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Chapter no 10 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌The Ammunition Ship‌

Going Solo

The next morning I was ordered to go on patrol at six o’clock. I took off dead on time and climbed in a tight circle to 5,000 feet over the airfield. The sun had just cleared the horizon and I could see the Parthenon glowing white and wonderful on the famous hill above Athens. My radio crackled almost at once and the voice from the Ops Room gave me precisely the same instructions it had given me the day before. I was to proceed to Khalkis where the enemy was again bombing the shipping. Five Hurricanes had taken off before me that morning and I had watched them all being sent away one by one in different directions. The enemy was all around us now and we were having to spread ourselves extremely thin. Khalkis, it seemed, was reserved for me.

I had learnt the night before from someone in the Ops Room that the big cargo vessel lying off Khalkis was an ammunition ship. It was loaded to the brim with high explosives and the Germans had found out about it. The brave Greeks, who were trying their best to offload the bullets and bombs and whatever other fireworks there were on board, knew that it only needed one direct hit to blow everything sky-high, including the town of Khalkis and most of its inhabitants.

I arrived over Khalkis at 6.15 a.m. The big cargo ship was still there and there was now a lighter alongside it. A derrick was hoisting a large crate up from the ship’s forward hold and lowering it into the lighter. I searched the sky for enemy planes but I couldn’t see any. A man on the deck of the ship looked up and waved his cap at me. I slid back the roof of my cockpit and waved back at him.

I am writing this forty-five years afterwards, but I still retain an absolutely clear picture of Khalkis and how it looked from a few thousand feet up on a bright-blue early April morning. The little town with its sparkling white houses and red-tiled roofs stood on the edge of the waterway, and behind the town I could see the jagged grey-black mountains where I had chased the Ju 88s the day before. Inland, I could see a wide valley and there were green fields in the valley and among the fields there were splashes of the most

brilliant yellow I had ever seen. The whole landscape looked as though it had been painted on to the surface of the earth by Vincent Van Gogh. On all sides and wherever I looked there was this dazzling panorama of beauty, and for a moment or two I was so overwhelmed by it all that I didn’t see the big Ju 88 screaming up at me from below until he was almost touching the underbelly of my plane. He was climbing right up at me with the tracer pouring like yellow fire out of his blunt perspex nose and in that thousandth of a second I actually saw the German front-gunner crouching over his gun and gripping it with both hands as he squeezed the trigger. I saw his brown helmet and his pale face with no goggles over the eyes and he was wearing some sort of a black flying-suit. I yanked my stick back so hard the Hurricane shot vertically upwards like a rocket. The violent change of direction blacked me out completely, and when my sight returned my plane was at the top of a vertical climb and standing on its tail with almost no forward movement at all. My engine was spluttering and beginning to vibrate. I’ve been hit, I thought, I’ve been hit in the engine. I rammed the stick hard forward and prayed she would respond. By some miracle, the aircraft dropped its nose and the engine began to pick up and within a few seconds the marvellous machine was flying straight and level once again.

But where was the German?

I looked down and spotted him about 1,000 feet below me. His wings were silhouetted against the blue water of the bay, and I could hardly believe it but he was actually ignoring me completely and was beginning to make his bombing run over the ammunition ship! I opened the throttle and dived after him. In eight seconds I was on him, but I was diving so steeply and so fast that when the great grey-green bomber came into my sights, I was only able to get in a very short burst and then I was past him and yanking back hard on the stick to stop myself from diving on into the water.

I had made a mess of it. For the second time running I had gone barging in to the attack without pausing for just a fraction of a second to work out the best way of doing things. I roared upwards again and banked round sharply to have another go at him. He was still heading for the ship. But then something quite startling happened. I saw his nose drop suddenly downwards and he went plunging head first in an absolutely straight vertical line into the blue waters of Khalkis Bay. He hit the water not far from the ship and there was a tremendous white splash and then the waves closed over him and he was gone.

How on earth did I manage that? I wondered. The only explanation I could think of was that a lucky bullet must have hit the pilot so that he slumped over his stick and pushed it forward and down she went. I could see several Greek

seamen on the deck of the ship waving their caps at me and I waved back at them. That is how stupid I was. I quite literally sat there in my cockpit waving away at the Greek seamen below, forgetting that I was in a hostile sky that could be seething with German aircraft. When I stopped waving and looked around me, I saw something that made me jump. There were aeroplanes everywhere. They were diving and climbing and turning and banking wherever I looked, and they all had black and white crosses on their bodies and black swastikas on their tails. I knew right away what they were. They were the dreaded little German Messerschmitt 109 fighters. I had never seen one before but I knew darn well what they looked like. I swear there must have been thirty or forty of them within a few hundred yards of me. It was like having a swarm of wasps around your head and quite honestly I did not know what to do next. It would have been suicide to stay and fight, and in any event my duty was to save my plane at all costs. The Germans had hundreds of fighters. We had only a few left.

I shoved the stick forward and opened the throttle and dived flat out for the

ground. I had a feeling that if I could fly very low and very dangerously over the treetops and hedges then the German pilots might not be prepared to take the same risk.

When I levelled out from the dive I was doing about 300 miles an hour and flying some twenty feet above the ground. That is below rooftop level and is a fairly hairy thing to do at such a speed. But I was in a hairy situation. I was flying up the yellow Van Gogh valley now and a swift glance in my rear-view mirror showed a bunch of 109s right on my tail. I went lower. I went so low I actually had to leapfrog over the small olive trees that were scattered around everywhere. Then I took a huge but calculated risk and went lower still, almost brushing the grass in the fields. I knew the Germans couldn’t hit me unless they came down to my height, and even if they did, the concentration required to fly a plane very fast at almost ground level was so great they would hardly be able to shoot straight at the same time. You may not believe it but I can remember having literally to lift my plane just a tiny fraction to clear a stone wall, and once there was a herd of brown cows in front of me and I’m not sure I didn’t clip some of their horns with my propeller as I skimmed over them.

Suddenly the Messerschmitts had had enough. In the mirror I saw them pull

away one after the other, and oh the relief of being able to climb up to a safer height and to go whistling back over the mountains to Elevsis.

The bad news I brought with me to the squadron was that the German fighter planes were now within range of us. In their hundreds they could reach our airfield any time they liked

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