THE FEEL OF DEATH IN THE AIR (Feb, 1943)
THE FEEL OF DEATH IN THE AIR
This report of an aerial combat was written in a hospital at the request of the medical officer attending the pilot. The physician was eager to know, as accurately as possible, the pilot’s thoughts and emotions as he fought and suffered his near-fatal wounds.
by Pilot Officer Stanley Hope, R.A.F.
WE WERE on one of the usual offensive sweepsâ€”a daylight raid on some works near Lille. During a widespread dogfight over the target I chased a 109 down several thousand feet, but lost him in a cloud. Pulling up to regain my height, I found the sky completely empty.
I hung around for a few minutes, feeling like the only living thing in space, and then started home alone at 18,000 feet, weaving hard and losing height gradually to keep my speed up.
I had a clear run as far as St. Omer, where two 109-F’s passed 1,000 feet above me and slightly to the left, going the opposite way. I was then at 13,000 feet.
I climbed into the sun, intending to beat up these two as soon as I could be quite sure they were alone. Instantly the trap sprang; 109′s came down on me from every corner of the sky and in no time I was the center of a large gaggle, consisting of nine or ten Messerschmitts and one Spitfireâ€”mine!
I didn’t care for the look of things and felt a bit anxious, although not actually frightened. I was acutely keyed up and highly interested. I hardly ever feel frightened once a fight has started, though frequently on other occasions.
I took terrific evasive action and the Huns did a lot of inaccurate shooting. The job was hectic, but, as the fight went on and on I became greatly encouraged by their failure, so far, to hit me.
Angry At Paucity Of Damage I fired a short burst at half-deflection at a 109-E and knocked pieces from his radiator, releasing a stream of glycol. I swore heartily when I saw it was nothing more than glycol and hoped the thing would catch fire or explode. I was very angry; I am always angry with the Luftwaffe; and passionately desire its total extermination. However, the 109 went spiraling down out of sight, still streaming glycol. I think it was under control and probably it was successfully forced-landed.
I then tried to outclimb all the 109′s into the sun in order to start attacking from out of it. I have many times seen large German formations routed by very few English machines, so it seemed worth trying, and there might be one or two stooges who would give me a target.
It didn’t work. Four 109′s that had stayed above me all the time saw what I was up to.
climbed in the same direction and remained above. There were too many of them!
As my gasoline was limited and we were still well inside France, I decided to concentrate on getting home intact and, with continuous and violent evasive action, I moved westward to the French coast, hoping to meet some friendly fighters, which I knew were somewhere in that direction. I was beginning to tire a little and was certainly getting fed up with this tom-foolery, which had now gone on for about twenty minutes, and I would greatly have welcomed some help or, at any rate, a few seconds’ breathing space. I felt terribly lonely.
As we neared the coast just north of Hardelot the tactical disposition of the 109s, which of course was changing every second, suddenly took on a dangerous aspect and, in turning to fox an attack by two of them that were coming in from the port side, I gave a momentary opening for two more to close in behind me. Before I could rectify this a series of loud metallic bangs occurred and large holes, appearing first in the starboard wing tip, swept straight inboard to the fuselage. Although I could watch each hole appearing individually, it all happened in a split second. Then there was a deafening bang inside the cockpit and something feeling like a steam hammer hit me on the back of the head and knocked me out.
Loses All Energy I don’t think I entirely lost consciousness, or, if I did, it was for only a very few seconds; but total darkness descended and every ounce of energy left me. I hadn’t enough to move my little finger. I felt myself fading away as though under an anesthetic. I was conscious of nothing but utter darkness and a pain behind my right ear. But a tiny corner of my mind, outside everything else, was still functioning, and I remember soliloquizing, almost as detachedly as if I were a spectator, sitting in the dark; “So, after all, it’s happened to me, too. * * * It’s come to you who have always told yourself there’s some way out of every scrape. But there’s no way out of this one, buddy, because you are quite blind and you haven’t the strength to move a muscle and you are diving down helplessly toward the sea at an enormous speed with a lot of 109′s on your tail ready to polish you off very quickly if you show any signs of revival. So there!â€” I wish I could have had a word with the chaps, just to explain how it happened, instead of simply vanishing like so many others. * * * And there are such a lot of people I’d like to have said good-bye to * * * And you’re a clown to be shot down by a bloody Hun, anyway. . . . But it’s too late for regrets now. It can only be a few seconds now. * * * Just one almighty holocaust as we hit the sea. * * * Thenâ€”no more of this nightmare flight, no more pain at the back of the head; just peaceâ€” God, how marvelous! And I haven’t got a date tonight, anyway, so there isn’t that to fuss about.”
I knew the speed was very high. You can tell by a sort of hard feeling and the sound of the wind. I was completely resigned now and hardly at all frightened. Regretful, yes, and very reluctant to leave this life, with so many personal hopes unrealized and without even saying good-bye to my people. But I wasn’t frightened, for I knew I was so nearly unconscious that I wouldn’t feel much of the impact when the airplane hit the sea.
A few ‘ more seconds’ darkness ticked serenely by. As there was nothing I could do, I need make no effort. It was wonderful to have to make no effort. Except for the pain in my head, the relaxation was sheer bliss.
Then consciousness began creeping back. With a major effort I pulled the radio lever to “Transmit,” called out my squadron number and said, “Cheerio, Binto, I’m just going into the sea.” (Binto was the ground station.) From Black To Red Then I began to notice something. My world of darkness was no longer black; it was turning red. Very dimly, as through ultra-dark red glasses, I began to make out the nose of the Spitfire, pointing straight down toward a hazy, dark red sea.
I thought: “Oh, hell, I’m coming round! Now I’ve got to try and fly again.”
Two seconds later I was fully conscious and mentally screaming at myself: “Wake up, you silly clod! Wake up! You’re not dead yet and the machine may still fly, for all you know. You may [Continued on page 178] get out of even this scrape if you wake up and pull yourself together!”
With a physical reluctance that I have previously known only at the height of a critical illness, I began to pull the Spitfire out of the dive, weaving all the time. She was mushy and sluggish, so that I knew the elevators had been hit. The 109′s came down on me like a ton of bricks, shooting so prolifically that it was almost funny. The sky was full of vicious little smoke spirals from their guns and the streak of tracer shells. I did everything I could to upset their aim and their shooting was wild.
I held an erratic dive down to 1,000 feet for the sake of speed. I had to keep forcing myself to go on flying, though the actual control of the aircraft was instinctive as long as my hands and feet would consent to function at all.
There was blood all over the place masses of it, pouring down over my knees and unaccountably splashing up onto the windscreen. I am notaffected by the sight of blood, or not my own, anyway; but I knew I was losing rather a lot.
The Spitfire was slow because of its injuries. This was galling, as a Mark V is normally faster than a 109 at sea level. Two or three times, when the Huns got too close, I had to turn and mix. if with them for a little while to stop them closing right in on my tail, but graduallyâ€”very gradually, it seemedâ€”we approached England.
By now the redness had faded out and colors were normal again.
Some of the 109′s turned back, perhaps out of ammunition, and only five continued chasing me. My head was swimming and I had to keep fighting a tremendous longing to flop forward and plunge straight into the sea.
Pursuers Give Up Near Coast I was heading for the nearest forward airdrome, just inside the coast, and I hoped to lead the 109′s over it and let the ground defenses have a crack at them, but, six or eight miles from the English coast they all turned back.
My mind went round and round and started arguing three ways at once. One part of it said: “Here’s your chance; you’ve got them cold now; get after them for all you’re worth. One or two may be lagging and it’d be grand to get one now.” Another part quickly swamped this with a most ardent revulsion from any sort of effort whatsoever. A third part, functioning sanely, said: “Don’t be even stupider than you are. You’ve lost a fair amount of blood and if you hang around now you may pass out. Besides, the plane is too slow, anyway. Down you get on the ground immediately.”
As I saw the 109′s disappearing, 1 remember thinking: “Well, how many of you sods does it take to shoot a Spitfire down?” That was very foolish, considering that it sometimes takes only one.
So I made for the coastal airdrome. On arrival there, I thought the effort of flying to the downwind end would be more than I could manage. I felt hideously sick and too exhausted even to think. I didn’t mind if I died. I could feel myself growing weaker every second and I wondered whether I could land before fainting. Blood was streaming down my neck and the control column was covered with it and all sticky. I longed to flop forward and dive straight into the deckâ€”and oblivion.
1 had to screw up all my determination to lower the wheels, and once again to lower the flaps, though each operation requires only the movement of a light lever.
I taxied in and stopped. With a final effort, which was nothing but a concession to my own pride, I checked over the cockpit with great thoroughness to see that I’d left all the switches, etc., as they should be left.
Gingerly I eased off my helmet and grinned to a friend from my own squadron who had dropped in for some fuel. He grinned back and then, realizing that things weren’t too good, he shouted boisterously for the ambulance.
Resentment And Gratitude Mingle I flopped back and let the duty crew unfix my harness. I was partly resentful that they were pulling me about when all I wanted was to lie still and fade away to sleep, and partly grateful for what they were doing for me. They helped me out of the cockpit on to a stretcher and put me in the ambulance.
I remember it getting darker when they shut the doors and a pain in my temple where a medical orderly was pressing it to stop the flow of blood from a severed artery. A bilious, darkness overcame me and, as the ambulance jolted across the surface of the airdrome, I lost consciousness at last.
When I woke up ten hours later in the hospital it was with the happy realization that there was nothing more to do but get better again.
I felt frightful, admittedly. But I was in England, among friends, and not, as I might easily have been, in German hands in France. Nothing else mattered and the relief that I felt was past description.
They had operated on my head and dug out numerous little bits of metal casing from the cannon shell which had exploded far too close for my liking.
I’ve got the bits at home and I am keeping them. One day they will help me shoot a good line to my grandchildren. But before then there is a score to settle. That Hun certainly gave me a very sore head and I want above all a chance to hand it back. I’ll be a lot happier after that.