Captain Eric 'Winkle'
Brown has flown more types of aircraft than anyone in history, survived
11 crashes, interrogated high-ranking Nazis, and met everyone from
wartime leader Winston Churchill to first man on the moon, Neil
He is a war hero in the truest sense of the word. Now aged 94, the
Edinburgh-born fighter pilot says he has finally "buckled down to
He is part of an elite group of test pilots who took the untried - and
sometimes deadly - theories of aeroplane designers down the runway and
into the sky.
Over his career, he flew 487 different types of aircraft, a world record
that is unlikely ever to be matched.
It's a job that requires a certain type of personality, he told Radio
Four's PM programme.
After the liberation of Belsen concentration camp, Captain Brown
interrogated notorious female commander Irma Graze "I have a nature that
doesn't panic in these situations," he said.
"My brain goes very sort of cold, and very good at considering things."
Nobody is without fear, he said, but there was often a casual attitude
among the other pilots.
"They'd say "kick your tyres, light your fires, and the last one off's a
"I was not of that school at all. I always put two things down to my
survival. I was always meticulous in my preparation.
"Secondly, my height - I'm only 5ft 7in - saved me because there were
occasions I would have lost my legs in crashes."
It was his height that earned him his nickname "Winkle" - short for
"periwinkle", a type of small mollusc - from his colleagues.
"I would put my legs under the seat and curl up like a little ball in
the cockpit," he said.
Captain Brown, the most decorated test pilot of all time, was also the
first person ever to land a jet on an aircraft carrier in 1945.
He described the moment like being a "matchbox floating in a bath".
Captain Brown was bitten by the flying bug at the tender age of eight,
after his father, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI, first
took him up in a plane.
"It was a single seat bi-plane," he said.
"There was no second seat, but I sat on his lap and he let me handle the
He flew 2,407 aircraft carrier landings
He was appointed MBE, OBE and CBE
He has survived 11 crashes
It was a career that would take Captain Brown to the most unlikely of
places and encounters.
He met Churchill, and King George VI on a number of occasions.
He was at the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
"What we saw was just unbelievable," he said.
"There were piles of bodies as high as this roof, and a lot of people
walking around like zombies, no idea what was going on at all. There
were just half dead.
"They had taken a bulldozer and bulldozed the bodies into a pit. They
were lying in terribly grotesque positions, arms and legs all over the
"That's not what really got to me. It was this appalling stench. It
still does stick in my gullet."
Brigadier Glynn Hughes, who had taken control of Belsen, called on
Captain Brown to interrogate the camp's two head guards because of his
"Josef Kramer was the head guard, and responsible for the deaths of
thousands of people," he said.
"He didn't deny anything. He realised the game was up."
But it was the camp's 22-year-old female commander, Irma Grese,
nicknamed the "beautiful beast of Belsen", that Winkle Brown described
as "the worst human being I have ever met".
"Her cruelty in Auschwitz was unbelievable," he said.
"She was the one who made lampshades from the skins of prisoners and
that sort of thing.
"The brigadier said 'ask her if she had her time over again would she do
this again?'. She didn't answer.
"I was keeping at it when she suddenly leapt to her feet and said 'Heil
Hitler', and sat down again.
"We never got anything out of her at all. She didn't seem to have any
feeling at all about human beings."
She was not the only high-profile Nazi that Winkle Brown interrogated.
He also interviewed top-ranking Nazis Hermann Goering and Heinrich
Himmler, who set up and controlled the Nazi concentration camps.
Himmler was originally captured under a false identity.
"This chap called himself Heinrich Hitzinger. And his papers were
forged. But the warrant officer kept at him and kept at him.
"Eventually he got mad with this thing, and he said 'I'm Heinrich
"And the warrant officer said 'yes and I'm Julius Caesar'.
"He didn't believe him at all."
Captain Brown described Himmler as a "snivelling coward".
"He was so frightened of what would happen to him. It was all aimed at
saving his own skin," he said.
Captain Brown's long career brought him into contact with another former
pilot, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.
They later became close friends.
Captain Brown became close friends with astronaut Neil Armstrong, who
was the first man to walk on the moon
"In fact when I met Neil, to my horror and embarrassment, I really
didn't recognise him," he said.
"He said 'well, I'm a naval aviator like you are and I've heard of your
deck landing exploits'.
"There we are, I'm talking to the guy who is the top dog of the lot, and
he knows me and I don't recognise him. How embarrassing."
"Here was a man who touched the hand of God. And yet modest beyond
words, so modest in fact that he didn't want anyone to talk about it."
But Captain Brown said he would still sooner be a test pilot than an
"It is a huge thrill," he said.
"You're up there on your own, and you really feel like this is life. I'm
the king of the castle up here. That's really what it's like."