In 1942, Hitler and the Nazis were at the height of their power. It was in this year that Wing Commander Ian Gleed’s autobiographical memoir, Arise to Conquer, was published. Gleed, a hero of the Battle of Britain, described in detail the daily life of fighter pilots and their sorties and dog-fights over the Channel and France.
A doctor’s son, Ian Gleed was born in Finchley, London in 1916. Educated at Tenterden Preparatory School and Epsom College, he learned to fly privately and flew his first solo at the London Aeroplane Club in 1935. He was also a keen sailor, and it was the literary friends he met through this pastime who encouraged the young pilot to write down his experiences. The tales of posh young men filling their time idly, with its homoerotic undertones, either intentional or not, belies the daily heroics of Gleed and his pals. He writes about his first sortie, his breakdown not long afterwards and air-battles over France; of becoming an ace, and eventually being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his services. 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. The one thing that did concern the publisher was Gleed’s confirmed bachelorhood. It was felt that a girl back home would make his character in the book more rounded and appealing to readers. So, much to the surprise of his family and friends, a pretend girlfriend named Pam was invented. But what none of them knew was that Gleed was homosexual.
In an interview in 1998 with the BBC’s Timewatch programme on ‘Sex and War’, Christopher Gotch spoke openly about his relationship with Gleed. He said that as soon as he was posted to the same RAF station he became the centre of attention for Gleed. ‘He gave me a kiss which took me by surprise, but, being a product of a public school, it wasn’t exactly strange. So, we started having sex together.’
In the book, they are billeted to a hotel in Exeter, along with the other pilots in their squadron, and the two of them share a room. The RAF was home-from-home for these well-educated public-school boys who were quite used to sharing dorms and beds together, and to the outside world, not privy to their way of life, it was unthinkable to imagine that Britain’s fighter pilots might be indulging in same-sex sexual activity. Even at the publishers, no one thought to edit or question the nuggets of homoerotic information Gleed divulged; for instance, when he says that he shared a bed with another pilot in France.
‘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. I hope she wakes us. My thoughts wandered. [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.’
Displays of affection between the men were seen as nothing more than bon ami, and sex, if it went on behind closed doors, was treated with oblivious disregard. Some say Gleed comes across as a tragic figure. This might be in part because of the outcome, but also because of the gung-ho, spiffing attitude he narrates his story. This is of course, precisely the vernacular of his class, but coming from Gleed it feels like a tragic means of covering-up.
Read more about Wing Commander Gleed and other heroic gay servicemen in my new book coming soon.