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Spitfire Pilot, 92 Squadron, Desert Air Force (DAF), Italy (1944 — 1945): Chapter 6

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: 
A8998249
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 6: April Fool!

A number of Dad’s pals had, during the early months of 1945, already qualified for their ‘Caterpillars and Goldfish’. Undoubtedly, they were the lucky ones whom amphibious aircraft, such as Catalinas and Walruses, had managed to rescue. Others were not so lucky, and either did not escape their stricken aircraft, or else drowned in the sea afterward. It was a very lonely and cold way to die, and something not to be dwelled upon. Noteworthy among the ‘lucky ones’ was Sgt. ‘Al’. Charles of 601 Squadron, DAF, with whom Dad had done his pilot training in Rhodesia. Alan had been rescued off the Italian coast by a brave Walrus crew captained by a New Zealander (W/O C.E Tod) and his observer (Sgt. E. Bilton) who landed on the water and ‘rescued him under fire’ from under the very noses of the enemy coastal batteries. Just ten days later it was to be Dad’s turn to repeat Alan’s experience.

1/4/45

Duration: 30 minutes (counted as 2hrs 10 minutes): Looking for a pilot down in the sea.

Hodge woke us before breakfast, and in less time than it takes to tell, I was dressed in my flying kit, and had got down to the ‘drome. We were there briefed that another of our chaps was down in the sea off Venice; in other words he was in the sea off the enemy-held coastline. Some wag commented that it was, after all, ‘April fool’s day’. It was serious stuff though, and six of us were detailed to escort a Catalina flying boat to rescue him from his dingy before he was shot at, or captured.

I went over to my preferred ‘Spit’, but she was not ready, the fitters were still working on her. I changed aircraft and I took off 10 minutes later in one of the less popular ‘kites’ (some aircraft had a bad ‘reputation’, and we tried to avoid flying them if possible). Everyone else had left, but I nevertheless climbed to 3000 ft, set a course in the direction of Venice, and changed the petrol over to my overload tank. At this point I was heading out over the Adriatic Sea and the engine began to surge and generally behave badly, but after 15 minutes or so of playing with the throttle and boost settings it seemed to settle down, or so I thought! I had by now made visual contact and nearly caught up with the rest of the formation who were flying north off the river ‘PO’ estuary, and about 20 miles out to sea. But as I turned to join the formation, my engine ‘cut’ and the fuel pressure warning light came on at a height of 4500 ft. There had been something wrong with this bloody ‘kite’ after all! I made every effort to restart the engine; three separate attempts in all, all without effect. Again I became aware of the silence now the motor had died; all I could hear was the hiss of air past the cockpit, and I also became very aware of my own fast breathing in the oxygen mask. There was nothing else for it: I decided to bail out. I called the rest of the formation over the R/T and told them I was in trouble….. but there was no reply, it was clear my message was not heard. I could see the little dots of the escorting Spitfires and Catalina now disappearing to the north west, and my stomach turned over. I was alone and in big trouble.

We had all heard many bad tales about pilots not successfully baling out their ‘Spits’; some had been hit by the tail plane as they jumped, others had pulled the rip cord too quickly, and their opening ‘chutes had got tangled up with their stricken aircraft as it plunged earthwards. Also, I’d witnessed ‘Jake’ struggling to get out of his ‘Spit’ just a few weeks earlier. Therefore, I’d thought through a few times about what I would do if it ever happened to me.

I hadn’t got much height, I’d been flying at about 3000ft and had already lost a lot of height trying to restart the motor, so I’d have to be jolly quick. I slid back the cockpit hood and was immediately buffeted by the slipstream just above my head. I then tore off my flying helmet and the wind snatched it out of my hand and over the side. But I’d forgotten to disconnect the helmet’s R/T cable and oxygen mask, and so the helmet whipped against the side of the aircraft and the cable and oxygen pipe trapped my right arm and pinned it to the side of the cockpit. I couldn’t move my arm — it was pinioned! I did not panic. Instead, I flew the Spit with the ‘stick’ between my knees; this allowed me to use my left hand to unplug the mask and helmet, and so free my trapped arm. But, during this struggling, the aircraft stalled, and went out of control. My hands were now free again, so I rammed the stick forward, and stuck the nose down, diving to recover my airspeed; thankfully, I recovered it again into a glide. Having already opened the hood, I undid the door which dropped down with a clang, and then undid my Sutton harness (which had strapped me into the seat). I then ‘trimmed’ the aircraft to fly ‘hands and feet off’, waited until the airspeed dropped to less than 100 mph and, crouching sideways with both my feet on the seat, dived with a mighty push, head-first over the side, aiming my body behind the trailing edge of the port wing. I wasn’t scared to jump — I was just bloody-well glad to get out!

Then, I was tumbling over and over, but I kept my right hand firmly gripped around the rip cord handle. As I tumbled, I saw the ‘Spit’ beginning to wheel around above me. I counted one…. two… three… four… five, and pulled the handle hard. Above me there was a ‘whu-whumph’ and the ‘chute opened just as I saw my Spitfire dive into the Adriatic, smashing itself to bits in a frothing splash, and then leave an expanding patch of oil.

I had always tended to fly with my ‘cute straps slightly slack, because that way I better could twist around in the cockpit, and look over my shoulders. It wasn’t such a good idea now though. The ‘chute straps that went between my legs jerked tight as the canopy opened, and hit me hard in the groin. It half knocked me out, and I saw lots of stars and coloured lights for a few seconds, but then I was floating down toward the sea. For some odd reason, I then briefly thought how sea below looked rather pretty, you could see all the patterns made by the wind and waves. However, above and over to my right, the Catalina that I had been trying to catch up with, and which I was hoping would now pick me up, was still disappearing into the distance with is escort of Spitfires. I now began to fully realise that no one had either heard or seen me…. I couldn’t work out how high I was above the sea, or how fast I was coming down, so pulled off one on my flying gauntlets and dropped it. I saw it splash; the sea was closer than I’d thought.

Then I heard another plane and saw that in the other direction, a lone Spitfire was flying after the Catalina about 10 miles behind — it was another chap who must have taken off late - after me. He had seen me!; and he began to come around in a bank, and circle above me. But, before I had time to do anything else, I had hit the sea and gone under. For a split second I was under the water, and still warm — and then the cold seawater rushed into my flying jacket, and through my clothes beneath. It was freezing cold! And then I was kicking hard and swimming back to the surface buoyed up the aid of my Mae West (life jacket). I broke surface spluttering sea water, kicked off my shoes, and released myself from the ‘chute harness, turned, and pulled my dingy ‘seat pack’ off the chute straps. I inflated it with the gas canister, and climbed in. I paddled around in circles for about half an hour leaving a trail of sea marker dye that, hopefully, could be easily seen from the air. I found the emergency ration pouch, and ate a piece of gum and chocolate; I had to keep bailing the water out of my dingy to stop it getting ‘swamped’. The circling ‘Spit’ had had to leave, he was probably getting low on fuel, and seeing him disappear I just hoped he’d radioed in a good location for me.

Time seemed to drag on, my watch had packed in, so I had no idea how long I’d been in the water, but it was clear that the wind was blowing my dinghy onshore, and this was not good — it was enemy-held. A week or so earlier ‘Al’ Charles had come down in this neck of the woods, and had got badly shot at whilst he was in his dinghy, and the Walrus crew had only just managed to pull him out in the nick of time. I began to get worried. Going through my pockets I found the letter my mother had written to me before I came to 92 Squadron; I’d wrapped it in cellophane and had always flow with it. It was my ‘lucky talisman’. I read it through again, and thought of mother and dad at home, and then my brothers and sister; and especially my elder brother Arthur. Arthur had been a really good swimmer, and I could never beat him when we swam at the outdoor pool in Hatfield (near Doncaster). I wondered what Arthur would think of me now, stuck in this dinghy paddling around in the cold sea. I went through my pockets again and found a pencil, and tore a piece of card from a fag (cigarette) packet that had remained ‘dryish’ in an inner pocket. I began to write ‘my last note’ to my parents. When I’d finished, I shoved it back inside the inner pocket, along with mother’s letter. By now, I was getting closer inshore, and Jerry must have seen my ‘plane come down earlier, and be waiting for me to drift into range; my brightly coloured would make me a ‘sitting duck’. I had a knife in the emergency pouch — I took it and punctured the dinghy until it was fully deflated. They would find it difficult seeing and shooting accurately at a head bobbing in the sea. I then began to swim back out to sea; I thought of my family, and of the swimming races with Arthur. It was hard going, and the cold was sapping all my strength away. I don’t know how long I kept going; I just did.

After a while I became aware of aircraft engines, and rolled onto my back to see three Spitfires coming over the sea toward me, and then starting to circle above. It was a wonderful sight, especially when you are in Jerry’s part of the Adriatic. Shortly afterward, a Walrus amphibian came into view, and landed a little further off. Its engine conked out, and so I had to paddle to it — it seemed to take forever, and my arms and legs were now like lead. I managed to get to the hull, just as they got the engine running again, but couldn’t pull myself up, and so the observer leaned over and hauled me in. I was full of salt water, and my body was so leaden and cold I could hardly move. I don’t remember the Walrus taking off, or much about the flight back.

They flew me to a nearby ‘drome and, after rubbing me down and wrapping me in blankets, put me in an ambulance and off to the hospital where they put me into bed. Once I’d warmed through enough, the hospital chaps gave me a meal (boy was I hungry!), but I’d swallowed too much salt water to fully appreciate it. Shortly afterward, the doctor from 92 Squadron arrived, checked me over, and took me back to my ‘home’ billet in a van’.

After returning to 92 Squadron, Dad spent a couple of days resting and ‘filling in all sorts of forms’. He was fitted with a new parachute, and given a new dinghy pack. He flew his next ‘op’ on the morning of 4th April, less than 72 hours after his ‘swim’. He received the little embroidered ‘flying goldfish’, and the gold ‘caterpillar’ some months later. He was rather pleased with them.

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