Escape by Spitfire
Extract from “1939”
A week later, Christopher was hiding at a secret spot in a forest. He had been hiding in the bushes for what seemed like forever. This was the third night he had hid here, and the plane had not arrived. Millie told him that this was normal; they wanted to see if German soldiers were in the area, if the arrival date and time had been compromised. Only the pilot in England knew which of the ten dates and times that had been given would be the real one. Christopher knew that it was getting close to the time, and there was no sound of any plane in the distance. It would be another wasted night. Christopher could not wait much longer; he needed to get his information to Churchill as soon as possible. He was cold and tired.
Trying to keep still and quiet was wearing him down and in the dark, he felt sleep overwhelming him. In the woods, as he waited with his French friends, he could hear all kinds of noises: twigs breaking, birds calling, animals scurrying around. Millie whispered to him, “I like it when we can hear the animals, that means there are no police around to disturb them. The forest is at rest tonight.” Christopher smiled at Millie but he was uncertain about what was going to happen.
Millie had told him that the plane would land and immediately turn around and get ready to take off again. The landing would be difficult. With only a few torches as guides, the pilot would have to land more on faith than on any visual cues. It was not a full moon tonight, which would make finding the landing spot difficult and landing even more so. Christopher had to run over and climb in the plane when the pilot signaled to him. The plane would take off immediately; they did not want to hang around. The Germans would probably come as soon as possible, but with a quick turnaround, they would only find an empty field, a few burnt out torches and the lingering smell of gasoline fumes.
Christopher began to doze off. He was exhausted by the tension of the last few days and the wait for the plane. He did not care anymore about the dangers of the flight back. He would care, however, if the plane never even got to the landing field. It was a dangerous mission even flying this far into Germany. Then there was the even more dangerous flight back. Even if he could get into the plane and leave before the Germans arrived, they would have an alerted German air force waiting for them. Christopher awoke, startled, as a plane roared overhead, scattering the frightened wildlife in all directions. The pilot had found the field but was coming in from the wrong angle. Millie and her friends scattered from their hiding places and started lighting the fires to mark the landing strip. The Spitfire buzzed around but it was clear he was having difficulty locating the field. Franz had told Christopher the pilot would only make three attempts to find the field and land before aborting the mission. The plane did not have enough fuel to hang around too long, and certainly could not wait for the German Messerschmitt patrols to turn up for a fight.
Christopher could see it was a Spitfire. It flew low again across the field, but could not land and pulled up to miss some trees and disappeared out of view. Christopher knew that was his last attempt. The plane was gone. Strange that it was a Spitfire, they were only a one-seater aircraft – what was the point of sending that to pick up a passenger? Now the silence returned, more eerily than before, as the plane had scared away most of the animals in the forest. Christopher looked at Franz; they both seemed uncertain what to do. It was now dangerous to stay here, as the Germans were sure to arrive soon.
“Let’s go, we need to get out of here,” said Millie. Christopher’s heart sank. The mission had failed. He would not be able to get back to England soon. He knew that England would never risk another attempt; they had wasted enough resources on him as it was. The only way for him to get home now was to go to Switzerland and try from there, or down through Spain to Gibraltar. Both routes would take months, and would be fraught with danger.
“Make sure you take everything with you. Do not leave anything behind that will give us away,” said Millie. She was being practical now; she had no time for Christopher’s feelings. Christopher could find nothing. They had been careful, so now they left. Millie’s friends left in different directions. They would all pretend to be poachers now, out hunting rabbits. Some even had freshly shot rabbits with them.
Just as they reached the forest road leading out of the forest, the Spitfire screeched overhead again, and set in for a landing. Almost at the same time, headlights from a truck beamed through the forest. Judging by the speed of the truck, on such a night, it could only be the German police. Millie and her men scattered into the forest, leaving Christopher behind. He had to make a choice – to run with Millie, or make for the plane. He had only one shot, so he ran back toward the landing strip. Millie called out to him, but the roar of the Merlin engine on the Spitfire drowned out what she was saying. The Spitfire braked so heavily after landing that the plane nearly pitched over. As soon as the pilot was able to taxi, he skillfully spun the craft around and lined it up for takeoff. The cockpit hood swung back and the pilot jumped out, his hand holding a pistol. He had a large waxed moustache, his face covered in a thin layer of oil and dirt. Christopher waved his arms in the air, a signal that he was a friendly, and ran up to the pilot. “Where is my passenger?” the pilot barked.
“I’m your passenger!” Christopher shouted back.
The pilot cursed and slapped the plane with his fist. “They sent me on this mission just to rescue somebody’s kid?”
“Do you want to discuss this or shall we get out of here?” shouted Christopher. He was not going to lose his flight now just because he was a kid.
“Get in!” shouted the pilot. Christopher did not get it at first, but then he saw that the Spitfire had been modified, and behind the pilot was a cramped space where he could climb in. Christopher scrambled into the cockpit, the pilot pushing him so that he went in headfirst. The pilot jumped in the plane, revved the engine and pulled the cockpit shut. The truck containing the German military burst out from the forest onto the landing strip in front of the Spitfire, blocking its way. They started shooting and flashes of red light whizzed past the plane.
The pilot revved again and the Spitfire picked up speed. The pilot aimed straight for the truck, firing his Browning guns. The bullets ripped into the truck, shearing off the roof and hitting the driver, who slumped over, spinning the steering wheel, turning the truck over and spilling the German guards out onto the landing strip. The Spitfire roared up and took off, just in front of the overturned truck, striking the truck with its left landing carriage, which snapped off like a twig. The lame Spitfire limped into the air, followed by a rain of bullets from the soldiers below. Christopher could hear the bullets clipping past, some missing, and some going through the duralumin skin of the fuselage. Clipping the tops of the trees at the end of the landing strip, the plane remained low, the pilot struggling to get the broken undercarriage back up into the wings, keeping the craft aerodynamic.
It took Christopher a good ten minutes to get himself righted but when he finally got to look out, he saw that the pilot was flying low across the treetops. The dawn sun had already started to rise in the east, so Christopher could orient himself. The pilot was flying straight back to England, which meant he had barely enough fuel. At least he was flying back home; Christopher knew that if he was short on fuel he would make a dash for Switzerland instead. Christopher found a helmet with an oxygen mask and a mike to talk to the pilot. Christopher tried to talk but the pilot either could not hear him, or didn’t want to. Soon Christopher began to relax, despite the roar of the Merlin engine, which was probably waking every German between Dusseldorf and the North Sea. Here he was fulfilling a dream – to fly in a Spitfire. He marveled at the shape and the speed of the aircraft as it sped at 370 mph across the hilly German terrain. Christopher felt exhausted, and despite the cold, the drone of the engine was lulling him to sleep. A sharp command from the pilot brought him to his senses.
“That thing you are sitting on–it’s a parachute. Strap yourself into it.” Christopher struggled to figure out what strap went where, and was not finished before the Spitfire veered to the port side. The pilot gained some height then went into a shallow dive, flying over a road, what looked like one of Hitler’s famous highways. Christopher heard a clunk and the Spitfire gained height; looking back, he saw what looked like a bomb drop and land smack in the middle of an expensive German car that had Nazi markings. The car swerved, and veered off the road. The pilot gave a whoop!
“The bomb didn’t go off!” shouted Christopher.
“It wasn’t a bomb, it was the empty fuel tank!” the pilot shouted back. Christopher strained to see what had happened to the car, but it soon disappeared into the distance. He wondered if he would ever know what had happened.
The Spitfire sped on, clipping trees, roaring across the German countryside, then across what looked like the flat Dutch landscape, with ditches, small canals and windmills. Christopher wondered about Wouter, if he was safe in Amsterdam. They were getting closer to home. The Spitfire started making unexpected noises–bangs, coughs, splutters–but kept flying. The pilot would occasionally curse and hit something on his flying panel, but the Merlin motor kept roaring, the noise deafening and excluding all else.
Soon the North Sea replaced the flat land as the Spitfire headed out toward England. The pilot felt more confident now and began to increase the altitude. The pilot seemed more relaxed, and more amenable to Christopher. “I want to get some altitude; it’s safer. We don’t want some Messerschmitts attacking us from above,” he said. “I’m heading for the clouds for cover.”
It was cloudy and the dawn sun was giving dramatic lighting effects as the pilot dodged in and out of the clouds. Something seemed to have spooked him, but he did not respond to Christopher’s prompting. Christopher soon saw some planes off to the east and behind them; he could not tell if they had seen them yet, as they kept entering clouds.
“They might be sending out a patrol to help us back, but I’m not counting on it,” said the pilot. “We have a lame duck here. I think the undercarriage is damaged, we might have a rough landing. We will fly past the control tower once to see if they can assess the damage. I don’t have much petrol left; we will have to make some snap decisions. If we can’t land, then we will just have to jump.”
“I’ve jumped before,” said Christopher. “I’ve had training.”
The pilot turns around and looks at him quizzically. Then suddenly, as they leave the protection of a cloud, they almost fly straight into a huge Zeppelin. The pilot swerves instinctively, pulling the plane to the port side and up, just missing the top of the Zeppelin. Just as quickly as they had passed the airship, they disappeared again into a cloud.
“That was close!” shouted the pilot, as Christopher watched the huge shape of the airship disappear again into the mist.
“That’s why you came to pick me up. I have information for Churchill about how dangerous those Zeppelins are!” shouted Christopher.
“Well, in that case…” said the pilot and he banked sharply. “I can give it one good strafing – then maybe if we fly upside down the rest of the way, we might get some more petrol fumes into the engine.” Christopher wasn’t sure if the pilot was joking, but he knew he would soon find out.
The Spitfire emerged suddenly from the cloud and lined up at the back of the airship flying toward its tail. The pilot tried to fire his Browning guns but they fired only a few tracers then it seemed to block. The pilot hurled some obscenities as the plane skirted over the airship’s back. As the plane passed over the nose, a roar was heard as a Messerschmitt flew across. The pilot swore some more.
“Okay, more than we can handle, we need to get out of here” he shouted, and he spun away and up, searching for some cloud to hide in. The Messerschmitt was having nothing of it and spun around to chase.
“The damage to the undercarriage is causing drag!” shouted the pilot. “We are not flying as fast as we can, and using more petrol!”
The Messerschmitt seemed to sense the easy kill that was available and honed in. Christopher could hear the buzz of its engines above the roar of the Merlin motor.
There followed a twisting and turning match, with the Spitfire banking and dodging at a frantic pace. Christopher felt himself being thrown from one side to another, and then sometimes pushed down into his seat by g-forces that made him feel that his whole body was going to be crushed. The pilot then reared the nose of the Spitfire up into the air, spinning the kite onto its back in a loop, trying to get above the Messerschmitt and back down behind it. The looping made Christopher lose consciousness. For a few seconds he was somewhere else, a dreamland, back at Chelmsford Hall, but then he awoke again to the roar of the engine and the scream of the Messerschmitt as it dodged the Spitfire. The German pilot was too experienced to be out maneuvered by the lame-duck Spitfire. He spun around, strafing the British plane head-on. The bullets ripped across the starboard wing, debris hitting the pilot in his shoulder.
Then the Messerschmitt was gone, losing the Spitfire in the clouds. The pilot pulled the nose up to gain altitude.
“We are done for!” he shouted. “The starboard wing is gone, it’s starting to break up. We have no fuel left; you will have to jump! You go first, I’ll keep the plane as steady as I can.”
The pilot turned and looked at Christopher for a few seconds. “I’m sorry,” he said.
The pilot yanked open the cockpit canopy and the cold and the rush of air blast in, pushing Christopher into the back of his seat. He struggled to stand up and the pilot reached his hand out to help. Christopher saw that he had been badly injured: his face was bleeding and his bomber jacket ripped and bloodied.
Christopher hesitated at the idea of jumping out into mist. He could see nothing. He had little time to think about it, as the pilot flipped the plane and Christopher fell out, head first. Blinded by the rain and the cold, and oil from the damaged plane, his hand groped for the cord to release the parachute. After what seemed like an eternity, the parachute opened, jerking him roughly. He had put on the parachute badly, and the parachute straps, twisted, dug into his skin. But they held, and for the moment he was safe. He could hear the Messerschmitt buzzing around, searching frantically for its easy confirmed kill. He could also just see the Spitfire.
It was the pilot’s turn to jump. He put his hands on the sides of the cockpit to pull himself up, but a stab of pain from his injured shoulder stopped him in his tracks. He paused, regaining himself. For a second, he looked at the cockpit, and placed a hand on the dashboard. “Goodbye old friend, I will never forget you,” he said, then heaved himself out of the cockpit, with a cry of pain, and fell into the mist around him. Pilotless, the Spitfire started a graceful roll to the port side, the starboard wing going up as if to wave goodbye to the pilot, as it rolled down into the mist and down to its last resting place in the North Sea.