Web Site: James Stirling
The first days of a new Royal Air Force (American) pilot about to take part in the 1940 'Battle of Britain'.
In the desperate months of August to October of 1940, the fate of the British Nation lay in the hands of a few brave fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force, who fought daily life and death battles against the might of the German Luftwaffe. It was to become known as the Battle of Britain.
When the German High Command realized they were not going to defeat the RAF so easily Hitler cancelled his invasion plans, blaming Luftwaffe Supreme Commander Reich Marschall Hermann Goering for failing to keep his promise to obliterate the RAF from the skies.
To set the scene, lets’ follow the first days of a typical new volunteer pilot just joining a frontline RAF fighter unit.
“I was picked up from the local rail station in the English county of Kent and joined several aircraft mechanics in a truck, and my legs were stiff from the hours spent on the slowest train I have ever travelled on.
Arriving at the air field, the vehicle jolted to a stop just inside the entrance. The tailgate was dropped and I joined the rest of the guys leaping down to the ground. We were greeted by a RAF Flight Sergeant who was holding a clip board in his hands.”
Quickly establishing that all their names matched those on his list he shouted at the airmen “Right! You lot report to the duties office on the double!” Spotting that I was an officer his tone was a little less gruff.
“Your name, Sir?”
“Tom Finnegan” I replied.
“Pilot?” He asked.
No, I’m an ice cream salesman I thought. My pilot wings were prominently displayed on the front of my jacket.
“Yes, from the US of A!” I said wearily.
“Pardon me for saying so but you must have lost your marbles, Sir!”
The Sargent said dryly.
As soon as any British person heard my accent, they immediately had to know why in hell I wanted to leave a country at peace to come over and join the Royal Air Force. (Editor; Seven Americans came over and joined the RAF)
I had made the long journey from Kansas to England to try and help in any way I could, in the stand alone struggle this brave little country was making against the might of Nazi Germany.
“Report to the operations room in that building over there” said the Sargent, pointing to a structure to his left.
I grabbed my duffle bag and had started walking towards the building when I heard a banshee screaming sound over head. I instinctively dropped to the ground, for above me was several Junker Ju 87 Stuka bombers coming in low and already strafing the parked aircraft, moving rapidly on to drop their bombs on the large hanger.
It was all over in a matter of seconds, but it felt like a lifetime of terror as the bullets strafed the ground sending large tufts of grass into the air, and the bombs exploded on the runway and aircraft maintenance buildings. I glanced around and saw that the truck was on fire and the body of the Sargent was lying on the ground like a rag doll.
Welcome to England! I thought. When it was again quiet I picked myself up. I was shaking like a leaf but still in one piece, and grabbing my bag I set off at a run in the direction of the operations building. It was only a wooden hut, since the whole air field had been a private flying club before the war. The door was open and I walked inside.
“Who the hell are you?”
I was looking at a very harassed RAF Squadron Leader.
Stood before him was a bedraggled kid of 21 that had been on the move for over 12 hours, on a train with no lavatory that seemed to stop at every telegraph pole for fifteen minutes or more on the route down from London.
“Tom Finnegan, Sir. I’m an American volunteer and I’ve come to fly with your wing. Sorry to ask sir, but I’m absolutely desperate! - Is there a latrine nearby?”
“So the yanks have come to save us, eh?” he said with a wry smile on his face.
After what had just happened outside, he still managed to take it all in his stride and crack a joke. The phone rang and he picked it up. Listening for only a few seconds he yelled “Well for Christ sakes do something about it! What the hell do you think the RAF pay you for? Get the local fire brigade to come in and help put out the blaze!”
Slamming the phone back in its cradle he lit a cigarette and took a deep drag on the smoke.
He could not have been more than twenty six and yet he had the hard lines of an older man on his face. He could see my discomfort and pointed at a door. “In there –and be quick about it!” When I emerged from the toilet feeling so much better he looked me up and down.
It was not unusual for him to have a foreigner in front of him, for the Royal Air force was already recruiting Polish, Canadian, and Commonwealth pilots to add to their small numbers initially recruited from the home University flying club members, and already stretched serving RAF personnel.
“How many hours in Spitfires?”
“Twenty” I replied.
I had only 20 hours in Spits because that was all the time the RAF could spare in training me. But I had flown in several American single prop aircraft back home and had over 150 hours flying time under my belt.
“Christ! They are sending me boys now.” He mumbled under his breath. The radio operator sat behind him turned and told him it was another scramble.
“Don’t be bloody wet – we’ve only just come down!”
The radio guy said excitedly “It’s true Sir, HQ say there is another wave of enemy aircraft approaching us right now!”
“Bugger!” The officer exclaimed, and looking at me, he grabbed my arm and said “Ok, Tom - here’s your chance to show what you’ve got. Come on - and stick to me like glue!” On the way out of the door he rang the large bell hanging on a rope. Several pilots appeared from various places and began running towards their aircraft.
I found myself being strapped into a spare Spitfire that had been readied, and within five minutes we were airborne. That’s when I learned I had been talking to Squadron leader Charlie Rowans in the ops room. He was the temporary Commanding Officer until a replacement could be found for Bill Waterstone, the station Wing Commander that had been killed in action just four days before.
“Tom, don’t go off on your own no matter what happens. Stick to my tail, and for God sakes keep alert. You must keep your eyes constantly on your wing mirrors and what is above you. The 109’s love to come out of the sun.”
Within ten minutes we spotted at least 100 Heinkel He 111 bombers and charged in amongst them.
It was like a turkey shoot, for they were so slow and easy pickings for the experienced pilots in our flight. I kept behind my Squadron Leader’s wing as he had instructed me, and simply observed what he and the rest of the flight were capable of doing. I really wanted to learn something about tactics on my first sortie with my new posting.
I was thrilled at flying this wonderful machine, for the mark 1 Spitfire was graceful in the air and was responsive to my every whim. I was so pleased that I had made the decision to come over and fight for the British, and leaned back into my seat to enjoy this wonderful aeroplane.
Whack. It was like an express train hitting me, for the jolt pushed me forward in my harness almost to my instruments panel. I had been hit, but did not know where, for all the controls still worked perfectly.
The intercom burst into life and I heard Rowans yelling at me. “Look out Finnegan! You’ve got a 109 closing in on your tail. For Christ’s sake push your stick down and swerve out of it and lose him. Do not fly in a straight line!”
Fear gripped me and I panicked. I suddenly realized I did not know this aircraft properly, and instead of doing what Rowans had told me, I took forever to start diving and swerve out of the 109’s gun sights.
There was another jolt and I knew I had been hit again.
During training I had heard stories of RAF pilots being trapped in their aircraft and being badly burned, even though they had managed to ditch in the English Channel and be picked up by rescue boats.
Panic stricken, I began to grab at the bullet proof bubble hatch above me and got it open a few inches before it stuck. Even though I was not on fire I had a vision of those poor unfortunates that had suffered this fate.
Suddenly I heard a burst of gunfire behind me and saw the 109 falling away below. If it had not been for Charlie Rowans I would be dead, for he had swiftly turned around and come in behind the 109 and downed him.
Gathering my wits about me, and with my adrenalin pumping at full speed, I managed to close up just under Rowans wing, blasting away with my machine guns at imaginary enemy aircraft.
On landing, my maintenance crew found several holes in the fuselage and a bullet lodged in the metal frame of my seat. If it had come in a quarter of an inch higher it would have cleared the seat and I would have been killed.
Rowans caught up with me as I walked towards the debriefing room.
“You bloody fool! You nearly bought it just now. Remember what I told you about keeping an eye out of your arse for the enemy? You only need to relax for a second and it can be your last. You were lucky today, so for Christ sakes keep your wits about you next time. And by the way, don’t waste ammo. We are short as it is. We’ve all done it, but you must learn quickly to live another day. Only fire for a few seconds when you actually have something in front of you to shoot at!”
He started to walk away, but stopped and turned. “When was the last time you ate a hot meal?”
He called an air crewman over and said “Take pilot officer Finnegan to the Officers mess and tell cookie to feed him, and then show him where his quarters are.” He turned to me. “You can do your debrief in an hour.”
Later that day I was called to Rowan’s office.
“Follow me Tom and read that.” He took me into the briefing room and pointed to a notice on the wall.
It was ten rules to follow in combat issued to pilots by 81 Group Tactics. In their haste to post me to this fighter unit, someone must have forgotten to give me my copy.
1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of 1 to 2 seconds only when your sights are definitely ‘ON’.
2. Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body, have both hands on the stick, and concentrate on your ring sight.
3. Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out.”
4. Height gives you the initiative.
5. Always turn and face the attack.
6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
7. Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.
8. When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as top guard.
9. Initiative, aggression, air discipline and teamwork are words that MEAN something in air fighting.
10. Go in quickly – punch hard – get out!
The Luftwaffe left us alone for the rest of the day so we were all stood down. This did not mean the whole camp, for the air technician’s were busy under the large camoflaged tents they had erected, fixing damaged planes and servicing engines and machine guns.
At 1900hrs a RAF Police jeep stopped outside the ops hut and a German officer was marched at gun point into the C.O.’s adjourning office.
Squadron Leader Rowans was called and entered the room to confront the Luftwaffe pilot, who spoke very good English. He clicked his heels together and stopped short of giving the Nazi salute as he said “My name is Hauptmann Albert Shmidt. I am pleased to meet you!”
He was dressed in a one piece flying suit made of thick black leather with a thermal lining, and wearing wool lined boots. Hatless, his straw blonde hair stood out in contrast to his ruddy red features.
Rowans looked at him, taking his time before speaking.
“Well Albert, you shouldn’t be so pleased to see me, but think yourself lucky you are still alive! Look at the bloody mess you and your pals have made outside!!”
He pointed to the bomb craters, and the still smouldering hanger.
The German drew himself up rigidly to attention and said “I am not personally responsible for the bombing of your airfield Squadron Leader, for like yourself, I am a fighter pilot. I am only carrying out my orders as you are!”
Rowans kept his cool. He was far too experienced to get drawn into an argument with a member of Hitler’s so called master race. He looked at the RAF Policemen and grinned. “We’ve got a live one here, lads! “
After taking his time to light a cigarette Rowans asked “Are you the pilot I shot down over the corn fields?”
The German looked at him and smiled “I think I must be, and I congratulate you on your fine flying. Now what do you do with me?”
Charlie did not return the smile.
“You are now a prisoner of war and will be treated as such. We treat our prisoners with more respect than your lot do, and you will be fed and looked after with proper medical facilities if you need them.
And until my superiors decide what to do with you, I will keep you under guard here in this camp. Perhaps you will be lucky to still be with us when your colleagues in the Luftwaffe next pay us a visit! Now take this bugger away and lock him up!” Charlie shouted to the RAF Police guards.
The story was the topic of the evening in the Officers Mess as we downed a few pints of beer. Fred Gordon, a pilot from Glasgow, was standing next to me relating the story he had got from the WAAF wireless operator who was on duty in the C.O.’s office when the German pilot was brought in.
“Charlie hates the krauts! He spent a year in Berlin before the war as a student, and speaks the lingo well. He saw what Hitler was up to, and predicted he would start something big. Boy, he was not wrong! Want another one?” he pointed at my empty glass.
“No thanks, Fred. I am off to bed for I’ve not slept properly in three days.”
I left the little band of new friends I had made, enjoying themselves singing around the piano as the Padre pounded away at the keys with his pipe belching smoke into the air.
The following morning there was a hive of activity as a convoy of trucks entered the airfield with much needed supplies and personnel. Because the hangers were now useless, the stores where covered over with camouflage netting, the only thing they could use in an emergency. Gangs of airmen were already filling in the bomb craters and repairing the little runway.
It did not matter so much about the strip, for the aircraft were quite capable of taking off and landing on the grass. The weather was good, and there had been no rain for a couple of weeks.
For some reason unknown to us the Luftwaffe did not pay us a visit for 14 hours; a valuable respite that allowed repairs to be completed and several replacement mark 1 Spitfires to arrive, along with a bonus of six brand new Hurricans.
Our problem was a lack of experienced pilots. Charlie Rowans was on the phone daily to HQ asking for pilots, and always got the same answer; ‘you will get them when we have them’.
The next time the Luftwaffe paid us a visit we were up and ready for them, for Dover radar had alerted us via fighter command, and we swooped down on fifty or so Stuka bombers that were heading straight for our base.
I had not wasted my time in the few days previously for Rowans took me up and spent an hour or two teaching me some remarkable aerial manoeuvres; showing me how to break away and dive, spin, climb back up without stalling the engine, and also recalibrated my machine guns to be more effective at close range.
There were five hurricans and five spitfires in our flight and Rowans led the attack into the Stukas, warning us to keep a sharp lookout for 109’s coming in from above us.
The Stuka was slower than either the Spitfire or the Hurricane, and we destroyed several before someone shouted over the intercom ‘Bandits at 11 o’clock!”
Leaving the Hurricans to deal with the Stukas we climbed up to 17,500 feet and took on the 109’s. It was a dogfight that I will never forget. We weaved and turned as we chased each other, and I managed to bring smoke from a 109’s wing, and he peeled off to the right in a steep dive.
I saw another 109 coming in behind me and remembering what Charlie had taught me, I pushed the control stick forward gently and went into a graceful dive turning as I did so, with the 109 hard on my tail. I could see his canon tracer passing my cockpit glass as I swerved and dodged out of his way and he went shooting past, giving me the opportunity to get right in behind him.
Getting him firmly in my sights, I pressed the firing button and watched my machine guns rip off his tail, and his sudden loss of control sent him into a spiralling dive. I followed him down to around 5,000 feet and pulled up again when I saw him crash into the English Channel. It was my first kill and I felt sick to my stomach.
“Well done, Tom. First blood laddie!” It was Fred Gordon.
“Shut up you Haggis scoffing Jock, and keep your eyes on what you’re doing!”
Rowans was right of course, for we were supposed to keep silent in the air unless in an emergency.
Finally it was all over when the enemy turned to return home, no doubt having reached the time limit for their remaining fuel.
In the mess that night I was drowned in beer literally, for they were pouring it over my head!
“One definite kill for the yank and a third of a kill for the ditched kite. Sorry Tom old boy, but two others also made a claim on that one with you.”
I didn’t care really, for I was still feeling bad about killing another human being.
Charlie came over and said “Don’t feel sorry for the buggers, Tom. They will do the same to you without blinking an eyelid. Be happy you came home in one piece to fight another day!”
He plonked a large whisky in front of me and said with a big smile on his face “Drink up lad, for this will put hairs on your chest.”
It was now the third week of August and the fighting became more intensive on a daily basis. Sometimes we went up four, even five times to join up with other squadrons to make up a so called ‘big wing’.
The trouble with this routine was that it took so long to get all the aircraft into one place together, that by the time it was established the enemy had finished their bomb drop on the targets they had been sent to destroy, and were long gone when we were dispatched to the area Fighter Command had sent us to.
But somehow we started to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, and although we took far too many losses we did a considerable amount of damage to the moral of the Luftwaffe bomber crews, for many them were highly trained men and irreplaceable.
By the middle of September the Luftwaffe were sending even larger numbers of bombers over the Channel and the 109 escorts had increased. It must have been quite a sight for anyone on the ground to watch the silent dog fights in the skies above, for the vapour trails were the only thing that indicated the life and death struggle that was being played out.
The Luftwaffe then decided that if they sent in their bombers over the North Sea there would be no resistance from the RAF, for they believed (wrongly) that all the RAF fighter planes where based only in the South of England.
When their bombers were surprised by a large group of Spitfires and Hurricans there was carnage when many of them where shot down and destroyed.
By October, the raids on the air fields had began to peter off. The reason, we did not know at that time, was because on a night bombing raid over the river Thames docks, the Luftwaffe bombers had got lost, and decided to drop their bombs and just return to base.
Unfortunately they fell on the city of London, and Hitler was outraged when the British bombers returned the compliment by bombing Berlin.
So the Luftwaffe was told to bomb London and other cities, ignoring the airfields. This was catastrophic for the civilian population as many thousands were killed, but it did give the RAF a chance to rebuild and increase their strength and organize a far better Air Force.
I remained with the RAF until the Americans entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and transferred to the US Air force to see out my service days flying Mustang Fighters.
I flew in many different types of aircraft in both services, and also went up in a 109 after the war and found it to be a very capable aircraft.
But out of all of them, for agility and sheer aerodynamics and beauty, my favourite plane was the Mark 1 Spitfire.
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