Veteran Stories:
Richard Gilman

Air Force

  • Supermarine Spitfire IXE aircraft of No. 412 (Falcon) Squadron, RCAF, preparing for takeoff. Richard Gilman was a pilot of a Spitfire.

    Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-136915 Restrictions on use: Nil Copyright: Expired
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"It was at this point my transmission ceased. My radio on all four channels went dead, completely and utterly dead."


I recall the day, I was flying alone, thoroughly lost, on a very dark stormy night, far out at sea and with a dead radio. I really should not have survived. I was just 19. The shrill sound of the telephone sliced like a knife into my brain and jarred me into instant activity. My feet must have hit the floor on the second ring. Our operator’s voice confirmed my worst fear. “Yes sir, yes sir, two aircraft, hazels 10, over base.” Now, there was a thin line of flares down the right side of the runway, as we lined up in tight formation, the two of us. I pushed the throttle fully open and as the nose dipped level, then I could see straight ahead, I could just make out a marker light at the far end of the runway. Watching the panel dials with one eye, I eased back the stick and with a familiar surging feel of power at my back, I was quickly airborne and climbing steeply straight into the thick cloud, totally dependent on instruments. It transpired that a German Junkers JU88 twin engine bomber had been picked up and followed on radar flying north along the Scottish coast. I was being vectored towards it and was to be on the lookout to intercept. After a few minutes, the bandit, (that was the code name for an enemy aircraft), turned east, across the North Sea, apparently heading for Norway from which it probably had originated. The air force had a healthy respect for this excellent and versatile enemy aircraft. I changed course in pursuit but as reports came in, it was clear that the German was faster than I was and would probably be able to land at its base well before I could make contact. A short while later, we heard two Hurricanes [British single-seat fighter aircraft] from farther south had intercepted and shot the intruder down into the sea. The cloud was still thick and we decided to split up so my number two swung away to port and headed for home. It was at this point my transmission ceased. My radio on all four channels went dead, completely and utterly dead. After urgently trying to coax or bash it into action again, I realized with a slow sense of horror, I was now totally on my own with no visibility and no likely assistance from any source to get me back to base. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, given all the circumstances, that my situation was not only desperate but my survival was becoming increasingly unlikely. There obviously no lights, whatever, below, even if it had been a clear night. The wartime blackout was excellent and strictly enforced. I frantically tried to think rationally but it was increasingly hard not to give way to a sense of blind panic. I checked off the possibilities. One, I could climb higher and bail out, hoping I would land somewhere on land. But it was just as likely I would probably hit water somewhere on the way to Scandinavia, where no one would ever look for me. Two, I could deliberately try and crash land my aircraft, wheels retracted of course, using my altimeter to bring me through the clouds at a slower speed and close to the ground. I had a high intensity small searchlight housed in the front of my starboard wing. But because of the power involved, I could only have the use of it for a limited number of seconds in an emergency. Then it would just burn out. The chance of finding a clear, flat bit of terrain in this soup was a near impossibility, and I was also flying over mountainous countryside. So, three, I thought of flying further out to sea, cautiously and far enough to feel sure that it would be water and not solid rock beneath me. Then I thought I would throttle right back and edge towards the Scottish coast diagonally, again with my cockpit hood open, goggles down, in the faint hope of spotting the flash of breaking waves along some seashore or even a flat bit of head wind. I had to make to make up my mind quickly, as my fuel would eventually give out. And there was also the possibility I could overshoot Scotland altogether and find myself even more lost in the stormy Atlantic to the west. Now, traveling at 300 miles per hour and at over 6,000 feet, to be sure, I would clear the tops of any mountainous peaks. However, I was opposite either of the narrow waists of Scotland, if you look at a map, you’ll see those two narrow waists, each not much more than 50 miles across, it could take me as little as 10 minutes to miss this part of the British Isles altogether. I would have to slow down, whichever course I took. But by now, I was functioning but in a state of numbed resignation. Without dwelling on it, I knew that I was finished and a fatal crash would be almost inevitable. Despite my warm clothing, I was soaked in my own sweat, yet I had to make some decision. Of my three options, I decided, with little more than desperation, on number three. I dropped down to a dangerous, dangerous 200 feet. Suddenly, the blackness ahead of me seemed to grow even blacker and a dizzy spine of granite rock zoomed past my port side. I was heading for huge rocky cliffs, dead ahead. Just in time, I jerked my control column back and a succession of jagged black shapes flashed by under my fuselage. I barely cleared the tops of what I later learned were the 800 feet Duncansby stacks [sea stacks off of Duncansby Head, the most northeasterly part of mainland Scotland]. At least I knew that I was obliquely crossing a coastline now, but where? Without any more real hope, I thought I’d better follow the coast if I could even sense its presence nearby. It was then that an event occurred that was both a total miracle and a literal life saver. Far below me, a single feeble light pierced the darkness and I recognized a Morse code call sign of several letters. They repeated just long enough for me to write them on my pad. It was or had to be an alert lighthouse keeper who flashed them, an individual whose identity I never knew and regrettably never met. Now, every lighthouse had a code but for safety’s sake, did not function in wartime and for obvious reasons. Fortunately, I had those codes on my map, stuck down the side of my right flying boot. And though struggling to fly the plane, still mostly by instruments, I could just pick out the location with the aid of the light from where that particular and wonderful light came. The rest is predictable. I was able from that point to steer a compass course. The sound of my engine eventually alerted the duty pilot at my destination, who lit those stupidly beautiful gooseneck paraffin flares beside the runway. I landed badly I think, but safely. My number two, whose radio had not had any problems, while landing, had consumed his cocoa and wondering where I’d got to, settled down to well earned shuteye. Back in my quarters eventually, I stripped off my flying coveralls, I tossed my soaked underwear on the floor and proceeded to wring out from my blue surge battledress a sizeable basin of perspiration, liquid. Crawling over to my bed, I lay down and slept, no dreams, not even exhausted ones. When I awoke hours later, I knew that I had survived the most terrifying experience up to that point of my entire life. And it had absolutely nothing to do with the enemy.
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