Page 1: Biography
Scott, Desmond James
Salesman, military aviator and leader
This biography, written by Vincent Orange, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Desmond James Scott, one of New Zealand’s most decorated fighter pilots, was born at Ashburton on 11 September 1918, the son of John Robert Scott, a shepherd from Aberdeenshire, and his wife, Jean Reid, who had been a district nurse in the same county. The family moved from Ashburton to Cheviot in North Canterbury, where John became a stock and station agent, and then to Kokotahi, near Hokitika.
Desmond was educated at Cheviot School (1929–33) and as a boarder at Cathedral Grammar School, Christchurch (1933–36). He played for the First XV and the First XI, and excelled in athletics, swimming and boxing. After leaving school he spent two years as a stock agent. While working as an agricultural machinery salesman in 1938–39 he learned to fly with an aero club on the West Coast, before joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force in March 1940. After further training at Wigram he sailed for England in October as a sergeant pilot. He was just 22.
After flying Hawker Hurricanes with No 3 Squadron from January 1941 until August 1942, he was promoted to squadron leader and began a 12-month stint at Fighter Command headquarters in north London. From January to September 1943 he was in command of No 486 (NZ) Squadron, equipped with a massive ground-attack aircraft, the Hawker Typhoon. Should its temperamental engine stop in the air, he recalled, ‘you were faced with two alternatives – over the side, or the gliding angle of a seven-ton brick’; in a forced landing it was apt to somersault and crush the pilot or explode. Nevertheless, he loved this monster and mastered it thoroughly. Scott next became a wing leader at Tangmere, Sussex.
Scott is credited with the certain destruction of five German aircraft; he shared in the probable destruction of nine others and damaged at least six. More risky – and even more valuable to the war effort than his many aerial combats – were the numerous low-level attacks he carried out on flak ships, convoys (of ships or trucks), tanks, field guns, flying-bomb sites and radar stations. Yet perhaps his bravest act was an attempt in January 1944 to save life, not take it. While driving round the airfield at Hawkinge, in Kent, he saw a Spitfire crash and burst into flames. He ran to the scene, disregarding intense heat and exploding ammunition, and managed to pull the pilot from the cockpit. The man died, but Scott was made an OBE for his courage.
After commanding the airfield at Hawkinge in early 1944, Scott enjoyed his greatest and most exhausting fighting days. Until February 1945, as the youngest group captain in the RNZAF, he commanded a mobile wing of four Typhoon squadrons in 2nd Tactical Air Force and led them from Normandy to Holland. On 7 December 1944 he found time to get married to a New Zealander, Joyce Marguerite Ramage, in All Saints Parish Church, Ipswich, Suffolk.
Scott’s bravery and skill earned him many decorations: DSO, OBE, DFC and bar, Croix de guerre avec palme (Belgium and France) and Commander of the Order of Orange Nassau. He displayed unusual powers of leadership for one so young and inexperienced, both fostering team spirit and swiftly removing those who failed to measure up or became tired or careless.
Scott was also an uncommonly sensitive man. Although his two volumes of memoirs contain lively combat accounts, his most vivid descriptions concern the rescue of airmen downed in the English Channel. He also revealed that he once deliberately shot a German pilot almost certainly doomed to die anyway: ‘why could I not have kept my bloody fingers out of his final moment?’
Scott left the RNZAF in 1947, making his home in Christchurch. He worked in the import–export trade, and followed his interests in fishing and horses. His wife Joyce, with whom he had raised four daughters, died in 1969, and on 8 December 1972 he married Margaret Helen Blair (née Barrell) at Christchurch. He died at Christchurch on 8 October 1997, survived by his second wife and his daughters of his first marriage.