Yank in a Spitfire
by A FIGHTER PILOT
FOUR-THIRTY A.M., still dark outside, and the young Maltese batman shakes you persistently by the shoulders: “Four-thirty, sir. You’re on this morning, sir!”
So you struggle out of the mists of sleep and heave yourself out of bed and bump around in the dark room, finding your gloves and flying boots and pulling on your battle dress by feel and instinct. You grope your way down the high-ceilinged old hall to the bathroom, splash cold water over your face, and make a stab at brushing your teeth; no shave — it’s too dark and the water’s too damn cold, and besides it’s too much trouble.
Warily down the darkened stairs and out through the little court and onto the narrow street, with the stars and sky brilliant and black above you. Your boots beat out a clattering echo on the stone pavement as you find your way to the mess and pass the sleepy blue-clad corporal beyond the door.
In the dining hall there is little conversation and less breakfast: a chunk of brown bread, tea with canned milk, maybe a minute splotch of marmalade, and the ever present slice of cold bully-beef and stewed tomatoes.
Then out to the truck, a real museum piece that richly deserves retirement, and down the narrow winding road to the ‘drome. The car bumps along in a clinging cloud of dust past the dim forms of Spits and Beaus in their stone pens, past bomb craters and grotesque wreckage of blitzed aircraft. You stop at 306’s dispersal point. The air is heavy with the murmur of early morning chatter. Pilots for 306 jump off heavily and the truck creeps on to your own hut at the other end of the field.
Off the truck, sore from bumps and almost awake now in the first gray of dawn, and into the dim room. You check your aircraft and pen number as Watty puts them on the board, leaning close to read clearly in the dim light: Allen — Leopard Red 2, Spitfire LT, pen 32. “Good show!” you think complacently. “32 pen — near-by and not so far to run when we scramble.” Collect your chute, pull on your yellow Mae West, find your helmet, and turn to the telephone orderly: —
“What’s the state?”
“Second off till seven, first from seven till nine, then fifteen minutes until one, sir.”
“First: seven till nine — hmmm, should catch something there.”
So out to your pen, fully awake now, a murmured greeting to your crew, and you clamber cautiously onto the wing, slick and shining with dew. Heave your chute into the seat and drop in after it, adjust the rudder pedals to your liking, and begin the check routine. Oxygen on at the back and over three-fourths full, plug in the r/t and connect the oxygen tube, test the radio on all bands: O.K. You lift your head out of the cockpit and thumb the erks to the tail.
“Run ‘er up in the pen, sir?”
You loosen your throttle and prime her a couple of times; she’s cold in the morning. Glance up in the mirror to see the crew huddled round the tail, holding her down. Crack the throttle, press the starter buttons, and flick the switches on and she turns over willingly, catches in a throaty purr. Ease the throttle open and watch the instruments intently: 2900 revs wide open, mag drop O.K. on both — good enough. Throttle back, tug the cutout, and switch off. Set your sights for an ME 109, wing span of thirty feet at two hundred and fifty yards range. Loosen your harness, hang your r/t and oxygen line on the right, clear of the controls; drape your chute straps and dinghy tape properly; set your seat full high and lock the brakes. Windscreen clean? O.K. So you climb out hoping to hell you haven’t forgotten anything, and stand on the wing for a last look to make sure. Gas on? Good! Get off and stand to talk to your crew for a bit, light a cigarette, and stroll slowly back to dispersal.
Pick a chair and drop into it to doze, draping your scarf over your face and hands to keep off the flies. The phone rings and you stiffen under the scarf to listen intently.
You relax and sink back into the chair.
TEN minutes to seven and you go out and taxi your kite onto the line. Four Spits, lean and battlescarred in the bright morning sunlight, bumping over the rough ground and into position. You ease her through the dust and into your place next to NT, Watty’s kite, switch off, and amble back to the stone hut.
Better not try to sleep now, the Squadron’s first off. That damn phone rings again and our talk fades as we listen. The telephone orderly screams for “Corporal White” and Parky growls touchily.
“For God’s sake —”
You react and hear yourself shouting, “Don’t yell!”
You settle down again and find a book and read a little — a chapter or two and a sigh: Lord, what a stupid book! Pull out. your precious store of tobacco:—
“Cigarettes, anyone? Watty?”
You light up and look at the book again: Damn this senseless drivel! What I’d like now is a good strong cup of coffee with bags of sugar. Ah, well!
Brrrriinnnggg! The phone again, and again the sudden sound of silence hits your ears as you hear the orderly’s calm voice: “Scramble one section!”
You hurl out of the door and lope toward your kite, pulling on two pairs of silk gloves as you go and thinking, “Thank God!” This is it again, and again you get that queasy feeling deep down in your stomach, but better than sitting back there waiting.
You leap into the cockpit, gasping for breath now after the run, and try to move your fingers coolly and surely: dinghy tape first, click in your chute straps, strap on the helmet, and clip the oxygen mask tight. Grab the harness from your crew standing anxiously on the wings to help you, jab in the harness locking pin and wave off the erks as you pull on your big leal her gloves and do up the zippers.
Press the buttons, switches on, brakes off and switch on the sight; you’re mildly surprised as the little orange ring and bars come magically into being in front of you. Lean over and switch on the radio identification device, push the r/t button — and you sit there for those few seconds that seem so long, goggled and helmeted, hands heavy with gloves, mask strapped and cutting into the bridge of your nose.
Then Watty’s arm sweeps forward and you open her up and bounce down the little dusty field, the four of you leaving a tower of brown dust behind you. A bounce or two and you’re in the air.
Lock up the wheels, your eyes on the leader to the left, case back the throttle, and squirm down into your seat and listen to the crackle of the radio in your ears — Watty’s voice, queer and remote.
“Leopard Red air-borne, Baker.”
“Baker here. O.K., Watty, gain angels quickly toward O for orange; there’s a small party coming in.”
Put your wing down to turn, slide under your number one and watch the dirty oil-streaked belly of his Spit pass over you. Then up again and pull into position, back on the throttle a bit. Check the oxygen again, the sweetish smell of the stuff in your mouth and nostrils. Six thou on the altimeter now and Watty’s wing goes down again and you slip under him and over.
LOVELY morning! That dusty little rock beneath you a chunk of orange stuck in the dark green of the Mediterranean. You shake yourself and begin to look around the sky, push your goggles up for better visibility, and begin the old routine: peer back over your shoulder to port, one eye closed and gloved hand over the other to shade the sun — not hing there. Stare ahead — nothing. Above into the blue arching over you — nothing. Now a quick glance at the formation and an automatic pressure on the controls to correct your position, and a look behind and to starboard — nothing there but the deep blue of the empty sky. A glance into the mirror — nothing behind you. Open the oxygen line a bit more; you’re at twelve thou and the cold is creeping in through the open hood and whipping round you. Then that sudden crackle again in your earphones: —
“Hello, Watty. Baker here. What are your angels? ”
“A for apple, Baker.”
“Vector N for nuts, Leopard Red. The party’s made up of little jobs about twenty miles north of St. Paul’s Bay, coming due south.”
Turn again, climbing steeply now, nearly flat out. Keep up, boy, keep in formation, keep your eyes peeled — there’s a war on here. . . . They’re coming in now. See ‘em before they sec you. Glove over your eye and squint at the sun — nothing. Twentyfive thou now and still climbing.
“What angels are these jobs, Baker?”
“Baker answering, Leopard Red. About twentyeight thou, I think, about twenty-eight thou.”
You look above to the north, hunting for specks, slim gray 109’s . . . men very much like you sitting up there somewhere . . . looking down searching for a line of four Spitfires. . . .
A new voice now with the twang of Australia strong in your ears: —
“Hello, Watty, aircraft three o’clock above!”
You jerk your head around right and stare hard, weaving a bit now by instinct; and there, a bit above your level, dark points against the blue, boring in towards you with the sharp flash of the sun on their wings as they turn — you watch them and wait.
“Hello, Baker, how many little jobs are there?”
“About nine plus, Watty, nine plus.”
Keep your eyes on those jobs overhead, boy, and watch behind. Keep your eyes open, boy. Don’t let ‘em bounce you! And there, behind and above, four more dots in the sky, hanging there.
“Hello, Watty, more 109’s, six o’clock and above!”
“O.K., Smoky, I see them. Turning right, Leopard Red.”
His wing goes down in the turn and you heel over and under and pop up on the other side again. . . . Keep up now, boy, this is no time to lag. Get ‘er flat out, full revs.
“Hello, Leopard Red, they’re coming down!”
A little behind us and off to starboard now, streaking down at you, growing larger till you can make out the wings and hump of the hood on top of the fuselage.
“Break right, Leopard Red!”
You smack the stick over hard and boot the rudder and your kite whips round, juddering beneath you to the sudden impact of the controls. Now, somehow, you’re detached and cold. Now that it’s begun, you don’t worry, because you simply don’t have time to worry. Just before, your mouth was dry and you were afraid; afterwards you’ll remember and be afraid again, but not now.
A 109, lean and sleek, flashes by over you, long yellow nose vivid against the sky, outline of his wings and he’s gone. You weave and twist — a Spit curves by, leaving a creamy trail of glycol smoke behind it, and a 109, wings dark before you, arcs after the Spit. You reverse a turn violently just in time to see a long line of pale-brown puffs appear over your port wing, 15 mm. explosive cannon from some blond-headed boy behind you. You see him shoot past and zoom away into the sun. No hope to get him, boy — he’s gone!
Then back above and behind on the right you see an ME coming down on you: two thousand yards now and you go into a gentle turn to port. Suck this lad down, boy, suck him in! Watch him over your shoulder. He’s about a thousand yards now — nearly in range now, boy. Better turn. Turn into him sharply, watch him pull up and zoom over you, back on the stick now. You’ve got him cold — big rounded yellow spinner and airscrew churning over lazily, blue-gray of his wings, clear black outline of his crosses, streaking past your windscreen and toward the orange circle of your sight. Now!
Your thumb clamps hard to fire and you see your tracer converge ahead, little white flashes of your cannon strikes on his belly and wing roots, hold deflection with left rudder, and hang there on your prop watching your cannon go into his belly with a savage pulse of pleasure. . . . And now, airspeed gone, you flick over in a spin, still following the 109 with your eyes, watch him pull up and roll over and down, a dark streak down to the sea, the white splash as he goes in far below you.
You look around and the sky is miraculously clear where only a few seconds ago a milling mass of fighters swirled around you; now just the sky above and the sea below and the orange of the island off your nose to the left. Roll over and down and head for base, weaving, watching behind you for a stray Hun and listening to the chatter over the r/t.
“Leopard Red 2 here, Baker, anything around? Over . . .”
“Hello. Leopard Red 2, Baker answering. All the little jobs have gone home now. O.K. to pancake.”
You dive down to the ‘drome, still weaving, realizing now that you’re tired, that you want to land and smoke that cigarette. You slow her up and enter the circuit, content to see the field below you and feel the companionship of the other Spits going in to land.