Memoirs of Bill McRae
Spitfire Pilot in WWII
By Stephen Sherman, Dec. 2009. Updated July 5, 2011.
The Spitfire may be the most famous fighter, beautiful in appearance, graceful in handling, and deadly in combat. Often credited with winning the Battle of Britain (more of which is due the Hawker Hurricane), its clean lines and rounded wings were both aerodynamic and elegant. Originating as a floatplane racer in the 1930s, the Spit was the mainstay of the RAF until the advent of jet fighters.
Bill McRae flew over 240 combat sorties in British & Canadian Squadrons, being operational for over three years. He flew from the bases in Scotland to the shuttle bases of Takoradi in Africa. His war ended over Normandy flying in air combat and ground support missions every day for 60 days. Like many of his contemporaries he felt a duty to join in the war effort and enlisted on June 13th 1940 just after the fall of France. England stood alone and the Battle of Britain was just about to begin.
After enlisting, Bill crossed the Atlantic in the Nicoya, and was assigned to 57 OTU (Operational Training Unit) flying cast off Spitfires before being sent to 132 Squadron.
Bill said "I landed in England on the 31st of May 1941, along with three others
from my course, not knowing what I would be flying until ten days
later later when I reported to No. 57 Operational Training Unit at
Hawarden, North Wales and saw a number of Spitfires on a large grass
airfield. They were all tired old Mk Is, a few still with hand pumped
undercarriages. Scattered around the field were a number of
Wellingtons from the resident Vickers factory.
Having not flown for over two months I was given a quick two circuit
checkout on a Mk I Miles Master, then over the next few days put in two
hours solo on the Master, becoming familiar with the area; and what a
shock it was. I had previously flown only in winter, from rolled snow.
Our 8 miles to the inch map was easy to read, with usually clear skies,
and an uncluttered landscape. Now I had a four miles to the inch map,
with the landscape a profusion of towns and villages, multiple
railways, crooked roads going in all directions, and visibility limited
by industrial smog. But, as one wartime song suggested, "the first
year is the worst year, you'll get used to it", eventually I did. I
should add that the two hours on the Master brought my total solo time
to 70 hours.
We were briefed on the Spitfire's characteristics, which differed
considerably from types previously flown. The 1,000+ hp, liquid cooled,
RR Merlin 2 or 3 required the coolant temperature to be monitored
and controlled by a manually operated radiator shutter. The control
column was pivoted about a foot from the top, and topped with a circular
spade grip. Within the spade grip was a bicycle type brake lever which
controlled pressure to the air brakes, with differential application by
movement of the rudder pedals. Undercarriage control was on the right
side of the cockpit, requiring change of hands soon after take off. .
Air operated flaps were selected by a simple toggle on the instrument
panel, either up or fully down. The tail wheel was non-locking, non-
steerable, fully castoring. This could be a problem in some
situations; more about this later.
First Time Flying a Spitfire
Our instructors were mostly fighter pilots on rest. Apart from leading
us on formation exercises, all they did was sit in armchairs on the
grass, critiquing our performance in the circuit. Not once did they
share their experiences or discuss tactics . On June 16 , when my
instructor told me to take Spit B-R and fly it around a bit, I was
probably a bit nervous since the first guy to fly the day before had
killed himself, taking off in coarse pitch, clipping the top of a hangar
and crashing into into a paint storage building. With this in mind I
began my first long zig-zag taxi to the far end of the field. At the
holding point on the grass I did my run up and check, winding on full
right rudder trim. Traffic was controlled by Aldis lamp; having moved
up to the `ready' spot on the grass, I lined up with a hangar on the
far side of the field, the same one the fellow had hit the day
before, and waited for a green, one eye on the rapidly rising coolant
temperature, the other on the tower. On getting the green I released the
brakes, and with the stick right back gradually opened the throttle to
takeoff power, then carefully brought the stick forward to neutral.
(Too far and the prop could hit the ground) Almost immediately the tail
was up to flying attitude, and almost full right rudder was needed to
keep straight. A few seconds later, with some light bouncing on the
grass, it flew itself off. Sitting in that snug cockpit, almost on the
trailing edge, and with that beautiful wing in my field of vision, it
was hard to believe I was really flying it. With the speed building up
I retracted the undercarriage, closed the canopy and climbed to a safe
height over the training area.
After getting a feel for the sensitivity of the controls, I ran through
a series of exercises, including stalls and a spin. Now I thought I
would try a simple loop. Whether I entered too slowly, or misused the
sensitive elevators at the top, or a combination of the two, I don't
know but I managed to stall it, right at the top, upside down. While
dirt from the floor rained down on me all I could think of was `how do I
recover from an inverted spin,' which I had never done. But, without
any input from me, the nose dropped straight and I was soon in
business again. This shook me a bit, but at the same time it did more
than anything else to give me confidence in the machine. Having been out
almost an hour I headed back to the field and landed. I was probably
still on cloud nine because I can't remember anything about that first
Spitfire landing; I probably came in too straight and too fast and
floated halfway across the field, but my usually critical instructor
made no comment when I taxied back so it must have looked OK to him.
After having straight-in finals from 500 feet drummed into me at earlier
schools, it took some time getting comfortable with the recommended
Spitfire approach, which was to combine the base and final legs into a
continuously descending curve, to reach a point just off the end of the
runway, at about 30 degrees off line, and ready to begin the round out.
Then line up the left side of the nose with the landing path and round
out to a few feet off the ground. All Spitfires, at least up to the Mk
IX, would float a fair distance, even when brought in at the correct
speed; this made landing easy. The unarmed Hawarden Mk Is were
especially light, making the float even greater. Hold it level as it
floats, and when it starts to sink, begin raising the nose
progressively, until, with the stick back in your lap, it settles down
like a feather, three point, usually. There is no tendency to swing
after landing. ( Although over dramatized) The TV movie `Piece of Cake'
has some great shots illustrating this technique. Once mastered, not
only was it efficient, but it felt good, the runway was always in sight,
and any excess height could be lost by simply slipping the turn.
Reaching OTU did not guarantee becoming a fighter pilot. Any signs of
weakness perceived by the instructors could get you towing drogues for
the rest of the war. It needed a bit of ingenuity on one occasion to
keep out of trouble. For some forgotten reason I had found it
necessary to abort a landing and go around TWICE, and I knew my
instructor would be livid. I think the greatest fear of most pilots of
the period was that doing something stupid would result in being washed
out. With this in mind during the third downwind leg I was racking my
brains for a plausible excuse. Then I got a devious brain wave.
Riveted to the throttle control lever was a small bracket which, when
the throttle was pulled back to about 1500 revs, depressed a spring
loaded pin, triggering a warning horn if the undercarriage was not
down and locked. Using two hands I was able to bend this bracket just
enough so that, instead of riding over the pin, it would butt against it
and stop further movement of the the throttle. Now, depressing the pin
with one hand I pulled the throttle over it and all the way closed,
this time making sure I got down. Before I could get out of the cockpit,
my instructor was up on the wing , yelling at me `What the hell do you
think you were playing at?' As calmly as I could, I explained how the
throttle had not been closing completely for the first two attempts,
that I had discovered the cause during the third circuit, and how I had
temporarily overcome it. Disbelieving, he said `show me', and I was able
to demonstrate, with results as I have described. Suspecting he had been
had, but unable to question the evidence, he told me to get it fixed. I
can swear I heard him muttering `Bloody colonials' as he stomped off.
He would get his revenge later- Observair story `The Wrekin'.
On July 19, I finished the course with 37 hours on Spits, and was
posted to 132 RAF Squadron, newly forming at Peterhead on the North Sea
coast of Scotland, 30 miles north of Aberdeen. On July 28 I flew with
132 for the first time, and for the first time off a runway. Initially
we were equipped with Mk Is but soon moved up to Mk IIbs and by early
1942 to Vbs. 132 was a `marmalade' squadron, with Canadians, Free
French, Polish and one Czech pilot, as well as a Rhodesian, and of
course a few Limeys, including the Flight Commanders and Squadron
Leader. The squadron would eventually move south and was part of 125
Wing, 83 Group, in 1943. All the Canadians eventually were posted out
and the Free French and Polish pilots became part of their own national
squadrons) For the 10 months I was with 132 it never left Scotland and
not a single gun was fired in anger. The only aircraft we saw with black
crosses was one day in November when a Ju88 popped out of low cloud,
dropped a string of bombs on the camp, killed one pilot on the ground
with machine gun fire, and escaped into cloud without being detected by
radar, leaving us questioning the reliability of our low level radar.
It was guarding against this kind of hit and run attack that had us
frequently scrambled, in pairs during the day and singly at night, to
intercept anything approaching from the east without a functioning IFF,
the early transponder. Everything we intercepted turned out to be
friendlies, all with their IFF off. They were a mixed bag, from
Whitleys to, on one occasion, an early B17 in RAF markings.
Hit and run raids usually took advantage of low cloud cover, ideal for
Jerry but not for us. I have heard it said that Scotland is second only
to the Aleutians for bad flying weather, at least in winter, and the
locals claimed that this was the worst winter in living memory. When the
runways were not snowed in, it was routine to be scrambled into
ceilings as low as 300'. With no navigational radio, we depended on
radar to vector us back down out of cloud , preferably over the sea.
From there we were on our own. None of us had had any previous actual
instrument time, only dual under the hood, and none on Spitfires. We
were ill prepared to quickly become virtual all weather interceptors and
we paid the price. In a very short time at least six pilots were killed,
about 25 percent of the squadron. Two spun in out of cloud; two collided
in cloud; one missed the field and hit the mountains not far to the
west. One, on a night scramble, failed to acknowledge repeated orders
to return to base and was last seen leaving the radar screen in the
direction of Norway, which he had insufficient fuel to reach.
On the lighter side; many RAF fields were designed like an overturned
saucer, probably to improve drainage, so that on landing we always
ended up going downhill. At low speed the Spit's rudder was ineffective
and without a steerable tailwheel differential braking was needed to
steer. Loss of brakes could mean trouble. One night I landed a bit long,
probably overused the brakes to slow down, and they faded. I switched
off and sat helpless as the Spit slowly rolled downhill, veering toward
the side of the runway. First one wheel dropped off into the mud,
swinging the machine around so the second wheel followed. The tail rose
high but dropped back before the prop could hit the ground. I was lucky,
but several others were not. Paul, one of three Free French pilots we
had, lost his brakes one night and ran off the end of the runway. When
we got to him his aircraft was balanced, vertically, with the spinner
and prop embedded in the mud. Paul was looking down at the ground from
his lofty perch, repeating over and over `SHEET, SHEET' to our great
I should have mentioned earlier that one of our regular jobs was convoy
patrols over the North Sea, on days with low cloud cover . On one
occasion I was sent out to cover a `convoy', which turned out to be a
lone battleship, The King George V, racing north on her own, presumably
heading for the Home Fleet Base at Scapa Flow. On New Years Eve I was
out three times covering a large merchant convoy plodding north under
escort. I was in radio contact with the lead ship which I believe was a
cruiser. On my last trip, with dusk coming on and my fuel getting low,
I flew past the cruiser at bridge height and said `I must leave you now,
Happy New Year'. There was no response, and I could picture them
thumbing through the code book to see if Happy New Year might have a
double meaning. I was half way back to land when they came back with
`And a Happy New Yeeaw to you too'. Now all I had on my mind was getting
back down and readying for the squadron's first ever New Years Eve bash
in the mess.
This brought to an end my Spitfire flying for l941. I still had five
months to go before I moved on to new challenges, still without combat
experience but with a wealth of experience in flying the Spit, by
night or day, from 30' to 30,000' and in almost any weather. I know it
sounds crazy, but by now I had developed a distinct feeling, each time I
flew a Spit, that I was part of it and not a mere mortal sitting in it.
Source: Ken Arnold's "WWII Memories," a now-defunct Geocities website. Recovered from the Internet Wayback Machine. This exerpt re-printed here in the interests of historical preservation. Please contact me with any copyright issues.