Black Crosses Off My Wingtip


Squadron Leader Irving ‘Hap’ Kennedy was a Canadian fighter pilot. He flew Spitfires in Europe and Malta and Sicily and Whirlwinds and an American Kittyhawk in an amusing adventure in North Africa. He was shot down in France after the Normandy invasion and escaped.

This marvelous little book tells the story of his service in the RAF and RCAF. The back cover says, in part, “His book vividly describes the operational activities of fighter pilots during a very tense period of world history.

But more than that, he captures the spirit of those light hearted young men who laughed and flew in that time. Too many did not come home again, like his brother. But Hap did – and he tells a good story. This excerpt is part of his account of just one sortie – when he was ‘scrambled’ from ‘immediate readiness’ on Malta on 10 June 1943:

It was a beautiful June day without a cloud to mottle the contrast of the light blue sky above the dark blue Mediterranean. From our landing strip close to the edge of the rock, we could see where the sky and the sea met away off to the east. It looked like an infinite distance, as, of course, it was. Everything in Malta is close to the sea. The island is only twenty miles long and six miles wide. It’s a small place to find if you’re coming in from the north-west in bad weather and the island’s radio is on the fritz. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often.

Sitting there in my aircraft, waiting, I smiled at the memory of a scramble in pouring rain, ten-tenths low cloud, and half a dozen different vectors to 10,000 feet before Control went off the air. Loss of radio contact was not a problem in fine weather, but when visibility was poor we were very dependent upon the island’s radar and the controller giving us a course home. On that rainy day we let down through cloud in tight formation, broke clear at 500 feet, and found the island before fuel got low. Perhaps I should have phoned Control after we landed, but I didn’t wish to add to their embarrassment.

Ground crew of No. 249 Squadron RAF take a break from maintaining their Supermarine Spitfire Mark VCs at Ta Kali, Malta, to observe the activity on the airfield.
Ground crew of No. 249 Squadron RAF take a break from maintaining their Supermarine Spitfire Mark VCs at Ta Kali, Malta, to observe the activity on the airfield.

Some tiny fishing vessels bobbed like corks on the calm sea a few miles away, and my musing continued. While elsewhere momentous decisions on the conduct of the World War were being made by worried men who would be late for dinner, these local fishermen pushed away from shore with a pair of oars, and went out in their tiny boats, the way it always had been. On the other side of the strip, a short, grizzled man kept two burros moving in a circle, tramping and threshing the grain with their feet on the hard-baked ground. This custom derived from the biblical fertile crescent at the far end of this blue sea, and hadn’t changed in more than two thousand years.

Perhaps both the sun-browned fisherman and the farmer with his tiny fields and neat stone fences knew that eventually, sooner or later, we noisy disruptive foreigners would stop fighting each other, pick up the trappings of war, and go home. Patience would be rewarded with a return to sanity.

We were on “Immediate Readiness,” strapped into our Spitfires, sitting near the end of the strip. All was ready; oxygen and radio connected to my helmet that hung on the reflector sight. A mechanic relaxed beside a battery cart that he had plugged into the engine of the aircraft to guarantee a fast start, and conserve the aircraft’s battery. When the phone call came from Ops Control to our dispersal, there remained only pulling on one’s helmet and gloves, and starting the engine. We were expected to be airborne in less than one minute.

Kennedy's log book for June 1943 shows that he only had 45 minutes to master the Spitfire IX after switching from the V. Many thanks to Curtis Fraser for supplying this image.
Kennedy’s log book for June 1943 shows that he only had 45 minutes to master the Spitfire IX after switching from the V. Many thanks to Curtis Fraser for supplying this image.

I had been loaned to 185 Squadron for a week or two. They were a bit short of pilots and anxiously awaited some new arrivals from England. I didn’t mind too much with whom I flew, as long as I got airborne reasonably often. Didn’t really mind, I reflected, but I had been with 249 Squadron for six months, and we were used to each other’s habits.

Mind you, there were always a few new green pilots who didn’t know how to scan a bit of sky and know absolutely that there were no aircraft there. One hoped they would learn before they got clobbered. Or before they allowed a Hun to clobber the Spit next to them, whose tail they were supposed to be guarding. Anyway, I knew Billing and Mercer here at 185, and they were experienced and competent. But I didn’t have them today.

The real compensation, however, was that I was strapped into a brand new Spitfire IX. The Malta squadrons were being re-equipped with “Nines” after a couple of years, including the blitz year of 1942, during which the Spit V was the defence of the island. Recently the Luftwaffe had moved their latest Messerschmitt Me 109G into Sicily along with some Focke-Wulf 190 squadrons. These latter were superb aircraft and the old Spit V just couldn’t keep up to them. The Spit IX, a heavier brute in the engine but the same airframe with the lovely loose ailerons, an additional 250 h.p., a four-bladed prop, and a supercharger that came in with a tremendous kick at 21,000 feet, once more gave us the advantage of a superior performance.

Two Spitfire IX's of No 241 Squadron, Royal Air Force, MA425/`RZ-R' and MH635/`RZ-U' piloted by Flying Officers H Cogman and J V Macdonald respectively flying over mountainous country south of Rome.
Two Spitfire IX’s of No 241 Squadron, Royal Air Force, MA425/`RZ-R’ and MH635/`RZ-U’ piloted by Flying Officers H Cogman and J V Macdonald respectively flying over mountainous country south of Rome.

We were full of enthusiasm. “Readiness” was a state that one got used to pretty quickly in Fighter Command. Whether in England or Malta, or supporting the army in the field, a fighter squadron had to take its turn on readiness to defend against a Luftwaffe attack. It meant long days, pre-dawn till dusk. Those on the pre-dawn duty were roused at 0330 hours in the Malta summer, and after a breakfast of toast and coffee, powdered eggs and stewed tomatoes, trundled off in the back of a Bedford van to the landing strip dispersal. After placing one’s helmet and gloves and ’chute in the aircraft, and a chat with the mechanic who ran up the Spit in the dark, the waiting game in the dispersal began. It ended either with a “Scramble” call from Ops., or relief from duty by the other flight at 1300 hours.

Normal three minute readiness allowed us to lounge in the dispersal, wearing our Mae Wests. With bad weather, Ops. might put us on thirty minutes and let us go to the mess. But when action was imminent, we were moved up to an “Immediate” state and strapped in. And that’s the way it was today.

At 1440 hours, a red flare went up from the dispersal hut, arching over the strip, and my mechanic jumped to his battery. I pulled on my helmet, fastened the oxygen mask, put on my gloves, tumed the oxygen valve on, and primed twice. The engine broke into a roar. The mechanic pulled out the battery cable and gave me a “thumbs up” and I was tearing down the strip with full throttle and 3000 R.P.M. Airborne, gear up, throttle back a little to let the lads catch up, at 4500 f.p.m. climb.

“Malta Control. Bullet Red Section Airbome,” I radioed as Red Two and Three formed on either side of me. We normally flew as a section of four, but we were strapped for pilots these days.

“Bullet Red One. Control here, Vector three six zero max climb to angels three zero. Three bandits possibly Me 109,s approaching from the north at twenty-eight thousand. Over.”

“O.K. Control. Bullet Red Section max climb north angels 30. Over.”

Air Vice Marshal Park, Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Malta and the boss of Control at Luqa, knew this game very well. He had been in charge of Eleven Group, that area of south-east England most actively engaged in the Battle of Britain, two and three quarter years earlier. He taught his controllers well, and now one of them was getting us north of the Huns so that we might be in a position to intercept them from 30,000 feet.

Control was tracking at least three Me 109s proceeding south over us to the island. Probably there was one photo-reconnaissance Me, and two Me 109G escorts to protect him. Photographs of the shipping in Valletta harbour were taken almost daily, the information interpreted and relayed to U-boat commanders. Allied convoys to Malta suffered terrible casualty rates. Sometimes more ships were sunk than got through from Gibraltar to Malta with food, fuel and ammunition.

“Bullet Red One. Control here. Confirm position.”

Our superchargers had just kicked in. We were moving. “Hello Control. Bullet Red Section at angels two four, about one five miles north. Over.”

“Bullet Red. Turn one eight zero degrees port. Continue climb to angels three one. You should see three bandits dead ahead over Grand Harbour. Look out for a few pointer rounds ack-ack shortly. Over.”

“O.K. Control. Bullet Red turning south.” We continued to climb and just over two minutes later I saw the Messerschmitts. Three black bursts of heavy anti-aircraft fire from the island helped me find the tiny aircraft glinting silver in the brilliant sunshine.

Squadron Leade Irving F. 'Hap' Kennedy in 1944.
Squadron Leade Irving F. ‘Hap’ Kennedy in 1944.

“Tally ho,” I called. “Bullet Red Section. Bandits dead ahead. A little below.” We were at 31,000 feet. They were perhaps four miles away and already losing height in a wide sweeping turn to starboard over Grand Harbour. Now they straightened out on a northerly course with their noses down, and I knew they would be exceeding 400 mph. They would be across the seventy miles to Sicily in ten minutes. Unless we could do something about it, that is.

I had the throttle open and I rolled over and headed on a course to cut the angle toward the 109s, which had separated a little. I wound on nose-heavy trim so essential to keep the aircraft in a high-speed dive. The Spit responded eagerly as I dove more steeply than the 109s, with Red Two and Three no doubt following, although I could not see them. The controls got very heavy as the airspeed needle moved far right at 480 mph. (Corrected for altitude, true airspeed approached 600 mph.)

I could see that I was gaining on the nearest Me 109. That was something new. We were already half-way to Sicily; that was no problem. We knew from years of experience, dating back to the boys who had been in the Battle of Britain, that the 109 with its slim thirty-two foot wing was initially faster in a dive than we were. But we accepted that compromise happily in exchange for our broad superior-lift wing with its better climb and turn. One couldn’t have it both ways. In any case, I was closing on this Me 109, which I recognized as a G. Perhaps he wasn’t using full throttle.

We were down to 5,000 feet and our dive had become quite shallow. I could see the Sicilian coast a few miles ahead. Now I was within range at 300 yards, and I let him have a good squirt. The first strikes were on the port radiator from which white smoke poured, indicating a glycol coolant leak. I knew I had him before the engine broke out in heavy black smoke.