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End of course with 57 OTU

Training continued with an unrelenting search for excellence. We concentrated for a time on ground level warfare, firing and bombing ground and sea targets. This included a considerable amount of low-level flying and aerobatics, which consisted of approaching the target at very low level and violent evasive action on breakaway. This gave us authorised low flying. Oddly enough it was not quite as much fun as when it was done in defiance of authority.

On my first detail a latent ambition was realised. Newcastle was not far to the south of Eshott and from there it was not difficult to find traces of Hadrian's Wall that remarkable frontier that for a time represented the northern limit of the Roman empire. It was a remarkable opportunity and as far as I could my starboard wing was never more than a few feet above it. It was followed as far as it could be seen and it was with a sense of disappointment that the other shore was reached.

[A small diversion here to explain the origins of the terms port and starboard. As is often the case we have to look to the sea for the explanation. Our Viking forefathers left us with a wealth of terms that came from their mastery of the sea. For example the measure of the fathom came from pulling up the lead line and counting how many times the depth could be counted by his outstretched arms or 'fathom'. They sailed ships that were steered by a specialised flat oar in the stern of the ships on the styrbord (steerboard) side. That remained almost unchanged but it meant that the ships were moored on the other side, which naturally became the ladebord or loading board, which was anglicised to larboard. However, this side eventually had an entry door or Port! I remembered all this by the mnemonic that "Port is red and best *left* alone". The starboard light was green.]

Back to the air! Formation flying at 35,000ft (Angels 35!) and attacking incoming aircraft, that were first identified on our radios as "bogeys" (unidentified aircraft), and later confirmed as "bandits" (enemy aircraft). Followed by high altitude dogfights in which we were, once again, reminded that height was so easily lost, particularly at high altitudes and height always gives the advantage. We also flew in 'Balbos' named after the pompous Italian Air Marshall who insisted on flying with huge formations.

Our ground studies occupied almost half of our time and we were rehearsed time after time in how to 'bail out' (escape by parachute) and how to 'ditch' (land on the sea) and get out before she dived under, which was pretty soon in a Spit. Far better to bail out as soon as things became dire. One method was to undo radio and oxygen, pull the pin that held the restraining harness, open the canopy, turn upside down and fall out. Most of us felt that we would rather undo everything, open the canopy, trim elevators fully forward and let the control column go forward which would eject us well clear of the tail.

These escape procedures included exercises with the K Type dinghy that all 'singles' pilots carried. It was an advantage to be small! We were also given instruction on the controls of the Messerschmitt 109 in case we could steal one. We were also given an idea of the Fieseler Storch, which was a communications aircraft used in the same way as our Lysander. Our first duty if we crash landed was to destroy the aircraft and a flare was provided for this purpose. The most important item was to blow up the IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe).This was a device that sent a signal to our radar indicating a friendly aircraft. It appeared on the 'trace' as a small blip.

The C.O. had taken an instant dislike to me at our first meeting at which he thought that I had taken the side of a young pilot who had incurred his wrath. (See Spitfires @ Last.) There was nothing to be done about it as he was not a man to be crossed. I had only just met the young man and probably exchanged no more that a score of words and never saw again. I resigned myself to his hostility, which seemed to have rubbed off on some of the instructors. That wretched logbook had much to do with it. I can hardly blame them. For a new pilot to turn up and present a logbook twice as thick as a normal one and bound in blue leather with his name and all four initials in gold leaf is asking for trouble. It was supposed to be presented as an honour but it became a constant source of irritation.

Before the war it was customary to present the officer at the top of the course with a sword. That would have been ridiculous under the circumstances. I expected and would have preferred nothing. The well-meaning gift had become something of a poisoned chalice.

Possibly, in some ways it was a mistake for me to enter the services. Being unused to taking orders my reaction in facing opposition was to enter my own universe and try to get it to run parallel with authority. This was not new, it had happened throughout my school life. My schoolmates were amazed to hear me get a terrific wigging in complete silence and then to carry on as though nothing had happened. History was repeating itself. I just could not take authority or rank seriously and was as likely to chat away in the same way on whatever subject to an Air Marshall as I was to my fitter or rigger. It must have been difficult for them as well.

A tall, thin, bemedalled officer seemed to be the lightening conductor. He approached me one evening in the mess and told me that I was to run around the perimeter track the following morning before flights. This was quite a distance and often handed out as a 'punishment', anticipating a query he said "You know very well what you have been up to!" As far as I know he did not get the slightest flicker of an eyelash from me. Now, just what was he talking about? Was there a rumour that I had spent a 'dirty weekend' in Edinburgh with my 'batwoman'? I had taken a 48-hour leave there, but I had obviously travelled with a brother officer by train. Who we met there and what we did was our own business. I had taken a few photographs of that wonderful skyline and Prince's Street but I had sent the film to be developed through the NAAFI and there was nothing on it but inanimate objects.

My brother officer was not questioned and we discussed the fact that someone was out 'to get me'. In my heart I could not blame them. I must have been infuriating, as nothing seemed to touch me. The run could be construed as my needing the exercise. The morning was brisk and the run around the perimeter left me a little moist but in good shape. I had started at dawn but was still a little late at flights. To my surprise the tall thin officer was there waiting for me. "You are late Sparkes, report to the Adjutant." The penny dropped. They had nothing on me but now there was a real charge. Late for duty!

Aircrew presented the authorities with something of a dilemma. We were selected largely because we were individualists and a certain amount of 'wildness' was almost encouraged, but authority had to be obeyed. To this end an aircrew disciplinary section was set up in, of all places, Brighton and was situated in requisitioned hotels on the sea front. The train journey was, in some ways, made with some feeling of amusement. They deserved full marks for that pretty little trap. The time spent there embraced all ranks and comprised little but concentrated drilling and Physical Training by officers and non commissioned officers chosen for their fitness and devotion to duty.

On arrival all was in chaos, as it seemed that the whole station was being moved to Harrogate. There were quite a few inmates waiting to be returned to their squadrons until the move had been completed. A high number of them were Australians with a fair sprinkling of Canadians and Poles who were much envied for their beautiful solid silver wings. By and large they were a wonderful bunch of fellows who would make ideal companions on side in a serious emergency.

They all held travel warrants and were about to leave. It seemed that there was only a single WAAF clerk in the office and I was told to get my warrant there. She looked up at me and said "I thought that it must be you!" (There could not be many Pilot Officers with the name Sparkes and four Christian names.) The WAAF, a few years younger than I, was the daughter of my father's elder brother; my first cousin! She asked me what 'crime' I had actually committed so I suggested that she looked at the documents. It seemed that I was to stay there 'until my attitude to The Royal Airforce changed' but no 'crime' was mentioned. "What have you really been up to?" She was filled in as far as was possible but it appeared that low flying was the most often accusations. There seemed to be no obvious conclusion. She wrote out my rail warrant dated 48 hours ahead and promised to send the good news to my C.O. giving the date of my arrival two days ahead. "I expect you will want to phone Uncle Alec?" At that time we lived at Lower Cokeham, eight miles away as the crow flies and not much more by road. My parents arrived before we had time to catch up on all of the family gossip. They were surprised to see Joan with me and she told them that I would explain.

Brighton looked very drab in wartime and there were very few cars around. We parked and walked to the sea wall and looked out over the high tide while I explained that my unexpected '48' had been wangled. As we spoke a plane broke from the low cloud, flying parallel to the shore and less than 100yds away. It dropped a string of bombs that sent great gouts of spray into the air causing no damage at all. There was not even time for us to duck. Some poor devil of a German pilot had left his bombs behind below low tide mark and with little danger to himself. My poor mother could not quite understand what it was all about but the grin on my father's face must have revealed recollections that, perhaps my mother would rather not hear. It was a pleasant break but I was full of anticipation as my parents dropped me at Brighton station at the appointed time.

The C.O. wanted me in his office the moment I arrived. "WELL!" " Well sir I think that Brighton (the name stuck) is an excellent idea and I shall be happy to return when they have reorganised." His neck was swelling over his collar. He looked as though he was having a stroke. "*I will tell you*&ldots;GET OUT!" He obviously wanted me out of his hair. I was posted to the satellite station of Bulmer. (It is now a helicopter station.) It was a lovely little station, almost on the shore with a small mess where the tension of that at Eshott itself did not exist. The food was excellent as confirmed in letters home. There were only a few weeks to the end of the course and although the daily syllabus was the same it was a very happy time and much more relaxed. It seemed that there was no further effort 'to make me conform'. There was no stigma in being a Brighton Boy, in fact there was even a certain cachet.

At last a posting loomed, hopefully to a squadron in 11 Group covering the South and East of England. They were now flying Spitfire IXs that had finally proved a match for the Focke Wulf 190s. One of the great characteristics of the 190 was the fact that it did not need constant readjustment to the trim with change of speed etc. This meant one fewer thing to distract one's concentration from the actual air fighting.

An affectionate backward look at the aircraft on dispersal and home leave. Little did I realise that it was to be two years and one month before I was to fly my beloved Spitfires again.

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Edward Sparkes ©1998