It was another routine day of war for the Fighter Command squadron – indistinguishable from many others except for the entries in the pilot’s personal flying log books, with an occasional record of downed or damaged victims. None spoke of it. None consciously thought of it, but deep in the psyche of all was fear, exhaustion, heat, frustration, the losses, and the constant pressure of one combat sortie after another; each taking them to look into the hooded eyes of death, one more time to cheat the grim reaper...or maybe not.
The summer heat was overbearing. The Battle of Britain was in full swing high above the Kent countryside. The clear blue sky, laced with white fluffy contrails from the constant thrust and parry of combatant aircraft, was occasionally marred by a black vertical spiralling plume; the final path of a doomed aircraft as it plunged earthwards.
The distant, almost inaudible, bee-like buzz of the Spitfire and Hurricane Rolls Royce Merlin engines mingled with those of the Messerschmitt’s Daimler-Benz, filtered through the twittering bird song and chirping of the crickets in the long grass. Around the wooden dispersal hut, war-weary pilots whiled away the time between missions; each man trying in his own way to forget the horrors and anxieties of the previous flight. Each trying to blank his mind sufficiently until he hears the unwelcome, but expected, shrill ring of the black telephone on the desk of the squadron operations clerk. That unwelcome call that would launch these young men once more into new, individual gladiatorial challenges, knowing that they would live or die thousands of feet above this grassy patch.
Young pilots, some no more than nineteen years old, dressed only in their shirt-sleeves and rough serge uniform trousers, with the legs tucked into sheepskin lined flying boots and braces dangling, sat reading newspapers, or playing cricket, or writing what might be their last letter, some just lay snoozing in the sunshine. Bright yellow Mae-West life jackets hung loosely around their necks; or lay in a pile on the grass close at hand or spread out in readiness on the wing of their aircraft.
A shimmering heat haze wobbled above the softening bitumen roof of the green and black camouflaged dispersal hut. The shadowy interior exuded an oppressive atmosphere. Of the few men lounging within, no-one moved, it was too hot. The silence was almost deafening save for the creaking of the wooden frame as it expanded in the relentless heat. Metal framed windows were pushed wide open to catch any suggestion of a breeze that passed.
The claustrophobic atmosphere in the hut was heightened by the all pervading smell of men drenched in the sweat of fear and relief from the previous battle; mixed with the gaseous aromas of too much processed food in their meagre meals, constantly disturbed by adrenalin and tight aerobatic manoeuvres.
In one corner two pilots sat hunched over a chess board. A tall, swarthy South African sergeant filled an old over-stuffed chesterfield in the centre of the room, his feet propped on the seat of a folding kitchen chair, a newspaper spread over his face. Clouds of cigarette and pipe tobacco smoke filled the enclosed area with a mixture of sickly sweet and acrid aromas.
The corporal operations clerk sat, with his head in his hands reading a cheap paperback novel from which someone had cruelly removed the last page. A fly buzzed irritatingly at the edge of a window frame, trapped by its own stupidity – the window was open.
Brrrrrrrrrring! The clashing ring of the black telephone shattered the false tranquillity of the hut.
The corporal grabbed up the handset and snapped, ‘Sixty three squadron dispersal!’ He listened, pencil poised. All activity in and around the hut instantly ceased, all were waiting. He took a breath and called, ‘B-flight to lunch. Transport’s on its way.’ A collective sigh of relief could be sensed, if not heard. Hearts stopped racing and breathing returned to normal. A number of the waiting pilots, ceased their mindless pastimes, stood, stretched and wandered away towards an approaching open-back truck that would take them to their messes for lunch.
The loaded truck, driven by a tall, well built, bubbly WAAF, pulled away with its gaggle of laughing, wild-eyed youngsters aboard and disappeared around the back of an adjacent hangar. Time ticked on. Ten more minutes then...
The expectant pause, then...
The corporal screamed through his cupped hands, then grabbed the rope of the scramble bell through the open window. He yanked the rope repeatedly, sounding the full vigour of its message to the pilots – a message eloquently stated in the neatly painted words of advice on the bell, When you hear this bloody bell – don’t just stand there, run like hell!
The clashing sound shattered the fleeting tranquillity. The remaining pilots instantly reacted. Chairs were knocked over, cricket bats discarded; Mae-Wests, silk scarves and jackets were grabbed. Young knights of the air sprinted out across the grass towards their aircraft, their third time today.
Ground crews sitting around on the grass by each aircraft were galvanised into action at the sound of the bell. They scrabbled to their allotted duties on and around their charges, positioning themselves ready as their pilots dashed to their steeds and leaped onto the wing.
John Messenger threw himself into the Hurricane’s cockpit, grabbed his leather flying helmet and crammed it over his mat of sweaty hair. The familiar smell of hot oil and sweat permeated through the overwhelming sickly smell of the warm rubber oxygen mask as he buckled into his parachute and seat harnesses.
‘Clear prop!’ The pilot shouted, warning the ground crew as he pressed the engine start button. The huge V-twelve engine coughed twice, paused, then roared into life. He waved away the chocks and eased the throttle forward. The plane rolled forward across the grass towards the take-off point, blipping the throttle as he taxied across the parched uneven field.
He turned onto the runway…