Reporter Joe Bloggs interviews war veteran Flight Lieutenant Sir John Smith, DFC
Recollections of a retired fighter pilot who's had a few glasses too many
Joe Bloggs: Sir, can you tell me a little about your war service?
Sir John Smith, DFC: You want a story? Get me another drink and I'll tell you. You can take it from me, I know everything about the Air Force. I served in it for years. I was in the Air Force when Jesus was a carpenter and Pontius was a pilot. The first plane I flew in was so ancient it had outside toilets. I was one of those who protested against the introduction of service numbers. We didn't have any when I joined: we all knew each other.
But you asked about the war. We flew in close formations. In fact we flew nothing but formations. Even when we only had one plane flying, we had to formate the wings onto the fuselage and fly them like that for the whole mission. There wasn't much margin for error: if any piece was out of place in the formation, even a few inches, there'd be casualties. Flying wan't dangerous at all - it was just the crashes that kept blotting our record. But it was war, so we didn't grumble. Actually we did, but we stopped pretty soon because nobody listened.
Anyway, now that the war is over, I can tell you that I flew the Hawker Typhoon with 101 Squadron. "Afterburners are for WIMPS!" was our squadron motto. We were detailed as an Airborne Observation Post Defence squadron in the Royal Indian Navy, but that didn't bother us. The "heads" always managed to muck things up. My Commanding Officer was a man by the name of James C. Bigglesworth - you might have heard of him. He was a great guy to serve under. But he was a tough boss. He was almost ruthless when he dealt with people who weren't trying. I was on the receiving end of it once - just once - and that was quite enough. Never again did I try to get anything through that wasn't top quality. That's probably the main reason I'm telling this story.
JB: How's that, sir?
JS: Well, with his leadership ability, he spurred us on to increase our skills and save our lives. He was a very hard boss to please, but nobody minded. We all knew that it was our lives he was saving. A mid-air collision, you know, can seriously affect your climb and turn performance. He taught us that only a fool learns from his mistakes - a wise man learns from everyone else's. No-one lives long enough to make them all himself. And we learned never to jump to conclusions - there's always a danger of hitting a wall of fact on the way.
We had to be great at aiming bombs. We didn't have any of those fancy guided missiles then - not even those new-fangled bomb sights. We aimed our bombs by eye. To train us, Bigglesworth laid out a cardboard box on the ground somewhere out in the desert where it couldn't do any harm. Nowadays he'd be fined $1000 for littering, but there was nothing like that then. We'd dive our planes at the box, right on top of it, going down perfectly vertical, and drop a big steel dart called a Flechette. We got to enormous speeds - we came up against the sound barrier years before the electro-magnetic wave was invented. If the dart didn't pierce the box right in the middle, up we'd go again and try to hit it closer. After about three days of training we could hit the match box pretty accurately all the time. Bigglesworth once actually played darts with them, dive-bombing the flechettes onto a real dart board on the lawn in front of our mess building. The youngsters who manned the fuel pumps threw darts the normal way, but he beat them all. We would have sent the results to the propaganda people, but the fuel pumpers were so ashamed of losing that they persuaded the station commander to veto it.
Anyway, we earned the squadron a great reputation for aiming real bombs: the B-17s of the US 8th Air Force and the Lancasters of the RAF Dam Busters' Squadron were so envious that they effectively blotted us out from the public eye. But we were pretty proud of ourselves anyway. Every time we hit a target closer than every other bomber in the world, we pilots would hold our heads an inch higher, and the ground crews would polish the planes a bit shinier. By the end of the war we had to fly with our canopies open, and the planes had to be re-skinned in steel. I still reckon I could out-bomb any of those champion bomb-aimers who win the competitions, but since I've retired they won't let me compete. Anyway, I wouldn't know how to use all these newfangled electronic devices.
JB: Warplanes have changed a bit, eh?
JS: They sure have. But I bet Bigglesworth has kept up. He was pretty smart all round. We could never get him to tell us about his school days, but I reckon he must have been pretty close to the top of the class at everything. He was good with his hands too. If you could buy him enough steel wool, he could knit you a Foxbat in 25 seconds. And he could do fine adjustments to faulty radar units with a single blow from his sledgehammer. He should have been on TV some time. He never was, but he was on radar thousands of times. And he could think quickly, too. Many's the time his wits brought us through with intact skins when we'd been despairing of our chances.
JB: Can you give an example, sir?
JS: Let me see, where shall I start? How about the time he broke through a fleet of Jap battleships with a captured army truck, one time when we were shot down? It was dark, and told them in Japanese that he had been given orders to move to another depot. He got clean away with it.
JB: He could speak Japanese well enough to fool a whole ship's crew?
JS: Yes - better than that if anything! He could speak Chinese, ancient Hebrew, French, Indonesian, German, Aramaic, Spanish, Polish, Italian, Arabic, Latin, Middle English, Greek, Swahili, Indian, Modern Atlantean, Portuguese, ancient Icelandic, Russian, and goodness knows what else. And he picked up a bit of some Aboriginal lingo from one of the black Diggers in the squadron too. Oh yes, he could speak Swedish too. I know because I was with him when he escaped from a German concentration camp and worked a passage on a Swedish ship to safe territory. Actually, the story's well worth hearing. It's probably enough to write a book about, so I'll just run over it quickly.
We were both shot down in a huge dogfight, and I don't mind admitting it. The two of us were alone against five Gruppen of Me.262s. We were flying Gloster Gladiators, which were more nimble but slightly slower. Well, as I said, we were shot down. We tried to pinch a helicopter to go home in, by we were seen by the airfield guards. We made a great fight out of it, but we only had Very pistols, so we were out-gunned. Bigglesworth saw that this might be a time when discretion was the better part of valour, so we surrendered. We were accused as saboteurs by the KGB, so we were sent to a concentration camp. While we were on the way there we tried to jump off the train and get away, but the guards were on their toes and we couldn't. The camp itself was formidable: around the perimeter there was a tangled mess of barbed wire and electric fencing, charged with 4.5 quintrillion volts. There were full-time guards at every door, and we weren't allowed out of our cells for any reason whatsoever. The building was made of stone, concrete and steel, with walls three hundred yards thick. Bigglesworth decided we had to go out underneath, so we dug a tunnel from under the bed, and dumped the dirt out into the toilets. They were just a deep pit in the ground, and the dirt helped constrain the smell.
When we finished the tunnel, we dismantled our beds and used the legs to knock out two of the guards, and then we pinched their uniforms and rifles, and went out through the tunnel. It made the uniforms a bit dirty, but we didn't mind. We ran through the countryside in the dark, commandeered a T-34 tank, overpowered the crew and chucked them overboard (bound and gagged, of course), and headed towards the Baltic Sea. The tank captain, it turned out, had escaped and alerted the authorities and they set a trap for us. But we saw it coming and opened fire with the tank's 155mm guns. We blew it apart and went through, putting on top speed because we knew the phone lines would be running hot. We rammed a few telegraph poles to disrupt the communications, but it was too late: the messages about us had already gone through, and a "reception" was awaiting us at the next town. Actually I heard afterwards that there were no fighters in the air to protect the Tirpitz when 617 squadron attacked it. Apparently the phones were out of order due to the poles being down. Bigglesworth could have claimed a reward, but he didn't of course.
Anyway, as I said, we got to the next town and got a very warm welcome from a napalm throwing tank. The gun turret was blown off the tank, and my hair was singed by the explosion. They shot up the engine of the tank pretty badly, but we kept going. We crushed the barbed-wire traps they set for us by running over them, and Bigglesworth pushed the accelerator flat to the floor. They were shooting at us, so we kept low and didn't get hurt. Probably the nastiest shot was the one that landed under the cab, fired from behind us. It lifted the whole tank up ten feet into the air, and dropped us down again. There was no warning, because the shell was travelling faster than sound. We just suddenly got crushed into our seats as if an elephant had jumped on our laps. The shock of falling back down smashed the caterpillar tracks that propelled the tank, so we had to abandon it. Bigglesworth managed to jam it in a narrow stretch of road to hold the enemy up, and we gained enough of a lead to get away.
We still had the guards' rifles, so we jumped onto a fast goods train from a bridge, held up the crew and headed for the Baltic. The goods happened to be confiscated propaganda leaflets, dropped by the Kriegsmarine bombers. We hastily threw them around the countryside to go on with their good work. When we got to the port, Bigglesworth used his knowledge of Swedish to gain us a passage on a ship. So we got home intact.
JB: What a smart guy! He must have been great to serve under. But how was the day-to-day work? You were saying that you had a difficult job with your squadron.
JS: Difficult? That's putting it lightly. Our only rests were when there was a violent thunderstorm that would wreck our wings, or total cloud so we couldn't see. And even then only one person of the squadron rested, because there were radar sets for eleven of the twelve planes. We took turns. We ate carrots to keep our eyes from packing up, and left the cockpit canopy open so that the slipstream would keep us awake. Those propellers were great for keeping us cool. If one ever stopped when we were flying, we started sweating like mad. And of course you can't fall asleep in the cockpit with that thing blowing you, even when you're as over-tired as we were.
JB: It was really so hectic that you couldn't take enough sleep?
JS: No, and we couldn't stop to eat either. But Bigglesworth saved us. We always had to fly on oxygen in the Typhoon, because the engine filled the cockpit with unbreatheable gases. And we couldn't eat through the oxygen mask. Bigglesworth's idea was this: the ground crew put a sandwich or two into the oxygen tank when refilling it, and then we use the oxygen as normal. The pressure in the tank would break the sandwich into tiny pieces, which would then fit up the pipe. The bits would fly up and we'd swallow them. Of course we couldn't taste it, so we filled the sandwiches with bully beef.
But that's not all. We were as busy as I've said, after another of his ideas had taken the brunt of the attacks: he took the twelfth radar set, which a Bv.141 had kindly put a few 37mm explosive cannon shells through, fixed it up, and bolted it on to an airframe he made out of spares and scrap metal. He designed a new type of engine himself, using very light compressor blades, made from vortices of air at 96.5% humidity. A vorticee, as you might know, is a piece of air chasing its tail and gyroscopically stabilizing itself. And it weighs exactly nothing, provided the scales have been "doctored". With that sort of light construction, a jet engine could be built to put out 200 pounds of thrust while weighing just over three tons. That's both more thrust and lighter construction than any engine has been since. Well anyway, he put five of those engines in the tail (three on each side and one facing backwards), and they gave the plane a top speed of nine miles an hour. He sealed off the wing and filled it up with petrol as a fuel tank (we call it a "wet wing") and that gave a range of about 5 miles. He wired it all up and stuck eight spare cannons in around the nose. He couldn't work out how to carry enough ammunition, so he developed an in-flight rearming system, just like they have in-flight refuelling today. Both this plane and the plane that rearmed it were drones, controlled by computers. Of course the computers in those days weren't very powerful, but they were smart enough to know that anything with a black cross on the fuselage was there to be shot at. Oh yes, he had a video camera in it too, to look for the black crosses. He had to invent colour cameras so the computer could tell the national markings apart, and after the war he got them put on the market. I know that's not what most encyclopedias say, but you can't believe everything you read, can you?
JB: Certainly not! Bigglesworth was smart, wasn't he?
JS: Just great. We couldn't have operated without him! Another of his great ideas was for a new type of anti-submarine aircraft. It was in 1941, when the Nuclear Missile Submarine scare was at its height. Bigglesworth wired up the oxygen bottle to the engine (after taking the sandwiches out) to allow it to keep going without needing oxygen from the air, and flew his plane under water. He hitched up a torpedo to the bomb rack with a wire contraption, and sank a submarine with it. His plane was quite a bit faster under water, because the propellers could "bite" the water easier than air. The controls were very sensitive for the same reason, but he was a great pilot and soon managed to keep it under control. He was designing a plane that could carry heaps of torpedoes and a good supply of oxygen bottles (because the engine used up all the oxygen in the ordinary bottles in five and a quarter pulsations of his plane's internal Pentium IV-566MMX), and just about had it finished when the scare wore off and nobody wanted special anti-sub planes any more. But in the testing, Bigglesworth managed to dive to twelve miles 398 feet and four-and-five-sevenths inches below sea level in the prototype. That was just to make a record, though, because not many subs can get that far down. Bigglesworth could have silenced any of those petty line-shooting guys from D-Day who said things like, "We flew looking out of the periscope" and, "It's a pain having to climb over the hedges in Holland" and, "I was booked by a French policeman for driving over the speed limit". But he was too good-natured to do that, much to the frustration of all his pals!
JB: It must be nice to work for such a pleasant guy.
JS: It was. And he'd never lose his temper either - he knew nobody else wanted it. But he could be cheeky too. Or you might simply call it an active sense of humour. I'll give you an example. He got sick of not knowing what the enemy planes were like to fly, so he got his senior flight leader to take him over enemy territory in a Combat Capable Trainer called the KC-135B. They shot down five X-15s on the way (they'd been trying to interfere), and Bigglesworth bailed out over an enemy aerodrome and pinched an "Okha". He even grabbed a chocolate bar from the store on the way. It wasn't very good quality chocolate, so he threw it into the engine intake. He was a notoriously harsh judge of chocolate, because an acquaintance of his cousin's friend's great-aunt's brother-in-law had been an office boy in the Cadbury factory in his teenage years, forty-eight years before Bigglesworth was born. He actually served the big boss on his first day, until he was found to be right-handed and was fired thirty-nine seconds later. Anyway, Bigglesworth flew the enemy plane home and carried out a thorough test. After a few days it got taken away by Intelligence, and that week he was awarded another bar to his DFC. Despite the official story, we think there was a connection!
He seemed to like DFCs, so he tried the trick again a few months later. He got sick of shooting down perfectly good Sabres so he flew one home. Same trick. Of course, we knew all about Sabres because we've used them ourselves, so he simply donated it to an aviation museum. It's still there, in perfect flying condition, and there are several people who are very grateful to him. It's one of only two, you see.
JB: And of course all the world knows how valuable a rare aeroplane is.
JS: That's right. Actually, not many people do, but it's so true that they appreciate Sabres anyway.
And they're not the only ones: the Russians do, too. Bigglesworth was flying a new model of Sabre, the Sopwith Dove, on an offensive patrol one day, when he was shot down by a C-141D and got captured by the Russians. They did all sorts of things to get him to tell them about Sabres - he never told me the details. But he didn't talk, so he was going to be shot. Dawn came around and he was led outside, tied and blindfolded, but he used the old trick of "Look out behind you!" as the troops were firing, so they shot the Russian General instead. They were so horrified that they ignored Bigglesworth and he got away. He grabbed an army jeep, drove to an airfield, and managed to stir up enough rebellion against communism to get all the aircrews to defect. He led the charge, and they captured the fuel supply, filled up all the planes (all the new experimental jobs: the Mikoyan 1.42, Sukhoi Su-29, Tupolev Tu-4, and a few others), and flew them across the Black Sea to America. From there he contacted the Aeronavale, and they sent an Me.109B to fetch him home. But the Yanks were so grateful to him that they held the flight up, treated the transport guys to first class accommodation, and awarded Bigglesworth a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honour.
I never could get him to display his array of medals, but there must have been enough to sink a battleship. And there would be a great story hanging off each one of them. Don't ask me about any because Bigglesworth never talked about them. Probably no-one knows except him. Actually I do know one story, about the Knight's Cross. He had been working for us in Germany, as an undercover agent at an airfield. He manned the flak battery, and made so many "kills" (actually he only shot at the drones the RAF sent over) that he became an "ace" - he got ten "planes" without ever leaving the ground! In Germany that automatically awarded him the Iron Cross. Then later there was a bombing raid, and he was the only one of the flak battery's crew to stay at his post. He made the excuse that he wasn't asleep at all: he was just waiting for the Stukas to arrive. In spite of his excuse, he was awarded the Knight's Cross, with Oak Leaves, "For outstanding valour" the citation said. Actually, the battery was the target of the bombing raid so it was probably the safest place within miles!
One last story. Here's something for your newspaper, that not many people know: planes run on smoke. The engines, the spinning props, the petrol, and all that is simply to generate smoke for the plane to run on. That's why, if you shoot a plane and a lot of smoke leaks out, it goes down. It can't hold itself in the air without at least 500 pounds of smoke pressure in the engine, so all we have to do is make it leak, and down he goes. Balloons were the same, only simpler. They had a great big gas bag instead of an engine, and a furnace which burned wood or hay instead of petrol. But it was much the same: one leak and pressure drops, and down she goes.
JB: Really, Sir? Well, I suppose you should know, having worked around planes for so long.
Thank you very much, Sir. This story will please my boss no end!