Spitfires at Last
I notice with some amusement, that throughout my letters home I do not mention girls. Perhaps this was a defense against this information being passed on to any girl who may phone my parents. Mothers have an uncanny ability to manipulate sons' lives. A girl who may be a ball of fun could well be regaled with elaborated stories that would be the end of a beautiful friendship. Neither did I mention that my batman was an attractive WAAF. Not exactly true because at this station a batman served two officers.
Not that girls could compare with my new love. I was in love with a machine but what a machine. Spits are so beautiful. We were introduced quite early but before flying one there were so many tests and examlets and the bullshit was endless. We knew that if we fell at this fence we should be shunted to something else. Met the C.O. for the first time in the mess. He was short and tubby but as taught as a set mousetrap. Little black eyes, never at rest, flamed from a putty coloured face. Sitting in his chair, his feet twisted round the back of the chair legs as though he was controlling a fractious animal, he was a fascinating study of restrained violence, punching the air with a stubby forefinger to emphasize every word.
I had just met another new pilot at the bar and we started talking to one another in self defense. He was, if anything, a little too smartly turned out with a languid air that I opined could be infuriating. We took our beers to the fireplace. We had hardly turned around when the C.O. ignored me and came straight to the point with the chap I was talking to. "So you are married!" "Yes Sir. "Well you should not be flying fighters -- and -- by the way what is that stuff you've put on your hair.' 'If I went home smelling like that my wife would think that I had been in a brothel!" Instead of quailing before the out-thrust chin the intended victim looked at him calmly and said "My wife does not know what a brothel smells like sir." He turned to me and said "I shall not be in for dinner tonight" and walked out of the mess. The C.O. also left. I did not see the young officer again. Dinner was a strained affair. I had made a bad start.
Ground studies the following morning and we learned the general outline of our programme. --- We were to be issued with our "escape kit" which comprised, among many other things, compasses in every conceivable form. They, with one exception, just indicated the position of magnetic north. There were needles to be floated on water, as were our identification discs, the hole of which turned north. Buttons to be sewn into the flies of our battle dress trousers. They had a slight dimple in the centre so that they could be balanced on a pencil or equivalent; a minute nick in the edge acting as the pointer. A more sophisticated job was the collar stud. (Yes. We wore separate collars!) Scraping off the white covering on the base revealed a perfect little compass.
The heliograph was beautifully made of a square of metal with rounded corners. It was about 90mm square and very highly polished, with a hole drilled in the centre. Two etched double lines intersected the hole at right angles and a white painted "lollipop", also with a hole in the centre was attached by a cord about 40cm long. By looking through the hole in the mirror and reflecting the lines on the mirror onto the hole in the "lollipop" a signal could be sent to, say, any overflying plane. Very simple but very efficient.
Then there was the bar of soap. After being used a couple of times it became a wonderful hiding place for what looked like a wire about 20cm long with a key ring at each end but was, in fact, a very efficient hacksaw. Looped around a bar, padlock hasp or whatever it would cut through quickly and without squeaking. Then there was the Commando dagger. Beautifully made and very unlike the pretty imitations. It was made to be hung from the belt but I cut a slit in the bottom of my battledress trousers for the sheath to be sewn flush so that the handle would be concealed in the pocket and ready for instant use.
There were 'iron rations' in flat tins, aspirins, water treatment tablets that made water nearly undrinkable and bandages. Very imaginative were the plastic bags liberally powdered with sulphanilamide to protect burned hands. There seemed to be no end to it. Our 'Teddy Bear' fur flying boots were to be replaced with fur lined boots with leather soles. The tops were made to be cut off, leaving quite presentable black leather shoes. Oh! Yes and a knife to do the job. The old ones simply screamed "Shot down aircrew" and were useless for prolonged walking. There were plenty of battledress trousers being worn by civilians in France and the Low Countries left behind after Dunkerque.
We had training sessions from Army Commando officers who took us through exercises in survival, crossing rivers, camouflage etc: etc: As may be imagined, they were proud of their abilities and did not let us off lightly. I put in my remarks "Good but hardly testing". One thing of vital importance was the use of oxygen. More health checks to make sure once more that there was nothing that could hinder flying in any extreme condition. We were introduced to the decompression chamber. Half of us had oxygen masks and the others were the guinea pigs. The position was to be reversed at a later date. As the air was pumped out a large altimeter gave a good idea of when and how the body reacted to altitude. The main object of the exercise was to drive home the insidious effect of lack of oxygen. Oddly enough it behaved exactly like the results of drinking alcohol. There was in increasing (very unjustified) self confidence and the slightest thing reduced those without masks to fits of giggling. Some of them had combs put into their hands and others pens. In the early stages they wrote with the pens and combed their hair with the combs but as the 'altitude' increased, hair was combed with pens and messages written with combs. As each man became unconscious he was put in an oxygen mask which quickly reversed the symptoms. We were all quite shaken by the false confidence brought about by anoxia. It was one of the most telling exercises for us all.
When we were deemed fit we were examined
Each certificate was signed by the relevant officer and the whole pasted in the logbook.*Full certificate at end of chapter.
It was nearly three weeks before I actually flew one!
On April 16th I was taken up for a test by one of the instructors in a Master. He must have been satisfied because the whole flight was 20 minutes after which he sent me off on my own for about an hour in the same aircraft. Two days later we spent 40 minutes on aerobatics and spinning and later that day I was taken up for an hour in a Domine and shown the main navigation features in the vicinity. The next day the Flight Commander came out with me to my first flight in a Spit. The first thing was the step up on to the wing root. No climb like the Harvard or the Masters, just a step up. He watched me make my cockpit check and yelled "Know what you are doing?" Chute on, straps on, oxygen plugged in, radio in. A last look around the instruments. Harness lock on. Thumbs up and off. This was a Spitfire II (they were kind on the first flight) on Spit Is, one had to pump up the undercart by hand. She was a little gem. Messages from my training kept filtering into my mind.
Handle carefully on the ground, the wheels are so close together because they retract from the centre outwards. She handled well; full left rudder and a blip on the throttle headed her into wind. A quick look around and ...full throttle. Oh God! I love you. Hold her down, she is coming unstuck, airspeed OK , gently back on the stick and she soared away. It was like having the most powerful motor bike in creation between one's knees but in three dimensions. Everything was wonderful. I owned the world. 10,000ft already! Wizard! 1,200 Horsepower of Merlin was almost idling. Holy Island below. A few rolls, stall turns etc: ...quick glance at my watch (A present from my parents "Ad Gloriam per Spinas" [To Glory through thorns] my old school motto engraved on the back)
"I have certainly been through thorns for you my little Darling!"
It was only to be an hour and it had drifted away. Into the circuit, dropping down, flaps out, keeping an eye over the port wing root along the engine, bringing her to stalling point and at the last moment straightening her out. She was perfect. A few bursts of throttle brought me onto the perimeter track. The engine seemed huge as I zigzagged along, eyes first to one side, then to the other back to dispersal. Nothing! Nothing had gone wrong. Never had I felt so much 'one' with an aircraft. I loved her. Flaps up, quick blip, throttle closed, switches off, the prop flicked to a stop, pull out the pin holding the harness, unplug radio and oxygen; helmet off. Turn the wheel on the chute, give it a bash and the straps fall away. Just a few moments to enjoy that lovely smell. It must come from the bindings on the electric harness but put me blindfold in a Spit cockpit and I will tell you where I am.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002