A work of historical fiction.
A generalised account, using my semi basic knowledge of the aircraft, and tactics of the time.
We sit in lounge chairs. The grass ruffles in the breeze. Patches are starting to yellow because of the lack of rain over the last few weeks. Its almost 2pm, and already today the squadron has been scrambled twice.
Dawn readiness. It seems like you have just closed your eyes, and started to relax, before you are being woken by the Corporal. If you're lucky, your dreams will not have been invaded by images and sounds of flaming death, machines exploding, parachutes becoming a funeral pyre for some poor sod who if he is lucky, has remembered to take his pistol with him and can end it before he makes a large hole in a field in the Southern fields of England.
So far today, I've seen two of the squadron go down in flames. Peter managed to bale out, but the new boy, Robert I think his name was, went straight in. One of our Sergeants brought his kite back with a bloody huge hole where a cannon shell had hit it. There is talk of a medal, if he lives to collect one.
The mess orderly brings out plates of spam sandwiches. And better still, hot sweet tea. I cant stomach food. If I eat during the day, lately, it seems like I have to chew and chew and chew, just to try and swallow a single mouthful. Stress, is a funny thing.
We hear the shrill bell of the telephone through the open window. As one, our heads snap to where the hated noise comes from. I force myself to breathe, fully aware of the knot of tension that has twisted my insides into a ball.
Those are the words that, if we admit it, we have been wanting to hear for the last hour. They seemed to be long overdue. If it had been a call to ask about a state of readiness, like yesterday, then I may have been sick. There is no shame in that, not now. There is even a bucket put around the corner of dispersal for just that reason.
Instead, even before the “....BLE!!” has finished sounding from his mouth, we are running. Within two strides the fear is gone. Its amazing how it happens. All that matters now is taking off in time, getting height, getting position, hoping that nothing falls off as you claw for the all important vantage point.
To get between them, and the sun. Have that beautiful white orb behind our backs, that is where we want to be. Doesn't happen nearly as often as we like though.
I'm being clipped into my parachute and up into the cramped little office that is the Spitfire cockpit within 30 seconds of the telephone call.
It's all automatic. As I'm being strapped in, I'm running my eyes over the gauges in the dashboard. In training, I would take my time to do a pre-flight check list, tap dials, make sure everything was tickety-boo. Now, if I take maybe longer than a minute I worry. Every second counts.
The engine gives a cough, the propeller blades give a jerk, the engine catches and suddenly the sound of a Merlin roars into life, feet in front of me. To the sides and behind, the others are all doing the same.
Headset connected. The hiss of static. Then the voice of 'Bobbo' Brown, our Squadron Leader.
“Hatchet Squadron, prepare for take off. Smooth and snappy, form on me as soon as we're all up.”
It has been only two minutes since the telephone rung. I feel my spine absorb the shock as the dainty undercarriage of the Spitfire bounces along the grass that is our runway. We are lucky, in that the long field that we use as our airfield, allows us the chance to take off in two groups. I watch as the first 5 roll out, the grass being beaten down with prop blast. And suddenly they accelerate away. I push the throttle forward. For what seems like a few seconds the roar of the engine is accompanied by the rumble of the wheels on the meadow, then the bouncing stops, the rumbling disappears, and its just the throaty roar from up front and the whooshing of the air past the open hood of the cockpit.
I check left and right. I'm the second aircraft from the left. Two others to my right. A few hundred yards ahead, the other 5 already have their wheels up, and are starting to curve to the heading that will take us into yet another scrap.
I've never really put my mind to it before, but if I were to describe the sensation and feeling of this moment, it would be something like this.
Imagine, playing rugby, or football, and knowing that all you need to do is score one more try, or goal. There are a few minutes let on the watch, and someone passes you the ball. The exhilaration, the fear, the desire to do well, the worry that things beyond your control will conspire against you.....they are all there. You do your best to push them from your mind.
That's how it feels.
You watch your gauges, the oil temperature, in case of a blockage or something during take-off. You don't want to be out of the game before you have to.
You check your altimeter, compass direction. You do all these things instinctively. You catch your mind wandering, and are shocked that you're not 'paying attention'. But, you are, actually. You are more aware of everything than you realise.
When the ground crew strap you in, they are actually strapping the aircraft to you. Your entire body becomes aware of the slightest tremble of the aircraft. Your hands and feet, instinctively know what to do, without any conscious input. Flying, has become as second nature to me now as riding a bike, or driving my car.
Bobbo talks to the controller. We listen in. Enemy aircraft, 20+ bandits, heading our way. We push the engines harder to try and get that all important height advantage.
Over the last few weeks, gone are the tight clean formations of the Hendon display days. Too many good pilots had gotten the chop, trying to maintain formation when they may have seen the bastard who shot them down if they had been looking.
Our flying style has now loosened, so that we can all have a damn good look around our little patch of sky. Other squadrons are doing likewise, we've heard. Its learning on the job now, the rule books are being re-written daily.
“Red3 to Red leader, bogeys, 2 o'clock level, approximately 40+...”
“I see them Red 3. Ok everybody, turn to starboard, and climb...”
My thumb pushes the ring around the nipple of the gun button, from safe to fire. I pull the harness as tight as it can go. Drop the seat that extra notch.
For once, our position is good. Not perfect, but better than some of the places we've been in...
Head keeps turning. Too many times, the bouncer has been bounced by a wily German airman.
Closer. Able to make out what we are up against now. 111's and 109's. The 109's keeping station as usual, above the 111's, giving top cover.
As we approach, from our 10 o'clock, a squadron of Hurricanes make an attack run. What will the 109's do? Will they defend, as they must, leaving the bombers defenceless, or will the commander split his force?
Bobbo doesn't give him time to decide.
“Hatchet aircraft, concentrate on the bastards on the port quarter. Get stuck in and good luck!”
The first sorties, had been disastrous. Trying to ensure we all maintained formation....the enemy'd had a field day. We soon learned that it was like a free for all battle-royale.
The longer you survived, the more tricks you learned, and passed on.
'never fly straight and level in a dogfight for more than 10 seconds.'
'try and keep the chatter to a minimum, but call out warnings and ask for help'
'get in close to make sure of a kill'
'remember that the ammo wont last for ever...'
It was just seconds since Bobbo called the attack. He knows that we all know what we need to do. No pointless orders from him.
I pull my goggles down over my eyes, and pick a bomber, out on the flank as my target.
My personal score stands at 4 confirmed kills, 2 shared, 2 probables and 5 damaged. Today, I hope to add to my tally.
The bomber grows bigger, seeming to float across the sky, moving effortlessly as I jockey for a good attack position. I'm aware that around me, the rest of the squadron are doing the same thing. I can already hear the sounds of battle over the headphones.
My bomber is off to my 2 o'clock position, below me. I wait until he gets close to 1 o'clock, then nose over into the dive, giving him slight lead......check behind and to the sides, and above. All clear. Bomber at about 12 o'clock now, 200 hundred yards and closing, heading to my left....I pull the nose up a smidge, push the old girl into a slightly tighter turn, keeping her level with foot pressure on the rudder pedals. I'm leading him well.
Just as the nose of the Spitfire starts to hide the bomber from my sight, I level off the turn, and there he is. I've put myself directly at his 9 o'clock, and I've got my nose aimed in front of him.
Thumb hard on the tit.
I feel the Spitfire vibrate as all 8 browning’s roar. The chatter of the breeches sound through the airframe, and seemingly rattle my teeth... I briefly smell the harsh cordite tang. Mixed with the oxygen, sweat, and the sweet tang of petrol, its a smell that I will never forget. I will never experience it aside from moments like these, but, should I outlive my pilot days, if anything smells similar, I will be transported back to here, and now....
I watch as my bullets hose out, seemingly miles in front of the bomber. But, its an optical illusion. I'm glad of the days I spent hunting birds with my brothers shotgun. When you needed to aim well to feed, you learned all about deflection shooting.
The smokey trails of the rounds seem to curve inwards, to where the bomber flies steadily on. Suddenly, sparks start to bounce around his port engine, and all over his inner wing. There is a fuel tank in there somewhere....a slight nudge to the rudder, and the seemingly living snake of bullets curve into that massive glasshouse of a cockpit. I watch as a thousand shards of glass explode and cascade into thin air, sparkling in the sun like someone has thrown diamonds out into the sky.
I know I've done mortal damage. That engine has already stopped, and its gushing smoke. I think I got the pilot too.
As I flash past, now behind the bomber, the rear gunner gives me a long burst.
My turn to be on the receiving end. Luckily for me, he is a poor shot. It's with fascinated wonder that I watch the tracer rounds start off coming directly towards me, but then seem to bend away behind me. Just before it's gone from my view, I see the bombers right wing start to lift up, as the left drops.......
I straighten my turn, well aware that I'd been flying serenely for a good 8 seconds. I pull the nose up sharply, kick the rudder over to the right, forcing the nose over as I drop into a right hand turn. Look back over my shoulder. Nobody after me. I see my bomber has continued his slow roll, and is now upside down. Already one parachute is out and more black shapes are dropping free. I realise with a schoolboys glee, I've just shot down my 5th. I'm officially an ace.
In the headphones, I hear curses, warnings, cries for help, cries of exultation, and of pain. Someone has been hit hard, and by the sounds of it, is going down in flames. I scan the sky, and see him.
One of my squadron. From this distance, no way of knowing who it is, just another Spitfire leaving a black smoke trail that will follow it to its doom. The cries of the pilot are suddenly cut off, a loud bang, and silence. In the seconds that it had taken him to realise that he wouldn't be able to bale out, his cockpit had filled with the high octane petrol that the Merlin drinks. Which is also very very flammable. That poor bastard knew, instantly, that he was a dead man. I had decided weeks ago, after seeing a pilot pulled from a burning plane, that I would rather end it, than be left faceless, IF I survived a flamer.
Time slows down, as I watch little balls of light, float past the side of my cockpit. Whatever that was, it came from behind and to my left, and went heading off to my front right.
I turn my head to look over my left shoulder, and instinctively my hand pushes the aircraft into a left turn, habitually.
A 109, so close I can almost hear the pilot breathing. How he missed me with that first burst is anybodies guess, I shouldn't have even known he was there.
I kick the rudder, hard to the left. Being in a left turn already, I am basically pushing the nose over as far as it will go towards the ground.
I'd seen in that split second of terror, that the 109 was going too fast, and would overshoot. That was why he missed. Probably a snap shot, hope for the best.
The kick of rudder, had pulled me from his sights. I couldn't see him, but I knew that he had just slid away, behind and over me in that overshoot.
I pushed the spade grip control column as far to the left as it would go. The German probably thought I would do one of two things. Roll onto my back and dive, where he could dive after me and kill me. Or, reverse my turn, but that would take a second or two, and give him a chance to try and improve his position.
Instead, I took a third option.
I kept the left hand roll going, flipping upside down beautifully into a perfect barrel roll. A simple, yet effective aerobatic move. I feel the 'G' pull at me, but I cope.
Old Jerry doesn't know where I am. He expected me to be in one of two places, not slotting in behind him.
Its been more by luck, than skill, but I find myself in what I suppose is the perfect spot. Behind, trailing by about 100 yards, below him by about 20 yards. And he isn't aware I'm here. I can only imagine the confusion in his mind at this exact moment. What he thought was an easy kill has seemingly disappeared. I quickly kick the rudder left and right, looking behind me, waggling my tail to check and clear the blind spots. Maybe a second or so. All clear.
Again, time slows. As I pull my head back to facing forward, I see a 109 explode, a Spitfire rolling away from it. A parachute way off in the distance, too far to tell if it's one of ours or theirs. The bomber formation has been pulled apart, but they keep going onwards. A bit gappy, but onwards still. The milling aircraft around the bombers, a mix of spitfires, Hurricanes and 109s.
I focus on my chum up ahead. I've been under him for about 5 seconds. Plenty of time for him to have considered his blind spot as my hiding place.
I push the nose over a little, the throttle goes forward, and then pull back on the stick.
I see the underside of the 109, as though it's a picture, painted on a ceiling. Oil streaks mark from the engine cowls. The pale blue of the underbelly blends into the fuselage camouflage. The big black and white crosses stand out on the wings. I notice that his tail wheel is missing. Wonder what happened to that?
Thumb hard on the tit. Again, the vibration, the chatter.
He is so close, that my bullets hit him like hail. I watch as sparks explode all over the underside of him.
I'd been told by a veteran, that, if I ever found myself in this position, not to aim for the centre of him, as my rounds would chew his wings only. Better to aim at one of the radiator bulges, or even better, a wheel well. That way, one side of my guns, would chew into the central mass of the plane.
It was a good job I listened. His right wing seems to explode, from the aileron to the tip, it just shreds under the blizzard of bullets.
I can only imagine, that the pilot didn't know what hit him, and didn't have a chance to. The underside of the cockpit took the full fury of four .303 calibre machine guns. I watched as it tore open the belly of the aircraft, and a fireball blew up and out of the cockpit. I think a round had hit the oxygen bottle.
I was so close, I felt the heat of the blast.
This time, I didn't linger. I knew he had been flying for at least 8 seconds nice and straight, which meant so had I.
Kick the rudder, push over to the left into a roll. Already dropping into a dive, pull back on the stick and suddenly I'm facing straight down, hanging in my harness. I remember to call out my intentions to Bobbo.
“Blue 2 to Red leader, I've downed two, I'm heading home”
“Good show Blue 2. All Hatchet aircraft, disengage and head home independently.”
I ease the throttle back and ease out of my dive. I recognise where we are, thankfully. My compass has been thrown all over the place, and will take a while to settle.
I drop below 500 foot. Every few seconds, I 'crab' the aircraft. Push the rudder left or right, so that the aircraft skids a little. Head always looking above and behind. Better to be safe than sorry.
I spot a Spitfire, and head over to him. Its one of mine.
I recognise the markings. Good old Dicky. He give me a thumbs up, and raises a finger. One kill. I give him a thumbs up, and raise two fingers. I bet he is laughing as hard as I am. The tension of the last few minutes gives way to a mixture of elation and relief. We have been up for a little under 80 minutes. In that time, I feel like I've run a marathon while carrying a person on my back and being punched over and over. I feel an sudden urge to drink something. My goggles have been pushed up to my head, and the oxygen mask unclipped. It feels so much better, breathing 'fresh' air instead of pure oxygen. We spot the church spire that is a couple of miles south of the airfield, and see a couple of other spitfires making their approaches.
Instinctively I go through the landing drill. Hood back and locked. Chair up. Roll the power off, wheels and flaps down. Keep the speed so I don't stall. Just right. Throttle back, lift nose a tad, flare it and we sink like a feather. That rumbling roar as wheels kiss the ground, welcoming me home.
I taxi back, my ground crew already there to usher me in. before I am even out of my harness, the wing panels are off, fresh ammo being feed into the trays. The fuel bowser sits patiently, waiting its turn.
A barrage of perfectly asked questions, to get all the info that the fitters and mechanics will need.
'Didn't feel any power loss, didn't feel or hear any impacts. Did use oxygen. Did shoot down 2, for definite.' That last bit of info brings handshakes from all present.
I walk back to dispersal. See familiar faces. Some are missing though.
The intelligence officer, affectionately called 'Spy', takes all our info, and tries to make sense of things.
He logs my two kills. Notes about hearing and seeing the burning Spitfire. Not sure who it was yet though. Also the Spitfire getting the 109, making it explode. Someone's kill will be confirmed by that.
It's a full 30 minutes, before we know that the ones who have landed, are all that's left.
We started off this morning, at dawn, with 12 aircraft. By the time of the 3rd scramble, we were down to 9.
We had lost 2 in that clash, and one of the ones who came back was needing a significant patch job.
From 12, to 6. One pilot was wounded, a bullet had hit the side of the cockpit, and he had shrapnel in the side. A day of light duties. Paperwork warrior...
Group telephone down.
We are taken off readiness. It's 5pm. The ground crews will work all night if they need to. It's possible that we may have 11 aircraft tomorrow. Replacement aircraft and pilots are being scrounged. The aircraft will need need checking. Ohhh, I pity the erks.
I finally feel hunger. The sandwiches from earlier have gone.
Instead, we find corned beef sandwiches in the bar. Myself and Dicky, compare notes on the day. I'm bought a couple of beers, to celebrate becoming an ace.
Bobbo tells me that as of tomorrow, I will be leading Blue flight. A promotion, handed to me with a beer.
I am in bed, by 8pm. I've enough strength to wash, standing in front of a basin. Then I collapse onto the bed.
Hopefully, the dreams will be more pleasant ones, and I will actually feel like I've slept....