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This excerpt reprinted from “Speed Kings: The 1932 Winter Olympics and the Fastest Men in the World" by Andy Bull with permission from Avery Books Copyright © 2015 by Andy Bull
For more information, please visit http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/3711/andy-bull
Check out Bull's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.
The lunch van arrived at a quarter to one. And about time too. Bill Littlemore’s stomach was starting to growl. They had been up before dawn again, fitting and rigging the fighters, loading the bullets, checking the repairs, running the engines. That was the job, so there was no sense complaining. Which never stopped them from doing exactly that.
Bill volunteered to run over to the van for his fellow mechanics. He could already see the queue starting to form as he trotted across the grass. He quickened his pace. Started to sweat a little. It was hot now. The early morning haze was long gone. This was the first bit of blue sky they’d had all week. He looked up. The pilots were up there somewhere, but he couldn’t see them. They must be out over the Isle of Wight. He said a quick prayer to himself, asking God to send them home safe. He often did that when they were in the air, and he didn’t mind admitting it.
He’d already eaten half his bun by the time he got back to the dispersal hut. He had to duck his mouth down to it because his hands were full and he didn’t want to spill the tea on his uniform. The lads were all idling around, waiting for news from Control. The squadron had taken off half an hour ago, when the radar stations had picked up a formation coming out of Cherbourg and heading across the Channel. By now they’d either be in the thick of it or already on their way back home.
“Any news?” he asked as he put the three teas down. He already knew the answer. No one was moving, so there was nothing doing.
He passed the buns around, one apiece for each of the two Jocks, Tyrrell and McKinley. They were firm pals, flight mechanics, like Bill, with 43 Squadron, the “Fighting Cocks.” And just then, they heard the distant hum of the engines.
“That sounds like them now,” said Tyrrell. “That’s the Cocks returning.”
Bill put his ear to the wind, paused. And he knew, he just knew, that it wasn’t them. The pitch was off.
“They’re not ours,” he said. “They sound like bloody Jerry, don’t they?”
The loudspeakers burst into life. “Attention! Attention! Take cover! Take cover!” It wasn’t the first time they’d heard that today. But the announcer sounded a little more urgent this time.
Bill heard the words, but somehow they didn’t register. They’d done so many drills—he just couldn’t believe this was the real thing. Then the air-raid alarms began to wail. He stepped out of the hut and threw his hand up above his brow to block out the sun. And he saw it straightaway. A Stuka. Gull wings, fixed undercarriage, large glass canopy. The silhouette was utterly unmistakable. He watched as the plane turned its nose down toward the earth and swept into a steep dive, down toward No. 1 Hangar. He could hear the howl of the siren from across the field. When the dive reached two thousand feet, a small black orb fell away from the Stuka’s belly and carried on down toward the earth while the plane itself pulled up and away back into the sky. And then a pillar of fire and smoke filled the sky, followed, so quick you couldn’t tell which had come first, by the thump of the explosion. The bomb fell right by the van, at the exact spot where Bill had been standing a few minutes earlier.
There is no single, definitive account of what happened at RAF Tangmere on August 16, 1940. There are dozens of versions, one for every person who was there. Their memories of the raid don’t always add up. Often they contradict each other. Some say they heard the sirens earlier, that the Tannoy warned them sooner, that the first bomb fell in another spot. They are all right. Everyone made sense of the chaos in his own way. This is the story of the raid as told by Bill Littlemore, Leading Aircraftman, 43 Squadron, as he remembered it forty years later.
“From that moment on all hell broke loose, with bombs exploding, the noise of the Stukas strafing us as they dived and pulled skywards, and our ground defenses putting up a barrage of metal which must have made the Hun feel that he was not welcome,” Bill wrote. “For many of us at Tangmere that day it was our first baptism of fire, something I shall always remember as a very unpleasant experience when one considers we had no arms to hit back with except the tools in our tool boxes. And I can assure you these felt very inadequate when set against the bombs and cannon fire that was to be aimed at us by the Stuka 87s when they suddenly pounced on the airfield.
“For those of us on the flights, and I am sure I express their feelings as well as mine, we were shaken to say the least, and as per our orders for such a situation the only sensible thing to do was seek the protection of our air raid shelter which lay just to the rear of ‘B’ Flight dispersal hut. All sprint records were I am sure broken in our haste to reach the safety of the shelter and it is said that fear lends wings to those who need them. I grew a pair very quickly.”
Bill wasn’t thinking anymore. It was blind panic. He sprinted toward the bomb shelter, and safety. He was almost there when, through the machine-gun fire and the bomb blasts and the sirens and the engines, he heard, loud and clear, what he described as the “stentorian shout” of his boss, Flight Sergeant Savage.
“Stand by!” Savage barked. “Our aircraft are approaching!”
Bill stopped running. All those hours of drills, of unthinking obedience to orders, had their effect. Another instinct kicked in, one even keener than self-preservation: duty. The shout, Bill wrote, “had the immediate effect of doing away with all the panic and bringing us back to awareness that we had a job to do.” The Fighting Cocks were returning to base. The planes would need refueling and rearming. It didn’t matter that the raid was still going on around them. In fact, it made the work more important than ever, since the pilots might need to get right back up into the air.
“With the disappearance of panic came the opportunity to take stock and look around us,” Bill continued. “And it was then I became aware for the first time of burning hangars and the buildings, and a great pall of smoke hanging over the whole scene.” For those brief moments, Bill Littlemore stood still, feet rooted to the ground, while the fires raged around him. He was looking upward, scanning the skies for the returning British fighters. He saw four, though at first he couldn’t tell whether they were with 43 or one of the other squadrons flying out of Tangmere. “I have etched on my memory the picture of four Hurricanes flying in what could only be described as loose, strung-out formation approaching the aerodrome at about 2,000 feet from the south, and who were to be the first to land on the aerodrome while the three-minute raid was still in progress. Yes three minutes, and yet to most of us who witnessed it, it seemed more like half an hour.”
The fighters were in silhouette. “About 8 of us on ‘B’ Flight were watching the approach of these aircraft when to our horror we observed that one had begun to leave behind it a trail of white smoke.” This, Bill knew, was bad news. White smoke could only mean that the engine was leaking ethylene glycol, which burns with an invisible flame. The pilot wouldn’t be able to see the fire leaping up through the floor of the cockpit and lapping around his legs. And the smoke was even more dangerous. In those quantities glycol fumes cause, first, involuntary rapid eye movements, then short losses of consciousness. For a pilot, that was fatal. “The white smoke was the forerunner of things to come. For the pilot must very soon make a decision to bail out, otherwise he would be overcome by fumes leaking back into the cockpit, and oblivion would take over.”
Bill was transfixed. He started to scream: “Get out! Get out for Christ’s sake!”
The Hurricane continued its approach. The white smoke turned black. Flames started to burst up from the engine. It was so close now, right over the hedgerows at the distant side of the field. It was too late to jump. Perhaps the pilot had already lost consciousness. He was done for. Suddenly, the plane broke into a steep dive. The undercarriage was up. It was going to crash. “I felt that this could only be the start of that inevitable plunge toward earth, culminating in that awful crump and plume of smoke that would climb into the sky, marking the spot where yet another of our chaps had plowed into the ground and made his own burial site.”
And then, “at the moment when it seemed that this could be the only outcome,” the plane pulled up, and the pilot, “struggling to maintain control, leveled out only feet above the ground.” The plane landed flat on its belly, bounced up and down, and shot into a skid. A shower of sparks spurted out behind it as it swept across the runway, trailing a wake of great coils of thick black smoke. When it finally came to a standstill, the flames, held in check for so long, burst out into the sky. Two men ran across the turf toward the wreck.
That was the last thing Bill saw. Instinct kicked in again. He came out of the trance, remembered where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. The sky was full of vapor and smoke. Aircraft were coming in from every point of the compass. It was chaos up there. But down below, a kind of calm had fallen. The raid was over. “From that moment my immediate concern had to be looking for my own pilots.”
The day passed. The battle passed. The war passed. But that one image of the burning Hurricane making its belly landing always stayed in Bill Littlemore’s mind. It froze there, so crystal clear that he could still see, forty years later, the precise position he was standing in, the exact course the plane was flying, and even the specific spot where it finally came to a stop. The one thing he didn’t know was who had been flying the plane. Perhaps that was why he never stopped thinking about it. He even commissioned a local artist to paint the scene for him, just as he remembered it.
Some of the veterans preferred not to talk or even think about the war. They shut their memories away and sealed them off. They didn’t want to remember. Bill Littlemore wasn’t like that. He stayed in touch with his old colleagues, took the newsletters, bought the books, attended the annual meet-ups. And as he read and heard all those other accounts and memories of the raid, he slowly pieced it all together, until he realized, at last, that he had seen the final moments of one of the most remarkable stories of the war.
“It was,” Bill wrote, “the last landing of Billy Fiske.”
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