Will's War in Brighton: A Twelve-Year-Old Spitfire Pilot
Solving the problem
How do you arrange for a twelve-year-old character to let the reader know that warlike activities on the edges of Britain are on the increase in the summer of 1940, especially aerial combat? The George Lucas solution of letting a child hop into a fighter and personally win the combat was a bit too far-fetched for this story. Those guarding the R.A.F. bases in 1940 would have undoubtedly been disinclined to let my twelve-year-old Brighton lads sneak in and borrow a Spitfire fighter plane for a few hours.
None-the-less, I wanted a dramatic scene which conveys the aerial warfare that took place as the Battle of Britain commenced. The lads would see dog fights later on -from various vantage points in Brighton- but I wanted something that was closer to experiencing one and a bit further away from Brighton at this stage (the war creeps ever closer to Brighton in the narrative, hopefully adding an element of suspense). Part of this was self-centred too, being a frequent ferry passenger I do like the White Cliffs of Dover, no matter what the time or weather, I will be on the deck to greet them or bid them a goodbye. They are old friends.
The good old BBC has come to my rescue. In July 1940 BBC War Correspondent Charles Gardner was atop the White Cliffs of Dover reporting on the passage of a British convoy when the Luftwaffe attacked the convoy and was then chased off by the R.A.F. What resulted was a remarkable live coverage of the action, something Will and Jamie would have never before encountered. The BBC received complaints from listeners who were offended by the enthusiasm Gardner displayed but many more would have been spellbound as the war suddenly came into their living room.
Gardner got a lot of his information wrong, mistaking Hurricanes for Spitfires for example (it is clear from the recording that things were happening fast and high up in the air). Besides that, the pilot that was downed was an R.A.F. pilot. Gardner and the people around him made the same assumption many of those watching dogfights over Brighton would later make; any downed aircraft simply had to be German. Moreover, it wasn’t quite live, the BBC broadcast the unedited report a day later. Even so, it felt ‘live’ for the listeners. Fortunately, in fiction I don’t have to explain all the historical accuracies, this part of the story is how Will experiences the war; right or wrong.
The 1940 BBC report, the medium of radio and Will’s imagination allowed me to make an attempt at inserting an ‘experienced’ dog fight into Secrets of the Wyrde Woods. This can be read below. The radio report (in italics) is the original one, albeit edited to make it shorter and heighten the drama of the moment.
EXTRACT Secrets of the Wyrde Woods
Will was at Jamie’s house listening to the radio with Jamie in the living room. His mouth hung open in a rather undignified way; all thoughts of sweets, pennies, rocket-ships and mutoscopes banished from his mind. All he could think of were bright white cliffs topped by England’s green and pleasant land and a vast expanse of bright blue sky filled with aircraft.
Will and Jamie had been listening to war news when a BBC war correspondent had stopped reading his script. It had been about a small convoy sailing into the Straits of Dover and the radio crew were observing it from the top of the iconic White Cliffs of Dover.
All of a sudden the correspondent had started speaking faster and more urgently. The convoy was being attacked by the Jerries even as the correspondent watched.
“And…there you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now. There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about ten German machines dive-bombing the British convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel.”
Jamie’s mouth had also dropped open. News reports were dry and dignified; this one was unlike any they ever heard before. They could hear noises in the background; other men talking and what sounded like gunfire.
“Here they come. The Germans are coming in an absolute steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now.”
Will held his breath. He began to see it now, as if the Hall’s living room had been transformed into the Kemp Town Odeon cinema.
“Anything interesting?” Mr. Hall stuck his head around the door, holding his pipe in one hand and a newspaper in the other. “Lads?”
“The Jerries are attacking,” Jamie said with surprise in his voice.
“Good Lord, has it begun?” Mr. Hall strode to the window as if he half expected to see a Jerry tank growling its way up the steep incline of Sussex Street. “I thought we’d hear commotion on the sea first.”
“No Mr. Hall,” Will said. “On the radio. They’re attacking a convoy in the Dover Straits.”
“Now the British fighters are coming up.”
Will clenched his fists.
“Now we’ll show Jerry what we’re made of,” Jamie grinned.
“This is happening now?” Mr. Hall came closer, his face showing the same wonder Will and Jamie had felt.
“I can hear machine gunfire. Oh! Here’s one coming down! There’s one going down in flames! Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak, coming down completely out of control!”
Will and Jamie cheered, throwing their fists into the air.
“Good Lord!” Mr. Hall said.
“And now…the pilot’s bailed out by parachute. It’s a Junkers 87, and he’s going slap into the sea…and there he goes. SMASH.”
Will and Jamie cheered again. This time Mr. Hall joined them.
“Now, then….oh.…there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel!! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are Germans.…there’s a fight going on, and you can hear the little rattles of machine gun bullets.”
Will saw the whole scene unfolding before his eyes; the Jerry airman clutching the lines of his parachute as he watched his burning aeroplane plummet into the sea. He was probably cursing like the Jerries in the comic books. Gott im himmel. Donner und wetter! That sort of thing. Then looking up at the dog fight taking place over his head where the graceful Spitfires circled in a dance of death around the stricken Jerry planes.
“There’s another bomb dropping. Yes. It has dropped. It has missed the convoy! You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all of this.”
“Good!” Mr. Hall exclaimed.
“The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where the bombs have burst. Oh yes, I can see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten Germans haring back towards France now for all they can go – and here are our Spitfires coming after them.”
This was like listening to a football match on the radio with the home team now on the counter, both teams dashing in the direction of the opponent’s goal.
“Of course, there are a lot more German machines up there. Can you see, Cyril?” The correspondent asked one of his radio crew.
“Yes, there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven on the top layer, one, two, three – there’s two layers of German machines,” Cyril answered. “They are all, I think, I could not swear to it, but they were all Junkers 87’s.”
“There are two more parachutists?” The correspondent asked somebody else.
“No, I think they are seagulls,” another voice answered.
Mr. Hall laughed at that. He motioned for Jamie to get out of his chair and sat down next to the radio. Jamie settled on the floor with Will.
“Oh, there’s another fight going on, away up, now! I think about 20, 25, or even 30,000 feet above our heads….the anti-aircraft guns have put op one, two, three, four, five, six bursts. There we go again…What?...Oh…we have just hit a Messerschmitt. Oh that was beautiful!”
“Hurrah for the R.A.F.!” Will shouted.
“He’s coming right down. I think it was definitely that burst got him. Yes, he’s come down….Oh; he’s coming down like a rocket now. An absolute steep dive.”
“Welcome to England Jerry. Ha!” Jamie’s eyes were wide.
“There’s another! There’s another Messerschmitt. I don’t know whether he’s down or whether he’s trying to get out of the anti-aircraft fire….There’s a Spitfire! Oh, there are about four fighters up there….One, two, three, four, five fighters fighting right over our heads. Now there’s one coming right down on the tail of what I think is a Messerschmitt and I think it’s a Spitfire behind him. OH, DARN!! They’ve turned away and I can’t see. I can’t see.”
“Bloody hell!” Mr. Hall said, perhaps forgetting there were children in the room.
“Hullo, there are one, two, three; and – look! There’s a dog fight going on up there! There are four, five, six machines wheeling and turning around. Now, hark at the machine guns going! Hark! One, two, three, four, five, six; now there’s something coming right down on the tail of another.”
Will was seeing it from a Spitfire cockpit now, a complex technical contraption in which all he had to understand were the controls of the machine guns.
“Here they come; yes, they are being chased home – and how they are being chased home! There are three Spitfires chasing three Messerschmitts now. Oh, boy! Look at them going! Oh, look how the Messerschmitts…”
Will released a burst of fire at the fleeing Messerschmitts.
“Oh boy! That was really grand! There’s a Spitfire behind the first two. He will get them. Oh, yes. Oh, boy! I’ve never seen anything so good as this! The R.A.F. fighters have really got these boys taped. Our machine is catching up the Messerschmitt now.”
Will increased his speed by turning what looked like a mutoscope crank-handle.
“He’s catching it up! He’s got the legs of it….now right in the sights!”
Will pressed a knob and watched 26 machine guns – for he had made some very special adaptations of his own devising to his personal Spitfire- pump out trails of bullets at the Messerschmitt.
“Machine guns are going like anything. No, there’s another fight going on. No. they’ve chased him right out to sea….I can’t see, but I think the odds would be certainly on that first Messerschmitt catching it! Where? Where? I can’t see them at all….”
“Just on the left,” another voice said. “See it?”
“Oh, yes, oh yes. I see it. Yes. They’ve got him down too…Yes, he’s pulled away….Yes, I think that first Messerschmitt has been crashed on the coast of France all right.”
“Just doing me job Guv,” Will said, satisfied with this day’s work. “Part and parcel of being an R.A.F. pilot.”
Will didn’t notice Mr. Hall grinning away at him.
(end of extract)