from an address given by son in law Joe at Witt’s funeral on 8th
Everything for Witt was either a “box of birds” or a “ball of
fire” - and quite often both at the same time, although he never
explained how the birds would cope with such high temperatures! Had he
ever been asked, he would probably have said they were phoenixes, birds
rising from the ashes.
Which is what Witt did after his 150 mph crash in an
American-built Mustang aeroplane - as he always pointed out, as a result
of poor manufacture of the flap mechanism. “God-damn Yanks” he used to
say or, sometimes rather more succinctly, the “Goddams”. He was really
badly damaged in that horrendous crash, but fought through his injuries.
Witt always loved to make digs at the Americans, and he especially liked
to recount that his Spitfire in Burma was always under more threat from
friendly fire by the Yanks than from the Japs.
Politically correct he never was. Most people were erks - an erk
being pretty much anyone who wasn't a Spitfire pilot or a particularly
distinguished individual - and of course, Witt was both of these. Erks
subdivided into “wogs” (on “Air Force left”) and “noddy men” and “dolly birds” (on
Witt had been a meteorologist at Birmingham University once he
stopped flying. His enduring analysis of bad weather was that it was
“ugly mate”. This was also used to describe people and circumstances -
as in ‘Witt, what do you think of helicopters/Gordon Brown/etc.’ The
reply: "ugly mate, full on ugly."
Witt called his book An Evil Boy, a self-addressed reference. He
regarded himself as having lived a very happy and lucky life whilst
pulling stunts and practical jokes that nearly prevented him from being
presented with his RAF wings. He flew his aeroplane so close to his
mate's that he dented a wing tip. He was duly made Officer in Charge of
Joe playing Witt
a video of low flying
Spitfires in 2008
I can't think of Dad's Army without thinking of Witt: he would
always guffaw when you said to him ‘Don't tell him your name Pike’,
usually responding with, "stupid boy!" or "the Germans don't like it up
'em". Or Tommy Cooper's, "not like that, like that". And what about
the New Zealand Haka: "Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka Ora", which he'd also break
into without warning, staring at you with his devilish grin, his arms
waving like demented windmills and often making people jump out of their
skins with the shock of it.
He was a very humble man and he had the ability of summing up
things in pithy and often humorous one-liners. Ask him about how he
decided an aeroplane was a good 'un or not he would say "If it looks
right, it flies right".
He referred to his time in Burma during the Second World War as
"when I was in the green hell". He wrote about the few brushes with
death that he had. Flying his Spitfire through huge banks of deadly
cumulo-nimbus, he somehow survived and whilst some of his men were lost,
other pilots followed his advice to keep straight and level and they
followed him home. That was Witt all along really, straight and level.
You could see Witt's enduring loves with a casual glance towards
the mantlepiece. There was a picture of his mother, of whom he spoke
with tears in his eyes during the last hours of his life. A statue of
Winston Churchill, whom he respected above all men...
... and a painting of his darling Spitfire (Mark 9 with
retractable tail-wheel, Merlin engine designed by Witt's other hero R J
Mitchell). And on the fire place there's his kukri knife, presented to
him in gratitude by the Gurkhas. He deeply respected the Gurkhas and
would always salute whenever you mentioned them. There are lots of cups
from his vintage car days. He loved being at the wheel of his faithful Lagonda, completing the Mille Miglia with son Donald and various rallies
across New Zealand and the continent.
many wartime videos, pride of place was always given to Dame Vera Lynn.
He had met her during the war and she has been informed of Witt's death.
Her song "We’ll meet again…" always brought tears to his eyes. She has
asked for another copy of his book and has written several lovely
letters to the family.
Witt was so dignified as he stumbled along to his former wife
Barbara's funeral; he had just had a hip replacement operation and was
in considerable pain but he refused to use a wheelchair and I'll never
forget how uncomplaining he was as he dragged himself over the wet grass
towards the grave.
To the last day of his life he still asked "got a fag?" and the
day before he died he was lying in bed, eyeing up a “dolly bird” who was
sitting in the sunshine outside his window. Witt couldn't take his eyes
of her and it was as if she had been strategically placed for his
During the last couple of weeks of his life, as his ability to
eat and drink failed him, his fingers could no longer grasp, his mouth
barely able to enunciate the words he wanted to say, his eyesight
diminishing and his body closing down for the final time, he did
something that will never leave me. For hour after hour, day and night,
he held out his right hand just as if he was holding onto the joystick
of his Spitfire - talking about the manoeuvres he was performing and the
enemies he was facing.
The last thing Witt said to me was "We are looking towards the
past and the past is looking back at us." Well, here's looking at you
Witt. Your old body might have eventually failed you, but your courage
and dignity never did.
the Spitfire in death just as he had in life