The story of one of New Zealand’s most fortunate airmen

Alan Deere almost didn’t make selection for the RAF due to his high blood pressure. So when he kept cheating death again and again during World War Two, it was only fitting that his comrades should claim he had nine lives…

Throughout the course of World War Two, a devastating number of soldiers and airmen lost their lives. Some, however, were lucky. Often surviving one or more of their sorties, these men continued to thrust themselves into battle time and time again for King and country - until either the worst happened, or until such time as the war came to an end. One airman (possibly the most famous of his country) was seen as pretty much the luckiest, surviving several near-death experiences (earning him the playful accolade from his fellow pilots, who claimed he had nine lives) and becoming one of the most outstanding pilots to fight in the Battle of Britain. His name? Alan Deere.

New Zealand was involved for all but three of the 2179 days of World War Two, making it the country’s most significant national effort to date. Despite originating from New Zealand, Alan Deere gained his wings after moving to Britain in 1937. In 1936, he found out that the Royal Air Force was taking applications from the Dominions of the Royal British Empire. Upon successful selection, Alan boarded a ship and set sail for England, arriving in April of 1937. He began his flight training almost straight away; his training aircraft was a de Havilland Tiger Moth. It was during this time that Deere experienced his first lucky escape – and the war hadn’t even started yet.

In New Zealand, Deere had been proficient in many sports including rugby and boxing. Upon entry to the Royal Air Force, he was selected for the RAF boxing team to tour South Africa. Having failed his medical due to raised blood pressure from the excitement of learning to fly, he chose to remain in England to focus on flight training and develop his skill. The aeroplane that had been carrying the boxing team subsequently crashed in Rhodesia, killing most of the RAF personnel on board. It was a devastating blow for Deere, and not something he was likely to soon forget. Adamant in persisting in his training, in 1938 he was awarded his wings and selected for fighter command, progressing to a Hawker Fury from his Tiger Moth trainer. Three months later, he was transferred to a base in Hornchurch, Essex in order to fly Gloster Gladiators. By the time early 1939 rolled round, Deere had been transferred yet again to No. 54 Squadron, which was at that time in the process of converting to a newer, faster monoplane fighter: the Supermarine Spitfire.

Upon the outbreak of Word War Two, Deere and the rest of his comrades in No. 54 Squadron began to undertake missions with the aim of intercepting German reconnaissance aircraft. In the earlier stages of the war, Alan had his home country’s native bird, the kiwi, painted on his Spitfire Mk.I aeroplane. Later in the war, his Spitfire would be recognised by the markings on the side of his aircraft: ‘AL’, or Al. During Deere’s time serving within the RAF, he would go on to fly in the Battle of Britain, the Battle of France and the Invasion of Normandy. His first taste of active combat came in the form of an air-to-air battle during his involvement in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Over the four day period of 23rd to 29th May, Deere show down three Messerschmitt Bf109s and three Messerschmitt 110s. After getting shot himself on the 29th, he returned to base some nineteen hours later after hitching a ride on a boat across the Channel. This was yet another of the events that had almost cost Alan Deere his life – but it certainly wouldn’t be the last as he went on to serve throughout the entire course of the war.

For his actions over Dunkirk, Deere was awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross. Following this, over the course of the rest of his Royal Air Force career, he went on to be awarded a Distinguished Service Order, the Croix de Guerre (France), another Distinguished Flying Cross (this time from the United States) and was also made Officer of the Order of the British Empire. It is predicted that he claimed up to twenty-two aerial victories, ranking as the second highest scoring New Zealand fighter ace. Although some of his victories have been disputed, there is no doubt that Deere’s efforts made a great impact on the war. Deere died from cancer aged 77, having gone on to live a full life after the war. His medals, along with the original manuscript of his autobiography ‘Nine Lives’ are kept on display at the RAF Museum, Hendon.