The first I knew of danger was a sound like that of a handful of rocks being thrown against the metal skin of my Spitfire.
“Holy crap! I shouted into the mike. Jimmy break, break!” My call went unanswered and unheard. I broke hard right as one of the attackers zoomed past me turning right as well. His second mistake, he overshot my plane allowing me to turn on to his tail. His first mistake was not killing me on his initial pass.
Turning to the point of nearly blacking out I managed to saddle up on the bugger who had shot at me as he too pulled hard trying to come around for another pass. Just a little more lead now... one short burst from two hundred yards and I saw hits on the engine cowling and all around the cockpit. Black smoke belched from the engine as the 109 rolled over and headed for earth. I followed him down making sure he was out of the fight. I never saw a parachute as the enemy plane began to break apart. Pulling out of my dive I scanned for another target.
The skies were clear of any visible bandits but I kept my head on a swivel, looking for that telltale glint of sunlight from a wing or canopy. Below me was the long black trail of smoke and debris leading straight to the ground from the yellow-nosed bastard I had just shot down. With my radio out and separated from my wingman during the skirmish with the German fighters, I was alone and low. No place to be during air combat, especially when you're out numbered. Breaking west for base I proceeded to climb for height advantage in the event more 109's were around. I leveled off at 23,000 feet, trimmed the craft and checked systems. My Spitfire was humming along nicely with no apparent damage from the few hits I took when we were assailed by Gerry, except for the hit to the radio.
The French country side crawled beneath me as I flew a zig zag route watching behind and all around for my flight or anyone that could jump me. Getting back to base alive was now my only concern. Without a radio, a wingman or cover from the rest of the flight, I was a sitting duck for any gang of enemy planes that might happen along.
“What the hell happened back there anyway? I thought. How did we get jumped without seeing them? They must have come out of the sun.” was the only thing I could think of.
As I approached the coast at Dieppe, I saw two Messerschmitts moving left to right 2000 feet below. Probably low on fuel and headed back to Abbeville. Without thought, the warrior inside me took over. Time for payback! I pushed the nose over and angled in behind them. It was clear they had not seen me because they took no evasive action. I kept looking around for their friends as I maneuvered in behind the trailing plane. When I got within two hundred yards I opened fire. Parts of one wing came off sending the plane into a wingover, spiraling down, out of control. The other plane had no idea his wingman was gone. I was closing fast now as I lined up for another quick shot at the lone 109. He must have sensed something was wrong because just as I cut loose a burst he broke to the right and climbed. I noted that a few rounds must have hit him as a thin trail of white vapor issued from the engine. I broke slightly left and climbed, knowing I had more energy than he did I turned my canopy to him and watched as his oil and mud streaked belly slid below and to the right. Now it was only a matter of maintaining my energy and gaining the angle I needed. I firewalled the throttle and increased my separation from him as his plane reached stall. When I saw that he was turning over into his dive I did the same. The Spit was flying remarkably as I again rolled into his 8 o'clock. He didn't stand a chance. My guns came to life less than a hundred yards away and sawed off his tail structure. The plane flipped end over end, spewing parts and then pancaked into a flat spin. His canopy came off and I saw the pilot clear the aircraft and fall towards earth.
Once again I turned for home, knowing I had enough fuel, I ran the engine up to put on more speed and altitude. I had to get the hell out of France. My thoughts turned to my mates and hoped they had fared as well as I had. The squadron had been losing too many good men lately. One loss was too many, in my opinion, considering the shortage of experienced pilots. Though we had been training daily and learning from the more experienced pilots, every day was a new set of problems to solve. Just like today, being jumped by the unseen enemy could have been disaster. The sun, clouds, blind spots they were always there and you had to deal effectively with them or die. There was going to be a lot of ass-chewing at the debriefing later today, of that you could be sure.
I cleared the French coast and continued across the channel to Biggin Hill, thankfully without incident. Three kills added to my credit. With one last month and one last week, that made me an “Ace”. I was lucky today and I would rather be lucky than good, as long as my luck holds out.
James “Jimmie” Randall my wingman, made it back and so did the rest of our flight. The Germans didn't do so well. Three were shot down in our first encounter, the last escaped with his life back to the Fatherland. I got two more on my lone flight back. They were obviously not seasoned pilots and paid the ultimate price. Tomorrow we'll go up again and if our luck holds more of Hitler’s Luftwaffe will not return to burden us.
Like wads of cotton balls thrown randomly into the sky, puffy white clouds hovered over the landscape six thousand feet below. Here at ten thousand feet the sky was clear, deep blue and the visibility unlimited, the kind of day pilots live for. It had been four days since our last contact with the enemy and we were spoiling for another fight. I was well aware that any fight could turn bad in seconds and one or more of us might not make it back, but we tried not to think too much about that. Fighter pilots had to feel invincible. We literally dodged the bullet in our last engagement. Those Germans had to have been novice pilots otherwise we would have suffered casualties. The only thing they did right was to attack us with the advantage of surprise. The debriefing was hell even though we brought down three of the enemy we had let ourselves be jumped and it was just dumb luck we escaped without much damage.
“I don't have to tell you how lucky you boys are but I will not have this happen again. You will fly training flights for the next week as well as you regular patrols. Being able to fly in close formation is important but when you're in a fucking combat zone, keeping your heads out of your ass and in the sky looking for Gerry is paramount.” The veins in Commander Wilson's head were about to explode as he addressed us during the debriefing.
“What were you thinking, Lieutenant? He spit the words at Lieutenant Darby. You were leading this flight and you have to know better. I am relieving you of flight leader status and putting Flight Officer Scott in your place for the time being.”
“Yes sir.” was all that Darby could manage, his steel blue eyes beginning to tear up. We expect so much from a twenty year old kid.
I recoiled from surprise, not expecting to be promoted to Flight Leader on such short notice even if temporarily. I shot a quick look at Darby as if to say, “Sorry brother, I had no idea.” I knew this was going to hurt him because he was so proud to be put in the lead, he had written his parents to tell them and had even bought rounds at the Officer's Club.
The last two days we had practiced watching each others tails until it became second nature to scan every inch of sky, turning frequent zig zag patterns to keep an eye out behind us and all around. We vowed to each other that we would not be caught with our pants down again.
“Red leader, red leader, this is Big Brother, contacts bearing, your 090, twenty miles.”
“Roger Big Brother, I copy, turning to zero nine zero, Red leader out. Ok boys, you heard the man, tighten up and follow me.”
We made a slow climbing turn to the east and headed out over the channel, the white cliffs of Dover dropping away behind us.
“You may arm and test your guns.” I told the flight. I flipped on my master arm switch and squeezed off a short burst from my 303's and 20 mm's. Others around me did the same their tracers arcing out ahead of us. We climbed steadily until we were at twenty thousand and leveled out to pick up cruising speed.
“Red leader, your contacts now three miles, your 12 o'clock. You should have visual any time. Looks like eighteen to twenty bombers.” the ground radar guys were tracking everything in the air and we were damn glad to have the service. I listened as they vectored in several other flights. We would be first to make contact.
“Thank you Big Brother we've got it from here.”
Darby was flying my wing and he saw them first.
“Tally Ho! Flight leader, I see them at one o'clock.”
“Copy Darby, turning now.” Another easy climbing turn brought them on our nose and a little below. The enemy planes were specks of pepper in the blue sky as our flight bore in. “Why no fighter cover.” I thought.
“Keep your eyes peeled for fighters, they must be here somewhere.” I said. Alright boys, lets get them, go to combat spread and make the first pass a high side attack. Mind your ammo.”
We came in fast and blew through the front formation of bombers with guns blazing. Their return fire flashed past us like angry fireflies. I saw one engine explode and fall from the wing of the Heinkel that Darby and I targeted sending the bomber into a slow roll towards the channel. We climbed away and rolled over for another pass. This time we targeted the last of the formation. I lined up my sight and held my fire until I knew I would have hits. Thumbing the big button my guns lit up the rear of the bomber pieces of tail plane and rudder coming off and flipping through the air like leaves on the wind. I broke low and left as I watched Darby's shots pepper the fuselage and cockpit area. Darby's plane kept boring in much too close as he flew low beneath the stricken German. I watched as the bomber slowly turned over and headed for the sea far below.
“Darby! Great shot!... Do you copy, Darby?” No answer as his Spit continued its unaltered course toward the sea.
“Oh no! I think Darby's hit.” I called out. No time now for emotion as I turned back again towards the bombers. I maneuvered into another high side attack and shredded the cockpit with a long burst. The Heinkel spiraled to the channel below, only one parachute blossomed. I didn't see Darby's plane hit the sea and I was hoping that he had turned for home.
Calling to the rest of the flight I ordered them to form up. Jimmie and Sean McRae closed on my wing and we headed back for base low on ammo. Three bombers downed and two more RAF flights headed in our direction to take out what was left.
It was a quiet ride back to base, hoping against hope that my wingman had escaped without our seeing him and was, at this moment, landing his fighter. I pulled the goggles and oxygen mask from my face and wiped the sweat from my eyes. The smell of aviation fuel and hot oil filled my senses. The radio was alive with chatter, the fighters had shown up and there was a good fight going on but we were too low on fuel and ammo to help.
We returned to base and learned that Darby was still missing. No one had seen him go in so he was listed as missing at least for a day or two. I feared the reality was that I had lost my wingman and his parents would never have to know that he had been pulled from Flight Leader status. I wrote my report with a heavy heart knowing that I would most likely never see my wingman and friend again. I made sure that he received credit for one of the kills we scored today. Little consolation for his loss.
Now it would be my turn to face the Commander's wrath. “What could we have done differently? When your numbers up and that golden BB finds you there is nothing more.” My mind was in anguish but I knew I had to pull out of it and move forward. In war people die and I had a flight to lead.