Trains and goats and planes

What is the story of a distinguished goat called William and how has he come to tell it himself in a new book? Brian Waite explains why he believes the RAF goat's story is so important.

In November 19, 1941 a goat went flying for the first time. It was no ordinary goat. This was Flying Officer William de Goat, of 609 (West Riding) Squadron and the flight came about as the squadron moved from Biggin Hill in Kent to Digby in Lincolnshire for a rest after continuous operations since 1939.

The story started in 1936, when 609 was formed as an auxiliary squadron at Yeadon. The airmen recruits had to live within 10 miles of the city centre of Leeds and they quickly became a tightly-knit group, ready for anything when war broke out. Their Spitfires saw action over the beaches of Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain. After the Germans had called off their plans to invade, 609 remained in the south of England and it was in the summer of 1941 that their lives were to change forever. The Old Jail Pub was just beyond the perimeter fence of RAF Biggin Hill, along a leafy Kent road. It was a popular haunt for the Belgian pilots on 609 – by this stage of the war the aircrew came from many different nations and the squadron was popular with those Belgians who had escaped the occupation in their home country. The landlady of the Old Jail was a Belgian woman named Biddie, who apart from providing excellent wine, had access to news from home. Biddie also had a kid goat, which, for reasons that only the two of them knew, she presented to Vicki Ortmans, one of the Belgian flyers who won the Distinguished Flying Cross and was shot down three times in three months.

The day after leaving the Old Jail for its new home at Biggin Hill, the kid was christened William de Goat, partly in acknowledgment to the Belgian commitment to the Squadron. In true RAF tradition, he was also given a rank and Flying Officer William de Goat's stripes were duly painted on his horns.

William and 609 were now one. William was one of the boys. He was suckled on beer from a baby's bottle and introduced to the questionable joys of nicotine. Not one to be bothered with lighting the cigarettes, he simply ate them.

During the war years, RAF squadrons were a transient bunch and 609 was no exception. Following the rest at Digby they moved south again to RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire, in 1942.

Here they gave up the beloved Spitfire to fly the Typhoon. They departed Duxford for Kent towards the end of the year and which point they almost dropped their biggest clanger. William was left behind. As a result, peculiar things happened. Morale dropped, previous success in combat waned and questions were asked. "No William!" said one brave junior officer and he was despatched to Duxford hoping that the butcher had not claimed their mascot. Fortunately, a caring corporal RAF policeman had protected William from the knife. William was hastily persuaded to board a train destined for Ramsgate. The price of his ticket was 10/1d (50p).

With William back home, the success of 609 squadron soared. Under the leadership of Bee Beamont, they took part in raids over occupied France, destroying the communications by perfecting the technique of "train busting". On one sortie, the squadron commander saluted William before taking off and the squadron duly shot down six German aircraft. William was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the luck he brought, and from then on saluting William became more than a ritual. "No salute – no luck" became the unwritten rule of the day.

An order was made. William would never leave the Squadron again. In future, wherever they went, William was close by. During the evening celebrations to commemorate the squadron's 200th kill, he made an appearance on the dancefloor, consuming cigarettes, chrysanthemums and charging among groups of women.

As operational momentum increased along the south coast, William moved many times, until his horizons broadened further on July 1, 1944. He was whisked across the Channel in a Dakota transport aircraft and landed in Normandy through a hail of bullets and mortars. His beloved aircrew and their Typhoons followed a week later. William stayed with his squadron as they moved rapidly through France, Belgium, Holland and eventually Germany. On VE Day, William was promoted to Air Commodore. At the disbandment of the squadron at Lasham in Hampshire, William was entrusted to a local farmer, who promised to look after him.

The squadron re-formed twice after the war. First in 1946 at RAF Church Fenton and entered the jet age in 1951, flying Gloster Meteors until 1957 when all auxiliary flying squadrons were disbanded.

In 2001, 609 re-formed again at RAF Leeming. There were no aircraft this time, learning to fly today's sophisticated platforms takes more than a couple of weekends per month as was the case in 1936. It's task today is force protection – guarding airfields. More than 60 of the squadron's reservists were deployed to the Gulf during 2003, many witnessing Saddam's missiles at close hand. Today, several are mobilised and deployed in war zones overseas. When I took over the command of 609, I encountered William – at least in spirit. Following much research, numerous conversations and correspondence with 609ers that had served with him, I felt I had to tell the story of this remarkable creature when I retired. And what better way to do it, than to put myself inside the mind of William and give a goat's-eye view of the career of the highest ranking officer to serve with Yorkshire's reservists.

A goat's eye view of life in the RAF

An extract from Brian Waite's book, William de Goat.

I did not know where I came from, but liked to think that there was some Yorkshire blood in me somewhere.

I was a British Toggenburg variety of goat, Latin: Capra Hircus, and my ancestors probably came from Greece or Asia Minor.

We came to England some time ago. However, this really does not matter to me or to my boys, but I thought you might like to know.

My new home was good and I was made most welcome.

When the boys went to their machines, I tried to follow but was usually tethered outside the new dispersal because they did not want me too close to the aircraft – did they think I might follow them?

They sometimes forgot to tie me up and, ignoring the aircraft, I made for the dispersal, which was made for me to explore. It had steps and open windows and ledges. When I climbed two lots of steps one day I found a window open and a ledge.

Now us goats innately like heights and narrow ledges. Nature took over and I decided to practise walking backwards, thinking I may need to do it for survival one day. It was all so easy, yet below all of the boys and others were watching me, mouths open. I posed, standing very still.

The audience left, so I gave up my game and went back into the building where I knew there would be special food available. Living with these humans threw up many opportunities to supplement my diet.

Every day, at a certain time, the room at the bottom of the building had sandwiches in it. They were delicious, but the boys tried to dissuade me from consuming them – something about not being good for me. Did they think I would not eat them if they were bad for me?

This place was comfortable, probably too comfortable for a goat, but I did not think so. I was regularly shouted at, but I liked the big chair, the sandwiches and of course it did not really matter, because they needed me. After a short and luxurious time, I was climbing back into the lorry and was transported back to the place they called Biggin Hill. It was not so comfortable. We were not destined to be here for long, but I felt the emotion of sadness for the first time as a goat – even a special one.

The boy who weaned me did not come home to feed me one day. It was one of those times at the dispersal when they were all quiet. Vicki Ortmans, who had brought me from the Old Jail, was missing.

We are loyal things, us goats, and that very kind and courageous man was to feed me no more.

I had lost my first friend from the boys.

William de Goat by Squadron Leader Brian Waite, published by Athena Press 5.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or online at Postage and packing is 2.75.