Was Reigate’s Battle of Britain ace Bob Doe the first to wear a silk scarf in battle?
PUBLISHED: 12:38 10 July 2020 | UPDATED: 14:02 14 July 2020
Malcolm Triggs looks at how this fashion accessory became an item of protective clothing adopted by The Few fighting in the Battle of Britain 80 years ago
While many Battle of Britain pilots were no doubt keen to cultivate a sophisticated image, one clothing accessory had a potentially life-saving purpose.
The silk scarf – according to legend often donated by female admirers of those dashing Fighter Boys of 1940 – did not become de riguer among ‘the Few’ for reasons of fashion but because it prevented pilots’ necks chafing as they scanned the sky for enemy aircraft.
In his book The Most Dangerous Enemy, Stephen Bungay suggests Battle of Britain ace Bob Doe, who finished his career as a Wing Commander, was the first to adopt the silk scarf as protective clothing.
After shooting down a Messerschmitt Bf109 over Tangmere on 16 August, Reigate-born Doe was disconcerted when fellow No 234 Squadron pilot Pat Hughes told Doe he had shot another 109 off his tail.
Doe, who had not seen the enemy, resolved to improve his observational skills.
Realising how sore his neck was from looking around, he swapped his collar and tie for a silk scarf so that he could search the sky more systematically and look behind him regularly – without discomfort. Other pilots quickly followed suit.
Doe did a lot of thinking. After shooting down a Bf109 on 18 August, now known as “the hardest day”, he exchanged his flying boots for shoes so he could control his Spitfire more precisely. He also realised that opening fire at 400 yards was ineffective and had his gun sights recalibrated to 250 yards. Three days later he took out a Junkers Ju88 and became an ace.
Thinking no doubt played a part in helping Doe not just stay alive but go on to become one of the highest-scoring RAF aces of the Battle, with 15 confirmed victories. He was awarded the DFC and a Bar.
It was not all plain sailing. On October 10, by now with No 238 Squadron, Doe was hit, baled out and landed in a sewage drainage pit on Brownsea Island. He was treated for injuries to his left hand and right foot but damage to his spine meant that for him, the Battle was over.
Doe rejoined 234 and flew again on Boxing Day 1940 but was seriously injured in a night landing accident the following month.
After 22 operations he joined No 66 Squadron in May and went on to have a distinguished career, retiring on April 1, 1966, as a Wing Commander. He died on February 21, 2010.
Churchill’s Few are remembered at the Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne in Kent. For more information see: battleofbritainmemorial.org