Spitfire versus Me 109s over Malta

Ground crew refuel a Supermarine Spitfire Mark VC of No. 601 Squadron RAF, using four-gallon petrol tins, in a sandbagged revettment at Luqa, Malta, while two armourers service the Spitfire's cannon. In the cockpit, conferring with other squadron personnel, is Flight Lieutenant Dennis Barnham.

Denis Barnham had arrived on Malta after flying off the USS Wasp on the 20th April. With regular air attacks on the island it was not long before he was in action, scrambled to deal with the latest wave of bombers to appear. As usual they were heavily outnumbered:

We are climbing higher into a rusty purple void: in all this haze I can’t see the island or the sea, only the two Spitfires ahead of me and the glaring Cyclopian eye of the sun staring down at us. Fifteen thousand feet, still in haze – Gracie turning left. I follow in a long stern chase as we dive back in the direction we’ve come from. I stare through the windscreen at Gracie’s tiny Spitire closely followed by the C.O.’s, both turning slightly right in the distance. In front of the two retreating planes a faint brown trace of the island with bursting anti-aircraft shells is looming towards us. Gracie steepens his dive, continues turning. We are plunging vertically but I can see no enemy planes.

There they are – Ju 88s, top plan view, five, seven, ten, twenty, thirty. No time to count. Still more appear, all sweeping closer. All sizes, extending in depth downwards like fishes in a tank; some very close, some far away below. Take one near the bottom. My Spitfire shudders as I fire two bursts of cannon into a cluster of bombers that get in the way. May have hit one. Can’t stop to look. My target is wheeling nicely into position.

Ahhhhh! A huge part of a Ju 88, nose and engines, flashes out from under my left wing: must have been right on top of him! Gone now. Easing gently out of my dive, watching my graceful target flying backwards towards me, larger and larger in my gun-sight. Quick search in all directions: lots of 88s but no enemy fighters. Target’s wings overlapping my windscreen – I fire. A flash and a burst of smoke from his port engine.

He rears up in front of me, steep turning left. Dash the man! Deflection inside his turn. Can only just do it. Fire again. He’s swerving to the right. Try for his starboard engine. Fire again and again.

Black smoke puffs on my left wing; balls of orange fire flashing past my cockpit, crackling in my ears. I plunge left, looking back over my left shoulder, for who the hell’s hitting me? Nothing there – just an 88 hanging behind my tail. Can’t be him. Swerve back again. My own 88 has drawn away a bit; a pretty thing splaying two plumes of smoke that widen as they sweep back towards me, very pale machine and very close to the water. I wonder if it’s going to crash.

109s! Two, head-on views, diving from my left, blinking with light. Curling blue tracers strand about me as I turn towards them. A third – got my sight on him for an instant before he went under my nose. Still turning hard left. My helmet’s too big for me. Turn pressure pulls it over my eyes. Can’t see. Stupid. Push it up and straighten out: that’s better.

Two more 109s, from the right this time. Turn in towards them. Curl down on the last one. Can’t turn sharply enough. Damn the helmet! Another 109 below me. Drop on to his tail. I’ll get him all right. A gigantic shape, all rivets and oil streaks, the underside of a Messerschmitt, blots out the sky! Gone. But I’m still on a 109’s tail, it’s right there in front of me, pointing very slightly downwards. My aircraft shudders and shudders and shudders and shudders as I pour bullets and shells into it. It bursts with black smoke and topples over sideways.

Shortly afterwards Denis Barnham’s plane was hit and he prepared to bail out, only changing his mind at the last minute. He just managed to crash land his plane and avoid serious injury. He had survived his first 24 hours on Malta.

See Denis Barnham: Malta Spitfire Pilot, originally published as ‘One Man’s Window’.

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