The clear blue skies of June 1942 are laced with white fluffy contrails from the thrust and parry of combatant fighter aircraft high above the Kent countryside.
Occasionally a short black vertical plume appears indicating the final path of a doomed
aircraft as it plunges earthwards.
The distant, almost inaudible, bee-like buzzing of the Spitfire and Hurricane Rolls Royce Merlin engines mingling with those of the Messerschmitt’s Daimler-Benz DB605A engines, filters through the twittering bird song and chirp of the crickets in the long grass. Around the wooden dispersal hut, two flights of war-weary pilots while away the time between missions, trying to forget the horrors and anxieties of their previous flight; trying to blank their minds sufficiently until they hear the unwelcome, but expected, shrill ring of the black telephone on the desk of the squadron operations clerk.
The call that will once more launch these young men into their individual gladiatorial
challenges, thousands of feet above this grassy patch.
Dressed in shirt-sleeves and rough serge uniform trousers, legs tucked into sheepskin lined flying boots and braces dangling from their waist. Many of the young pilots, some no more than nineteen years old, sit reading books or newspapers, playing cricket, or chess, or just snoozing in the sunshine. Some wear their bright yellow Mae-West life jacket loosely around their necks; others keep theirs in a pile on the floor close at hand.
The black dispersal hut exudes an oppressive atmosphere. Of the few men lounging
within, no-one moves, it is too hot; the silence is almost deafening, the metal framed windows are wide open to catch any suggestion of a breeze that passes. Pilots sit hunched over chess and draughts boards; a tall swarthy South African fills an old over-stuffed chesterfield, his feet propped on the seat of a folding kitchen chair, a newspaper spread over his face. Clouds of cigarette and pipe tobacco smoke fill the enclosed area with a mixture of sickly sweet and acrid aromas. The Corporal operations clerk sits with sleeves rolled up, head in hands, reading a cheap paperback novel. A fly buzzes irritatingly at the edge of a window frame, trapped by its own stupidity – the window is open.
The black telephone rings, shattering the false tranquillity of the hut and is grabbed immediately by the Corporal. ‘Sixty three squadron dispersal!’ he snaps into the mouthpiece, his pencil poised. A pause while he listens. All activity in and around the hut stops; all are waiting. ‘B-flight to lunch’ he calls ‘transport’s on its way.’ Hearts stop racing and breathing returns to normal. A number of the waiting pilots, cease their mindless pastimes, stand, stretch and wander across towards the approaching open-back truck that is coming to take them to their messes for lunch.
The loaded truck, driven by a dumpy, bubbly WAAF, pulls away with its gaggle of laughing, wild-eyed youngsters aboard and disappears around the back of an adjacent hangar.
The telephone rings again. The expectant pause, then ‘A-flight scramble!’ the Corporal shouts out of the open window as he clangs a hand bell to emphasis the order.
The remaining pilots leap into action, chairs are knocked over, cricket bats are discarded, Mae-Wests and jackets grabbed as the men run for their aircraft. Their third time today.
Ground crew are already waiting at the aircraft as we run to our aircraft; I leap onto the wing and am helped to strap into my parachute and seat harness. Pulling on my leather flying helmet, which is already connected to his radio and oxygen supply, I signal to the ground crew and press the engine start button. The huge V-twelve engine roars into life. I wave the chocks away from the two main wheels and my plane begins to roll
forward across the grass towards the take-off point.
Eight hurricanes charge down the bumpy grass strip in pairs. They lift off and join up in formation over the airfield en-route to their designated target. Today we are to intercept an incoming cloud of Heinkel 1-11 bombers; there will be a flight of Spitfires from another station providing top cover against the Messerschmitt escorts..
‘Flight cleared for take-off.’ The controller’s voice crackles over the radio. I am Red Section leader for this sortie. I ease the throttle forward and feed in a little opposite rudder to prevent the torque from the massive Merlin engine, just six feet in front of my face, from ground-looping the aircraft. Blipping the throttle to prevent the pots from oiling up, I taxi along the peri-track, weaving from side to side to see around the long nose. I turn onto the runway and select the flap setting for take-off.
Full throttle now, flames roar from the twelve red-hot exhaust stubs and my Hawker Hurricane leaps down the bumpy grass runway following the path of the previous eight aircraft of Blue Section; the tail comes up quickly and I am now steering entirely on the rudder.
Easing back on the control column, the bird un-sticks and becomes airborne. I select undercarriage up and check that the two green lights change to two red and then go out, indicating that the wheels are up and locked. At three hundred feet, I raise the flaps, pull my goggles down to protect my eyes, clip my oxygen mask in to place and close the canopy. The aircraft is clean.
As Red section leader, I am constantly followed closely by my wing man. I begin a bank to the right and throttle back slightly to enable the rest of the section catch up, not a good idea to be a straggler. I check for stragglers.
‘Close up Red 3 and 4, we can’t hang around all day!’ I call over his radio.
‘Red Section - make angels twelve on a heading of zero-eight-zero’ the controller’s voice crackles in my ears.
‘Angels twelve on zero-eight-zero, Red Section’ I reply.
Control column gently right and a touch of right rudder to keep the aircraft in balance. Keeping the ball in the middle is what all pilots learn as a basic principle of good control. We follow the preceding flight as we climb out on an east-north-east heading towards the Thames estuary into a clear blue summer sky.
‘Red Section, Bandits reported in your area. Range ten miles.’ the controller’s unwavering voice comes over the radio once again. ‘Steer zero-six-five, bandits anglesfive.’
‘Zero-six-five, range ten, angels five’, I confirm the instruction. The formation
continues the climb.