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Authors: Justin Kerr-Smiley

Under the Sun

BOOK: Under the Sun
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JUSTIN KERR-SMILEY

Under the Sun

I would like to thank Group Captain Rob Caddick and
Squadron
Leader Al Pinner who made useful comments and
corrections
to the typescript of the first edition, concerning the RAF and its wartime history. In particular I am indebted to Squadron Leader Pinner, Commanding Officer of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, for sharing his knowledge of
Spitfires
and their technical performance. I would also like to thank the staff at the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum in London for their help. Finally, this book would not have been written without the memory of my grandfather Lt Col Tom Guise Tucker MC, a Burma veteran who brought home a samurai sword and told me its story.

For my parents

 

‘A wraith of cloud lies on the fringe of night,

And as a bird sweeps over the lost earth

I hear the cry that is its solitude.

Now silent as the cross at windless noon

The coral sands that spread beneath me lie.

O would that it had been the sun that caught

My friend, exiled from light, whose fate recalls

Young Icarus, the illustrious aeronaut

Who tumbled headlong down the marble sky…

 

Always as now, I shall remember him,

Feeling the rapturous stillness of the stars,

When across sleeping fields the shadows swim.

Always as now.’

 

Ian Davie ‘Aviator Loquitur’

 

‘Concerning martial valour, merit lies more in dying for one’s master than in striking down the enemy.

 

Tsunetomo Yamamoto ‘Hagakure’

 

‘The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun
.’

 

Ecclesiastes 1:9

The sun rose beyond the island. A breath of wind stirred the leaves of the coconut palms that lined the airstrip, their fronds
sashaying
together in a dance. On the breeze came an odour of raw fish, hibiscus and engine oil: the smell of the tropics. The runway faced eastwards, pointing towards the rising sun like a blade, its surface covered with sheets of pierced steel planking because of the monsoon. Lined up along the airstrip were the sixteen Mark VIII Spitfires of 607 Squadron, the planes arrayed in clusters of four, the backs of their sleek bodies arched against the increasing light, so they looked like a school of porpoises breasting the surf. The airfield was deserted except for the sentries guarding the main gate and the duty officer up in the wooden control tower. Sitting in his wicker chair the officer yawned and stretched and looked across at the empty runway. Out of the gloom a figure wearing flying kit emerged from one of the huts and began walking towards the aircraft. It was the pilot of the dawn patrol.

Before the Allied victory in Europe, the squadron had always gone out in pairs and most often in fours, but with the fall of Berlin and the Japanese defeat at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima the war, which seemed to have gone on for as long as anyone could remember, was now almost at an end. The once feared Imperial Japanese Airforce was no longer a threat and the main purpose of 607 Squadron’s patrols was to support Allied advances in the region and harass any Japanese shipping unwise enough to find itself caught in the open sea. It was only a matter of time until the Showa Emperor and his cohorts around the
Chrysanthemum
throne capitulated. Or so everyone, including Flight
Lieutenant
Edward Strickland, liked to think.

The pilot paused and took a Player’s from its packet. He put the cigarette to his lips, flicked open a lighter and lit it,
enjoying
the tobacco smoke that filled his lungs before replacing the lighter and cigarette packet in the top pocket of his shirt. He stood and stared at the ascending sun, its rays penetrating the gold clouds of the horizon, reaching out across the sky like a many bladed fan. It reminded him of benediction at school when the priest held up the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament, while they all bowed their heads. It was a moment of epiphany, the sunlight falling in slabs through the tall windows, the clouds of incense dusting the air with myrrh, the pale candles flickering on the altar, the choristers’ voices filling the church with song. And now at dawn on the other side of the world here was another, albeit different, benediction. Standing alone on the runway, Strickland bowed his head, but this time before the sun god. He stood up and stubbed out his cigarette and walked towards his plane.

The ground crew were making their final preparations to the Spitfire, when they caught sight of the tall figure striding towards them. The pair took a step back and saluted the young officer, who returned the greeting.

‘Morning Jenkins, morning Watson.’

‘Morning Mr Strickland,’ they replied.

‘Nice day for it,’ said Jenkins.

‘Let’s hope so,’ answered the pilot.

Strickland ducked down to check the plane’s undercarriage and walked around the back to look at the rudder and the
ailerons
. Satisfied, he went to the front and inspected the nose cone and the propeller, before rounding the wing and climbing up into the cockpit. He got in and placed his parachute beneath him and sat down. Jenkins, the fitter, helped strap him in while Watson, the rigger, stepped out in front of the aircraft, waiting to guide the pilot onto the runway. Having done up the harness Jenkins patted Strickland’s shoulder and wished him luck. The officer murmured his thanks as he attached the oxygen mask to
his face and pulled the goggles down over his eyes. He made sure the ground flight switch was set to ground; fuel on; brakes on (air pressure sufficient); magnetos on; radiator fully open; RPM lever forward and throttle set half an inch open and ready to start. Strickland waved, signalling that everything was correct.

‘Contact!’ he called.

The rigger looked about and saw the Spitfire was clear.

‘Contact!’ came the response.

The pilot simultaneously pressed the start button and boost coil and the Merlin engine gave a cough, spluttered into life and began to roar. He checked the dials on the instrument panel: engine revs, oil pressure and temperature. Everything was fine. He opened the throttle gently, watching the RPMs on the rev counter and placing his feet on the rudder pedals, he checked the tail rudder in the cockpit mirror. He then glanced at the ailerons on either side, working them up and down with the joystick. Strickland stared at the runway ahead of him, the sun rising above the ocean, the dawn sky framed by his canopy window. The pilot waved away the chocks and opening the throttle a fraction, he released the brakes and pulling the stick back into his stomach, he nosed the plane out onto the airstrip.

Through the whirring circle of his propeller, he could see Watson motioning him on until he was out in the middle of the runway. The rigger stepped aside with a final wave and in his ear phones Strickland heard the officer in the control tower telling him he was clear for take-off. The pilot thanked him and the voice wished him ‘bon voyage’ as he opened the throttle fully and eased the stick forward, lowering the nose and feeling the aircraft picking up speed. In front of him the engine growled and smoke belched from the twin banks of exhaust stacks on the cowling, the plane’s wheels racing across the steel planking. After three hundred yards the Spitfire left the ground, floating gracefully upwards; an unwieldy beast on land now becoming a winged chariot in the air. Flying with his left hand, Strickland moved the metal lever with his right, raising the undercarriage,
and a red light with the word ‘up’ illuminated on the left-hand side of the instrument panel. He pulled the RPM lever aft reducing the revs for the climb, checked the controls and felt the plane swing briefly from side to side as it rose like a lark into the dawn sky.

After throttling back to climb power, the pilot looked down at his compass and took a bearing of seventeen degrees east, swinging out across the lightening sea, before turning inland and flying back over the flat corrugated roofs of the camp. Beyond the houses the jungle-clad mountains rose up green and massive, the valleys and canyons filled with a low, pale cloud that would soon dissipate. As the sun rose above the mountains patches of forest steamed, the Spitfire climbing all the time as it traversed the dark heart of the island, a thin trail of condensation flowing in its wake.

There were stories that the interior of the country contained tribes who had never set eyes on a white man. If they were true, Strickland wondered what these people must think of the great metal birds that roared and swooped above them. Would these people run and hide, or would they drop to their knees in fear, raise their arms in supplication and beg for mercy? It was a strange thought and he hoped they would not be too afraid.

The pilot continued on above the mountains, keeping the canopy open so that he could feel the morning breeze upon his face. He did this out of habit and not simply because he sought relief from the enervating tropical heat.

 

Some years before during the long, hot summer of 1940
Strickland
had a lucky escape above the hop fields of Kent. After a dogfight in which he had shot down a Dornier, he was
preparing
to return home when he was jumped by a Messerschmitt 109. He had been so excited shooting down the bomber, his first solo kill, that he briefly relaxed, failing to look in his cockpit mirror as he followed the stricken plane to the ground, ignoring everything he had been taught in the euphoria of the moment.
The pilot only realised he had become the prey when he saw a line of tracer streaking past his starboard wing. Having spent all his ammunition on the Dornier he had none left, but Strickland was sure he could outmanouevre the slightly quicker Me-109, so long as he kept low and hugged the contours of the land.

But try as it might the Spitfire could not shake off its pursuer, who stuck resolutely to its tail. In his mirror the pilot could see the yellow-nosed Messerschmitt in close pursuit, small flames erupting in its nose and wings each time the enemy fired his cannon. His adversary was no novice and he decided to climb for a thick bank of cloud so as to lose him. The move surprised the German and Strickland had almost reached the mass of cloud, when a burst of gunfire hit his aircraft. The plane heaved and shuddered like a stricken horse and flames poured from the engine, the cockpit filling with choking black smoke. After trying the controls Strickland knew there was nothing he could do except bale out and he quickly unstrapped himself and tried to pull the canopy open. But a piece of shrapnel had struck it during the attack and the casing would not budge. With flames now pouring into the cockpit he desperately tried to prise it open, tearing his gloves off in order to get a better grip on the release catches. In mounting panic he struggled in vain to free the canopy, yet it refused to move. He reached down and grabbed the crowbar in the cockpit door, but his hands could not grip the burning metal. With flames licking all around, the pilot pushed the aircraft into a steep dive in a bid to blow the fire out. Instead the steepness of the descent increased the smoke, causing him to black out and the next thing Strickland knew, he was falling free from the aircraft.

Somehow the gravitational forces had pulled the canopy open and he dropped out, shelled like a pea from a pod, as the plane flipped over on its back. As he tumbled through the sky the pilot regained conciousness and pulled his parachute cord, the silk canopy opening above him in a great white bloom. He raised his eyes to check his lines were not twisted and then looked about.
But the Messerschmitt had disappeared and Strickland floated earthwards like some fallen angel. It was only as he descended that he became aware of the pain in his hands and saw the skin on them was raw and blistered like seared meat. The pilot landed safely in an apple orchard and after convincing a
pitchfork-wielding
farmer with some forthright Anglo-Saxon that he was not a member of the Luftwaffe, but a flight lieutenant in the RAF, he passed out again.

He woke up a day later to find himself in hospital, his body swathed in bandages. His face and hands had been scrubbed and sprayed with tannic acid which had formed into a thick black scab, while his eyes had been bathed and swabbed with gentian violet. He lay there in bed wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy, with two holes for his eyes and another for his mouth. Fortunately, Strickland’s head and face had been protected by his goggles and helmet and the burns, although painful, were superficial. But his hands were a mess and would require several operations.

The doctors kept him full of morphine to dull the pain, so the days passed in a blur of pale floating shapes and gentle
murmurings
, as he lay mute and bound in his bed. In those first few days Strickland remembered only the whiteness of the hospital ward and the hushed voices of the nurses, as they flitted to and fro like anxious moths. He was mostly delirious and often suffered from nightmares. Either he was struggling to get out of his burning aircraft, or he watched helplessly as another pilot was attacked by an enemy fighter. He would shout and scream at his fellow aviator, but to no avail and could only look on horrified as the plane burst into flames. After one such dream Strickland woke to find three orderlies holding him down as a nurse
administered
an injection. Eventually, the amount of morphine in his system was reduced and the fog that had enveloped him lifted and his mind no longer wandered quite as much as it did. But there was nothing they could do about the nightmares, which continued for some time.

Strickland’s parents visited as soon as he was well enough to see them and he remembered his mother being brave as she stood at the end of his bed, trying not to cry. He made some lame joke about being like the Invisible Man and that when they finally removed his bandages, there would be nobody there. The surgeon had been kind enough to laugh, but he could see his parents did not find his predicament in the least bit amusing. There was a look of anguish on his mother’s face when he announced that he hoped he would be back flying again soon. But the surgeon merely smiled and said he should take each day as it came.

As his strength returned the pilot was able to sit up and talk and he always remembered the kindness and diligence of the sisters who tended the ward. There was one man who had crashed during take-off on a training flight, his plane
cartwheeling
across the end of the runway, blazing like a Catherine Wheel before exploding in a sheet of flame. As the rescue team pulled him from the burning wreckage it was said the skin on his arms came off like a pair of gloves. It was a miracle the man had
survived
and like every other burned pilot, he was taken to the same special unit for life-saving surgery. The place was much like any other hospital, where people came in grievously wounded and either left through the front door, or else in a long wooden box out the back. The only difference with the burns unit at East Grinstead was that there were no mirrors. And when the nurses removed the bandages from the novice’s face you knew why. Even the other patients had to turn away, the sight was so
terrible
. But the medical staff were unabashed. Only once did a nurse faint and she had been new. With or without a face, the young flier was treated with the same care and dedication as everyone else.

Another regular visitor for Strickland was his
commanding
officer Archie Lambton, a bluff pipe-smoking Lancastrian and an accomplished cricketer who had played for his county. He also captained the squadron’s XI and the flight lieutenant
opened the batting with him. The two of them regularly had a partnership of a century or more, the wing commander invariably chalking up at least fifty. One afternoon Lambton arrived and pulling up a chair, he sat down and told his subordinate that he had some good news. He had recommended him for a Distinguished Flying Cross.

BOOK: Under the Sun
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