Former head teacher dies after a high flying life of adventure

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A Leigh-born former headteacher, pilot and war veteran has died at the age of 93.

Eric Farrington Birchall, from Forton, died at Scarborough Hospital on February 9.

Born on the August 21, 1921 in Leigh, Eric and his family moved to Preston and at the outbreak of the war he volunteered for the RAF, being accepted as a Wireless Operator/Rear Gunner (tail end Charlie) on Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers in 1940.

Son Michael said: “As a wireless operator/rear gunner on torpedo bombers life expectancy was short, in fact statistics showed that only 3% of torpedo bomber crews survived the war. He not only survived but completed 59 sorties, 1 short of 2 tours.”

Eric had to fly in all weathers, with a lot of his tours based out over the North Sea, flying at 50 feet into Norwegian Fjords, searching out German battle ships while being relentlessly strafed from shore batteries.

Eric’s second tour was in North Africa where their squadron assisted the advance of Field Marshal Montgomery in his push against Rommel, attacking enemy shipping that was supplying the German army.

Michael notes one of his dad’s most significant events while in the RAF, he said: “While in the RAF, one of his most significant events, perhaps the most, was the sinking of a fuel tanker – the SS Proserpina on passage from Scily to Tobruck.

“Sir Winston Churchill called this a turning point in the North African Campaign.

“He survived the war including a crash landing in the Lake District on a dark winter’s night.

“Returning from an operation off the Norwegian coast, they were unable to locate their airfield in Scotland and ended up north of Lancaster.

“With fuel running low they discharged the bomb load into Killington Reservoir and managed to locate a road a short distance away. There was a successful crash landing, both wings being ripped off, the aircraft coming to a stop at a road Junction. All crew members survived.”

Father of two Eric completed his RAF career in charge of a training unit in Southern England as an acting Squadron Leader.

During the time he was not on operations he was stationed in South Wales. It was here hat he met and fell in love with Anne, whom he married in 1944 and they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last December.

Eric qualified as a teacher in 1950 with his first teaching post in Blackpool at a secondary school, travelling daily by bus from Preston, a round trip of 40 miles.

His teaching career was a success and he became a deputy headmaster in 1959 and a headmaster at Forton County Primary School in 1962, which he remained for 16 years. He and Anne took up residence in the school house and quickly immersed themselves in country life, Anne joining the WI and Eric became a steward at Shirehead church.

Like many schools in the post war years it was short of essential equipment for achieving a good education and many fund raising events were held by Eric and Anne to purchase books, writing materials and many extras. Eric developed a good relationship with pupils and staff and it was his goal to ensure that every pupil on leaving should be able to read, write and also swim. During his time as a headmaster he was ably assisted by Anne, and between them they took members of the top class for holidays in Scotland, the Lake District and day trips to places of local interest. An indication of how well he was liked as a headmaster is that some of his ex-pupils continued to keep in touch, and even paid him visits until the very end.

They made many friends at Forton, and when Eric retired in 1979 a rousing send-off was given by staff, pupils and parents.

He retired at the age of 58 and moved to Scarborough in 1983. He’d learnt to fly some years earlier, gaining his pilot’s licence, and he continued flying well into retirement. Eric and Anne joined Harwood Dale church, where he played the organ. He was an accomplished pianist and played several musical instruments, including the clarinet, violin and even played drums in a RAF dance band during his service career. It was during his retirement that he translated a Spanish novel. This was published and has been used by 6th form schools for ‘A’ level Spanish exams.

At the age of 73 he and Anne bought one third of a field behind their house and spent the next 15 years making it into a splendid garden, which was his pride and joy. It was only through ill health during the last few years that he was unable to continue developing it.

Eric leaves a loving wife, Anne; two sons, Michael and Peter; 4 grandchildren, Jacqueline, Andrew, Alan and Robert; a brother Roy and two sisters, Margaret and Ann.