Hero Tom One of the very last of the Few
Tom O'Reilly was not much more than a boy when he flew the first of 83 second world war sorties. Dick Meadows meets the shy veteran – probably the last surviving RAF Coltishall Spitfire pilot.
His eyes dropped and his voice lowered almost to a whisper, lost in quiet reverie. 'Albert Green, John Manley, George Myatt, poor Tony Wallace, Sammy...' And the words drifted away like a vapour trail to silence.
We'd just finished doing an interview for a television documentary about the closure of RAF Coltishall and I don't think Spitfire pilot Tom O'Reilly realised the camera was still running. The names were of fellow pilots and friends who did not survive.
It is almost exactly 71 years since the first Spitfires flew from the newly-built RAF Coltishall base in the Norfolk countryside. The Battle of Britain was about to begin. The boys who would be heroes were beginning to arrive. Douglas Bader, Johnnie Johnson, 'Sailor' Malan, 'Cats Eyes' Cunningham, Raymond Baxter... it was a roll call of the brave.
They all helped to make Coltishall famous. Other young men came and went with less noise. They were less glamorous and most were non-commissioned. Men like Warrant Officer Tom O'Reilly –'Paddy' to his mates in the Mess. As well as Coltishall, Tom also flew from the smaller satellite stations at nearby Ludham and Matlaske.
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He had trained in South Africa and the Middle East, fought in the skies above Malta and then the south coast of England before being drafted to Coltishall.
'I think we all wanted to be fighter pilots, be the glamour boys. It was like playing in the Premier League. But some of the lads ended up in bombers. They were the brave ones.'
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Bravery, though, is like beauty. It's in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps that is why I admire this man so much. Now aged 88, his memory for the events of today and the previous day and the day before that is slipping away. He knows it too and is frustrated.
But the stories of a young man in mortal danger almost 70 years ago remain quite clear to him. Tom flew 83 battle sorties in Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mustangs and Typhoons. Three times he was forced to crash-land. His mates at Coltishall understood how lucky he was to survive. They christened him 'Golden Balls'.
There's a boyish grin on an old man's face as he recalls the nickname. 'Eighty three sorties, lucky O'Reilly' is his shrugged verdict.
To read the full life-and-death story about Tom O'Reilly see the EDP Sunday supplement in this Saturday's EDP.