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

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: 
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 1: Why did you want to fly Spitfires, Dad?

In 1942 my Dad, Stanley Widdowson, joined the RAF, he was 18 years old and had been in the ATC throughout the early war years. Having been interested in engines and aircraft throughout his teens, he wanted more than anything to qualify as RAF aircrew. However, his schooling had not been particularly good, and he had left at the age of 14 to become an apprentice carpenter at the local coal mine at Thorne in Yorkshire. My dad’s family were all employed at Thorne pit, grandfather was a drainage engineer, and my Dad’s elder brothers (Arthur, and Charlie) were coal miners at the time, whilst the third brother (Bill) worked on deep-sea fishing trawlers.

As an apprentice carpenter at the pit Dad could have seen the war out by continuing in his job. Keeping the coal mines productive and operative was a very important part of the war effort on the home front, and many pit workers came under the ‘reserved occupations’ remit, and so could be exempt from military service. However, he had decided he wanted to volunteer for service and join the RAF. To this end he went to night school for three years in Doncaster in order to learn the necessary basic mathematics and technical skills which would then allow him to be considered for aircrew service. In effect he was working at the pit during the day, then riding his bicycle on a 14 mile round trip to Doncaster to attend his studies, and getting back late at night. By this time he had also joined the local Air Training Corps (750 Squadron) which met at Thorne Grammar School. I once asked him what had inspired him so much that he became determined to join the RAF. He gave the following answer:

‘It was some time in late 1940, probably after the Battle of Britain had been fought, and we had all been watching the action on the cinema newsreels, and hearing it over the radio throughout the summer. We knew a lot of it was probably ‘hyped’ with propaganda, and that the reports were playing-up our victories, but it was stirring stuff nonetheless: these few British and Commonwealth pilots in their Hurricanes and Spitfires fighting off hoards of German bombers. Then, one day, two of us apprentice carpenters were sent up onto the pit head winding gear to help make a repair; this was unusual because most of the time we were working on the ground either in the machine shops, or the power station that provided the power for all the pit electrical machinery. The view from the top of the pit-head gear was great, and you could see for miles and miles across the flat east Yorkshire countryside. As we were working, we heard the noise of aircraft coming fast and low from the west. I looked up from my work, and two Spitfires came streaking across the countryside, almost at our level. We waved like mad and one of the pilots must have seen us up there on the pit head because he waggled the aircraft’s wings in acknowledgement. A moment later they were gone, heading out east and toward the Humber estuary and North Sea — probably going to intercept incoming enemy aircraft. It made me feel very proud that we were building such great aircraft, and making such a defiant effort in defending our country: It was at that moment that I decided I would fly Spitfires’.

Dad signed up for aircrew training, and went down to London in November 1942. He arrived at Lord’s Cricket ground on 30th November to begin selection and training. They gave the recruits a series of ‘rather stiff exams, lots of P.T. (physical training), and bags of square bashing’. There were also a series of inoculations, and he had a tooth root extracted. He recalled that the selection process was very rigorous, and every day fellow cadets and would-be pilots were de-selected because they had not passed the tests, or else were not considered fit or good enough for the aircrew and pilot training. Dad was a small, powerfully built and fit man, with a very determined character, but during this selection process he very nearly missed out on his desire to become a Spitfire pilot. He recalled:

‘I went in for one of the medical examinations, and they measured my height. I was 5 feet 3 inches tall, and the medical officer said I was half an inch too short to be considered for pilot training. My heart sank, and I cursed my luck, because my height was something I could do nothing about. I was very ‘browned off’ for a few days, but then the opportunity to volunteer for overseas service was offered. They seemed desperate for volunteers, and therefore were likely to be less particular about my height, so I signed on immediately. I wasn’t sure if this was wise or foolish decision, but I wanted to get my wings as soon as possible’.

Ironically, Dad’s small stature was to be a positive asset in the type of role he was eventually to play in the war. He later said:

‘I was small, and so I always flew my aircraft with my feet on the top stirrups of the rudder bar, and hunched well-down in my seat. Because I was in a more prone (flat-lying) position it meant I was less likely to ‘black-out’ when we had to make extreme manoeuvres, or otherwise throw the ‘kite’ about a bit. When we did the dive-bombing, we were going in at a hell of a lick, and it was not uncommon to begin to black-out when we released the bomb and pulled up hard out of the dive. We probably lost a few pilots because they blacked-out as they pulled out of the dive, and then failed to come round properly before the aircraft crashed’.

During the aircrew selection process Dad was billeted on the outskirts of London when the area was ‘blitzed’. On Monday 18th January 1943, a bomb fell at 5:45 am, only 100 yards from their quarters, ‘and left a hole 70 feet in diameter, and about 50 feet deep, and laid waste everything for 1,000 square yards’. Fortunately a line of tall buildings between the bomb impact site and trainee pilot’s billets saved them all. It was to be the first of many ‘lucky escapes’ for Dad. The very next day (19th January), he excitedly wrote ‘I received my flying kit today! It is all good quality stuff, and after a few hours of swapping between us cadets, we all had kit that fits a treat’.

On the 11th March, Dad boarded a troop ship in Liverpool with 5,000 other recruits and service personnel. He recounted, ‘The ship was ‘a rambling and rusty looking crate, and it was to be our home for the next 5 weeks as we made our way to South Africa…’.

After the convoy had been hunted by U-boats off west Africa, and ‘doing a series of double-backs and evasive change in course’, the ship eventually arrived at Durban on 13th April. They were desperate to get off.

’We blagged our way off the ship as soon as we could by pretending to help some officers with their bags. We were eventually formally disembarked a day or so later. Durban is a beautiful city with wide streets, boulevards with trees, big Yankee cars, and beautiful girls wearing the latest fashions. We spent our time going to the cinema and swimming in the outdoor salt-water swimming pools. The difference between the war-torn London we have left and this bright, beautiful, clean city is beyond words. The war seems to have hardly touched this wonderful place’.

After a short sojourn of a few weeks, the trainee pilots were next taken by train northward into Southern Rhodesia, near Bulawayo, where the flying training began. Like many hundreds of would-be allied pilots before and after, Dad was first trained on Tiger Moths (from September through to November 1943), and graduated to Harvards (late November 1943). This training on the Harvard continued with increasing intensity throughout early 1944, and he finally gained his coveted pilot’s wings on 21st April 1944. Six weeks later, on the 7th July 1944, he flew his first Spitfire, a Mark VB, (No. ER637), thereby achieving the goal he had set himself nearly four years previously after seeing those two Spitfires flying past the pit-head at Thorne. He was now 20 years old, and a real Spitfire pilot. He said of this first Spitfire experience:

‘Imagine being given the fastest and sleekest machine in the world, and being told you were going to be able to fly it to the limits of its design. I felt over the moon…’

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