This story was written for our writing club. The story is fiction but based on facts. Brian Foster and his story are an invention but John Gillespie Magee was all true – try googling High Flight to find out about him. Here goes …
My place in history
My name is Brian Foster and I was one of the RAF Erks in WW2, which was a slang term developed during that time to describe any fitters or mechanics servicing our aircraft during that long and arduous time. Most of us preferred the description, because the correct term of ‘other ranks’ , seemed to us somewhat derogatory.
By the time of my story I had been working in the RAF for 2 years.
After squarebashing and training I was posted to a squadron based in France in the spring of 1940, when the BEF were trying to stop the Germans over-running the French Army. As we know now, it was a forlorn gesture. My squadron was repeatedly moved North to avoid capture and, at the last effort, our pilots were ordered to get back to Blighty and land where they could. Meanwhile, we were made to destroy all out equipment and tools, set light to what fuel was left and escape as best we could. I ended up on the Dunkirk beaches, and you know all about that.
Eventually I ended up at RAF Duxford, working around the squadrons based there as a spare mechanic on different squadrons as needed. Not my happiest time.
Right now in the Autumn of 1941, I am stationed at RAF Digby in Lincolnshire. My new squadron is No 242 (fighter) Sqdn, RCAF. Incidentally, 242 was Douglas Bader’s first command after he returned to the RAF after losing his legs. By now Bader is a POW in Germany.
After my time at Duxford and not belonging to a squadron, I am happy although our working hours are long and tough. But, we are working to send mostly young pilots up in the sky against the mighty German war machine and I will do my best….
I had just been allocated to very young pilot from America, whose name is John Gillespie Magee. He has just finished his operational conversion training on our new Spitfire Mark 5Bs. My flight sergeant has chosen me, so he says, because I am more experienced than most, and I am to look after this young man so he can settle in.
Pilot Officer Gillespie’s first flight following conversion was to flight test an aircraft we had been servicing. When he landed and I taxied him into dispersal. He climbed out of the cockpit with a broad smile and I can remember him saying ” Thank you, Foster, that was wonderful. ” We found out later that he had written some poem and that he had become fond of poetry while studying in England.
Thereafter P/O Magee flew several sorties over France which seemed pretty routine for that time. Almost invariably I saw him off and marshalled him into dispersal when he landed. Following a flight me and my mate would have serviced the aircraft and attended to any snags that arose.
On the 11th December 1941, we saw him off on a routine practise flight with the rest of the squadron, apparently they were trying out air fighting tactics. One by one the rest of the squadron returned, all but one aircraft landed but not P/O McGee. Sometime later we found out that he had been involved in a midair collision. A local farmer saw him trying open his canopy but by the time he managed to clear the aircraft he was too low and was killed on impact with ground. I was devastated , he was such a decent guy.
I now have copy of the poem he wrote after the test flight I mentioned earlier.
” Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth,
And danced the sky on laughter silvered wings,
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sunsplit clouds, and done a hundred things
you have not dreamed of, wheeled and soared and swung,
High in the sunlit silence, hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never Lark or even Eagle flew–
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
John Gillespie McGee, born in Shanghai to his missionary parents, was 19 when he died. His grave lies in Skopwith cemetery in Lincolnshire.