Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC (aged 93) is a British Battle of Britain fighter pilot and author. Aged eighteen, he signed up on a short-service commission with the Royal Air Force in August 1939. He saw extensive action during the Battle of Britain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1941 in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy. On 11 August 1942, Wellum led eight Spitfires launched from the carrier HMS Furious to reinforce the fighter complement at Luqa airfield on Malta. He wrote a widely acclaimed book about his experiences during World War II, entitled First Light: The Story of the Boy Who Became a Man in the War-Torn Skies Above Britain.
This is a transcript of an interview with Historian and broadcaster, James Holland, 22 February 2001..
…You finished your initial training, elementary, you then went into top drilling things for a fortnight. You then went to flying training school where the discipline started. You didn’t walk anywhere you marched. And there you were split up into two. A limited number — I can’t remember — about ten of us were earmarked for single engineer planes: in other words, potential fighter pilots.
I was delighted. Because we were I think the second course to be trained on quite a vicious little ae. The mark one Harvard. American Harvard. We were the first or second course onto them. And one learned there that one had to repsect an aeroplane. Because if you didn’t respect it, it would turn round and bite you, and that wasn’t a good thing to happen. So we were earmarked from there on as single engine pilots and I think about 3%, let me think. there were five of us at the end of the training ended up in a spitfire or a hurricane. All the rest did other things. So there were just five of us taken out of the whole course. About 40 on the course.
We had our eyes earmarked on what we wanted to fly but at flying training school, two courses for the elementary school joined up. We were joined up with people from I think a place called Anstey. We joined up at flying training school, so there were about 40 of us. And I think five of us ended up on fighters.
James: go back, what made you decide to go to RAF
I always wanted to. I had been model aeroplane mad since I was a little boy. Yes, I had read books about it. Interest in aeroplanes. I lived near North Weald. I can remember in the early days, the 20s and 30s, very gayly decorated fighters with the squadron markings on it, rather like the old mice. The RAF was modelled on the cavalry you see with plumes and knights of old. We had our own squadron markings. If two blokes wanted to fly they flew in the University air squadron that’s what they’d do, they’d go together. They would probably go straight to a flying training school.
In those days it [square bashing] was done at Uxbridge. But we went to Hastings. Uxbridge was a huge station built round an enormous square. [?] policed by sadists who railed and shouted and took us…
We went to Hastings and marched up and down the front as far as I can see. And it was quite a steady indoctrination. It was quite civilised.
James: where were you billeted?
In what used to be local hotels, the front hotels for the holiday-makers. But there was barbed wire going up and there were kids with buckets and spades on the beach. It had a false inclination that there was a war going on. Things were changing a bit.
James: Do you remember your first spitfire flight?
Oh yes. Bloody thing flew me! ha ha. It was a day that you had been waiting for for a long time but it wasn’t until my flight commander briefed me: you better take this aeroplane. I’ll come out and show you the cockpit. I’ll show you round it and if you break it there’ll be hell to pay. And I can remember walking out to it with my helmet on with my oxygen mask flapping in time with my walking and the parachute slung over my shoulder and I looked at this lythe sort of creature sitting there on this little narrow undercarriage. I thought Christ! No instructor in the back. You had to get it right. You sit in this lythe looking creature and the cockpit was very small, great long nose in front full of engine and you thought Oh God! Why can’t I be sweeping out Clapham Common station, something like that, you know. I mean I’d make a bloody good porter! Yes, that was it and once my flight commander had started explaining it to me you settled down a bit and thought well this is what it’s all about. So many things. If you stay too long taxiing on the ground the engine overheats. Be careful of the brakes because they’re nose-heavy on the ground. They tip on… You think God I don’t want a helmet, I want a shroud in this bloody thing. But anyway then I remember him getting off the rigg and I said “Excuse me Sir”. “You don’t call me Sir, not any more. I’m a flight commander. You can call me Brian”. I said alright, excuse me but how do you start it? And he said, Oh I’m sorry. Eventually we started it and he got off and walked away and the engine started to my amazement the first touch of the button. Great clouds of smoke came back and then I settled down and taxied out, turned it into wind. Made certain everything was strapped up. Open up the taps and off you went. The acceleration was something else, that one had never experienced and in the end you felt you were hanging onto the throttle stick for grim death. And that was a bloody silly thing to say at that particular time. And the next thing I knew it had hurtled itself into the air and I was going up into the wide blue yonder. It was exhilarating but it was a bit fearful because in order to get the undercarriage up you had to pump it up with a big pump and you had to change hands on the stick. You had to take your hand off the throttle, put it on the stick, take the right hand off and pump up like that. But of-course every time you did that, this hand did that so you went up into the wide blue yonder like a kangaroo on heat or something. But then once you’d settled down, you thought this is a magnificent aeroplane, magnificent. You know your speed was way up, an indicated speed well over the 200, 210, 15, drop the nose and the speed would build up. It was a very clean design. Something like 400. Magnificent. But landing was a little bit… well it landed me, not the… Because you couldn’t see out of the front of the spitfire because of the nose. You had to look outside like that. It got a bit daunting. They were such a beautiful aeroplane that they preferred a sort of gliding approach whereas we had been taught to come in on the motor. If you came in with lots of power on, the aeroplane used to assume a tail-down set like that which of-course meant that the nose came up. Which meant you couldn’t see. This thing was absolutely stable but sinking at that point. I thought for god’s sake check and cut the power and I did and it just +++ and stuck there. But I didn’t know an awful lot about it.
James: Did you become used to flying it?
You didn’t get in, you strapped it to you. A spitfire could almost think what you wanted to do and it did it. And you didn’t think anything about it. And in the end you could fly them almost like a Tiger Moth. Beautiful aeroplane. You knew exactly what the aeroplane… It could only respond to what you wanted it to. The spitfire did that. It responded to anything you wanted to do. You had to get the landing right, you had to get it right, but once you got used to them you got it right and they were lovely, beautiful aeroplanes, very forgiving.
James: Did you have any flying accidents?
Yes I did. The spitfire was not designed for night flying. It was not easy at night. And we had a thing called a chance light, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It was like a lighthouse on wheels that you called and it lit up and lit the flare path so you could see the ground. And I was coming in one night, my first night, very frightening, pitch dark and we only had six little glim lamps which you could only see from below 1500 feet. And because we were flying from an airfield in South Wales and it was a pitch black night, they had [?] the chance light down and I made one attempt and I couldn’t get in at all. I didn’t line up and all and I said look sorry chum but I’ve got to have the chance light. And they said not now now, there’s a German overhead so when he was clear they put the chance light on and I thought well they still haven’t put that bloody light on but they had. And I thought well if it is on I can’t see it. It can only be in one place, it’s in front and I’m afraid it was, and it took the port wing off.
James: But you were alright?
Yes. It took half the port wing off. And this great explosion and the thing went bang. We thought this is it, I’m dying. This is what it’s like. It’s very peaceful. And I sat there and I thought this is lovely! Any time you like mate, I’ll be off then. And then you realised, I thought hold on a minute, the cockpit lights are still on, they were a lovely dull red for night vision and I looked at the ignition switches and they were off and I looked at the fuel and that was off so I thought gosh I must have done that and after I hit this chance light I must have acted like lightening and not realised it. And I came to sitting on this damn thing and then I saw a face at the side of the cockpit and it was the flight commander: “What the bloody hell are you doing in there. Look what you’ve done”. No are you alright. Actually he had a look at me and they took me out and that was alright.
[J: So you felt quite calm?]
Yes, totally accepted it. This is it, I’m going to die. Didn’t have time to think anything. I thought this is it. I haven’t the faintest idea where I am, what I’m doing, sparks were coming back from the exhaust. Couldn’t see a bloody thing. I ended up very luckily in one piece. It was very quick.
I was far more worried when I knew I wasn’t getting it right. I made two approaches to start with to try and get in and it was a bloody awful night mind you. I was far more het up and the last time I thought well I’m going to give in on this approach, I’ve had this. And having hit it there was a “Oh well, you’ve made a balls of that, I’me going to die”. Next thing I knew was, I think I went unconscious, I just think the mind works so quickly because I switched off the ignition and the fuel. I thought this is OK, what’s everyone worrying about, dying, this is peaceful. After all, I’m fairly warm. And then I realised that the lights were still on in the cockpit and that’s what brought me back to reality. That’s about the size of it.
Once you got used to the spitfire which you did fairly quickly you realised how fortunate you were because you were one of tens of thousands who would give their right arm to be where you were.
You were a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force in perhaps the best aeroplane in the world. How many of the chaps that went through training with you ended up in a Spitfire. One. Me. The other four went to Hurricanes and I went to Spitfire. Once I’d settled down and felt that I’d got the aeroplane where I wanted it to be, I got it as a friend and not as a sort of thoroughbred horse who looks at you and says I’ll play this bastard up until he knows what he’s about. That happened as late as 1941. Because by squadron was at Biggin Hill during the Battle and we stayed on at Biggin Hill. And the squadron in the leading wing to start the 1941 offensive sweeps over France and it was landing after those that you thought you know I’m so luck to be here really. Because by that time you’d survived the Battle, you know your way around in a Spitfire. After three weeks of the Battle itself, if you could survive the first three weeks you knew your way around. And you did things with an aeroplane that was never in any book. It had very few limitations. I’ve heard it said that under the most extreme, brutal conditions, you could in fact pull the wings off a Spitfire. I knew of it to happen but later on because we got to improve our roll rate we got metal ailerons. They used to with the air flow ride up and come proud like that, and put tremendous strain on the bolts: six big bolts. They got over that by trimming the [?] down but the [?] was so light you could chuck it around. You could put stress on them but I never had any trouble like that at all. During the Battle I abused that aeroplane. It’s a question of survival.
I got caught by some 109s one day who had just seen me do a bit of a mischief to a [?] and one of them got on to me and we went round in circles for god knows how long and managed to get a quick squirt at him in front and then I had no ammunition left. I had to get out of there but it wouldn’t let me go. A spitfire could turn inside a 109 and I was gaining on him slightly and he pulled up and away and so did to. I decided to hit the hills as it were. He turned off and I turned on my back and went straight down. You did what you called an alien turn. What you did, the ground was right down there, which was not an ideal place for it to be, and if you put the stick over the aeroplane did that. It revolved around an axis going straight down. And I ended up doing 450 knots indicated and the wings flexed. A rivet popped and I got down and my ground crew reprimanded me because I popped the rivets underneath. But I got away.
James: What distance from ground?
The instrument, the altimeter, there’s always a bit of a lag and I saw 6000 feet pass just like that and I thought its time to do something about this. And I ended up about 500 feet. In fact it sounds terrible I was straight and level going like a bat out of hell at 500 feet. Which is where I wanted to be. From there I went on straight on down to the deck, 50 feet going up over hills and round forests down valleys and up the other side because you’re a difficult target then. That’s the sort of thing that you learn if you survive the first three weeks. You had to think in those terms and think quickly. You never asked questions. If you were in any doubt about anything at all you never asked a question and never fly straight and level for longer than ten seconds. Ten or twenty seconds. Never fly straight and level. And if you saw anything in the sun, they used to come out of the sun. If you had a couple of seconds to look at the sun and there was something there that you thought that’s not quite right, don’t ask questions. Just don’t stay there: a lot of people got the chop like this. Oh let’s have another look. If there’s nothing there, so what, you’re alive to fight another day. And always break into the attack, never away from it. If someone’s coming in here and you turn away, what’s going to happen? He’s on your tail just like that. So what you do, you turn and go under him. Or if not, go for him. Try and ram him. You get out the way. Straight underneath. You go underneath.
James: If he goes above you and you fly underneath, you’re then going in opposite directions?
James: If you’ve got enough time to turn, would you then fly back into him and try and get on his tail?
No he’d never hang around.
James: What stage of Battle did you enter it?
At the start of the Battle of Britain we were at Pembray in South Wales, defending Bristol and the West Midlands like Liverpool and things like that. Because of the intensity of the Battle we transferred to Biggin Hill on I think the 7th September. The battle was absolutely at its height and we were put straight into it. We stayed at Biggin Hill — I can’t remember when the squadron left — but I was sent away on September 1941 so I did bloody nearly, which was as long as most people. And by then I had had it. I’d absolutely had it. Exhausted.
James: asks about tactics
We lost so many fighter pilots through 1914-18 tactics by flying big formations. The Germans, we weren’t trained for war, although we should have been and people will tell you that that was the whole object of having an airforce. But in fact it was an excellent flying club. The best flying club in the world and fighter command was a law unto itself and a club within a club. We were not taught how to conduct ourselves in battle. But the Germans had Spain where it was perfected. Not only did they perfect their tactics, but they perfected their aeroplanes, developed it I mean. By the time the Battle of Britain came, the 109E was fully developed. We weren’t. We didn’t have constant speed air stools, we had a variable pitch thing. The first Spitfire didn’t have armour plate. That sort of thing. So we were behind the whole time and that’s why I hate politicians so much, you can write that down too.
James: did you have a distrust of politicians at that time?
Thinking about it, one didn’t quite realise it or have time to think about that, you know. They’re doing the same thing at the moment. They hurtle blokes into battles all over the place, here and there. Then get them criticised. I just dislike them, having thought about this a lot because I’ve had to answer lots of questions about it. I realise just how bloody stupid they are. They really are. If you are living in utopia then there’s no war, but we’re not. In those days a chap called Hitler had been making a nuisance of himself since 1933. Here were in 1940 still trying to catch up.
James: How much action did you see in Wales?
There was very little in fact. I can’t remember at Pembury ever going off as a squadron. We always went off as sections: two or four to go after a single plot because most of them were reconnaissance. We only did squadron for take-offs and things at Biggin and once of-course you went into them, 150 plus. A lot of aeroplanes. You split up, it was each man for himself. Having gone in, come out the other side, shook your head and you’re on your tod. Then you have to go back and do it again you see. That took a bit out of you.
James: was there anyone in squadron who questioned tactics?
No. Didn’t have time. That [??] didn’t come in till about 1943/ 1942. We changed our formation from fixed like that, we went into fours in line astern. Even then you were relying on the leader to see everything. If you’re flying in formation very close, you look at the bloke next to you. The only person you watch is the fellow there. If you’re doing that you can’t look around.
James: Asks about squadron and colours in flights
Two flights of six but in fact but in fact the squadron was normally divided up into three fours. It’s very complicated.
James: What happened to the colours….?
Red or blue, one two three four. It varied. A pair was red one, red two, red three, red four. Red blue and yellow. Three fours, twelve. I could have got you a picture taken by a great friend of mine… and he took a picture of four of us having just landed [Alan White]. A section of four that had just landed having just shot down a couple of 109s actually. There are four of us…. being debriefed by a spy, by an intelligence officer in front of a Spitfire.
[talks about meeting Alan and then meeting Prince Charles…]
We were aware of a presence and we turned and there was a very smart Wing Commander. And he said you two gentlemen look like you’ve been around a bit. Have you met the Prince? Come on he said and had a chat with Charles for ten minutes and dear old Charlie boy didn’t want to get away….
[Chat about Charlie]
It’s been in a book, Brian Kingcome’s book. I think you ought to [read it]. It’s called “A willingness to die”. He was I think the finest fighter pilot I ever flew with. I used to fly number two to him. He was just brilliant, a first class pilot, and a leader and cool and calm and collected.
James: Do you think calm leadership was what was needed?
There was a calming effect certainly. He was quietly spoken, could be very dry. He could tell you off in the most delightful manner because you came out feeling small but think well I can get up again. And then you’d buy each other a drink in the evening. Forgotten. Wonderful chap.
James: Did you fly number two to him in the Battle?
Yes. We got split up going through cloud on September 11th. There were two of us going into 150 plus and I was number two to him on that day. And I was flying on his left and we went head on and I was slightly underneath him and I saw him break away and I thought it was time for me to do the same. Actually I had been hit by then.
James: Were you hit badly?
Not badly. Went back and had another go a bit later. That was September 11th and after that attack I shot down a H? over Dungeoness. I felt a bit angry. I thought you bastard.
James: can you remember what you felt when shooting down plane?
It was a target.
James: Did you ever think about the people in it?
Not normally. It depends how angry you were. If you’d had a little bit of a breathing space you thought what the hell are these, what’s going on here. They came to this country which is basically a peaceful place and there they are bombing the hell out of us. What right have they got to do this? And make no mistake, I’ve met a lot of German fighter pilots and you woulnd’t probably tell the difference between the two of us but the teutonic mind is that if he’s on top he’s a bastard. Make no mistake he is a [?] bastard. And that came to mind. As I say I’ve met some since the war [?] he’s just died. I met him at one or two reunions. I used to go to my old squadron reunions at [G] in Germany. They were flying Phantoms then and he was there. He was the same as I appear. But this strutting Swastika, it was when they were on top they were bastards. Hit him and hit him hard. Don’t stroke him. And he thought hold on a minute, there’s another angle to this. And the first time they had a setback was in the Battle of Britain. And don’t let anybody in the journalistic world tell you that we didn’t win the Battle of Britain because we bloody well did. It was a near run thing but we beat ‘em. And thereafter they started to go back. I had a friend who survived being in a fighter squadron in France and he would see a 109 shooting up the refugees on a road. And they did, it’s no good saying they didn’t. And he said to me, I remember him coming back.. I think it was just before [?] he was killed shortly afterwards. I met him in London somewhere. We went to Shepherds which was a fighter pilots pub [Shepherds Market]. We’re having a drink. Poor chap. This was very early on, just after I’d joined the squadron. And he was very withdrawn and he said you know they are sods. And I’ve never forgotten the expression on his face. I think he survived and we were obviously involved in another three or five years of pretty total war.
We’d been two years ago a peaceful sort of country and here we were, you know…
James: Did you have a sense of what was going on with the war?
Yes. We realised that we had to win it because the whole country was very aware that we were going to be invaded. Now I have read by some journalist who wasn’t even alive at the time denied that we were ever going to be invaded. But we were. The channel ports were full of [?]. And we were the heroes because people were frightened. But yes we were aware.
James: You knew when you were getting two hours sleep that it had to be done?
Certainly you knew it had to be done. And that’s what you were paid 14 shillings a day for. You knew it was a pretty serious situation. But having said that, it never crossed our minds that we were ever going to lose.
James: Why not?
I don’t know. At the time one didn’t think. Thinking back on it, it was because you knew that you were containing them. I think. The first thing was well where do we start on this lot and then you’d see them, there they were, with bloody great cross on them. You’d think right you bastard, take that. I did anyway.
James: going back to life in Wales…
Rather peaceful. We were fairly well trained as far as we knew what the training entailed. We used to have lots of time off. Not days off, hours. We would go down, if we were released, 30 minutes available, half the squadron would go down and bathe on the beach which was lovely hard sand. We would be able to get down and have a swim, not to leave the camp.
James: Did you ever get leave?
Oh yes, you had leave as and when it was reasonable to do so. In fact fighter command decreed that we should try and have at least, I can’t remember, a day off a week per pilot. It might be a fortnight I don’t know. But it was encouraged to have a break.
James: Where were you living in Wales?
We were stationed, living in the station in the mess. It was a hutted camp. Quite comfortable. Room to ourselves. Oh no, hold on a minute, no. I shared a room with a chap called Wade, Wimpy Wade. Who was a brilliant pilot and later became the chief test pilot of Hawkers. He was killed flying not the prototype Hunter, a [?] wing aeroplane. He was killed then. I shared a room with him.
James: What did you do in evening?
All the boys together. We used to create merry hell.
James: Asks about hierarchy within squadron, program last year re: sergeant schism
I have heard that and there was a very poor misguided fighter pilot. Frankly it upset me. It is not true. OK the fighter pilots had their own mess. It was the sergeants mess and the officers mess. We drank together, we lived together, we fought together. As for this rubbish. And you can quote this: that I have several times flown number two to a sergeant pilot and been delighted to do so because he was a very experienced charming chap and a very good pilot. But this program… said that officers would do that. Absolute nonsense and if any of those blokes who did that program want to come and confront a bloke they can come and do it to me. I wouldn’t stroke them either. I get so angry with these people.
James: Re: book “The Battle” by Richard Overy
Unfortunately the biggest manipulators are the Bashing of Britain Corporation: BBC. Some of their programs are terrible… A “Piece of Cake” was the same thing where an officer got told off for playing squash with a sergeant. That would never happen. There wasn’t any contention. What these ignorant people don’t understand was that the comradeship in a fighter squadron in 1940 was something that unless you were there you would never ever understand. You were flying your fighter as they were meant to be flown in the defence of the realm and twelve of you were defending the population of London I suppose. And had we not done what we were asked to do… OK if we didn’t do it that’s up to them to tell us. But we didn’t do too badly in that the Germans didn’t [?] us. There’s a very good, I can recommend you a book on this that goes into this quite deeply. It’s by a chap called Wynn, a New Zealander, called the “Battle of Britain”… I will show you this book and it gives the claims and exactly how many were claimed by what and how the Germans claimed three times as much as we did. It tries to explain how it happened. When it wasn’t a big day with 150 plus coming in and everybody madly war dear chap and that sort of thing, claims were very accurate. In a smaller context. But Churchill got on to Dowding and Dowding said well if our claims are correct, if what we say is not correct, the Germans will be walking up the Mall in three weeks. We weren’t correct. We overclaimed by quite a lot. The Germans claimed 3000 of us shot down. In fact it was eight. That sort of thing. A long way out.
In terms of victories we didn’t shoot down five to one. We shot down about two to one. Two of them and one of us. And that was enough to make them go away. They got very close to it except for the stupidity of their leader. They changed their tactics defending London because we bombed Berlin.
James: Did you know about that at the time?
No. I don’t think anybody did. Except perhaps Dowding and Bomber Command.
James: Did you think that Park was a good guy?
Brilliant. Would have done anything for him. Park was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. You had great faith in Park. He used to turn up in his Hurricane and have a chat. Never did to me but there we are. I was very upset when he and Dowding were pushed out by that other bastard Liegh Mallory [don’t quote me]. I was there with him. I was up in Malta. There was a nasty, well it’s not much because I had a breakdown in health there but I flew off an aircraft carrier at Malta.
James: Go back to Biggin Hill, 7 September
The Chips were down. It was madly war everywhere. The hangars were flat, bombs all over the place, broken aeroplanes. Yes, I sort of looked around and thought God this is total. But there parked along the side in their bays were brave little Spitfires with our squadron numbers on them. And so you got down to it.
James: How did you get round the total exhaustion. Falling asleep as landing?
You wouldn’t do that, you’d hurt yourself. You just kept going. We used to be out every night at the White Hart. Many’s a time when you got back at one or two in the morning. Instead of going to bed I’d go straight down to dispersal and been there for dawn runs.
Probably not. Um, not too bad. It took an awful lot, you got into a groove. I suppose really one could say one drunk fairly heavily in the evenings. You could get into your aeroplane but when you got down to dispersal if you had a heavy night and breathed it wasn’t allowed but you took straight oxygen and the doc, we had a doctor to each squadron and he used to have little pills. Whether it was legal, I don’t know but if he didn’t like the look of you he’d give you some of those.
James: You didn’t know what they were?
No. Then of-course you’d be off into the wide blue yonder and another day would begin.
James: How did you deal with death of colleagues?
Didn’t think about it. Totally resigned. Totally resigned. Accepted it. You mustn’t [think about it], you just dare not let yourself think about it. I mean, if you’re going to describe a sort of day, it started at half past four in the morning when something pushed at your shoulder and it was your batman waking you up. And you get up and think Oh God another dawn and you’d wander over to the mess and you’d think god its going to be a lovely day, no breeze to ruffle the hair, or anything like that, go into the mess and empty tankards, ashtrays full left over from the night before, magazines all over the place because it was early in the morning, the steward hadn’t cleared it. Go into the dining room and cup of tea and toast and then you’d [interrupted]… there you’d be munching this toast and looking around at everybody being quiet. There would be a screech of brakes outside, and then so OK here’s the tumble[?], any more for it, and that would take you down to Dispersal. It was a truck or van. You’d go and look on the order of battle and see where you were flying and sling your parachute over your shoulder and walk across to where your Spitfire was parked. You’d notice little things. Everything was quiet and still. No birds. And dew on your feet, that sort of thing. And then you’d get the silence would be broken by — you’d hear the odd clank of the spanner — and the sound I was referring to was “all right mate, all clear, contact” and an engine would start up to warm it up. Next thing you know there would be twelve Merlins shattering the serenity of the moment I suppose. And another day would begin.
James: Must have got used to battle, confident in Spitfire, but wake up call at Biggin Hill
You knew that, but the intensity of the Battle was incredible. Yes but you weren’t prepared for the intensity. It was very sort of … It was rough going.
James: were you frightened?
Terrified, yes. Until I got into the thing. Once you got airborne you were part and parcel of the aeroplane. At least you saw there were other aeroplanes with you. So you weren’t completely on your own. Oh but the waiting was… There used to be a little telephone orderly sitting at his table. He was the dimmest bloke in the squadron. Poor little fellow. And the telephone would go. And everybody… and it would be something like the naffy van’s going to be late because the battery’s flat or something. And you’d swear like hell. And it would go again and scramble base, [?] twenty, and off you’d go. And the moment you got out that door and ran to the aeroplane and the ground crew helped you into it and strapped you in and fussed over you, you felt better.
James: Was your heart thumping?
I wasn’t aware of that. I was just aware of sort of resignation really. And so it went on.
James: did you have any superstitions?
No, I had a mascot and if I didn’t fly with it I’d feel terrible and it was Eyore from Winnie the Pooh. I suppose she was a girlfriend in those days, I can’t remember. I married her in the end. He was about that high, this little Eyore and I used to sit him in the map case. Because you couldn’t bend down to get your map case, it was too far. You stuck your maps in your flying boot. And he was sitting in the map case and I’d take him out after every trip. Buy him a cup of tea at the Naafi. The Naafi used to come round in a van. Not sandwiches, there wasn’t any butter in those days. The odd chocolate bar. Normally mugs of hot sweet wet liquid that went under tea.
James: what did you do while waiting?
Try and sleep. I once saw a chap reading a book and it was upside down. You had so little sleep that you tended to try and rest. You didn’t sleep exactly but you had your feet up. They had sort of beds, these armchair things that you could lean back on it and your feed went down. We were spoiled actually. We got all these things. One was trying to relax. I think I must have fallen asleep. Occasionally I fell asleep. The telephone would have you going.
James: Did you wear the uniform, tie etc?
Oh no, God no. Preservation came into it. And half the problem was you had to look round. It was always the chap you did not see who shot you down. So you’re twisting round. If you had a collar and tie on it used chain you. So you had mufflers on. You wore a muffler but never a collar and tie.
Flight boots because they were fleece lined and it flew up at 30,000 and particularly during the Autumn, October/November, the bomber formations had stopped and the fighters were coming over, the 109s used to come over very high. Anywhere over [?]. Didn’t matter where.
James: Did you always wear your goggles?
No, I never did because they got in the way. I always wore them in case the hood was shot off and it got a bit breezy.
James: And gloves?
Yes always. You know if you’re at altitude, it got bloody cold up there. Nothing too tight. Gauntlets a bit tight for me. You’d lose the feeling in right hand. I used to use — we had silk inners. I just used to use silk. I used to go to my tailor and get some silk underwear too and then fly not too cumbered up. You had to be moving around the whole time as much as you could in a cockpit. Because if you constricted your circulation you could be very uncomfortable. I’ve actually screamed coming down through, getting feeling back to my [?]. Oh yes, in 1941 we were the first squadron to get a thing called the Spit Five. Took our planes up to Rolls Royce. All RR did was get a bloody great supercharger and stuck it on the back and said OK you’ve now got a Spit Five because that’s no longer a Merlin 3 its a Merlin 45 and they would take us up to 40,000 feet in Winter and of-course we weren’t equipped for it. Once my glove dropped into the bottom of the cockpit and I couldn’t reach it. And my hand sort of went up to about here. I’ve never been in such agony. We dived away at the end of the patrol and as we got back to circulation, its murder. I thought, well the language was terrible!
James: About being hit. Did you always know you’d been hit?
Yes you heard it! I didn’t see the chap that hit me, the one that did it badly, I didn’t see him. But I did over three weeks then and I knew my way around a bit. Now quite often a chap was hit and he thought what’s that and went on straight and level and that was the end. You never saw him again. But immediately I knew I’d been hit [sound]. Panned away straight away. You didn’t wait. And I got away with it. I got very close to it [bailing out] coming back from [?] but the sea looked a bit rough and it was a hell of a long way down and I ended up at Hawkinge.
James: asks about bailing out
They’re not easy to get out of. You couldn’t open the hood of the Spitfire above 300 knots. Because it had a curve on the top. So you had a little crowbar on the side. No, the only tme when I was shot up badly I thought of it. Jolly lucky I didn’t because a couple of bullets had gone up through my parachute. The matrimonial prospects would have been very seriously jeopardised. And it must have gone under the dashboard or something and the parachute was in tatters, not in tatters I’m exaggerating but when I got out of the thing the covering over the canopy, over the silk was shot and the silk was dropping out of it so it was just as well I didn’t head for the hills.
[begins to talk about swearing]
You didn’t say “that was a frightfully near miss old boy”, you said two words and the second one was that!
James: Did you go in for jargon?
Oh yes, the RAF was a law unto itself. Had jargon. Gin and all the rest of it. There’s a language. I can’t think of it now. Kite, being an aeroplane, Erk being the ground mechanic. They were the salt of the earth. Your spitfire wasn’t yours at all it was theirs. The fitter looked after the engine, the rigger looked after the fuselage and the rigging of it. You were their pilot. I have seen them looking out down to the south coast when nothing’s turned up. Particularly after the sweeps in 1941. Then they’d get a new aeroplane and a new pilot and they’d adapt.
James: you’re putting an awful lot of trust in them
Oh total. Absolutely total.
James: Did you ever have to turn back because of oil, overheating etc?
Once when the undercarriage didn’t retract. If it didn’t retract in a Spitfire you overheated. I had to take it back. As far as anything, that happened. It was hydraulics. And the flaps worked by air. If they didn’t work well then you landed without flaps which was like a bat out of hell. Generally speaking though, never turned back for an engine failure. Never missed a beat. One had complete faith in the Rolls Royce. I can’t think of anything else that I can contribute. I suppose people say airborne five or six times a day. I think that is journalistic licence. In reality I would suppose you did three trips a day. Difficult to say. If you went off in a convoy patrol up to and hour and a half. If you went up on an interception which 90% of the time it was, 40 minutes to an hour.
James: Did you manage to get a hot bath?
Yes. We were very lucky because we went back to the fighter stations surrounding London: Biggin, Kenley, [?] were peacetime establishments and afterwards at least we weren’t sitting in a slip trench. We went back when we were released which was about half an hour after dusk, half an hour before dawn sort of time we had hot baths.
James: What was your routine after being released (summer)?
If you were lucky, about half past seven because if it had been a busy day they knew the Germans weren’t geared to coming over again. And if they were then the nightfighters would have a go. Hot bath, quick prayer, very quick, normally two words: “thank you”, a meal in the mess served in a civilized manner with stewards and then off to the White Hart at Brasted[?] (Kent). Or there was a place called Hildon Manor which was a sort of night club where there were hostesses would you believe. Pity I dind’t know what was going on, I was a bit young. There were some lovely ladies there. Not that I got a look in with them because I was a boy. They’d been through all the mature blokes I was with. Dreadful business.
James Holland is one the prime movers behind the Chalke Valley History Festival, and a prolific historian, novelist and broadcaster, with a particular interest in the Second World War. Both his two most recent books – one on the Battle of Britain, the other on the Dam Busters Raid – were made into documentaries for the BBC and were also bestsellers. He is currently making a new series for the BBC about Britain and the Jet Age. He is also the author of the Jack Tanner novels, a series of adventures following the exploits of a British soldier in the Second World War, and of Duty Calls, young adult novels.
You can follow James on twitter @James1940