Peter Harding lived at Woodheath Cottage, which he converted from Frank Tiarks’ polo stables, from 1952 until his death in 2006. After an early childhood based around south east London and Kent, Peter Harding was schooled at Dulwich College where he gained an entry to Imperial College to study metallurgy. The picture on the right is of Peter during his 75th birthday flight in Carolyn Grace’s two-seater Spitfire. The flight was the 22 Club’s gift to him.
When war broke out in 1939 he was evacuated to Swansea with the Metallurgy department. However, the stay was short-lived and he went off to war as a pilot officer affiliated to Air Reconnaissance. In August 1941 while on a mission to Kiel, his Spitfire engine failed over Germany. He parachuted to safety and was captured by the Luftwaffe.
During his time as a POW he was involved with the Great Escape and numerous others and exercised over the wooden horse. Due to asthma he wasn’t allowed into the tunnels which probably saved his life. His role was to obtain whatever tools and materials were available to be used in the escape efforts. This was very evident with his passion not to throw things away.
After the Germans deserted the camp, he was captured by the Russians before repatriation to England. While Dad did not talk too much about the war years he would relate some of the more interesting times.
Dad was demobbed in August 1945, having spent the best part of four years in the POW camp, and returned to Imperial to complete his degree in metallurgy.
He became heavily involved in the college activities joining the various clubs and completing his degree. He became President of the Imperial College Student Union and also joined the Masonic Lodge becoming Master in 1970-71. Imperial became his love and his support of the RSM, Chaps, 22, and links clubs became legendary.
He started working for Bermondsey lead smelter Enthoven and Sons and stayed with them for 33 years, retiring at 63 as Technical Director. As he started his career he was introduced to Sheila, his first love, and married her in January 1952. Dad’s love for Mum was very evident when she suffered a very severe stroke some 11 years ago. He still believed a cure could be found.
As we were growing up Dad slowly cleared the land and stable he had purchased in Chislehurst. He was always on the go, building something and making additions to the house. I’m not even sure if he’s finished yet. All our neighbours have said they are going to miss his ability to fix things.
This, from a son’s perspective, was the perfect place to grow up. The pool, which during the war had been used to grow mushrooms, was cleared and a solid marble swimming pool appeared. This provided a perfect place for us kids to learn to swim, swing from the trapeze and ropes suspended from the ceiling and have tons of fun. In the bitterly cold winter of 63-64 Dad took a pair of skates down to the pool and swung down from the trapeze onto the frozen pool and skated to the end. We all thought he was a bit crazy but that was Dad. The large grounds also lent themselves to large parties some formal, some not so formal.
Holiday time was spent at Dad’s other love, Salcombe. Most years Dad taught us rowing, sailing, boating in general, water skiing (which Dad was still doing into his 70s), fishing and a general love for the sea. Needless to say, great fun and lots of fond memories came from Devon.
As we kids grew up and as soon as I could drive, my first role was to act as driver collecting Dad from his many activities at Imperial College. On numerous occasions I would walk into either the Union or South Side bars to find him surrounded by contemporaries, students, and recent graduates hanging on his every word or listening to a good joke. Occasionally I would join him at the dinners and suffer the consequences the following morning.
Dad was certainly an influence in my choice of career as I have spent the last 30 years in metallurgical roles in South Africa and now Australia. He has also encouraged my daughter who has just completed her studies in extractive metallurgy at West Australian School of Mines.
During his time with Enthoven he became very involved with the local Bermondsey Sea Cadets especially assisting with the mammoth task of looking after the Brixham trawler Kenya Jacaranda. He continued to consult on lead metallurgical issues and several jobs in South Africa allowed him to visit me and my family.
Finally his last love - Spitfires. I’m not sure what triggered him to recount his war interests. Part of the reason was the realization that many of those involved in the war were dying without imparting their knowledge and experiences of what really transpired.
Dad became involved with the Spitfire Society, Air Crew Association, POW and other related bodies. The highlight for him was digging up his Spitfire aided by the local Germans, some of whom witnessed the plane’s final dive, and visiting the Jever Air Base where he was first taken prisoner. Thus the nickname ‘Spitfire Pete’. His talks and enthusiasm to impart his experiences and knowledge can only be a shining light for those of us who follow.
As we say farewell to ‘Spitfire Pete’ I would like to remember what so many fought and died for so that we may be free.
Dad, you’ve crossed Salcombe bar.
Taken from the obituary written by Barry Harding, eldest son of Peter Harding.
Peter died on 24 January 2006, aged 86.
There is another reference to Peter in a website, www.aviationartprints.com, which recently had for sale a photograph signed by Peter. From the comments below taken from that site, it is clear that he failed his exams intentionally so that he could join the RAF.
“P/O Peter Harding joined the University of London Air Squadron in 1937, Flying Tutors, Harts and Hinds. He received a VR commission in June 1939 and was prohibited from joining up. In his reserved occupation as metallurgical student at the Royal School of Mines he failed his exam in 1940 and then wrote to the Air Ministry saying ‘failed exam - call me up’. By return post he was told ‘get medical, get uniform’. He was put through his training period and passed out in Lysander in 227 Squadron. He was converted to Spitfires by Wg Cdr Tuttle and then to 3 PRU Oakington and later to Benson. During his 23rd op his engine stopped over Wilhelmhaven and he had to bail out. He was a PoW from August 1941 to May 1945. After his discharge VJ + 1, he returned to his studies.”