An RAF fighter pilot recalls his days of combat in a Spitfire 50 years ago


"Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot's War Years," by Hugh Dundas, 180 pages, St. Martin's Press, New York, N.Y., $16.95.

"Flying Start," Hugh Dundas' account of his war years as a fighter pilot, starts off about as fast as a flight of Spitfires scrambling to meet the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, the World War II air war that was reaching its climax exactly 50 years ago this week.

Hugh Dundas was one of the few to whom Winston Churchill said so much was owed.

As the book opens, Dundas is in his Spitfire over Dunkirk suddenly staring at the bright yellow nose of a Messerschmidt 109.

Britain is evacuating its armies from Europe in ignominious defeat. Towering clouds of black smoke rise 12,000 and 15,000 feet over Dunkirk and drift down the English Channel 70 or 80 miles. Dundas' squadron is flying cover for the desperate withdrawal.

Dundas sees ripples of gray smoke break away from the yellow nose of the Messerschmidt and lights winking and flashing from the propeller hub and engine cowling. The German was firing his cannon and machine guns.

"Red blobs arced lazily through the air between us, accelerating dramatically as they approached and streaked close by, across my wing," Dundas writes.

"With sudden, sickening, stupid fear I realized that I was being fired on," he says, "and I pulled my Spitfire round hard, so that the blood was forced down from my head. The thick curtain of blackout blinded me for a moment and I felt the aircraft juddering on the brink of a stall. Straightening out, the curtain lifted and I saw a confusion of planes, diving and twisting."

Two more Messerschmidts appear and fire and he jinks and twists into another blackout turn.

"The silhouette of a Messerschmidt passed across my windscreen," he says. A windscreen is what the British call a windshield. "And I fired my guns in battle for the first time -- a full deflection shot which, I believe, was quite ineffectual."

Dundas was 19 years old. It was May 28, 1940. He'd been a member of the Auxiliary Air Force Squadron 616, the Yorkshire squadron, for just about a year.

Dundas' memoir of his war years is written with truth and frankness and a great deal of what one supposes to be British reserve.

Winston Churchill subscribed to the criterion by which Lord Haig, the World War I general, judged his troops: "a sincere desire to engage the enemy."

"I found out that day," Dundas says, "in my first encounter with Britain's enemies, how hard it is to live up to that criterion.

"When it comes to the point, a sincere desire to stay alive is all too likely to get the upper hand. Certainly, that was the impulse which consumed me at that moment that day. And that was the impulse which I had to fight against, to try and try and try again to overcome, during the years which followed."

He did pretty well: When he was promoted to Group Captain in November 1944, in Italy, he had about 100 planes and 2,000 men under his command. He had been flying combat missions for about five years by that time.

"My doubts and fears were sharpened by the knowledge, in my heart of hearts, that I was just about played out so far as fighting was concerned.

"But I knew also that I could not be a chairborne CO. I must lead my Wing in the air as well as on the ground. Anyway, I had been given the job. I would have to stick it out to the end."

He did. The Germans were retreating north out of Italy, but fighting rigorously for every inch they gave up. His Spitfires were by then providing ground support for the Eighth Army driving up the Adriatic coast of Italy. The war still had eerie surprises for him.

"I was leading a dive-bombing sortie, had just completed my own attack and was zooming up again, and at the same time watching the others dive down.

"My eyes were on one of them, descending vertically towards the target . . . when, in a split-second of time, that Spitfire just ceased to exist.

"I had never seen anything like it . . . At one moment there was the familiar, solid shape of a Spitfire; at the next, a flash, as though the aircraft had been vaporized and turned into a million pieces of confetti."

Bombs with defective fuses had been delivered to his command. There was no way to identify them in a stock of several hundred bombs. Dundas could suspend operations and change the entire stock, or fly and drop them in a kind of aerial Russian roulette while retiring the bombs.

After talking to his squadron leaders, he decided they would not suspend operations: "We must carry on."

A new dimension had been added to the always chancy business of dive-bombing, Dundas writes, but, in fact, no more defective bombs exploded his Spitfires.

Dundas got his first "kill" during the Battle of Britain, a slim, pencil-shaped twin-engined Junkers bomber flying in a loose formation in a bombing mission toward the coast.

"Wheeling down in a diving turn," Dundas writes, "I curved

towards the nearest bomber, judged my rate of turn and dive to bring me in astern.

"A light winked from the rear-gunners' position and tracer bullets hosed lazily past. When I opened up with my eight Brownings the return fire stopped.

"The bomber turned and lost height. First a gush of black smoke, then a steady stream poured back from its engine cowling and it fell steeply towards the calm summer sea."

Dundas was shot down four days later. He never knew what hit him: "The explosions were so unexpected, so shattering, their effect on my Spitfire so devastating, that I thought I had been hit by my own heavy ack-ack." Actually, an Me 109 coming high out of the sun got him.

Smoke filled the cockpit, he had a helluva time getting the canopy off and he was so slow struggling out his wing man had given him up for lost. But on the second try he managed to slither out along the fuselage and fall free.

Dundas flew Spitfires in battle through campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy until the end of the war. He returned to the hard, cold austerity-bound London winter of 1946 and the "serious business of earning a living away from the cockpit of a Spitfire."

He did pretty well at that, too. He became chairman of Thames Television in 1981. The Thames logo with the Houses of Parliament on the river bank will be familiar to American viewers who have seen "The World at War," "Riley Ace of Spies," or "The Benny Hill Show."

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