The pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain had mainly come from the pre-war R.A.F. in what had become known as "The best flying club in the world" and had performed magnificently, relearning many lessons. They had started out basing their formations on 'vic' of three aircraft but this had proved to be too rigid and although it looked good we had forgotten the hard lessons of the first world war.
That very great man and fine airfighter, the German Oswald Boelcke had built his formations on the pair. Two aircraft with the second looking after his section leader had been well proved and had been carried forward during the Spanish Civil War by the German volunteers in Boelcke's "finger formation". So called because it was comprised of two pairs flying in the positions of the finger tips of an extended hand.. The leader flew with his No2 in echelon on one wing with the sub section leader (No3) on his other wing and No 4 on his other wing. In action the two pairs would normally split up and No 3 would become leader of his subsection. (Take another look at your hand.) A good No2 was a flight leader's most important acquisition and could well be delayed in becoming a leader because he was so much in demand.
In mid 1943 war in the
air for the fighter pilot was going through considerable change as it
became necessary to escort day bombers at greater ranges, far greater
than the Spitfire's range. The Mustang was coming into it's own. It
was designed to specifications of the R.A.F. to be manufactured in
great numbers in U.S.A but had proved to have poor performance at
high altitude. When an Alison built Merlin was installed it proved to
be a far better fighter and had (with two wing tanks plus a belly
tank, all of which could be jettisoned) the advantage of great range
so it proved perfect for escorting Flying Fortresses.
Meanwhile, the Operation Training Units in U.K. were making sure that their pilots under training were being given the finest possible training. Their instructors had mainly fought in the Battle of Britain. Many of them resented being on training when they wanted to be on squadron duty and some of them were recovering from flying accidents. We already had more training than had been expected before war broke out and it was constantly being drilled into us that air fighting was our role and that flying ability was only part of it. We were allowed almost limitless clay pidgeon shooting to get us used to allowing the all important deflection to bring down our opponents. Not only the aiming but when the guns were actually firing there had to be no shoddy flying, the flying instruments had to be absolutely dead centre with no yaw or sideslip. If one was under fire from the air or groundfire then every effort to throw off the enemy aim was to be used and as violently as necessary. Anti aircraft fire at altitude was another matter altogether. In this case changes of direction of a few degrees or slow changes of altitude were used in the hope that by the time we were at the point calculated we should be somewhere else!
The cost of all this training must have been astronomical so, if we were unfortunate enough to find ourselves down in enemy territory we must use every effort to get back and with this in mind we were to be taken out in a blacked out van and dropped, one by one with nothing but a coin to phone for help. (Not advised!) More of this later.
Click to view the controls of the Spitfire I
Click to view the controls of the Spitfire IX
We were encouraged to get into dog fighting and 'tail chasing' among ourselves, not that we needed much urging to do so. Blacking out was one of the curses of 'pulling too much 'G'. The mammalian eye is kept spherical by the pressure of the fluid within so when subjected to 'G' the retina is the first organ to suffer so, there is first a 'greyout' and tunneling of vision and finally a complete blackout of all vision. There is little one can do about it. A glance at the rudderbar of a fighter aircraft will show that there are two pairs of stirrups. The bottom set are used in normal flying and the top pair when "pulling 'G'." This draws the knees up towards the chest and in some small way prevents blood from pooling in the legs. High 'G' is not the most pleasant thing in human experience. Naturally everything becomes more heavy, whatever spare flesh there is on a healthy young body obeys the new gravity, cheeks sag away from the eye sockets and keeping the jaw closed becomes more of an effort. It is a good idea to keep the right hand firmly on the control column and the left hand on the throttle etc: It is not that an arm weighs five times as much but it does mean that it feels unfamiliar and one tends to over compensate.
It was in one of these 'dog fights' that I learned not to be too clever. My "opponent" was on the opposite side of the tail chasing circle when I decided to go into a near vertical dive to shake him off. We were at about 35,000ft when I started to push the stick forward, just enough to stop the Merlin cutting out. The speed built up very fast but I did not trim the nose down (remember that the Spit has to be trimmed nose down as speed builds up.) and with the engine near override it was becoming difficult to stop the nose coming up. Finally I had to hold it forward with both hands and all my strength.......Something had to give. The control column slammed back against the seat and I blacked out instantly. I came to semi inverted and stalled. Very much shaken I made my way back to base. My "opponent" landed shortly afterwards. "What the hell happened to you?" he hissed at me. "One moment I was trying to pull a bead on you and then you just vanished". We both kept quiet about it.
I must admit that I had a good look at the wings to see if there was any sign of a droop. It is just the same at sea. The ship is usually stronger than the man.
Next: - Brighton
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Edward Sparkes ©1998