Many – if not all – domestic RAF squadrons during the war adopted animal mascots, but none of them gained such fame and made so successful career within the ranks of the service as the famous goat of No. 609 (West Riding) Squadron.
Official photo of the 609 Squadron with William “Billy” de Goat (accompanied by his personal assistant) to the far right
No. 609 Squadron was formed at RAF Yeadon, now known as Leeds Bradford International Airport, on 10 February 1936 as one of the 20 squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force to be called during the RAF expansion programme. It was originally intended as a bomber unit. In June of that year it received Hawker Hart light bomber aircraft, later followed by Hawker Hinds. On the 8 December 1938, 609 Squadron was transferred to RAF Fighter Command, but was not equipped with fighters until the introduction of the Spitfire Mk. I in August 1939. At this point the squadron was still manned by part-time civilians. The pilots conducted their conversion training on Fairey Battles to get accustomed with flaps, variable pitch propellers, retractable undercarriage operation and other novelties of a modern metal monoplane. Then it was time for the Spitfires.
Following the outbreak of war the squadron was called up to full-time service. They initially served on defensive duties in the North of England, but the relative peace of that assignment soon changed. In May 1940, the squadron moved to RAF Northolt and flew over the Battle of Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. During the fatal three days of this period, the squadron lots one third of its flying personnel.
During the Battle of Britain, No. 609 Squadron moved to Middle Wallop. During the intense aerial battles in August, it destroyed 46 enemy aircraft. In October 1940, the squadron became the first to achieve 100 confirmed aerial victories. Sadly, by then almost all of the pre-war auxiliary pilots were either dead or missing. Replacements came from Belgium, Poland, Canada, Australia, France, USA, and New Zealand in addition to those from Britain.
Billy de Goat photographed at Biggin Hill, soon after his arrival to the squadron .
In February 1941 the squadron was relocated to Biggin Hill. It was there that Billy de Goat was recruited to the unit. He was a kid given to one of the Belgian pilots, Vicki Ortmans by the landlady of Old Jail, the local pub in Biggin Hill (which still exists today). Christened William de Goat, he would remain with the squadron for four years, through all its various postings, firstly in the UK, then into France, the Low Countries, and finally into Germany and the victory in Europe. During that time, he patiently tolerated all Squadron members and their foibles, watched the new pilots come and go, spent long evenings at the bar with them, was cared for and spoiled, exercised his great appetite for Things Eatable and generally became essential to everyone’s morale.
As soon as the goat appeared at the dispersal for the first time it was decided to enlist Billy within the ranks of the RAF. His career started in the rank of Flying Officer. The pilots soon decided that in service life, his milk diet should be replaced by quantities of non-rationed beer served to him in a baby’s bottle. He also was appointed a personal assistant and was allowed in the mess.
Within a few weeks of his introduction into service Billy had shown the depth of his character. He was arrested and placed in custody for ignoring Kings Regulations and attacking a sentry. He also ate the station adjutant’s files and records leaving the office in a state of utter chaos, consumed leave passes and ration cards in the Guardroom, nibbled the shoots of the Station Commander’s prized ornamental trees and forced himself past an armed guard to create havoc in the East Anglian Air Defence Operations Room, where, as some members of the squadron claimed later, he vectored several Spitfires to Norway.
Pilots loved all this and did not hesitate to accept Billy as one of their own. Whenever someone was offering a round of cigarettes, Billy was included; he accepted them by chewing and swallowing each cigarette promptly but with dignity. Occasionally, they even took him flying. After some initial misunderstanding, he was later also admitted to the administrative rooms, when it was discovered that the comment “Billy must have eaten it” offers a perfect explanation for some document being missing.
However, Billy’s general disdain for discipline almost cost him his life in spring 1942 when in the rank of Flight Lieutenant. As the squadron moved to Duxford to re-equip with the Spitfires Mk V, Billy detached from his unit, was kidnapped and only narrowly escaped the butcher’s block. Fortunately, a kind soul rescued him and sent him by train back to his unit.
The squadron soon began to replace their Spitfires with the Hawker Typhoons, a type which was rushed into service in an attempt to counter the menace of the new German Fw-190 fighter. No. 609 was the first RAF squadron to receive the type, and was exposed to the full range of incidents and accidents – some of them fatal – caused by the aircraft. Despite this, they had become the top scoring squadron in the RAF for the period of early 1943. However, it had become apparent that the Typhoon was better suited for low level attacks against ground targets, and this kind of mission would become the squadron’s speciality for the remainder of the war.
Billy with the rank of Wing Commander proudly carried on his horns
By 1943, Billy had matured and his rise through the ranks became a most impressive success. He celebrated his promotion to Wing Commander by consuming thirty cigarettes, two bowls of chrysanthemums and the Commanding Officer’s mess bill. On 20 October 1943 he was promoted again to Group Captain, but this time the celebration was rather far from private. His promotion was announced at the squadron party at the Hotel Majestic in Folkestone in celebration of their 200th aerial victory.
Because Billy would not fit into a standard RAF uniform (or otherwise have eaten it), it became the personal assistant’s practice to paint his rank directly onto his horns with blue paint. It happened to be the toxic blue dope used on the aircraft, but it didn’t seem to matter as long as Billy couldn’t reach it. One time, Billy discovered he could scrape the paint off with his forelegs and then lick it in. From then on, he considered it a delicacy. This, however, proved too heavy a burden even for his battle-hardened stomach and he eventually had to report to the Medical Officer. Removal of the paint soon assured the return to good health and the usual healthy diet of grass, paper, cigarettes and remains from the kitchen.
Billy was now the highest ranking officer in the squadron. It became the common practice for the unit’s CO, Sqn/Ldr Wells, to salute him before taking off for operations.
Prior to the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, No. 609 Squadron was involved with destroying German radar stations on the French coast. In support of the invasion, the Typhoons were deployed against tanks and other ground targets using RP-3 rockets.
On 1 July 1944, ‘Billy’ was among the first squadron personnel to land in France, together with the advance party arriving on a Dakota on the B.7 airfield at Rucqueville, Martragny.
Typhoons at B.7 within the Normandy bridgehead
Billy was very impressed with France. His vivid sexual exploits with local mademoiselle goats caused some concern, and taking the interest of local civilian population into account, the Group Captain was neutered.
William de Goat’s fame was now far exceeding the bounds of his own unit. Other RAF squadrons (No. 486 Typhoon unit comes to mind) also had to have their goats. However, it must be fairly said that none of the followers had ever reached the same esteem and rank as Billy.
Following the squadron through France, Holland and Germany over the following year, William de Goat’s service and moral fibre was recognised through his final promotion to the rank of Air Commodore. He was later demobbed with his fellow personnel.
The history of No. 609 Squadron wouldn’t be the same without him.
To Live Among Heroes, by George A. Bell, Grub Street, 2001
William de Goat, by Brian Waite, Athena Press, 2008
The Story of 609 Squadron: Under the White Rose by Frank H. Ziegler, Crecy, 1993