London Letter

by Ralph Michaelis, Air News British Correspondent

As a guest at the recent ceremony marking transfer of the Eagle Squadrons from the RAF to the US Army Air Corps, I was able to congratulate that very gallant gentleman Flight Lieutenant Jim Daley, DFC on his promotion to the rank of Major in the US Army Air Corps. He now commands his old Squadron, No 121 in the RAF which is now a Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Corps.

Jim, who comes from Amarillo, Texas, has carried out more than 110 operation flights over France, and believe me, that is no picnic. I was also pleased to see my old friends Sergeant Bill Kelly of New York, and Sergeant J M Saunders, of Nashville both promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant. The boys took me aside in a corner of the officer's club at their new station, and said they were more pleased than they could say that Jim Daley was to command them. "We'd follow him anywhere," they said. "He's a first class pilot, a darned swell guy, and he knows how to handle men — and that is a rare combination. Only two days before he had led the squadron over to the Dutch Coast on the off-chance of finding some "trade" as they call it. They had found three small German ships creeping along in the lee of the coastal batteries and they had set them on fire with cannon bursts. It is extraordinary what damage those little 20-millimeter shells from the Spitfire cannons will do.

As I saw them parade for the last time in their RAF blue I could not help thinking of some of the great lads who were not there, many of them friends of mine. I was thinking of fair, freckled, slow smiling, slow drawling F/Lt T W Allen, of Spartanburg, South Carolina who, the last time I saw him, was telling me of his 2,000 acre farm back home, and of the cotton, and the peanuts, and the tobacco that he raised there. I thought, too, of brave little Barry Mahon, DFC, the boy who weighed only 110 lbs — with small delicate features, and the brown eyes of a tired fawn, and of many other great guys reported "missing." Maybe some of them will turn up again one day.

I met young Bruce Downs in the Eagles mess that day, just back from Malta where he has been shooting down Germans for the last few months with a flight attached to one of the British Spitfire Squadrons there. Bruce comes from Wichita, Kansas, where they make airplanes and are proud of it. While at Malta he was credited with three Germans destroyed, one probably destroyed, and four damaged. He said the flying there was swell, there is always plenty of fighting, but the life on that bomb scarred island is pretty lousy. There were five other Eagles out there with him, all previously in the Second Eagle Squadron. They are now being transferred to the Army Air Corps.

Their names are F/Lt (now Captain) McLeod, the New York ex-policeman. F/Lt (now Captain) Peck, who was the Commander of the Eagle Flight in Malta, F/O (now First Lieutenant) "Tiger" Booth, from New York, P/O Reid Tilley, DFC of Florida who is in the RCAF and has shot down seven Germans definitely destroyed, and P/O McCann. These boys destroyed 18 enemy aircraft confirmed in Malta in a very few months. In the defensive fighting there all except Downs have baled out, some of them eight and nine times. A pilot can bale out on Malta and be flying again in a new machine within the hour. Downs had his experience of baling out previously in the Channel when on a "sweep" with the Second Eagles.

He told me a great story concerning McLeod's first bale out at Malta. During a dog fight Mac was hit, and reported by radio telephone to the control (on the ground) that his flying controls had been shot away; and the following conversation took place be tween him and the Group Captain in the Control Room 15,000 feet below.

Mac: "I've been hit. Controls shot away. Spinning down." Group Capt: "Well, bale out man."
Mac: "Just a minute. I'm going to wait and see what happens."
Group Capt: "For heaven's sake bale out."
Mac: "I can't. My right arm and leg are paralyzed."
Group Capt: "Well, undo your straps with your left hand. But get out."
Mac: "Aw, I think I'll … Here come three Messerschmitts, I'm leaving."

With which Mac undid his straps and was thrown clear. (With a Spitfire spinning down out of control at something over 400 miles an hour there is no such thing as climbing out. The pilot undoes his straps and is either thrown out or glued to his seat according to the way that the aircraft is spinning.)

Mac's parachute opened all right and he landed in the drink with a deflated dinghy. These dinghies can be inflated automatically from a bottle of compressed air, and pilots are instructed how to work the valve. But McLeod had never baled out before, and, having taken no interest in dinghies, he did not know how to inflate his boat. So there he was bobbing up and down in the Mediterranean blowing up the dinghy with mighty puffs from his huge lungs. His activities were just then interrupted by the three Mes who had come down to see what had happened to their victim. Seeing them coming, Mac pulled the dinghy over his head, and tried to hide his huge policeman's bulk under it. He says the Mes tried to shoot him up, but neither he nor the dinghy were hit, so it is probable that if they did try, they were laughing too much at the pantomime to take a steady aim. A boat went out and collected Mac and his half inflated dinghy. He had some shell splinters in his left leg, but his wounds were not serious.

I went up to visit the Canadian Demons Squadron at their Coastal Command Station the other day. They fly Hudsons and are known as a "strike" squadron. Their business is to go out, mostly at night, and bomb German ships crawling up the Dutch Coast, protected by "flak" ships, and fighters. Until recently they were led by Wing Commander Coltsworth H Brown, DFC, a Canadian from Winnipeg who has been in the RAF in UK for the last eight years.

Tactics vary a great deal in this ship-bombing business, for surprise is the key to their success. Sometimes they fly in low, below deck height, leap frog over the deck, and down to sea level on the other side, before turning away, sometimes they do what they call a high level attack from about 3,000 or 4,000 feet. In the case of the low level attack the pilot charges straight at the ship he has chosen, generally broadside, and releases the bombs himself. In the high level attack, the observer releases them.

One evening just before dusk, the Demons set out in formation across the North Sea, led by Wing Commander Brown. His Adjutant, F/Lt Dick Whalley, of Sydney, Nova Scotia was flying with him as an extra gunner. It is not usual for Adjutants to fly. They have plenty of work to do in the office, and that is considered. quite enough for most of them. But Dick Whalley has flown on a dozen or more operational flights. He says an Adjutant ought to know what goes on over there.

As daylight failed over the North Sea, the night was black as ink. Whalley told me that the most terrifying thing about the whole trip, which was a hot one, was flying in formation in the pitch darkness. Every few minutes you'd see a black shadow flit past your wing tip and disappear underneath you and you'd wonder what would hit you or him next. The Wing Commander kept calling out to the other pilots, "Look out, he's underneath you," or "Watch that fellow on your starboard side." They might never have spotted the convoy, on that pitch dark night; but the Germans gave themselves away. Formation flying in the dark got so difficult that they switched on their navigation lights; and before they could see anything the Germans started to fire at them and gave their position away.

Out went the Demons' navigation. lights and they snaked in trail formation to the South of the convoy dropping flares as they went to illuminate the target. Then, as they caught up with the convoy, they dived down to sea level, and, each man picking a ship, they turned in and flew broadside onto the convoy which was sailing in two lines, with flak ships between the two lines and on their flanks. As the Demons went down the convoy put up the usual barrage that they have evolved for defense against low level attacks. First they fired short and low out towards the incoming planes, then as the planes leapt over their deck they elevated their guns and followed the aircraft down on the opposite side. The Demons charged clean through this canopy of fire at point blank range, let their bombs go, hopped down to sea level the other side and turned away. There were eight Hudsons. Eight German ships were hit. No aircraft was lost. They have not always been so fortunate. Low level attack is a dangerous game.

The Demons work together with the Dutchmen of the Dutch Naval Air Service Squadron, on the same Station.

They have an extraordinary history.

The Dutch flying services consisted of about 270 aircraft. They went into action when the Germans invaded the Lowlands, and, swamped by greatly superior numbers, they were practically wiped out, except for the naval squadron which flew its flying boats to Britain and carried on the fight from there. At first they operated on the West Coast on anti-submarine patrol from a base in South Wales. Then they moved to Scotland, as a "strike" squadron, operating against shipping in the Norwegian fiords, usually by night. Commander van den Berg told me what good fun it was to go in below the level of the hillsides lining the fiords, where the searchlights dared not operate for fear of disclosing the battery position of the opposite side, and blinding the gunners in their glare. Sound, too, plays curious tricks in the confined space of the fiords and often the shore gunners, firing on sound, would shoot clean over the tops of the attacking aircraft, hitting the opposite hillside with their shells. These Dutch naval officers and seamen know the Netherlands coastline like the backs of their hands, and are invaluable for sea rescue work which forms a part of the duties of these Coastal Command squadrons. "Send for the Dutchmen" is a common order when an SOS is received from some aircraft down in the sea off the Dutch Coast. They know their way among that Archipelago of islands too, in and out of which the German coastal shipping slinks. But "trade" as the crews call it has not been so brisk of late. Fewer and fewer convoys risk the journey along that coast except under the protection of bad weather.

The Squadron have earned four DFCs, and three DFMs. One DFC was earned by F/Lt Van Rossem when acting as observer in an operation over the Norwegian coast. One of the pilots' legs was blown off by a shell splinter, and he died almost immediately. Van Rossem who was not a qualified pilot and had only handled the controls occasionally, dragged the pilot from his seat, flew the Hudson back to its base, and landed safely. Twenty-five of these Dutchmen have married since they came to England, mostly to Scotswomen.

I heard a funny one the other day about a "belly landing" in a four-engined Stirling. If the gear operating an aircraft's undercarriage is damaged by enemy fire, and the undercarriage cannot be lowered the aircraft can be landed on its belly. The procedure is not dangerous, though it sometimes results in further damage of the aircraft.

This particular Stirling had been shot up during the night over Germany, and had a wounded gunner on board. The pilot informed Control of the situation, said that he had not enough fuel on board to wait for daylight, and would have to make a belly landing. He asked for an ambulance for his gunner, and said he would land to the side of the runway parallel with the flare path so as not to block the runway for other aircraft wishing to land. Having received permission from Control to do this, he made quite a good belly landing, but in doing so he hit one of the small concrete pill boxes that house gunners on airdrome defense, and razed the whole thing level with the ground. A Stirling weighs nearly 30 tons, and coming in at something like 100 miles an hour, it makes short work of any obstruction.

The Station doctor came out with the ambulance accompanied by the dentist. They bound up the wounded gunner, packed him off in the ambulance, and saw the rest of the crew off in their truck. Then the doctor and the dentist walking back across the airfield came on the wrecked pill box. Thinking that the gun crew must have been buried, they set to with spades to dig them out. They had been digging for an hour and a half and dawn was just breaking when a soldier on airdrome defense wandered up, and inquired what they were doing. When the doctor told him, the soldier coolly informed them that the post was not manned. They say it was a grand sight to see the doc throw down his spade, and a rare treat to hear his language.

This column was originally published in the December, 1942, "Complete Spotters' Guide" issue of Air News magazine, vol 3, no 8, pp 8, 98.
The original column includes a painting of Spitfires attacking German positions.
Painting is credited to British Combine.