LGBTQ

Absolute Legends: The Gay Hero Of The Battle Of Britain

Gay men like Ian Gleed served with distinction on the front line, finding love and relationships while they served their King and country......

As part of Forces Network's Absolute Legends series, we've been looking at just a few of the military's innumerable, incredible people and stories.

Author Stephen Bourne reveals how, during a rare period of tolerance in the Second World War, gay men like Ian Gleed served with distinction on the front line, finding love and relationships while they served their King and country...

Though homosexuality remained a criminal offence in the UK until the 1960s, the banning of gay recruits in the armed services was not lifted until 2000.

However, homosexuality was unofficially tolerated by the armed services for the duration of the Second World War.

Some gay men could be open and were protected by their comrades. Others became ‘mascots’.

But gay men existed in a risky world where tolerance was far from guaranteed.

No-one spoke about same-sex relationships that took place because outed gay men faced being court-martialled, imprisoned and thrown out of the services on the grounds that homosexuality would destroy the morale of the troops.   

The double standards of the time were shown by the heroic Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot Ian Gleed who, in 1942, published a memoir about his exploits called Arise to Conquer.

Twice he bailed out of Spitfires and twice he was congratulated by King George VI.

Ian loved the RAF, and for his bravery he received the Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross.

But his ‘confirmed bachelor’ status caused concern for his publisher, so he created a fictional girlfriend called Pam. Ian explained to surprised family and friends that he’d invented her because ‘readers like a touch of romance’.

In public, Gleed had to keep his sexuality private or risk being court-martialled and thrown out of the RAF.

Although he had boyfriends, his family probably never knew that Gleed was homosexual, and it was fifty years before the truth came out when, in a BBC television documentary, one of his wartime lovers, Christopher Gotch, described his relationship with Gleed at the RAF station where they were both posted.

Ian Gleed learned to fly privately before he joined the RAF at the age of twenty.

He completed his ‘wings’ course on Christmas Day 1936. Away from the RAF, Ian’s pastime pursuits included sailing and writing.

Holidaying in the south of France in 1938, Ian met and befriended the celebrated homosexual novelist W. Somerset Maugham who invited the young man to stay at his villa.

He loaned him the use of his yacht which Ian happily sailed on the blue Mediterranean.

Maugham later described Gleed as

“Quite a little chap…jaunty, with a care-free look in his impudent blue eyes." 

"He was a jovial, cheery soul. He was in tearing spirits because he had two days’ leave and was determined to have the time of his life. He was full of plans for the future. After the war was won, he was going to buy a sailing-boat, forty-foot-long, and sail with a friend to the South Seas.” 

In February 1940 Ian was testing a Spitfire when it broke up in the air.

He was thrown out of the cockpit and lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he was falling to the ground with head injuries and a damaged leg, so he pulled his ripcord and the parachute opened. 

In the RAF Gleed was affectionately known as ‘Widge’ and he was loved and respected by his RAF pals and they meant everything to him.

After he had recovered from his flying accident Ian took part in the Battle of Britain.

In the RAF all the flyers were heroes, but not all of them survived.

Ian did survive and in September 1940 he was awarded the DFC. Ian continued to serve his King and country and in 1941 he was appointed Wing Leader at Middle Wallop, a large air force base near Salisbury.

He was honoured yet again when he was awarded the DSO.

It was the crowning achievement for Ian. On this occasion, it was stated that “he has led his wing on 26 sorties over enemy territory.

He has always displayed a fine fighting spirit which, combined with his masterly leadership and keenness, has set an inspiring example.

Wing Commander Gleed has destroyed at least 12 enemy aircraft, two of which he shot down at night.

Posted to the Middle East on 1 January 1943, Ian was attached to 145 Squadron in North Africa to gain experience of desert operations before becoming Wing Leader of 244 Wing on 31 January.

On an afternoon patrol over the Cap Bon, a peninsula in far north-eastern Tunisia, on 16 April 1943, Ian was shot down.

He headed for the Tunisian coast but his Spitfire was found on sand dunes near the sea on the western coastline of Cap Bon.  

He was buried at Tazoghrane but later reburied in the Military Cemetery at Enfidaville, a town in north-eastern Tunisia, on 25 April 1944.

Gleed was an inspiring leader to the pilots under his command. Bunny Currant remembered that, during the early summer of 1942, “He was one of the most courageous men I’ve ever had the privilege to know.

He may have been tiny in stature but by God, he had a big heart and seemed not to have any fear. He was unmoveable and unflappable with a modest, unassuming manner and always thought for his pilots and for the ground crews and staff.

A caring man, I remember him warmly with gratitude. A pocket-size man with care for others and courage beyond compare.”

Laurence Thorogood said: “I flew a lot with Ian and due to him I probably survived the war. He was a great inspiration to us all, entirely unselfish and very brave. I have never known a better loved Commanding Officer.” 

Stephen Bourne’s Fighting Proud – The Untold Story of the Gay Men Who Served in Two World Wars is published by I B Tauris and is now available in paperback (£11.99)