RAF Fighter Command knew that the Luftwaffe’s efforts were bound to intensify. Across the country aircraft production was being stepped up and every effort was made to keep as many fighter aircraft as possible fully operational. The RAF engineer ground crews worked around the clock to service aircraft engines and maintain them at peak performance.
On the airfields across southern England the day began at dawn. In a memorable passage from his best selling memoir ‘First Light’ Geoffrey Wellum describes the very first actions of the day of a RAF fighter pilot:
Dispersal pen and my Spitfire. I pause and look at her. A long shapely nose, not exactly arrogant but, nevertheless, daring anyone to take a swing at it. Lines beautifully proportioned, the aircraft sitting there, engine turning easily and smoothly with subdued power. The slipstream blows the moisture over the top of the wings in thin streamlets. Flashes of blue flame from the exhausts are easily seen in the half light, an occasional backfire and the whole aeroplane trembling like a thoroughbred at the start of the Derby.
The engine note increases as my fitter opens up the Merlin to zero boost whilst the rigger stands with his hand on the wingtip, watching expectantly. I think to myself, ‘Don’t open her up any more, you twit, or the tail will lift and the whole shooting match will end up on its nose.’
The engine note changes fractionally as the magnetos are tested. The fitter, intent on his instruments, red cockpit lights reflecting on his face. Sounds OK, no problem there at all. Throttle back, mag check again at 1,500 revs by the sound of it and then throttle right closed, engine idling, smoke from the exhausts, cutout pulled and the engine splutters to a stop. Peace again.
Bevington, the fitter, looks from the cockpit and gives me the thumbs up. He levers himself out on to the wing and jumps to the ground. I walk forward and hang my parachute on the port wing for a quick getaway; you can easily put it on whilst the engine is being started, saves a lot of time.
Now to the cockpit. Up on to the wing and step in. I hang my helmet on the stick and plug in the R/T lead and oxygen tube. At the same time, I check the bottle contents: full. Fuel? Press the fuel gauge button, reads full also.
Now brake pressure. OK, that’s fine. Trim? Let’s adjust it now and then it’s done With. Full rudder bias to help with the swing on take-off, elevators one degree nose heavy, that’s good. Airscrew, full fine pitch. That’s about it, then, ready to scramble when the time comes. Bound to come sometime. It’ll be a miracle if we get through to midday without one.
I climb out of the cockpit and my fitter and rigger are waiting, as always. What stalwarts they are, both utterly loyal to ‘their’ pilot, dedicated and uncomplaining. They are both smiling and friendly. ‘Twenty-five drop on both mags, sir. We found that oil leak last night. Nothing to worry about and in any case we reckon we’ve cured it.’
‘Splendid; so we’re at readiness, are we?’
‘On the top line, sir.’
‘Good men, see you both later, no doubt.’ .
‘We’ll be here.’
No need to tell them what is expected when the balloon goes up. It occurs to me and not for the first time, as I walk back to the dispersal hut, that the respect and feeling that these ground crews have for their pilots borders on affection.
No standing to attention and shouted orders, we all get on together keeping Spitfires flying. To my mind, the atmosphere in a front-line fighter squadron is something approaching unique and certainly gives an inner feeling that will remain with me as long as I survive. I will never forget.
I pause at the hut door and look at the ever-brightening sky. Clear as a bell and I go inside. As I put on my Mae West [Inflatable life jacket, so called in reference to the then-popular busty American actress of that name] the telephone orderly at his blanket-covered table lifts the receiver.
‘Hello, Operations? 92 Squadron now at readiness, sir. Twelve aircraft. That’s right, sir. Goodbye.’