Peter Townsend (RAF officer)

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Peter Townsend
Peter Townsend (1914-1995).jpg
Flight Lieutenant Townsend in 1940
Birth namePeter Wooldridge Townsend
Born(1914-11-22)22 November 1914
Rangoon, Burma, British India
(now Yangon, Myanmar)
Died19 June 1995(1995-06-19) (aged 80)
Saint-Leger-en-Yvelines, France
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchRoyal Air Force
Years of service1933–1955
RankGroup Captain
Commands heldRAF West Malling (1943–1944)
No. 605 Squadron RAF (1942)
RAF Drem (1942)
No. 85 Squadron RAF (1940–1941)
Battles/warsSecond World War
AwardsCommander of the Royal Victorian Order
Distinguished Service Order
Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar
Mentioned in Despatches
(m. 1941; div. 1952)
Marie-Luce Jamagne
(m. 1959)

Group Captain Peter Wooldridge Townsend CVO, DSO, DFC (22 November 1914 – 19 June 1995) was a Royal Air Force officer, flying ace, courtier and author. He was equerry to King George VI from 1944 to 1952 and held the same position for Queen Elizabeth II from 1952 to 1953. Townsend notably had a romance with Princess Margaret, the Queen's only sibling.

Early life[edit]

Townsend was born in Rangoon, Burma, to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Copleston Townsend[1] and his wife, Gladys (née Hatt-Cook).[2] The Townsend family, of Devon, tended to send its sons into the church or the armed forces.[1] From 1928 to 1932, he was educated at Haileybury and Imperial Service College, then an all-boys independent school.[3]

RAF career[edit]

Townsend joined the Royal Air Force in 1933 and trained at RAF Cranwell. He was commissioned a pilot officer on 27 July 1935.[4] On graduation, he joined No. 1 Squadron RAF at RAF Tangmere flying the Hawker Fury biplane fighter. In 1936 he was posted to No. 36 Squadron RAF in Singapore, flying the Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bomber.[5] He was promoted to flying officer on 27 January 1937,[6] and returned to Tangmere that year as a member of No. 43 Squadron RAF. Townsend was promoted to flight lieutenant on 27 January 1939.[7]

The first enemy aircraft to crash on English soil during the Second World War fell victim to fighters from RAF Acklington in Northumberland on 3 February 1940, when three Hurricanes of ‘B’ flight, No. 43 Squadron, shot down a Luftwaffe Heinkel 111 of 4./KG 26 near Whitby. The pilots were Flight Lieutenant Townsend, Flying Officer "Tiger" Folkes and Sergeant James Hallowes. Two more He 111s were claimed by Townsend, on 22 February and 8 April, and a sixth share on 22 April. Enemy aircraft had been shot down in 1939 by the RAF from over Scotland's Scapa Flow naval base during the Luftwaffe's first raid on Britain.[8] Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in April 1940:[9]

Flight Lieutenant Peter Wooldridge Townsend (33178) In April 1940, whilst on patrol over the North Sea, Flight Lieutenant Townsend intercepted and attacked an enemy aircraft at dusk and after a running fight shot it down. This is the third success obtained by this pilot and in each instance he has displayed qualities of leadership, skill and determination of the highest order, with little regard for his own safety.

Squadron Leader Townsend of No. 85 Squadron RAF exits his Hawker Hurricane at RAF Castle Camps, July 1940

By May 1940, Townsend was one of the most capable squadron leaders of the Battle of Britain, serving throughout the battle as commanding officer of No. 85 Squadron RAF, flying Hawker Hurricanes. On 11 July 1940, Acting Squadron Leader Townsend, flying Hurricane VY-K (P2716) intercepted a Dornier Do 17 of KG 2 and severely damaged the bomber, forcing it to crash land at Arras. Return fire from the Dornier hit the Hurricane coolant system and Townsend was forced to ditch 20 miles (32 km) from the English coast, being rescued by HM Trawler Cape Finisterre. He was mentioned in despatches the same month.[10] On 31 August, during combat with Messerschmitt Bf 110s over Tonbridge, Townsend was shot down and wounded in the left foot by a cannon shell which went through the glycol tank and exploded in the cockpit. He continued to lead the unit on the ground even after this wound resulted in his big toe being amputated, and he returned to operational flying on 21 September. Townsend was promoted to the substantive rank of squadron leader on 1 September 1940.[11] A Bar to his DFC was awarded in early September 1940, for leading his squadron in protecting convoys during July and August 1940, personally shooting down four enemy aircraft and leading his squadron in destroying at least 10 enemy aircraft and damaging many others. Part of his citation reads:[12]

...The success which has been achieved has been due to Squadron Leader Townsend's unflagging zeal and leadership.

Townsend oversaw the conversion of No. 85 Squadron to night operations at RAF Hunsdon in Hertfordshire during early 1941. In May 1941, by now an acting wing commander and credited with shooting down at least 11 enemy aircraft, Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). His citation credited Townsend as an officer who had[13]

...displayed outstanding powers of leadership and organisation, combined with great determination and skill in air combat. By his untiring efforts he has contributed materially to the many successes obtained by his squadron.

Townsend was promoted to the temporary rank of wing commander on 1 December 1941.[14] He later became commanding officer of RAF Drem in Scotland in April 1942 and commanded No. 611 Squadron RAF, a Spitfire unit. He was later leader of No. 605 Squadron RAF, a night fighter unit, and attended the staff college from October 1942. In January 1943, he was appointed commanding officer of RAF West Malling in Kent. His wartime record was nine aircraft claimed destroyed, and two shared, two 'probables' and four damaged.[15]

In 1944, Townsend was appointed temporary equerry to King George VI.[16] In the same year, the appointment was made permanent, and he served until 1953 when he became Extra Equerry,[17] an honorary office he held until his death. He ended his wartime service with the temporary rank of wing commander and was promoted to the permanent rank of wing commander on 1 January 1949.[18]

In August 1950, Townsend was made deputy Master of the Household and was moved to comptroller to the Queen Mother in 1952.[19] He was promoted to group captain on 1 January 1953,[20] and retired from the Royal Household the same year.

Townsend served as air attaché in Brussels from 1953 to 1956, Townsend in 1970 said that he and Margaret did not correspond and they had not seen each other since a "friendly" 1958 meeting, "just like I think a lot of people never see their old girl friends".[21]

Later life[edit]

Townsend spent much of his later years writing non-fiction books. His books include Earth My Friend (about driving/boating around the world alone in the mid-1950s), Duel of Eagles (about the Battle of Britain), The Odds Against Us (also known as Duel in the Dark, about fighting Luftwaffe night bombers in 1940–1941), The Last Emperor (a biography of King George VI), The Girl in the White Ship (about a young refugee from Vietnam in the late 1970s who was the sole survivor of her ship of refugees), The Postman of Nagasaki (about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki), and Time and Chance (an autobiography). He also wrote many short articles and contributed to other books.[citation needed]

Townsend was a director of one of Gerald Carroll's Carroll Group companies.[22]

Townsend was one of several military advisors for the film Battle of Britain (1969). He also appeared in the PBS video, The Windsors: A Royal Family (1994).[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

On 17 July 1941, Townsend married (Cecil) Rosemary Pawle (1921–2004). They had two sons, Giles (1942–2015) and Hugo (b. 1945). The younger son married Yolande, Princess of Ligne, daughter of Antoine, 13th Prince of Ligne and Alix, Princess of Ligne (née Princess Alix of Luxembourg). Townsend and Pawle divorced in 1952. Pawle married, secondly, John de László (son of the painter Philip de László), and thirdly, in 1978, the 5th Marquess Camden.[citation needed]

After the divorce, Townsend and Princess Margaret formed a relationship and decided to marry. He had met her in his role as an equerry to her father, King George VI. Divorcees suffered severe disapproval in the social atmosphere of the time and could not remarry in the Church of England if their former spouse was still alive. Their relationship was considered especially controversial because Margaret's sister, Queen Elizabeth II, was the Church's Supreme Governor.[citation needed]

When news of the relationship appeared in the press, the government posted Townsend to a position as air attaché at the British Embassy in Brussels. On 31 October 1955, Princess Margaret issued a statement ending the relationship: "I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But, mindful of the Church's teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others." The BBC interrupted its scheduled radio programme to broadcast the statement.[23][24]

In 1959, aged 45, Townsend married 20-year-old Marie-Luce Jamagne, a Belgian national he had met the previous year.[25] They had two daughters and one son. Their younger daughter, Isabelle Townsend, became a Ralph Lauren model in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Isabelle Townsend and her family renovated and lived at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie in Gif-sur-Yvette, where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had once lived.[26][27]

Death and legacy[edit]

Stele of the grave in the churchyard of Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, France.

Townsend died of stomach cancer in 1995, in Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, France. He was 80 years old. The Independent wrote in Townsend's obituary that "He developed, too, a perceptible sense of relief that things turned out the way they did", because "for men like Mark Phillips and Princess Margaret's eventual husband Anthony Armstrong-Jones, [marrying into the royal family] turned out to be an almost impossible undertaking".[28]

In 2002, a sculpture of Townsend, designed by Guy Portelli, was erected at Townsend Square, part of the Kings Hill development, on the site formerly occupied by the RAF West Malling airfield.[29]

In popular culture[edit]

Townsend is portrayed by Ben Miles in the 2016 Netflix television series The Crown.[30]

Selected works[edit]

  • Earth, my friend. Coward-McCann. 1960. OCLC 1329573.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Duel of Eagles. Simon and Schuster. 1970. ISBN 0671206419. OCLC 119851.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • The last emperor: an intimate account of George VI and the fall of his empire. Simon and Schuster. 1976. ISBN 0671223283. OCLC 2284054.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Time and Chance: an autobiography. Methuen. 1978. ISBN 045893710X. OCLC 4307096.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • The Girl in the White Ship. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 1983. ISBN 003057787X. OCLC 8387613.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • The Postman of Nagasaki. Collins. 1984. ISBN 0002170671. OCLC 12010257.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Duel in the dark: the sequel to Duel of eagles. Harrap. 1986. ISBN 0245542477. OCLC 16801897.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)


  1. ^ a b Barrymaine, Norman (1958). The Peter Townsend Story. E. P. Dutton Ltd., p. 19.
  2. ^ "Townsend, Group Captain Peter Wooldridge". Who Was Who. Oxford University Press. April 2014. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  3. ^ "DSO Haileybury 1912 – 1962". Haileybury and Imperial Service College. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  4. ^ "No. 34197". The London Gazette. 10 September 1935. p. 5743.
  5. ^ Townsend, P. Time and Chance 1978 Book Club Associates pp84-93 with squadron photograph
  6. ^ "No. 34374". The London Gazette. 20 February 1937. p. 1260.
  7. ^ "No. 34598". The London Gazette. 14 February 1939. p. 1072.
  8. ^ "3rd February 1940: Peter Townsend scores first with first plane shot down over England". WWII Today.
  9. ^ "No. 34840". The London Gazette. 30 April 1940. p. 2556.
  10. ^ "No. 34893". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 July 1940. p. 4268.
  11. ^ "No. 35525". The London Gazette. 14 April 1942. p. 1649.
  12. ^ "No. 34940". The London Gazette. 6 September 1940. p. 5407.
  13. ^ "No. 35161". The London Gazette. 13 May 1941. p. 2744.
  14. ^ "No. 35383". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 December 1941. p. 7111.
  15. ^ Bowman, Martin (2015). RAF Fighter Pilots in WWII. Pen and Sword. p. 149. ISBN 9781783831920. Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  16. ^ "No. 36425". The London Gazette. 14 March 1944. p. 1229.
  17. ^ "No. 39904". The London Gazette. 3 July 1953. p. 3676.
  18. ^ "No. 38490". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 December 1948. p. 6721.
  19. ^ "No. 38983". The London Gazette. 1 August 1950. p. 3953.
  20. ^ "No. 39739". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1952. p. 53.
  21. ^ "Townsend's Hurt of Rejection Healed". Desert Sun. UPI. 4 September 1970. p. 8. Retrieved 7 November 2020.
  22. ^ "SFO looks at 500m fall of Carroll empire", Dominic O'Connell, Sunday Business, 1 October 2000, p. 1.
  23. ^ "1955: Princess Margaret cancels wedding". "On This Day", BBC.
  24. ^ Nikkhah, Roya (7 November 2009). "Princess Margaret: recently unearthed letter sheds new light on decision not to marry". The Daily Telegraph.
  25. ^ Gregory, Joseph R. (2 February 2002). "Princess Margaret Dies at 71; Sister of Queen Elizabeth Had a Troubled Life". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  26. ^ Petkanas, Christopher (October 2010). "Love Story". Vogue. p. 309.
  27. ^ "Le Moulin – Restoration", The Landmark Trust, retrieved 30 January 2019
  28. ^ De-la-Noy, Michael (21 June 1995). "Obituary: Gp Capt Peter Townsend". The Independent. Retrieved 7 November 2020.
  29. ^ "Guy Portelli Sculpture Studio".
  30. ^ Samuelson, Kate. "'The Crown' and the True History of Princess Margaret's Doomed Romance". Time. Retrieved 17 September 2017.

External links[edit]