That was Geoffrey Page. He was a survivor.
Aviation came early to Geoffrey Page’s life. His family was the Page of Handley-Page, and aircraft were always in his life. Coming of age in the 1930s was an experience little matched. The Great War was still fresh in memory. Heroes of the air had been created and they were all around. Aviation was coming of age at the same time. It’s natural a spirited youth would seek out a piece of this adventure.
Page enjoyed a broken home, a protective mother and a distant and demanding father. All forbid this precarious quest. How the world would be different today if yesterday’s youth had been embraced obedience.
My mother was of little help. Besides having no more than a pittance from an ungenerous husband she refused to let her darling boy risk life and limb in “one of those terrible flying machines.” And yet, she would have robbed to give me anything else I might have set my heart on.
With opposition like that, I reluctantly capitulated and joined London University. My father was pleased, of course.
But it never occurred to him that I might have inherited facets of his own determined character, nor that Hitler’s Germany was causing aviation to encroach upon traditional institutions of learning. At Imperial College I discovered that free R.A.F. flying training was available to anyone who could pass the rigorous medical examination for admission to the University Air Squadron. I also saw that its exclusive standing among university clubs was the pretext I needed to persuade my mother to sign the parental authority required to allow me to fly.
From then on, whenever the weather permitted, I abandoned my books and headed for Northolt airport. By the end of my second year at London University I had become a very competent pilot –but I had failed my Inter-B.Sc. exams!
Faced with a parental ultimatum – to continue my studies without the distractions of flying, or to leave the university to make my own way in the world – the summer of 1939 was a bewildering one. Happily for me, or so I thought, Hitler overstepped himself.
Page, Geoffrey (2011-06-29). Shot Down in Flames: A World War II Fighter Pilot’s Remarkable Tale of Survival (Kindle Locations 96-107). Grub Street Publishing. Kindle Edition.
It was a dire situation for England. The rise of Nazi power and aggression were evident to all who would look. Many did, but few pushed for action. One who did was British statesman and Member of Parliament Winston Churchill:
Out of office and politically “in the wilderness” during the 1930s, Churchill took the lead in warning about Nazi Germany and in campaigning for rearmament. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was again appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. Following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. His steadfast refusal to consider surrender helped inspire British resistance, especially during the difficult early days of the war when the British Commonwealth and Empire stood alone in its active opposition to Adolf Hitler. Churchill was particularly noted for his speeches and radio broadcasts, which helped inspire the British people. He led Britain as Prime Minister until victory over Nazi Germany had been secured.
He later wrote on this in his series of books The Second World War:
I called upon Mr. Baldwin, as the man who possessed the power, for action. His was the power, and his the responsibility.
In the course of his reply Mr. Baldwin said:
If all our efforts for an agreement fail, and if it is not possible to obtain this equality in such matters as I have indicated, then any Government of this country— a National Government more than any, and this Government— will see to it that in air strength and air power this country shall no longer be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of its shores.
Here was a most solemn and definite pledge, given at a time when it could almost certainly have been made good by vigorous action on a large scale.
Churchill, Winston (2010-06-30). The Gathering Storm: The Second World War, Volume 1 (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 1743-1749). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Britain had neither the planes nor the pilots to wage war on the Third Reich. It was a race to see whether the Royal Air Force could be brought up to strength in time to meet the task. As it turned out the critical element was to be trained pilots. For the defense of the British Isles fighter pilots were needed desperately, and there was not enough time.
The Wehrmacht brought matters to a head by defeating all resistance on the continent in the spring of 1940 and knocking France out of the war. Disaster was mitigated by a heroic evacuation of British and French forces trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, a few miles from the British coast. At this point the remaining belligerents, Great Britain and Germany, faced each other across the narrow English Channel. It was the summer of 1940. By now Churchill was Prime Minister, and unlike those before him and unlike other world leaders, he did not blink at Hitler’s challenge to call the whole thing off. The Battle of Britain had begun, and newly-minted pilot Geoffrey Page was in the thick of it.
The German plan, obvious to all, was to threaten and if possible carry out a cross-channel assault. But first the RAF needed to be defeated. German fighters and bombers crossed the Channel in staggering numbers and were met by the “the few.” Clashes over England were typically lopsided.
Then the ground controller’s voice came to us clearly over the R/ T. The suppressed excitement in his voice was apparent as we raced skywards with everything strained. “Ninety bandits approaching from Calais. Yorker BlueLeader. Twenty plus at about Angels six, remainder Angels twelve, over.”
Jumbo’s squeaky voice acknowledged the fantastic message. “Roger, Blue Leader listening out … Yorker blue and Green, line astern – go.”
The two sections immediately formed for the attack in line astern behind their respective leaders. Positioning myself behind and beneath Jumbo’s tail, I had time only to think, “Six of us against ninety, hardly fair odds for someone going into his first fight. Why the devil don’t they send up another squadron to give us a helping hand?”
Page, Geoffrey (2011-06-29). Shot Down in Flames: A World War II Fighter Pilot’s Remarkable Tale of Survival (Kindle Locations 873-879). Grub Street Publishing. Kindle Edition.
His account of life on the front lines of the Battle of Britain is one of grim resolution and realities faced.
Hardly a day was now passing without some striking event taking place. The death of a friend or enemy provided food for a few moments of thought, before the next swirling dogfight began to distract the cogitating mind from stupid thoughts such as sadness or pity – remorse had long since died. It was the act of living that perhaps became the most exciting form of occupation. Any fool could be killed; that was being proved all the time. No, the art was to cheat the Reaper and merely blunt his Scythe a little. After all, it was only a game and he was bound to win, but it was fun while it lasted.
Simple escapes from death such as Finger’s were too commonplace to be mentioned. Something more spectacular was necessary to draw anything greater than a passing comment. It was the more sensational of these flirtations with posterity that placed milestones in our lives. Events happened with such rapidity that the day before yesterday seemed a lifetime ago, and ten seconds of close attention by an enemy fighter could also feel like a lifetime.
Page, Geoffrey (2011-06-29). Shot Down in Flames: A World War II Fighter Pilot’s Remarkable Tale of Survival (Kindle Locations 1317-1325). Grub Street Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Page’s stint in the great battle was cut short after a few weeks. On 12 August a hail of gunfire from a Do-17 bomber caught his Hurricane fighter.
Then the enemy rear gunners started firing … .
Analyzing it later I realized that the fire power of the whole group was obviously controlled by radio instructions from a gunnery officer in one of the bombers.
One moment the sky between me and the thirty Domier 215s was clear; the next it was criss-crossed with streams of white tracer from cannon shells converging on our Hurricanes.
Jumbo’s machine peeled away from the attack. The distance between the German leaders and my solitary Hurricane was down to three hundred yards. Strikes from my Brownings began to flash around the port engine of one of the Dorniers.
The mass of fire from the bomber formation closed in as I fired desperately in a race to destroy before being destroyed.
The first bang came as a shock. For an instant I couldn’t believe I’d been hit. Two more bangs followed in quick succession, and as if by magic a gaping hole suddenly appeared in my starboard wing.
Surprise quickly changed to fear, and as the instinct of self-preservation began to take over, the gas tank behind the engine blew up, and my cockpit became an inferno. Fear became blind terror, then agonized horror as the bare skin of my hands gripping the throttle and control column shrivelled up like burnt parchment under the intensity of the blast furnace temperature. Screaming at the top of my voice. I threw my head back to keep it away from the searing flames. Instinctively the tortured right hand groped for the release pin securing the restraining Sutton harness.
“Dear God, save me … save me, dear God … ” I cried imploringly. Then, as suddenly as terror had overtaken me, it vanished with the knowledge that death was no longer to be feared. My fingers kept up their blind and bloody mechanical groping. Some large mechanical dark object disappeared between my legs and cool, relieving fresh air suddenly flowed across my burning face. I tumbled. Sky, sea, sky, over and over as a clearing brain issued instructions to outflung limbs. “Pull the ripcord – right hand to the ripcord.” Watering eyes focused on an arm flung out in space with some strange meaty object attached at its end.
More tumbling – more sky and sea and sky, but with a blue clad arm forming a focal point in the foreground. “Pull the ripcord, hand,” the brain again commanded. Slowly but obediently the elbow bent and the hand came across the body to rest on the chromium ring but bounced away quickly with the agony of contact.
More tumbling but at a slower rate now. The weight of the head was beginning to tell.
Page, Geoffrey (2011-06-29). Shot Down in Flames: A World War II Fighter Pilot’s Remarkable Tale of Survival (Kindle Locations 1421-1441). Grub Street Publishing. Kindle Edition.
A British merchant vessel fished him out of the Channel, first determining that he was British.
My weak reply was gagged by a mouthful of water. The other man tried as the boat came full circle for the second time. “Are you a Jerry, mate?”
Anger flooded through me. Anger, not at these sailors who had every reason to let a German pilot drown, but anger at the steady chain of events since the explosion that had reduced my tortured mind and body to its present state of near collapse. And anger brought with it temporary energy. “You stupid pair of fucking bastards, pull me out! !”
The boat altered course and drew alongside. Strong arms leaned down and dragged my limp body over the side and into the bottom of the boat. “The minute you swore, mate,” one of them explained, “we knew you was an R.A.F. officer.”
Page, Geoffrey (2011-06-29). Shot Down in Flames: A World War II Fighter Pilot’s Remarkable Tale of Survival (Kindle Locations 1501-1507). Grub Street Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Thus begins Geoffrey’s core tale. His badly burned face and hands, especially his hands, required two years of painful recovery through the dedicated surgery of Archie McIndoe, doing pioneer work in the field of reconstruction. A return to flight status was problematic, and a return to combat was vanishingly distant. It’s a measure of the author that he pressed forward and found himself back in the seat of a P-51 Mustang fighter and racking up kills against the Luftwaffe and later in command of a squadron flying Spitfires. Death was never far away.
By now my left leg was numb and useless.
For the first few seconds of the dive I was elated to see that no telltale streaks of tracer were whipping past. Could I have thrown them off, I wondered, or was some swine of a Hun sitting fifty yards behind my tail and settling down to take comfortable aim? The tracer commenced as I got down to an altitude of two thousand feet.
Kicking desperately at the rudder bar with my one good leg, at the same time climbing and diving for fractional intervals, I tried to take as much evasive action as my condition would permit.
The actions were effective and although the tracer continued to flash past in bursts, no strikes registered. Getting to within a few feet of the ground, I once again pulled my aircraft into a tight turn. Looking back, I was relieved to see that only a solitary Messerschmitt appeared to be dogging me. Hatred brought with it new strength. “I’ll get you if it kills me, you bastard,” I thought.
Pulling harder on the stick I kept the Spitfire juddering on the edge of a stalled condition in my attempt to get around onto the 109’ s tail.
The German pilot sensed that it was becoming a duel to the death and knew that his own airplane was no match for the Spitfire in trying to out-turn it. Still having me ahead of him, he pulled his nose back sharply to get enough deflection on his target, fired his guns, and killed himself.
The Messerschmitt was just on the edge of a stall when its pilot fired the guns: the recoil slowed the airplane sufficiently to flick over and strike the trees twenty feet below. Circling the funeral pyre I watched the black column of smoke rising with morbid fascination.
It might easily have been the wreckage of a Spitfire burning in the wood below.
Page, Geoffrey (2011-06-29). Shot Down in Flames: A World War II Fighter Pilot’s Remarkable Tale of Survival (Kindle Locations 2906-2919). Grub Street Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The war ended for Page with a botched landing at a forward field in Europe while supporting the failed Market-Garden campaign in September 1944. Again hospitalized and recovered, he was sent to the United States on recovery to promote relationships between the two countries. At the Hollywood home of British actor Nigel Bruce he met Bruce’s attractive daughter Pauline, and they were married in 1946.
The original book was Tale of a Guinea Pig which I had in paperback for several years. This book is an expansion based on his adventures as an executive in the aviation industry. The new part is all fun and human interest, with scandalous stories of his encounters involving aviation notorieties such as Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis. Yes, Onassis had an airline. A big project his was the Battle of Britain Memorial, which was dedicated in 1993.
Here is an interesting photo from the book. The man in the cap is Page’s famous father-in-law. If you don’t recognize the others, then you need to subscribe to my movie reviews.
Here is quite an unusual photo. The passengers are Douglas Bader in the front and Adolf Galland in the back on the left followed by Bob Stanford Tuck and then Page—fighter pilots all. If you don’t know any of these, then you need to follow my series of posts on World War Two.