My late Father, Hal Thomas, was a Spitfire pilot in WWII, in England and the Middle East. He was called up in 1939, trained in New Zealand, sailed for England in 1940 and learned to fly a Spitfire. He served for four years and as he grew up, he wrote letters home. After the war he wrote some more, chilling and descriptive words. These are them.
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In 1939 a 21 year old joined the N.Z.R.A.F. as a reservist. When World War II was declared he was called up and sent to Woodburn training camp in Blenheim and taught to fly. In August 1940 he sailed from New Zealand for England and went to war. As the sea voyage progressed from holiday cruise to deadly dangerous, he kept a diary and then gave it to a steward to post home from LA.
He was a foundation member of 485 NZ Spitfire Squadron. He watched his best friends die before his eyes, was shot up twice and made it back to his aerodrome and killed a man for the first time. And he wrote letters home.
In December 1941 he sailed for the Middle East and, after a spell as an instructor, he requested a transfer back to active duty. Only four of his training course of 21 men survived and came home. He was one of them. Many years later he wrote notes about his war time experiences in preparation for the memoir that never happened.
In 1991 he died at the age of 74 after an 11 month battle with cancer. He was my Dad and I inherited the box of letters and notes. It is time we all heard about his war and I have complied this as much for the younger members of my family who never knew this brave and modest man, as for anyone else. World War II, from the air and the ground, in his own words.
It was a perfect summer day with no cloud visible as we crossed the French coast in squadron formation, at 15,000 feet, and turned behind Boulogne on to a westerly course towards Le Touquet. I could see the countryside below us and was gripped by a feeling of exhilaration, tinged with a heightened awareness.
The next turn on the patrol line was to port and I can clearly remember looking back to see Dick behind me, he was on the outside of the turning squadron at the end of the line of four aircraft. At that very moment a cloud of smoke appeared from his aircraft. He’d obviously received cannon shells in the petrol tank and cockpit. Simultaneously I heard a noise exactly like a stick dragged along a corrugated iron fence and felt my aircraft shudder heavily. There was a heavy bump behind me and I saw a ME 109 diving away inland.
My aircraft went into a steep dive and no matter what I did I couldn’t counteract the spin and regain control. My immediate thought was that I should bail out. I prepared to do so by unhooking the radio connection and opening the canopy. However at the last possible minute I managed to recover control and dived down to ground level to find myself over a small village a few miles inland from Le Touquet. I will always recall vividly the sight of a squad of German soldiers in grey uniforms standing in a village square as I approached at high speed. They all raised their rifles and fired at me but my speed saved me, although some holes were later found in the fuselage.
My reaction was to fly as low as possible on a northerly course across the English Channel. We’d been told to fly right over the water if separated as this would make it difficult for an enemy fighter to fire at our aircraft. It’s necessary to depress the nose right on sea level to line up a target directly ahead. However I was vulnerable to an enemy fighter diving on me even at sea level.
Then I noticed that the port wing had been damaged by a shell and was cut off at the aileron, with about three feet having been lost. The effect of this was not apparent at high speed but I knew it would adversely affect my stalling speed and I had no option but to land at a higher speed than normal.
Just as the White Cliffs of Dover appeared ahead I observed large splashes in the sea around me and looking up I saw a Spitfire climbing away. The pilot, a Pole as it turned out, had mistaken me for an enemy aircraft, probably because of the square wing effect on my port mainplane, which had been completely changed in appearance. Unless he recognised me I was in very real danger of being shot down and there was nothing I could do about it. Suddenly he waggled his wings to indicate that he’d identified me after a second look and then flew beside me until I reached the aerodrome at Hawkinge, just behind Folkstone.