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Incredible story of WWII fighter pilot Len Thorne

Thursday, 05 June 2014

Flying as one

When fighter pilot Len Thorne saw one of his squadron shot down in World War II, little did he think that more than forty-five years later he would meet that pilot again thanks to his Freemasonry. Barry Griffin, Len’s son-in-law, explains the chance encounter

For a couple of years before his death, my father-in-law Len Thorne had been working on memoirs based on his World War II pilot’s logbook as a front-line fighter and his time as a test pilot in the Air Fighting Development Unit (AFDU). His daughter, my wife Gill, promised Len that we would try to complete his book and have it published. The following extract not only gives a breathtaking account of mid-air battle, but also reveals how important Freemasonry can be in bringing people together:

‘On a “sweep” operation on 12 October 1941, I flew as Yellow three, sub-section leader on the port side of the leading section and slightly above it. We swept south from Gravelines to Hardelot, inland ten to fifteen miles from the French coast. Blue section, off to our right and slightly below us, were attacked by a group of 109s just as we made a starboard turn to leave France. The rest of us were immediately involved in several brief individual combats, and for a few moments, the sky seemed full of aircraft. 

‘In a momentary lull I saw Blue four off to my right spinning down, with the Spitfire completely engulfed in flames. I broke violently to port to avoid an attacker and became separated from the somewhat scattered squadron, so joined up with one of the “Keyhole” (452 Australian) Squadron boys and got home safely. We later learned that Blue four was Sergeant Ted Meredith of B Flight and, at that time, he was believed to have perished in his flaming aircraft.

‘In March 1987, over forty-five years later, my wife was helping at a masonic meeting of the Warwickshire Masonic Widows Friendship Club. I was waiting for her with the husband of another of the helpers in an anteroom. We chatted as one does and he noticed my RAF Association lapel badge and asked what I did in the RAF. Learning that I had been a fighter pilot, he told me of a friend of his named Ted Meredith, who had also been a fighter pilot, and wondered whether I knew him. I said that I had known a Ted Meredith but it could not be the same chap, as I saw him shot down in flames. 

‘A quick phone call revealed that it was, indeed, the man I had known; not only was he alive and well but lived only eight miles away in Bromsgrove! Ted was also a Freemason and we agreed to meet at the next meeting of his lodge. A mutual friend tipped off a reporter of the local newspaper. The story not only appeared in the local papers, but also made headlines in the Daily Express. A few days later we were interviewed by a team from the BBC Six O’Clock News and were featured in the television news that evening. Instant fame!’

‘In a momentary lull I saw Blue four off to my right spinning down, with the Spitfire completely engulfed in flames.’

Their Freemasonry had brought Len and Ted together and the two pilots remained firm friends until Ted passed away in 1996. Len’s involvement in the Craft was a natural accompaniment to his military and civilian career. As a pilot, he was considered a safe and careful pair of hands; he wanted to complete his mission, concentrate on his security and that of his colleagues and return home to a safe landing. In his Freemasonry he showed similar traits; he did not take chances but made sure that thorough preparation enabled him to perform to the best of his ability.

Taking to the sky

Len was born in Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire. After his grammar school education he went to work as a junior clerk for High Duty Alloys (HDA) in Slough, moving to Redditch when HDA opened a new factory in 1938. But World War II intervened and in 1940 Len joined the Royal Air Force (RAF). He flew with many of the top ‘aces’ of the war and talks with clear affection in his memoirs about Al Deere, Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane, TS ‘Wimpy’ Wade and James ‘One-Armed Mac’ MacLachlan. 

After two tours of duty as a fighter pilot, Len was seconded to the AFDU, which tested, under extreme conditions, new Allied aircraft and captured enemy planes. Len flew the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in simulated combat and was nearly shot down by his own side. He briefly flew the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which crashed on the runway. He also test-flew the P-51 Mustang and was part of the team to suggest the modifications that turned it into a war winner.

‘A quick phone call revealed that it was, indeed, the man I had known; not only was he alive and well but lived only eight miles away in Bromsgrove!’

A new path

Len left the RAF in September 1948 and returned to HDA in Slough. The following month he was initiated into Industria Lodge, No. 5214, in the Province of Buckinghamshire. Returning to Redditch, Len became a regular visitor to Ipsley Lodge, No. 6491, becoming a joining member in 1959. Len was installed in the Chair in 1972, which was when he initiated me into the lodge, and in 1998 received his fifty-year certificate. 

Len was a very good ritualist and a good organiser. He regularly performed the Mystical Lecture in Royal Arch, was happy to take the Chair for any ceremony, and raised substantial funds for masonic charities.

In early 2008, he was offered a promotion to Past Provincial Junior Grand Warden, but did not accept it as by then he was feeling his age. Len passed away on 6 June 2008, the anniversary of D-Day, just before he was due to receive his sixty-year certificate.

History preserved

Len Thorne’s diary and logbook, A Very Unusual Air War, is available from The History Press (£16.99). All authors’ royalties will go to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund and the British Legion, in line with Len’s wishes.