In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
“Where’s the bugger gone?” Feverishly he searched the horizon but there was no sign of the menacing shape with its sinister black crosses. He banked to the right and searched in his mirror, being temporarily blinded as the sun reflected back at him. Angrily he shook his head and moved into a left-hand turn. Suddenly he saw the German, in his mirror, closing on him from behind at perhaps 500 yards.
“Christ Almighty, how did you get there?” Savagely he banked back to the right as he heard the rat a tat tat of the Meschersmitt’s guns. A searing pain burned into his back and right leg. Desperately he rolled the Spitfire, his body pressed hard against his seat as the earth and sky changed places. Now he was back straight and level and, glory to God, there he was, the bastard, 300 yards in front. He released a three-second burst from the Brownings and smiled grimly as pieces flew off the 109’s fuselage and a thin trail of black smoke came from its engine.
At almost the same time black smoke began pouring from his own engine, now knocking in a very alarming fashion. The aircraft’s windscreen was splattered and then covered with black oil, destroying all forward vision. “Oh, shit, Tom, it’s time to leave.” The sharp smell of glycol came to his nostrils and the black engine smoke was laced with orange flame. He reached above his head to release his canopy, but his right arm would not obey his brain’s command. He looked at it, hanging limply at his side, the lower sleeve of his blue uniform soaked with blood, sticky on his paralysed fingers.
“Bugger me, you’re in trouble, Tom old lad.” The flames were licking at his feet and several of the instruments exploded in front of his face. He was choking for breath. Frantically he tugged at the canopy release. Nothing. “I can handle dying, but Christ, I don’t want to burn.” The pedals were not responding and with his good hand he thrust the stick as far forward as it would go. Better to die in the sea than in this bloody cockpit. Holding the stick in position with his left knee, he grasped the canopy handle again with all his might. The Merlin screamed its protests, the smoke filled the cockpit and his flying boots were burning.
He was floating, the wind whistling quietly through the silk of his parachute. “How did I get here? I don’t remember pulling the ripcord.” Below he could see the Spitfire hurtling in flames towards the sea. Off to his right the 109 spiralled lazily in the same direction. There was no sign of a ‘chute. He glanced almost idly around the sky. Nothing! No one! Only a few minutes ago the same sky had been a writhing swamp of aircraft; Spits, Hurricanes, 88’s, 109’s. Where had they all gone? His right arm did not move, but it didn’t hurt either, nor did his right leg which he noticed with mild surprise no longer had its boot. He laughed. “Blimey, I’ll get indented for that.” The laughing hurt his back, but that was easing too. He wanted to sleep.
It was a large office, like an orderly room, with a desk and a RAF corporal sitting at it, papers scattered in front of him. A queue of eight or ten men shuffled forward. Tom noticed they were both RAF and Luftwaffe. The man in front of him was a big man who turned as Tom joined the end of the queue. He was holding a flying helmet in his left hand. He was very blonde and very blue eyed. Tom knew instinctively who he was.
“You were in the 109.” It was a statement, not a question. “Are we dead?”
The big man nodded. “I suppose we must be. This sure as hell isn’t the Berlin Opera House. And you are the pilot of the Spitfire. You fought very well.”
“You did well too. It’s a bit of a handful the 109.”
The German shook his head. “Ja, the Gustaf is OK, but not like the Spitfire. If we had Spitfires we would win the war.” He clicked his heels and gave a little bow. “Muller, Johannes Muller. They call me Hansie. Hauptmann, Luftwaffe.” He held out his hand.
Tom stared at the man he had killed. “Flying Officer Tom Graves, RAF.” He did not take the hand.
“You will not shake my hand, Tom?”
“You are my enemy, my country’s enemy.”
The German shrugged and kept his hand outstretched. “Napoleon once said, ‘In death there are no enemies, only soldiers’”
Tom stared at him and slowly took the hand. “Napoleon was right.”
They shuffled forward. It was Muller’s turn. The corporal was now wearing a German uniform. “Mein Herr. Ihren Namen, bitte.” He bowed slightly.
“Hauptmann Johannes Muller, Luftwaffe.”
The corporal checked his papers and made a tick. “Alles in Ordnung, Herr Hauptmann. Bitte gehen Sie durch.” He indicated with his hand and Muller walked past.
“I will wait for you, Tom. We will have some beers. Ja?”
Tom smiled and waved. The corporal was back in his RAF uniform. How did he do that? “Sir.”
“Flying Officer Graves, 65 Squadron at Hornchurch.”
The man bent to his papers. He looked up, puzzlement on his face. “Your service number, sir?”
Tom repeated the number. The corporal was still worried. “I’m sorry, sir, we have no posting advice for you. I can’t admit you without one. You need to go back to Hornchuch and await your posting.”
Muller had been listening. “Don’t worry, Tom. I will be here when you come back. I’ll wait for you.”
He was floating again, swinging easily from side to side on his parachute, only about 800 feet from a green field. Small brown figures were running across the wheat. They were soldiers. Tom laughed softly. They were British; Germans would have been running faster. He came down heavily, trying to roll in the approved manner. His body was on fire with pain and a deep moan escaped his lips, past the salty taste of blood.
An elderly Home Guard captain, red-faced and breathless levelled a Webley revolver at Tom’s head. “Don’t shoot, I’m British, RAF.”
The captain holstered the revolver. “Point those bloody things somewhere else,” he barked at his little gaggle of soldiers. “It’s all right, old chap, you’re safe now.”
“How’s the other pilot?”
“What other pilot? You were in the Spitfire, they only have one pilot.”
“Hansie, the German. How is he?”
The captain stared in sympathy. “Don’t worry, he’s dead. In the bloody Channel. Don’t worry about the bloody enemy.”
Tom was sinking into a sleep again as he lay in the wheat field. “No enemies in death. No enemies, only soldiers.”
The captain stared for a brief second before he bellowed. “Corporal Simmons, get that bloody ambulance to get a bleedin’ move on. This boy is worse than we think.”
Written by BM