Fearless pilot, decorated war hero: Scot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown is celebrated for his aviation genius and hair-raising adventures. But as his friend Paul Beaver discovered after dipping into his archives, Brown's life was more extraordinary than even his closest family ever guessed

WHEN telling the story of Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown, the hardest part is knowing where to begin. As the broadcaster Kirsty Young once said on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, the extraordinary life and flying career of the late great pilot is so remarkable that it “makes James Bond seem like a bit of a slacker”.

We are talking about a man who narrowly evaded internment in Germany at the outbreak of the Second World War, escaped the treacherous waves of the Atlantic after his aircraft carrier was torpedoed and witnessed unspeakable horrors during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

The Scot – who has flown more types of aircraft than anyone else in history – was a fierce rival to the record-setting test pilot Chuck Yeager and a hero of the astronaut Neil Armstrong. He survived no fewer than 23 near-death experiences (even cats only get nine lives).

Tasked with charting this epic tale is Paul Beaver, an aviation historian and writer whose close friendship with Brown spanned almost 40 years. Brown promised to grant Beaver access to his archives, albeit with the strict caveat that this wouldn’t happen until after he died.

The Herald: Winkle with his wife and childWinkle with his wife and child (Image: free)

There were some secrets contained within the vaults – as well as others Beaver uncovered through painstaking detective work – that Brown, who spent his childhood in Leith and then later Galashiels, didn’t want the world knowing about while he was still alive.

This new biography of Brown’s incredible life was some six years in the making as Beaver sifted through thousands of documents. The end result, Winkle, is a hefty tome containing 544 pages (and even then, the author had to scythe some 50,000 words from the original manuscript).

So, who was the real Eric “Winkle” Brown? Here, Beaver shines a light on feats of heroism and derring-do, as well as a markedly different origin story to the one publicly known until now.


“I knew Eric Brown for nearly 40 years – he was Superman, absolutely brilliant,” says Beaver. “I knew him at the time that he was just becoming a national treasure. He had written a lot about aeroplanes, but there was nothing really about his character.”

The first indication, he says, that some details “didn’t add up” came following Brown’s death in 2016, aged 97. “After he died his family gave me all the papers,” recalls Beaver. “I was the first non-family member they called when he was taken ill in 2016 because we were close.

“It was always agreed I would have access to his papers and there were 12 big boxes. That took a long time to go through.

“The other thing I was able to do was access his military records as a Navy pilot and from the first page I was astounded. The year of birth was different from what is usually accepted – 1919 is what he said, but it is actually 1920.”

Then came another seismic revelation. “It said he was born in London, not in Leith. I asked the family if they had a birth certificate and they said no. The only thing they had was a certified copy. I compared that to his passports and immediately thought, ‘Something doesn’t stack up here …’”

Beaver got in touch with the registration office in Alloa, which holds records from across Scotland dating back to the mid-19th century, to see if they could help.

“What super people they are,” he says. “They came back in half an hour and said, ‘So far, we have found 25 errors or changes on the birth certificate. And you were absolutely right to question it because it is actually an English birth certificate that has been doctored to make it look Scottish.’

“I then started some research and discovered that Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, our great Scots hero, was actually born a Cockney. That, to me, doesn’t change his Scottishness – he just happened to not be born in Scotland.

“If you look at his life, he had a scholarship to the Royal High School in Edinburgh, studied at Edinburgh University and commanded a squadron and an air station at Lossiemouth. He is a Scot, sounded like a Scot and played rugby for Scotland as an adolescent.

“Since finishing the book it has become clear to me that he doctored his birth certificate to be eligible to play rugby for Scotland. In the 1930s, you had to be born a Scot.”

The Herald: Wedding day blissWedding day bliss (Image: free)


On the morning of May 8, 1920, an overnight train pulled into Waverley Station in Edinburgh. A carriage had been chartered by the National Children’s Adoption Association and among the “unwanted” babies on board was a boy, only a few months old.

He was adopted by Robert and Euphemia Brown, who were told his name was Eric. The couple, says the author, provided a secure and loving childhood home. “Nobody knew he was adopted,” says Beaver. “His son didn’t know. It wasn’t until I found the records.

“The only people who knew he was adopted were his adoptive mother’s family living in Galashiels, who I managed to see before they sadly passed away. That and the birth certificate gave me my two sources. His son was really quite shocked when I told him.

“We know that his [birth] mother was called Dorothy. His [birth] father doesn’t appear on the birth certificate. Eric was born in the Salvation Army Mothers’ Hospital at Hackney, within the sound of Bow Bells. He is a Cockney.”

The carriage filled with young children arriving in Scotland remains a poignant image. “Everyone wanted girls and he was, I think, the only boy on the train. It is very sad when you reflect on it now, but if it hadn’t have happened, I don’t think we would have had the same Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown.”


Eric “Winkle” Brown knew from adolescence he wanted to be a pilot. His father took him on several teenage trips to Germany, including to watch the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where they also attended a series of aviation events.

During that particular visit, they got to meet the legendary Ernst Udet, the highest-scoring surviving fighter ace of the First World War and by then a world-renowned aerobatic pilot. A young Brown even joined Udet in the cockpit for a thrilling flight at an air show.

Beaver has long pondered how these connections to Germany came about. “I can’t work it out and the family have no idea,” he says. “Near Galashiels there was a big German prisoner-of-war camp [during the First World War].

“It could well be that his father was involved in that in some way, perhaps doing business with them and made friends with some Germans.”

Another detail that Beaver disproved during his research was Brown’s claim that his father Robert served as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. “I did get his father’s military record and he was in the Royal Flying Corps, but not as a pilot – he was a labourer working on the observation balloons.”

Brown went on to study modern languages at Edinburgh University, with German as his primary subject. “The whole Germany thing is fascinating because despite being sunk and almost shot down and wounded by Germans [during the Second World War], he still liked the Germans.

“He didn’t like the Nazis, but he thought Germany was a lovely place. Eric liked German technologies and the German language. He served there after the war both as head of the British Naval Air Mission and as a Naval attache in Bonn.”

The Herald: Winkle in later yearsWinkle in later years (Image: free)


Before beginning a teaching assistant post in France, Brown paid a visit to Germany as he motor-toured across Europe. He was staying in Augsburg in early September 1939 when the Second World War began, seeing him arrested by German state security service, the SD.

It was among the many lucky escapes Brown would have over the course of the war: saved through reciprocal exchange arrangements organised by the Red Cross to repatriate British and German students to their respective homelands.

“I can’t work out why he went to Germany because people were told not to go to Germany,” says Beaver. “But he was going to France to teach at the Lycee in Metz and be an English assistant.

“What is remarkable is that he was arrested on September 3, 1939. Had they not released him, there would be no biography of Eric Brown. He would have been interned for the duration of the war. He wouldn’t have become a pilot.”


Brown seemed a shoo-in to join the Royal Air Force during the Second World War but there was a hitch – when the 19-year-old aspiring pilot reported to the recruiting office in Edinburgh, he was told sign-ups were at capacity and there was a three-month wait.

He learned that there was a shortage of pilots in the Royal Navy and so, in 1939, Brown joined the Fleet Air Arm and began his illustrious flying career.

He would see action in the Battle of the Atlantic and be involved in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The latter experience haunted him for the rest of his life.

“That was down to coincidence,” says Beaver. “He happened to fly to Celle, which is the nearest town, the morning that the British troops went in to liberate Belsen. There were rumoured to be some German jets nearby and he wanted to go have a look.”

Brown’s excellent German language skills saw him briefly pressed into action as a translator. “That 12-to-18-hour period shaped his life,” adds Beaver. “He said the smell of Belsen and the sheer horror of Belsen never escapes you.”

The Herald: Joking around as a young manJoking around as a young man (Image: free)


Brown was nicknamed “Winkle” because of his diminutive stature: he stood 5ft 6in tall in his stocking soles. “I had an American write to me and say, ‘It is pretty awful that you Brits should nickname someone after a male appendage …’” says Beaver.

“I had to write back and say, ‘No – you don’t understand the language. He is called “Winkle”, which is short for “periwinkle”, the smallest edible mollusc.’ It had been tradition in the Fleet Air Arm to call the shortest pilot ‘Winkle’. And the name is now synonymous with Eric Brown.”


How many times did Eric “Winkle” Brown stare death in the face? “I reckon at least 23 – perhaps more,” says Beaver. “He should not have survived his first combat mission. But he did. And that was through sheer tenacity, bloody-mindedness and being prepared.”

That particular incident took place in the skies above the Bay of Biscay in October 1941. Brown, then only 21, was in his Martlet fighter when he found himself face-to-face with a German Condor bomber, “a flying porcupine, with dangerous weapons facing in every direction”.

As he prepared to open fire, the Martlet was hit first. There was a thundering crash as the plexiglass of his side windscreen exploded. Brown briefly lost consciousness but rallied sufficiently to limp the stricken plane back to the aircraft carrier HMS Audacity and land safely.

“He carried, to his dying day, pieces of plexiglass lodged in his cheek and mouth that they couldn’t operate on and remove,” says Beaver. “To land on an aircraft carrier that is moving 60ft up and down, whilst wounded and with one eye inoperable because it is coated in blood, is quite remarkable.”

In December 1941, HMS Audacity was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. Seventy-three men perished that night, with Brown among the 225 survivors. “Instead of panicking, Eric gets his uniform and pilot’s life jacket on, making sure that he has everything he needs,” says Beaver.

“He remembers he had bought a silk nightdress in Tangier for his fiancée, Lynn. So, he stuffs that inside his tunic to save it, which, of course, adds another layer of insulation. Then he gets into the water and starts helping other people.

“Eric said the only thing that got him was when it came to being rescued. As he climbed up the side of the warship, he banged his legs because of the swell and took the skin off.”


Sir Winston Churchill first became acquainted with Brown in the early 1940s. “One of the classics was that Churchill came up to Scotland to look at these new Naval fighters, the Martlets, and while flying there he was escorted by three of the squadron aircraft, with Winkle leading,” says Beaver.

“Of course, Winkle decides that flying the right way up is boring and so he leads inverted past the Prime Minister’s aeroplane, not realising that the Prime Minister’s private secretary has a camera and takes a snap.”

Soon after, Brown pulled a similar move. Unfortunately, on that occasion, his aircraft engine quit with a bang, sending the plane crashing into the Forth.

The impact caused him to break his nose and sustain bruising to his arm. Gathering his wits, he opened the cockpit and swam to safety, was picked up by boat and taken to hospital.

“Churchill asked the squadron commander to make sure that ‘plucky pilot’ was OK,” says Beaver. “There are a number of times that celebrities or VIPs asked after him after he’d had various accidents or done notable things.”


“He is a great record-breaker – 487 types of aeroplanes flown – no-one will ever do that again,” says Beaver. Brown flight-tested Luftwaffe aircraft captured by the Allies and was at the forefront of helping to pioneer ground-breaking jet engine technology and chase ever-faster speeds.

In the end, US Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager captured “the holy grail for aviation in the 1940s”, when he became the first human to break the sound barrier in 1947.

“Eric and Chuck Yeager were not the best of friends,” says Beaver. “They met in the early 1950s at Edwards Air Force Base in California and just didn’t get on.”

When Brown met US astronaut Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon – at RAE Bedford in 1970, the pair apparently bonded over their mutual dislike of Yeager. “They compared notes apparently on Chuck Yeager and agreed that the man was a menace,” recounts Beaver.

Why else did Brown and Armstrong click? “Both Navy pilots, both of Scottish Borders’ heritage – there was a camaraderie,” says the author. “They got on like a house on fire.”


Brown rubbed shoulders with myriad people throughout his life, from “the Royal family to Shirley Bassey to astronauts to German war criminals”. He even performed on stage with the legendary Glenn Miller Orchestra in late 1944.

“I have the drumsticks he used,” says Beaver. “His wife Lynn was very famous in the BBC at the time. She was the Forces’ Sweetheart for Northern Ireland. When they went to see the band in Bedford, Glenn Miller said to Lynn, ‘Will you sing?’

“Eric must have looked a bit forlorn, so Glenn asked him, ‘Can you play an instrument?’ Of course, Eric couldn’t, but he said, ‘I can play the drums’, which is actually not true. So, he became the second drummer and just drummed away.”

By a twist of fate, it turned out to be the Glenn Miller’s final public performance. The following day, Miller flew to Paris. His aircraft disappeared over the English Channel in atrocious weather, with all on board lost.

Winkle: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Greatest Pilot by Paul Beaver (Penguin Michael Joseph, £25), is out now