Obituary: Wing Commander Alan 'Red' Owen

One of the Royal Air Force's most successful night fighter pilots of the Second World War

Wing Commander Alan "Red" Owen: Second World War fighter pilot. Born: 8 July, 1922 in Chelsea, London. Died: 13 February, 2010, in Kent, aged 87.

ALAN Owen, like many "ordinary" young men of his generation, discovered he remarkable skills that might otherwise gone unnoticed but for serving their country during the Second World War. In his case, he turned out to be a rather good pilot.

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Born in Chelsea in 1922, Alan Joseph Owen was one of eight children. He was educated at Merton Park's St Mary's Church of England School before training as a technical draughtsman at Wimbledon Technical College. Following his graduation, he was employed by a engineering firm in Surrey. None of this suggested that he was destined to become one of the RAF's most successful wartime pilots.

Just 17 when the war began, Owen joined the RAF in 1941, following in the footsteps of two of his brothers. He trained as a pilot and began his flying career behind the controls of a Bristol Beaufighter 156, a long-range heavy fighter. It was during this time that he acquired his nickname, derived from his flash of red hair.

While piloting the Beaufighters, Owen was introduced to Victor McAllister, a radio operator. They remained as a team for the duration of the hostilities, entering British military history as one of the most successful night fighter teams.

Their first airborne success came on December 1942, when flying as part of No 600 squadron over North Africa, where they shot down a Heinkel III long-range bomber over Algiers.

However, the German pilot had managed to get off a few rounds during the attack and had badly damaged the Beau's undercarriage. Fighting to keep control of his craft proved thankless as Owen crash-landed back at base and sat helpless as the Beau shot across the airfield.

The aircraft took out a Spitfire, fuel tanker and an industrial mixer before finally being stopped by a brick wall. Amusingly, a member of the ground crew added the airfield debris to Owen's squadron score card. Returning to action, Owen and McAllister were awarded DFM's as they continued in their mission to disable the German air force, first accounting for a Heinkel followed by an Italian bomber in the skies above Bone, Algeria.

In 1943 the pair returned to Britain to train pilots for future sorties, but not before shooting down another three enemy fighter planes over Sicily en route. By August 1944, the pair were back in action as members of No 85 Squadron, flying de Havilland Mosquitos. By now, the pair were renowned in the RAF as unflinchingly brave and skilful airborne operators and considered a welcome addition to bomber support operations.

Their reputation as air-to-air combatants had led to their draught to No 85 squadron. The role of these planes was to protect the allied bombers from the Luftwaffe fighter attacks during night bombing raids over Germany.

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Their other role was to make surprise attacks on enemy aircraft as they took off and landing at their own airfields, as this gave the German pilots almost no chance of returning fire.

A busman's holiday spent intercepting V-1 bombers over the south of England added to Owen's tally in 1944 before a return to the more familiar setting of night-time raids.

Life was about to get pretty exciting for the famed crew and on 17 September they wiped out a pair of Messerschmitt's fighters.

The night of 22 December also proved fruitful, a Junkers Ju 88 was the first victim, followed by two more German aircraft, in less than 25 minutes. By the end of 1944, Owen and McAllister had shot down a further two fighter planes and numerous planes grounded at airfields. The pair received the DFCs and a Bar for their performances with No 85, being described as "fearless and devoted members of aircraft crew".

Owen remained with No 85 until demobilisation in June 1946. He was just 23 and already the commanding officer of the squadron. Soon after, he left the RAF to return to his previous occupation of technical draughtsman. He had married Rita Drew in 1945 and was hoping for a somewhat quieter life.

However, civilian life didn't quite cut it for him any longer and he returned to the RAF in 1947 as a flight lieutenant. Pretty soon he found himself back in his old friend the Mosquito as he flew photographic mapping missions over Egypt before returning to Britain in 1950.

After a time a the Central Fighter Establishment, he was deployed to the sunnier climbs of Malta, where he took command of No 39 Squadron, flying Meteor Jet fighters. He then moved on in 1962 to flying Javelin's as command of No 23 Squadron. After record-breaking flights involving then revolutionary in-flight refuelling techniques, he was awarded the AFC in 1964.

His military career came to an end in 1969 when he finally retired from active service. Post-RAF he worked for two years in Saudi Arabia as part of the British Aircraft Co-operation Commission before returning to England. From 1974 he was a road safety officer for East Sussex County Council and moved to undertake a similar role in Kent before retiring again in 1984.

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Alan "Red" Owen was one of the RAF's most successful wartime fighter pilots. His tally was a minimum of 15 airborne enemy planes and countless grounded craft.

He is survived by his wife Rita, their two sons and four daughters.