“Welcome to MEMORIES, the programme which brings unpublished stories from unexpected people who have got something to share."
“My name is Martin Goldsmith, and today I have with me Bernard Flanagan – ‘Bud’ to his friends – a veteran World War Two fighter pilot who saw some of the fiercest aerial combat ever fought over land or sea. He survived three plane crashes and I suppose, Bud, you’re lucky to be alive today, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am. And I’m very grateful to those who rescued me and put me back together again each time.”
“Well, Bud, you trained at Cranwell, where all fighter pilots are vetted and trained, then to northern England for more flying practice before you entered the fray with 48 Squadron. How old were you when you joined the RAF and what made you decide you wanted to fly fighter aircraft?”
“I was just 19 when I decided I wanted to fly. It was a straightforward choice for me. The navy was too dangerous and I suffer seasickness too easily, and the army didn’t excite me. It was the action I wanted, and it seemed to me flying fighters had it all.”
“And what was the training like?”
“It was hard. Not everyone made it through the training. The first stage was about learning to fly but that wasn’t always in aeroplanes. There were lectures on mechanics, navigation, tactics, gunnery and night flying. When we did get to fly it was in old fashioned biplanes which were slow and ungainly. Needless to say, there were a few accidents and several planes were written off but only a few pilots got hurt in the process, fortunately. The difficult part was night flying – there was no radar. We had to learn to recognise clues from the sky when it was clear and from the ground, without help from lights; it was very difficult and fraught with danger.
“Eventually the ‘Big Day’ came when we finally got the chance to fly solo. That was our target and the excuse for our first celebration. That was January 1940.”
“Where did you go next?”
“Our group was split up. Most of us went up north to get more flying hours under our belts while others went into further training as crew for bombers.”
“When did you begin the real thing – combat?”
“That was in July 1940 over southern England – the Battle of Britain”
“Did you enjoy the excitement?”
“I was very scared. I didn’t make much of a dent in the Luftwaffe at first. It was all I could do to stay on station. Fortunately I was wingman to an understanding senior pilot who knew how I felt and he treated me with great care. Had his expectations of me been too high, I think I may not have been much good in the long run. The greatest help was the camaraderie among us in the mess when we landed, where mistakes were mentioned briefly then forgotten for the most part – provided we learned from them.”
“Tell me about your first bailout.”
“My first bailout was about a month later over the English Channel. ‘Beware the Hun in the sun’ goes the pun! The first I knew of it was a sharp jolt to the front of the plane. Then flames appeared coming from the engine as it lost power. It got very hot in the cockpit. I grabbed my parachute and strapped it on and then tried to open the canopy. I must have been trying for several seconds – minutes even – before I got it open. The Spit was steeply angled downwards, diving at high speed, so it was difficult to get out. The normal way to exit a burning fighter is to turn it upside down and drop out, but this was not possible. I was fortunate not to get hit by the tail.
“I landed in the sea, burned on one leg and with a sprained wrist and ankle. Another pilot had seen me ditch and informed base of my position. It wasn’t long before a rescue launch found me and took me in. I was off for about ten weeks while my leg was bandaged and the burn treated. In that time I had plenty of occasions to rue my bad luck but at least I was still alive. The one thing you hate about being shot down is that life becomes uneventful, wasted, boring even, and you feel utterly useless, unable to contribute to the war effort.”
“What happened next?”
“When I was medically fit, I rejoined 48 Squadron and did about three weeks flying day and night reconnaissance trips over the North Sea – to get me used to flying again. The Battle of Britain ended in September 1940, so duties were a lot less demanding. Still arduous and requiring as much concentration but not as frequent or for such long periods of time. I soon felt more confident of my flying skills. It was different in the mess: some of my former buddies had been promoted or moved to different squadrons and new boys had arrived to replace them.
“Some had been killed, of course. But I now felt more senior and was given more responsibility, working on getting my promotion to Flying Officer. That period lasted from November ‘40 to January ‘42.”
“And did you get your promotion?"
“Yes, in February, then I was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in June, and to Squadron Leader in October.”
“You were sent to North Africa next, weren’t you?”
"In January ‘42 a call went out for pilots wanted for North Africa as the war was hotting-up there. I volunteered because I was bored of the routine over the North Sea. I felt I needed a change. So I donned desert fatigues and packed my bags for life in the sun. It was a big change.”
“What happened to you there?”
“North Africa was easy and relatively safe. We did sorties singly or in pairs over the Med – protecting Allied convoys and attacking Italian submarines and aircraft when they showed up. That was before Operation Torch, when the Allies decided Rommel’s advance towards Egypt had to be defeated.”
“When did your next ‘accident’ occur?”
“Well, one day I was patrolling over the coast of Libya, not realising my fuel was low. I think one of my tanks had developed a leak. My engine spluttered and stopped at 18,000 feet and I had to bring the ‘craft down in the sand. It was hard work because Spits aren’t designed to glide – they’re designed for speed and manoeuvrability. I had to bring it down in a controlled dive to 2,000 feet then belly-land it on the sand. I couldn’t use the wheels as the plane would just turn over and bury its nose in the sand, maybe killing me in the process. It wasn’t a tidy landing and it wrecked the plane and broke my ‘good’ leg. I could hardly move – miles from base and no-one knowing where I was or what had happened to me. I had to just sit tight and wait for another passing Spitfire to see me. I managed to crawl out of the cockpit and prop myself up against the fuselage.”
“Didn’t you have your radio?”
“Not all the planes had working radios; this one didn’t for some reason, so I was lost and alone with a very painful leg and no mobility. I spent a night and most of the next day with a bar of chocolate and a flask of cold drink to keep me going before I was found and rescued. And it gets cold at night in the Libyan desert….
“I spent the next 3 months in a field hospital. It was pretty primitive but they got me back to flying condition; the leg was successfully set and healed without trouble.”
“What about your third crash? When did that occur?”
“That was the in Sicily campaign of July 1943. We had to provide cover for our troops landing on the beaches and keep any attacking aircraft away. Italian light bombers supported by German fighters were bombing the beaches. While lining up to engage a bomber, a pair of fighters locked onto me and pumped cannon shell into my fuselage and port wing. The wing sliced off and I found myself once again spinning into the sea with flames licking me. This time I wasn’t so lucky; I was severely burned on my torso. I was in great pain and passed out. Were it not for my lifejacket I would not have survived. The war was over for me. I was rescued by one of our destroyers and taken to Gibraltar and home to England where I spent eleven months in hospital and several more convalescing. Fortunately I made a full recovery and have led a normal life since.”
"Well, thank you very much Bernard Flanagan for sharing your memories of your former life on this programme.
“And thank you, too, Listeners!”