Memoirs

Excerpts taken from the personal memoirs of Sqn Ldr J J O’Meara D.S.O., D.F.C.

Chapter 2 “Waiting”

The few months, after the beginning of the war passed slowly, flying was at a standstill for the first 6 weeks. Then we did patrols over the North Sea Convoys, for two hours at a time, flying up and down the lines of ships, hoping to see a raider. The first thrills of war flying soon passed, and gave place to a settled, but by no means boring routine. All the same, it was far more uncomfortable than peace-time. The tents were leaky and draughty. We were on duty either all night or all day. Our days off – the release periods – saw us in Leeds or in York, going to a movie or a variety show, or drinking beer in one of the many, admirable local pubs; occasionally going to the ‘Queen’s’, in Leeds, in our best uniforms, for good food and drink, and dancing. Days off were less frequent than before, and Squadron parties were things of the past.

In spite of everything, we were not depressed. There was always the element of uncertainty to keep us keen. And conditions, bad at first, began to improve. The marquees, in which the whole Squadron had been doing readiness since we had returned from Sutton Bridge, were replaced by a couple of wooden huts. These huts were far more comfortable. They had stoves and petrol lamps in them. A radio, a ping pong table, inviting easy chairs and beds were brought into them, making night-readiness no hardship. In fact only moan was the lack of any chance of action. We had great hopes of doing great things at one time or another. We were still equipped with Blenheims, and looked enviously at our friends and rivals, 72 Squadron, who were also stationed at Church Fenton. They were a Spitfire Squadron – Lords of Creation – and we were jealous of them. Still, we dissembled fairly well, and we really were very proud of our old Blenheims.

In common with the rest of the Squadron, I wanted to get into action and distinguish myself. The thought of extinguishing myself did not occur to me. “Sufficient to the day,” I thought, if I thought about it at all. But chances of action were rare on the bleak, Yorkshire Coast. There were one or two convoy patrols when we would be ordered to investigate suspicious aircraft: occasionally a section would be ordered off in a hurry – ‘scrambled’ – and sent out at ‘buster’ to the coast. But nobody saw a thing at 64 Squadron. One day, two lads of 72 intercepted three German flying boats and shot down two of them. That was the nearest we came to doing anything at Church Fenton. At the time I remember I was stupidly jealous if them, and although I realized my stupidity, I had the sulks for some time after. Silly? Of course, but at the same time, I do not suppose that there is anyone that has not felt the same thing at some time or other.

Now started a great exodus of a great number of our oldest, and most experienced pilots. Our Squadron adjutant was posted away To Catterick, as a flight commander in a new Blenheim Squadron there. Dan M—-, Canadian “A” flight Commander went to 242 Squadron, a Canadian squadron forming at Church Fenton. ‘Duck’ went to 141 Squadron at Grangemouth, also as a flight commander. Even that tower of strength Australian Pat H—– was posted. He went to another new Squadron, at Leconfield – 234. Four or five new pilots were posted to us to keep up our strength, and despite of all these comings and goings, the spirit of the Squadron remained the same. 64 was the only squadron.

Just before Pat went the King paid a visit of inspection to Church Fenton, and came round to the dispersals. We were all paraded around our aircraft, and before he went, a section comprised of Atlas, Sergeant H—, and myself were ordered off on a demonstration scramble. Although Atlas’s engines would not start straight away, we were off inside three minutes, and the King was impressed. Actually, we had got our take off times down to the minimum, and could be in the air in under the minute.

On the morning of November the 17th, something occurred that sobered us completely. One of our newest pilots, a New Zealander, was sent up before dawn to do some practice night flying. It was a dark morning and —–, instead of relying on his instruments, must have tried to watch the ground. At any rate, whatever he did, it was a mistake. Hardly had he got off the ground when he hit a tree. The Blenheim, with full flying speed went straight into the ground and smashed to pieces. —– never had a chance; he must have been dead when the aircraft struck. It was very hard luck. He was buried with military honours, far from his home, in the little village churchyard nearby.

At the end of November at ten minutes notice we, the Squadron was sent to Evanton. Evanton is way up in Scotland, to the north-east of Inverness, across the Cromarty Firth; a cold, glib, desolate corner of the country. Until after we had landed there, no-one, not even the C.O. knew why we had been sent there or what the job was. Then it transpired that the battle-cruiser, ‘Nelson’, had been damaged by a mine while she was coming round the North of Scotland, and was in Lock Ewe for repair. The Navy was flapping, and was expecting attack from the air. Our job was to provide defensive patrols over her, until such time as she could put to sea.  Every single man of us was jubilant at the possibility of seeing some action. At least, I was, until I went out on my first patrol over her. Then doubts began to assail me. The same doubts that I had experienced before. Now that I was in the air flying, with the possibility, even the probability, as far as I knew, of an attack being made, I felt cold and apprehensive, afraid of the unknown. I carried out that flight in a complete blue funk. Not until the aircraft was heading for home did I feel better. Then I started taking a little more interest in the country I was flying over. It was magnificent. All around were high snow-covered mountains, the three thousand foot mass of Bienn Eighe and the Liathach towering over the southern end of the Loch. The route from Loch Ewe to Evanton lay along the valleys of Loch Maree and Loch a Chroisg, with the dark, green pines reflected in the calm, clear water; and the white frost and brown hill slopes; and whitewashed crofts, with the grey smoke spirals rising into the clear, blue sky.

There was a lot of flying during that month. After the first trip, as patrol followed patrol, my fear vanished and gave place to a tense keyed-up vigilance. It was impossible to remain depressed in those surroundings. The site of the great, grey ship below, with the roar of the engines in your ears, and the grandeur of the silent hills around, lifted you clean out of your fears and troubles into some other sphere infinitely detached from the earth. In that perfect weather, with the cold, exhilarating air, and the blue dome of the sky, whitening where it merged into the blue-white tops of the peaks, who could think of anything but life and the joy of living?

All during that month we remained at Evanton, continuing our patrols over the ‘Nelson’. Not a sign of an enemy aircraft did we see. We started to enjoy ourselves; circling the loch at sea level; roaring past the great ship below the level of her decks; sailors waiving frantically as we flashed past. It was ideal flying weather, and we took full advantage of it.

Three or four times we made up a party and and went into Inverness. Don —- had Betty, his wife, staying with him at the Novar Arms, and we went to several hops at the Caledonian Hotel. ‘Cosmo’ was the life and soul of these parties. We clumsy Sassenachs essaying complicated reels and Dashing White Sergeants, under his stage-management, must have been a sight for the gods. We celebrated Hogmanay in the approved manner, and went madly first-footing with a following of assorted acquaintances; finishing as a disorderly rabble, muttering snatches of ‘Auld Langsyne’ in the ears of the horrified but benevolent local constabulary. We were, on the whole, sorry, when on the 8th of January, we had to pack up and go back to Fenton.

In the beginning of the war, the Squadron formation consisted of four sections of three aircraft in each. These sections – each flight was made up of two sections – were red and yellow in “A” flight, and blue and green in “B” flight. When Don — took over “A” flight, Atlas, Willy and I formed Yellow section, and always, as far as it was possible, we flew together. We had decided that it would be to our advantage to fly together and that we would get better results. So we practiced attacks, formation flying and landings, and set ourselves to work out the best means of attacking large formations of aircraft. I think that we learnt a lot during those seamlessly endless months at Church Fenton.

After we got back from the North, rumours were flying thick and fast. We actually were ordered to do North Sea sweeps, but for some reason, they never came off. However, in February, our spirits were sent sky-rocketing up. We were going to be equipped with Spitfires. As I said before we were intensely envious of 72, who had Spits. Since before the war, and of 616, who had been re-equipped lately at Loconfield, but now it seems almost certain that we should get them. But we had been promised so many thing lately that no-one was prepared to believe that we were getting Spitfires, until we actually got them. At all events, quite early in March, three Spitfires arrived – for 64 Squadron. Roo —- was now the C.O.; S/Ldr —— had been posted in the beginning of February, and had gone to France on a staff job. Roo had taken over, and had eventually got the Squadron, but we had no “B” Flight Commander: everyone expected Atlas to get the job, but time went on, and nothing had happened. When the three Spits arrived, almost out of the blue, no-one worried about anything else, except flying them. They were as old as the hills, and rather weary, but no-one minded that. Whatever else they were, they were still Spitfires. First operational Sortie On the morning of the 21st May the Squadron nearly went mad. Twelve aircraft of 64 Squadron were to patrol the French coast, that afternoon from Calais to the Belgium border. It was with a sick and empty feeling that I received this news. Yet, for the last ten months, I had been hoping for a chance like this, now that the chance had come I would have given anything to get out of it, It was so sudden, so unexpected. But I could not say no. I had, if only for the sake of keeping my pride, to appear as pleased and enthusiastic as the rest of the boys. There seemed to be something rather set about their smiles, too; something forced about there keenness to go. Because we could not all go, we drew for it. Willy was still grounded, but Atlas was to go and I was to go with him.

At half past two that afternoon, twelve Spitfires taxied out, and roared into the air. We were off. Circling Kenley once, Roo climbed towards the coast, passing high over Manston, and headed towards Calais.

Ahead lay the French coastline. Far inland I could see black bursts of anti-aircraft fire dotting the sky. I wondered if I should see England again. There was a horrible sensation in the pit of my stomach: I felt empty and tight inside.  I could feel myself shaking all over. I was afraid: afraid with the same fear of the unknown I had felt before, ages ago at Evanton, on that first patrol there. But it was worse now, ten times worse. I could not stop my hands and knees from shivering. France was close now; I could see fields, and roads and villages spread out before me, stretching away and away into the blue haze of distance. I looked round me feverishly, trying to see behind.

“O Christ help me,” I whispered, “let me get back safely, let me get back safely”

A shout in my ears, I jumped. It was blue section leader: he had sighted something. I strained my eyes, searching, searching – looking to see what it was, where it was. My guts seemed to turn over, leaving me sick and stiff, leaning forward, my eyes wide, my head turning from side to side, looking, searching, praying, my lips moving “Where are they? Where are they? Where – where – where….?” And then I saw them, five thousand feet below – nine grey bombers; squat, silent, evil shapes; the black crosses in relief on the blue-grey wings. Roo’s aircraft turned and dived. The sections opened and followed.

“Line astern – Line astern – Go!” Blue section turned away, quickly taking up their positions. Green followed. The Squadron was straggling now, as the speed of the dive increased. Below, against the silver, shining background of the sea, I could see the diving, speeding shapes of the German bombers. They were apart now, going for their objectives. Far down were toy ships, tiny pinpoints of flame lancing up at the attacking raiders. Beside one, a huge column of water leapt suddenly into the air, leaving on the surface a great wing of white, frothing, heaving foam. A bomb!

Immediately the Hun turned away, headed to the East. I steepened my dive to cut him off. Down, down, down; closer and closer. Fear was gone, forgotten. I was tense, leaning forward, my eyes glued on the enemy; tense, not with fear and not with excitement, I was cool now, and calm. Calm with a cold, intense determination.

Now I was almost in range; the black crosses on the wings and the swastikas on the tail were plain to see. Another second and I opened fire. Tracer leapt across the sky between us, and the Hun, seeing it, turned sharply to the right and dived to sea-level. Stabs of fire from amidships shot out to meet me. Instinctively, I ducked in the cockpit. Hardly breathing now, I concentrated, as I had done so long ago at Sutton Bridge, on getting a correct sight. Again I shot, this time with effect. The bullets tore into the fuselage of the German. He was huge now, almost dead ahead, almost to close. With my thumb on the firing button still I broke violently away to port. As I did so, I could see, over my shoulder, the port engine of the Hun burst into a startling, yellow star of flame. That was the last I saw of him.

When I circled again nothing was to be seen, There were no aircraft, no ships; nothing but the smooth, calm sea in every direction.

After trying a few calls over the R/T, and getting no reply, I decided to go home. Now almost beside myself with excitement, I flew for some time, and crossed the coast west of Folkstone. Everything had happened with such incredible swiftness. Ten minutes ago I had been with the Squadron, sick with fear and apprehension, turning and twisting to watch for death: now I was back; I had been in action; I had won an air-fight. It seemed fantastic.

Petrol was rather low, so I decided to land at Eastchurch. Arrived there I was disgusted to discover that they had no suitable petrol on the station, and would have to send away for some. The best thing to do would be to stay the night and get off in the morning. I rang up the Squadron to let them know where I was, and found out that everybody had returned safely. The line was too bad to get any details, so I wandered up to the Mess. I found, too my astonishment, that the place was entirely inhabited by Poles. This was a bit of a shock, but it was tempered by the discovery of and old crony from the Church Fenton days.

I found him, rather inevitably, in the bar. He was standing at the top of the steps that lead straight out of the Eastchurch ante-room, up to the bar, and hailed me as I was looking a trifle sheepishly around. Things went with a swing after that. Later in the evening, one of the Poles, who had been in the Polish Cavalry and spoke reasonable English, proposed that we should play one of his regimental games. We desired to be told how to play it. He told us. It was simplicity itself. Everyone has to form up in a circle round the room, and the senior officer present stands in the centre of the circle. He should be armed with a loaded service revolver. Then the lights go out, and the circle starts to move round the room. The thug in the centre proceeds to blaze away at random, until the gun is empty. That seemed to be all there was to it. The cream of the joke; the absolute climax – we were told – was too put the light on, and then roar with laughter at the unfortunate who had been unlucky emough to be hit. There was a stunned silence after this and we sought the friendly shelter of the bar, and the support of a couple of large John Haigs.

I was to say the least, astonished; but I learnt that earlier in the week, an officer on a tour of inspection had attended a party there, and had so far  been carried away by the party spirit, that he consented to cross the mess by walking along one of the iron girders that spanned the room. When he inevitably fell off, and broke his leg, the Poles were delighted, and declared that the joke was magnificent. I got to bed somehow; —— retired early, and made a delightful exit. While walking quite rationally, he was swaying on his feet, and in the middle of a sentence, swayed right over and went to sleep. I though this quite funny – until I tried to get out myself. I got there eventually, at any rate and although I had some difficulty in getting the room to stop moving about, I slept in a bed.  But I felt awful the next day.

Later the next morning, washed, dressed and breakfasted, and feeling more in my right mind, I went down to the hangar and found my machine out on the tarmac, ready. The weather was quite fair, although there had been a little rain, and the clouds were low. Informing the duty pilot, I strapped myself into the cockpit, and took off. Twenty minutes later saw me over Kenley. Another ten minutes and I was back in the dispersal, that, when I had taken off the day before, I had wondered if I would ever see again. There was a shout when I came in.

“Enter the Ace,” yelled Atlas, grinning from ear to ear. I chucked my helmet at him and sank into a chair.

“Well,” I said, “Tell me all”

Hobby broke in, “Did you see your’s go in, Orange?” He asked.

“No, all I saw was some smoke and flame from the port engine…..what were they anyway – 88’s?”

“I had a crack at an 88, anyway,” said Hobby, “and Atlas says they were. Atlas is jolly lucky to be here at all.”

“Fortune favours the brave,” remarked the modest hero, “did you see any 110’s at all?”

“I don’t think so. Why?”

“Well, I was diving at one of that first bunch, and I was a bit shaken to see bloody great balls of fire whistling past. When I turned round, there was a 110, just behind, shooting for all he was worth. I did some pretty quick evasive action and got to hell out of it.”

“Well you ought to be pleased that the Hun got some bad shots as well as us,” remarked Willy, scathingly.

While they were all arguing about this, I began to recall the flight on the previous day. I had not seen any enemy fighters at all; I had not even thought about them. I had, once the alarm had been given, just waded blindly into the attack, without giving any thought to what was going on behind me. What had happened to Atlas might easily have ended in a far more serious fashion. Just one well-aimed shot from a cannon-gun would have been all that was necessary. At that time, there was no armour protection behind the pilot at all. I determined never to rush into an attack without continuous searching behind in the future.

That was the end of our first operational sortie at Kenley. Taking it all in, our luck had been incredible. We had lost no-one. Our score came as confirmed by the station I.O. later – to one Ju. 88 probably destroyed, (this was the one I had attacked) and two others damaged. And this in spite of the fact that we had no experience of German fighters at all. All we knew was that there standard fighter, the Me 109, was able to out climb us, and was quite as fast as us. We were all apprehensive of there twin-engined fighter, the Me. 110, partly because no-one knew very much about them and partly because we did not know that they were armed with shell firing cannons – as Atlas now knew. Besides all of this we had not had our Spitfires for long, and none of us had had a great deal of experience on them. We had been given our first lesson – admittedly a very easy one – and it now remained to be seen if we had profited by it.