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Spitfire Pilot, 92 Squadron, Desert Air Force (DAF), Italy (1944 — 1945): Chapter 2

by Mike Widdowson

Contributed by 
Mike Widdowson
People in story: 
Stanley 'Mike' Widdowson
Location of story: 
Northern Italy
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A8991921
Contributed on: 
30 January 2006

Spitfire Pilot, 92 Squadron, Desert Air Force (DAF), Italy (1944 — 1945)

A ‘Spit’ Pilot’s thoughts…

Flight Sergeant/Warrant Officer Stanley (Mike) Widdowson: Spitfire Pilot, 92 Squadron 1944 — 1945.

Chapter 2: Crash Landing!

Since his first operational sortie on 19th January, Dad had flown 2 more ops, the poor weather having restricted offensive attacks. He had already been hit on his third sortie by anti-aircraft fire, and the tip of the Spitfire’s tail fin had been shot off damaging the rudder and ‘making the kite a bit sluggish and difficult to land’. This then was to be his fourth ‘op’.

31/1/45

Duration 1 hour 40 minutes: A long-range reconnaissance up to Casare-Udini.

‘We were sent out on an armed ‘recce’ to look for trains and lorries, and to generally hamper any enemy troop movements. We didn’t see any, so we bombed the railway line near Padova, which we successfully cut. It amazes me how four or five chaps can hit a 5 foot wide railway track after diving from 10,000 feet at over 300mph in a Spitfire, but this is what we did! However, as I was pulling up from the bombing dive, the enemy anti-aircraft fire opened up and the sky filled with lethal, little puffs of white and brown smoke as the shells burst all around us. Then, a shower of ‘flak’ burst around me and the poor old ‘Spit’ sort of shook a bit, but I didn’t take any notice, in fact I thought it was just a ‘near one’ or else I’d passed through the slipstream of one of the other chaps’ aircraft. We carried on our attack.

We then flew around looking for something else to straff. The ‘Spit’ I was flying was a bit ‘clapped out’ and I was using very high boost and high engine revs to keep up with the rest of the formation. I then noticed that my petrol gauge was not working, but I knew I must be getting short of juice because we had been airborne for some time, so I switched on to my port and starboard wing reserve tanks just to make sure the engine would not ‘cut out’. Our ammunition expended, we then turned back for home.

As we were just south of the landing strip, my engine cut out. I should have had plenty of fuel left, and so my reserve tank must have been holed by the flak we experienced after I had dropped my 500lb bomb. I pumped my throttle and primer pump, and I tried everything I’d been trained to do to get the motor going again, but to no avail. The engine had definitely packed in. It is always a gut-wrenching moment when the engine cuts in a single-engined fighter plane, there is no backup, and the awful silence after the friendly drone of the Merlin engine is ominous. By now I was into my final approach of the air strip and coming in westward toward the sandy coastline from across the Adriatic. But I was at only 800 ft, and descending fast on a gliding approach — and so I did not have the height to play about any more. I told the control tower over the R/T (radio telephone) to ‘clear the runway’ as I was going to attempt to get in. I pulled the lever and heard my undercarriage whine into the down position, and it locked into pace with a thud. But I realised it was useless, she was losing height too quickly, and my struggling with the controls seem to make little difference — they were becoming heavy and sluggish because, without the engine, the airspeed was dropping. I couldn’t make it. The bod in the control tower was telling me to bail out, but it would be suicide at this height. I kept her coming in and thought I was just going to make it onto the runway, when I hit a sand dune about 100 yards from the end of the landing strip with an almighty bang which shook me right through my spine. The undercarriage, wheels and legs snapped off immediately, and the propeller blades splintered into small fragments and whipped past the cockpit. Then the starboard wing broke off just beside the fusalage, there were terrific banging and wrenching noises going on, and everything seemed to go into ‘slow motion’ - I felt as if I were watching the whole ‘show’ on a cinema screen. The poor old Spitfire sort of half ploughed through the sand dune and half bounced over it and, when I and the Spit hit ‘terra firma’ again 50 yards further on, it was into the side of another sand hill. She then slewed around and went at it sideways, and with another enormous bang the fuselage tore in half just behind my cockpit, whilst my port wing sort of buckled up, bent, and then the end broke off it. The remains of my Spitfire then just stopped dead but, inspecting the crash site later on, it was clear that the engine had torn from its mountings and continued onwards as if it were still trying to make it back onto the runway on its own; it had eventually stopped after another 10 yards or so.

During this disintegration of my ‘plane I was flung forward hard against my straps, and my face was bashed into the reflector sight which sits on top of the instrument panel. Blood spurted out of each side of my oxygen mask, under my goggles, and into my eyes. The pain was terrible and I thought for a terrible second that the lower part of my face had been torn off by the impact. Everything then stopped, and it was suddenly very, very quiet. I tried opening my eyes but I couldn’t see a thing “Oh God, please not this! Please don’t let me be blinded’ I thought; and I prayed that it would not be so. I then reached up and pulled off my mask and goggles, they were warm and sticky with the blood, and so I fumbled around for a hanky (handkerchief) I kept in my pocket. I began to wipe my eyes, and once I’d cleaned off as much as I could, I tried opening my eyes again. Thank heaven, I could see! I was so relieved. It was simply the blood in the goggles that had temporarily blinded me. I looked around, and my blurred vision settled upon what appeared to be a huge ‘gravestone’ sticking out of the sand. In my banged about state I actually wondered if perhaps I was already dead! This all must have all taken just a few seconds because, next, I was quickly undoing my harness and ‘chute straps and pulling my helmet off. I could hear the emergency vehicles and shouts of the ground crew as they headed for the wrecked ‘plane. I and was beginning to struggle out of what was left of my Spit — now just a cockpit and ¾ or so of the port wing - when the first of the ground crew chaps came rushing forward and quickly helped drag me out. My clothes and face were now covered with blood and my hanky was saturated with it. One kind chap gave me his own handkerchief to soak more of it up. As I was being pulled out of the cockpit I saw that one of the wings of my Spit was stuck end-on in the sand a few yards away — it was certainly ‘a gravestone’ for my aircraft, but not for me!

I was then half-walking, half-staggering with the aid of the ground crew chap towards the lorry that had come to take me (or my remains) to hospital. Just at that moment, the CO (commanding officer) rushed up, he was red and flustered, and could hardly believe his eyes when he saw that I was still alive, and walking away from the wreck! Afterward, when talking to the ground crew that pulled me out, they said that all of the chaps who had seen my aircraft hit the ground and break up were certain I was a ‘gonner’. My top lip and nose puffed up to amazing proportions for a few days, but at the time of writing this, (9:00 pm 9/2/45) they are OK again.

A few hours after the crash, I scrounged a trip in a Walrus (Supermarine Walrus sea-plane) just to see if my nerves were still sound. I had heard that you can easily lose your nerve after a bad crash, and I didn’t want that to happen to me, so the best thing is to gate airborne again as soon as possible. I seemed OK, so we took off in a ‘Walrus’ over the remains of my kite, which was a sorry sight with pieces littered all over the narrow strip of sand dunes that separated the end of the airstrip from the sea. I did not feel panic, nor was I gripped by fear as we flew away, but I was certainly still shaken by the events of earlier that day. After a few minutes, we came in to land again, taking the same approach from over the sea that I had attempted after my motor had cut. My nerves then became keyed up as tight as fiddle strings for a second or two before we landed, and then for a minute or so whilst I was undoing my straps to get out. I’ve had a little trouble with my back since the crash, and I think the spine is bruised but I’m sure it will be OK soon’.

After the crash my Dad was given a few days rest from operational duties, and checked over by a medical officer before being pronounced fit to fly. He flew his next ‘op’ on the 10th February, after just 9 days of rest and recuperation. Even more remarkable is the fact that his spine wasn’t ‘bruised’ as he had thought at the time, instead the impact of the crash landing had fractured one of the bones in his coccyx. This was not diagnosed until the mid 1960s when he began to suffer from back trouble, and an incredulous radiographer showed him an X-ray that revealed the healed, but damaged vertebrae.

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