Ian Gleed, or ‘Widge’, as he was known to his pals, due to his diminutive size and for using the word ‘wizard’ at every opportunity, was a WW2 fighter pilot. He survived the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain and was Squadron Leader and commanding officer of 87 Squadron. In 1941 he was promoted to Wing Commander and took charge of the Ibsley Wing, flying sorties across the Channel.
In 1942, while Hitler and the Nazis were at the height of their power in Europe, the threat of an imminent invasion had subsided, and Britain’s new battlefront was in North Africa. It was in this year that Gleed’s memoir, Arise to Conquer, was published. In his book Gleed described in detail the daily lives of RAF pilots and their terrifying dog-fights over the Channel and France. What he also alluded to was the frisson of homoerotic behaviour that went on in the mess and billets between some of the young pilots.
The book opens with what can only be described as a rather spiffing country house weekend party with friends. ‘The batman woke me with his usual smile. “Seven-thirty and a nice morning, sir.” It was September 3rd 1939, I was twenty-three. I turned on the wireless and listened to some music from Paris. After a few moments I heard Billy next door starting his French lessons on the gramophone, and at the end of the corridor Micky was singing in the bath. [Later that same day] “Play me squash Micky; we can have a swift game before dinner.” I liked playing with Micky because we were about dead equal and always made each other run all over the place. I beat Micky by one game. We ran to our rooms dripping with sweat. I yelled to the batman to grab me a bath, turned the wireless on – more news; what I heard of it was exactly the same as the four o’clock version – stripped in front of the fire, shoved a dressing gown on and sprinted along the corridor to the bath.’
This scene of posh young men filling their time idly, with its homoerotic undertones, either intentional or not, belies the daily heroics of Gleed and his fellow pilots. In the book he writes about his first raids, the nervous breakdown he suffered not long after, and the air-battles over France; of becoming an ace fighter pilot and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his valour. It is a remarkably honest account considering the restrictions imposed on him and the publishers by the War Office. Censorship at the time would have meant that every word was subject to the highest scrutiny. Even so, the gallant adventures of the dashing young ace were an opportune piece of propaganda.
One detail that did concern his publisher was Gleed’s self-confessed state of bachelorhood. The accounts of stripping naked and jumping in and out of bed with his fellow pilots, however innocent that might have seemed, was not the conventional portrayal of wholesome romantic male heroism. Thus, it was felt that a girl back home written into the story would make his character more suitably rounded and appealing, especially to female readers. A girlfriend by the name of Pam was invented, much to the surprise of his family and friends. None of them realised, however, that Gleed was in fact, homosexual.
In an interview with the BBC in 1998 for the Timewatch programme ‘Sex and War’, Christopher Gotch spoke about his relationship with Gleed. From the outset he found that Gleed was fixated on him, and he became the centre of his attention. To the 18-year-old Gotch, the gap between him and Wing Commander Gleed, who had two or three ribbons and even at that point was a famous air ace, ‘was quite something’.
‘One day I was sitting in the mess, reading, when I felt these eyes boring into me. I looked up and saw the Wing Commander staring at me. I looked back at my paper, and in that moment Gleed got up and left. After a few minutes I went up to my room, and there he was, sat by the window looking through my photo album. “Can I help?” I asked him. Without saying a word, he stood up, walked over to me and gave me a great big kiss, which took me somewhat by surprise, but being a product of a public school, it wasn’t exactly strange. He asked me to come to his room that night, and so we started having sex together. He was the first bloke who ever buggered me. He had charm, he had personality and he had a car, and he used to take me up to London and introduce me to people. I remember one day we flew down to his boat on the Scilly Isles, which in war-time was really something.’
The RAF was home-from-home for many well-educated public-school boys who were quite used to sharing dorms and even beds, and as there was nowhere to stay on the airfield, Gleed and Gotch were billeted together in a hotel in Exeter, along with other pilots in the squadron. Had their relationship ever been discovered, the pair would have been court martialled. Luckily this never happened, but there was one incident, Gotch recalled, when it was a close shave and he had to hide in Gleed’s wardrobe.
To the outside world, not privy to the way of life of these young men, it was unthinkable to imagine that Britain’s fighter pilots might have indulged in same-sex sexual activity. Even at the publishers, no one thought to edit out or question the nuggets of homoerotic information Gleed had, wittingly or not, divulged through his writing. There is the occasion, for instance, when he says he shared a bed with another pilot in France. Of course, bunking together would have been perfectly normal, as Gleed recalls: ‘We had found several old friends at Merville, who were in the other squadrons there. Eventually I wandered down the road with young Banks, with whom I had offered to share my room. He was a young boy who was looking very tired. He had come out three days before, having ferried a new Hurricane over to us. After asking the lady of the house to wake us at four-thirty, we retired to our room with a couple of candles, stripped and leapt into bed naked. When the candles were blown out I lay in bed and thought. Oh, hell, I suddenly remembered, I hadn’t told anyone where we were sleeping. My thoughts wandered. In two minutes, I was asleep. [In the morning] There seemed to be nowhere to wash, so we just didn’t bother. We thanked Madame very much, and after a difficult few moments gave her fifty francs for our lodgings.’
Working on a second book, Gleed wrote poignantly, ‘It’s strange how confident I feel that I shall survive this war.’ The end, however, came one April afternoon in 1943 while on patrol over the Cap Bon peninsular of North-Eastern Tunisia. His Spitfire was shot down over the sand dunes near the sea on the western coastline. He was twenty-six. He was buried at Tazoghrane and later reburied in the Military Cemetery at Enfidaville, in Tunisia in April 1944. After Gleed’s death, ‘Pam’ received dozens of letters of condolence from the public.
His mascot, Figaro, the little mischievous cartoon cat from Disney’s Pinocchio, which he had painted onto the side door of his cockpit, was the only fragment of the aircraft recovered from the crash site. It was donated to the RAF Museum in 1971. It is currently not on display.
Extract from This Forbidden Fruit by David Ledain