Special Survey Flight, Supermarine Spitfire Mk I, Koblenz-Trier, Germany
The modified Spitfire sped along at three hundred and fifty miles per hour, the thin air of thirty three thousand feet sliding easily around it. Flying Officer Roger Attwater sat calmly in the cockpit, guiding the sleek aircraft over the rolling green landscape of western Germany far below.
He yawned and glanced at his watch. 4:10pm. He had been airborne for a little over an hour, most of that time in enemy airspace, but at this altitude and speed it was much the same as any other airspace. Out of reach of the smaller anti-aircraft guns, the crews of the Hun’s feared eighty-eight millimetre cannons would be lucky to find his altitude before he sped out of their range.
Attwater checked his instruments and smiled. He’d wondered if he would find the move to photographic reconnaissance rather dull, flying high above the enemy in an unarmed aircraft. He quickly came to crave the thrill of flying higher and faster than any other pilot, protected only by his speed and his altitude.
He yawned again and frowned. Come on man, snap out of it! Shaking his head, he glanced at the map on his knee and then peered down over the side of his aircraft. Clear of his run now, he gave it a few more seconds before turning the cameras off, to make certain he captured the photographs that Wing Command needed. He clicked the cameras off and looked at his map again, confirming the heading back to his airfield in north eastern France. He yawned again and began a gentle turn. His head swam dizzily.
“What the devil?” He’d flown these missions many times before, never bothered by the higher G-forces generated by such high speed. He loosened the turn a little but the dizziness worsened. Black spots appeared in front of him, quickly spreading across his field of vision. Oxygen! His eyes flicked towards the oxygen gauge, but his vision suddenly blurred. “Oh…dear…,” Attwater slurred. He slumped against the side wall of the cockpit, unconscious.
Attwater’s hand fell away, his fingers snagging the Spitfire’s control column and pulling it slightly back, tilting the aircraft into a gentle climb. His head flopped back against the headrest as the climb steadily steepened. Several seconds later the Spitfire passed through its critical angle of attack and stalled. The wings lost lift and the Spitfire started to fall towards the ground, its engine still roaring at full throttle. The torque of the engine pushed one wing slightly down, and the Spitfire flipped over onto its back. It accelerated towards the ground, and started to spin as it fell.
The two ton aircraft plummeted past twenty thousand feet, whirling in a violent corkscrew towards the ground. The force of the spin pressed Attwater’s limp body into the side of the seat. At fifteen thousand feet his head moved.
He opened his eyes groggily. Black spots flickered across his field of view. Precious seconds ticked by. Nausea gripped his stomach and he gagged.
The Spitfire fell past ten thousand feet. The engine screamed. Attwater gagged again and grimaced as stomach contents surged into his mouth. Bacon and eggs. He tried to lift his hand to his mouth but his arm flailed weakly against the oppressive force of the spin.
Turning his head, he looked up through the canopy. The German countryside filled his vision, spinning wildly. A wave of dizziness washed over him. He took a deep breath and looked down into the cockpit, blinking.
He looked at his instruments. The RPM gauge pressed against the red line. The needle on the altimeter spun anticlockwise, the thousand feet indicator ticking down menacingly. Attwater swallowed and reached for the throttle, his arm still weak. His finger tips fumbled against the handle. He bellowed and pushed harder against the force of the spin. He grasped the handle and yanked the throttle back to idle, quickly quieting the roaring engine.
Attwater blinked as his head cleared more. He looked at the turn indicator, its needle pinned to the right. He stomped on the left rudder pedal. The Spitfire spun again. His heart pounded in his chest. He held the rudder pedal down. The altimeter whirred past seven and a half thousand feet. The aircraft straightened out of the spin. “Yes!” Attwater exhaled deeply and released the rudder pedal.
Nose down, the Spitfire shuddered violently as it flashed earthwards in a steep dive. Attwater glanced at his instruments. Almost five hundred miles per hour. He grimaced. Ten seconds to improper ground contact. He yanked the control column back between his legs.
“Come on lovely,” he whispered, “come on.” The aircraft’s nose slowly began to come up, the controls sluggish against the force of so much speed. The Spitfire plummeted past two and a half thousand feet, still diving steeply. Attwater leant farther back on the stick, hoping he wouldn’t break it off, sending him ploughing into a Rhineland farm at nearly six hundred miles per hour.
“Come along now, you salty old cow!” Attwater’s heart pounded in his chest. The Spitfire’s nose came up slowly, but the green farmland below continued to rush towards him. He glanced at his instruments again. Four hundred feet. Oh, dear. He squeezed his eyes closed and pulled with everything he had. Several agonising seconds later the Spitfire levelled out.
Attwater centred the stick and opened his eyes. A densely wooded rise loomed directly in front of the Spitfire. His heart leapt and he yanked the stick back again. The Spitfire climbed a little, the trees on top of the hill rushing towards his canopy. He held the stick back, willing the wall of green down. The trees dropped out of his sight and the propeller sheared the tips off the uppermost branches with a dull thud. Attwater glanced at his altimeter. Eighty five feet! He held the stick back, bringing the aircraft quickly up past one thousand feet.
Attwater breathed out deeply. “Well I say, that was delightful.” He levelled the aircraft out at two and a half thousand feet and glanced down at his compass. East. He shook his head. “Away from the Fatherland, you silly sod.” He pulled the Spitfire around in a one hundred and eighty degree turn, then flicked the lever to release his harness, allowing him to lean forward to search for his map, thrown off his lap during the spin.
Why the Ministry of Aircraft Production saw fit to leave their aircraft without a solid cockpit floor had always baffled him. Now he cursed them, his map having vanished somewhere into the fuselage beneath him. Attwater groped around under his seat. A deep boom erupted outside the aircraft. Several pings and a louder clang rang out as something rattled against the Spitfire’s fuselage. Attwater’s stomach clenched and he sat bolt upright. An angry black cloud appeared beside him, the orange glow of an explosion inside it. Another appeared nearby moments later. Flak!
Too low to escape above the anti-aircraft cannon fire, Attwater pushed the stick forward and dove for the ground. More black tufts appeared around the Spitfire. Fragments of shrapnel thumped against the airframe. He yanked the boost knob out and the big Rolls Royce engine surged, his airspeed increasing quickly to three hundred and seventy five miles per hour.
Another fragment thumped into the Spitfire. Attwater ducked involuntarily, jumping as his head stopped inches from his instrument panel. He sat back up and quickly relocked his harness. He glanced at his altimeter and levelled the Spitfire off less than a hundred feet off the ground. The flak stopped as the German gunners rushed to adjust their fuses. He glanced down over the side of the cockpit. Rolling green countryside rushed by below him. Where am I? Studded lines of concrete tank traps stretched off into the distance. The Siegfried Line. The German border! Attwater sped clear of the German defences into the relative safety of France. He pushed the boost knob back in and pulled back on the stick, gaining altitude. He craned his neck to see below the aircraft. Before long he recognised the Moselle River and turned south.
Twenty minutes later, Attwater circled around the village of Burey-la-Côte. He slid the Spitfire’s Plexiglas canopy back and locked it open for landing, breathing deeply as the warm afternoon air rushed into the cockpit. Turning onto his final approach, he throttled back and cruised down onto the grass airfield, bouncing briefly before putting the Spitfire down firmly onto the turf.
As he taxied over to the hangar, the unit’s crew chief Warrant Officer William Bellamy and their rigger Corporal Archie Pike emerged from the Mess and strode towards the huge shed. Attwater turned the rumbling aircraft around in front of the hangar, the propeller wash buffeting the two ground crewmen. He pulled to a stop in front of the open doors, turned off the fuel and flicked the master engine switch. The big V-12 engine quickly ran down and the propeller came to a halt.
Attwater dropped his head onto his chest and sighed deeply. After a moment he lifted his head and looked at the oxygen regulator. Three quarters of a tank remained. Attwater frowned as Bellamy appeared on the wing next to the open cockpit.
“Welcome back, Sir!” Bellamy said cheerily. He leaned into the cockpit to help Attwater with his safety harness. “How’d you go then?”
Attwater took a deep breath and smiled. “Thrilling run, Bells. I believe I have the photographs we need, too.” Attwater climbed out of the cockpit onto the wing next to Bellamy.
“Wonderful!” Bellamy said. “Pike will take your cameras to be developed straight away. The C.O. is particularly keen to see what you captured this morning. He’s been in with that Winterbotham fellow all morning.” Bellamy raised an eyebrow. “If he’s involved, I imagine trouble is brewing.”
“About time, I’d say.” Attwater flicked his head towards the cockpit and lowered his voice. “Have a look at the oxygen system for me, would you? I had a bit of a blackout up there this morning.”
“Good Lord!” Bellamy’s face paled. “I’m very sorry, Sir, I’ll—”
“Not to worry,” Attwater interrupted, raising his hand, “I made it back in one piece. Better have a look at it for me though.”
“Our course, Sir! I’ll get on it right away!”
“You’d better look her over thoroughly too. The Hun’s triple A gunners took a few shots at me. I heard a couple of strikes.”
“Oh, dear,” Bellamy said. “I’ll go over her inch by inch, Sir.”
“Cheers Bells.” Attwater walked to the edge of the wing and dropped down onto the ground. Pike approached from inside the hangar, pushing a small trolley. “Bonjour Archie! Comment est votre français?”
“Cripes, Roger, I’ve only just started learning it!” Pike paused and took a breath. “Je ne parle un…” He looked down at the ground for a moment. “Un peu le français!”
“Ah! Très bon! Very good!” Attwater said. “C’est une honte, vous êtes si laid, parce que votre français est belle!” A blank look fell over Pike’s face.
“What did you say, Roger?”
Attwater grinned. “Je suis désolé, je ne vous comprends pas.” He turned and started to walk away, waving farewell. “Au revoir, Archie.”
Pike looked up at Bellamy on the wing. “What did he say, chiefy?”
Bellamy smiled weakly and stepped down off the wing. “I think he said your French is beautiful. Of course, with French like mine, he might have said you look like a mule’s behind. I can’t be certain, lad. You’d better keep up the lessons.” Pike groaned theatrically. Attwater laughed as he walked away.
Bellamy trotted after him. “Sir?” he said quietly. “I really am very sorry, Sir. I don’t know what could’ve happened.”
Attwater smiled. “No need to apologise, Bells. I know that you keep the Spit in sterling condition. These things just happen sometimes.” Attwater shrugged. “I may have inadvertently caused the problem myself. Let’s just figure out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again, shall we?”
“Yes, Sir.” Bellamy nodded hesitantly, then turned and jogged off into the hangar. Attwater turned and walked towards the Mess hut.