Two outstanding personal accounts by a fighter pilot during the Second World War
This special Leonaur title, our first ever book about the Second World War, contains two accounts of the war in the air as fought by the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force. It is remarkable because its author was an American who had elected to join the battle against fascist Germany before his own country decided to enter the war. The combat patrols and dog-fights of Fighter Command’s young Spitfire and Hurricane pilots are brought vividly to life as Donahue describes his part in the momentous days of the Battle of Britain. The second book describes the author’s subsequent experiences in the war against Imperial Japan. A posting eastwards to Singapore put him on the spot just as the Japanese Army was sweeping down the Malayan peninsula to assault the fortress island. Descriptions of war in the air, the ultimate fall of Singapore, his hair’s-breadth escape and his flight to fight another day make riveting reading. Donahue’s two books combined in this value for money Leonaur edition should not be missed by anyone interested in wartime aviation.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
It seemed like it would be another quiet day. Nothing happened until about eleven a.m. Then the telephone rang, and the call was for our squadron leader. When he finished speaking he turned to us with a little smile and said: “Operations just called to tell us to be on our toes. There’s a lot of activity on the other side, and they have a ‘fifty plus’ raid plotted, coming across farther down the coast. It may turn and head our way though.”
A “fifty plus” raid meant a group of fifty or more enemy airplanes!
In a few minutes the telephone rang again. The telephone orderly listened a moment and then turned to us and said, “Squadron into your aircraft, and patrol base at ten thousand feet !”
Instantly we were on our feet and racing pell-mell out to our airplanes. An airman helped me on with my parachute. I climbed into the cockpit of my machine and, trembling with excitement, adjusted my straps and put on my helmet. Down the line of planes starters whined, and first one engine then another coughed to life. I pressed my own starter button and my engine joined the chorus. There was no “warming up,” no taxiing across the field to take off into the wind. Upwind, downwind, or crosswind, we took off straight ahead. Better a difficult take-off than to give a deadly enemy a minute’s extra advantage!
We roared off like a stampeding herd of buffalo, climbing steeply and wide open. Two thousand feet, four thousand—there were thick fluffy clouds at five thousand, and we flashed up through their misty chasms, caverns, hills and valleys; and then they were dropping away below us and forming a snowy carpet for us to look down on. The sun shone brilliantly above. New orders came over the radio from our controller, much as on the previous chase. Sometimes we were over coastal cities, sometimes over the Channel, circling here, patrolling there, watching for the elusive enemy. I recalled the scene in the operations room and wondered if the girls plotting our positions were any less nonchalant now when there was a real chase on.
Nearly an hour passed without our seeing anything. One flight (six of our twelve planes) was ordered to land, and I guessed that the trail was getting cold. Peter and I were in the flight remaining on patrol.
We were about eight thousand feet up, the six of us patrolling over the Channel, and for a couple of minutes we had received no new orders. The sun was very hot, and I wished I hadn’t worn my tunic.
Our only warning was the sudden whine of a transmitter and a voice shouting “Bandits astern!!”
It was blood-chilling. Our squadron leader was quick on the trigger and led us in a violent turn, just in time. A myriad gray Messerschmitts were swarming down out of the sun, diving from above and behind and shooting as they came.
Our leader’s voice was steady and strong and reassuring and in that moment filled with all his personal magnetism and strength of character. It was reassuring in its calm call to battle, and caught up shattered nerves and self-control in each of us. He led us together down into the middle of the swarm of Huns, whose speed had carried them far down ahead of us and who were now wheeling back towards us as they came up out of their dives.
There seemed to be about thirty; it was probably a “gruppe” of twenty-seven, and they simply absorbed the six of us. We picked targets and went after them and were soon completely lost from each other. One Messerschmitt was coming up in a climbing turn ahead of me, and allowing for its speed I aimed a burst of fire just ahead of its nose. I had no time to see if I hit it.
My guns gave me a feeling of power. They sounded terribly capable and completed the steadying effect of our leader’s voice on my nerves.
Another Messerschmitt coming head-on spat his four white tracers at me but they arched over my head. We seemed to be milling about like a swarm of great gnats in this giant eerie amphitheatre above the clouds. Sets of long white tracers crisscrossed the air and hung all about, like Christmas decorations! They stay visible for several seconds after they’re fired.
Something about the shape of the Messerschmitts reminded me of rats sailing about on their little narrow, stiff-looking, square-tipped wings. I think it’s because of the shape of their noses, and the way their radiators are carried tucked up under their noses like the forefeet of a rat when he’s running close to the floor.
One came at me from the side, his guns blazing out their tracers and his cannon firing through a hole in the center of his propeller, puffing blue smoke for all the world like a John Deere tractor! It wasn’t a pretty sight. Two of the tracers erupted from guns on either side of its nose, at the top, and two from the wings. It looked like a hideous rat-shaped fountain spurting jets of water from its nostrils and mouth corners!
We mêléed about for several minutes, the fight quickly spreading out over wide territory. I got short shots at several of our playmates, just firing whenever I saw something with black crosses in front of me and not having time to see the result.
Then one got on my tail and gave me a burst just as I saw him, and I laid over into a vertical turn; and as he did likewise, following me, I hauled my Spitfire around as tight as I could. We were going fast and I had to lean forward and hold my breath and fight to keep from blacking out, and I turned this way for several seconds. Then I eased my turn so that I could straighten up and look out of my cockpit, and I spotted the other in front of me. I had turned so much shorter than he could that I was almost around and on his tail now. He apparently became aware of it at the same time, for he abandoned his turn and took to flight; but he was a little late now.
He went into a dive, twisting about wildly to upset my aim as I opened fire. I pressed my firing button three or four times for bursts of about a second each, and then he quit twisting. I was able to hold the sight dead on him while I held the firing button in for a good three-second burst, and let it go at that.
I didn’t think he needed any more, for I knew of only one reason for him to stop twisting. He disappeared into the clouds below, diving straight down, and although he might have gotten home he certainly wasn’t headed right then.