US Author John Steinbeck visits No.609 Sqn, writes article on William de Goat, 29th June 1943

John Steinbeck meets William ‘Billy’ de Goat. Photo courtesy of Mark Crame.

No.609 Sqn ORB:

This morning’s Roadstead consists of aircraft of all 3 Sqdns: 609, 3 and 184. Taking off at 0500, Haabjoern, Roberts and Leslie act as close escort to the Hurricanes, patrolling from Boulogne to Cayeux without seeing anything. The CO, Payne, Smith and Demoulin patrol from Le Treport to Gris Nez below cloud base with similar results. 3 Sqdn also have an eventless trip.

A little later there are 2 ASR patrols. F/O’s Roberts and Niblett, setting off at 0805, are told to patrol off Knocke, and do so despite rainstorms. For the same reason Niblett loses his leader, and mistaking the French coast at Calais for the English one, carries out an involuntary Rhubarb over Pas de Calais. Feeling hurt at the A.A. fire, he presently realises the true situation, and forthwith attacks a gun post, scattering the soldiers.

Van Lierde and Blanco, who follow at 0850, have a less eventful trip, but neither Section finds the subject of its search.

As late as 2215 there is another Roadstead of all 3 Sqdns, 2 Sections each of 4 Hurricanes escorted by 609 being sent to attack shipping near Dunkirk, followed by 3 Sqdn. 609’s Section consists of 1. The CO, Baldwin, Smith and van Lierde; 2. Haabjoern, Demoulin, Roberts and Detal. After making a low landfall at Nieuport and sweeping thence down the coast, the leading formation finds 2 1500-2000 ton vessels just leaving Dunkirk harbour, with escort of Flak ships, and on approaching is greeted with a sudden and intense barrage of light, medium and heavy Flak, covering the entire area from sea level to cloud base. S/Ldr Ingle wisely warns the Hurricanes not to attack, and this formation returns to base, followed by the second formation, 10 minutes behind. 3 Sqdn, however does not hear the warning, and attack with bombs and cannon. They report a number of vessels, and though they effect some damage, one of the pilots is lost by Flak from the harbour.

Other operation of the day is a scramble of F/Sgt McMann.

John Steinbeck, noted American author, pays a visit and is shown round. Some time later half a page of the Daily Express is taken up with his resulting article, featuring solely ‘Commander Goat, DSO’, whom he has interviewed and watched taking oxygen and Typhoon Coolant from their appropriate receptacles.

Visit to Manston of American journalist John Steinbeck. S/Ldr Alec Ingle DFC AFC explains what F/O Peter Raw DFC is doing in the cockpit. Photo courtesy of Mark Crame.


A transcript of John Steinbeck’s article as taken from his book “Once There Was a War”, which may differ from that published in the Daily Express 15th July 1943:

Commander Goat, D.S.O.
By John Steinbeck

His name is Wing Commander William Goat, D.S.O., and he is old and honored, and, some say, in iniquity. But when he joined the RAF wing two years ago he was just able to trotter about on long and knobby legs. For a long time he was treated like any other recruit – kicked about, ignored, and at times cursed. But gradually his abilities began to be apparent. He is very good luck to have about. When he is near, his wing has good fortune and good hunting. Gradually his horns, along with his talents, developed, until now his rank and his decorations are painted on his horns in brilliant colors, and he carries himself with a shambling strut.

He will eat nearly everything. No party nor any review is complete without him. At one party, being left alone for a few moments, it is reported that he ate two hundred sandwiches, three cakes, the arrangements for piano and flute of “Pomp and Circumstance,” drank half a bowl of punch, and then walked jauntily among the dancers, belching slightly and regarding a certain lieutenant’s wife, who shall be nameless, with a lustful eye.

Oxygen appetite
He has the slightly bilious look of the military of the higher brackets. Being an air-goat he has rather unique habits. If you bring an oxygen bottle into view, he rushes to it and demands it. He puts his whole mouth over the outlet and then, as you turn the valve, he gently relaxes, grunting happily, and his sides fill out until he nearly bursts. Just before he bursts he lets go of the nozzle and collapses slowly, but the energy he takes from the oxygen makes him leap into the air and engage imaginary goats in horny combat. He also loves the glycol cooling fluid which is used in the engines of the Typhoons. For hours he will stand under the barrels, licking the drips from the spouts.

He has the confidence of his men. Once when it was required that his wing change its base of operations quickly, he was left behind, for in those days it was not known how important he was. At the new base the men were nervous and irritable, fearful and finally almost mutinous. Finally, when it was seen that they would not relax, a special plane had to be sent to pick up the wing commander and transport him to the new base. Once he arrived everything settled down. The Typhoons had four kills within twenty-four hours. The nervous tension went out of the air, the food got better as the cooks ceased brooding, and a number of stomach complaints disappeared immediately.

Wing Commander Goat lives in a small house behind the Operations Room. His name and honors are painted over the door. It is very good luck to go to him and stroke his sides and rub his horns before going out on operations. He does not go on operations himself. There is not room in the Typhoons for him, but if it were possible to squeeze him in he would be taken, and then heaven knows what great action might not take place.

Evil companions
This goat has only one truly bad habit. He loves beer, and furthermore, he is able to absorb it in such quantities that even the mild, nearly non-alcoholic English beer can make him tipsy. In spite of orders to the contrary he is able to seek out the evil companions who will give him beer. Once inebriated, he is prone to wander about sneering. He sneers at the American Army Air Force, he sneers at the Labor Party, and once he sneered at Mr. Churchill. The sneer is probably inherent in the beer, since punch has quite a different effect on him.

In appearance this goat is not impressive. He has a shabby, pinkish fur and a cold, fish-like eye; his legs are not straight, in fact he is slightly knock-kneed. He carries his head high, and his horns, painted in brilliant red and blue, more than offset any physical oddness. In every way, he is a military figure. He is magnificent on parade. Eventually he will be given a crypt in the Air Ministry and will die in good time of that military ailment, cirrhosis of the liver. He will be buried with full military honors.

But meanwhile Wing Commander William Goat, DSO, is the luck of his wing, and his loss would cause great unrest and even despondency.


John Steinbeck, by Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Steinbeck (1902-1968): Wrote 27 books including 16 novels, 6 non-fiction books and two collections of short stories. These included the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Grapes of Wrath (1939)” which sold 14 million copies in the first 75 years after publication. He also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

In 1943 he served as a World War II correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, during which he also accompanied commando raids by Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s “Beach Jumpers” program against German held islands in the Mediterranean. He returned with both shrapnel wounds and psychological trauma. He also went to Vietnam in 1967 to report on the war.

First published: 29th June 2017.
Last Updated: 12th August 2022 @ 5:19 pm.

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1 Response

  1. Wonderful piece of writing by the legendary John Steinbeck. I have just about all his books and read them many years ago. The wartime piece reproduced here reminds me of what a natural genius he was at spinning words, so much so that anything he wrote displayed the same magic quality as his Grapes of Wrath and the later East of Eden – one of the greatest novels ever written. I’m by no means a religious man, but if there is a god, we should thank him or her from the bottom of our hearts for the likes of John Steinbeck. By the way, as great as any of his novels is his book of reminisences, Travels with Charlie (actually his pet dog), which stands reading over and over.

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