A Sense of Purpose
An RAF squadron in 1940 faces an unexpected challenge.
Squadron Leader Eric Baker was in a foul mood. He climbed into his Hurricane without speaking to the fitters, and that itself was unusual. So said Sergeant Wood anyway, not that Wood had known his Squadron Leader for very long, Baker had led the squadron for less than three months, having been promoted and transferred after the chaos of Dunkirk.
“But you gets to know a bloke,” Wood had told the other fitters. “And it weren’t like him. He always says summat, not like the others. He were in a real temper.”
The focus of Baker’s wrath was climbing into a Spitfire not two hundred yards away. No one could have missed Group Captain Foster. Tall and gangling, he quite literally stood out in any crowd. And then there was his kit. In the hot summer of 1940, most pilots were flying in uniform jackets, or even shirtsleeves. It was cooler and more comfortable; it also made it easier to bale out of a Hurricane. But not Group Captain Foster, when he flew, which wasn’t often, he wore the full regulation kit: flying suit, sheepskin lined jacket, Mae West – the lot.
“Trouble is, your chaps are sloppy,” he said. “A smart squadron is an efficient squadron.”
Eric Baker had left school at fourteen to work as an engineering apprentice on a small private airfield near his home town of Preston. Baker worked hard and Fred Murray, the airfield’s instructor, began to take him on test flights, first as an observer then as a trainee pilot. In 1939 both men joined the RAF reserve, and were assigned to the only reserve squadron flying the new single winged Hurricanes. When the phoney war ignited the squadron was sent to France. Murray had been shot down over the Dunkirk beaches in May. Eric had started the war as a sergeant pilot, He still felt uncomfortable in the officers’ mess, and he found it difficult to believe that he was commanding a squadron.
Eric glanced across the airfield and then taxied out onto the grass runway. He waited until all twelve planes of the squadron had left dispersal, then opened up the Rolls Royce Merlin engine and powered across the field. After two hundred yards, a gentle pull on the stick eased the fighter into the air. He banked as he climbed, the horizon tilted and the airfield swam into view. Foster’s Spitfire was on the runway; the rest of the Hurricanes were safely into the air.
Trouble was they were sloppy. Few of the pilots had a complete uniform and the ground crew were even worse. It wasn't just uniform; a cynical atmosphere of indifference pervaded the squadron. This had been hinted at when Baker had been promoted. “Low morale” they’d said. “Need someone to lead from the front. Got a bit messed around in France.”
Eric circled until all the aircraft were with him, then turned south and began to climb towards the sun. ‘A bit messed around’ - that was something of an understatement. The squadron had been the first to be posted to France, and one of the last to be evacuated. Sergeant Wood liked to describe how Jerry shells were landing on the runway as the last Hurri took off.
Most of the squadron’s equipment and all their personal possessions had been abandoned. On their return to England the squadron had been moved three times before being posted to a hastily established airbase near Southampton. New aircraft arrived alongside a new CO, to replace the previous squadron leader, who had been shot down over the Channel. One of Baker’s first official duties was an appointment with the Group Captain. There were three squadrons crammed onto the tiny airfield, all under the administrative charge of Group Captain Henry Foster.
“Not worth a bag of nuts,” he’d said. “If I were you I would transfer the lot, get some decent material.”
Eric had tried to argue that the squadron needed careful handling and some time to recover, especially after the ordeal in France.
“Especially over things like uniform regulations. Could these be relaxed, at least temporarily?”
Foster’s eyes had glazed over.
“Certainly not,” he’d barked. “They could find some decent clothes if they tried. They can’t be bothered. They’re a shower.”
The thirteen aircraft, twelve Hurricanes and one Spitfire, levelled off a ten thousand feet and adopted a loose formation of pairs. Foster’s plane flew a little way behind the others, like an afterthought. Visibility was superb, there were a few lights puffs of cumulus at about three thousand feet, and then nothing, a clear sky.
It had been a scorching summer. Along with many other experienced pilots, Eric prayed for foul weather, to keep the enemy bombers grounded. But each day seemed brighter than the next, and each day the bombers came.
Today the squadron was on convoy patrol. Below them the coast was sharply defined against the sea; to the south the English Channel stretched away into the shimmering haze. Eric hated flying over water. Fighters were notoriously bad at ditching; they tended to turn somersault, then sink very quickly, trapping the pilot. He had already seen the almost motionless black dots, which were a dozen colliers being shepherded by an armed trawler. He clicked the radio button on his mask.
“Convoy ahead, patrol formation.” Eric led the squadron in a wide sweep to starboard that would take them out to sea, then over the Isle of Wight and back to the ships.
The interview with Foster had been the first in a series of acrimonious exchanges. After each one the attitudes hardened a little further. Eric saw Foster as the worst kind of bureaucrat; his mindless devotion to the pettiest of regulations was infuriating. Foster made no allowances for the war. Fitters who had spent half the night repairing a mangled Hurricane had been put on a charge, accused of failing to shave, or of wearing dirty kit. Worse still was the way that Foster seemed to pick out the weakest for special attention.
For his part Group Captain Foster regarded Eric Baker with the contempt he lavished on all ‘part time airmen’. This was his description of the men who had volunteered ‘for the duration only’. Foster was a career officer; He was appalled at the way that pink faced striplings were taking over his air force. He had joined in 1925, and it had taken him fourteen long years to command a squadron. Now squadron leaders were two a penny. His own promotion to Group Captain was no consolation; it was an overdue recognition of his experience. He had gone through Cranwell with Chalky White, who was ADC at Group. White had come down to the airfield last month, oozing insincere commiserations.
Eric Baker represented everything about the wartime RAF that Foster disliked; he was young, a reservist, too easy on the men, and obviously no gentleman, not with an accent like that. Foster was damned if he would drop his standards just because there happened to be a war on. This patrol formation was a good example of Baker’s sloppiness; formation flying should be tight, wingtip to wingtip. Baker’s squadron was scattered all over the sky.
In Eric’s cockpit the radio crackled.
“Laycock red leader from Laycock control. Break off patrol and intercept raiders on vector nine zero, angels twenty, over.” Bombers at twenty thousand feet, that meant a long climb. Eric flicked the switch to transmit.
“Laycock control from Laycock red leader. Understood, Am turning now.” Eric pulled the Hurricane round to the east, and pushed the throttle through the thin tape that protected the emergency power slot.
“Buster everybody. Vector nine zero, eyes peeled.” Eric remembered that one of the pilots was on his first operational flight; he pressed transmit again.
“Full power, Course due east.”
The final clash with Foster had come the day before. Relations between the two men had deteriorated to the point where they took elaborate precautions to avoid each other. The previous morning the squadron had been scrambled to intercept a bomber formation heading inland. At the last moment one of the new pilots had dropped away from the battle and returned to base. He’d noticed a sudden drop in oil pressure, or so he’d said. Baker suspected that the real problem was nerves, or shyness as the pilots called it. He would have a word later on, offer some reassurance; he was sure the lad would sort himself out. He didn’t get the chance. Foster met him at dispersal.
‘I’ve put that coward under close arrest. I’ll stamp his card personally.” Aircrew accused of cowardice had their identity cards stamped with the letters LMF – lack of moral fibre.
Eric protested, first outside the dispersal hut in front of the whole squadron, then in Foster’s office. This was no more private; the two men could be heard clear across the airfield.
“You have no right to put one of my men under arrest.”
“I’ve every right. I am the officer commanding this aerodrome. You and your squadron come under my authority.”
The argument raged for some time, finally Eric had completely lost his temper.
“And just what do you know about what it is really like up there?” he’d said. “You make damn sure the coast is clear before you go up.”
After that there was little more to say. Group Captain Foster announced that in addition to reporting Pilot Officer Fleming for cowardice in the face of the enemy, he would be reporting Squadron Leader Baker for gross insubordination.
“Tomorrow I will fly with the squadron to inspect its operational performance.”
And there he was, in his Spitfire, which he always chose to fly, even when, as today, he was flying with a Hurricane squadron. Bloody silly really, thought Eric, Hurris had shot Spits down in the summer. In a high speed battle a Hurribird was awfully tempted to shoot at anything that wasn’t a Hurribird.
The bombers were visible now. Radar had the right height for a change. Above the bombers Messerschmitt 109s waited. Who had invited them along?
“Bombers first chaps, ignore the others.”
Closer, closer, he could see details now: squadron markings, glittering Perspex, tracer curling in. Eric could see the pilot in the cockpit before he pressed the red firing button, and then the bomber was a blur and he was banking around for a second attack.
Planes everywhere, the bomber formation was breaking up as the pilots shied away from the Hurricanes, but the 109s were in there was well. Two planes were spiralling down to the sea.
Another bomber: steady the Hurri, then a long burst with the eight Browning machine guns. Silver flashes along the port wing crept up to the engine, which disappeared in a cloud of steam and oil. The bomber turned away, banking around to the south east and home. Eric watched the stricken plane; they wouldn’t make it, not on one engine. Turning again, he saw the lone Spitfire on the edge of the melee. What was Foster waiting for, an invitation?
Crowded sky again, another squadron was climbing to join the fun. Eric picked out the bombing leader and closed in. Nearer, nearer, check the mirror, nothing on my tail, check the instruments, no problems, steady the aircraft, don’t let her slide, nearer, nearer. “The expert gets in close, gentlemen, and makes sure of the kill.”
Eric pressed the gun button. Three seconds fire sent five hundred bullets towards the bomber, every fourth bullet was an incendiary. From Eric’s perspective it looked as if the bomber’s cockpit was covered with little yellow sparks.
Without warning the bomber exploded, expanding to fill Eric’s canopy. Huge chunks of metal flew past, and a white flash burned into Eric’s eyes, he must have hit the bomb load. The Hurricane was flung sideways by the blast; with one hand Eric fought the controls, with the other he rubbed his eyes. Oil covered the canopy and he could barely see through it. At that moment an aircraft appeared, seconds away, slanting in for the kill. Reflexes took over, Eric fired and dived at the same time; the other plane span off, already in flames. As it dropped away, Eric clearly saw the distinctive wing shape and red and white roundels. A Spitfire: he’d shot down a Spitfire.
Eric turned again, but now the sky was empty. Far away to the east, the surviving bombers had almost reached the French coast. The other Hurricanes were high above and on their way home. Below him there was an explosion of foam and spray as the Spitfire hit the water. It broke up immediately; the fuselage sinking first, disappearing in a second. The wings remained floating for a while, but soon, they too slid beneath the oily water.
When Eric landed he taxied the Hurricane to the refuelling bowser, then almost ran to his office and slammed the door. He should have reported to the intelligence officer, debriefed his pilots, checked on casualties. Instead he sat and stared at the office door, which became a screen on which he projected the last moments of the Spitfire again and again. There was no doubt about whose Spitfire it was. He wondered what the RAF did to pilots who shot down their superior officers.
Part of Eric’s mind was simply numbed by the enormity of what had occurred, but another part was angry. He had worked hard on this squadron, in the last few weeks they had begun to function as a team again, and now all the work would be ruined. He would be court martialled, demoted, disgraced. And the squadron would sink back into the cynicism and apathy. It was a damn shame.
Eric sat there for a long time before a knock at the door brought him back to the present. “Here they come,” he thought, “after my blood.”
Corporal Morgan appeared looking tense and frightened. Eric wondered what Morgan had to worry about; he was the one with the problems.
“It’s the ADC, sir. From Group.” Morgan ushered in the huge frame of Air Commodore White, who had responsibility for all the squadrons in the area. As he shut the door, Morgan gave Baker an odd look of sympathy, almost of complicity.
The ADC returned Baker’s salute and walked to the window. “Just a quick visit, Baker, see how you are getting on. No don’t bother, I’ll be alright here.” Famously too large to fit into a modern fighter aircraft, White was spending a frustrating war flying a desk at headquarters. “I’ve been sat down all day, need to stretch the legs a bit. I must say that I am very impressed, your chaps have certainly come on since you took command.”
Eric looked on, bemused. This wasn’t going as expected.
“Yes. I noticed it as soon as I arrived. Purposeful, bustling atmosphere, everyone had a job to do. The intelligence bod tells me you sorted out some bombers. Good show, pity about the Group Captain though.”
Eric went rigid in his chair; he tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come.
“No need to explain. I can see how bad a shock it has been. Your chaps told me anyway.”
Eric held his breath.
“Took on too many Messerschmitts,” said White. “Damn shame, fine record, regular officer you know, we were at Cranwell together. Still, he shouldn’t have been flying, not at his age. We’ve got to leave that to you younger chaps.”
“Yes, sir.” Eric was totally confused, a confusion that increased as he escorted the ADC around the airfield. In the mess he saw pilot officer Fleming, who should have been in the cells, under arrest. In the station log there was no mention of the incident, nor was there any record of yesterday’s argument with Foster. There was a torn page in the log.
“Sorry about that, sir,” said the sergeant. Tea got spilt, still, I’ve copied it out again, as you can see.”
“Well I had better be off back to Group, paperwork y’know.” White walked across the grass towards his waiting car. Baker’s Hurricane was parked a few yards away. White turned back.
“I forgot to offer my congratulations; you downed three today.”
“Two, sir, only two,” said Eric.
“Don’t go hiding your light Baker,” said the ADC. “Your chaps told me, and it’s in the claims book: two bombers and a fighter.”
Over on the Hurricane’s wing, Sergeant Wood leant back to inspect his handiwork. Stencilled below the cockpit were three new cartoon planes to add to the ten above. The fresh paint gleamed in the sun.
The ADC’s car began to drive away, then stopped, and White rolled down a window.
“Remember what I said at your promotion Baker?”
“No sir, what was that?”
“All this squadron needed was a sense of purpose. You have given that to them, well done.”
© 2011 Phil Revell