- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Peter Dawbarn
- Location of story:
- Various R.A.F bases, UK and France
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 June 2005
When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I saw an advert in the paper asking for applicants for short service commissions’ officers to learn to fly. I thought ‘great, yeah, learn to fly’. I didn’t think about wars then, there wasn’t one. Anyway, I was accepted, and I started my training in February ’39 in Perth in Scotland, flying Tiger Moths, and I flew my first solo cross country on my 18th birthday.
After I finished there, everybody on the course was posted to Brize Norton, where half was trained as fighter pilots and half was trained as bomber pilots - I was trained as a bomber pilot. About a fortnight before the end of our course, war broke out, and everyone was posted to fighter squad, whether they were trained as fighters or bombers. I was posted to 253 Squadron which has just been reformed (at Manston in Kent). But we got there and they hadn’t got any aeroplanes! There weren’t any to be had apparently! After about a fortnight sort of kicking our heels, six Fairey Battle light bombers turned up, and we told to practice on those until some fighters turned up. They were like flying bricks - we couldn’t practice fighter tactics on those.
Eventually we got some throw-outs from other squadrons. Mark one Hurricanes with single pitch propellers, and after we’d done about five or six hours on those, six of us in B-Flight were sent to France. By that time, our flight commander (who we thought was ancient- he was about 40 years old, and Canadian) he had a more up-to-date Hurricane with a three pitch propeller. We landed, and the second day we were sent off to meet some Germans. He could climb about twice as fast as us. All the instructions we hear from him was ‘get the lead out you bums!’ We couldn’t catch him, but before we got there he got shot down. Our one and only sergeant pilot got shot down! I suddenly found I was alone (it was one of those dog-fights you know where one minute the air’s full of planes: the next you’re all by yourself). So I sat there all by myself with no map (the only person who had a map was the flight commander and he’d been shot down) I thought ‘where the hell’s Lille where I came from?’ I thought ‘the sun was over there behind me when we came so I’ll go back towards the sun’. Anyway, I saw an airfield and I landed, and bumped straight into someone I did my training with. I said ‘do you know where Lille is?’ and he said ‘it’s over there’ (pointing in the other direction)… but I was close, so we found Lille and we landed. So there we were, four 19 year old pilot officers, with no experience- stuck on a field, not knowing what the hell to do!
Anyway, the next day we got a message via another squadron to go back to England (we’d been there two and a half days). A few days later I was posted back to France to join the 17 Squadron; which was totally different; a really good, well-organised squadron.
We were flying Hurricanes, always Hurricanes, but now the newer marks - they all had pitch propellers. They had metal wings by then too, instead of the canvas ones.
We kept moving, we were at Le Mans to start with. Then as the Germans advanced we were moved to Dinard (lovely place) and we shared our field with a French Squadran. We were always taking off but they never seemed to. Anyway, we didn’t have much action but we got one or two between us; and we didn’t lose anybody, thank goodness. Then we went into a hotel which we were using as a mess, which we shared with the French squadron, when on came the radio and it was announced that the French had capitulated; so we were immediately told to go to Jersey: so off to Jersey we went.
We did sorties around the French coast for two or three days, and then we were sent back to England.
Just as I was about to get into my Hurricane to fly back, the Flight Commander came up and said ‘I’m taking your hurricane, mines U.S. You’ll have to find your own way back’- (I was the newest member of the squadron you see). I thought ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do now, so I’m walking back, and I came past a hanger and there was a fitter doing something to a fairy battle in there, and I said to him ‘will it fly?’ ‘Yes he said, but there’s no hydraulics, no brakes, and you can’t put the flaps down on it, but yeah, the engines ok and it’ll fly’; so I said ‘I’m going to take it then’. ‘Oh, alright’ he said. I said ‘do you want me to come back with it?’ ‘Not likely!’ he replied.
He helped me get it out on the airfield, because with no brakes you needed someone to push the rear back so you could line up. Anyway, I took off, and flew back to England. I hadn’t got a map, but I knew it was north, so I flew north. I happened to come right across Exeter airport, so I landed there, missed the far hedge by about 3 inches, because I didn’t have any brakes.
I walked into the control tower, and there standing on the top was ‘Cat’s Eyes Cunningham’. He said ‘what the b****y hell are you doing here?’ So I explained to him what had happened, and he was very good- he said ‘where are you making for?’ I said ‘Debden in Essex’. ‘Oh’ he said ‘we’ve got an old Tiger Moth here you can borrow, as long as you let us have it back. We’ll repair the Battle and we can swap over’.
So I flew off in the Tiger Moth, and I got back to Debden, and there I was from then on; and soon after that the battle of Britain started.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Becky Barugh of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Peter Dawbarn and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
See also more of Peter Dawbarn's stories:
- Dawbarn meets the Germans
- 'It’s like riding a horse'
- Flippin' Heinkel 111
- Good Idea, Bad Idea
- A Close Encounter with the Equine Kind
- Peter Dawbarn's Other Exploits
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.