ERIC LOCK was so short that his fellow RAF pilots nicknamed him “Sawn Off Lockie”.
But that was before his stunning achievements during the Battle Of Britain.
After that, they thought Eric was ten feet tall.
The fight above the skies of southern England – which started 70 years ago today – was perhaps the proudest chapter in this nation’s history.
And Eric Lock was its most successful British-born pilot, bringing down no fewer than 16 German planes.
Ironically, he had not thought much of his first trip in a plane, a short flight with a flying circus on his 14th birthday.
But when the chips were down, Eric soared to the occasion.
He flew a Spitfire, the legendary fighter aircraft whose name came from an Elizabethan word for someone with a fiery character.
Sawn Off Lockie might not have needed the famous bulge in its cockpit installed for taller pilots.
But his pluck and spirit certainly showed why the plane’s 27ft ammo belt gave rise to the phrase about giving someone “the whole nine yards”.
Born to a Shropshire farming family, Eric was only 20 when the war broke out. If there was going to be action, he said, he wanted to do his bit.
So he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and became one of what Winston Churchill would memorably christen “The Few”.
Just how outnumbered we were makes for scary reading.
When the Battle Of Britain started on July 10, 1940, the Luftwaffe had 2,500 planes ready for action, the British just 660.
The Germans estimated that they could wipe out RAF Fighter Command in only four days, and the whole of our aircraft industry in a month.
The RAF gave our boys the “ten rules of combat” to make the most of what we had, such as “never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds”.
But Eric and his mates were still massive underdogs.
“Dowding’s chicks”, as they were known – after Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command – sometimes had to fly five sorties a day each.
One pilot first saw action after only five hours’ flying time.
On August 15 Eric had his first success when he downed a Messerschmitt fighter plane.
And after Eric was transferred from Yorkshire to RAF Hornchurch in Essex, he really got a chance to show what he was made of.
Within just a week he’d shot down another eight planes. Most of his flights took place against medical advice because he had injured his leg.
Getting five kills officially made you an “ace”. Sawn Off was on his way to becoming a double ace. Conditions in the skies were hellish. During the Battle Of Britain an RAF pilot had an average life expectancy of just four weeks.
But, gradually, it dawned on the Germans that, however many planes they sent over, heroes with sheer guts such as Eric Lock were waiting for them.
Eric even chased one opponent all the way across the Channel to France before shooting him down over Boulogne.
As he guided his trusty Spitfire back to Britain, he thought of his childhood sweetheart Peggy, the former Miss Shrewsbury he had married just before the battle began.
Many of the pilots got through the ordeal with their sense of humour.
The most famous pilot of all – Douglas Bader – showed just how wicked that humour could be after the war, when he gave a talk at a posh girls’ school.
He said: “So there were two of the f***ers behind me, three f***ers to my right, another f***er on the left…”
At this point the headmistress panicked. She said: “I think you should know, girls, that the Fokker was a type of German plane.”
Bader replied: “Don’t know about that. These chaps were flying Messerschmitts.”
As August turned into September, the Nazi leaders realised this was not going to be the easy victory they had expected. And they made things worse with a hideous tactical error.
One of Britain’s few advantages was radar, which gave them advance warning of German attacks.
But for some bizarre reason Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, decided radar was not important, and ordered his planes to switch tactics, targeting cities instead of the radar bases.
Military historians now believe that the RAF were just 24 hours away from defeat when he made his crucial mistake.
Hitler was rattled, too. On September 4 he made a speech in Germany, joking: “In England they’re filled with curiosity and keep asking, ‘Why doesn’t he come?’ Be calm. He’s coming! He’s coming!”
Secretly, though, he knew things had gone badly wrong.
For months he had been planning his invasion of Britain – Operation Sea Lion – but now it had to be postponed.
The Germans tried claiming that they had shot down 3,058 RAF planes. In fact, it was only 650.
By the end of October it was obvious that the Battle Of Britain was over.
And it had turned Eric Lock into a hero.
With 16 kills under his belt he was now a triple ace, and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
There was still fighting to be done, though, and in November he was shot down, suffering injuries that kept him in hospital for six months.
Recuperating at home in Shropshire, he was feted by the public. But shy Eric hated the attention and quickly got back up in the sky to fight for his country.
By mid-1941 the number of his kills had reached 26 – and were marked on his Spitfire as swastikas.
On August 3, flying with colleagues over northern France, he spotted some German troops on the ground. Eric signalled that he was peeling off to attack them. It was the last time he was ever seen. Neither he nor his plane could be found, despite extensive searches.
Eric Lock flew Spitfires for only a year – and half of that time was spent in hospital.
But in this short time he achieved a tally of kills that made him one of the most prolific British aces in the Second World War.
Had it not been for him – and the others who fought so valiantly during the Battle Of Britain – we would have lost the war.
Churchill was right when he spoke his famous words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”