My father-in-law, Denis Robinson, who fought in the Battle of Britain, died some weeks ago. He was in my mind on Battle of Britain Day. At 97, he was the last member of his Squadron (152) that flew in the Battle.
For the Order of Service at his funeral, I edited his long account of how he came to crash-land in Dorset in August 1940, and it seems appropriate to share that here today.
On 8th August 1940, we were returning to RAF Warmwell to refuel and re-arm from a patrol in which we had intercepted the enemy and had used all our ammunition.
Unfortunately, a group of Me109s spotted us and attacked our unprotected rear. The first thing I felt was the thud of bullets hitting my aircraft. In a reflex action I slammed the stick forward as far as it would go. For a brief second my Spitfire stood on its nose and I was looking straight down at Mother Earth, thousands of feet below. I could feel the straps of my Sutton harness biting into my flesh as I entered the vertical with airspeed building up alarmingly. I felt fear mounting. No ammo and an attacker right on my tail.
All this happened in seconds, but now the airspeed was nearly off the clock. I had to pull out and start looking for the enemy. Suddenly the engine stopped. Apparently a bullet in the glycol tank had dispersed all the coolant and even the faithful Merlin could not stand that for long at full power.
By now, my eyes were searching wildly, frantically looking for my adversary, but as often happens in air combat, not a single plane was to be seen. The release of tension as I realised my good fortune is something that cannot be described. If you have been through that experience you know what it is like to be given back your life.
The problems that still confronted me now seemed almost trivial. I experienced this feeling several times during the Battle of Britain and it had a profound effect on me. It somehow changed my value system, so that things that had seemed important before never had the same degree of importance again. Maybe this is what generated the anti-authority behaviour amongst us.
I prepared to bail out and began going through the procedure in my mind. During this I’d got the Spit into a steady glide. I surveyed what I could see of the damage from the cockpit. Not much, apart from a few bullet holes. It worried me to abandon the old bus to certain destruction on to heaven knows what, perhaps a school full of children. Besides, I convinced myself that bailing out was too bloody dangerous. I would stay with her and force land in a suitable field. Full flap and a flare out near the ground achieved a creditable touchdown.
Then suddenly, I felt her going up onto her nose and, I thought, onto her back. With an almighty crash the canopy slammed shut over my head. I grabbed it with all my might and threw it backwards. Now I could see that the aircraft had finished up vertically on its nose, in a ditch I hadn’t seen from the air.
Next day I was back on ops again.
Telling this story helps me to deal with my survival syndrome. It is as though I am speaking for the other chaps who did not make it. One constantly asks: ‘Why did I survive … why did others not?
After he crashed he went back to the field the next day to take the picture that’s at the top of the post. The full-length version of this account can be found at website of the Battle of Britain London Monument.
After his death, my wife – Denis’ daughter – was talking to the curator of one of the Battle of Britain sites. He said he often finished his talks with a phrase from an interview that Denis had given:
I flew 60 sorties and at 22 I had lost my youth…I did not like the killing and did not want to be given medals for killing people.
I usually think that as humans we can empathise with things that are a long way from our experience, if we wish to, however incompletely. But reading his account, and those of other pilots, I think it is impossible to have any understanding of what they went through. And other combatants too, of course. Even the survivors paid a large price.