Sacked Hero


Monday, Oct. 10, 1955


Air Chief Marshal Sir Basil Embry is a pugnacious and uncompromising airman with a fine World War II battle record and a reputation for talking out of school.

Last week at 53, Britain's most famous flying brasshat was placed on the retired list. No "appropriate appointment" available, " said the R.A.F. "I am being . . . sacked," Sir Basil corrected. "I have strong views." The most recent Embry views: the R.A.F. is unready for atomic war, dominated by the civil service, shackled to outdated strategy and outmoded jet types by pound-pinchers at Her Majesty's Treasury. Like his good friend General Curtis LeMay, chief of the U.S. Strategic Air Command and another battle-tested brasshat, Embry thinks that the next war will turn on the air forces' capacity to deliver immediate and lethal retaliation.

The R.A.F., he says, can never attain A-combat readiness unless men with broad operational flying experience take over, put the bureaucrats in their place, and restore the service to its World War II standing as Britain's prime striking force.

Sir Basil, who wears a D.F.C., A.F.C. and four D.S.O.s, is popular with flyers as a leader who would fly anything they could. Promoted to a big command early in World War II, he led his Blenheim bombers on one more mission, was shot down over France. He slipped away from the Germans three times, once killing three captors with a knife and the butt of a sentry's rifle, another time impersonating an Irish Republican Army man (and spouting Urdu when asked to show that he could speak Gaelic). He slept one night in an absent German general's bed, watched from the bedroom window the Nazis' parade into Paris, and cycled across France to freedom. Back in Britain, he left his commander's desk and flew repeated fighter missions as "Wing Commander Smith."

As postwar chief of fighter command NATO commander of air forces on the Central European front, he made professional friends by championing the promotion of more combat veterans to operational commands. But he also made enemies in the ministries by his criticism of the R.A.F.'s condition, and this year he was passed over for top R.A.F. jobs.

Last week, five years younger than the retirement age of 58, Sir Basil booked passage for New Zealand, announced that will become a farmer.