Wing Cdr ‘Ben’ Benson 1914 - 1987
Wing Commander “Ben” Benson was a fighter pilot who, having come through the Battle of Britain, survived more than 100 operations in the hazardous role of night-fighter pilot covering some of Bomber Command's heaviest attacks on targets in Germany.
James Gillies Benson was born in 1914 and educated at Westminster. He joined the Royal Airforce Volunteer Reserve and trained as a pilot before the outbreak of the 1939-1945 war.
His operational career began in earnest after he had joined 141 Squadron in July, 1940. Up to that point the squadron, equipped with the ill-fated Boulton Paul Defiant had been employed on day fighting.
But this aircraft’s distinctive gun turret had proved a hindrance and the squadron incurred disastrous losses. By October, 1940, after being withdrawn to Scotland, 141 and Benson were back in south-east England and operating as night fighters in the defence of London.
Without air interception radar, Benson felt himself a needle in a haystack. Nevertheless on the night of December 22, 1940, he was able to report watching a Heinkel 111 bomber falling in flames after his gunner had fired at it.
By the late summer of 1941 after converting to the twin engined Beaufighter, Benson was very much in business. Very soon he shot down a Dornier 217.
For a while Benson was instructing at a night fighter Operational Conversion Unit in Scotland, being present when Richard Hillary, author of “The Last Enemy”, who had talked his, way back into the cockpit after being badly burned during the Battle of Britain, was killed in a crash.
Thereafter began a hugely successful partnership with Wing Commander Lewis Brandon, as navigator, which resulted in Benson's final score reaching at least 10 enemy aircraft, several probables and a tally of trains and other targets destroyed or beaten up. Benson and Brandon were each rewarded with the DSO and DFC and Bar.
Crewing a Mosquito in 157 Squadron, Benson and Brandon were members of 100 (Bomber Support) Group. Benson, his navigator recalls, was “always the most popular man in the squadron.” Towards the end of their 100-odd operations together, Benson chivalrously decided to let other crews take first pick of what were known as the patrol points.
Taking the last and possibly less fruitful station Benson had received, with the luck of the draw, a patrol point near Sweden and a training area. This offered him two JU88s on a plate.
Brandon had so much faith in Benson as his pilot that he seldom felt it necessary to clip on his parachute, though there was one very unsettling occasion when they were chasing buzz bombs (V1s) over the Channel and the front nose panels of their Mosquito blew in. In all they accounted for eight buzz bombs.