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During that August‒September period we were always so outnumbered . . .

An extract from The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary

During that August‒September period we were always so outnumbered that it was practically impossible, unless we were lucky enough to have the advantage of height, to deliver more than one squadron attack. After a few seconds we always broke up, and the sky was a smoke trail of individual dogfights. The result was that the squadron would come home individually, machines landing one after the other at intervals of about two minutes. After an hour, Uncle George would make a check-up on who was missing. Often there would be a telephone-call from some pilot to say that he had made a forced landing at some other aerodrome or in a field. But the telephone wasn’t always so welcome. It could be a rescue squad announcing the number of a crashed machine; then Uncle George would check it and cross another name off the list. At that time, the losing of pilots was somehow extremely impersonal; nobody, I think, felt any great emotion – there simply wasn’t time for it.

After the hard lesson of the first two days, we became more canny and determined not to let ourselves be caught from above. We would fly on the reciprocal of the course given us by the controller until we got to 15,000 feet, and then fly back again, climbing all the time. By this means we usually saw the Huns coming in below us and were in a perfect position to deliver a squadron attack. If caught at a disadvantage, they would never stay to fight, but always turned straight back for the Channel. We arranged a system whereby two pilots always flew together – thus if one should follow a plane down the other stayed 500 feet or so above, to protect him from attack in the rear.

Often machines would come back to their base just long enough for the ground staff, who worked with beautiful speed, to refuel them and put in a new oxygen bottle and more ammunition before taking off again. Uncle George was shot down several times but always turned up unhurt; once we thought Rusty was gone for good, but he was back leading his flight the next day; one sergeant pilot in ‘A’ Flight was shot down four times, but he seemed to bear a charmed life.

The sun and the great height at which we flew often made it extremely difficult to pick out the enemy machines, but it was here that Sheep’s experience on the moors of Scotland proved invaluable. He always led the guard section and always saw the Huns long before anyone else. For me the sun presented a major problem. We had dark lenses on our glasses, but I, as I have mentioned before, never wore mine. They gave me a feeling of claustrophobia. With spots on the windscreen, spots before the eyes and a couple of spots which might be Messerschmitts, blind spots on my goggles seemed too much of a good thing; I always slipped them up on to my forehead before going into action. For this and for not wearing gloves I paid a stiff price.

I remember once going practically to France before shooting down a 109. There were two of them, flying at sea-level and headed for the French coast. Raspberry was flying beside me and caught one halfway across. I got right up close behind the second one and gave it a series of short bursts. It darted about in front, like a startled rabbit, and finally plunged into the sea about three miles off the French coast.

On another occasion I was stupid enough actually to fly over France: the sky appeared to be perfectly clear but for one returning Messerschmitt, flying very high. I had been trying to catch him for about ten minutes and was determined that he should not get away. Eventually I caught him inland from Calais and was just about to open fire when I saw a squadron of twelve Messerschmitts coming in on my right. I was extremely frightened, but turned in towards them and opened fire at the leader. I could see his tracer going past underneath me, and then I saw his hood fly off, and the next moment they were past. I didn’t wait to see any more, but made off for home, pursued for half the distance by eleven very determined Germans. I landed a good hour after everyone else to find Uncle George just finishing his check-up.

From this flight Larry Cunningham did not return. After about a week of Hornchurch, I woke late one morning to the noise of machines running up on the aerodrome. It irritated me: I had a headache.

Having been on every flight the previous day, the morning was mine to do with as I pleased. I got up slowly, gazed dispassionately at my tongue in the mirror, and wandered over to the Mess for breakfast. It must have been getting on for twelve o’clock when I came out on to the aerodrome to find the usual August heat haze forming a dull pall over everything. I started to walk across the aerodrome to the dispersal point on the far side. There were only two machines on the ground so I concluded that the squadron was already up. Then I heard a shout, and our ground crew drew up in a lorry beside me. Sergeant Ross leaned out: ‘Want a lift, sir? We’re going round.’

‘No, thanks, Sergeant. I’m going to cut across.’

This was forbidden for obvious reasons, but I felt like it. ‘Ok, sir. See you round there.’

The lorry trundled off down the road in a cloud of dust. I walked on across the landing ground. At that moment I heard the emotionless voice of the controller.

‘Large enemy bombing formation approaching Hornchurch. All personnel not engaged in active duty take cover immediately.’

I looked up. They were still not visible. At the dispersal point I saw Bubble and Pip Cardell make a dash for the shelter. Three Spitfires just landed turned about and came past me with a roar to take off down-wind. Our lorry was still trundling along the road, maybe halfway round, and seemed suddenly an awfully long way from the dispersal point.

I looked up again, and this time I saw them – about a dozen slugs, shining in the bright sun and coming straight on. At the rising scream of the first bomb I instinctively shrugged up my shoulders and ducked my head. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the three Spitfires. One moment they were about twenty feet up in close formation; the next catapulted apart as though on elastic. The leader went over on his back and ploughed along the runway with a rending crash of tearing fabric; No. 2 put a wing in and spun round on his airscrew, while the plane on the left was blasted wingless into the next field. I remember thinking stupidly, ‘That’s the shortest flight he’s ever taken,’ and then my feet were nearly knocked from under me, my mouth was full of dirt, and Bubble, gesticulating like a madman from the shelter entrance, was yelling, ‘Run, you bloody fool, run!’ I ran. Suddenly awakened to the lunacy of my behaviour, I covered the distance to that shelter as if impelled by a rocket and shot through the entrance while once again the ground rose up and hit me, and my head smashed hard against one of the pillars. I subsided on a heap of rubble and massaged it. ‘Who’s here?’ I asked, peering through the gloom. ‘Cardell and I and three of our ground crew,’ said Bubble, ‘and, by the Grace of God, you!’

I could see by his mouth that he was still talking, but a sudden concentration of the scream and crump of falling bombs made it quite impossible to hear him.

The air was thick with dust and the shelter shook and heaved at each explosion, yet somehow held firm. For about three minutes the bedlam continued, and then suddenly ceased. In the utter silence which followed nobody moved. None of us wished to be the first to look on the devastation which we felt must be outside. Then Bubble spoke. ‘Praise God!’ he said, ‘I’m not a civilian. Of all the bloody frightening things I’ve ever done, sitting in that shelter was the worst. Me for the air from now on!’

It broke the tension and we scrambled out of the entrance. The runways were certainly in something of a mess. Gaping holes and great gobbets of earth were everywhere. Right in front of us a bomb had landed by my Spitfire, covering it with a shower of grit and rubble.

I turned to the aircraftsman standing beside me. ‘Will you get hold of Sergeant Ross and tell him to have a crew give her an inspection?’

He jerked his head towards one corner of the aerodrome: ‘I think I’d better collect the crew myself, sir. Sergeant Ross won’t be doing any more inspections.’

I followed his glance and saw the lorry, the roof about twenty yards away, lying grotesquely on its side. I climbed into the cockpit, and, feeling faintly sick, tested out the switches. Bubble poked his head over the side.

‘Let’s go over to the Mess and see what’s up: all our machines will be landing down at the reserve landing field, anyway.’

I climbed out and walked over to find that the three Spitfire pilots were quite unharmed but for a few superficial scratches in spite of being machine-gunned by the bombers. ‘Operations’ was undamaged: no hangar had been touched and the Officers’ Mess had two windows broken.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Edition No. 39: The Last Enemy, ‘The Invaders’ © Richard Hillary 1942

During that August‒September period we were always so outnumbered . . .

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