- Contributed by
- Elizabeth Lister
- People in story:
- Dennis McCaig
- Location of story:
- From Fiji to the UK, to Italy and Greece
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 January 2006
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from BBC Radio Berkshire on behalf of Dennis McCaig and has been added to the site with his permission. Dennis fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Never in the wildest moments of my 18 year old imagination could I have believed I might one day be on a diplomatic, Winston Churchill mission in a far distant country.
I had finished my final exams at school in the capital of Suva, Fiji Islands in 1939 without any idea of what I might do next. In those days the crown colony of Fiji was remote and unknown to the outside world. We knew there was a war and our great British Empire was in conflict with Germany yet again. News came to us through a short wave BBC transmission every night at six o’clock — static interruptions and all! Unbelievably we were being beaten.
Then came the heartening news about the heroisms of our gallant RAF fighter pilots shooting down the German planes I knew I had to get there. I knew I had to be a part of it. But how? Could I do it before it was all finished? My answer came out of the blue. The RAF wanted suitably qualified young men from the Empire to train to be air crew. I couldn’t answer the call quickly enough.
It was a long and enduring journey. To Auckland — New Zealand, Sydney — Australia, Perth — Australia, Durban — South Africa with impatient delays waiting for each onward boat. The two days train ride up into Bulawayo, then onto Salisbury — Southern Rhodesia; journeying over a period of six endless months. It was all excitement and all new. The climax came with receiving my pilots wings. With the confidence of youth I always knew I could make the grade. Now hear I was at the threshold of my dearest ambition.
Back to Capetown and on by boat to Liverpool — England, down to Bounmouth, to be sorted out, up to Tealing, Scotland and joy of great joy, at last my first encounter with the mighty Hurricane. An operational training unit. The next step a front line fighter squadron. Journeys end; life’s beginning!
But it was not to be! The flow of trained aircrew had exceeded front line replacements. We were in a pilot’s bottleneck. I was diverted into what I regarded as a wartime tour of misery. A staff pilot flying would be air-gunners learning to shoot. Despised it was, but had to be endured because “there was a war on!”
After an impatient year I made it to the top of the postings ladder and once again off to another operational training unit. This time it was even better — flying Spitfires and one short step from the final, final goal. An operational fighter squadron in the UK.
Again it was not to be! Instead of hearing the magic message of the yearned for squadron and its location, we were posted to be “immediate replacements, Middle East Air Force”. So to Blackpool and waiting for a troop ship to Algiers where we languished for some weeks in boredom without any indications about being wanted “immediately”. Then one more journey. We boarded ship across the Med to Naples. Once there I was surprised to find my future war was in the hands of a postings Corporal. So, at last after travelling around and across the world for nearly two years I finally arrived at No 249 (Gold Coast) Squadron, Balkan Air Force.
My future of fighting in the RAF was in no way diminished to find my squadron was located on an exposed and dust blown plateau; living in austere tented accommodation, no running water, latrines open to the elements, indifferent food and our Spitfires being flown from a PSP metal strip runway laid out on sand a 15 minute truck drive away.
We flew intensive dive-bombing and strafing sorties across the Adriatic Sea harassing German targets in Yugoslavia. We were conscious all the time of being over an inhospitable terrain; Meeting heavy and accurate flak defences. Our losses in our “kill-or-be-killed” lives were always readily evident. First on the Spitfires then on new Mustangs with their longer range sorties and an increase in fire power.
I was flying a dawn armed reconnaissance patrol well out over the Salonika Plain in Greece searching for opportune targets it was all peace and quiet down there below us in the rising sunlight when we spotted two FW 190s parked on a forward German airstrip — a wonderous surprise as the Luftwaffe was scarce from the Balkan skies. Down we went out of sun, throttles wide open, treetop level firing all the way in; adrenalin pumping, high pitched tension. Flak filled the air all around us as we destroyed our two targets. It was all over in a timeless flash of seconds. We zoomed for height again to clear the danger of being hit. I relaxed knowing a new feeling of personal excitement and satisfaction.
My Number two’s voice shattered the feeling of exhilaration in an instant. “Red One” he called; voice full of vibrant warning, “you’re trailing white vapour.” I needed no explanation. They had holed my under fuselage radiator and I was leaking vital glycol coolant to atmosphere. Alarmed and alert I watched my cockpit instruments register overheating until the big Merlin engine up front seized up and the four bladed propeller ground to a halt. I baled out into the peace and quiet of space, thumping into the ground with force enough to knock out my senses. When I came to I sat dazed and uncertain, sitting bewildered with hot sun overhead in the mountain foothills. Silence all around me. What to do next?
Slowly I gathered my wits, checked my survival equipment and sat in a kind of half awareness haze of mind until voices sounded out of the stillness above me. Down came Greek partisans. They took care of me over the next few days hiding me away from the searching German foot patrols until judging I was OK for the arduous walk up over the mountains to their central partisan camp. There they put me on a wooden saddled donkey and in pitch blackness with a constant freezing drizzle. They guided me down what appeared to be a shear mountainside to the British Mission run by an army Major. A twenty-four hour journey. The Major gave me shelter, comfort of a sort and understanding.
I was to await an aircraft for a landing on a roughly prepared strip of grass in darkness and lit by wood bonfires. If successful it would take me back to Italy and the Squadron. I lived out a long and impatient three weeks mooching around the village with nothing to do and all day to do it in. That is until he made his request. My hour had come! “I want you to do something for me old chap, while you are here. We are surrounded by the partisans, as you know and I must maintain a friendly relationship with them. They have some respect for the British. Mostly because we are supplying what they want and I must do all I can to keep that way. They seem to have some respect for Churchill and of course they know you are here and what has happened to you.” Then his bombshell “I want you to address the gathering they are planning. You tell them about the war, how it is going, how Churchill wants to help them. That sort of thing.” With open-mouthed surprise I looked at him in horror. “Major” I said “I don’t know anything about any of that.” But even as I spoke my protest I knew I had to do what he asked and I knew I did not have the competence to do it. “When is it?” I asked feebly.
“Oh, this afternoon old chap”
“But what about the language problem?”
“Don’t worry about that I have already briefed Andreas our radio operator. He’ll be with you for translating what you want to say. Speak in short bursts and he’ll let them know…..his English is quite good.”
They were all crowded into the room, jabbering away, rough in appearance looking as though they could shoot me if I but a foot wrong. First I had to sit in silence through what appeared to be political harangues by bosses. Then Andreas signalled to me. “It for you — speak now. Say you British flying ma. How you get here. How you shoot German planes.”
My stomach churned away. I took a couple of deep breaths. “You are my brother fighters, comrades……you give me great honour to talk to you……fighting Germans in the air…shooting their trains and motor transports….everything so we can win together….we the British, have fought the war for many years now to get freedom for other countries. For Greece” I was carried away and forgot to give Andreas more time for putting it into words. Pausing embarrassed looking at their dead pan faces. My King and Mr Chrurchill support all the people’s of the world….who believe in the rights of freedom………..not only freedom from war….but freedom to eat and to sleep as free men and women…..I hope this will be for Greece……the Greek nation of the future…..in the years to come……for each one of you, your children and their children after them. Democracy came from Greece and we hope it will come back after the war.”
I knew in saying it they were accumulating what they needed to takeover communist control as soon as we left the scene. But I had no idea what Andreas had passed on. When finally I ran out of words and feeling exhausted from the tiring process of stop — translate — start again I signalled to Andreas ‘that was it’. My audience sat in silence for some time until quite suddenly they stood up and burst into applause for me and excitedly made exchanges with one another. I felt I had done a good job. It was all over.
A week later I was flown out after we had successfully lit bonfires, witnessed a hazardous landing and said my goodbyes with great relief, pleased to have survived.
Fifty years on, having retired from the RAF and worked through another career in London I answered the front door bell one morning to be greeting by a friendly postman on his usual rounds. He handed me a mysterious looking tubular container. It contained an official “diploma” in Greek, A Greek commemorative medal in respect of services rendered during the Second World War and a translation in English.
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