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British ace recalls war

Canyon Country man shot down nine German aircraft, won Distinguished Flying Cross during WWII

Posted: May 24, 2009 10:05 p.m.
Updated: May 25, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Dennis Powell was raised in Birmingham, England, and served as a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force during World War II. He moved to the United States in 1950, and currently lives in Canyon Country.

 
It was a routine.

The place: Warmwell, England during World War II.

Royal Air Force Flying Officer Dennis Powell was frequently in the second group of Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes to head out on a mission. Upon his return, his close friend and fellow pilot Johnnie would be waiting in the corner of the mess hall, pint of beer in hand.

The day Dennis shot down his sixth German plane was no different.

As he walked into the mess hall, Dennis spied Johnnie in the corner, raising his tankard in salute.

The young pilot ordered a pint of beer from the bar and went over to the table Johnnie had picked.

He was gone, and Powell assumed his friend had gone to the restroom.

A short time later, one of the squadron leaders came over to the table and expressed his condolences to Dennis.

His friend, it turned out, had been shot down over the English Channel and never made it back to the base.

"He was sitting here drinking beer 10 minutes ago," Dennis wrote in his in-progress memoirs. "I think (the squadron leader) thought I was going bonkers."

More than a half-century later, the 90-year-old Canyon Country resident remembers, as if it were only the recent past, the details of his time spent defending Britain during the war.

Born in 1919 and raised in Birmingham, England, he enrolled at Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge in 1937, studying electrical engineering.

Dennis' father flew fighter planes during World War I, and he set upon following in his father's footsteps by joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps, specifically the Volunteer Auxiliary Air Force.

"The RAF uniform looked better than the army uniform," he said with a smile. "We didn't think there was going to be a war."

The war begins
Those expectations changed in September 1939 when England declared war on Germany, and Dennis shipped out as a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force, with which he would fly until 1942.

Early on, he said, pilots expected a "gentleman's war" like World War I, when pilots would end a dogfight if their opponent ran out of ammunition. That was not to be the case this time around.

The German pilots were ruthless in trying to shoot down the opposing British pilots, Dennis said.

Indeed, a few years ago, Dennis said, to his knowledge he was one of only three Spitfire pilots still alive out of 3,000, many of whom were killed in action.

"We hated the Luftwaffe during the war," Dennis said.

It wasn't until decades later, he said, that he met pilots who'd flown for Germany.

"These guys weren't Nazis," he said. "They were just German air force pilots.

"The Nazis were responsible for all the (atrocities)."

The young pilot's first kill was over Dunkirk, France, where he shot down a German plane shooting at soldiers on the ground.
"I got mad and shot him down," he said.

In all, Dennis Powell shot down nine German planes, and was himself shot down twice.

He was one of more than 9,000 English pilots in the Battle of Britain, when Germany launched an onslaught against the British between July and October of 1940. Pilots sometimes flew six or seven missions a day, he said.

For his service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1941.

In the Navy
Dennis remained with the RAF until 1942, when he volunteered to fly for the Royal Navy.

He wound up on an aircraft carrier, patrolling the Indian Ocean for Japanese submarines.

"It was a big change. It was boring, because I expected combat," he said. "We rarely saw any Japanese planes."

His last action of the war was dropping napalm on the beaches of Okinawa, clearing the way for U.S. Marines.

"The war ended just after that," he said.

He left the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

"I should have stayed," he said. "I'd be getting an admiral's pension by now."

Coming across the pond
In 1946, Dennis returned home to an England that was still heavily rationing its supplies. Between the rationing, and what he described as creeping socialism in the British government, he set his sights on other shores.

He was prepared to move to Australia when a friend persuaded him to go to America.

In 1950, he landed in the United States, eventually buying a car and driving west to California.

He settled in Glendale and found a job with the phone company. In the late 1950s he became a U.S. citizen - he retains dual citizenship - and in 1994 he retired from what is now Verizon.

In 1981, he returned to Britain for the first time since his post-war departure, and has returned for visits in the years since.
"It's not my England," he said. "I don't even recognize the street I used to live on."

Several years ago he moved to a senior-citizen apartment complex in Castaic, where he met Barbara, his wife of nearly two years.
Both were married before, but were single when they met.

"He's a marvelous conversationalist," Barbara said.

Now 76 years old, Barbara said she was very aware of the war growing up, but said her husband has enlightened her about a number of details.

"It's been fascinating to me," she said. "I've really learned to appreciate what he did."

In late 2007, the two moved to the Cordova Estates in Canyon Country, where they live in a neat home with a Shetland sheepdog named Prince.

Dennis remains proud of his service and the ways in which it changed him.

"Peacetime service is easy. Wartime service is radically different," he said. "It made a man out of me."

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