My father was not the obvious hero; he didn’t cut the image of a swashbuckling, devil-may-care pioneering patriot, which you might expect from a former fighter pilot in the RAF. He qualified as a pilot before the war started, so he was able to fly many different aircraft including sea planes before the outbreak of the war. However, it was the iconic Supermarine Spitfire that he flew with RAF 91 Squadron, that brought him to a life changing event.
He was sometimes so laid back that a light breeze would have blown him over. His sense of humour would always prevent this happening. His grandchildren will testify to this. It is perhaps ironic, but not a coincidence that he was also a walking encyclopaedia of limericks (and fairly naughty jokes), most of which are not for public hearing, but a lot of which I have of him recorded on tape.
His was a humour that was tempered and hardened during the Second World War, as it was for so many. This humour was as dismissive of the realities of war, in a typically British way, as it was of his courage. As is so common amongst war veterans, he never voluntarily talked about his experiences as a fighter pilot, in fact it was like pulling teeth trying to get anything out of him at all, but my understanding of this is clear.
For the moment I speak only of fighter pilots, like my Dad, but this applies equally to all those who served their respective countries, in some capacity or other. It has its roots in a sense of guilt; that they survived and their friends and comrades-at-arms did not.
When you pull yourself into the cockpit for the umpteenth time and feel that stomach churning fear, the cold sweat dripping down your chest inside your flying jacket, knowing that, after you’ve propelled yourself skywards once again, the chances of landing in one piece were frighteningly low and that you may only ever have a few short seconds to avoid enemy fire coming from any one of six directions: then all you might ever remember is that fear.
There follows a transcript of his own account of one particular event on 24th March 1943, which started on a routine coastal patrol with his number two singing over the radio; a slightly bizarre start that had a tragic ending: –
“The action had been over in less than fifteen minutes. It had been raw and grey over the Straits of Dover on this day towards the end of winter when my No. 2 and I had taken off from our small grass airfield near the coast. We had expected a routine patrol. Nothing of importance had happened in our area for two or three weeks. The hummed strains of “Moonlight becomes you, I want you to know”, came over the radio. It came as a mild shock as in the two years or so of wartime flying I had never heard music.
|Flight Sergeant Jim Anstie|
Sometimes during a night’s sleep, a fictitious action would come through from the subconscious; something quite ridiculous; perhaps one would be sitting on a high cloud in supreme comfort and totally relaxed. Just below would be a sharp action yet in a detached way one could watch the combatants manoeuvring at high speed, intermittently closing on each other, a stream of tracer shells perhaps followed by a ball of fire as an aircraft plummeted down to earth. But there would be no sudden coming awake in a sweat of fear. The dreamer would be quite unconcerned. A mental jerk told me that this was no dream.
On a peaceful flight, singing on the radio would be amusing but now it only served to irritate. Even on a routine patrol one had to be ready for a snap decision; there could be no time to plan ahead. A decision had to be immediate and instinctive. It was still necessary to think logically: a Controller singing at Command HQ would have been quietly removed and perhaps ordered for a psychological test by the Medical Officer. It could only be my No 2 and I knew the cause. The radio manufacturers, doubtless with the best of intentions, had added to our sets what should have been an excellent gadget. The oxygen mask strapped over our mouth in flight also included the microphone; it only needed a spoken work and the set immediately transmitted to everyone in the area. But there was on disadvantage. A pilot might be flying to another friendly airfield with the mask loose on his face and the shattering noise of the engine would get through to the gadget and broadcast for all to hear. At the same time a squadron might be on its way to deal with enemy bombers and would be needing directions. But their radios had to be clear to receive orders, not the noise of an engine, nor for that matter the idle crooning of some witless lone pilot. It was impossible to bark at him “Shut up”! While his song drooled on I could only hope that his mind would snap out of its dream before there was an emergency.
And of course there was at this moment an emergency. The song finished at last and we were able to receive orders. Immediately I caught the end of a message. The words “Ashford” and “190s” were mentioned. There was no time to vent my feelings for the stupidity of No 2 as we were at the furthest point away from the trouble. “Hello Blue 2. Break away and follow me. Some 190s have bombed Ashford”.
I knew that we had several minutes of hard flying to be in a position to intercept and was tempted to hold the engine at full speed: but I slackened a little so that we could remain together.
The radio clicked and this time it was Control speaking. “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, set course 125 degrees. The enemy are crossing the coast”. Our home airfield was close to where the bombers should be heading back towards the French Coast and two flights from our Squadron had been alerted several minutes before.
It was routine at that time to have a flight at each end of the airfield. Four pilots would be in each flight hut during daylight hours. “A” Flight would have two pilots sitting in their aircraft for half and hour, strapped in and ready; then “B” Flight and so on. If the siren sounded they had only to reach for the starter button. In less than half a minute, twelve hundred horsepower from the Rolls engine would have them lifting away from the airfield. Today, when this particular emergency came, it was on the half hour; both pairs decided to take off. In seconds they were heading straight for each other. In such a situation the leader of a pair could do little to change direction and if he tried to steer sharply away he would collide with his No 2 or just as likely, somersault himself. They kept going and miraculously there was no collision.
A familiar voice came over the radio. It was the CO and the accent was unmistakable. He had been in the French Air Force, had escaped after the surrender and since acquired a formidable reputation as a fighter pilot. We had no difficulty in understanding him. One gets used to the strange pronunciations of otherwise familiar phrases.
By now my No 2 and I were well out over the Channel and straining for a sight of the enemy. “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, this is Red Leader. We are at 4000 feet and chasing the enemy to Boulogne. Join up with us”.
We were above this height and it was difficult to see small camouflaged aircraft which were still some way off. The German FW190s we knew were faster than our older Mark 5s so I decided to keep flying fast on the same course.
Quite suddenly four aircraft appeared ahead and flew straight for us; for a brief moment I assumed that they were ours. In less than ten seconds they had flashed past us, my aircraft shook briefly and I knew that I had been hit.
To be continued/ … ‘Real Heroes’ in Part 2
© 2010, story and family photos (please be respectful), John Anstie, All rights reserved