Norman Charles Stewart Riddell was born on October 16, 1916 in Thames Ditton, Surry, England. This was a turbulent time, as World War 1 was raging. Norman’s father was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps at that time. Norman was given a rather lavish upbringing. He attended boarding schools in Ireland and Scotland. Later, when his family moved back to Chile, he was one of the first students to attend the very exclusive Grange School. This school was to become the best private school in Chile. Norman had a fine mind and a quick wit, which lasted him his whole, adventure filled, life.
NOTE: Norman’s Great-grandparents had first moved to the country of Chile in about 1865. They were in the Ships Chandler business in Valparaiso. Later, Norman’s grandfather opened a big department store. They, and generations to follow, would go back to Britain for the birth of their children, but always return to their adopted Chilean home.
On several occasions, while visiting with Norman, I copied down some data on his exciting life and will attempt to give you a bit of it here in the following narrative.
In 1930, when Norman was a young lad of 14, he joined the Cable & Wireless Company, acting as a messenger and translator, to the, then, President of Chile. It was about this time that Norman developed a great yearning to learn to fly an airplane. Norman would visit the El Bosque Airport, near Santiago, and do odd jobs for the pilots there. In appreciation, they would give him a little pay, and flying lessons, too. Norman was very big for his age and got a flying job later, with a company that carried the mail over (or between) the Andes Mountains to Argentina. He told one story about having a tire that burst upon landing in Mendoza, Argentina. There was no equipment to repair the damage, so Norman stuffed the tire with cow dung he obtained from a nearby pasture and continued on his journey. Ever resourceful, Norman loved flying and became quite good at it.
In 1932, Norman secured a post as a copilot with Panagra Airways. Panagra was half owned by Pan American Airways and the W. R. Grace Company. Grace operated a fleet of steamships to South America. As I mentioned before, Norman was a big strapping young man with good flying experience, and Panagra was happy to hire him. He flew up and down the West Coast of South America to the United States, carrying passengers and international mail. Flying through the Andes was very dangerous because of the bad weather and high terrain, but Norman thrived on it and gained much valuable experience.
In 1933, Norman was sent to San Antonio, Texas to get checked out on a new type airplane. It was there that they discovered, after checking his file, that he was only 17 years old. Juan Trippe, the president of Pan American and Panagra, told him that he was still a year too young to be employed as a pilot (minimum age 18). With his tall build and experience, the Panagra office personnel, had failed to notice his date of birth, and consequently his young age. Norman said that they sent him back home to Chile on a Grace Steamship Liner. Norman must hold the record, at age 16, for being the youngest airline pilot ever hired. Back in Santiago, Norman served as a voluntary fireman in Chile’s fire services, but still loved flying the most. Biding his time, he went back to work for the Cable & Wireless Company for a few years.
In 1936, at the age of 19, Norman returned to England to apply for entry as a junior flight officer in the RAF. During the time he waited for acceptance to RAF flight training, his love of adventure took him to Barcelona, Spain, where he joined the Spanish Republican Army, to participate in the Spanish Civil War. He really wanted to fly, but when they asked him where he was from, he said “Chile”……they said, “Cavalry…. go steal a horse”. He was in some heavy fighting in the Madrid area, and said it was sheer hell. After three months he left the bloody battles, made his way to France and then on back to England. There he found that he was to receive the best Christmas present he could hope for, that of being accepted into the RAF flight-training program as a cadet. Norman went through pilot school at RAF Sywell, Northants and at No. 5 Flight Training Squadron, Sealand, Cheshire.
In 1937, Norman was initially assigned to long-range bombers in Winchester, Hampshire and completed his training there.
In 1938, Norman was assigned as a Flying Officer to No. 207 Bomber Squadron in Cottesmore, Rutland, flying the Fairey Battle Bombers. As war clouds gathered over Europe, the RAF was preparing for the inevitable conflict to come.