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A 1942 Propaganda Photo of Bobby
The year is 2002 and my combat reports have been in my desk for most of the intervening years. Recently I decided to copy them, together with entries made in my wartime diaries at the time. I will also include some extracts from an article that I wrote after my return to normal life, hoping to give civilians an idea of what war in fighter aircraft was all about.
My friend Clive Caldwell was facing a Court Martial at the time and it seemed worthwhile to give the public some understanding of what both he and many others endured. It was published in one of the daily newspapers.
Perhaps you think that the life of a fighter-pilot was somewhat glamorous, but believe the words of one who knows. There's no glamour in this role in warfare. No, none whatsoever. You do not know what it means to live for days, weeks, months, and even years with the fear of violent death gnawing at your very guts.
You do not know the hell of aerial battle. The approach, the meeting, the seething mass of twisting turning aircraft. You haven't seen those numerous dots appear, to grow and grow in seconds and become a mass of spitting, twisting, deadly death. You haven't seen your comrades die in ones and twos, watched them plummet earthwards, balls of molten fire and mangled bodies. You haven't watched and watched in vain for that small parachute to blossom forth from the doomed machine before it strikes.
You haven't glanced below to gauge the tide of battle and counted those giant black pillars of smoke rising from crimson bases of fire and blood, those funeral pyres of friend and foe alike, and known some to be your friends, and thanked God that it was they and not you - then fought on to victory and landed back at base and grieved those empty dispersal bays. You are once more a human being and not the frenzied creature, more animal than man, who rejoiced in his own continued existence, while watching his dearest friends die in agony and frantic despair but a few minutes before. You have done this again and again and once more gone back for more believing that it must be your turn next.
You haven't watched the vicious deadly nose of an enemy aircraft spewing a hail of leaden death, each with your name engraved, nor have you frantically kicked and skidded while passing through this stream of death; heard the thud of explosive 20-millimetre cannon shell and machine gun bullets tearing the metal of your aircraft asunder.
Have you seen that long thin line of moving dust, that omen of enemy might as yet unbroken? Have you stalked it out of sun and when possible out of wind so that you will not be seen or heard? It saves lives - your pilots' lives.
Have you watched that line of dust grow larger until at last it breaks into many minute moving ants, each a truck, or tank, or gun, manned by many men? The enemy in all his powerful might. You steel yourself and give the order to attack. Reflector sight and gun switches checked on. Who knows what lies ahead. Down you dive, a grimly-streaking mass of fighting might. You weave to clear your tail of any surprise attack by enemy fighters, and to fox the flak. No flash of guns and no bursts of flak - down and down. Suddenly a small burst of flak and then hell itself lets loose; but you are now in range - those moving guns and troop-filled trucks can never stop in time.
You take aim and fire. God, watch those tracers fly. They hit their target. Some draw flames and others only smoke. Those trapped troops are as good as dead and some of thosewho do jump clear are merely riddled bodies whose contracting nerves and sinews have hurled them clear.
Your attack is over - you break, weaving madly, diving, zooming climbing out of that hell to safety. You hear the sudden thud of a bursting shell and feel your aircraft leap like a wounded deer. Your heart stops still. You are still climbing, out and away. You examine your instrument panel closely, eagerly, hopefully, in abject fear. God, a thousand times better dead than to be forced down here - a prisoner - better dead.
You are clear but lagging badly. Your engine getting hotter, your oil gauge is going down. You call and tell your mates you're hit and that the engine's failing. They sit above and cover that crippled eagle, that waddling duck.
You nurse your engine fondly, that failing, surging, dying oil-smeared motor. Too battered and too low to avoid the front lines and that deadly small-arms fire. Too worried to care. Your lines - safety. Nothing matters now. You are alive. Why the old bus might still holdout. Your drome is in sight - the field is clear. You try your wheels, but no. Your hydraulics fill your cockpit with stinking slippery oil. Too low - too late for the emergency system - straight ahead losing height. Throttle off, switches cut, you hit and slide ahead. Your speed drops off, your nose ploughs in. Sand is spewed for acres. A sudden jar. You've stopped, alive and wildly elated.
Then count those circling planes, but where are the other three? Theirs not the luck of yours. They never will come back or be taken prisoner either. The last man in saw them go. One hit a tank and disappeared - a mass of burning breaking metal. The other two? Why, number one, the leader of a pair was hit and burnt while near the ground and tried to climb for height. Just height enough to jump and trust his safety to that small tightly-folded pack of purest silk. He didn't make that height. His plane exploded. Debris, flames and little pieces.
Number two? Well, it's funny about that man. He climbed away, quite straight, then slowly rolled inverted and dived into the ground. Dead of course; dead before he hit. Dead before he started his climb away.
Have you received a call from the hard-pressed Army?
"ENEMY ATTACKING FIERCELY - ONE HUNDRED TANKS - OUR LOSSES HEAVY - FRENCH LEFT FLANK CUT OFF
- SEND AIR SUPPORT."
Armourers are sweating, cursing, toiling - bombing up while pilots are briefed. Last bomb snaps on - last plane starts up. The leader's arm is raised; it drops and powerful engines roar into thunderous life. Dust swirls back. Sweat-lined dusty muddy ground crews gasp for breath, engulfed in a man-made blizzard of dust and sand. Their charges move forward into the air - on course.
Vicious snap of attacking Messerschmitts. You turn about. Their attack is foiled and one of them goes down a flaming torch. They attack again. Once more you turn about. They break and give it best. On you fly, still with your bombs.
Yes, there's the landmark below us. Turn left. You fly towards the distant churning spot. That spot shown on your map as a peaceful nothingness; a waste of barren sand. Your approach is unnoticed. The enemy is too busy to look above.
Yes, there are the Frogs. My God, they're taking hell. And there are the tanks - tanks passing through the gap of smoking fire and running blood, intent on attacking those battling troops from the rear.
Your decision made, the squadron dives down - speed builds up - good God the target's small. We must not miss and get our troops, already sorely crippled.
Number one bomb goes, the others too within a second. Far best to trust the leader - his skill is greater than yours. You break and climb and turn to port to keep the sun ahead. The air is clouded with one or two black puffs that hang. He's missed by miles. He didn't know our speed would be so great.
A cloud of dust. Too thick to see properly, but it looks like smoke as well. Away and home for still more bombs. - The next lot out report fires still burning, three tanks at least, and transport. They could not see the damage for the dust which their bombs raised.
Were you watching the next takeoff? Did you see old Bill's plane belch smoke and lose height from 100 feet, and did you pray for him to jettison his bombs lest he belly-lands his aircraft on them and be blown to kingdom come. He's remembered. They're off and falling, following him along. They hit. Good God, they've gone off. That terrific blast has blown his plane to hell. Ambulance and fire tender racing, but what's the use. He's dead. Don't waste time on a lifeless body. Poor old Bill. His tour was nearly up. Still, he wouldn't have gone home yet awhile, not with the Hun on the offensive. Not Bill. Blast those bloody nose rods. They make a bomb unsafe. Still they burst above the ground and kill more Huns. Yes, they are worthwhile.
The squadron lands back. There's time to blast the Hun again before the light fails. More bombs on. It is your turn to lead. You lead off. At 100 feet your motor loses power. My God, it can't be, it's just my nerves through watching poor old Bill. But hell, you are losing height and Wing Headquarters is just ahead. If you jettison now and your bombs go off, you'll kill a hundred men. Must keep on ahead. You're lower now; you haven't a chancein hell if your bombs go off.
A shallow gully - you're clear of Wing, you drop them and turn hard right. Clench and shudder. Thank God for that, you're still alive but not for long. Too low to clear the banks - nothing to do but follow the gully along until you plane loses speed, then belly-land if you are able. You take a bend, through telephone lines above a convoy of trucks and miss a large pit by inches.
You're on the ground. Rocks larger than footballs are tossed aloft like pebbles. If one lands on you, you're crushed to pulp. Your plane slows down and stops. Out and away despite shouts of Minefield. That pouring hissing fuel on the hot exhaust stubs frightens you more than mines.
You breathe again, then bum a lift to the camp, and to look like a man, ask if you'd catch the formation if you took off in another aircraft, conscious as hell of the shaking hand, the ashen face and a voice which can't hide a tremor.
No, there'd no glamour in being a fighter pilot. Clive Caldwell went through all this, and more by far, and would do it again if the need arose. Do you think he was frightened? I'll tell the world he was, but did you ever hear him cry licked? You did? Like hell you did.
Caldwell is a man who is grand in all sense of the word, a gentleman and a true friend.
Bir el Gobi Air Combat 25 November 1941
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