Vernon ‘Woody’ Woodward, one of Canada’s top fighter aces of World War Two, learnt to fly at Perth Aerodrome. As a British Columbian from Victoria, born 22 December 1916, Woodward was able to join the Royal Air Force (20 August 1938) as an Acting Pilot Officer. His elementary flying lessons above the countryside of Perthshire were undertaken in de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes.
Woodward eventually obtained his wings in December of 1938 after further training at airfields in Uxbridge, London and Little Rissington, Gloucestershire. An advanced course of training this time at Wormwell in Dorset led to a posting (June 1 1939) to Ismaila in Egypt. This pre-war appointment was very much defined by social activity, and life for Woodward and the other young pilots of No. 33 squadron was pleasant and easy. This quiet lifestyle would soon end with the outbreak of war in Europe and Woodward’s squadron found itself deployed to front locations within the deserts of Libya. The squadron was now flying the last biplane British fighter to see active duty, the Gloucester Gladiator. As soon as Italy joined Germany on the side of the Axis in 1940, No.33 squadron were sent into action with bombers at Tobruk.
The first confirmed kill for Woodward occurred four days later on June 14 over the Libyan-Egyptian border. A Fiat CR 32 Italian biplane fighter was the victim and would be the first of many downs. Despite some close calls Woodward survived this local air war whilst the British forces found themselves pushed back by Italian offensives. In order to upgrade to Hurricanes which although faster were less manoeuvrable than the Gladiators, Woodward was sent to the rear. British forces by this time had reversed the strategic situation having taken Benghazi and much of the north-east of Libya.
Woodward again found himself in action against Italian fighters, this time over Greece, which had been invaded on October 28 1940. Things become more difficult in this campaign because the poor Italian advance led to Germany mobilising troops both on the ground and in the air within this theatre of operations. The power of the German air campaign was awesome. A typical Luftwaffe fighter mission according to Woodward could involve “as many as 18 Messerschmitts at a time – six straffing and twelve giving them cover.”
With German air superiority the Allies were pushed out of Greece and Woody and his squadron formed part of the retreat of 25,000 British troops to Crete. Refuge here was short. On May 19 the Germans launched Operation Mercury with some 22,750 men. Woodward’s fight shifted from the air to the ground. Trapped at Maleme in the west of the island he and other pilots were forced to break through German lines (fighting paratroopers) before being rescued at Canea by an Australian destroyer. Woodward was luckier than nearly 12,000 British troops who were captured and spent the next four years in prisoner of war camps.
The Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded to Woodward for, “gallantry and devotion to duty in execution of operations” on May 9. A medal that would be later enhanced with a bar in 1943 for Woodward’s role in the defence of Egypt, Greece and Crete.
After fleeing Crete, Woodward was next posted to lead a Hurricane detachment made up of pilots from No. 33 and No. 30 squadron. His 20th and final kill of the war soon followed on July 12 1941. The rest of the war for Woodward involved training pilots in Southern Rhodesia, commanding No. 213 squadron in Egypt and finally piloting for the Middle East Communications Squadron. The role of the latter group was to transport VIPs and commanders between various locations in the Middle East.
Woodward did not retire from the RAF until 1963 having undertaken a myriad of positions in the post war period – flying Hornets and Canberras. After a short time of running his own charter airline in Australia, Woodward retired back home to British Columbia.
“You’re too good at aerobatics and formation flying to be on bombers. Be a fighter pilot – you’ll live longer.”
One of Woodward’s Perth Aerodrome Flying Instructors