‘I want as many people as possible to learn about my hero’

Philip Martin with a copy of From Orphan to High-Flyer, a book which tells the story of World War II pilot Denis Elliott

Philip Martin with a copy of From Orphan to High-Flyer, a book which tells the story of his close friend and former World War II pilot Denis Elliott - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Growing up as curious young children, there’s no doubt many of us loved hearing tales from our grandparents and elderly relatives from their days gone by.  

The older generations certainly have some stories to tell - and one Suffolk man has taken some of these tales and turned them into a biographical book.

Philip Martin, 27, of Aldringham spent the last couple of years working alongside his best friend, former World War II RAF pilot Denis Elliott, to turn his life stories of heroism and bravery into a book entitled ‘From Orphan to High-Flyer’.  

Philip and Denis shortly after the book was released

Philip and Denis shortly after the book was released - Credit: Philip Martin

But how did the two cross paths?  

“When I was 10, Denis sold his car to my mother and over the years they became close friends,” he explains.  

As time went on, Denis would join Philip and his mother for Sunday lunch, and the two soon adopted a grandfather-grandson type friendship.  

“As I got older, I would go round Denis’ on Saturdays and help him around the house and garden as I wanted to spend time with him. After that, we’d always sit down with a cup of tea, and we’d chat for ages. 

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“I would always ask Denis questions about his life, such as where he served, what aircraft he flew, and what life was like as a pilot during the Second World War. And he would happily oblige, showing me his logbooks and photos. He was really open about his past.” 

But in 2018, tragedy struck, and Denis found himself in hospital.  

“I visited him every day for a month, and from that point, once Denis started to get better, I just knew I had to convince him to get his stories down in some form, because there’s such value in what he had to say and what he’s been through.” 

Initially worried about how to convince him, it actually took little persuasion to get Denis onboard.  

“I knew Denis was overall quite a private man, but I had to try. During his second week in hospital, I told him I wanted us to work together to write a book on his life, and luckily he agreed.” 

When Denis eventually left hospital, the two sat down as Philip listened as Denis regaled him with his life story – from beginning to present day.  

Philip Martin with a copy of From Orphan to High-Flyer, a book which tells the story of World War II pilot Denis Elliott

Philip Martin with a copy of From Orphan to High-Flyer, a book which tells the story of his close friend and former World War II pilot Denis Elliott - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“We worked on the first manuscript from May to December 2018, and in that time he poured his heart and soul into it. He really went all in, and to see a 93-year-old man sobbing about his life while recounting certain parts was pretty intense.” 

So who exactly was Denis Elliott, and what was it that made him such a remarkable man?  

“Denis Elliott was born in 1924 in Croydon. Not long after he was born however, his dad left the family and started a new one with another woman, leaving Denis’ mum to look after four kids on her own,” explains Philip.  

But shortly after, his mother met a new man – and at the age of just three years old, Denis was put into an orphanage.  

“We’re not too sure, but either his mum’s new partner didn’t want the kids or couldn’t afford to look after them, so he and his older brother Harold were put into an orphanage together. His eldest brother Walter and sister Doris were sent somewhere else but we don’t know where they went.”  

Denis as a young boy in 1936

Denis as a young boy in 1936 - Credit: Philip Martin

Denis and his brother were in the orphanage for four years before being sent to a couple of foster families in the south of England, eventually being separated from each other.  

“Denis unfortunately spent two years with a foster family where the father was very abusive towards him and the rest of the family. He was also caned in school as his foster father made him do chores around the house before school, making him late most mornings. The postman who lived next door raised his concerns, and eventually Denis broke down and told the headmaster what was happening before he was sent to another family in Farnborough. This family was a lot better, but he still wasn’t shown much affection or love by his new family.  

“After all that he’d been through, through his own admission, he was a frightened little boy with no self-esteem.” 

But at the start of the Second World War, Denis’ life began to change as in October 1940, he joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps when he was just 15 years old.  

“For the first time in his life, he began to pass exams, meet friends and feel confident. He said he started to believe in himself and felt like he was something,” adds Philip.  

Denis spent two years training in the Air Training Corp before he was called up in to the RAF on October 1942 at the age of 18. He then earned his pilot wings in 1943 before joining RAF Squadron 159 in September 1944. 

Denis receiving his wings in Southern Rhodesia on December 17 1943

Denis receiving his wings in Southern Rhodesia on December 17 1943 - Credit: Philip Martin

“He was only 20 when his tour of operation began, and one of the nice themes about the book is that we see this frightened little boy bloom into this confident pilot who can take control of his aircraft crew under the most difficult circumstances.” 

Throughout the book, there are stories of Denis on hair-raising missions across south-east Asia during his time in RAF Squadron 159. 

On various occasions, Denis came face-to-face with death – including multiple times during his 18th operation on January 1-2 1945.  

“Denis was part of a group of liberators who were on a mission near Bangkok – and when he reached his target, he heard his navigator say ‘bomb doors open’. But at that very moment, due to a miscommunication, he looked up and saw a liberator sitting on top of him with its bomb doors wide open. Luckily however, he managed to use his rudder pedal to slide out from underneath just in time, saving him from nearly being blown up.  

“He managed to complete his bomb run, but on the way back there was a huge storm ahead, battering him and his crew with hailstones and lightning bolts. Luckily, they made it to clear skies – but were still quite far off track. When they were about 30 miles away from their destination in India, they came into the range of a British naval fleet who mistook them for enemy aircraft and opened fire on Denis. As you can imagine, shells began to explode and he had to flash his navigation lights to let them know he was friendly.” 

Finally, Denis made his way to the airbase. However, it was enveloped in thick fog, meaning him and his crew couldn't land.  

Denis (front row, seventh from the right) with the staff and students of the School of Maritime Reconnaissance in 1955

Denis (front row, seventh from the right) with the staff and students of the School of Maritime Reconnaissance in St Mawgan, Cornwall on April 20 1955 - Credit: Philip Martin

“Essentially, they had to evoke a complex landing procedure he’d learnt in Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), whereby Denis would complete a timed run, with the navigator using a stopwatch. He would note how long it took to fly from the start to the end of the runway, and back again, to work out how long the runway was. Denis did the run, and was able to safely land. But as soon as he touched down, but there was a steamroller at the end of the runway which he hadn’t seen from above. So as he landed, he had to hop over it. But the problem was he lost a lot of runway in the process, so he had to slam on the brakes and release them as they were on fire, just about landing.” 

No stranger to brushes with death, Denis and his squadron also took part in various minelaying raid operations at Japanese-held harbour of Penang, which entailed a 3,000-mile roundtrip. At the time, this was the longest distance RAF bombing raid in history.  

“For me, as a little boy hearing all of these stories of heroism, it was fascinating. To hear how was a shy, timid boy who would run away anytime a cricket ball came near to him, who then grew into this man who flew multi-engine aircraft during the Second World War by the time he was 20, it was absolutely incredible.” 

After the war, Denis served in Malta between 1949 and 1952 – where on a few occasions he informally met Prince Philip at RAF Luqa. 

Denis and his friend Cyril while in the Air Training Corps in 1942

Denis and his friend Cyril while in the Air Training Corps in 1942 - Credit: Philip Martin

Denis eventually left the RAF in 1957, and worked various jobs around the country before he met his wife Ruby when he was living in Cornwall.  

The two married in 1962 before moving to Norwich, where Denis began working for Norwich Union. In 1984, they then moved to Dereham.  

“Ruby sadly passed away in 1992 following a stroke, and Denis moved to Kelsale in Suffolk before settling in Aldringham in 2018.” 

‘From Orphan to High Flyer’ was released in June 2021, and Philip recalls how overjoyed Denis was to see his life documented right in front of his very eyes.  

“It was quite something to see him hold it in his hand – he got emotional, but he was so proud. The reception from friends, family, and readers alike has been incredible. So many people have been touched by the book, and I’ve had reviews and feedback from people not just here but as far away as America, Canada, and Australia.” 

Denis during his post-war RAF service

Denis during his post-war RAF service - Credit: Philip Martin

Shortly after the book’s release, Denis passed away at the age of 97.  

But Philip hopes that From Orphan to High-Flyer is able to keep Denis’ legacy alive for years to come. 

“I want as many people as possible to learn about my hero. Denis was my best friend, and the greatest man I ever met – he changed my life. I think about him every day and miss him more than one can imagine. I want people to learn what an incredible man he was, and everything he went through.” 

‘From Orphan to High-Flyer’ is available on Amazon for £12.99. Philip also sells the book in Aldeburgh.  

To find out more about Denis and Philip, visit fromorphantohighflyer.com