A Spitfire ‘rhubarb’ over France ends badly

Spitfire F Mark XII, MB882 ‘EB-B’, of No. 41 Squadron RAF based at Friston, Sussex, in flight over Eastbourne.

Spitfire F Mark XII, MB882 ‘EB-B’, of No. 41 Squadron RAF based at Friston, Sussex, in flight over Eastbourne.

Back in Britain the main offensive operations were being conducted by RAF Bomber Command which was mounting ever more damaging raids on Germany. RAF Fighter Command still had the responsibility of defending the country from the intermittent raids of the Luftwaffe. But ever since the Battle of Britain it had sustained an offensive campaign using fighters to probe the defences of occupied Europe.

The Spitfire had recently reached the Mk XII stage of development, the new Griffon engine replaced the famous Merlins and the wings were clipped to improve manoeuvrability. It was a much more powerful and agile aircraft. So much so that the first squadrons to be equipped with it were forbidden to fly over occupied Europe until they were thoroughly familiarised with it. It was intended to be a surprise for the Luftwaffe.

Peter Graham’s No 41 Squadron finally moved to Westhampnett in June 1943. Soon after they began making raids over over France – either ‘sweeps’ involving the whole squadron, or ‘rhubarbs’ when a pair of aircraft would go out on a roving patrol. It was the beginning of a a campaign to seize air superiority from the Germans in the approach to a landing in Europe:

Joe Birbeck and I had ranged around for about twenty minutes over France and had hit nothing more important than a defenceless water tower. It was time to go home; so we headed north leaving France close to St Valery, hedge—hopping, as we had been for most of the time. The theory of course was that no anti-aircraft gunner would be able to react swiftly enough to hit us.

On this occasion it didn’t turn out that way: as we crossed the coast there was an almighty bang and everything changed. After the roar and racket of the past quarter of an hour there was suddenly total silence. There was glass everywhere except in the instrument panel where it belonged. My right arm wouldn’t obey my commands but hung loose at my side. Almost every dial, indicator and gauge in front of me had gone haywire. Not a squeak from the radio; not a murmur from the engine; no wind noise; total silence; and around me total chaos. I was stone deaf.

I didn’t consciously count my blessings at that moment but they were many and marvellous. For a start I was still in the air, not the sea; the engine was obviously still running and all the controls were working. It was simple enough to fly one—handed, for both my feet were OK. I was to discover later that had the shell that hit me entered one inch higher or lower it would have severed some of the vital cables leading to the rudder and elevators. Most vital of all to my mind after the explosion was that there was Joe just ahead and to my right, obviously OK and able to lead me home. The one instrument that was working properly was the air speed indicator.

I’d received a direct hit by a forty—millimetre anti-aircraft shell that exploded on the armour plate behind my head. Two or three inches further forward and it would have blown my head off. Now I was flying fairly comfortably just keeping formation with my Number One until we got back to Westhampnett.

I’ve never checked it out but have the impression that he was quite unaware of the extent of my trouble. He landed first and I circled the aireld and could see no sign of crash wagon or ambulance below. I was a bit bothered by this as I didn’t know how I’d get the undercarriage down or whether I’d know if it was down and locked. I didn’t fancy doing a wheels-up landing but probably I should have at least seriously considered it or alternatively flown across to Tangmere to make my touch-down on a really big station with all the facilities.

In the end I flew over my airfield a couple of times, waggling my wings. I then climbed to about three thousand feet in order to execute the quite difficult manoeuvre of lowering the undercarriage with my left hand. That wasn’t easy because the control lever was situated at floor level on the right hand side of the seat. To do this I had to leave the aircraft to fly itself while I contorted myself and finally managed to grab and operate the control.

Now how, I wondered, was I to get down in the space available without the use of brakes? I experimented in the air to see if I could work the brake lever with my left hand; I could not. In the Spitfire the control in question was a lever tucked into the right-hand-side of the hoop that topped the joystick. The trick then obviously was to come in over the boundary hedge so low that I could touch down almost at once and then cut the engine.

It was now that I greatly appreciated the fact that I’d still got a functioning air speed indicator; thus I could cross the hedge just above stalling speed and touch down as planned. In fact the landing seemed so good that I didn’t cut the engine. My Spit behaved superbly, stopping just short of the further hedge. I turned and started taxiing towards our dispersal area.

Suddenly I realised with enormous relief that I was hearing perfectly well. I suppose sound had been returning gradually over the last ten minutes or so. Then I glanced down at my limp right arm and received a shock. Blood was welling out over the top of my flying gauntlet. At the same moment someone was getting the canopy hood off and I yelled ‘Get the blood wagon’ and promptly fainted.

Unusually for a pilot Peter Graham does not give the exact date of this incident in his memoirs Skypilot: Memoirs from Take-off to Landing, so titled because he became an ordained minister after the war.

The Spitfire XII had been in service for over a year when this shot was taken on 12 April 1944 of two Friston-based aircraft from No 41 Squadron. Essentially a Mk V airframe mated to Rolls-Royce's powerful 1,735hp Griffon engine (which gave it a top speed of about 390mph at 18,00ft), the Mk XII was a low-level interceptor, equipping two home-defence squadrons.

The Spitfire XII had been in service for over a year when this shot was taken on 12 April 1944 of two Friston-based aircraft from No 41 Squadron. Essentially a Mk V airframe mated to Rolls-Royce’s powerful 1,735hp Griffon engine (which gave it a top speed of about 390mph at 18,00ft), the Mk XII was a low-level interceptor, equipping two home-defence squadrons.

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