The chase – a story of a spy in the sky

Since he arrived in Malta, it had been drummed into Pilot Officer Peter Ross that using your radio in the air was “a wonderful way to commit suicide.” Air Commodore Frank had snapped that at him on his first day. “The enemy has stations only a handful of miles away. They’ll have a fix on you in no time, and before you know it half the Regia Aeronautica or the Fliegerkorps X will be down on you. Do not use the R/T”.

Then, that morning, the news of the convoy. Rommel’s artery Frank had called it. “It must be cut as soon as it is found”, he said.

“Radio its position as soon as you see it”.

Old habits though… The seconds in which his thumb trembled in front of the radio switch on his oxygen mask were the longest he had experienced in the air. The click of the toggle echoed in his earphones.

“Picture one to Goldchrest control, Picture one to Goldchrest control,” he uttered eventually, his throat sticking on the repeat. Another age passed, in which he was acutely aware of his own breathing. The Merlin 61 powered on ahead of him, almost silent at this altitude. The propeller was barely visible and the Spitfire seemed to float, unmoving like a gnat in amber.

“Goldchrest control receiving, make your report Picture one.”

He exhaled, the breath jerking from his lungs. He flicked the R/T switch again. It was too late now. Too late to lie, claim he had never found the convoy. Too late to dive for home.

“Convoy at H for Hunter, steering two-two-four, one large tanker, four cargo ships, approximately six destroyers.”

Feverishly, he hoped that would be enough. Scramble the Beauforts from Luqa and let me get out of here, he prayed. His foot twitched near the rudder bar, anxious to turn and make for home. For Kalafrana, Valetta and Maria. His palms seemed oily inside the flying gloves. Like liquid ice. It was not to be.

A new voice. He recognised Air Commodore Frank.

“Well done Picture one. Take your photographs and get out of there.”

More precious seconds. He put the propeller into fine pitch and eased the stick forward. Smoothly, the Spitfire entered a shallow dive. Accelerating, the grey blue machine swept through the whisps of cloud towards the convoy. Below, the dark sea was a wrinkled mantle, no movement visible. A dozen wakes, like slug trails, sliced the surface. The Spitfire continued to accelerate. The horizon climbed until the heavy blue green mass of the Mediterranean began to swim up outside the cockpit canopy. Ross eased the control column back and slid the oiled throttle lever in its quadrant. The trails in the sea were now white slashes, tipped by smoking black bullets.

As Ross lined up the cameras in the belly of the Spitfire the first blooms of flak puffed delicately around him. Soft clouds that blossomed into existence then dispersed on the breeze. For a couple of seconds they hovered surreally around him, then the gunners must have started to get the range as he heard the crack of nearby explosions. The Spitfire shuddered, and Ross twitched the stick to keep the aircraft level, nudging the rudder bar to change course slightly, making the gunners’ jobs slightly harder. He pushed the camera button deliberately, and the equipment in the fuselage behind his seat did its work automatically. He had to be sure – the cameras covered two miles from 25,000 feet – easy to miss the entire convoy. A report burst just ahead and to starboard, tossing the plane like a paper bag. Seconds later shrapnel littered harmlessly across the fuselage.

Time to get out. He opened the throttle and pulled the reconnaissance plane into a steep, turning climb. The flak softened again. He flattened the climb and checked his co-ordinates for home. At that point the R/T fizzed again, making his stomach swoop with dread.

‘Hallo Picture one, this is Goldchrest control – fifteen plus bandits headed in your direction vector one-eight-six, Angels twenty, get out of there fast.’

A tremble in his hands he pushed the throttle again and levelled off. The bandits were cutting off his escape. There was no cloud to speak of. Nowhere to hide.

There was still a chance. Perhaps they would not see him. The Spitfire PR.XI was faster than most fighters, and even better, its range was superlative. If he could stay out of reach of the approaching aircraft he might be able to outrun them, or if he could outmanoeuvre them until their fuel ran low and they had to turn for home… But that was the credit side of the PR.XI’s compromises – in the debit column, it was unarmed and unarmoured. He had little protection and could not fight back. It wouldn’t matter if I had guns anyway, he found himself thinking. I might be a bloody good cameraman, but I never could manage to shoot a gun straight. “Picture one to Goldchrest control, where are those bandits?”

“Goldchrest control receiving… They should be below you now Picture One, Angels two-four.”

He mentally divided up the sky around him and searched it sector by sector, dipping each wing to check for the aircraft. The sun darted from metal somewhere between the sea and the sky, and there they were, ahead and to his left, one formation climbing lazily to intersect his course. Another seemed to be almost parallel to him, a little below. Trying to catch him in a pincer.

He pulled the Spitfire into a climb again, and swung round to the right, trying to put as much distance between him and the approaching fighters as possible. He could see shapes now – long, droop noses and pointed tails, swept, tapering wings. The new Macchi Mc.202. His heart thrummed in his chest. Italians. A flicker of memory darted into his mind from a conversation with an American officer attached to one of the Spitfire squadrons in North Africa – ‘those Italians, they can fly like swallows but can’t fight worth a damn’. There we are then, he thought – it’s an aerobatics contest. He glanced out over the smooth wings of the Spitfire. The PR.XI was a gymnast’s machine. For the first time since he sighted the convoy, a surge of hope entered his heart.

The first streaks of tracer floated, dream like, towards him. He kicked the Spitfire into a skid, then stood it on a wingtip, round into a banking turn. The Macchis, thrown off balance splintered from their loose formation. Gunfire spattered the sky, more in hope than expectation. Once again, the Spitfire wheeled. Having broken the line, Ross pushed the Spitfire into a dive, opening the throttle and breaking the metal thread restraining the overboost. Charged beyond its normal limits, the Merlin accelerated like a hare, kicking Ross in the back and plunging headlong through the Italian line. He maintained his light touch on the spade grip, letting the aeroplane have its head.

The Italians were chasing now, but he was gaining ground. He levelled out and slid the throttle back from the emergency setting. The Spitfire had momentum on its side, but he did not want to lose any more altitude. He knew he might need the PR XI’s superior ceiling before long.

Those Macchi 202s were fast though. A glance in the rear view mirror revealed he had not pulled away far enough, and though outside the effective range of their machine guns, he could not afford to lose ground. Also, the extra boost had pushed the engine temperature to within a hair of its safe limits. He would need to cool it down or risk seizing before he got to Malta.

Flashes in the rear view mirror betrayed new gunfire. The bullets drifted harmlessly below. Too far. At that moment, tracer scythed across in front of him and before he had time to think he had already kicked the rudder bar to induce a sickening skid in the aircraft, then flipped into a vertical dive. Just as the Spitfire nosed over he saw a Macchi flash past the canopy, brown fuselage like a polished nut in the setting sun. It was the second formation who had swung round and attacked from the sun. He was in the trap now, with no hope of running for cover.

Two Macchis were following him in the dive. He hauled back on the stick at the same time as grasping for the flap lever. The Spitfire lurched upright, and he throttled back just as the two aircraft shot over his head. Instinctively he mashed the thumb button on the spade grip, and succeeded in taking several out-of-focus photographs of the sky. He continued pulling up until the Spitfire virtually stopped, vertical, its propeller windmilling. One of the Italians shot at where the Spitfire should have been, but Ross was already somewhere else, the bright blue aeroplane dropping in a nauseating tailslide. He dived for the sea, abandoning hope of using height. Flicking and jinking, he tried to avoid the storm of shells that was now pouring down on him. Machine gun bullets rattled off the aeroplane’s aluminium skin, most of their energy expended. With a plunging feeling that his luck was ebbing, he felt a volley rip through one wing, which snapped the Spitfire violently sideways.

When he had recovered the aircraft’s composure, Ross checked the fuel. Pulse hammering, he calculated that the burst hadn’t breached a fuel tank. Lucky. The wing seemed to be fully intact as well. Pulling into a full-boost climb, he again sought to play to the strengths of his aircraft. Still flicking the wings, skidding and banking, he avoided the worst of the attacks. Surely they must be running low on ammo as well as fuel! The superior agility of the Spitfire was keeping him ahead – just.

In the Malta control room, Frank fumed silently – there was a new marker on the table, bearing twelve more hostile aircraft closing on Ross, and he could do nothing about it, not even tell the pilot. The rest of the staff stood facing the wooden speakers, also silent. Ross was still transmitting – he had forgotten to switch his radio back to ‘receive’. The stunned controllers could hear his breathing, the contortions of the aircraft, even the bullets and shrapnel as they rattled off the hollow tube of the fuselage. The last thing they heard was Ross muttering ‘this is where it gets tricky,’ before the pilot realised his mistake and turned the transmitter off. A slim, dark haired Maltese woman stood motionless by the chart table, which began to rattle as the croupier rake in her hand shook. A WAAF made to escort her gently from the room, but with a shudder, she shrugged the hand from her shoulder and looked back at the transmitter speaker. Hope mixed with desperation in her dark eyes, which she turned to the little wooden marker bearing ‘P1’ in the middle of the table, surrounded by blue. So much blue.

The Spitfire was spiralling now, describing the perimeter of a wide cylinder as Ross held the stick back into his stomach. The lead Macchi, with its yellow spinner and wingtips, was glued to his tail, and only by turning tighter could he escape the guns. The pilot of the Macchi held his aircraft into the turn, in a vertical bank, while both aircraft steadily lost height. In the cockpit, Ross strained his neck against the G-forces to keep the enemy fighter in his peripheral vision. The muscles on his throat raised like steel bars. He concentrated on keeping the aircraft in a tight line. Stalemate… for the moment. The others can’t shoot or they’ll hit their CO he thought.

The fight spiralled down slowly towards the sea. Ross reached out against the centrifugal force pressing him into his seat and grabbed the flap lever. Under the wings, two metal brakes sprung out from their housings, grabbing the airflow. Ross saw the Macchi’s spiral open slightly relative to his own, and felt the fighter begin to overtake him until the pilot opened his own flaps and held station. But the Macchi was half a wing below him now, and should they reach the sea, he would have to turn first.

As if the pilot came to the realisation that he would be unlikely to gain a clean shot at the same time as Ross, the Macchi rolled level and sped away. Ross pressed the advantage by keeping his Spitfire turned a half-loop longer, then rolled out to chase the Italian. If he could not shoot them down, he could damn well run at them.

Almost immediately, his mirror was full of long-nosed Macchis and flashing machine gun muzzles. He threw the Spitfire around the sky, banking, diving and side-slipping, all to no avail. The Spitfire lurched as it took another hit, this time in the fuselage behind him. Bitterly, he surmised that the cameras were probably now wrecked, the reason for his late return wasted. The controls seemed OK though, and with any luck none of the cables had been damaged.

Still, he threw everything into keeping the Spitfire jinking and twisting, inching towards Malta and safety. He wondered if they would send fighters to escort him home. At the same time as the thought rose, he quashed it. They probably thought he was already dead.

Suddenly, his aircraft bucked as it took more hits, and then an instant later, a handful of snub nosed, cruciform shapes were racing at him from dead ahead then thundering beneath him. He glimpsed the black crosses on their wings as they rushed past – Messerschmitts. He had not even seen them coming, so hard had he been concentrating on the foes behind.

“This is where it gets tricky”, he muttered, livid that control had not warned him of the approaching threat. Then, with a sinking sensation, he realised he was still transmitting. He flicked the switch on his mask to the off position. Dead to the world. He allowed himself a goodbye to Maria, and wondered if she was in the control room.

He quartered the sky while still heaving the Spitfire in defensive manoeuvres, and determined that the Messerchmitts had gained height. They were peeling off now to dive on his starboard quarter. Recklessly, he pulled the Spitfire into a tight turn and climbed up to meet them. Only a few of the Germans managed to fire off any shots as the aircraft converged at 600 miles an hour, then he was through their formation and into the sunlit sky, alone again for a few moments.

But the damage was already done. A glimpse at the fuel gauge revealed that either by the frantic manoeuvring or a stray machine gun bullet or two, he had lost too much petrol. If he leaned the mixture off and nursed the fuel, he might make it back, but with perhaps twenty enemy fighters gunning for him, the second he eased off, he would be shot out of the sky. He grimaced, shut off any thought of what he was giving up, and slewed the Spitfire around once more.

He dived with abandon into the line of Macchis that had been pursuing him. “With any luck I can draw the Messers in, and then we’ll have a right old mêlée”, he muttered to himself. “That’ll confuse the sods. Let’s try and take a few with us, eh old thing?” he said to his wounded aircraft. The Macchis scattered and then the Messerschmitts were back into the fray. The sky and the sea were filled with tracer streams, and his Spit took another, then another cannon hit.

The Spitfire shook in protest and lurched round. The surfaces must be shot to ribbons, he mused, feeling a strange detachment as he hauled the aircraft into one last effort. He opened the boost full and dived on a Messerschmitt that had just fired on him, while it arced lazily round to have another try. At the last second, the pilot noticed him and sheered away. He noticed with glee some flashes as desperate gunfire from the aircraft behind him hit the hapless German. Smoke started to issue from the ‘109 which turned away from the fight.

“One down…” he said to himself, but his Spitfire was entering its death throes now. The elevators and ailerons were probably peppered with machine gun bullets. As he pulled the machine out of the dive, the sluggish response gave the aircraft behind plenty of time to get a good shot. Suddenly it seemed like he was in the middle of a lightning storm, flashes and noise erupting all around him, and then something exploded against the cockpit.

It was as if a curtain had been pulled across the sun, and time had slowed to half its proper speed. At some point the Spitfire had flipped onto its back and was diving towards the sea. After what felt like minutes, he established that his left leg couldn’t be moved, and red hot darts embedded in his flesh roared dully at his senses.

The Merlin was still running, but it was screeching in pain and billowing think, black smoke. Seeing the Mediterranean above his head and realising after a while it was not the sky, he pushed the stick forward. The Spitfire rumbled reluctantly out of its dive and levelled, still upside down. The engine was bellowing now, and driving the propeller ever more slowly. In a part of his mind that was not veiled and distant, he felt the Spitfire slow. He tried, feebly, to right the aeroplane and the wounded Spitfire obeyed, rolling slowly onto its side. But speed was running away like blood. To his disappointment – he found he was unable to feel any emotions more strongly than that – gravity and inertia caught up with him, and the nose began to fall.

He continued to fight the incipient spin, pulling the stick with the last of his strength, then the port wing gave up its grip on the air, and he allowed the Spitfire to fall, once again, letting it pursue its own fate.

Far above, the Italian and German airmen saw the Spitfire begin to lose its battle and enter its final plunge. With a trace of regret, a luxury allowed with victory, the pilots turned for home.

In the control room, the dark haired woman stepped uncertainly up to the table, deliberately as if to avoid staggering, and picked up the P1 marker from the map table. She clutched it protectively, turned, and left the room.

In the cockpit, Ross closed his eyes and listened to the dying engine, the howl of the wind. The entrance to the Valetta bomb shelter hovered in his vision as it had two years before. And in it stood Maria, refusing the appeals of the priest to stay in the shelter where it was safe from the air raid. A proud young woman who had to go to her work in the control room. Without her, men might die. He finally understood the sacrifice she was prepared to make that day, and, saddened that he could not speak to her again of the first time they had met, he plunged with his Spitfire towards the sea.

© Matt Willis 2013

This story was inspired by the film Malta Story, starring Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins, and reading about reconnaissance pilots in the Second World War. These pilots flew the sportscars of military aircraft – often the fastest, highest-flying and best handling of all. On the other hand, they lacked any armament and generally flew completely alone. They were also very valuable targets – the information they brought back could be vital, and stopping them was a high priority.

Reconnaissance from Malta was particularly challenging, given the concentration of enemy forces arrayed around the little island.

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