Born on Grand Parade, Leigh-on-Sea, in 1920, Gordon Arthur Worsley was the middle of three boys born to Edith and Ernest Worsley. The family later lived on Ailsa Road, Westcliff, and Gordon attended Lindisfarne College boys’ school on Valkyrie Road, before the family moved to Streatham. He left school at 15 and became a runner at the London Stock Exchange. After war broke out, he volunteered with the RAF. He later self-effacingly said that he only passed the initial RAF aptitude test because a fellow potential recruit showed him how to do a particularly tricky equation at the last minute as they sat in the waiting room.
Gordon began flight training in late 1941, shortly after his 21st birthday. Initially flying Tiger Moth biplanes, he later trained on a number of aircraft, including twin-engine Airspeed Oxfords and the iconic fighter plane, the Hawker Hurricane. He went to the US in March 1942 and trained in Georgia and Alabama under the United States Army Air Corps’ Arnold Scheme training programme. When he graduated in early October 1942 it was a considerable achievement given nearly half of Arnold Scheme trainees never completed the course. Gordon often talked fondly about his time in the sunny southern states and he always retained an affection for all things American.
When operational, Gordon chose to fly fighter-bomber Hawker Typhoons, and in November 1944 he joined 175 Squadron, a ground attack squadron based at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands. In the seven months until the end of the war in May 1945 he flew 46 sorties in support of the Allied advance across Europe. He flew two back-to-back missions on Christmas Day 1944, as the Battle of the Bulge raged, not even having time to get out of the cockpit when he returned to base for refuelling and rearming.
The missions Gordon flew were extremely dangerous, involving flying at low altitude to attack enemy targets with the eight air-to-ground rockets and four Hispano cannon the Typhoon was equipped with. He was hit by flak several times. On one occasion, as he took part in the liberation of the Dutch city of Venlo in the first month of his operational career, shrapnel pierced his aircraft’s canopy and hit him in the face. It was pure luck that it was already spent and he was uninjured.
Gordon had several other near misses, including a tyre bursting on take-off at Volkel in March 1945, resulting in the aircraft’s undercart collapsing (‘Pilot shaken!’, Gordon wrote in comically shaky script in his flying log book). During training in southern England in October 1943, the Hurricane Gordon was flying suffered an engine seizure and he was trapped when it flipped over on crash-landing – the Army had to dig him out of the field he had ploughed into.
After VE Day, Gordon continued to serve as part of the occupation forces in Europe until his squadron was disbanded in September 1945. Gordon’s verdict on the war was typical of his black sense of humour: ‘I had a great time, but occasionally people tried to kill me.’ He had, of course, faced very real danger and lost many friends in action.
After leaving the RAF, Gordon went to work for the family paper business, Ernest Worsley & Co. Ltd., that his father had established in Southwark in the 1910s, and he married 19-year-old Brenda Greaves in March 1947. Gordon had first glimpsed Brenda over the back fence of the Worsleys’ Westcliff home a decade before, when the Greaves family had lived in Britannia Gardens, backing on to Ailsa Road. Gordon always said that when he returned some years later, he decided then and there that one day he would marry her. The couple initially lived in central London, where they had their first child, Antonia, in 1948, and the following year they moved to a house in Hillside Crescent that had been built for the borough surveyor in 1913. They had three more children – Mark, Isobel and Lucia – and later, ten grandchildren.
Gordon spent nearly four decades in the paper trade, during which time he built the business into one of the most successful of its kind in the country. A former office junior who joined the company in 1952 remembered Gordon as ‘the good-looking one who made me laugh’. Gordon retired in 1982 but he soon found retirement a poor fit with his active temperament, and within six weeks of leaving, he had founded Worsley Wines, a wine merchants importing directly from small French vineyards. The business was later based at Maple Avenue, and as Leigh’s café society developed from the mid-1990s onwards, Worsley Wines supplied many of the eateries and bars in the Broadway, as well as businesses in London and throughout Essex.
A technophile who always moved with the times, Gordon continued to run the wine business well into his nineties, and it still thrives today under younger family members. The 175 Squadron motto, ‘Stop at nothing’, proved apt as Gordon fought back from injury and subsequent illness in October last year to celebrate his 97th birthday on 4th November and to meet his eighth great-grandchild, Myles, born in December. Gordon maintained an active stake in the modern world even in his final months, when he would explain the complexities of Bitcoin to you with relish, and he never lost his dry wit or his kind generosity.
Gordon passed away suddenly and peacefully at his home of 70 years on the Saturday night of 24th February. He will be sorely missed by each and every member of his large family.