Continuing the story from “Real Heroes – Part 1″ and so, the action started …
“Hello Blue 2, break away and engage”. I shouted and pulled away sharply to avoid a second attack. A crippled aircraft was always a tempting target. Almost immediately the radio was busy: I was not concerned with receiving orders but simply keeping in the air for long enough to reach land. But at least we were no longer alone.
The engine was now throwing back a thick pall of smoke, and I knew that it would be a matter of minutes or less before it seized, leaving me without power and an easy target for another attack. I looked back quickly in time to see a 190 curving in for an attack and I instantly pulled up in a sharp turn to frustrate him. He missed and carried on past me. Almost immediately there was a shout on the radio. No time for formality, simply I got him fair and square. He’s going down in flames”.
The Kent Coast had come partially into view through the smoke and after two or three minutes at full speed I knew that the Rolls had done all that could be expected and must soon die. Friends were covering me but by now I was too low to go over the side and drop to the sea with my parachute. The brief prospect of struggling in the icy water, scrambling into a small rubber dingy and sitting in a wet flying suit for an hour or more and perhaps never being found, did not appeal.
The engine laboured slightly as we reached the coast as though to warn me that it could do no more. A few seconds went by, then it stopped.
There was no alternative now, and in a peculiar way the tension eased with the sudden silence: a touch on the rudder to give her a slight sidelong movement to take the smoke away from the windscreen and I quickly saw that there was only one green field within reach; elsewhere was heavily wooded country. Although movement in the aircraft would be limited, I knew that I had to tighten the safety harness until it was like a straight jacket” almost certainly there would be a heavy crash and there were large wooden posts which had been fixed into the ground and scattered about the field. It was important that they were there to destroy any invading aircraft but now they could destroy me.
I knew that the approach had been judged well enough to land without hitting the bank at this end or decimating myself in the trees ahead. Smoke was still pouring from the engine and the field was even smaller than I had thought. Th fighter would drop to the ground at about 90mph ; we were flying at just above that speed. Landing on a soft field would almost certainly end in a high speed somersault; a belly landing without wheels gave one the best hope.
A quick glance to one side showed a hedge slopping quickly by; no more than twenty feet up now; a farmhand gazed up, so close that one could almost read his mind. “Bless the lad. Hope to God he makes it”. The smoke was still blinding. “For Christ’s sake keep her straight man, it’s not over yet. Count five and brace yourself”.
It was longer than five as it happened. Nearer ten, then a shattering jar and the tearing and ripping of metal. The wing caught on a post and there was a violent cartwheeling to the left.
Then an almost deafening silence.
Though only slightly dazed, the thought of fire cleared my mind sufficiently to make me release the harness: almost at once I heard “Don’t worry lad, we’ll have you out in a trice”. A pair of strong arms lifted me away and we staggered across the field, for all the world like a couple of drunks. He sat me down by the hedge and I looked back at the carcass of my Spitfire through one eye; a trickle of warm blood had already filled the other. The massive engine and both wings were scattered about the field.
Later, settled into the ambulance and with time to think back, I was able to appreciate the value of a good training. The safety harness had been one of the many important items. Even when pulled tight it was fitted with a small catch which allowed one to lean forward to reach some dial or switch. Btu this catch was never allowed to remain released for more than a few seconds. During the last half minute before the crash I had in fact briefly released it then locked it back. Had I neglected the advice, I would certainly have been scalped. But now I am sitting comfortably in an easy chair some forty years later.”
His number two, with whom he’d shared a beer the night before, was shot down and killed. Apart from the trauma of facing his own death, it must also have been very difficult for my father to come to terms with the loss of a colleague in this way, knowing what had been going through his mind whilst he had to listen to his singing. Only when you find yourself in a field of anti-invasion barriers, sitting in a shattered aircraft, facing a shattered life, can you ever truly know the meaning of fear. The act of remembering fear, in my view, is evidence that you have, somehow, overcome it. This is true courage. Those that don’t remember the fear may too easily brag about their exploits or maybe have been permanently traumatised by their experience. My father didn’t want to talk about it overly much, let alone brag. So, whatever else he did in his life before or after this time, I would forgive my father almost anything.
It is very difficult to make a judgement about bravery, courage and heroism. In the ultimate analysis, I suppose, it all depends on what conscious thoughts prevail in the mind of the would be hero at the time of their heroism. Military records undoubtedly chronicle the thorough assessment of individuals’ entitlement to recognition of courage by the award of various grades of medal, but, for me, the one thing that truly counts is knowing what a hero really is. I wrote the following brief poetic tribute, remembering not only my father but also his brother, my uncle, who, as a qualified medical doctor, also served in the RAF, but lost his life earlier in the war, as a result of his injuries after the plane he was travelling in was shot down, but spent the last hours of his life attempting to save the life of the pilot. It summarises my views on courage and real heroes.
(for Real Heroes)
Think nothing of your movie heroes
Plastic coated with perfect noses,
chiselled jaws and smelling of roses.
Now, think for a moment of reality;
a reality that is raw,
that’s in your face and now, and more;
its deprivation, pain and blood
and fear, real fear, a taste of mud,
of fire, of brine, and feel the sweat
that chills the skin like death, and yet
just when faced with their mortality,
real courage let them go again
and go again, and go again!
Think only of Real Heroes, then.
© 2010, story and poem, John Anstie, All rights reserved