Spitfire Pilot was written in 1940 in the heat of battle, when the RAF stood alone against the might of Hitler’s Third Reich. It is a tremendous personal account of one of the fiercest and most idealized air conflicts—the Battle of Britain—seen through the eyes of a pilot of the famous 609 Squadron, which shot down over one hundred planes in that epic contest.
Often hopelessly outnumbered, David Crook and his colleagues, in their state-of-the-art Spitfires, committed acts of unimaginable bravery against the Messerschmitts and the Junkers. Many did not make it—and Crook describes the absence they leave in the squadron with great poignancy.
Includes an introduction by historian Richard Overy
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About the Author
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August 1939–July 1940
For our annual camp in August 1939, 609 Squadron went to Church Fenton near Tadcaster.
We were one of the Auxiliary Air Force squadrons (really the R.A.F. equivalent of the Territorial Army), and we did our peace-time training at week-ends and in the evenings during the week. This meant that we had to give up almost all our normal pursuits and spare-time pleasures in the twelve months preceding the war, because training was intensified so much as a result of the international situation that it seemed only just possible to find time to carry on one's normal civilian job, and in addition, to do the flying and ground training in the squadron.
Tennis, golf, rugger, going away for week-ends – we had to cut these out almost entirely and concentrate instead on loops and rolls, formation flying and fighter tactics, armament and engines. But everybody was extraordinarily keen, from the C.O. down to the ground crews, and we all realized the urgency of the situation and the great part that fighter squadrons would play in the event of war. Also, I think that to most of us flying was the dominating interest in our lives – I know that it has always been so to me – and therefore the more flying we did, the better we were pleased.
The experience we gained stood us in good stead in the future, and when the war came, and our training was put to the sternest tests of all, 609 and the other Auxiliary squadrons came through with flying colours and a record which equalled that of the very best regular squadrons.
Summer camp was always good fun. Grand flying in glorious weather, basking lazily in the sun between flights, all packing into cars in the evening and racing into Tadcaster or York, pleasant friends and lively company – what more could anyone ask of life? Altogether we had an enjoyable, if somewhat hardworking, fortnight.
We flew back to Yeadon on Sunday afternoon, 18th August. Exactly a year later to the day we were to have our most successful action of the war and shoot down thirteen German machines in four minutes. But we could not know this at the time and in any case only three of the original members of the squadron were left with us to take part in this action.
For the rest of August the possibility of war steadily increased as the days went by, and I got more and more worried about our wedding, which was to take place on 2nd September. Finally, after some hurried telephoning to Dorothy, who was then in Kent, we decided to bring forward the date to 23rd August. So she came up from London that day, we were married by special licence, and hastily departed on our honeymoon, feeling all the time that Fate might overtake us at any moment.
Next morning the maid came into our room about 8 a.m. and said that I was wanted on the telephone. I had an awful feeling that I knew what it was, and went downstairs with a sinking heart.
I was quite right. It was Paul ringing up to say that five minutes after we left Glenwood the previous evening, the adjutant had rung up to say that mobilization of the Auxiliary Air Force had been ordered. Father spoke to him, and finally got permission for me to return the following day.
So that was that. We had breakfast, read a very gloomy newspaper, and departed. It was a perfect morning, the Lakes were looking as lovely as I have ever seen them, and the prospect of leaving this heavenly spot and finishing our honeymoon, and then going back to war was just too awful for words. Altogether, Thursday, 24th August, ranks as one of the blackest days of my life! We got back for lunch and found that the Territorials had also been mobilized. Paul and I got out our uniforms, packed our kit, and said goodbye.
Ten days later we were at war.
A few days before the declaration of war, 609 Squadron had moved north to its war station, but several of us stayed at Yeadon, as we had not yet completed our training.
We spent a gay month. There was no flying to be done, but we played a lot of rugger and also had some games of mixed hockey with the W.A.A.F.s. These games were amusing but not very skilful, as the W.A.A.F.s were generally chosen for their decorative rather than their athletic qualifications, and the two did not seem to combine very well. We went over to some good parties in Harrogate, and altogether it was probably a very good thing for our immortal souls that on 7th October Patrick, Gordon, Michael, and I were sent down to a Flying Training School in Gloucestershire to join the first war course there.
We arrived a day early, and so there was little to do. We just wandered round rather aimlessly and felt forlorn and depressed. After the good companionship and friendly atmosphere of an Auxiliary squadron, this place felt aloof and unfriendly.
Two days later we felt even more disillusioned. The Auxiliary Air Force always considered itself rather a thing apart from the R.A.F., both as regards discipline and a number of other matters. Nobody had ever suggested to us that this was not the case, and when about nine Auxiliary officers arrived at the school on the first war course and we discovered that we were expected to conform with regular R.A.F. standards of discipline, we felt rather bitter about it.
Actually it was an excellent lesson for our rather conceited selves. I can see that now, but rather failed to perceive it then. Certainly some of the rules were framed to meet the case of boys eighteen to twenty years old straight from school, and we found all this rather childish and said so.
But on the whole, we had the good sense to lie low for a while and not make a nuisance of ourselves.
On our third morning there the whole course was paraded and drilled by Warrant Officer M., a man of fearsome aspect who had been in the Indian Army for twenty-five years.
He told us exactly the poor opinion he had formed of us, our appearance and general smartness, and finally bade us get our hair cut before coming on parade again.
We were all very indignant – being told to have a hair-cut by an N.C.O. – incredible impudence! We certainly weren't going to do anything of the sort, etc., etc. Anyway, that evening a slightly embarrassed party went down to the little barber's shop in the village and all emerged later with a truly convict crop. (I have already remarked that Warrant Officer M. was a very formidable-looking man!) We paraded next morning all shaven and shorn – except Peter. He swore that he always wore his hair pretty long and certainly wasn't going to part with it for anything. A very impressive storm of anger broke over his well-covered head, but he said nothing and finally the storm subsided. We felt that perhaps the honours were even in this first encounter.
However, we soon found life more bearable. By working hard and doing better than any previous course at the school, we created a fairly good impression and finally the authorities (and even our old adversary, Warrant Officer M.) seemed to realize that we were really keen to do well, and they became much more friendly and human in their attitude.
For the first two months at F.T.S. we worked very hard indeed, both at flying and ground work. Parade was at 7.45 a.m., and after that we flew all morning and had lectures all afternoon, and on alternate days lectures in the morning and flying in the afternoon.
I enjoyed the flying very much and did not have any trouble with this, but the lectures were not so enjoyable.
To have to sit at a desk with books in front of you and see an instructor explaining a navigational problem on the blackboard is far too like algebra lessons at school for my liking. But I think we all realized that this might prove very useful and even essential to us one day in the not-sodistant future, and so we worked hard and didn't go to sleep and waded through engines and supercharging, airframes and navigation till we possessed a fairly good knowledge of these subjects.
At Flying Training School the Chief Ground Instructor is really the equivalent of the house-master at a public school. He watches your progress, punishes you if you are lazy, gives you leave or stops it as you deserve, and altogether keeps you up to scratch.
We had an excellent C.G.I. and after a somewhat austere welcome, we got on well with him. He was 'a beast but a just beast', and if you went to him with a good case he was always reasonable.
In his more humorous moments (such as guest nights) he used to refer to himself as 'the old bastard'. He was in his office one day when he heard somebody outside in the passage say to someone else 'Is the old bastard in?' This amused him greatly!
We also had an excellent Chief Flying Instructor, Squadron Leader O. He had spent a lot of time on flying-boats out in Singapore and had met Gordon out there. He was a grand person, very powerfully built and with a striking face that might have been good-looking but for a somewhat battered nose, the result of a lot of boxing. He had a terrific personality and if he made us work like niggers, at any rate he got the best out of us.
Not long after we left F.T.S. he got married and shortly after he went to command a Hurricane squadron, and was killed in August during a German attack on an aerodrome. We were very shocked to hear of his death; he always seemed so alive and tough that it was difficult to imagine him dying.
I enjoyed the flying and soon got to like the Harvard. This machine is one of the types that we are getting from America and I must say that it gave me a very good impression of American aircraft.
At first it had rather a bad reputation in the R.A.F. because a number of fatal crashes occurred, some of them involving very experienced pilots.
Certainly the Harvard does require handling with care, and possesses a very vicious spin, especially to the right. But if you treat them with a little respect, then they are pleasant machines, and we became devoted to them.
I remember that I was impressed by my first spin in a Harvard. At about 6,000 feet I throttled back and when she had almost stalled, I put on right rudder. The machine promptly executed a fearsome leap over to the right and started to spin down very rapidly. I didn't wait very long before recovering; I put on full left rudder and pushed the control column forward to the dashboard. She stopped spinning almost immediately, but I had the stick too far forward and the result was that we came out in a dive beyond the vertical.
We lost at least 3,000 feet before pulling up, and I had considerable respect for a Harvard spin after that.
She was also very different from a Hind for loops and other aerobatics. On my first attempt at a loop I climbed up to a good height, then dived to about 220 m.p.h. and started to pull up. I got the stick farther and farther back, till, on top of the loop, it was right in my tummy just as though I was flying a Hind.
The Harvard immediately did an incredibly rapid flick roll and I found myself right way up again, feeling puzzled and a little breathless.
I tried again, with precisely the same result, and then after about five minutes' experimenting I discovered that it was all very easy if only I got the stick back much more slowly. But I still used to do inadvertent flick rolls now and again.
In November we had our first taste of night flying. Personally, I had been rather looking forward to it, but as the day approached there seemed to be no lack of helpful friends who explained at great length the hazards and difficulties involved.
The chosen night happened to be as black as ink, so dark that it was quite impossible to distinguish between ground and sky, and in a somewhat resigned mood I taxied out on to the flare path with my instructor.
'O.K.,' he shouted cheerfully, 'you've got her. Away you go.'
I opened up the throttle and we tore along the line of flares, doing a magnificent swerve which he promptly corrected by a vicious kick on the rudder bar.
We roared over the last flare and suddenly went off into complete darkness. The contrast between this and the flare path was so sharp and so quick that it hit me almost like a blow in the face. I almost panicked, but just managed to remember the instructions that had been drilled into me, 'Watch your instruments and don't try to look out'. So I glued my eyes on to the dashboard, and concentrated on the artificial horizon till my eyes almost popped out of my head. Undercarriage up, airscrew into coarse pitch, speed 120 m.p.h., and the Sperry horizon still level. I climbed up to 600 feet and did a gentle climbing turn to the left, still flying entirely on instruments. Very slowly over my left shoulder the twinkling lights of the flare path came into view. They looked very real and friendly; I felt they were the only things in the world upon which I could really count at that moment.
I started to Morse our identification letter on the signalling lamp, and a second later an answering green light flashed out of the darkness, winked several times at us, and vanished. O.K., we have permission to land. I turned across wind and put the undercarriage down, fine pitch, flaps down, trim back, and then peered into the darkness as we slid gently down towards the lights at 75 m.p.h. They seemed to be coming up at us very slowly. It was a lovely sensation gliding down through the still night air and I was so fascinated that I was rather taken by surprise at the speed with which we dropped the last 200 feet. 'Look out,' said a warning voice from the rear cockpit, 'we're nearly down.' I still couldn't see the ground, though it was obvious from the line of flares that we were only a few feet up.
We hit it quite suddenly, rather before I had expected, and bounced up again. I was so surprised that I just sat there and waited. There was a grunt over the inter-com. and my guardian angel banged open the throttle and lowered us on to the ground again, rather more gently this time. We taxied quickly off the flare path and stopped.
'Well, how do you like it?' I replied that it didn't seem too bad, which was a thumping lie actually, because I didn't see how I could ever go through this performance solo.
But we did another forty-five minutes of it; I was then tested by the C.F.I., who took a very poor view of my first landing, and then after a couple more he let me go solo.
I managed to get round without doing anything very drastic, and then walked over to the crew room, feeling distinctly proud of myself. Everybody else had gone solo too; there had been no mishaps at all, and we all decided that it had been rather good fun.
I suddenly realized that I was more tired than I had been for years. It is rather a mental strain, the first time. And so to bed about 4.30 a.m. and a long sleep till lunch.
At the beginning of December we received a curt intimation that we should soon be called upon to face our 'Wings' exam. We took the threat seriously and worked like niggers, and even one or two blithe spirits who had never done a hard day's work in their lives could now be seen doing at least half an hour's revision every evening.
The thought of failure was too awful to contemplate. Our wingless uniforms gave us such an inferiority complex that in hotels or any other public place we used to shiver ostentatiously and keep muffled up in greatcoats, thus hiding our shame from the world; which probably didn't care a damn anyway.
As the ordeal approached, we viewed our prospects with misgivings, but it was all right on the day and we all passed. Rarely have I felt such satisfaction as when Dorothy sewed that coveted badge on my tunic. A number of people came down to the New Inn that night to celebrate; D. sewed on several pairs of wings for them, and we had an amusing dinner party in honour of the great event.
We were now real pilots! On looking back now I think we all realize that we didn't know very much about service flying, at any rate compared with what we have learnt since, but we all felt very important at the time.
The winter of 1939–40 was an appalling one, and as the weather got worse the aerodrome became more and more muddy, till finally all flying was stopped, and this meant that life became very dull. However, we used to have some cheery evenings at the New Inn, and often Michael and Gordon and the others came down and had dinner with us, and stayed afterwards in the little bar, which filled up more and more as the evening progressed, till finally you could scarcely move and the atmosphere was so thick with smoke that it looked like a fog.
Towards the end of January the weather improved and we started flying over at another aerodrome near Oxford, our own aerodrome being still a sea of mud. We were now in the Advanced Training Squadron and the flying was good fun.
Our new Flight Commander was 'Roger'; he was a grand instructor and a most amusing and entertaining person. We got on very well with him. We used to work a lot in pairs (Gordon being my partner), and went off on navigation or reconnaissance exercises over a large area of southern England. We also did a lot of formation flying and camera gun work. Sometimes two or three of us would meet at some pre-arranged rendezvous, and then go low flying all over the high ground above the village. (I hasten to add that this was the authorized low flying area!)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Spitfire Pilot"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
On 609 Squadron,
August 1939–July 1940,