“You wanted to see me, Sir?”
The middle-aged man behind the big oak desk, looked up as Robert Mitchell stood to attention and saluted smartly.
“Ah, Pilot Officer Mitchell. Yes, indeed I did. At ease, relax.”
Mitchell moved his feet apart and removed his hat. It wasn't the first time he had met the station commander, Group Captain Griffiths, but it was the first time he had been summoned to his office.
Sitting back in his big, leather upholstered armchair, the Group Captain smiled.
“I've heard quite a lot about you, Mitchell, in the few weeks you have been with us.”
Mitchell's heart skipped a beat.
“Nothing bad I hope, Sir,” he asked.
The station commander laughed.
“No, not at all. Of course, if it was, you would have known about it by now. No, It is about your flying ability. You have been with us, what, three weeks?” he looked down at the open folder. “Yes, three weeks. You already flew, I believe, before you joined up.”
“Yes, Sir, I did. I was a crop sprayer.”
“Good, good. That would explain why you have done so well handling the Magister. A fine aeroplane, of course, but you seem to have got the best out of it.”
There was a moment of silence during which Mitchell tried not to hold his breath. He was sure that there was a 'but' to follow.
Suddenly, the Group Captain seemed to make his mind up about something. He looked up.
“Yes, right. I am sending you to the coast. There is a detachment of Spitfires there, at Markinge, covering the Dunkirk evacuation. They are a couple of pilots short so I am sending you to help out until they are up to strength. Report there Monday morning.”
The young pilot smiled inwardly, trying not to expose his inner delight.
“Markinge, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
The C.O. returned his attention to the files on the desk in front of him.
“Off you go then,” he said, without looking up. “The Adjutant has your papers.”
Mitchell arrived at Folkestone Station at the time demanded by his travel documents. Also as arranged, a small crew bus was waiting at the roadside in front of the entrance. He, along with half a dozen other ranks threw their kit bags into the rear and took a seat for the short ride to Markinge.
On arrival at the man Guardroom, he was met by the Squadron Adjutant who took him directly to the Squadron Commander.
In the Ante-room, another Pilot Officer was waiting.
“Simon De Vere.” The young man held out his hand in offer of a greeting.
“Robert Mitchell,” Mitchell replied, accepting the offer and shaking the other man's hand vigorously.
There was no time for further chit-chat as the Adjutant was standing by the open door.
“Pilots Officers Mitchell and De Vere,” he announced, stepping aside as the two men entered and saluted smartly.
Behind a somewhat smaller desk to one side of the steel-framed window, sat a not significantly older man with the rank insignia of Squadron Leader around his sleeves.
In front of him, open on the desk behind which he was seated, were two files.
After a moment, he looked up.
“I am Squadron Leader Parfett, Commanding Officer. Welcome to Eighty Squadron.”
He neither expected nor waited for a response.
“De Vere, introduce yourself.”
“Pilot Officer Simon De Vere, Sir. I am Twenty-one and I am from Bideford in Devon.”
Parfett moved his attention.
Robert Mitchell stiffened to attention.
“Pilot Officer Robert Richard Mitchell, Sir. I am also Twenty-one but from Lincoln.”
Parfett looked down and then said,
“You were both pilots before you joined up. Tell me about that... DeVere?”
“Had been flying for two years for a millionaire in France, Sir. Just a small Caudron. He liked to race but couldn't fly, so he hired me to fly for him.”
Parfett looked thoughtful.
“Hmm,” he said at length. “I know the Caudron. That should stand you in good stead.” His head turned slightly.
“I did crop dusting, Sir. A Tiger Moth.”
The Squadron Leader laughed.
“Obviously why you did so well in basic flying training.”
Mitchell smiled but kept quiet.
“You are used to low-level flying so that should also be useful. How many hours in Spits?”
The two answers came simultaneously.
Parfett raised his eyebrows.
“Fine,” he sighed. “Get settled in and then report to the squadron briefing room. I want you up and practising right away.”
Within days, each of them was assigned a pilot to whom they would be wingmen and were soon flying Combat Air Patrols. A couple of times they had chanced upon enemy aircraft but had not engaged with them.
The Twelfth of June was different though. It was a beautiful, sunny, and warm morning. Azure skies, broken only with small white cotton-wool clouds.
The call to scramble came just before eight, and Robert Mitchell, along with the other pilots, sprinted towards their respected Spitfires. The engines were already running, started by the ground crew who now waited for their pilots to climb into the cockpits so they could fasten their parachute harnesses.
Once secure, the ground engineer slammed the cockpit door closed, gave a brief thumbs up, jumped to the ground from the trailing edge of the wing, and ran to the side. Almost instantly, another airman, standing in front but to one side of the fighter, raised his arms above his head and beckoned Mitchell forwards, the signal to move out.
There was no time for nerves as he pushed the throttle lever forwards. The powerful Merlin engine roared loudly and the sleek fighter moved forwards towards the runway.
The Spitfire picked up speed and soon lifted gracefully into the air. As soon as the wheels disconnected from the concrete, Mitchell raised the undercarriage and climbed steeply to join his comrades ahead of him.
The flight across the Channel took just a few minutes, but almost as soon as he had left the ground, he could see the plumes of black smoke rising from the small town of Dunkirk across the shimmering water.
The briefing that morning had informed them that German bombers were likely to approach from inland. Their task was to prevent them from reaching the beaches and attacking the thousands of troops being evacuated. To Mitchell, the sight of many hundreds of tiny, unprotected pleasure craft, crossing the twenty-one miles of open sea was something he would never forget.
The beaches and war-torn town flashed by below and gave way to the lush, green fields of northern France.
“Contact! Enemy aircraft at ten o'clock!”
Mitchell looked instinctively to his left as he followed Yellow Leader in a banked turn toward the target. Immediately he recognised the angled wings and fixed undercarriage.
“Stukas!” he thought.
The three Spitfires flew directly at the formation which were now ahead and below. The enemy dive bombers immediately broke formation, but Mitchell already had one of the lumbering, single-engined bombers in his sights. He fired a short burst and the Junkers Ju87 dropped its nose and went into a dive.
One thing these aeroplanes were noted for was being able to pull out of a near-vertical dive. He didn't want to end up as a statistic because he couldn't follow it so he fired another burst as he banked away. The Stuka began to trail smoke. Before he could get around for another shot, a Spitfire passed ahead of him, little flashes lighting up the wing's leading edge.
The Stuka never pulled up but dived straight into the ground.
Suddenly, Mitchell's Spitfire shuddered! He had been hit! Pulling back on the stick, he slammed the throttle lever forwards and climbed straight up then rolled over into a dive. As the sun flashed across his wings, he caught a brief glimpse of the unmistakable outline of a Messerschmitt Bf109. A very capable German fighter!
His manoeuvre brought him above and behind the enemy fighter which suddenly climbed sharply, which Mitchell's Spitfire couldn't match. For a brief moment, the 109 passed through his sights and he pressed the gun button. The stream of bullets released from his wings smashed through the wings and cowl of the enemy machine and it seemed to hang in the air for just a split second before tipping over and falling towards the ground.
Almost immediately, she spotted another enemy machine flying towards him. This time he rolled to the right and dived towards the ground. Barely clearing the hedges, he flew towards distant trees and then, at the very last second, pulled back on the stick. He barely cleared the tallest but the manoeuvre had surprised his assailant. In his effort to avoid the trees, he lost sight of the Spitfire which had looped around and behind. A few short bursts and the Messerschmitt was no longer a problem.
Mitchell didn't hang around to watch the result. He had seen another in his mirror.
Again, he climbed steeply to avoid the approaching fighter but it matched his climb, its nose-mounted machine guns blazing.
Whatever he did, Mitchell could not shake off his attacker. Once the hunter, he had now become the hunted!
Holding the yolk tightly, he kicked the rudder pedal and allowed his mount to fall sideways. As the Spitfire went into free-fall, he again pushed the throttle forward and pulled back on the stick. The engined screamed in protest as he dived toward the ground, but the nose came up and the aeroplane roared along, just above the treetops.
“Where's that damned Messerschmitt?” he cursed, looking left and right as he pulled up slightly to clear the roof of a large building ahead.
Thud, thud, thud.
Mitchell pulled back on the stick. Climbing and turning this way and that, as three more hits took their toll on his already damaged airframe.
To his dismay, he suddenly found that he had another, equally urgent problem. There was smoke coming from the exhausts. A quick glance at his gauges revealed that there was no longer any oil pressure for the engine and the radiator temperature was almost off the gauge! The engine had been hit!
He was too low to bail out so he had to get down before the engine seized. Having passed over the edge of a town, Mitchell saw that there were several large fields.
“No point in dropping the undercart,” he thought. “They're all ploughed!”
Pointing the nose towards the largest field he could see, he pulled back the throttle.
That was all his stricken bird needed to finally give up the ghost. Which a loud bang, the engine stopped dead! Now he could only hope that he wouldn't hit the ground too hard.
The only sound now was the wind, rushing past his canopy. He wanted to open it, but he didn't dare take his hands off the stick for fear of the nose dropping and diving into the ground.
The battered airframe stayed airborne for a few more seconds before smashing through a hedge dropping hard onto the soft, tilled earth.
To Mitchell's horror, the whole airframe erupted into a ball of flame as it ground to a halt. He pulled back hard on the canopy but it jammed halfway. There was nothing for it, he had to get out. As the flames licked along the sides of his fuselage, he quickly twisted the buckle of his harness and squeezed out of the small gap he had managed to create. Holding his breath for as long as he could, he jumped down onto the blazing wing and ran. He ran for his life, as far away as he could before the wreckage exploded. The force threw him face down onto the soft, dry earth. Such was his pain that he hadn't noticed the Messerschmitt flying towards him. Nor did he notice the wings tilt left and right as it flew over. Not even the salute that the pilot gave him as it roared past. In fact, he was barely conscious.
He lay where he fell for what, to him, seemed an eternity. The only thing he was aware of was the heat on his back. Whether from the burning wreckage or from the sun, he couldn't tell.
As his mind cleared, he became aware of a commotion, men running and shouting.
“Da! Da druben!“
Mitchell had no idea what that meant, but he knew it wasn't English. Through the pain, he felt for his knife, but it was too much, his hands were burned, and every movement was agonizing.
To Mitchell's amazement, he found himself being lifted with great care and placed upon a stretcher.
Although conscious, Mitchell was barely aware of what happened next. All he could tell was that he was carried to a lorry and placed on the back.
The journey, although short, was unbearable, and the last thing he remembered was the squealing of brakes as the lorry came to a halt.
To him, it felt as though he was waking up from a deep, dreamless sleep. He opened his eyes.
The room was bright and he saw that he was lying in one of many beds.
His eyes focused on the young woman standing at the end of the bed. She was dressed in pale blue with a brilliant white apron and cap.
“Am I dead?” he thought, but the words must have escaped his lips, for the young woman looked up at him.
“Ah, Guten Tag, Herr Mitchell,” she said, her smile captivating. Again, the language was alien to him but clearly German.
“Also. Sie sprechen kein Deutsch.”
His mind slipped into overdrive. He was in Germany and they were interrogating him! He tried to sit up but his hands were bandaged and any pressure was sheer agony. His face contorted.
“Nein, Bitte nicht Bewegen! Sie sind Verletzt!”
The young woman appeared concerned rather than angry, frustrated even. She turned away and spoke to someone he couldn't see, but then he could. A German soldier took a step forward, but she stopped him and spoke again.
The soldier shrugged and took off his helmet, belt, and jacket. Only then did she allow him to proceed.
Mitchell was terrified! Was he going to be tortured?
Once again, the woman spoke and the soldier turned to him.
“Ich bin...” he began, but the woman stopped him, rolling her eyes upwards.
“Englisch!” she said with a sigh.
“I am Gefreiter Seidlitz,” he began again. “You are in hospital and in no danger.”
Mitchell was not entirely convinced. Were they trying to trick him? He looked from one to the other. He just couldn't tell.
“Meine Name ist Maria,” she said carefully, “Deine Name ist Robert, Ja?”
Although not absolutely sure, he thought she was telling him that she was called Maria, so he nodded uncertainly.
“Pilot Officer Robert Richard Mitchell, RAF. 1663215.” That was all they would get, he decided.
The woman turned to the soldier and spoke. He then moved closer and spoke loudly.
“Pilot Officer, you are in the hospital and these are nurses. They do not want any information from you. They just want to help you recover from your injuries.”
A likely story, Mitchell thought and remained tight-lipped.
The soldier shrugged and the two spoke to each other again, then both turned away and left him alone.
Mitchell then had time to think. His first experience of conflict, and he had failed miserably. That wasn't the plan when he had joined up. One battle and here he was. Already a prisoner of war. He could be anywhere in Germany. Goodness knows how he was going to get out of this mess.
As he considered his predicament, the door suddenly burst open.
The young nurse, Maria, seemed angry as she confronted who appeared to be an officer and two others wearing white coats.
Judging by their demeanor, Maria was not impressed by this arrogant young man. The other two seemed to be somewhat apologetic.
Mitchell's heart missed a beat as the officer looked toward him and took a step in his direction.
To his surprise, Maria blocked him, her hand on his chest and her face like thunder.
Compared to this arrogant German, she seemed so petite and yet so strong. The officer suddenly seemed diminished.
For a moment they spoke to each other. To Mitchell, it was obvious that this young woman, Maria, was a force to be reckoned with. It was obvious that she had complete control here.
Suddenly, the Luftwaffe officer smiled. The nurse listened as he spoke and her stern glare slowly melted until she too was smiling. She stepped back and allowed him to approach.
The two men in white then left, and the two guards seemed to relax somewhat and returned to their seats.
The suave officer then approached Mitchell's bed, the nurse remained nearby. She appeared startled as he suddenly crashed his heels together, the leather soles making a loud crack that echoed around the ward. At the same time, he raised his right arm, fingertips to his temple, and palm downwards in the traditional salute rather than that of the Nazis with arm outstretched.
“I salute you,” he said. “You are an amazing pilot, and incredibly brave.”
As he spoke, he offered his hand in friendship. Mitchell could do no more than lift his heavily bandaged hand a few centimetres above the covers.
“Ah, my apologies, I didn't realise.”
He turned back to Maria and spoke in German. Mitchell couldn't make out what they said but, from their expressions, he didn't feel threatened anymore.
“Please forgive me, I am forgetting my manners. I am Oberleutnant Eric Scholz.”
“Pilot Officer Robert Richard Mitchell, RAF. 1663215,” Mitchell responded, still unsure and determined not to be tricked.
“I am not here to interrogate you. I came to meet an amazing pilot”.
Mitchell relaxed and then grinned.
“If one of you blighters hadn't 'accidentally' hit my sump you wouldn't be so smug now.”
He paused, and then,
“Did the other two get out?”
“Yes, they are fine,” came the reply, “But you are not, I see.”
“Just a scratch, old boy, I assure you...”
Unnoticed, the nurse, Maria, smiled and shook her head. After the terrors and hardship she had endured in Munich she was astounded that, after trying, and almost succeeding, to kill each other, these two warriors were chatting away like old friends.
“I am a little surprised that you are so competent,” Scholz continued. “I myself, have much experience. I learned combat flying during the Spanish civil war. Later, too, in the blitzkrieg of Poland and die Niederlande. But you, you RAF pilots, you have no such experience. How did you learn so quickly?”
Mitchell, still on his guard, thought carefully before answering.
“Surely you must know how good the Spitfire is?” he smiled.
“Ja, the Spitfire is for sure an excellent machine, but so is the Messerschmidt. No, a machine is only as good as its pilot, and you are good. I could barely keep up with you at such a low level. It was only when you pulled up to avoid this hospital that I was able to get a short burst at you.”
“Yes,” Mitchell responded, “and managed to hit my sump! Before the war, I was a crop sprayer. I am used to flying low level.”
Scholz sat back in the chair the nurse had brought over.
“Ah, that would explain it,” he sighed. “It is such a shame that you will spend the rest of the war in a Stalag.”