James Tillett was born to Maud Reynolds in 1918. Born out of Wedlock, he was often portrayed as being Maud’s adoptive son to avoid the stigma present with having children outside of marriage which was uncommon at the time. He was an avid sportsman particularly enjoying Cross-country running and Hockey. As the Storm clouds began to form over Europe, Tillett enlisted at RAF College Cranwell in 1937, here he continued to play sports and even ventured into Athletics whilst he studied.
On the eve of the Second World War, Tillett graduated from Cranwell as a Pilot Officer on the 29th July 1939. He was posted to 52 Squadron at RAF Upwood on the 4th August flying the single engined Fairey Battle Light Bomber. In December, he was transferred to No. 2 Coastal Patrol Flight, serving with the unit until April 1940. In August 1940, he was again transferred to 12 Squadron at RAF Eastchurch. His first operational sortie would be on the 18th of August flying a night-time raid on German shipping in Boulogne Harbour although he would return prematurely due to engine trouble.
His second sortie would also be hampered by mechanical problems. Third times the charm seemed to apply to Tillett as his third sortie in a raid on German Torpedo Boats at First Light was successful. During this time, the Battle of Britain was at its thickest with German Raids on Airfields, Industrial Centres and Cities occurring daily. Fighter Command was desperately seeking pilots from the other branches of the RAF and also those of the Fleet Air Arm. Tillett answered the call and was transferred to 238 Squadron flying the Hawker Hurricane on the 7th September at RAF Chilbolton. Tragically, P/O James Tillett’s Career with 238 Sqn would last only 2 months as he was shot down and killed on the 6th November, valiantly defending Portsmouth and its Naval Facilities against a Luftwaffe raid.
Although nobody claimed the shootdown, many believe that Luftwaffe Ace Helmut Wick was responsible. Wick would be killed later that month in an action over the Solent. His Hurricane V6814 glided down and landed wheels up in a Field near White Dell Farm, North Wallington.
Two boys witnessed the crash and rushed to help, banging on the canopy to provoke a response from the Pilot who was slumped over the controls.
As the smoking engine caught fire, they were forced to retreat and watch in horror as the aircraft burnt to the ground. The body of James Tillett would later be recovered from the charred airframe and laid to rest in Ann’s Hill Cemetery, Gosport with full honours. Here he lies to this day in a beautifully kept plot amongst both allies and adversaries.
Here inscribed the names of friends we knew,
Young men with whom we often flew.
Scrambled to many angels high,
They knew that they or friends might die.
Many were very scarcely trained,
And many badly burnt or maimed.
Behind each name a story lies
Of bravery in summer skies;
Though many brave unwritten tales
Were simply told in vapour trails.
Many now lie in sacred graves
And many rest beneath the waves.
Outnumbered every day they flew,
Remembered here as just ‘The Few’.
– ‘Our Wall’ by William Walker