Monday 5th August 1940
Jack Foster flew across the English Channel, returning to his coastal base. He was a twenty-two-year-old, and an excellent pilot, but had doubts about his Spitfire reaching the small airfield.
“Hullo Sutton, this is Red Four.” Jack briefly held the mouthpiece close.
“Go ahead, Red Four,” the controller said. “We thought we’d lost you.”
“I’m crossing the coast.” Jack gasped, pressing a hand to the gushing wound in his right arm. Like many servicemen in dire straits, he summoned humour. “Aircraft crippled, but I’m not ready to die.”
Thick black smoke billowed from the damaged Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and caressed the fighter’s wings.
“Can you make the airfield?” The controller lifted his binoculars, looking for the stricken aircraft.
“I’m low on fuel, but should make it.” Jack grimaced at the intense burning sensation of the bullet. By comparison, the small pieces of shrapnel in his right leg were uncomfortable. “I’ll need a visual on my landing gear. The aircraft has been punished.”
“Roger, Red Four.” The controller turned as his binoculars were taken from him.
The Squadron Leader scanned the skies to the east, adjusting the binoculars. Like all senior officers in Fighter Command, he treated every man in his unit with high regard.
“Bugger.” The officer lifted the controller’s handset and nodded to him, before raising the binoculars to inspect the approaching plane.
“Hullo Red Four, this is Reynolds.”
“Hullo, Sir—I’m sorry if I’ve disturbed your tea break.”
Reynolds had the respect of every airman in the small coastal command. He had flown at the head of the pack on many sorties and shown leadership against the enemy. He accepted Jack’s jibe and smiled as he glanced at the others in the control tower.
“Your starboard landing gear is jammed halfway.” Reynolds lowered the binoculars and shook his head. “Bring her in low and slow, and we’ll get to you.”
“Wilco, Sir.” Jack was already considering an alternative. He brought the sputtering plane in low but didn’t reduce his airspeed. He ignored the alarmed voice in his headset.
Every pair of eyes on the base watched as the aircraft approached low, but fast. Six pilots who’d been with Jack in the dogfights earlier watched in amazement. They’d seen his Spitfire dive over the English Channel. It was typical of Jack to have cheated death—again.
Jack’s Spitfire came skimming over the runway. When it was a few feet above the ground, the plane dropped and bounced off the short grass. There was a high-pitched screech from the tyre as the landing gear on the port side accepted the aircraft’s weight momentarily. The starboard wing dipped, but the pilot’s skill kept the craft balanced.
Even as he had let the plane fall, Jack was already pulling back to get his machine airborne again. He held on, and said a silent prayer, as the aircraft screamed low over the end of the airstrip, narrowly missing the nearby woodland.
The Squadron Leader raised the controller’s handset.“Red Four, this is the Squadron Leader, what the—” but the officer’s words dried up as he observed the underside of the stricken plane. The landing gear on the port side slowly elevated, attaining a closed position within the wing. A few seconds later, both sets of landing gear slowly lowered all the way.
“Hullo sir,” Jack said, when he was sure he’d felt the buzz and clunk of both mechanisms locking down. “Am I clear to land?” He banked to starboard to make a tight turn for another run to land.
“Come on in, son,” the officer said and smiled. “I’ll get you a cup of tea.” Reynolds watched as the crippled plane approached, slowed, and made a near-perfect landing. An ambulance and two fire tenders were already bouncing across the airfield, their crews hanging on desperately.
The Squadron Leader listened with satisfaction and pride, to the cheers from all the airmen and ground crew. The unit, like all others performing their dangerous task, was like a family.
Dornier-17’s, Junkers-88’s, and the slow but effective Heinkel-111’s all maintained regular flights across the English Channel with their deadly payload. The Luftwaffe crews were confident of completing their missions, because they had fast, agile Messerschmitt fighters riding shotgun, ready to ward off an attack by the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the Royal Air Force.
Jack Foster defied the station doctor and insisted on getting back to operational flying. The German bombing raids were daring, and with the confidence of fighter escorts, the missions were causing havoc over England. Selective targets like munitions factories and airfields were the order of the day. Jack knew every man or woman in a munitions factory, on the airfield, or in the air made a difference in the counter attacks.
It was a bright, sunny morning when Jack was released from the medical centre. He checked over his aircraft, which was repaired and ready for action. The other pilots of Red Flight were sitting around outside the crew room: drinking tea, enjoying a smoke, playing a board game, or watching fluffy white clouds float across the blue sky.
“Can we expect your life on the line today then Jack?” Paddy Murphy said.
“I’m no hero mate,” Jack said. “I don’t live to fight—I fight to live.” He had a proven record, having an array of fifteen small swastikas painted under his cockpit. He’d accounted for three of the Messerschmitt-109s on his most recent flight, although he and his plane had been severely damaged in the process.
“You had us all worrying down here,” Paddy said. “We were fighting over who could have that bottle of brandy in your locker.” They all laughed, including Jack.
Humour always relieved the tension, or so it seemed. What it really did, was hide the fear which chewed at every young man as he sat there, waiting, silently praying the politicians would sort it out, and there would be no more unnecessary death and destruction.
The fighter pilots sitting in the sunshine were like any service personnel. A laugh and joke were always close to the surface, but underneath was the realisation that one day they might pay the ultimate price in the service of their country.
The air-raid siren sounded. Five seconds later, every pilot was running towards his aircraft; flying helmet in hand. Behind them lay cups, abandoned cigarettes, half-finished chess and card games, and overturned chairs.
The first planes from Red Flight arrived over the English Channel to find a heavy workload. When they spotted the incoming German aircraft, there were six bombers, but they were escorted by twice as many fighters.
Fighter Command had assessed the bearing and realised the target was a munitions factory close to Sutton-in-the-Fields. The local town supplied most of the factory’s workforce. If the German mission were successful, there would be carnage and horrific loss of life.
The Messerschmitt pilots peeled off and paired with their opposite numbers among the Spitfires. The Heinkels flew on steadily and left the smaller planes in their individual dogfights. The Messerschmitt had speed, but the Spitfire was faster and more manoeuvrable. When the fight appeared even, another nine Luftwaffe fighters dived from altitude.
Jack Foster had already accounted for two enemy planes, when his aircraft was riddled with machine-gun fire. As he climbed to starboard to tackle the new wave of German fighters, his plane took a bellyful of rounds. He felt the airframe shudder as it was pounded.
Jack lined up to tackle an enemy plane, but his weapon system was damaged. He couldn’t engage a target. To make matters worse, while he was trying to sort out his weapons, he was strafed by a Messerschmitt. Jack’s plane was perforated along the starboard side, and so too were both of his legs. He screamed in pain and looked down at the gushing wounds.
It took all his strength and skill banking to port, to reach sea level and fly back to base.
“Hullo Sutton, this is Red Four. I’m on my way in.” He gasped. “I have holes in aircraft and both legs—and, no weapon system.”
“Red Four, this is Sutton Control.” The controller paused. “We have confirmation the target is the local town. We’re trying to get everything in the air. The airstrip is full Jack. Can you circle for ten minutes mate?”
Jack was already closing on the airfield and could see the stream of remaining Spitfires taxiing out and taking off. The bombers had to be stopped. Jack took a path between the airstrip and the control tower. As he flew past, his head was falling against the cockpit. He started to lose consciousness. The fuselage of Jack’s aircraft looked like a cheese grater.
“Red Four! Red Four!” The Squadron Leader’s voice screamed from the control tower. Reynolds stared with disbelief. “Pull her up son! Take her round again and land.”
“Wilco sir.” Jack lifted his head and focused. He pulled his plane up into the sky and regained altitude. He ignored the radio calls. His teeth were clamped together to deal with the excruciating pain. Tears joined the perspiration on his face. He banked to starboard and joined the planes heading for the battle.
Jack wiped his eyes and focused briefly on the fighters in the distance, pairing off and firing at each other. Approaching and, in close formation were the three surviving Heinkels.
“Sutton, this is Red Four.” Jack was almost incoherent.
“Sutton Control ... Reynolds speaking. Where are you Jack?”
“It was an honour to serve under your command, Sir. Goodbye.”
Jack’s eyes were closed when his fighter rammed the glass nosecone of the leading German bomber. He had died of his injuries before impact so didn’t feel the hail of bullets fired from the larger plane. The shrapnel from the explosion terminated the other two bombers.
Jack’s actions saved the munitions factory and the one thousand inhabitants of Sutton-in-the-Fields.
A tale from 'A Time for Courage: and other military stories'
Thursday 24th August 2018
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