Library Reference Number: 003
A Tale Of Two Spitfires
Having qualified as a Spitfire pilot, and considered suitable for PR duties, my first operation was hardly the stuff of legend.
All those others in similar circumstances, will remember that much of your time was spent in mindless boredom. My first op with No.683 Squadron was my chance to make an impact. This may have turned out to be slightly more thana figure of speech, as I had not properly connected my oxygen supply, and which eventually came adrift in flight.
The strange thing about oxygen starvation (as we had been instructed) was that I did not recognise it, and continued trying desperately to complete the mission. Eventually realising that I could not do so, I had to return to base. I felt in disgrace. Slow recovery and semi- conscious in the clouds, and picturing the freezing Adriatic down below, I put rather more G on the old girl than I should have, with the result that her wings were somewhat corrugated. Badshow!! See "SPITFIRE the History" (Morgan & Shacklady) page 402. Say - No record of her disposal! There was little of the earlier activity from the Germans at this time (January 1945), but the weather made up for that. Winter 1944/45 was a cruel one on the population of Italy, and it did no favours for us either. The Foggia plain was home to many aircraft and returning in a blizzard to your own snow-bound runway was no picnic, which leads me into my second Spitfire Tale . . . . .
August 1st '45 was an average sort of day which belied the fact that I was about to be bombarded by hailstones at a very high altitude. Taking off from San Severo, I soon ran into cloud over Ancona. Pre-flight Met Reports had not given any real hint of foul weather. I decided to climb over the cloud but it was still there at 33,000 ft and since it was quite thin and light, I descended and continued to fly through it. I felt quite a bit of turbulence as I came down, and suddenly it became very dark. There was a thunderous crash as loud as a cannon shot with lots of gravel in it. The din was terrific and the turbulence was indescribable. The wings fluttered fiercely and the changes from positive to negative G and vice-versa were sudden and most violent. I realised I was being subjected to a bombardment of hailstones of enormous size. The whole picture was lit up by vivid flashes of lightning. Had I not been well strapped in, I'm certain I would have been severely injured by the sharp, erratic, violent movements of the aircraft.
I could not keep my feet on the rudder pedals and the stick was quivering and quite rigid. I reasoned (if you could call it that) during those hectic seconds, that any attempt to turn the aircraft in those conditions might well damage the control surfaces and make matters much worse, so I held tight and waited. Then the canopy came adrift and slammed back with a final blast of noise and it was over. The whole thing took two or three minutes.
I knew my kite had taken quite a beating so I called base and put them in the picture then called for a Q.D.M. and returned to base very, VERY gently. My plane and I attracted quite a crowd at dispersal. PA858 would no longer be considered a very good paint job, but the new aerofoil section of the wings was somewhat different. PA858 looked like the toes of my son's first pair of school shoes! This was hardly surprising, but the main attention was centred around the pros and cons of whether the plane could have flown at all!
There are two ways of constructing a paper aeroplane. One is to fold the paper into a streamlined dart to glide unaided through the air; the other way is to is to scrunch the paper into a ball and chuck it. The leading edges of the wings were no longer those famous shapely sections, but had become hammered back to a square face of some six or seven inches. The same applied to the fin, and to a lesser extent the tail planes. The spinner also attracted much attention. It had been so hammered into the constant speed unit, that all the details of the gears looked as if "shrink wrapped." The cooling fins in all radiators were flattened but I don't recall any rise in temperature on the way back - perhaps they were full of ice? I was interviewed by an investigation officer at the time, but cannot really remember much about him, save the fact that he seemed rather sceptical of my account of the various altitudes involved. On consulting "SPITFIRE -The History" page 400, I read that the plane was SOC (struck off charge) on 19/10/45. I have often wondered if I should contact them with all the above detailed information on events leading up to PA858 being S.O.C.?