Boys who reached for the sky; As Britain marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, NICK HARRIES tells the stories of some of the Midland pilots who were among the few...
BATTLE of Britain pilot William Walker's war almost came to a tragic end before it had begun.
Fresh out of basic training, he was newly posted to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire when his Harvard plane was involved in a horrendous crash landing at night that left wreckage scattered across fields.
To the amazement of his fellow student flyers, he staggered back to the officers' Mess unscathed.
In Britain's darkest hour young pilots like Walker, a local lad, were rushed into action with a minimum of training. He flew his first Spitfire on June 23, 1940, and was facing the Luftwaffe eight days later.
All went well until the morning of August 26 when his 616 Squadron was ambushed by some 100 Messerschmitts. Their leader, the fearsome Kommodore Major Werner Molders, personally singled out Walker's Spitfire, attacking him from its blind spot below and behind.
"I never even saw it," he remembered.
"Suddenly my machine was raked with bullets. The flying controls ceased to respond and a sudden pain in my leg indicated I had been hit. Baling out seemed to be a sensible option."
Parachuting through cloud, the English Channel suddenly loomed into view below him and he just had time to inflate his Mae West lifejacket and jettison his heavy boots before plunging into the freezing water.
"I could see the wreck of a ship sticking out of the water a few hundred yards away and swam to it.
"I reached it and climbed on, sitting there for an hour until a fishing boat came along and I clambered aboard."
Arriving back at Ramsgate, he was carried ashore to a hero's welcome. "By this time a crowd had gathered," he said, "and they gave me a cheer. A kind old lady handed me a packet of cigarettes, so I decided being shot down was not such a bad thing after all!" Walker's comrades were not all so fortunate.
On August 26, 616 Squadron lost seven of the 12 Spitfires flown that day; two pilots were killed and four wounded.
This is just one of the stories told by 18 Battle of Britain heroes to author and historian Dilip Sarkar in his new book, Last of the Few.
With a lifetime's interest in the battle for the skies, Sarkar has interviewed more pilots than any other historian.
Scramble Among the other Midlanders he met was Pilot Of-ficer Richard Jones, now in his 90s, who remembered the daily routine.
"Suddenly the tranquillity would be shattered by the telephone's bell," he said. "If it was a scramble, we ran to our Spitfires, engines started and away. We would be given instructions, such as 'Scramble Angels 10 over Dungeness'.
"When we came back, anybody who had been successful might do a victory roll."
On October 28 there was no hint of danger in the clear skies as his 19 Squadron headed home from a trouble-free flight.
"Suddenly about four feet of my starboard wing just peeled off," he said. "My initial thought was that it was a poor show on a new aircraft.
"Then a loud bang followed and a hole appeared above the undercarriage. I was obviously the target of an enemy fighter positioned up sun."
As he took evasive action, his engine cut out and his Spitfire plunged into a highspeed spin which he pulled out of in time to crashland in a field surrounded by woods.
Jones emerged with just a flesh wound, but other victims of the crash lay around the wreckage - his plane had landed in a flock of sheep!
Tony Pickering learned to fly at RAF Ansty at Baginton, near Coventry, and flew Hurricanes with 501 squadron.
On September 11 they attacked a large formation of German bombers. "We dived head-on at the Huns and I pressed the gun button and shut my eyes," he recalled.
"One of the nose gunners gave me a squirt and hit the sump. I started smoking and managed to spiral down away from the fight.
"I thought I could make a nice landing, but at 3,000 feet the petrol caught fire and I was over the side pretty sharpish!
The Hurricane crashed and I landed in a guards depot where I was given a couple of whiskies."
The Battle of Britain may have been Britain's finest hour, but for many of William Walker's friends it was their final hour.
"Looking back," he said, "after all these years to the time when so many of us on Course 45 had such high hopes and felt invulnerable, it is terribly sad that some would not survive the year, would never even see the enemy, all of their hard work and training proving fruitless.
"Whilst they were just statistics in official records, to me they are a reminder of many happy days of friendship that are still well worth recording and should be remembered.
"They were the most exhilarating days, but one lost so many friends who were all so young. It is sad that the best pilots seemed to get killed whilst the 'hams' like me survived. " Last of the Few by Dilip Sarkar is published by Amberley Publishing (www.amberleybooks.
com), priced pounds 20.
LUCKY ESCAPE: William Walker, inset playing in a band in Torquay while convalescing. READY FOR ACTION: Richard Jones in the cockpit of his Spitfire and above, Tony Pickering.