Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Real Heroes

It is not the time of year when we traditionally bring out the poppies, hold ceremonies and wheel out the depleting numbers of World War veterans, who served their country. There are, however, several ongoing dialogues and events, not least the number of conflicts, in which we are currently engaged, and the constant reminders on the news, print and screen, which engender questions that I started to ask myself five years ago, whilst I was writing a eulogy for my father.
The dashing young flyer
If you had met him, you would probably not have judged my father, by his demeanour, to be the kind of material of which heroes are made; not cutting the classical image of a swashbuckling, devil-may-care pioneering patriot, which you might expect from a former fighter pilot in the RAF, who flew that iconic flying machine, the Supermarine Spitfire. He was, instead, sometimes so laid back that a light breeze would have blown him over, but his sense of humour would always prevent this happening. His grandchildren will testify to this. It is perhaps ironic, but not a coincidence that he was also a walking encyclopaedia of limericks (and some pretty naughty jokes), most of which are not for public hearing, but I do have some recordings of him reciting quite a few of his favourite limericks.
His was a relaxed humour that will have been tempered and hardened during the Second World War, as it was for so many. This humour was as dismissive of the realities of war, in a typically British way, as it was of his courage. As is so common amongst war veterans, he never voluntarily talked about his experiences as a fighter pilot, in fact it was like pulling teeth trying to get anything out of him at all, but my understanding of this is clear.
For the moment I speak only of fighter pilots, like my Dad (all pilots, in fact) when I say this; but it applies equally to all those, past and present, who in some capacity or other serve their country. When you pull yourself into the cockpit for the umpteenth time and feel that stomach churning fear, the cold sweat dripping down your chest inside your flying jacket, knowing that, after you’ve propelled yourself skywards once again, the odds against you landing in one piece were frighteningly low and that you may only ever have a few short seconds to avoid enemy fire coming from any one of six dimensions; then all you might ever remember is that fear.
There follows a transcript of his own account of one particular event on 24th March 1943, which we discovered recently. This is an account, which started on a routine coastal patrol with his number two, who, it seems, was singing over the radio; a slightly bizarre start to a day that had a tragic ending:
"The action had been over in less than fifteen minutes.  It had been raw and grey over the Straits of Dover on this day towards the end of winter when my No. 2 and I had taken off from our small grass airfield near the coast.  We had expected a routine patrol.  Nothing of importance had happened in our area for two or three weeks.  The hummed strains of “Moonlight becomes you, I want you to know”, came over the radio.  It came as a mild shock as in the two years or so of wartime flying I had never heard music.
Flight Sergeant Jim Anstie
Sometimes during a night’s sleep, a fictitious action would come through from the subconscious; something quite ridiculous; perhaps one would be sitting on a high cloud in supreme comfort and totally relaxed.  Just below would be a sharp action yet in a detached way one could watch the combatants manoeuvring at high speed, intermittently closing on each other, a stream of tracer shells perhaps followed by a ball of fire as an aircraft plummeted down to earth.  But there would be no sudden coming awake in a sweat of fear.  The dreamer would be quite unconcerned.  A mental jerk told me that this was no dream.
On a peaceful flight, singing on the radio would be amusing but now it only served to irritate.  Even on a routine patrol one had to be ready for a snap decision; there could be no time to plan ahead.  A decision had to be immediate and instinctive.  It was still necessary to think logically: a Controller singing at Command HQ would have been quietly removed and perhaps ordered for a psychological test by the Medical Officer. It could only be my No 2 and I knew the cause.  The radio manufacturers, doubtless with the best of intentions, had added to our sets what should have been an excellent gadget.  The oxygen mask strapped over our mouth in flight also included the microphone; it only needed a spoken work and the set immediately transmitted to everyone in the area.  But there was on disadvantage.  A pilot might be flying to another friendly airfield with the mask loose on his face and the shattering noise of the engine would get through to the gadget and broadcast for all to hear.  At the same time a squadron might be on its way to deal with enemy bombers and would be needing directions.  But their radios had to be clear to receive orders, not the noise of an engine, nor for that matter the idle crooning of some witless lone pilot.  It was impossible to bark at him to “Shut up”!  While his song drooled on I could only hope that his mind would snap out of its dream before there was an emergency.
And of course there was at this moment an emergency.  The song finished at last and we were able to receive orders.  Immediately I caught the end of a message.  The words “Ashford” and “190s” were mentioned.  There was no time to vent my feelings for the stupidity of No 2 as we were at the furthest point away from the trouble.  “Hullo Blue 2.  Break away and follow me.  Some 190s have bombed Ashford”.
I knew that we had several minutes of hard flying to be in a position to intercept and was tempted to hold the engine at full speed: but I slackened a little so that we could remain together.
The radio clicked and this time it was Control speaking.  “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, set course 125 degrees.  The enemy are crossing the coast”.  Our home airfield was close to where the bombers should be heading back towards the French Coast and two flights from our Squadron had been alerted several minutes before.
It was routine at that time to have a flight at each end of the airfield.  Four pilots would be in each flight hut during daylight hours.  “A” Flight would have two pilots sitting in their aircraft for half and hour, strapped in and ready; then “B” Flight and so on.  If the siren sounded they had only to reach for the starter button.  In less than half a minute, twelve hundred horsepower from the Rolls engine would have them lifting away from the airfield.  Today, when this particular emergency came, it was on the half hour; both pairs decided to take off.  In seconds they were heading straight for each other.  In such a situation the leader of a pair could do little to change direction and if he tried to steer sharply away he would collide with his No 2 or just as likely, somersault himself. They kept going and miraculously there was no collision.
A familiar voice came over the radio.  It was the CO and the accent was unmistakable.  He had been in the French Air Force, had escaped after the surrender and since acquired a formidable reputation as a fighter pilot.  We had no difficulty in understanding him.  One gets used to the strange pronunciations of otherwise familiar phrases.
By now my No 2 and I were well out over the Channel and straining for a sight of the enemy.  “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, this is Red Leader.  We are at 4000 feet and chasing the enemy to Boulogne.  Join up with us”.
We were above this height and it was difficult to see small camouflaged aircraft which were still some way off.  The German FW190s we knew were faster than our older Mark 5's so I decided to keep flying fast on the same course.
Quite suddenly four aircraft appeared ahead and flew straight for us; for a brief moment I assumed that they were ours.  In less than ten seconds they had flashed past us, my aircraft shook briefly and I knew that I had been hit.
“Hullo Blue 2, break away and engage”.  I shouted and pulled away sharply to avoid a second attack.  A crippled aircraft was always a tempting target.  Almost immediately the radio was busy: I was not concerned with receiving orders but simply keeping in the air for long enough to reach land.  But at least we were no longer alone.
The engine was now throwing back a thick pall of smoke, and I knew that it would be a matter of minutes or less before it seized, leaving me without power and an easy target for another attack.  I looked back quickly in time to see a 190 curving in for an attack and I instantly pulled up in a sharp turn to frustrate him.  He missed and carried on past me.  Almost immediately there was a shout on the radio.  No time for formality, simply I got him fair and square.  He’s going down in flames”.
The Kent Coast had come partially into view through the smoke and after two or three minutes at full speed I knew that the Rolls had done all that could be expected and must soon die.  Friends were covering me but by now I was too low to go over the side and drop to the sea with my parachute.  The brief prospect of struggling in the icy water, scrambling into a small rubber dingy and sitting in a wet flying suit for an hour or more and perhaps never being found, did not appeal.
The engine laboured slightly as we reached the coast as though to warn me that it could do no more.  A few seconds went by, then it stopped.
There was no alternative now, and in a peculiar way the tension eased with the sudden silence: a touch on the rudder to give her a slight sidelong movement to take the smoke away from the windscreen and I quickly saw that there was only one green field within reach; elsewhere was heavily wooded country.  Although movement in the aircraft would be limited, I knew that I had to tighten the safety harness until it was like a straight jacket” almost certainly there would be a heavy crash and there were large wooden posts which had been fixed into the ground and scattered about the field.  It was important that they were there to destroy any invading aircraft but now they could destroy me.
I knew that the approach had been judged well enough to land without hitting the bank at this end or decimating myself in the trees ahead.  Smoke was still pouring from the engine and the field was even smaller than I had thought.  The fighter would drop to the ground at about 90mph ; we were flying at just above that speed.  Landing on a soft field would almost certainly end in a high speed somersault; a belly landing without wheels gave one the best hope.
A quick glance to one side showed a hedge slopping quickly by; no more than twenty feet up now; a farmhand gazed up, so close that one could almost read his mind.  “Bless the lad. Hope to God he makes it”.  The smoke was still blinding.  “For Christ’s sake keep her straight man, it’s not over yet.  Count five and brace yourself”.
It was longer than five as it happened.  Nearer ten, then a shattering jar and the tearing and ripping of metal.  The wing caught on a post and there was a violent cartwheeling to the left.
Then an almost deafening silence.
Though only slightly dazed, the thought of fire cleared my mind sufficiently to make me release the harness: almost at once I heard “Don’t worry lad, we’ll have you out in a trice”.  A pair of strong arms lifted me away and we staggered across the field, for all the world like a couple of drunks.  He sat me down by the hedge and I looked back at the carcass of my Spitfire through one eye; a trickle of warm blood had already filled the other.  The massive engine and both wings were scattered about the field.
Later, settled into the ambulance and with time to think back, I was able to appreciate the value of a good training. The safety harness had been one of the many important items. Even when pulled tight it was fitted with a small catch which allowed one to lean forward to reach some dial or switch. But this catch was never allowed to remain released for more than a few seconds. During the last half minute before the crash I had in fact briefly released it then locked it back.  Had I neglected the advice, I would certainly have been scalped. But now I am sitting comfortably in an easy chair some forty years later."
His number two, with whom he'd shared a beer the night before, and whose last recalled utterances were his singing, was shot down and killed in this action. Apart from the trauma of facing his own death, it must also have been very difficult for my father to come to terms with the loss of a colleague in this way, knowing what had been going through his mind whilst he had to listen to his singing, which did unfortunately delay their receipt of vital orders over the radio. Only when you find yourself in a field of anti-invasion barriers, sitting in a shattered aircraft, facing a shattered life, can you ever truly know the meaning of fear. The act of remembering an event such as this, in my view, is evidence that you have overcome it. This is true courage. For those that don’t or can't acknowledge this fear, there may be a tendency to romanticise an experience and they may perhaps be inclined to brag about it. My father didn’t particularly want to talk about it, let alone brag; he did write about it, however, in a fairly matter-of-fact sort of way. It is very clear from all I've heard that his fear was very real and the experience knocked him sideways for a while. But how many of us would really cope with this today, especially at the raw young age of twenty five; I don't know; nobody can know until they do experience it in this sort of way. For myself, I would hope that I'd cope and do what had to be done, but I also hope that neither I nor my children will ever have to find out. So, whatever else he did in his life before or after this time, I would forgive my father anything.
Flt Sgt James 'Jim' Anstie is second from left.
It is very difficult to make a judgement about bravery, courage and heroism. In the ultimate analysis, I suppose, it all depends on what conscious thoughts prevail in the mind of the would be hero at the time of their heroism. Military records undoubtedly chronicle the thorough assessment of the entitlement of individuals to recognition of courage by the award of various grades of medal. I think that I know what being a hero really means; it is certainly not what is so often conveyed on the silver screen in form of the classic plastic-coated Hollywood icon. Let's not forget the many heroes who have and still do serve with the country's armed forces in all the different parts of a troubled world.
Almost a year ago, prompted by an invitation from the Royal British Legion, who sent out mailers celebrating VE65 (the 65th anniversary of Victory in Europe day on 8th May 1945), to write a message to be planted in the grounds of areas of remembrance, I composed the following poem, which encapsulates my feelings about true heroes and their courage; I sent it with a donation.

(for Real Heroes)

Think nothing of your movie heroes

Plastic coated with perfect noses,
chiselled jaws and smelling of roses.
Now, think for a moment of reality;

a reality that is raw,
that’s in your face and now, and more;
its deprivation, pain and blood

and fear, real fear, a taste of mud,
of fire or brine and feel the sweat
that chills the skin like death, and yet

just when faced with their mortality,
real courage let them go again
and go again, and go again!

Think only of Real Heroes, then.

© 2010 John Anstie

My father displayed courage, simply by getting back into the cockpit to fly again after being shot down; this is enough to persuade me of his courage. 

I would like to hear your stories of courage.


  1. What a powerful poem and a fine, loving tribute! Mad Kane

  2. Thanks Mad. From you that's praise indeed.

  3. Thank you, Marinela. I have visited your web site and am very impressed indeed.


Don't leave without letting me know what this article made you think, how it made you feel ... good or bad, I'll take either.