The year was 1941 and the war was nearly two years old when I began my journey to 213 Squadron. I was home on leave when I received a telegram instructing me to report to Grennock in Scotland. I had been with 32 Squadron, stationed at Angle, a small airfield in the far southwest of Wales. It was disappointing on leaving OTU being sent to a squadron in 10 Group covering the west. I like most of us wanted to go to 11 Group covering the South East where all the action was.
I was lucky although I didn't realize it at the time. With only 175 hours experience I could hardly qualify as a competent Hurricane pilot. Those who went to 11 Group with similar experience had a hard time being thrown straight into offensive sweeps over France. During the seven months I was with 32 Squadron with very little activity I learnt to fly a Hurricane.
Our main function was to protect convoys approaching UK from America and to intercept and destroy any marauding Focke Wolfe Condors before they could relay the position of the convoy to the U Boats. We were equipped with Hurricane IIAs fitted with an extra fuel tank under each wing and armed with 12 machine guns. Sunderlands patrolled the convoys out in the Atlantic, Blenhiems taking over nearer to home. We came into our own west of Ireland. It was a not a very exciting job flying round and round a convoy. Sometimes a little low flying helped to relieve the boredom. One of our Polish pilots went a little too far or too low and took the aerial off a destroyer The Navy was not amused and the wrath of the Admiralty descended on the Squadron and the offending pilot. During my time with the squadron I saw only one enemy aircraft but he disappeared in cloud before I could get near enough to have a shot at him.
Sometimes when the visibility was poor with low cloud and rain it was difficult to find the convoy and there were times when we did not. It was to be hoped that the enemy had similar problems. There was no inertial or satellite navigation as there is today. All we had was a compass, a clock and a wind that the met officer had guessed at. With only a vague idea of ones position out in the Atlantic sometimes finding ones way home was not easy. Flying east until the Welsh coast was in sight and then following the coast to the airfield was the recommended way. However if the coast didn't turn up it was likely that you had missed Wales and were flying up the Bristol Channel. One could only turn north and hope to hit the south coast of Wales. This primitive form of navigation must have worked as, while I was with the squadron, nobody got lost. Sometimes when the weather was so bad that all flying was cancelled for the day we all went into Tenby, a nearby holiday resort on the coast and spent most of the day in the local pub. This made a great change from sitting in the dispersal playing cards waiting for something to happen.
There were other types of diversions. Radar was in its infancy and we carried out airborne practice for the ground controllers. It was known as GCI, Ground Control Interception. Two aircraft were sent up, one the bad guy and the other the good guy. The idea being for the good guy to intercept the bad guy. This worked quite well sometimes but there were times when it was a complete failure but it was all a lot of fun. Occasionally the squadron was visited by recruiting officers from Higher Command. One was after volunteers to fly high flying PRU long range Spitfires deep into Germany and possibly as far as Berlin armed only with a camera and lots of fuel. I do not remember anyone volunteering. On another occasion they were looking for pilots to fly Hurricanes off merchant ships in convoys to Russia. The Hurricanes were to be catapulted into the air from the ship. When asked what happened when the sortie was over, the reply was to land at the nearest airfield. We then asked the obvious. What if there was no airfield within range. The simple answer was to ditch in the sea alongside a ship and hope to be picked up. In spite of being offered rapid promotion there were no volunteers.
The Squadron had acquired a Magister, a small twoseater training aircraft. Where it had come from nobody seemed to know, but it was very useful for general communications and taking pilots on leave. As I had trained on magisters I was often called upon to fly our little aeroplane. On one occasion I took one of our pilots on leave to Portreath in Cornwall. I arrived about lunchtime and went to the mess for something to eat. There I met up with a lot of old friends with whom I had been at OTU. Time went by without me noticing and when I left it was a little late. About half way across the Bristol Channel it started to get dark and by the time I arrived at the Welsh coast it was completely dark. This wouldn't have been a problem but there were no night flying facilities or radio at Angle. The Magister didn't have any radio either. Somehow I found the airfield and managed to line up with a runway, but having landed I couldn't see anything and having come to a halt fortunately, still on the runway could not move. Two airmen came out in a vehicle and guided me to the dispersal. Fortunately the flight commander was on leave and didn't hear about my escapade until he returned. The rocket I received was then not quite so severe. I was never sure if he was more concerned about my safety or the possible loss of the Magister.
Just before I left all the pilots were issued with 38 revolvers. Armed with our revolvers and a box of ammunition we went off into the fields rabbit hunting. The rabbits were quite safe as no one managed to hit one. I don't think that anybody really tried. The next morning we were back at the armory for more ammunition. We were reluctantly issued with another box but that was the end, the armaments officer was adamant, no more bullets so no more rabbit hunting..
When I arrived At Grennock I met up with a number of other Hurricane pilots. It was rumoured that we were on the way to Russia. However when we boarded the battleship Prince of Wales it seemed we were not going to Russia. The rumour then was that the Russians wanted the aeroplanes but not the pilots. Whether there was any truth in either rumor I never found out.
We spent two weeks on the battleship heading not north but west well out into the Atlantic then south arriving at Freetown in West Africa where we were transferred to a merchant ship. Little did we know that the Prince of Wales was on her way to the Far East where she was sunk with the Repulse by Japanese bombers. Three days later we arrived at Takoradi a peacetime RAF station in The Gold Coast.
Takoradi was a ferry pool and one its activities was to assemble Hurricanes that had been crated out from England. The assembled aircraft were test flown then ferried across Africa to the Middle East. The aircraft had no radios and the pilots had no maps. Six or eight Hurricanes would fly in convoy following a Blenhein which had a navigator. All the pilots knew was the next destination and the estimated flight time. The met forecast was never very accurate. This was not the forecasters fault as they had very little information to work on. The standing joke was that maps were unnecessary as one could follow the trail of wrecked aircraft all the way to Egypt This was of course a gross exaggeration as I do not think many aircraft were lost on the route. I was in Takoradi for about two weeks and flew only three test flights during that time. A minimum of 500 hours was the laid down requirement to fly a Hurricane across Africa. Pilots with less had to travel passenger in the Blenheim. My flying hours were a little under 400 so I had to boost them to 500 plus. Fortunately no one asked to see my logbook. One bright and sunny morning along with five other Hurricanes and one Blenheim I departed Takoradi to cross darkest Africa to Egypt.
Our route took across Nigeria to Oshogbo and Kano, across Central Africa via Maidguri, El Geneina to El Obeid. to the Sudan Then to Wadi Saidna following the Nile to Wadi Halfa, Luxor and to Abuqir in Egypt our journeys end. The trip took six days and it was a tremendous experience which I wouldn't have missed for anything. The changing landscape crossing Africa from dense jungle to desert was fascinating. I remember that I did not want it to end and was disappointed when we reached Egypt and it was all over. On arrival in Egypt I spent a pleasant week on a houseboat on the Nile. Up until now the war seemed like one long holiday. But this was about to change.
At the time there were more aircrew in the Middle East than aircraft. My holiday was over and I was sent to the Middle East Pool at Kasfereet, a camp for out of work pilots. I cannot remember how long I was there but my recollection is of a dreary collection of tents in the desert full of bored and discontented pilots with nothing to do. Even the food was awful.
While I was there I went into hospital with malaria. This turned out to be fortunate as after a weeks leave in Alexandria I returned to Cairo and went to see the posting staff at Air Headquarters. I pointed out that I had served my time at The Middle East Pool. So. instead of sending me back ,I with another pilot was posted to 213 Squadron based in Cyprus. We went across to Cyprus by boat landing at Famagusta where we transferred to a train to Nicosia. I duly arrived at the airfield ready to report for duty only to find that the squadron was no longer there. They had moved back to the Delta a week before.
There was only one thing to do. Get back to Egypt and find the squadron. Unfortunately I was back in hospital again. This time having my appendix removed. In those days this was a big operation and I was in hospital in Larnaca for two weeks followed by three weeks in a convalescent camp in Nicosia. By this time I was beginning to think that the war had passed me by. However I was determined to get to the squadron to which I had been posted. I managed to hitch a ride on an old Valentia as far as Tel Aviv in Palestine.
The next day I found a Bombay of 216 transport squadron going to Heliopolis just outside Cairo where I had to go anyway for a medical having been in hospital for two weeks. While talking to the captain of the Bombay I mentioned that I was trying to get to 213 Squadron. He told me that his squadron was based at El Khanka and on the other side of the airfield was a detachment of 213 Squadron. After having my medical and armed with my information I was back at Air Headquarters to check on my posting to be told that as I had been away so long I would have to go back to the Middle East Pool. After a lot of arguing they finally relented and I was reposted to the squadron. They were surprised to learn that part of the squadron was at El Khanka. It was to be hoped that German Intelligence was as equally confused. Having organized some transport to El Khanka I finally joined 213 Squadron.
It was great to be with a squadron again and get back in the air. I think we had four aircraft at El Khanka. I cannot remember how many pilots we had but there were not many This small detachment was there for the defence of Cairo. Fortunately the enemy didn't seem very interested in Cairo and there was little activity. Most of the time was spent patrolling north of Cairo and a little air to ground firing in the desert for fun. One afternoon we were sitting in the dispersal tent playing cards when a small aircraft landed. I think it was a Magister. The pilot came into the tent and started talking to us. It was when he took off his Irving Jacket and, we saw the rank on his sleeve that the confusion started. He was an Air Vice Marshall. However he was very friendly and seemed quite amused at the panic he had caused. I was only at El Khanka for a few weeks when we were recalled to join the rest of the squadron at Idku an airfield on the Mediterranean coast east of Alexandria. We were equipped with Hurricane IICs armed with four 20mm canons. Reconnaissance Ju88s were flying over Alex harbour during the day hoping to take photographs of the fleet. Then at night the Heinkels would come and bomb what the Ju88s had photographed.
Our job was to prevent this from happening by chasing the 88s away. We had two aircraft on patrol during the hours of daylight. There were six aircraft in the air at any one time two on patrol, two climbing up and two on the way down. A favorite trick at the end of a patrol was to half roll and dive almost vertically so that one crossed Alexandria fairly low and at tremendous speed. It was hoped that the locals and any enemy spies were impressed with the apparent high speed of the Hurricane. I do not know the critical mach number of a Hurricane but I am sure there were times when we got fairly close to it.
Most of the time on patrol was spent climbing as high as possible. Ju88s were much faster than our Hurricanes and having extra height was the only way to catch them. Another problem was sand in the breach blocks jamming the cannons. Until this problem was overcome it was unusual to have all four cannons firing at one time. As far as I remember the squadron shot down about five or six enemy aircraft while we were at Idku. We intercepted quite a few others but couldn't catch all of them and sometimes the guns didn't fire. However I suppose we were successful in keeping the enemy away from the Fleet.
While we were at Idku the Canadians in the Squadron introduced us to softball, a milder version of baseball. Very soon we had a number of rival teams playing each other and the competition was quite fiece We only lost one pilot and aircraft at Idku and this was an accident. I cannot remember who the pilot was but on final approach over the lake with gear and flaps down he lost his engine. With nowhere to go he put it down in the lake. Unfortunately the aircraft turned over and the pilot was drowned.
One morning the Duke of Gloucester paid us a visit. All the aircraft were lined up, the propellers dressed and the pilots stood in front of their aircraft to be introduced to the Duke. However the highlight of the day was a low level aerobatic display by our flight commander that was worthy of any air show including Farnborough
There had been a rumour for some time that we were moving up into the Western Desert. This was confirmed by the arrival of a new CO who immediately had the whole squadron practicing battle formation. Up until now we had never flown as a complete squadron and all this was new to most of us. We had been used to flying in single sections of just two aircraft. The new battle formation was very loose and highly maneuverable making it possible for the whole squadron to go into a steep turn either way. This took a lot of practice especially if you were a wingman and everyone turned when you were weaving in the opposite direction. I remember being caught out this way and pulling back hard on the stick to catch up, flicking over into a spin. By the time I recovered the rest of the squadron was nowhere to be seen. It was difficult and embarrassing trying to explain to the Flight Commander how I had managed to lose the squadron. In the end with lots of practice we all got quite good at this and felt it was time to do it for real. We didn't have long to wait A few weeks later we moved up to Sidi Haneish where we continued our formation practice. From there we moved to Gambut West, south east of Tobruk At the time Rommel was attacking the Gazala line just west of Tobruk. The Germans had surrounded the Free French at Bir Hachiem where they were being continuously dive bombed by Ju87s.Our squadron together with 73 were tying to prevent this. The operation was colloquially referred to as 'Stuka Pranging'. We carried out one or two offensive sweeps each day. Whilst nothing too exciting happened with a few shot being fired on either side I think we kept most of the bombers away from Bir Hacheim. Although the Hurricane was more maneuverable the Me 109s were faster and had a better rate of climb. So at any time the enemy was above waiting for the opportunity to jump us. This were our battle formation paid off as we could turn quickly towards the descending 109s. However sometimes we were jumped from more than one direction at a time, which caused some confusion. The answer was to go into a defensive circle. At the time there was a great deal of activity around Tobruk and in the evening we often sat outside the mess tent watching the firework display. Sometimes at night it was difficult finding ones tent as they were well dispersed. A little astro navigation helped if you knew which star to head for.
One morning the squadron took off and as usual headed towards Bir Hacheim. Approaching our destination we were jumped by 109s. A steep turn towards the enemy temporary solved the problem but we were jumped again from a different direction. A defensive circle followed and somehow I lost the squadron again. While tying to locate the rest of my companions I looked down and there below me and about a mile ahead was a formation of nine JU87s. I must have thought it was my lucky day as I dived down with canon blazing aiming at the rear one on the left. He pealed off with smoke pouring from his engine and I took aim at the one on the right. I was just about to press the firing button when there was a loud bang and my cockpit filled with smoke. During all this I had forgotten to look behind and a 109 had sneaked up and hit me. The engine had stopped and I thought of bailing out as I suspected I was on fire. However the aircraft was still flying although not very well so I decided to stay with it gliding down. It wasn't difficult finding a flat piece of desert to land on, as there was plenty of it. The wheels up landing was a bit rough and I came to a very sudden stop. It has been said that if you can walk away from a landing it is a good one. Looking at the wreckage of my Hurricane I thought that was going a bit too far.
I was unhurt, said goodbye to my wrecked aircraft and started to walk. I remember thinking that I would qualify for membership of the Late Arrivals Club, an exclusive club for shot down pilots who walked home. What I didn't realize was that Rommel had broken through the Gazala Line and was advancing towards Egypt faster than I was walking. I cannot remember how long I walked but eventually I accidentally stumbled into an Italian Camp and was taken prisoner. I think I was the first prisoner they had ever taken, as they were very excited and were shouting and waving guns about. I was a little worried that one might go off by accident. So began a period as a prisoner of war but as has been said many times before that, is another story.