Vernon "Woody" Woodward

Vernon Crompton Woodward entered the world on Dec. 22, 1916 as the first of three children. His father ran a market garden on Vancouver Island. As a youngster he was interested in hunting. He owned a .30-.30 rifle when he was 14 and could kill a deer on the run with one shot. But, oddly enough, he wasn't much good with a shotgun.

Early in 1938 he decided to enlist with the Royal Air Force, as he was a "British subject". He didn't go for the RCAF as they were taking only university graduates for pilot training. This policy is similar to what is done today, for in peace time the military staffs lower positions with the officers of the future if there is a war. Then the lower ranks can be quickly filled with men that are not so highly educated. In 1938, the RAF was expanding as rapidly as the government would allow it, in response to European tensions. Germany was coming out of the depression through a rearmament scheme, Hitler had pulled off the Munich putsch, the Austrians had been forced to join Germany in the "Austrian anshluss", the Spanish (with the assistance of the Germans and Italians) were embroiled in a bitter civil war and the Italians were trying to expand into Ethiopia.

Woodward's uncle in Gloucestershire had given up a career as a doctor, in exchange for service in the RNAS in WWI. He was full of stories about Zeppelin raids over England, anti-submarine patrols from Scotland and fighting on the Western Front. Woody had joined at the right time, the RAF had been granted another expansion and he was taken in as an Acting Pilot Officer on Aug. 20, 1938. Of the 17 Canadians enrolled at this time 13 would die, most in action flying bombers. Of the 123 enrolled in that RAF expansion, 80 would die. Not very good odds.

Following medical exams they went to Elementary Flying and Reserve Flying Schools. These were mostly operated by local flying clubs and were operated by commercial companies for the RAF. Woodward went to Perth, Scotland and took his initial training on the de Havilland Tiger Moth. It was a quick and delightful aircraft to fly. One of the few fully aerobatic biplanes made that could be used for pilot training. Compared with WWI, the training Woodward received was very good. They did cockpit drill, taxiing, takeoffs, circuits and bumps, aerobatics and the first solo. Following the successful solo, and not all were, the training became more difficult with longer more complex flights. On the ground they were provided lectures on navigation, flight theory, emergency procedures and other stuff of general use. He spent about 70 hours on Tiger Moths (compare that to Billy Bishop's 8 hours prior to being posted to a Home Defence squadron). One of his instructors gave him some good advice

"You're too good at aerobatics and formation flying to be on bombers. Be a fighter pilot - you'll live longer."

Young Woody in Uniform

Following initial training they were issued uniforms, Woody was posted to No 1 RAF Depot at Uxbridge. Here they stressed physical fitness and drill. It didn't last long, he was soon shipped to No. 6 Flying Training School at Little Rissington, Gloucestershire. It was north of Oxford near Blenheim Palace. No. 6 FTS did Intermediate Training and Advanced Training using Hawker Audaxes and Furies for IT. This training was quite extensive, each instructor was given 5 or 6 pilot students to work with. Classroom instruction, phys-ed and drill and aircraft work took up 12 hours a day. The Audax was tough, but not inspiring. They worked on basic gunnery and bombing with it. Then training in the single seat Hawker Fury followed. This aircraft was much more like a "modern" fighter, capable of 200+ mph, with twin synchronised machine guns. Following the Fury, bomber training was done on the twin-seat Hawker Hart, designed as a light bomber. Each was more complex than the previous, and more capable. He graduated with his wings in Dec. 1938 and went on to Advanced Training at Warmwell, Dorset. Nearby was a long, skinny island of shingle and sand they used for live firing of machine guns, and dummy bombing targets at sea. This wasn't without danger, one of his buddies augured into the island in an Audax when he failed to pull out of a dive.

North Africa

By June 1, 1939 Woody was posted overseas to join No. 33 Squadron, in Ismaila, Egypt. Pre-war life in Egypt was a peach. They enjoyed the perks that were available to English officers at the end of the English empire. A personal servant to wake him, clean up after him, and lay out his clothes. He could visit Cairo, the pyramids, swim at the French Club or idle away the time in the bar at Shepheard's Hotel.

By Sept. 3, 1939 England and France declared war on Germany and her unwilling ally, Austria. Italy, the main country of concern in the Mediterranean area remained neutral, however, no one was in any doubt which way Mussolini, the fascist dictator, would turn if Italy entered the war. In an unsettling way the RAF made it's men face the reality of war. They issued fire-proof identification tags and requested they make out their wills. No. 33 Sqdn moved to forward posts in the desert closer to Libya.

Life on these "bases" consisted of training flights, heat, sand, flies and a dip in the Sea for recreation. Part of their work was to prepare extra landing fields even further into the desert and closer yet to Libya, as she was Italy's ally and any attacks would likely come through there. Considerable time was also spent on cooperation exercises with Allied ground forces to develop tactics. No. 33 Squadron was still flying the obsolete Gloster Gladiator, the last biplane fighter the British operated. Times had rapidly overtaken the Gladiator, but it would show a good accounting of itself over the next two years in North Africa, Greece and Malta. Especially with Woody at the stick. All RAF units in North Africa comprised Egypt Group and were under the command of Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw, the WWI Canadian fighter ace. He had been given carte blanche to run the North African air campaign to fit into Gen. Wavell's plans. Like Wavell and Maj.-Gen. Richard O'Connor in charge of the Army, he planned on getting the war off to a running start, to take the initiative and hit the Italians first as soon as they decided to join the war. Up to May, 1940 the only damage done to No. 33 Sqdn was by the sand and wind, as ferocious sand storms flipped and damaged aircraft, tore down tents and made all activities come to a halt. All through May the North African RAF squadrons were put on 24 hour alert, and then 4 hour alert on the possibility of Italy joining the war.

On June 10, 1940 Italy declared war and joined Germany. On June 11, the British 7th Division under Maj-Gen. O'Connor started offensive action against Italian troops in western Egypt, and Collishaw's Blenheim I bombers started their war by bombing the Italians at El Adem airfield near Tobruk. Italian ships at Tobruk and aircraft at El Adam were attacked the next day with the loss of an aging cruiser. To complicate matters for the Italians, their commander Governor-General Marshal Italo Balbo was shot down and killed by his own AA guns over Tobruk just as an RAF raid materialized (could this have been coincidence? Or is it possible that this was deliberate as Mussolini considered him to be his only serious contender in the fascist "government".)

No. 33 Sqdn was flying patrols from June 11 onwards. On June 14, Woody downed his first aircraft. They were over Fort Capuzzo, on the Libya-Egypt border, when his patrol spotted two Caproni Ca. 310 reconnaissance bombers. The bombers had been escorted by Fiat C.R.32 biplane fighters, that looked much like Gladiators. They approached the Italians at the same altitude and fired as they passed. Woody aimed for the motor of the Ca.310 and saw it start to smoke. A fellow fighter pilot also fired on the bomber. It crashed in front of a British armoured column. He and Woody shared the kill. Woody also got a "probable" on a Fiat C.R.32.

Later in June they moved up to bases closer to the action as the Italian bombers could easily outrun the Gladiator fighters. They also received several more Blenheim I bombers and a Hurricane fighter. Collishaw made the most of his Hurricane, dubbed "Collie's Battleship", moving it around and hitting Italian targets. This confused them considerably. They thought a whole squadron of Hurricanes existed, and so spread out their forces to combat them. This diluted the Italians effectiveness in the air.

On June 20, again in the Fort Capuzzo area Woodward's flight came upon three C.R.32 biplanes. He forced one down, and went after a second, shooting it down behind enemy lines after a long dogfight. Generally, the tactics employed by the Regia Aeronautica were reported to be "crude and accuracy of fire not noteworthy", also their aircraft were notoriously under armed. Along with defensive patrols were escort missions for the Squadron's Westland Lysanders, who were doing reconnaissance and ground strafing of motor convoys. On July 24, his flight ran into five Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighters. He downed one and got a "probable" kill on a second. They downed four of the five Italian fighters.  On the 25th, they got into a hard slugging match while escorting Blenheim bombers. Woodward downed a CR.42 in flames and shared a second. Then his wingman was shot down and Woody had to run from a group of C.R.42s. Fortunately, the Gladiator was more agile than the C.R.42, he dove for the deck and weaved violently at 100 feet. Trying to hit the Gladiator at a dangerously low altitude was too much for the Italians, they broke off and Woodward escaped. Woody was now an ace with 5 kills and two probables.

Crashed C.R.42

In Sept. 1940, the Italians under Gen. Grazziani, finally got organized and started a ponderous offensive from Libya into western Egypt. The British pulled back to their main base, Marsa Matruh, allowing the Italians to capture an airbase at Sidi Barrani. The Italians stopped there until Dec. 1940 to regroup and restock supplies. In this period Woody was in the rear, training on Hurricanes. It was a major step up from the old Gladiators. His first operational sortie in a Hurricane was on Oct. 11, 1940 from a base called Fuka. They ran reconnaissance missions to learn what the Italians were up to, and maintained standing patrols over the air field when Wellington and Bombay bombers were present.

The Hurricanes were welcome, but initially the pilots had problems closing on the slower, yet more agile CR.42s. In one dogfight the British and Italians circled about each other in C.R.42s and Hurricanes without much happening, until six Gladiators got on the scene. They shot down eight of the Fiats.

Woody in the desert

By now Woody (centre in photo) was a Flying Officer and was in command of a detachment at the small but important base Bir al Kenayis. They now had Blenheim IVs, Hurricanes and Wellington bombers. Wavell and his generals undertook a 5 day "reconnaissance in force" to attack the Italian's Sidi Barrani line with operation "Compass". Woody's squadron put out a maximum effort prior to Compass by harassing the Italian communication lines and intercepting all enemy reconnaissance aircraft. Then followed escort duties for the bombing raids just prior to the attack. Detailed planning left nothing to chance. British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops advanced at night and attacked the front on Dec. 9, 1940. Woody's flight became engaged in a large dogfight with CR.42s attempting to attack the advancing Allies. He shot down two and damaged a third. The Italians threw everything they had into the air, ground attack Breda Ba.65s, CR.42 fighters and SIAI-Marchetti SM.79 bombers. For several days the front was hot, but then the entire Italian front collapsed.

By Dec. 12 they had been forced out of Egypt, with the Western Desert Force capturing over 38,000 enemy troops and a large amount of armour, guns, vehicles and aircraft (Bf109s, Junkers Ju87 dive bombers and He111 bombers on loan from the Luftwaffe). Air operations were hectic, on Dec. 19 Woodward surprised a formation of CR.42s and shot down two. December was a good month for Woodward, he destroyed 5 aircraft, got a "probable" on another and damaged two SM.79 bombers. Operation Compass quickly became a rout of the Italians. By February, 1941 the Allies took Benghazi and controlled the entire north eastern area of Libya called Cyrenaica. When the advance began the RAF concentrated on keeping air superiority and strafing Italian rear areas and lines of communication. They attacked numerous targets of opportunity and did considerable damage behind the front lines.


On October 28, 1940 Il Duce, in a fit of envy and rivalry with Hitler, ordered Italian divisions into Greece in an attempt to control the entire eastern Mediterranean. Britain had earlier renewed a pledge of support for Greece to keep the Axis out of the strategically important country. When Italy marched across the Albanian border into Greece, Britain moved aircraft into the country to help Greek troops stall the Italian advance. The Greek troops fought amazingly well, considering they were facing a large number of Italian troops and were poorly equipped. They fought so well that by Jan. 1941, Italy required German reinforcements, and Greece needed British (mostly ANZAC) troops. Woody's No. 33 Sqdn went to reinforce the squadrons already there to replace the Greek Air Force, that had ceased to exist. Woodward remained in Eleusis, while a detachment was sent to Paramythia, about 50 miles from the Greek lines. Considerable action ensued along the Albanian/Greek border with each side jockeying for advantage. On Feb. 28th, the Italians decided to stamp out the British near the border and ordered a maximum effort to intercept a large British offensive patrol. 50 Italian planes met 29 British in a huge dogfight over the Greek/Italian lines. The Italians were the big losers, with 27 planes lost without a single British plane shot down.

By March 12 Woodward had moved forward to Larissa, the only pre-war, permanent Greek airbase. About this time No. 33 Sqdn received a new commanding officer the South African, "Pat" Pattle. No. 33 Sqdn was notable for it's lack of military demeanour, they didn't go through channels for anything, they ignored authority and didn't take a professional approach to flying. Quite the opposite to Pattle. He pulled them up by their socks, starting with formation flying and dog fighting skills. He realized that the Germans were a lot tougher to beat than the Italians, and that the coming fight in Greece would tax all of their skills.

On March 23 they were detailed to bomb and strafe an airfield near Fier. Ten Hurricanes approached the airbase when they were jumped by roughly 20 Fiat G.50 fighters. Two Italian planes were downed, one by Woody. This dogfight interrupted their strafing, except for Pattle, who destroyed two aircraft on the ground. On April 6, Woodward single handed destroyed three Cant Z.1007 bombers. Five of them had raided Volos, two Hurricanes from 33 Sqdn were scrambled and shot one bomber down over the target. Woodward was sitting on the ground with his airplane being armed when the call came. He rushed the armourer to finish loading and leapt into the air to intercept the other bombers on their way home over the Gulf of Corinth. He approached the four bombers from behind and was subjected to considerable fire from the rear gunners. He followed the recommended procedure for Z1007s, that was to get to close range, fire at the wing roots where the main fuel tanks were, followed by a downward flip and upward zoom to ignite the fuel/oil/air mixture. Two bombers went down in flames, and a third was seen to slowly descend and land on Greek soil with badly smoking engines. The fourth got away as he ran out of ammunition because the armourer incorrectly installed some of the belts in his guns. Only 4 of the 8 machine guns had been firing.

This same day Germany entered the Greek campaign. Overall, the RAF had some 80 serviceable aircraft in Greece, while Germany and Italy fielded nearly 800. It was only a matter of time before the RAF and the ANZACs were pushed out of Greece.

On April 13, Woody was on a lone reconnaissance flight when three Bf109s jumped him. He shot down one in flames and the other two ran off. He finished his mission before returning to base. The day after they intercepted several flights (a flight of 3 was a Kette) of Stukas with Bf109s as escort. Woody and his wingman tore into them, although they had a hard time following the Stukas once they went into a near-vertical dive. Regardless, Woodward downed two and his wingman one. The 109s didn't interfere, as though it was of no matter to them. The Germans started wide spread attacks on RAF airfields all across Greece to neutralize them. In a 1984 interview, Woody recalled: 

"There would be as many as 18 Messerschmitts at a time - six strafing and 12 giving them cover. It was worst for the men at readiness - waiting for a scramble order and then caught out in the open, exposed to bombs and bullets. Luckily, I was always near a slit trench when these attacks started - lots of stuff flying around, but nothing close to me."

Stuka bombing

The RAF were forced to pull back to Eleusis, although they were not safe from German strafing attacks. On the 19th he shared a victory over a Henshel Hs.126 with Pattle and another pilot. Pattle was mad, he had gone down to attack the Hs.126 and the rest of the flight followed to join in the fun. No one thought to provide top cover. On leaving the area they climbed up through a valley and met 9 Bf109s coming at them. Each side fired quickly and then passed. Pattle and Woody pulled into Immelman turns and got onto the German's tails. Pattle downed two, Woodward shot down one when a pair of 109s went after a smoking Hurricane.

The last great air battle in Greece occurred over the harbour town of Piraeus, near Athens. The Germans made a maximum effort raid, mostly to draw the RAF into the air so they could destroy them. It pretty much worked the way they planned. Pattle died in the battle. Woody shot down a Bf110 in flames, damaged two more and damaged a Junkers Ju88. Following the battle he flew to Egypt to pick up a replacement Hurricane and met his squadron at Meleme airfield in Crete.
By May the Allies had been forced out of mainland Greece.


Crete was not garrisoned very strongly by the British because of Greek neutrality. Not until 1940, when Italy entered the war and threatened Greece could England start to garrison the island. This was unfortunate as Crete controls the eastern Mediterranean, England's access to Middle Eastern oil, and the Suez Canal. From Crete Allied aircraft could have reached Rome, Belgrade and the Ploesti oilfields of Rumania. The largest harbour in the Mediterranean is on the west end of the island at Suda Bay, near Maleme airfield. In April, 1941 the island resources were swamped with 25,000 Allied evacuees from mainland Greece. Altogether only 41,000 poorly equipped English, New Zealand and Greek troops were available. They had little time to build a defensive arrangement, as the Germans realized that Crete could be overwhelmed quickly if they continued their momentum from their last days in Greece.

Crete was a poor place to have to defend from the north. The coast was low and open with several good ports, the interior was mountainous with poor roads and the south coast had only one or two barely accessible ports. The Allies had only 28,614 men to guard the entire north coast and the ports. Continuous air attacks destroyed fighters on the ground, ammo and fuel dumps, killed men and made working extremely difficult. The remaining four Hurricanes and three Gladiators were flown to Egypt. The Germans started Operation Mercury on May 19 with overwhelming air power to neutralize the ground forces and to create a bridgehead. They had 22,750 men, 500 transport aircraft, 80 gliders, 280 bombers, 150 dive-bombers 180 fighters and 40 recon. aircraft allotted to take Greece. The attack would concentrate initially on Maleme and Canea in the west, and on Retimo and Heraklion in the centre. The task of taking Maleme was given to General Meindl and his Assault Regiment. Glider-borne troops were to land and take the area surrounding Maleme airfield to clear the way for Junkers 52 transports carrying another 2,000 men. Paratroopers were to land clear of the area, form up and support the glider troops.

 German Paratroopers

Maleme airfield was guarded by AA posts and sandbagged forts with machine guns, with the New Zealanders (including Maoris) in hilltops half a mile from the air strip. On May 20 a heavy bombing raid started as a prelude to glider landings. Most of the gliders landing near the airfield were too close to the machine gun forts for many of the German troops to survive. Most of the paratroopers (except for the III Paratroop Battalion who lost 200 men on landing) landed out of range of the New Zealanders and formed up. The other glider-borne troops were more successful in capturing their objectives around Maleme.

More landings of Junkers Ju52s supported by strafing Bf 109s, Bf110s and dive bombing Ju87s ensured that a permanent force of Germans occupied parts of the airstrip. Lack of communications between the New Zealand Battalions and heavy fighting around the HQ area near the airfield, led to the partial withdrawal of the New Zealanders to the nearby hills.


The next two days were a series of attacks, counter attacks and patrols by both sides, with the Germans in a solid position on the airstrip and the Allies in the hill forts. More paratroopers landed amongst the fierce Maori troops and were wiped out before they could get properly into action. Further landings of German troops gave them the impetus to attack the New Zealanders again. Once the airstrip was secure, the Germans brought in troops and artillery and turned the tide of the battle. On the 24th, Woodward tried to lead a group of RAF men out of the battle zone, but ran into a large group of Germans and had to return to Maleme. The next night there were roughly 120 of them, 20 RAF and 100 Royal Marines, ready to try to escape. Woodward and the Marine officer took turns leading the column into the pitch black night. By marching all night and crossing through the German lines three times, they made their way east to Canea. On the night of May 26, they boarded the Australian destroyer HMAS Nizam for the journey to Egypt. Some of the other RAF personnel withdrew to Canea and then to the south coast to Sfakia. On May 22, the Royal Navy had to withdraw from around Crete as the Luftwaffe made operations too hazardous. A total of 16,500 troops were evacuated by RN cruisers and destroyers from the south coast port of Sfakia. Most of the remaining 11,800 Allied troops on Crete were captured and interned in POW camps for the rest of the war.

 JU52s crash landed on Crete

The Germans had 6,116 casualties, with 1,990 killed (25% of the paratroopers were killed) on Crete and suffered considerable losses of transport aircraft as most of the JU52s that landed on Crete were destroyed in the attempt. Hitler disallowed the use of paratroopers, in that role, for the remainder of the war. A few Allied troops continued guerrilla operations from the central mountains along with the fierce native Cretans. On May 9, Woodward had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for "gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations".

He was sent back to his old area of operations in North Africa, posted to Amriya where No. 33 Sqdn had been amalgamated with No. 30 until they could get more "Hurries". By the middle of June he was again leading a detachment of Hurricanes near the town of Sidi Omar on a strafing mission when they came upon a flight of Ju87s escorted by Bf109s and G50 fighters. They promptly forgot about strafing trucks and headed for the Junkers. In the ensuing dogfight Woodie shot down a G50 and damaged another, two other Axis aircraft were destroyed and several damaged. One of his long time pals from training days was killed though, making it a memorable fight, for the wrong reason. This period was quite intense as the Germans under General Erwin Rommel had skilfully countered the British offensive named "Battleaxe". The Germans were now quickly building up their forces in North Africa to push the British out.

German airfield

In between sorties they practiced new forms of aerial interceptions using radar detection and radio direction from the radar operators. On July 12, 1941, Woodie scored his last victory over an enemy aircraft using the new technique. He and another pilot were scrambled and vectored onto a reconnaissance Ju88 by the radar operators on board HMS Formidable. They made an initial pass and the Ju88 rolled onto it's back and dived for the deck. Flattening out at 500 feet it tried to run for it, but the two Hurricanes were on it's tail. Woodward fired a burst into the aircraft and it caught fire and crashed into the desert. This brought his total to approximately 20. The actual total will never be known due to lost records and fuzzy memories.

In September 1941 he was posted to Southern Rhodesia to take up a new life as a fighter instructor at the Rhodesian Air Training Group. Unlike the Germans, the Allies considered their highly successful fighter pilots to be more valuable training new pilots how to be good fighter pilots, than fighting the enemy. Many Germans racked up massive kill records because they flew and fought until they were seriously wounded, shot down over enemy territory or killed. They weren't posted out to do pilot training.

From October to June 1942 he flew North American Harvard trainers near Salisbury (Harare). This duty could be just as hazardous as active fighter duty. One day he lost part of his tailplane to another student plane while trying to teach formation flying. From active training he was posted to the HQ for a while, also at Salisbury. Then in late 1942 he was posted back to North Africa to command No. 213 Sqdn RAF at Martuba near Alexandria, Egypt. They were still flying Hurricanes, but the rest of the theatre had changed considerably. The Germans and Italians under Rommel had been beaten and were pushed out of Egypt and most of Libya. Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria had cut off the Afrika Corps in Tunisia, with no way out. The squadron was doing primarily escort duty for transports and bombers. In January, 1943 they were posted to the Libyan-Tunisian border to be closer to the action in case they were needed. They saw little action. A few scrambles kept Woodie's hand in the fighter game, but rarely did they see anything worth shooting at. In early August he was again decorated with a Bar to his DFC for his activities in Greece and Egypt, 22 months earlier. Later in August, 1943 he was posted away to HQ, Air Defence Eastern Mediterranean, and then to the RAF Staff College at Haifa to take the officer's advanced training course. Upon graduation he took over command of the Middle East Communications Squadron flying a variety of transports (Lockheed Lodestars, converted Bostons, Dakotas, Wellingtons, etc.) for VIPs. They ferried generals, politicians and Arab princes around the Middle East. One has to wonder if this was a reward for a job well done, or a posting to fighter pilot purgatory.

After the War
Woodward decided to make the RAF a career following his war work. He was posted to the Central Fighter Establishment for a staff position in 1946. Two years later he took over command of No. 19 Sqdn flying de Havilland Hornets. This position occupied him for only two years and then he was on to Fighter Command HQ. Here he spent three years developing underground control facilities for aircraft and communications all across England. The cold war was now underway, and the potential for nuclear war was becoming more apparent. Then it was back to the desk at the RAF Flying College, Manby. Following the desk tour he took command of No. 122 Wing who were flying the new Hawker Hunter jets from Jever, Germany. He got into a squabble with his commander and, for his pains, received a new posting to No. 39 Sqdn at Luqa, Malta flying English Electric Canberras doing aerial photographic reconnaissance of eastern block countries around the Adriatic. Also they were tasked with potential duties over southern Russia.

In the event of war we were also to go in after a first atomic strike to photograph whatever was left so that the allies would know what to hit in a second strike.

Following his tour with No. 39 Sqdn, he did more staff postings in England until he retired in 1963. He moved to Australia and set up an air charter company. In 1967 he moved back to British Columbia and lived in a modest retirement style working as a member of the Corps of Commissionaires. As of 1987, he was still living there.