Philip West is recognised as one of the world’s finest aviation artists. Collectors of his original oil paintings span the globe, many waiting patiently for his next breathtaking canvas to appear. Self taught, Philip has won many accolades for his paintings, not the least of which was the prestigious Duane Whitney Award for Excellence at the 1997 American Society of Aviation Artists Exhibition.
Sqn. Ldr. A M Charlesworth DFC joined the RAF straight from school just before his 18th birthday in the summer of 1940 with the sole purpose of becoming a fighter pilot. After training, at age just 18, he was posted to RAF Ibsley, Hampshire, to 118 Sqdn, flying Spitfire 2Bs. Here he took part in his first scramble. After a month he was posted where the action was thickest, to a II Group Station, RAF Kenley, where he joined 602 Sqdn. His Squadron Commander was Al Dere, by this time a highly decorated ace; Al was 23 then and had already been shot down nine times.
602 Squadron was equipped with the more advanced Spitfire VBs which had two 20mm cannons, firing at 1200 rounds a minute, plus four very useful Browning 50mm machine guns firing at an even higher rate per minute. Al Dere was eventually posted to another squadron and Paddy Finucane took over – “possibly the finest fighter pilot I came across”, Max. Charlesworth continues, “ I remember him trying to get his 21st victory before his 21st birthday and I often flew No. 2 to him. These were twitchy and tiring days when three sweeps a over occupied France day were the norm, to be met each time by several hundred Me 109s and Focke Wolf 190s, at our maximum range, where hectic dog fights ensued. We were normally outnumbered and a day could last from an early morning call at 3.30am to the last landing at 10.30pm in the semi-dark of the long summer of 1941. The average age of the approximately 30 pilots on the squadron was always about 19.”
During this period they were scrambled to search for and attack the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (although they didn’t know it at the time) which, with escorting vessels had slipped up the Channel from Brest. The weather was awful and Max flew straight across the German battle cruiser “Hipper” thinking it was a Royal Navy cruiser. The “Hipper” opened up at Max with guns blazing but he was fortunate to escape with just a hole in one wing.
In April 1942 Max was posted to a secret unit called MSFU (Merchant Service Fighter Unit) where he flew Hurricanes from catapults on merchant ships attached to convoys of anything up to fifty merchant men a time. The ships were mainly bringing supplies from America and taking them to Murmansk and Archangel, the hard-pressed Soviets and Gibraltar.
Max recalls this as a highly physical and uncomfortable task, apart from also being very scary. The ships were constantly attacked by U Boat packs and aircraft. When they were in range of the latter, if they launched the Hurricane they knew they would ultimately have to bail out and hope to be picked up by either a friendly escort vessel or a sunken ships lifeboat.
“The North Atlantic route to Canada, north of Iceland and down the Greenland coast at an average sped of six knots in appalling seas was not our idea of a holiday cruise”, Max vividly recalls. Having survived this posting Max was then moved to 124 Sq. at West Malting, Near Maidstone, Kent. The squadron was equipped with the much more powerful Spitfire IXs. Their task here was mainly escorting USAF and RAF bombing raids into Europe. With long-range tanks fitted they were able to reach Hamburg and Ludwigshafen; later on they were able to refuel from liberated bases in France. These ops. required them to fly as ‘Top Cover’ at over 30,000 feet for up to three hours, where it was so cold the pilots returned to base hardly able to climb out of their cockpits.
On February 9th 1945 Max was the Senior Flight Commander on 124 Squadron during their move to Cottishall. Here they adapted the Spitfire IXs to dive-bombing. The Spitfires carried either a 500lb. bomb under the fuselage and two 250lbs. under each wing or, a 90-gallon fuel tank under the fuselage and a 250lb. bomb under each wing. Their mission was to destroy V2 sites in Holland – mainly situated in small parks near the centre of the Hague. These V2 sites were launching rockets on London in ever increasing numbers. As well as attacking the V2 sites they were to destroy railway lines used by the Germans to transport V2s into the area. These were dangerous times as the V2s sites were heavily defended by 88mm guns down to 20mm. “The flak was horrendous and we lost many” recalls Max. As Senior Flight Commander, Max often led the squadron, though identifying targets from 12,000 feet was difficult.
After the war Max was one of the first pilots to convert to the Meteor twin-engined jet, later to move on to Vampires and Canberras. His flying career was completed in June 1961 when he was posted to Warsaw, Poland as the Assistant Air Attache. He finally retired from the RAF in 1966.
Footnote: Max’s signature is short and rather indistinct due to a medical condition which made signing difficult for him.
Flt. Lt. R.H. Peter May was under training as a pilot in the Civil Air Guard at Weston Super Mare on the 3rd September 1939 and was immediately accepted for further training with the RAF at Downing College, Cambridge. In June 1940 he was posted to a holding unit at Hemswell, near Lincoln, from which Hampden aircraft were employed in dropping leaflets over Germany. This aerodrome was subjected to one of the first, possibly the first, bombing raid on England by the Germans.
Peter went solo on a Magister monoplane at Kingsdown Aerodrome, Chester on the 26th June 1940. On the 1st July he suffered an engine failure over the Solway Firth, but managed to force land safely. As a reward for this safe landing he was one of six fortunate pupils on the Course of 52 to be selected for training as fighter pilots.
His first solo flight in a Spitfire 1 at Hawardene Operational Unit, was on the 10th December 1940. A few days later flying over Liverpool in poor visibility, the engine failed. He decided to pancake in the Mersey but fortunately at the last minute he saw a field alongside. By using his emergency pressure bottle to lower the undercarriage quickly he managed to force land safely. Spitfire 1 aircraft undercarriage had to be raised and lowered manually.
In January 1941 with only 20 hours experience on Spitfires he was posted to Sailor Malan’s 74 Squadron based at Biggin Hill and later at Manston. This squadron was engaged in protecting the Channel convoys, the south-coast radar stations and the Lysanders on rescue missions over the North Sea. Returning from operational patrol over the Channel on the 21st April 1941, Peter crash-landed at Manston Aerodrome. he was taken to Margate General Hospital suffering from concussion and a broken leg.
During the latter part of 1941 Peter was appointed Aerodrome Control Pilot at Manston and recommenced flying non-operationally in December 1941. In June 1942 he moved to No. 1 Squadron at Tangmere, flying Hurricanes and mainly engaged in sweeps over France. In July it was decided to convert No. 1 squadron into a Night Fighter Squadron. As Peter’s night-flying experience was limited he was sent on a Beam Approach Course at Watchfield.
Peter was commissioned in 1943 and in 1944 was appointed C.O. of a Communications Flight on the island of Orkney. In July 1945 he joined 286 Hurricane Squadron at Weston Zoyland, Somerset, flying mostly at night. His completed his flying career as Naval Liaison Officer with 667 Squadron at Gosport, flying Spitfire XV1s. Peter amassed 1687 flying hours, including 110 in Spitfires and 55 in Hurricanes.
Flt. Lt. Michael Penny’s war service began in October 1940 at I.T.W. Newquay. On completion of his training he was posted to No. 24 E.F.T.S. Luton. After 11 hours dual flying he first flew solo in a Miles Magister. After forty hours instruction he was posted to No. 9 S.F.T.S. Hullavington for advanced flying on Miles Masters and Hurricanes.
On completing this course he was presented with his “Wings”, having now flown 62 hours. His next posting was to No. 60 O.T.U. at East Fortune where he converted to B & P Defiants. “The Defiant was a very unpleasant aircraft to fly, very heavy and I did not like the idea of becoming a night fighter in this aircraft” said Michael. he was then posted to No. 153 Squadron in Northern Ireland; after only a few days the Squadron was disbanded and he was given a chance to convert to Beaufighters or stay on ‘singles’. Michael requested training for Spitfires but was informed that there were no vacancies at that moment in time. He then asked if he could fly Lysanders being used to tow drogues. His request was granted and he flew Lysanders until January 1943 when his posting came through to 58 O.T.U. Grangemouth.
He completed 50 hours on Spitfires and was posted to 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron 124 Airfield, Lasham. Michael recalls, “Although we were operational, we were now in 2nd T.A.F. and most of our flying was done in cooperation with the Army and Tank Cor. This involved continual very low flying and demanded very strict air flying discipline – this held me in good stead as time went on”. In May 1943 the Squadron moved to 121 Airfield Fairlop where he flew his first operation over occupied Europe on a fighter sweep over Rouen, followed by an escort op. with Ventura bombers to Zeebruger; this was his first experience of enemy anti-aircraft fire. Various escort and fighter sweeps followed. There followed a series of moves to various airfields in Sussex and Kent. In early 1944 the Squadron, then stationed at Ford, had bombs fitted to our aircraft for dropping on V1 launch sites. “We began our dive at about 10,000 feet and released our bomb at 5000 feet – a most unpleasant experience. This brought us into range from all kinds of anti-aircraft fire, but fortunately we suffered very few direct hits,” Michael recalls. After completing over 120 operations Michael was posted “tour expired” by the Air Comm. and went on to become a Spitfire flying instructor. He was demobilised in November 1945.
Warrant Officer Peter Wall joined the RAF at the Air Crew Reception Centre at Lords Cricket Ground, London in 1941 and after Initial Training Wing at Clare College, Cambridge, found himself en route to the USA to take part in the “Arnold Scheme”, being trained to be a pilot by the South East Army Air Corps in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
After 200 hours of training Peter graduated at a ceremony where he was given the silver wings normally awarded to the American cadets – the RAF wings came later out of a cardboard box! On return to the UK and after six weeks at the Advanced Flying Unit at Bodney, Norfolk, he was posted to the target towing at 61 OTU, Rednal and West Felton, flying Westland Lysanders and Miles Martinets, towing drogues for the Spitfire pilots to shoot at. After six months he joined a Spitfire course and after completion Peter was sent to Hawkinge, Kent to join No 41 Sqdn who were flying a new Spitfire, the Mark 12 with the Griffon engine developing nearly 2000 horsepower.
The task there was to protect the bombers returning from raids in Northern France. From there the Sqdn was sent to Beachy Head to deal with the “hit and run” raiders attacking Eastbourne and other South Coast towns. Up until then it had been forbidden to take the aircraft over to the continent but the policy changed and the Sqdn joined up with 91 Sqdn to form a Wing acting as escort cover to the bombers trying to destroy the V1 and V2 sites. Returning from one of these operations he had an accident on landing and was sent to Training Command as an Instructor! After converting to the twin engine Oxford he taught trainees at Southrop Advanced Flying Unit for a further six months when he was selected to be an instructor at Lulsgate Bottom teaching ex-operational Bomber pilots to be OTU instructors. Whilst there, he gained an A2 instructing category. As not so many instructors were then required the Unit was closed down and he then went to Church Lawford where he taught Naval Officers to fly on Harvards without any preliminary training on simpler aircraft – quite successfully!
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