Peter Townsend (RAF officer)

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Peter Townsend
Royal Air Force Fighter Command, 1939-1945. CH89.jpg
Flight Lieutenant Townsend (left) with Flight Lieutenant Caesar Hull in 1940
Birth name Peter Woolridge Townsend
Born (1914-11-22)22 November 1914
Rangoon, Burma
Died 19 June 1995(1995-06-19) (aged 80)
Rambouillet, France
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1933–1956
Rank Group Captain
Commands held RAF West Malling (1943–44)
No. 605 Squadron RAF (1942)
RAF Drew (1942)
No. 85 Squadron RAF (1940–41)

Second World War

Awards Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
Distinguished Service Order
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
Spouse(s) Rosemary Pawle (1941–52)
Marie-Luce Jamagne (1959–95)

Group Captain Peter Woolridge Townsend CVO, DSO, DFC & Bar (22 November 1914 – 19 June 1995) was Equerry to King George VI 1944–1952 and held the same position for Queen Elizabeth II 1952–1953. Group Captain Townsend is best known for his romance with Princess Margaret.

Early life[edit]

Peter Townsend was born 1914 in Rangoon, Burma, and was educated at Haileybury College.

Military career[edit]

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

Townsend joined the Royal Air Force in 1933, and trained at RAF Cranwell. 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.[1] He returned to Tangmere in 1937 as a member of No. 43 Squadron RAF. The first enemy aircraft to crash on English soil during the Second World War fell victim to fighters from Acklington on 3 February 1940 when three Hurricanes of ‘B’ flight, No. 43 Squadron, shot down a Heinkel 111 of 4./KG 26 near Whitby. The pilots were Flight Lieutenant Townsend, Flying Officer "Tiger" Folkes and Sergeant James Hallowes. Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in April 1940. 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 shipyards during the Luftwaffe's first raid on Britain.[2]

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 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 from the English coast, being rescued by HM Trawler Cape Finisterre. On 31 August, during combat with 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. A Bar to his DFC was awarded in early September 1940.

Townsend oversaw the conversion of No. 85 Squadron to night operations at RAF Hunsdon during early 1941. Awarded a Distinguished Service Order in April 1941, he later became commanding officer of RAF Drew in April 1942 and commanded No. 611 Squadron RAF, a Spitfire unit.

Townsend 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. His wartime record was 9 aircraft claimed destroyed (and 2 shared), 2 'probables' and 4 damaged.

In 1944, he was appointed temporary equerry to King George VI.[3] In the same year, the appointment was made permanent, and he served until 1953, when he became Extra Equerry,[4] an honorary office he held until his death. He was promoted group captain in 1948. In August 1950, he was made deputy Master of the Household and was moved to comptroller to the Queen Mother in 1952.[5] He retired from the Royal Household in the next year, and was air attaché in Brussels 1953 to 1956.

Personal life[edit]

On 17 July 1941, Peter Townsend married (Cecil) Rosemary Pawle (1921–2004) with whom he had two sons, Giles (1942–2015) and Hugo (b. 1945). They divorced in 1952. Rosemary later married John de László (son of the painter Philip de László), and still later, in 1978, became the third wife of the 5th Marquess Camden.

After the divorce, Townsend proposed marriage to Princess Margaret, who was inclined to accept him, and applied to the Queen for her consent. This was not forthcoming, and the prospective couple went their separate ways.

Posted to Belgium, Townsend met and married Marie-Luce Jamagne, a woman of that nationality, in 1959.[6] Their daughter, Isabelle Townsend, became a Ralph Lauren advertising model in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Isabelle and her family live in a house in France named "The Mill," where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor once resided.[7]

Relationship with Princess Margaret[edit]

Group Captain Townsend is best known for his romance with Princess Margaret.[8] He had met the Princess in his role as an equerry to her father, King George VI. Divorced people suffered severe disapproval in the social atmosphere of the time, and could not remarry in the Church of England. Thus, despite his distinguished career, Townsend had no chance of marriage with the princess unless she renounced her royal privileges. Their relationship caused enormous controversy after Margaret's sister acceded to the throne. The Princess eventually renounced Townsend, who was sent to take up a post at the British Embassy in Belgium.

Although Princess Margaret later married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, she herself underwent a divorce in 1978.

Later life[edit]

Peter 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.

Townsend was a director of one of Gerald Carroll's Carroll Group companies.[9]

Peter Townsend was one of several military advisors for the film Battle of Britain (1969), and he also appeared in the PBS video, The Windsors: A Royal Family (1994).

Stele of the grave in the churchyard of Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines

Townsend died of stomach cancer in 1995, at the age of 80, in Rambouillet, France. A sculpture of Group Captain Townsend stands in Townsend Square, part of the Kings Hill development on the site formerly occupied by RAF West Malling.[10]

His son Giles Townsend was President of the Cambridge Bomber and Fighter Society currently restoring a MK I Hawker Hurricane of No. 85 Squadron RAF and a Hawker Fury biplane of No. 43 Squadron RAF. His son Hugo Townsend is married to Yolande, Princess of Ligne.

Selected works[edit]


A sculpture of Group Captain Townsend, designed by Guy Portelli, was erected at West Malling airfield in 2002.[11]


  1. ^ Townsend, P. Time and Chance 1978 Book Club Associates pp84-93 with squadron photograph
  2. ^ "3rd February 1940: Peter Townsend scores first with first plane shot down over England". WWII Today. 
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 36425. p. 1229. 14 March 1944. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
  4. ^ The London Gazette: no. 39904. p. 3676. 3 July 1953. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
  5. ^ The London Gazette: no. 38983. p. 3953. 1 August 1950. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Love Story," by Christopher Petkanas. VOGUE, October 2010, page 309.
  8. ^ "Princess Margaret - Scarred by a forbidden love". Mail Online. 
  9. ^ "SFO looks at 500m fall of Carroll empire", Dominic O'Connell, Sunday Business, 1 October 2000, p. 1.
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Guy Portelli Sculpture Studio". 

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