Peter Townsend (RAF officer)

Last updated

Peter Townsend
Peter Townsend (1914-1995).jpg
Flight Lieutenant Townsend in 1940
Birth namePeter Wooldridge Townsend
Born(1914-11-22)22 November 1914
Rangoon, Burma, British India
(now Yangon, Myanmar)
Died19 June 1995(1995-06-19) (aged 80)
Saint-Leger-en-Yvelines, France
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Air Force
Years of service1933–1955
Rank Group Captain
Commands held RAF West Malling (1943–1944)
No. 605 Squadron RAF (1942)
RAF Drem (1942)
No. 85 Squadron RAF (1940–1941)
Battles/wars Second World War
Awards Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
Distinguished Service Order
Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar
Mentioned in Despatches
    (m. 1941;div. 1952)
      Marie-Luce Jamagne
      (m. 1959)

Group Captain Peter Wooldridge Townsend CVO , DSO , DFC (22 November 1914 19 June 1995) was a Royal Air Force officer, flying ace, courtier and author. He was equerry to King George VI from 1944 to 1952 and held the same position for Queen Elizabeth II from 1952 to 1953. Townsend notably had a romance with Princess Margaret, the Queen's only sibling.


Early life

Townsend was born in Rangoon, Burma, to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Copleston Townsend [1] and his wife, Gladys (née Hatt-Cook). [2] The Townsend family, of Devon, tended to send its sons into the church or the armed forces. [1] From 1928 to 1932, he was educated at Haileybury and Imperial Service College, then an all-boys independent school. [3]

RAF career

Townsend joined the Royal Air Force in 1933 and trained at RAF Cranwell. He was commissioned a pilot officer on 27 July 1935. [4] On graduation, he joined No. 1 Squadron RAF at RAF Tangmere flying the Hawker Fury biplane fighter. In 1936 he was posted to No. 36 Squadron RAF in Singapore, flying the Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bomber. [5] He was promoted to flying officer on 27 January 1937, [6] and returned to Tangmere that year as a member of No. 43 Squadron RAF. Townsend was promoted to flight lieutenant on 27 January 1939. [7]

The first enemy aircraft to crash on English soil during the Second World War fell victim to fighters from RAF Acklington in Northumberland on 3 February 1940, when three Hurricanes of ‘B’ flight, No. 43 Squadron, shot down a Luftwaffe Heinkel 111 of 4./KG 26 near Whitby. The pilots were Flight Lieutenant Townsend, Flying Officer "Tiger" Folkes and Sergeant James Hallowes. Two more He 111s were claimed by Townsend, on 22 February and 8 April, and a sixth share on 22 April. Enemy aircraft had been shot down in 1939 by the RAF from over Scotland's Scapa Flow naval base during the Luftwaffe's first raid on Britain. [8] Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in April 1940: [9]

Flight Lieutenant Peter Wooldridge Townsend (33178) In April 1940, whilst on patrol over the North Sea, Flight Lieutenant Townsend intercepted and attacked an enemy aircraft at dusk and after a running fight shot it down. This is the third success obtained by this pilot and in each instance he has displayed qualities of leadership, skill and determination of the highest order, with little regard for his own safety.

Squadron Leader Townsend of No. 85 Squadron RAF exits his Hawker Hurricane at RAF Castle Camps, July 1940 Hawker Hurricane at Castle Camps - RAF Fighter Command 1940 HU104489.jpg
Squadron Leader Townsend of No. 85 Squadron RAF exits his Hawker Hurricane at RAF Castle Camps, July 1940

By May 1940, Townsend was one of the most capable squadron leaders of the Battle of Britain, serving throughout the battle as commanding officer of No. 85 Squadron RAF, flying Hawker Hurricanes. On 11 July 1940, Acting Squadron Leader Townsend, flying Hurricane VY-K (P2716) intercepted a Dornier Do 17 of KG 2 and severely damaged the bomber, forcing it to crash land at Arras. Return fire from the Dornier hit the Hurricane coolant system and Townsend was forced to ditch 20 miles (32 km) from the English coast, being rescued by HM Trawler Cape Finisterre. He was mentioned in despatches the same month. [10] On 31 August, during combat with Messerschmitt Bf 110s over Tonbridge, Townsend was shot down and wounded in the left foot by a cannon shell which went through the glycol tank and exploded in the cockpit. He continued to lead the unit on the ground even after this wound resulted in his big toe being amputated, and he returned to operational flying on 21 September. Townsend was promoted to the substantive rank of squadron leader on 1 September 1940. [11] A Bar to his DFC was awarded in early September 1940, for leading his squadron in protecting convoys during July and August 1940, personally shooting down four enemy aircraft and leading his squadron in destroying at least 10 enemy aircraft and damaging many others. Part of his citation reads: [12]

...The success which has been achieved has been due to Squadron Leader Townsend's unflagging zeal and leadership.

Townsend oversaw the conversion of No. 85 Squadron to night operations at RAF Hunsdon in Hertfordshire during early 1941. In May 1941, by now an acting wing commander and credited with shooting down at least 11 enemy aircraft, Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). His citation credited Townsend as an officer who had [13]

...displayed outstanding powers of leadership and organisation, combined with great determination and skill in air combat. By his untiring efforts he has contributed materially to the many successes obtained by his squadron.

Townsend was promoted to the temporary rank of wing commander on 1 December 1941. [14] He later became commanding officer of RAF Drem in Scotland in April 1942 and commanded No. 611 Squadron RAF, a Spitfire unit. He was later leader of No. 605 Squadron RAF, a night fighter unit, and attended the staff college from October 1942. In January 1943, he was appointed commanding officer of RAF West Malling in Kent. His wartime record was nine aircraft claimed destroyed, and two shared, two 'probables' and four damaged. [15]

In 1944, Townsend was appointed temporary equerry to King George VI. [16] In the same year, the appointment was made permanent, and he served until 1953 when he became Extra Equerry, [17] an honorary office he held until his death. He ended his wartime service with the temporary rank of wing commander and was promoted to the permanent rank of wing commander on 1 January 1949. [18]

In August 1950, Townsend was made deputy Master of the Household and was moved to comptroller to the Queen Mother in 1952. [19] He was promoted to group captain on 1 January 1953, [20] and retired from the Royal Household the same year.

Townsend served as air attaché in Brussels from 1953 to 1956, Townsend in 1970 said that he and Margaret did not correspond and they had not seen each other since a "friendly" 1958 meeting, "just like I think a lot of people never see their old girl friends". [21]

Later life

Townsend spent much of his later years writing non-fiction books. His books include Earth My Friend (about driving/boating around the world alone in the mid-1950s), Duel of Eagles (about the Battle of Britain), The Odds Against Us (also known as Duel in the Dark, about fighting Luftwaffe night bombers in 1940–1941), The Last Emperor (a biography of King George VI), The Girl in the White Ship (about a young refugee from Vietnam in the late 1970s who was the sole survivor of her ship of refugees), The Postman of Nagasaki (about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki), and Time and Chance (an autobiography). He also wrote many short articles and contributed to other books.[ citation needed ]

Townsend was a director of one of Gerald Carroll's Carroll Group companies. [22]

Townsend was one of several military advisors for the film Battle of Britain (1969). He also appeared in the PBS video, The Windsors: A Royal Family (1994).[ citation needed ]

Personal life

On 17 July 1941, Townsend married (Cecil) Rosemary Pawle (1921–2004). They had two sons, Giles (1942–2015) and Hugo (b. 1945). The younger son married Yolande, Princess of Ligne, daughter of Antoine, 13th Prince of Ligne and Alix, Princess of Ligne (née Princess Alix of Luxembourg). Townsend and Pawle divorced in 1952. Pawle married, secondly, John de László (son of the painter Philip de László), and thirdly, in 1978, the 5th Marquess Camden.[ citation needed ]

After the divorce, Townsend and Princess Margaret formed a relationship and decided to marry. He had met her in his role as an equerry to her father, King George VI. Divorcees suffered severe disapproval in the social atmosphere of the time and could not remarry in the Church of England if their former spouse was still alive. Their relationship was considered especially controversial because Margaret's sister, Queen Elizabeth II, was the Church's Supreme Governor.[ citation needed ]

When news of the relationship appeared in the press, the government posted Townsend to a position as air attaché at the British Embassy in Brussels. On 31 October 1955, Princess Margaret issued a statement ending the relationship: "I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But, mindful of the Church's teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others." The BBC interrupted its scheduled radio programme to broadcast the statement. [23] [24]

In 1959, aged 45, Townsend married 20-year-old Marie-Luce Jamagne, a Belgian national he had met the previous year. [25] They had two daughters and one son. Their younger daughter, Isabelle Townsend, became a Ralph Lauren model in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Isabelle Townsend and her family renovated and lived at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie in Gif-sur-Yvette, where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had once lived. [26] [27]

Death and legacy

Stele of the grave in the churchyard of Saint-Leger-en-Yvelines, France. St Leger 78 Peter Townsend.jpg
Stele of the grave in the churchyard of Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, France.

Townsend died of stomach cancer in 1995, in Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, France. He was 80 years old. The Independent wrote in Townsend's obituary that "He developed, too, a perceptible sense of relief that things turned out the way they did", because "for men like Mark Phillips and Princess Margaret's eventual husband Anthony Armstrong-Jones, [marrying into the royal family] turned out to be an almost impossible undertaking". [28]

In 2002, a sculpture of Townsend, designed by Guy Portelli, was erected at Townsend Square, part of the Kings Hill development, on the site formerly occupied by the RAF West Malling airfield. [29]

Townsend is portrayed by Ben Miles in the 2016 Netflix television series The Crown . [30]

Selected works

Related Research Articles

Sholto Douglas, 1st Baron Douglas of Kirtleside

Marshal of the Royal Air Force William Sholto Douglas, 1st Baron Douglas of Kirtleside, was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force. After serving as a pilot, then a flight commander and finally as a squadron commander during the First World War, he served as a flying instructor during the inter-war years before becoming Director of Staff Duties and then Assistant Chief of the Air Staff at the Air Ministry.

Douglas Bader British World War II flying ace

Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, was a Royal Air Force flying ace during the Second World War. He was credited with 22 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged.

George Beurling

George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling, was the most successful Canadian fighter pilot of the Second World War.

Johnnie Johnson (RAF officer)

Air Vice Marshal James Edgar Johnson,, DL, nicknamed "Johnnie", was an English Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot and flying ace—defined as a pilot that has shot down five or more enemy aircraft in aerial combat—who flew and fought during the Second World War.

Robert Stanford Tuck

Wing Commander Robert Roland Stanford Tuck, was a British fighter pilot, flying ace and test pilot. Tuck joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1935 and first engaged in combat during the Battle of France, over Dunkirk, claiming his first victories. In September 1940 he was promoted to squadron leader and commanded a Hawker Hurricane squadron. In 1941–1942, Tuck participated in fighter sweeps over northern France. On 28 January 1942, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire, was forced to land in France, and was taken prisoner. At the time of his capture, Tuck had claimed 29 enemy aircraft destroyed, two shared destroyed, six probably destroyed, six damaged and one shared damaged.

No. 466 Squadron RAAF Royal Australian Air Force squadron

No. 466 Squadron RAAF was a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bomber squadron during World War II. Formed in the United Kingdom in late 1942, the squadron undertook combat operations in Europe until the end of the war, flying heavy bomber aircraft. Following the conclusion of hostilities with Germany, the squadron began retraining to undertake operations in the Pacific against the Japanese, but the war came to an end before it left the UK. In late 1945, the squadron was disbanded.

William Vale

William "Cherry" Vale, was a Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilot and flying ace of the Second World War. He was credited with 30 enemy aircraft shot down, shared in the destruction of three others, and claimed 6 damaged and another two shared damaged. His 20 kills achieved while flying the Hawker Hurricane and his 10 with the Gloster Gladiator made him the second highest scoring Hurricane and biplane pilot in the RAF, in both cases after Marmaduke Pattle.

Ernest "Imshi" Mason DFC was a British World War II flying ace, credited with one Luftwaffe and 14 Regia Aeronautica aircraft destroyed, two shared destroyed, three damaged and another three shared damaged in the air. Mason claimed one and 13 shared destroyed on the ground.

Donald Kingaby

Donald Ernest Kingaby, was a Royal Air Force (RAF) aviator and flying ace of the Second World War. He was the only person to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal three times.

Maurice Michael Stephens, was a Royal Air Force flying ace of the Second World War. Stephens scored 17 kills, three shared kills, one probable kills and five damaged.

Group Captain Geoffrey Hilton "Beery" Bowman, was a British First World War fighter ace credited with 32 victories. After attaining the rank of major in the Royal Flying Corps, he later became a group captain in the Royal Air Force.

Peter Malam Brothers

Air Commodore Peter Malam "Pete" Brothers, was a Royal Air Force fighter pilot and flying ace of the Second World War. Brothers was credited with 16 aerial victories, 10 of which he achieved during the Battle of Britain.

Brian Edmund Baker

Air Marshal Sir Brian Edmund Baker, was an officer of the Royal Air Force who served in both World Wars. He was a flying ace in World War I credited, in conjunction with his gunners, with twelve victories, comprising one enemy aircraft captured, four destroyed, and seven "out of control".

Bobby Oxspring

Group Captain Robert Wardlow "Bobby" Oxspring, was a Royal Air Force officer and flying ace of the Second World War.

John Dundas (RAF officer)

John Charles Dundas, was a Royal Air Force fighter pilot and flying ace of the Second World War credited with 12 victories.

Ernest Melville Charles Guest

Ernest Melville Charles Guest was a Southern Rhodesian Royal Air Force pilot of the Second World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1942 having flown more than 1,000 operational hours. Posted to South Africa as a flight navigation instructor, he was unhappy and got himself transferred back to England on operational duties. He soon went missing in October 1943 after taking on six Ju 88s while on an anti-submarine sortie.

John Plagis Southern Rhodesian WWII flying ace (1919–1974)

Ioannis Agorastos "John" Plagis, DSO, DFC & Bar (1919–1974) was a Southern Rhodesian flying ace in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War, noted especially for his part in the defence of Malta during 1942. The son of Greek immigrants, he was accepted by recruiters only after Greece joined the Allies in late 1940. Following spells with No. 65 Squadron and No. 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron, he joined No. 249 Squadron in Malta in March 1942. Flying Spitfire Mk Vs, Plagis was part of the multinational group of Allied pilots that successfully defended the strategically important island against numerically superior Axis forces over the next few months. Flying with No. 185 Squadron from early June, he was withdrawn to England in early July 1942.

Wilfred Clouston New Zealand Second World War flying ace

Wilfred Greville Clouston was a New Zealand flying ace of the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. He was credited with the destruction of nine enemy aircraft and shared in the destruction of three more.

Michael Herrick

Michael Herrick was a New Zealand flying ace of the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. He was credited with the destruction of eight enemy aircraft.

John Noble MacKenzie, was a New Zealand flying ace of the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. He was officially credited with the destruction of nine enemy aircraft.


  1. 1 2 Barrymaine, Norman (1958). The Peter Townsend Story. E. P. Dutton Ltd., p. 19.
  2. "Townsend, Group Captain Peter Wooldridge". Who Was Who. Oxford University Press. April 2014. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  3. "DSO Haileybury 1912 – 1962". Haileybury and Imperial Service College. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  4. "No. 34197". The London Gazette . 10 September 1935. p. 5743.
  5. Townsend, P. Time and Chance 1978 Book Club Associates pp84-93 with squadron photograph
  6. "No. 34374". The London Gazette . 20 February 1937. p. 1260.
  7. "No. 34598". The London Gazette . 14 February 1939. p. 1072.
  8. "3rd February 1940: Peter Townsend scores first with first plane shot down over England". WWII Today.
  9. "No. 34840". The London Gazette . 30 April 1940. p. 2556.
  10. "No. 34893". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 July 1940. p. 4268.
  11. "No. 35525". The London Gazette . 14 April 1942. p. 1649.
  12. "No. 34940". The London Gazette . 6 September 1940. p. 5407.
  13. "No. 35161". The London Gazette . 13 May 1941. p. 2744.
  14. "No. 35383". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 December 1941. p. 7111.
  15. Bowman, Martin (2015). RAF Fighter Pilots in WWII. Pen and Sword. p. 149. ISBN   9781783831920 . Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  16. "No. 36425". The London Gazette. 14 March 1944. p. 1229.
  17. "No. 39904". The London Gazette. 3 July 1953. p. 3676.
  18. "No. 38490". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 December 1948. p. 6721.
  19. "No. 38983". The London Gazette. 1 August 1950. p. 3953.
  20. "No. 39739". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1952. p. 53.
  21. "Townsend's Hurt of Rejection Healed". Desert Sun. UPI. 4 September 1970. p. 8. Retrieved 7 November 2020.
  22. "SFO looks at 500m fall of Carroll empire", Dominic O'Connell, Sunday Business , 1 October 2000, p. 1.
  23. "1955: Princess Margaret cancels wedding". "On This Day", BBC.
  24. Nikkhah, Roya (7 November 2009). "Princess Margaret: recently unearthed letter sheds new light on decision not to marry". The Daily Telegraph.
  25. Gregory, Joseph R. (2 February 2002). "Princess Margaret Dies at 71; Sister of Queen Elizabeth Had a Troubled Life". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  26. Petkanas, Christopher (October 2010). "Love Story". Vogue . p. 309.
  27. "Le Moulin – Restoration", The Landmark Trust , retrieved 30 January 2019
  28. De-la-Noy, Michael (21 June 1995). "Obituary: Gp Capt Peter Townsend". The Independent. Retrieved 7 November 2020.
  29. "Guy Portelli Sculpture Studio".
  30. Samuelson, Kate. "'The Crown' and the True History of Princess Margaret's Doomed Romance". Time. Retrieved 17 September 2017.