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Chapter no 8 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌Survival‌

Going Solo

Some forty years ago I described in a story called ‘A Piece of Cake’ what it was like to find myself strapped firmly into the cockpit of my Gladiator with a fractured skull and a bashed-in face and a fuzzy mind while the crashed plane was going up in flames on the sands of the Western Desert. But there is an aspect of that story that I feel ought to be clarified by me and it is this.

There seems, on re-reading it, to be an implication that I was shot down by enemy action, and if I remember rightly, this was inserted by the editors of an American magazine called the Saturday Evening Post who originally bought and published it. Those were the war years and the more dramatic the story, the better it was. They actually called it ‘Shot Down in Libya’, so you can see what they were getting at. The fact is that my crash had nothing whatsoever to do with enemy action. I was not shot down either by another plane or from the ground. Here is what happened.

I had climbed into my new Gladiator at an RAF airfield called Abu Suweir on the Suez Canal, and had set off alone to join 80 Squadron in the Western Desert. This was going to be my very first venture into combat territory. The date was 19 September 1940. They told me to fly across the Nile delta and land at a small airfield called Amiriya, near Alexandria, to refuel. Then I should fly on and land again at a bomber airfield in Libya called Fouka for a second refuelling. At Fouka I was to report to the Commanding Officer who would tell me precisely where 80 Squadron were at that moment, and I would then fly on and join them. A forward airfield in the Western Desert was in those days never much more than a strip of sand surrounded by tents and parked aircraft, and these airfields were being moved very frequently from one site to another, depending on whether the front line of the army was advancing or retreating.

 

 

‌The flight in itself was a fairly daunting one for someone who had virtually no experience of the aircraft he was flying and none at all of flying long distances over Egypt and Libya with no navigational aids to help him. I had no radio. All I had was a map strapped to one knee. It took me one hour exactly to get from Abu Suweir to Amiriya where I landed with some difficulty in a sandstorm. But I got my plane refuelled and set off as quickly as I could for Fouka. I landed at Fouka fifty-five minutes later (all these times are meticulously recorded in my Log Book) and reported to the CO in his tent. He made some calls on his field telephone and then asked me for my map.

‘Eighty Squadron are now there,’ he said, pointing to a spot in the middle of the desert about thirty miles due south of the small coastal town of Mersah Matrûh.

‘Will it be easy to see?’ I asked him.

‘You can’t miss it,’ he said. ‘You’ll see the tents and about fifteen Gladiators parked around the place. You can spot it from miles away.’ I thanked him and went off to calculate my course and distance.

The time was 6.15 p.m. when I took off from Fouka for 80 Squadron’s landing strip. I estimated my flight time to be fifty minutes at the most. That would give me fifteen or twenty minutes to spare before darkness fell, which should be ample.

I flew straight for the point where the 80 Squadron airfield should have been. It wasn’t there. I flew around the area to north, south, east and west, but there was not a sign of an airfield. Below me there was nothing but empty desert, and rather rugged desert at that, full of large stones and boulders and gullies.

At this point, dusk began to fall and I realized that I was in trouble. My fuel was running low and there was no way I could get back to Fouka on what I had left. I couldn’t have found it in the dark anyway. The only course open to me now was to make a forced landing in the desert and make it quickly, before it was too dark to see.

I skimmed low over the boulder-strewn desert searching for just one small strip of reasonably flat sand on which to land. I knew the direction of the wind so I knew precisely the direction that my approach should take. But where, oh where was there one little patch of desert that was clear of boulders and gullies and lumps of rock. There simply wasn’t one. It was nearly dark now. I had to get down somehow or other. I chose a piece of ground that seemed to me to be as boulder-free as any and I made an approach. I came in as slowly as I dared, hanging on the prop, travelling just above my stalling speed of eighty miles an hour. My wheels touched down. I throttled back and prayed for a bit of luck.

I didn’t get it. My undercarriage hit a boulder and collapsed completely and the Gladiator buried its nose in the sand at what must have been about seventy-five miles an hour.

My injuries in that bust-up came from my head being thrown forward violently against the reflector-sight when the plane hit the ground (in spite of the fact that I was strapped tightly, as always, into the cockpit), and apart from the skull fracture, the blow pushed my nose in and knocked out a few teeth and blinded me completely for days to come.

It is odd that I can remember very clearly quite a few of the things that followed seconds after the crash. Obviously I was unconscious for some moments, but I must have recovered my senses very quickly because I can remember hearing a mighty whoosh as the petrol tank in the port wing exploded, followed almost at once by another mighty whoosh as the starboard tank went up in flames. I could see nothing at all, and I felt no pain. All I wanted was to go gently off to sleep and to hell with the flames. But soon a tremendous heat around my legs galvanized my soggy brain into action. With great difficulty I managed to undo first my seat-straps and then the straps of my parachute, and I can even remember the desperate effort it took to push myself upright in the cockpit and roll out head first on to the sand below.

Again I wanted to lie down and doze off, but the heat close by was terrific and

had I stayed where I was I should simply have been roasted alive. I began very very slowly to drag myself away from the awful hotness. I heard my machine-gun ammunition exploding in the flames and the bullets were pinging about all over the place but that didn’t worry me. All I wanted was to get away from the tremendous heat and rest in peace. The world about me was divided sharply down the middle into two halves. Both of these halves were pitch black, but one was scorching-hot and the other was not. I had to keep on dragging myself away from the scorching-hot side and into the cooler one, and this took a long time and enormous effort, but in the end the temperature all around me became bearable. When that happened I collapsed and went to sleep.

It was revealed at an inquiry into my crash held later that the CO at Fouka had given me totally wrong information. Eighty Squadron had never been in the position I was sent to. They were fifty miles to the south, and the place to which I had been sent was actually no-man’s-land, which was a strip of sand in the Western Desert about half a mile wide dividing the front lines of the British and Italian armies. I am told that the flames from my burning aircraft lit up the sand dunes for miles around, and of course not only the crash but also the subsequent bonfire were witnessed by the soldiers of both sides. The watchers in the trenches had been observing my antics for some time, and both sides knew that it was an RAF fighter and not an Italian plane that had come down. The remains, if any, were therefore of more interest to our people than to the enemy.

When the flames had died down and the desert was dark, a little patrol of three brave men from the Suffolk Regiment crawled out from the British lines to inspect the wreck. They did not think for one moment that they would find anything but a burnt-out fuselage and a charred skeleton, and they were apparently astounded when they came upon my still-breathing body lying in the sand nearby.

 

 

When they turned me over in the dark to get a better look, I must have swum back into consciousness because I can distinctly remember hearing one of them asking me how I felt, but I was unable to reply. Then I heard them whispering together about how they were going to get me back to the lines without a stretcher.

The next thing I can remember a long time later was a man’s voice speaking loudly to me and telling me that he knew I was unable to see him or to answer him, but he thought there was a chance I could hear him. He told me he was an English doctor and that I was in an underground first-aid post in Mersah Matruh. He said they were going to take me to the train by ambulance and send me back to Alexandria.

I heard him talking to me and I understood what he was saying, and I also knew all about Mersah Matruh and about the train. Mersah was a small town about 250 miles along the Libyan coast west of Alexandria, and our army had

a most carefully preserved little railway running across the desert between the two places. This railway was a vital supply line for our forward troops in the Western Desert and the Italians were bombing it all the time but we somehow managed to keep it going. Everyone knew about the single-track railway-line that ran all the way along the coast beside the sparkling white beaches of the southern Mediterranean from Alex to Mersah.

I heard voices around me as they manoeuvred my stretcher into the ambulance, and when the ambulance started to move forward over the very bumpy track, someone above me began screaming. Every time we hit a bump the man above me cried out in agony.

When they were putting me on to the train, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a lovely Cockney voice said, ‘Cheer up, matey. You’ll soon be back in Alex.’

The next thing I can remember was being taken off the train into the tremendous bustle of Alexandria Station, and I heard a woman’s voice saying, ‘This one’s an officer. He’ll go to the Anglo-Swiss.’

Then I was inside the hospital itself and I heard the wheels of my stretcher rumbling softly along endless corridors. ‘Put him in here for the moment,’ a different woman’s voice was saying. ‘We want to have a look at him before he goes into the ward.’

Deft fingers began to unroll the bandages around my head. ‘Can you hear me talking to you?’ the owner of the fingers was saying. She took one of my hands in hers and said, ‘If you can hear what I am saying, just give my hand a squeeze.’ I squeezed her hand. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘That’s fine. Now we know you’re going to be all right.’

Then she said, ‘Here he is, doctor. I’ve taken off the dressings. He is conscious and is responding.’

I felt the close proximity of the doctor’s face as he bent over me, and I heard him saying, ‘Do you have much pain?’

Now that the bandages had been taken off my head, I found myself able to burble an answer to him. ‘No,’ I said. ‘No pain. But I can’t see.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ the doctor said. ‘All you’ve got to do is to lie very still. Don’t move. Do you want to empty your bladder?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘We’ll help you,’ he said, ‘but don’t move. Don’t try to do anything for yourself.’

I believe they inserted a catheter because I felt them doing something down there and it hurt a bit, but then the pressure on my bladder went away.

‘Just a dry dressing for the moment, Sister,’ the doctor said. ‘We’ll X-ray him in the morning.’

Then I was in a ward with a lot of other men who talked and joked a good deal among themselves. I lay there dozing and feeling no pain at all, and later on the air-raid sirens started wailing and the ack-ack guns began opening up on all sides and I heard a lot of bombs exploding not very far away. I knew it was night-time now because that was when the Italian bombers came over seven nights a week to raid our navy in Alexandria harbour. I felt very calm and dreamy lying there listening to the terrific commotion of bombs and ack- ack going on outside. It was as though I had ear-phones on and all the noise was coming to me over the wireless from miles and miles away.

I knew when the morning came because the whole ward began to bustle and breakfasts were served all round. Obviously I couldn’t eat because my whole head was sheathed in bandages with only small holes left for breathing. I didn’t want to eat anyway. I was always sleepy. One of my arms was strapped to a board because tubes were going into the arm, but the other, the right arm, was free and once I explored the bandages on my head with my fingers. Then the Sister was saying to me, ‘We are moving your bed into another room where it is quieter and you can be by yourself.’

So they wheeled me out of the ward into a single room, and over the next one or two or three days, I don’t know how many, I submitted in a semi-daze to various procedures such as X-rays and being taken several times to the operating theatre. One of my more vivid recollections is of a conversation that went on in the theatre itself between a doctor and me. I knew I was in the theatre because they always told me where they were taking me, and this time the doctor said to me, ‘Well, young man, we are going to use a super brand- new anaesthetic on you today. It’s just come out from England and it is given by injection.’ I had had short talks with this particular doctor several times.

He was an anaesthetist and had visited me in my room before each operation to put his stethoscope on my chest and back. All my life I have taken an intense and inquisitive interest in every form of medicine, and even in those young days I had begun to ask the doctors a lot of questions. This man, perhaps because I was blind, always took the trouble to treat me as an intelligent listener.

‘What is it called?’ I asked him. ‘Sodium pentathol,’ he answered. ‘And you have never used it before?’

‘I have never used it myself,’ he said, ‘but it has been a great success back home as a pre-anaesthetic. It is very quick and comfortable.’

I could sense that there were quite a few other people, men and women, padding silently around the operating theatre in their rubber boots and I could hear the tinkling of instruments lifted and put down, and the talk of soft

voices. Both my senses of smell and of hearing had become very acute since my blindness, and I had developed an instinctive habit of translating sounds and scents into a coloured mental picture. I was picturing the operating theatre now, so white and sterile with the masked and green-gowned inmates going priestlike about their separate tasks, and I wondered where the surgeon was, the great man who was going to do all the cutting and the stitching.

I was about to have a major operation performed on my face, and the man who was doing it had been a famous Harley Street plastic surgeon before the war, but now he was a Surgeon-Commander in the navy. One of the nurses had told me about his Harley Street days that morning. ‘You’ll be all right with him,’ she had said. ‘He’s a wonder-worker. And it’s all free. A job like you’re having would be costing you five hundred guineas in civvy street.’

‘You mean this is the very first time you’ve ever used this anaesthetic?’ I said to the anaesthetist.

This time he didn’t answer me directly. ‘You’ll love it,’ he said. ‘You go out like a light. You don’t even have any sensation of losing consciousness as you do with all the others. So here we go. You’ll just feel a little prick on the back of your hand.’

I felt the needle going into a vein on the top of my left hand and I lay there waiting for the moment when I would ‘go out like a light’.

I was quite unafraid. I have never been frightened by surgeons or of being given an anaesthetic, and to this day, after some sixteen major operations on numerous parts of my body, I still have complete faith in all, or let me say nearly all, those men of medicine.

I lay there waiting and waiting and absolutely nothing happened. My bandages had been taken off for the operation, but my eyes were still permanently closed by the swellings on my face. One doctor had told me it was quite possible that my eyes had not been damaged at all. I doubted that myself. It seemed to me that I had been permanently blinded, and as I lay there in my quiet black room where all sounds, however tiny, had suddenly become twice as loud, I had plenty of time to think about what total blindness would mean in the future. Curiously enough, it did not frighten me. It did not even depress me. In a world where war was all around me and where I had ridden in dangerous little aeroplanes that roared and zoomed and crashed and caught fire, blindness, not to mention life itself, was no longer too important. Survival was not something one struggled for any more. I was already beginning to realize that the only way to conduct oneself in a situation where bombs rained down and bullets whizzed past, was to accept the dangers and all the consequences as calmly as possible. Fretting and sweating about it all was not going to help.

The doctor had tried to comfort me by saying that when you have contusions and swellings as massive as mine, you have to wait at least until the swellings go down and the incrustations of blood around the eyelids have come away. ‘Give yourself a chance,’ he had said. ‘Wait until those eyelids are able to open again.’

Having at this moment no eyelids to open and shut, I hoped the anaesthetist wouldn’t start thinking that his famous new wonder anaesthetic had put me to sleep when it hadn’t. I didn’t want them to start before I was ready. ‘I’m still awake,’ I said.

‘I know you are,’ he said.

‘What’s going on?’ I heard another man’s voice asking. ‘Isn’t it working?’ This, I knew, was the surgeon, the great man from Harley Street.

‘It doesn’t seem to be having any effect at all,’ the anaesthetist said. ‘Give him some more.’

‘I have, I have,’ the anaesthetist answered, and I thought I detected a slightly ruffled edge to the man’s voice.

‘London said it was the greatest discovery since chloroform,’ the surgeon was saying. ‘I saw the report myself. Matthews wrote it. Ten seconds, it said, and the patient’s out. Simply tell him to count to ten and he’s out before he gets to eight, that’s what the report said.’

‘This patient could have counted to a hundred,’ the anaesthetist was saying.

It occurred to me that they were talking to one another as though I wasn’t there. I would have been happier if they had kept quiet.

‘Well, we can’t wait all day,’ the surgeon was saying. It was his turn to get irritable now. But I did not want my surgeon to be irritable when he was about to perform a delicate operation on my face. He had come into my room the day before and after examining me carefully, he had said, ‘We can’t have you going about like that for the rest of your life, can we?’

That worried me. It would have worried anyone. ‘Like what?’ I had asked him.

‘I am going to give you a lovely new nose,’ he had said, patting me on the shoulder. ‘You want to have something nice to look at when you open your eyes again, don’t you. Did you ever see Rudolph Valentino in the cinema?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘I shall model your nose on his,’ the surgeon said. ‘What do you think of Rudolph Valentino, Sister?’

‘He’s smashing,’ the Sister said.

And now, in the operating theatre, that same surgeon was saying to the anaesthetist, ‘I’d forget that pentathol stuff if I were you. We really can’t wait any longer. I’ve got four more on my list this morning.’

‘Right!’ snapped the anaesthetist. ‘Bring me the nitrous oxide.’

I felt the rubber mask being put over my nose and mouth, and soon the blood-red circles began going round and round faster and faster like a series of gigantic scarlet flywheels and then there was an explosion and I knew nothing more.

When I regained consciousness I was back in my room. I lay there for an uncounted number of weeks but you must not think that I was totally without company during that time. Every morning throughout those black and sightless days a nurse, always the same one, would come into my room and bathe my eyes with something soft and wet. She was very gentle and very careful and she never hurt me. For at least an hour she would sit on my bed working skilfully on my swollen sealed-up eyes, and she would talk to me while she worked. She told me that the Anglo-Swiss used to be a large civilian hospital and that when war broke out the navy took over the whole place. All the doctors and all the nurses in the hospital were navy people, she said.

‘Are you in the navy?’ I asked her. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I am a naval officer.’ ‘Why am here if it’s all navy?’

‘We’re taking in the RAF and the army as well now,’ she said. ‘That’s where most of the casualties are coming from.’

Her name, she told me, was Mary Welland, and her home was in Plymouth.

Her father was a Commander on a cruiser operating somewhere in the north Atlantic, and her mother worked with the Red Cross in Plymouth. She said with a smile in her voice that it was very bad form for a nurse to sit on a patient’s bed, but what she was doing to my eyes was very delicate work that could only be done if she were sitting close to me. She had a lovely soft voice, and I began to picture to myself the face that went with the voice, the delicate features, the green-blue eyes, the golden-brown hair and the pale skin. Sometimes, as she worked very close to my eyes, I would feel her warm and faintly marmalade breath on my cheek and in no time at all I began to fall very quickly and quite dizzily in love with Mary Welland’s invisible image.

Every morning, I waited impatiently for the door to open and for the tinkling sound of the trolley as she wheeled it into my room.

Her features, I decided, were very much like those of Myrna Loy. Myrna Loy was a Hollywood cinema actress I had seen many times on the silver screen, and up until then she had been my idea of the perfect beauty. But now I took Miss Loy’s face and made it even more beautiful and gave it to Mary Welland. The only concrete thing I had to go by was the voice, and so far as I was concerned, Mary Welland’s dulcet tones were infinitely preferable to

Myrna Loy’s harsh American twang.

For about an hour every day I experienced ecstasy as Miss Myrna Mary Loy Welland sat on my bed and did things to my face and eyes with her delicate fingers. And then suddenly, I don’t know how many days later, came the moment that I can never forget.

Mary Welland was working away on my right eye with one of her soft moist pads when all at once the eyelid began to open. At first it opened only an infinitesimal crack, but even so, a shaft of brilliant light pierced the darkness in my head and I saw before me very close … I saw three separate things … and all of them were glistening with scarlet and gold!

‘I can see!’ I cried. ‘I can see something!’ ‘You can?’ she said excitedly. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes! I can see something very close to me! I can see three separate things right in front of me! And nurse … they are all shining with red and gold!

What are they, nurse? What am I seeing?’

‘Try to keep calm,’ she said. ‘Stop jumping up and down. It’s not good for you.’

‘But nurse, I really can see something! Don’t you believe me?’

‘Is this what you are seeing?’ she asked me, and now part of a hand and a pointing finger came into my line of sight. ‘Is it this? Is it these?’ she said, and her finger pointed at the three beautiful things of many colours that lay there shimmering against a background of purest white.

‘Yes!’ I cried. ‘It’s those! There are three of them! I can see them all! And I can see your finger!’

When many days of blackness and doubt are pierced suddenly by shining images of red and gold, the pleasure that floods into your mind is overwhelming. I lay propped up on my pillows gazing through the tiny crack in one eye at these amazing sights and wondering whether I wasn’t perhaps catching a glimpse of paradise. ‘What am I looking at?’ I asked her.

‘You are looking at a bit of my white uniform,’ Mary Welland said. ‘It’s the bit that goes across my front, and the coloured things you can see in the middle of it make up the emblem of the Royal Naval Nursing Service. It is pinned to the left side of my bosom and it is worn by all nurses in the Royal Navy.’

Alexandria 20 November 1940

Dear Mama,

I sent you a telegram yesterday saying that I’d got up for 2 hours & had a bath – so

you’ll see I’m making good progress. I arrived here about 8½ weeks ago, and was lying on my back for 7 weeks doing nothing, then sat up gradually, and now I am walking about a bit. When I came in I was a bit of a mess. My eyes didn’t open (although I was always quite concious). They thought I had a fractured base (skull), but I think the Xray showed I didn’t. My nose was bashed in, but they’ve got the most marvellous Harley Street specialists out here who’ve joined up for the war as Majors, and the ear nose & throat man pulled my nose out of the back of my head, and shaped it and now it looks just as before except that its a little bent about. That was of course under a general anesthetic.

My eyes still ache if I read or write much, but they say that they think they’ll get back to normal again, and that I’ll be fit for flying in about 3 months. In between I still have about 6 or more weeks sick leave here in Alex when I get out, doing nothing in a marvellous sunny climate, just like an English Summer, except that the sun shines every day.

I suppose you want to know how I crashed. Well, I’m not allowed to give you any details of what I was doing or how it happened. But it occurred in the night not very far from the Italian front lines. The plane was on fire and after it hit the ground I was just sufficiently concious to crawl out in time, having undone my straps, and roll on the ground to put out the fire on my overalls which were alight. I wasn’t burnt much, but was bleeding rather badly from the head. Anyway I lay there and waited for the ammunition which was left in my guns to go off. One after the other, well over 1000 rounds exploded and the bullets whistled about seeming to hit everything but me.

I’ve never fainted yet, and I think it was this tendency to remain concious which saved me from being roasted.

Anyway luckily one of our forward patrols saw the blaze, and after some time arrived and picked me up & after much ado I arrived at Mersa Matruh, (you’ll see it on the map – on the coast, East of Libya). There I heard a doctor say, ‘Oh, he’s an Italian is he’ (my white flying overalls weren’t very recognizable). I told him not to be a B.F., and he gave me some morphia. In about 24 hours time I arrived where I am now, living in great luxury with lots of very nice English nursing sisters to look after me …

P.S. The air raids here don’t worry us. The Italians are very bad bombaimers.

‘But they are so beautiful!’ I cried, staring at the emblem. There were three separate parts to it, all of them heavily embossed in raised embroidery. On top there was a golden crown with scarlet in the centre and small bits of green near its base. In the middle, below the crown, there was a gold anchor with a scarlet rope twined around it. And below the anchor there was a golden circle with a big red cross in the middle. These images and their brilliant colours have been engraved on my memory ever since.

‘Keep still,’ Mary Welland said. ‘I think we can open this eyelid a bit more.’

I kept still and waited, and a few minutes later she succeeded in getting the eyelid wide open and I saw the whole room through that one eye. In the forefront of everything I saw Nursing Officer Welland herself sitting very

close and smiling at me. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Welcome back to the world.’

She was a lovely looking girl, much nicer than Myrna Loy and far more real. ‘You are even more beautiful than I imagined,’ I said.

‘Well, thank you,’ she said.

The next day she got the other eye open as well and I lay there feeling as though I was about to start my whole life over again.

Mary Welland was certainly lovely. She was gentle and kind. She remained my friend all the time I was in hospital. But there is a world of difference between falling in love with a voice and remaining in love with a person you can see. From the moment I opened my eyes, Mary became a human instead of a dream and my passion evaporated.

All the time I was in hospital, my one obsession was to get back to operational flying. The doctors told me there was virtually no hope of that. They said that even if I managed to get back perfect vision, I would still have the head injuries to contend with. Severe head injuries are not easily overcome, they said, and I had better resign myself to being shipped home eventually as a non-combatant. I admit now, although I didn’t tell them at the time, that for several weeks after I had regained my sight I suffered from the most appalling headaches, but even these began gradually to grow less and less severe.

Alexandria 6 December 1940

Dear Mama,

I haven’t written to you since my one and only letter some weeks ago, chiefly because the doctors said that it wasn’t good for me. As a matter of fact I’ve been progressing very slowly. As I told you in my telegram I did start getting up, but they soon popped me back to bed again because I got such terrific headaches. A week ago I was moved back into this private room, and I have just completed a whole long 7 days lying flat on my back in semi darkness doing absolutely nothing – not even allowed to lift a finger to wash myself. Well, that’s over, and I’m sitting up today, (its 8 o’clock in the evening actually) and writing this and incidentally feeling fine. Tomorrow I think they are going to give me intravenal saline and pituatory injections & make me drink gallons of water – its another stunt to get rid of the headaches. You needn’t be alarmed – there’s nothing very wrong with me, I’ve merely had an extremely serious concussion. They say I certainly won’t fly for about 6 months, and last week were going to invalid me home on the next convoy. But somehow I didn’t want to – once invalided home, I knew I’d never get on to flying again, and who wants to be invalided home anyway. When I go I want to go normally …

After four months in hospital I was allowed out of bed, and I used to stand for hours in my dressing-gown looking out of my window at the view. The

only view I had was the courtyard of the hospital, and that wasn’t much to look at, but directly across the courtyard I could see through a huge window into a long wide corridor. On morning I saw a medical orderly coming down this corridor carrying a very large tray with a white cloth over it. Walking in the opposite direction towards the orderly, was a middle-aged woman, probably somebody from the hospital clerical staff. When the orderly came level with the woman, he suddenly whipped away the cloth from the tray and pushed the tray towards the woman’s face. On the tray there lay the entire quite naked amputated leg of a soldier. I saw the poor woman reel backwards. I saw the foul orderly roar with laughter and replace the cloth and walk on. I saw the woman stagger to the window-sill and lean forward with her head in her hands, then she pulled herself together and went on her way. I have never forgotten that little illustration of man’s repulsive behaviour towards woman.

I was finally discharged from hospital in February 1941, five months after I

was admitted. I was given four weeks’ convalescence which I spent in Alexandria living in total luxury in the magnificent house of a charming and very wealthy English family called Peel. Dorothy Peel was a regular hospital visitor at the Anglo-Swiss, and when she heard that I was soon to be allowed out, she said, ‘Come and stay with us.’ So I did, and I was a lucky fellow to have found such a splendid place among such kind people in which to gather myself together for the next round.

After four weeks with the Peels, I reported to the RAF medical examiners in Cairo, and it was a great day for me when I was once again passed fully fit for flying duties.

But where were my old squadron now?

Eighty Squadron, as it turned out, were no longer in the Western Desert. They were far across the water in Greece, where for some weeks they had been flying valiantly against the Italian invaders. But now the German armies and air forces had joined the Italians in Greece and were rapidly over-running the little country. It was obvious to everybody, even then, that the tiny token British Expeditionary Force and the handful of RAF planes in Greece were not going to be able to last long against the German juggernaut.

Where did they want me to go? I asked.

To Greece, of course, they said. They told me that 80 Squadron were no longer flying Gladiators. They were now equipped with Mark 1 Hurricanes. I must learn very quickly to fly a Hurricane and then I must take it to Greece and rejoin the squadron.

 

 

When I got this news I was in Ismailia, a large RAF aerodrome on the Suez Canal. A Flight-Lieutenant pointed to a Hurricane standing on the tarmac and said, ‘You can have a couple of days to learn how to fly it, then you take it to Greece.’

‘Fly that to Greece?’ I said. ‘Of course.’

‘Where do I stop to refuel?’

‘You don’t,’ he said. ‘You go non-stop.’ ‘How long will it take?’

‘About four and a half hours,’ he said.

Even I knew that a Hurricane had fuel for only one and a half hours’ flying, and I pointed this out to the Flight-Lieutenant. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘We’re fitting extra fuel tanks under the wings.’

‘Do they work?’

‘Sometimes they work,’ he said, smirking. ‘You press a little button and if you’re lucky a pump pumps petrol from the wing-tanks into the main tank.’

‘What happens if the pump doesn’t work?’ ‘You bale out into the Med and swim,’ he said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Be serious. Who picks me up?’

‘Nobody,’ he said. ‘It’s a chance you have to take.’

This, I told myself, is a waste of manpower and machinery. I had no experience at all in flying against the enemy. I had never been in an

operational squadron. And now they wanted me to jump into a plane I had never flown before and fly it to Greece to fight against a highly efficient air force that outnumbered us by a hundred to one.

I was petrified as I strapped myself into the Hurricane for the first time. It was the first monoplane I had ever flown. It was without a doubt the first modern plane I had ever flown. It was many times more powerful and speedy and tricky than anything I had ever seen. I had never flown a plane with a retractable undercarriage before. I had never flown a plane with wing-flaps which had to be used to slow down your landing speed. I had never flown a plane with a variable pitch propeller or one that had eight machine-guns in its wings. I had never flown anything like it. Somehow I managed to get the thing off the ground and back down again without smashing it up, but for me it was like riding a bucking horse. I was just beginning to learn where most of the knobs were located and what they were used for when my two days were up and I had to leave for Greece.

Ismailia 12 April 1941

Dear Mama,

A very short note to say that I’m going north across the sea almost at once to join my squadron. I telegraphed this to you today & told you where to send my letters. You may not hear much from me for quite a long while so don’t worry …

Baling out into the Mediterranean didn’t worry me nearly as much as the thought of spending four and a half hours squashed into that tiny metal cockpit. I was six feet six inches tall, and when I sat in a Hurricane I had the posture of an unborn baby in the womb, with my knees almost touching my chin. I was able to put up with that for short flights, but four and a half hours clear across the sea from Egypt to Greece was something else again. I wasn’t quite sure I could do it.

I took off the next day from the bleak and sandy airfield of Abu Suweir, and after a couple of hours I was over Crete and beginning to get severe cramp in both legs. My main fuel tank was nearly empty so I pressed the little button that worked the pump to the extra tanks. The pump worked. The main tank filled up again exactly as it was meant to and on I went.

After four hours and forty minutes in the air, I landed at last on Elevsis aerodrome, near Athens, but by then I was so knotted up with terrible excruciating cramp in the legs I had to be lifted out of the cockpit by two

strong men. But I had come home to my squadron at last.

 

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