Tuesday, 19 July 2011
The Brave Few
I'm currently immersed in World War 2 research -aviation and the RAF. The Battle of Britain is the focus of my work at present and every day I uncover something new and revelatory. I'm sure that many of you saw the drama 'First Light' last year which focussed on this period and featured Geoffrey Wellum, one of the youngest Spitfire pilots to survive the Battle of Britain. I have read interviews that he has given and his attitude and insight to those times is beyond fascinating. I often wonder what it was like living during the war years. Would I have been scared? If I was a man could I have been a pilot? It's terrifying to think of what they went through and what they suffered. Indeed many survivors continued to suffer in the years after the war. To shoot a man down, could I have done that? I suppose it's either you or them. The enemy is a mere target up there and if you don't get them first, they'll get you. However, I read about one German pilot who always watched intently after shooting down an RAF plane, to ensure the pilot parachuted out. He waited for that parachute -that is of course providing that plane did not explode. It highlights the humanity which prevailed in such volatile times and signifies the clear fact that guilt was an emotion which shrouded the air around them.
Another German pilot, encountering an extremely damaged B-17 (American Flying Fortress), saw dead and wounded men on board. He flew alongside and locked eyes with the pilot. He realised then that he could not finish off the aircraft - these men were desperately trying to get home and he had never witnessed such a damaged plane as this - and so mercy was granted. He followed the stricken B-17 all the way out to the North Sea, where upon he saluted the pilot, did a victory roll and turned to head back to his German base. Decades later, in 1990, both pilots were reunited -amazingly they were both living in Canada. They attended reunions together and became firm friends. When asked in an interview why he had not shot down the B-17, the German pilot recalled the words of one of his commanders who had told him, "You are fighter pilots first, last and always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I'll shoot you myself." He went on to say that shooting at the aircraft would have been like shooting down parachutes. If found out, he would have faced a court martial and certain death for disobeying orders. His name was Franz Stigler and he passed away in March 2008. His friend, the American pilot was Charles Brown who passed away only months later in November 2008.
They were all so brave and made huge sacrifices, many giving their lives in service. I commend them all and give thanks to their courage.
And today the RAF continues, stronger than ever. They are remarkable and much needed and are to be commended.