Medals of Battle of Britain Spitfire ace who survived a bullet through his helmet and married movie star Deborah Kerr are set to fetch £140,0000 at auction

  • Squadron Leader Anthony ‘Bolshie’ Bartley was shot down in September 1940
  • He was thrown from his Spitfire after it crashed into a field following a dogfight
  • Bartley married ‘King and I’ actress Deborah Kerr in 1947 and moved to the US
  • He became a Hollywood producer and was friends with the likes of Clark Gable 

The medals of a hero Battle of Britain Spitfire ace who survived a bullet whizzing through his helmet and later married movie star Deborah Kerr are being sold at auction by his family for £140,000.

Squadron Leader Anthony ‘Bolshie’ Bartley, who wed ‘The King an I’ actress in 1947 and became a friend to Hollywood stars, claimed at least 12 victories during World War Two.

He was 20 when he shot down his first two German planes over Dunkirk while 330,000 British Expeditionary Force troops were being evacuated from the beaches in May 1940.

His aircraft was riddled with bullet holes following the dogfight and a fellow Spitfire pilot pulled up beside him on their return to Britain and told him ‘you look like a sieve, chum’.

His medals are being sold on December 8 by London-based auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb. They are expected to sell for £140,000. 

Sq Ldr Bartley, one of the founder members of 92 Squadron, had another amazing escape when he was shot down by a Dornier Do 17 in September 1940.

Squadron Leader Anthony ‘Bolshie’ Bartley, left, married actress Deborah Kerr, right, and moved to Hollywood following the end of the Second World War

Squadron Leader Bartley, left, pictured with two colleagues, survived being shot down during the Battle of Britain

Bartley, left, became friends with the likes of Hollywood star Clark Gable, right, who was also a WWII airman

The fighter ace’s family are selling his WWII medals in an auction next month. The medals are expected to sell for something in the region of £140,000

A cannon shell exploded behind his seat and a bullet passed through his helmet, grazing the top of his head and shattering his gun sight, while others punctured his oil tanks.

He considered bailing out but feared he would be shot down in his parachute, so he returned to the cockpit and fired some random shots as a ‘bluff’.

This spooked the circling Messerschmidt 109 into fleeing, and Sq Ldr Bartley made his way for home and ‘prayed’.

His engine blew up 100ft above the ground and, blinded by oil, he crashed into a field.

But he was miraculously catapulted into a haystack and emerged unscathed.

After he war he moved to Hollywood with his celebrity wife and became a film producer as well as becoming close friends with the likes of Clark Gable and Laurence Olivier.

Sq Ldr Bartley’s medals, including a prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, are going under the hammer alongside his log books and photos with London-based auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb.

Mark Quayle, specialist at Dix Noonan Webb, said: ‘Bartley’s was a life of extraordinary adventure, during which he was involved in a number of iconic incidents, all of which are reflected in his log books and autobiography – a veritable who’s who of stars of the stage, screen and sky.

Mark Quayle, specialist at Dix Noonan Webb, said: ‘Bartley’s was a life of extraordinary adventure, during which he was involved in a number of iconic incidents, all of which are reflected in his log books and autobiography – a veritable who’s who of stars of the stage, screen and sky’

‘From Winston Churchill to Clark Gable, Noël Coward to Laurence Olivier, and Bob Stanford Tuck to ‘Sailor’ Malan – all ultimately leading to his marriage to the film star Deborah Kerr, of The King and I fame.’

Sq Ldr Bartley was born in Bengal, India in 1919 and educated at Stowe in Buckinghamshire.

He was an apprentice at a chartered accountants in London before joining the RAF in May 1939 with conflict looming.

His log book entry for his near miss on September 18, 1940, states matter-of-factly: ‘Shot Down by 109. Jumped While Shooting Down Do 17 – Abortive Parachute – Jump Attempt Caused by Pursuing 109 – Crashed at Appledore – Do 17 Confirmed in Sea.’

He later expanded on the terrifying incident in his autobiography: ‘I heard a cannon shell explode behind my armour-plated seat back, a bullet whizzed through my helmet, grazing the top of my head and shattering my gun sight, while others punctured my oil and glycol tanks.

‘A 109 flashed by. Fumes then started to fill my cockpit, and I knew without doubt that I had had it, so I threw open my hood, undid my straps and started to climb over the side.

‘As I braced myself to bale out, I saw my enemy preparing for another attack, and knew it meant suicide to jump with him around.

‘Escaping airmen over their own territory were fair game in some combatants’ log book, and a friend of mine had been shot down in his parachute.

‘So, I decided to bluff it out, climbed back into my aircraft, and turned on my attacker.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, pictured centre in a suit met with several Battle of Britain heroes. Bartley finished the war claiming at least 12 victories

‘My ruse worked; he didn’t know how hard he’d hit me, but he did know that a Spitfire could turn inside a Messerschmitt, and I fired a random burst to remind him, whereupon he fled for home.

‘By this time I was too low to jump, so I headed for a field and prayed.

‘At a hundred feet, my engine blew up, and I was blinded by oil.

‘I hit the ground, was catapulted out, and landed in a haystack, unharmed.

‘I hit the buckle of my parachute to release it, and as it fell to the ground, the pack burst open spewing forth the silk which had been shredded by splinters of cannon shell.

‘I said a hasty prayer before the first of the rescue party could reach me.’

Sq Ldr Bartley was also a test pilot in the war, striking up a friendship with Laurence Olivier, who was serving in the Fleet Air Arm.

Through him he met the director Leslie Howard and performed aerobatics for his 1942 film The First of the Few.

In August 1942, Sq Ldr Bartley was put in charge of 111 Squadron and took part in Operation Torch in North Africa, shooting down several enemy fighters over Tunisia.

He added a Bar to his DFC, earned during the Battle of Britain, for his efforts.

For part of the war, Sq Ldr Bartley was stationed in the US as liaison officer with the 70th Fighter Wing of the US Air Force.

He was based in Beverly Hills and socialised with Hollywood icons Clark Gable, a fellow World War Two pilot he had first met in London, Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor.

He first met Kerr, who was reputedly a flatmate of his older sister Patricia Bartley, in Brussels in March 1945.

Instantly besotted, he got the help of British actor David Niven to write her a telegram of proposal, with the couple marrying in 1947.

Sq Ldr Bartley moved to Hollywood, where he produced and wrote films for Fireside Theatre, MCA and Douglas Fairbanks Presents.

He was married to Kerr between 1947 and 1959, and they had two children.

They divorced in 1959 and Sq Ldr Bartley married again to Victoria Mann in 1965, with whom he had two daughters.

His autobiography, Smoke Trails in the Sky, was published in 1984, and he died aged 82 in 2001.

Kerr, who was nominated six times for Best Actress at the Academy Awards but never won, died in 2007.

Sq Ldr Bartley’s medal group consists of the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar; 1939-45 Star; Air Crew Europe Star; Africa Star; Pacific Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45.

The sale takes place on December 8.

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