Spitfire versus Messerschmitt

Spitfires in flight: a relatively rare contemporary British image.

Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary left a vivid portrait of life in a front line Squadron during the Battle of Britain, including his experience of being shot down on the 3rd of September:

I was peering anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us warning of at least fifty enemy fighters approaching very high. When we did first sight them, nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must have been 500 to 1000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm of locusts. The next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself.

As soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets. One Messerschmitt went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in a half-roll; I was heaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain height, with the machine practically hanging on the airscrew.

Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for – a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight.

At that moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second of sharp agony, remember thinking “So this is it!” and putting both hands to my eyes. Then I passed out.

Burnt to the face and hands, Hillary was to endure a series of operations with the pioneering plastic surgeon Archie McIndoe, becoming one of the early members of the Guinea Pig Club. It was while he was recuperating that he wrote his classic memoir ‘The Last Enemy’, which brought him considerable acclaim. Despite his injuries he persuaded the RAF to let him return to flying. He died in an air crash in early 1943.

See Richard Hillary: The Last Enemy.

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