One of New Zealand's most successful fighter pilots,
Ray Hesselyn was born in Dunedin on March 13 1920.
A machinist by trade, he joined the Territorial Army in
1939 and transferred into the RNZAF in November 1940. With flying training
completed he was posted to Britain in September 1941.
Hesselyn's introduction to the Spitfire was made at 61
Operational Training Unit at Heston, from where he went to join 234
Squadron, based in the south of England and flying offensive sweeps across
the Channel to France.
In February 1942 Hesselyn embarked on the aircraft
carrier HMS Eagle, bound for the Mediterranean and Malta. This was the
first time that Spitfires had been sent to the embattled island to combat
the ever-increasing attacks by German and Italian aircraft.
Hesselyn flew off the carrier on March 7 1942, landed
at Ta Kali and joined 249 Squadron. Over the next three weeks he flew some
sorties but his first victory did not come until April 1, when he
destroyed a Ju87 and a Bf109. On the 20th Hesselyn and another pilot were
on aerodrome defence duty, which entailed their taking off fifteen minutes
after the squadron scrambled, flying out to sea and then covering the
Spitfires as they returned to base. On this day there were many German
aircraft about and after being attacked themselves Hesselyn and his
colleague each shot down a Bf109 and he also damaged a Ju88 bomber.
These were followed by Hesselyn's destruction of Ju87
and a Bf 109 damaged on April 26. A few days later Hesselyn was awarded
the DFM. During the afternoon of May 10 he took off with three other
Spitfires. At 25,000 feet they sighted a force of Ju 88's and immediately
went down to attack. Before Hesselyn could line up a victim he was jumped
from behind by a Bf109 and his aircraft was struck in several places. He
immediately skidded to starboard and his attacker shot past. Hesselyn
fired at point blank range causing pieces to fly off the 109. Being
virtually cut in two by the New Zealander's cannon shells the German
fighter broke up. In spite of his own serious damage Hesselyn landed
On May 12 he chased a Bf109 across the surface of the
sea at a low level and shot it down, circling afterwards to see if the
pilot escaped but he did not. Hesselyn dispatched two more 109's on the
13th and a Ju 88 bomber the next day, which blew up. Awarded a Bar to the
DFM in mid-May, Hesselyn was commissioned as a Pilot Officer later in the
Enemy air activity decreased in June and his next
victim, another Bf109 was destroyed on July 8. On the same day, during a
later patrol Hesselyn damaged a Ju88, last seen heading out to sea. His
time in Malta was over and he was posted back to England for duty as an
instructor and to pass on his operational knowledge to new pilots.
In early 1943 Hesselyn joined 501 Squadron, based in
Northern Ireland. The squadron moved to Tangmere in April and on May 15 he
destroyed an FW190. In early July Hesselyn moved to 222 Squadron and soon
was made a flight commander. On August 17 222 escorted Germany-bound
American Fortresses as far as Antwerp. On the way home Bf109's were
spotted and in the ensuing action five were destroyed without loss, two
being shot down by Hesselyn. He was awarded the DFC in September.
On October 3 1943 in one sortie over France he shot
down three Bf 109's and was then shot down in flames himself. He baled
out, wounded in both legs and burned and was captured. At this time he had
destroyed 21 enemy aircraft, shared in the destruction of one other,
probably destroyed one and damaged several others.
Hesselyn escaped once from his prison camp but was
recaptured. He continued to make further attempts and after the war, in
1946, he was made an MBE for services whilst a prisoner. He stayed on in
the RAF, reaching the rank of Squadron Leader.
Ray Hesselyn is believed to have died in 1965.