The German Fighter Pilot Who Flew for the RAF

In the early years of the Second World War, a flood of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe made its way to London. Some of these were former military officers, and among these were a number of pilots who now volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force against the Nazis. So far as is known, however, there was only one German fighter pilot (and two bomber pilots) who flew for the British.

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Sir Ken Adam photo from Wiki Commons

Klaus Hugo Adam was born in 1921 in Berlin, where his father Fritz co-owned the Adam sporting goods store. Here, along with his two brothers, Klaus lived a comfortable upper-middle-class life.

Until 1933, when Hitler and his Nazis came to power, and over a series of steps they began to implement their anti-Semitic programs. Jews were forbidden from a variety of trades and crafts, racial laws banned intermarriages, and Jewish businesses were the target of Nazi-organized boycotts. “Assimilated” Jews who had converted to German Protestantism were not spared, and even Jewish veterans who had fought in the German Army during the Great War were now the victims of Nazi terror.

The Adam sporting goods store was boycotted, and Fritz Adam was briefly arrested by the Nazi Gestapo and interrogated for 48 hours. Realizing that things were only going to get worse, the family, aided by their business connections, searched for a way to escape. In 1934, the Nazis granted exit visas to Klaus Adam and his younger brother Dieter, and they went to England where they found a place in a “public school” in Scotland. A few months later, the rest of the family was allowed out of Berlin and made their way to London, where the boys joined them. Here, the refugees were officially classified as “stateless persons”.

In 1937, as war clouds gathered in Europe, Klaus was studying architecture in London, and when England declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland, Adam was put to work designing air raid shelters and helping to write civil defense booklets.

At the outbreak of war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued instructions that all Germans, Austrians and Italians within England were to be interned as “enemy aliens”, and they were gathered into makeshift camps in rural school buildings or castles. This included even those anti-Nazi refugees who had fled to England, some of whom had already been there for five or six years.

As a result of his war work, however, Klaus Adam was exempted from the interment order. But he knew better than anyone else in England what the Nazis were really like, and he decided that it was his duty to help fight against them. He was not alone–several thousand internees asked that they be released and allowed to do their part in the effort against Hitler. So in 1940, the British Government formed the “Royal Pioneer Corps”, made up exclusively of Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Austrians, and other refugees who wanted to join the British military. They became known as “His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens”. The Pioneers were given some infantry training, but were for the most part assigned to noncombat roles: loading and unloading freight, putting up Nissen hut buildings, or digging defensive trenches and anti-tank ditches. (Later they would be recruited as intelligence officers, translators, and special commando forces.) Adam joined the Pioneers in 1940.

What Adam really wanted to do, however, was fly for the Royal Air Force. At the time, RAF policy excluded Germans as commissioned officers: there were a handful of German refugees working as ground crew, but no pilots. For nine months, Adam submitted one request after another to transfer to pilot training, but was always rejected.

Then he got a break. In April 1941 Adam began dating an English girl whose father happened to be an officer in command of an RAF airbase. He apparently pulled some strings, and Adam was finally accepted for pilot training and sent to Scotland. He was asked to change his identity so that the Nazis, if they ever captured him, would not know that he was a defecting German Jew–so “Klaus Hugo Adam” became “Keith Howard Adam”. (After the war he changed his name again to “Ken Adam”.)

After a few months in Tiger Moth trainers Adam was sent to Canada and then to Florida in the US for advanced fighter training before returning to England and being assigned to RAF 609 Squadron, which flew Hawker Typhoons. Adam’s brother Denis was also subsequently accepted as an RAF bomber pilot, and a third German Jew, Peter Stevens, became a bomber pilot by assuming the identity of a dead schoolmate.

From bases in England and, after the D-Day invasion, in France, Adam and the rest of the squadron flew a series of ground-attack and close-support missions. Though this seldom involved air-to-air combat, it was exceedingly dangerous work, and losses to Nazi ground fire and crashes were heavy. At one point, during the fighting in the Falaise Gap, Adam got the chance to visit an area that his squadron had recently attacked, and was struck by the carnage and destruction that he saw: the bloated corpses of dead humans and horses were everywhere, amongst shattered roads, burning trucks, and destroyed tanks. “This was my first contact, on the ground, with the dead and what had been the enemy,” he later recalled. “Attacking a target from the air, one felt strangely removed from the realities and horrors on the ground.”

When the war ended, Adam was in Germany overseeing RAF efforts to repair and use captured Luftwaffe airbases.

After the war, Ken Adam returned to England and became a Production Designer for British film studios. Over the next 60 years he worked on a large number of movies, including seven of the James Bond films and Dr Strangelove, won two Oscars, and was knighted in 2003. Sir Ken Adam died in 2016.

One thought on “The German Fighter Pilot Who Flew for the RAF”

  1. I seem to recall there was an Asian who bloke who, through a series of weird events, ended up fighting for absolutely everyone: the Japanese, the Chinese, the Germans and the Allies.

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