Page 1: Biography
Gray, Colin Falkland
Military aviator and leader, company director
This biography, written by Paul Harrison, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Colin Falkland Gray was born at Papanui, Christchurch, on 9 November 1914, the elder of twin sons of Margaret Langford and her husband, Robert Leonard Gray, an electrical engineer. He was educated at Huntley School in Marton, Wellesley College, Wellington, Christ’s College, Christchurch, and Napier Boys’ High School. Between 1933 and 1938 he worked as a clerk for the stock and station agents Dalgety and Company. With his twin brother Kenneth he applied to join the Royal Air Force in 1937, but was rejected on medical grounds; Kenneth was accepted for a short-service commission. After failing a second medical, Colin worked as a sheep musterer to improve his fitness. He passed his third medical examination and took up a short-service commission in January 1939.
After training at the de Havilland flying school at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, Gray was posted to No 11 Flying Training School at Shawbury, Shropshire. He graduated as a pilot officer in October 1939 and the following month joined No 54 Squadron, based at Hornchurch, Essex. Between December 1939 and May 1940 he flew Supermarine Spitfire fighters on operational patrols over England and the English Channel. He was deeply affected when Kenneth was killed in an aircraft accident on 1 May.
Colin Gray’s first encounter with German aircraft was on 24 May 1940, while patrolling over Calais–Dunkirk. His first confirmed success in combat came the following day, when he shared in the destruction of a Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter; his aircraft was damaged, however, and he had to land without the use of his flaps and brakes. On 13 July he achieved his first solo victory, downing a Bf109 over the English Channel. During the Battle of Britain, No 54 Squadron was constantly in action defending the approaches to London, until withdrawn from operations in early September, by which time Gray and his fellow pilots were utterly fatigued. He had claimed 15½ enemy aircraft destroyed, and was awarded the DFC on 15 August.
Gray was promoted to flying officer in October 1940 and subsequently served with No 43 and No 1 fighter squadrons. He was promoted to flight lieutenant in August 1941 and was awarded a bar to his DFC in September. Later that month he took command of No 616 Squadron. By the end of his first operational tour in February 1942 he had flown about 300 operational hours since the war began. After a spell as a staff officer at Headquarters No 9 (Fighter) Group, Gray joined No 64 Squadron in late September 1942, operating over the English Channel and coastal France. Promoted to squadron leader, he took command of No 81 Squadron at Tingley airfield, Algeria, in January 1943. A keen leader, he personally led the squadron on many strikes against the enemy, and shot down at least eight aircraft during the Tunisian campaign.
Gray’s leadership and outstanding ability as a combat pilot were recognised when he was made a DSO in May 1943. On 1 June he was promoted to wing commander and given command of No 322 Wing, based at Malta. Two more victories quickly followed, and on 10 July he downed a Messerschmitt over the invasion beaches of Sicily. His last successes were two Junkers Ju52 transports on 25 July. Gray’s final tally was 27 enemy aircraft destroyed, plus one shared, and about 22 probably destroyed or damaged, the highest for a New Zealand fighter pilot in the Second World War. He was gazetted as a squadron leader in September 1943.
After a rest from operations and a return to England, Gray was awarded a second bar to his DFC in November 1943. The following August he took command of the Lympne Wing, Kent, flying Spitfires over France and the Low Countries until January 1945. In April he was granted a permanent commission in the RAF. Returning to New Zealand, he married Betty Lois Dinnie (née Cook), a widow with a young daughter, at Waerenga-a-hika, Poverty Bay, on 20 October 1945; they were to have two daughters and two sons.
Colin Gray’s post-war RAF career included service as an air liaison officer in Washington DC (1950–52), command of a jet-fighter squadron at Church Fenton, Yorkshire (1954–56), and a posting to HQ Far East Air Force in Singapore (1956–59). He retired at his own request, with the rank of group captain, in 1961. The Grays then returned to New Zealand, where Colin took up an appointment as personnel director with Unilever New Zealand in Petone. After his retirement in November 1979 he settled in Waikanae. In 1990 he published an account of his wartime experiences. He died in Kenepuru Hospital, Porirua, on 1 August 1995, survived by his wife and children.