregg took part in the abortive Arnhem raid and was captured by the Germans. He escaped and managed to set fire to a factory before being recaptured and sentenced to be shot.

On his way to the camp where he was to be executed, Gregg was caught in the middle of Dresden during the February 1945 firebombing of that city by RAF and USAAF bombers. Unlike Kurt Vonnegut's protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five, Gregg did not have the luxury of an underground bunker to shelter in from the raging firestorms. His autobiography, Rifleman, goes into detail about the horrible sights he witnessed – and his incredible escape.

After the war Gregg, still a committed socialist, took up motorbike touring through East Germany – and passed vital information about the state of East German and Soviet defences to MI6. In 1989 he helped cut one of the wire fences between East and West Germany. Just weeks later the Berlin Wall fell, heralding the end of the Cold War and of communism.

Adrian Carton de Wiart

While El Reg certainly doesn't condone copying things from Wikipedia, the introductory paragraph for Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, VC, KBE, CV, CMG, DSO, is an honourable exception to this rule:

He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War; was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. Describing his experiences in the First World War, he wrote, "Frankly I had enjoyed the war."

A staff officer in the Somaliland Camel Corps during WWI, Carton de Wiart sustained wounds during the 1914-1918 conflict that would have killed lesser men. During the inter-war period he lived in Poland, initially as second in command of the British-Poland military mission and later as a retired major-general.

When the Second World War broke out Carton de Wiart was recalled to the colours – but this didn't stop the advancing Soviet forces from depriving him of all his guns, rods and furniture. Escaping to Britain via Romania, he was soon back in Europe as the general commanding the Namsos Campaign, which ended in withdrawal.

A succession of postings saw him eventually assigned to the British military mission in Yugoslavia; however, as he returned to Britain, the aircraft flying him there via Cairo suffered a double engine failure off Libya and Carton de Wiart was captured by the Italians. He was later sent back to England (after a short period on the run, where the 61-yr-old, one-armed, eyepatch-wearing general, who spoke no Italian, spent eight days wandering around Italy pretending to be a peasant) to help negotiate the country's exit from the Axis alliance.

He spent the rest of the war in South East Asia and later retired peacefully to Ireland, spending his last days hunting and fishing.

So, after reading these tales of derring-do, commentards, who are your favourite daredevils from history? You know the drill. ®

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