A HEROIC Spitfire pilot who fought for Britain’s freedom during the Second World War has celebrated his 90th birthday.

Irishman Ken French, who lives in Leigh, came to England in August 1939 to work for a London-based insurance company before signing up with the RAF as a fighter pilot in January 1941.

The former Home Guard member went on to take part in missions which included escorting bombing raids, low-level ground attacks on enemy bases and providing aerial cover for troops landing in France on D-Day, in June 1944.

Mr French said: “I was at Omaha beach covering the American troops as they came ashore, and they had a very bad time there because, at the top of the beach, there was a cliff and they suffered a lot of casualties.

“We just had a bird’s eye view of it all and it was very strange because it felt so detached, while below us there were thousands of people dying.

“There were a lot of sad times and we lost a lot of friends, but it was an amazing experience – I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

Based at airfields including Hornchurch and North Weald, Mr French even spent two training weeks at Southend airfield, which ran a gunnery school.

Despite his later prowess, Mr French’s flying career almost didn’t get off the ground for several reasons, not least the fact he originally intended to join the Navy.

He said: “In 1940 I went home to Ireland for Christmas and one of my uncles, who had been a bit of a lad in his youth, said ‘why don’t you join the RAF, that’s what I would have done’, so I thought I would give it a go.”

Mr French then had to undergo a tough medical where he had to hide the fact that in 1938 he’d broken his knee playing rugby.

He said: “I’d been told before that I wouldn’t be suitable for any kind of military service, but at the official medical I forced my bad knee as far as I could then lined the other one with it and they passed me – it was a little bit of cheating, but I got away with it!

“I would’ve had problems with the parachute because landing would have snapped my leg, so I had to make sure I never had to jump out.

“I nearly had to, twice, but I couldn’t say I had a gammy leg because it was my secret, so thankfully I managed to bring the aircraft down safely.”

After being demobbed in 1946, Mr French resumed work with the insurance company and settled in Leigh 57 years ago after marrying his late wife Joan, who he met while in the RAF.

The couple went on to have four children and Mr French is now also a grandfather three times over. He marked his landmark birthday with a party with more than 60 family members and friends.

Having led such a varied and interesting life, Mr French decided to write down his memories of his youth and penned his own biography, called My Early Life, which his family have had self-published.

Mr French joked: “There are some amusing stories of my life in Ireland, but I only wrote up until 1947 when I got married, because the rest of my life was an anti-climax really!”