It is not often that a long-hidden gem of a manuscript is published, bringing a moment in WWII history to vivid life for today’s readers. Geoffrey Wellum’s First Light was one example. The memoir of Timothy Vigors is another.
Born in Hatfield but raised in Ireland and educated at Eton and Cranwell, Vigors found himself in France in 1940 flying Fairey Battle bombers. After the Fall he joined the fighters of 222 Squadron, with whom he saw frantic and distinguished service over Dunkirk and persevered through the dangerous days of the Battle of Britain, when he became an ace.
Vigors transferred to the Far East in January 1941 as a flight commander with 243, then to 453 Squadron RAAF, and on December 10 of that year he led a flight of Buffaloes to cover the sinking Prince of Wales and Repulse. Dramatically shot down, burnt and attacked on his parachute, he was evacuated to Java, and from there, to India. As he describes these experiences in his handwritten account, the author provides a fascinating and valuable record, a newly discovered personal narrative of air combat destined to be seen as a classic.
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Penang, and Johore Hospital
Fire can be frightening. Particularly if you are in the middle of it. Even more frightening when the cause of the fire is one hundred and fifty gallons of aviation fuel exploding under your feet. And even more mind blowing when the blaze is about 10,000 feet up in the sky. Yes, fire can be frightening.
December 12th 1941. Earlier that year I had reached the ripe old age of twenty years. For the past three months I had been commanding officer of a squadron of Brewster Buffalo aircraft, flying from airfields in Malaya. The Buffalo singleseat fighters, which the RAF had inherited from the Americans as part of the Churchill/Roosevelt Lease Lend agreement, were chubby little aircraft which had first flown in the mid-1930s. They had arrived with us in Singapore packed in large wooden crates, rather like the cartons in which came those toy aircraft I used to buy as a boy.
Four days earlier the Japanese had launched their attack on the mainland of Malaya. A few days earlier they had struck a body blow to the Allied cause by sinking two famous British battleships, Prince of Wales and Repulse. I had brought the squadron up from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur the previous afternoon and, that morning, had been ordered to take six aircraft to Butterworth. On landing I could see a hut and some petrol tankers. As I climbed down from my Buffalo, I was met by the officer commanding the airfield.
'Mighty glad to see you Tim! The Japs are very active and we have been strafed several times in the last twenty-four hours. They normally dive in from the north but there's very little warning. The only radar we have is that man there.' He pointed to an airman standing on the roof of the hut. 'When he starts waving his red flag it means he's spotted them and you'd better get off the ground, quick!'
I cast an eye towards the hut and sure enough there was the man. I was about to look away when I saw him raise the flag he had been holding by his side and begin to brandish it wildly from side to side above his head. It took a couple of seconds for the penny to drop but then I was yelling at my boys, telling them to get back into their aircraft and scramble. As I started my engine I saw three Japanese aircraft diving on the field from the north. That sharp stab of fear with which I had grown so familiar over the past twelve months, shot through me. 'Here we go again,' I thought.
With my No.2 taxiing beside me, I swung my aircraft northwards and pushed open the throttle. As we left the ground a stream of tracer streaked over us as we passed beneath the oncoming enemy. Turning sharply I saw behind me one of the Buffalos explode in a ball of flame. But the other three were off the ground safely and were climbing towards me. Glancing upwards I saw a large formation of what could only be enemy aircraft heading towards Penang. They looked to be flying at about 10,000 feet and there appeared to be at least twenty of them.
I yelled over the intercom to my three pilots, telling them to go after the Japs who had attacked the airfield while my No.2 followed me. We two climbed at full throttle to intercept the enemy formation heading for Penang. Broken fluffy clouds gave plenty of cover as we clawed for height, making for the classic attacking position, up sun and above the opponents. To my surprise I identified the Japanese aircraft as Army 97 fighters, old-fashioned and slow compared with the Messerschmitt 109s with which I had been tangling so often the previous year over England. I could not believe my luck. Here was Tim Vigors, the hardened Battle of Britain fighter ace, about to show these bloody little Japs in their antique fixed undercarriage toy planes how the Luftwaffe had been brought to its knees. I called my No.2. 'OK, let's attack these little bastards and knock them all out of the sky!'
Did somebody say that pride comes before a fall? Well, I was certainly full of pride but I was about to learn in the next few minutes that there was indeed a long way to fall. Four guns blazing I tore into the attack only to experience a rude shock; it was obvious that the Army 97 was not only the most manoeuvrable fighter with which I had fought but was also being flown by pilots who knew how to fight and fly. Black smoke billowed from the aircraft in front of me and I knew I'd got the first one. But I had another one on my tail. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my No.2 in dire trouble as he tangled with two of the enemy and I hauled even harder on the stick to try to come to his assistance. I could sense by the closeness of the tracer whistling past my wing tip that my opponent was turning inside me. I wrenched the nose of my Buffalo downwards and for a moment managed to escape his attention. At the same time I got another of his friends in my sights. More black smoke and I yelled with glee out loud, 'That's two of the bastards!'
My joy was shortlived. In the Brewster Buffalo the petrol tank was located almost exactly beneath the pilot's seat. The shock of having even a half tank of petrol explode underneath one is, to say the least, traumatic. It causes one hell of a big bang! A bang in fact so big that it stuns. Something had gone wrong and it took me a couple of seconds to realise that I was sitting in the middle of a bonfire. I thought, 'Well old fellow, it's happened at last!' It just seemed too much of an effort to do anything about it. I even thought quickly of all the many good friends who had gone the same way over the last two years. Then, suddenly, the will to survive rose in me.
A long held habit of mine had been always to slide open the cockpit hood of any aircraft I flew in action. This habit had become ingrained, though sometimes it could be a less than pleasurable experience, such as when flying at extreme heights. On this morning with fire all around me it wasn't the cold I was worrying about, though. Pulling the pin to release my shoulder harness I placed my right foot on the stick and kicked it. Although an unorthodox way of leaving an aircraft, it is certainly a quick way.
Kicking the control column of an aircraft flying at some 250 mph creates a catapult effect which throws a human body about 200 feet into space. This was to ensure the fast exit I was looking for that morning, but it also led to the mistake which was to cause me nearly as much pain for the next few days as any of my other injuries. A falling human body has a terminal velocity of 112 mph. The drill for parachuting from an aircraft in those days was to allow time for one's body to slow down after exiting and before pulling the ripcord to release the parachute. I must have had other things on my mind because, on leaving the aircraft, I pulled the ripcord almost immediately.
Whether this over-quick reaction was caused by curiosity to see whether the thing would open or whether it was just natural impatience I don't know. But I was quickly to find out: when a parachute deploys it will abruptly stop a body which is travelling at 250 mph. The jerk of the harness between the legs is something not to be thought about – even decades later! At that time of my life I had not thought much about reproducing. But the blinding pain flashed a warning that, whatever else happened in the next few minutes, that part of my life might well be over forever!
I had not parachuted before and my first reaction was one of relief that the 'chute had opened. My second, on looking below me, was satisfaction to see that I was smack over the middle of Penang Island and not over the sea. I have always been a bad swimmer and I certainly didn't want a dip that morning. For the second time that day my relief was shortlived. Hanging in the parachute I suddenly became conscious that one of the Japanese fighters was flying straight towards me. My immediate reaction was that he was just coming to have a close look at his victim and, as we had done so often with the Germans the year before, wave a friendly salute. I was just about to raise a hand in acknowledgement when the Jap pilot opened fire. That was the worst moment of my life. I just couldn't believe what was happening. I was powerless and petrified. This then was death. Now I knew for real what the victim must feel like when he faces the firing squad. Bullets tore near me and I felt a sharp pain in my left leg but as the aircraft roared past I realised that, miraculously, I was still alive. However, I could see that the aircraft was turning to renew the attack. I knew I couldn't be as lucky a second time. A sensation of naked vulnerability gripped me. The worst was that there was nothing I could do to defend myself. Or was there?
People have said that when you know you are going to die your past life flashes by you. But I saw no ponies, dogs or horses, or foxhunting, fishing or shooting scenes, nor even my family or my lovely girl friends. Instead, a forgotten conversation came suddenly to mind. One afternoon in June 1940 I was at Ringway Airport in Manchester. At that time, Ringway was being used for the training of parachutists. That evening in the Officers' Mess the scene was a pretty good shambles with empty glasses, burnt out cigarette stubs and a few fellow officers lying around in drunken slumber. My only other fully conscious companion was an army captain. Our conversation turned to parachuting.
'Tim, my friend,' said the captain, rising unsteadily to his feet, 'let me get you one for the road and give you some good advice.' The drinks poured, the lecture began. I can thank the good God for blessing me with an extra strong head when it comes to consuming large quantities of alcohol. If I had been in a slumber like my fellow officers I certainly would not have been alive to tell my tale.
'You probably know that during the fighting in France earlier this year there were quite a few incidents of the Jerries shooting at your fellows after they had bailed out. In nearly every case your friends were killed. Now let me tell you something. If this ever happens to you there is still a chance to survive if you know what to do.'
The captain took another swig and kept going. 'As your enemy comes in to attack, climb up one side of the parachute's rigging lines. After you've taken two or three good handfuls the parachute will collapse and you will drop like a stone. Once he has finished firing let go of the rigging lines, you will drop and the parachute will reopen normally. If he attacks again put off his aim by repeating the procedure.'
More out of politeness than any real interest, I asked, 'How many times can you collapse the damn thing before it fails to open?' He thought for a moment. 'No set rules, but maybe four times out of five or, if you're lucky, nine times out of ten!' We downed our drinks and retired for the night. I never thought of his words again until that fateful moment when I found myself hanging helpless over Penang Island.
There are different grades of fear. During the past eighteen months I had experienced most of them. Until that morning I had never encountered grade 10, that stark naked terror which had gripped me the first time the Japanese pilot opened fire. Now he had turned and was diving again. But this time the surge of terror which rose inside me was only grade 9. However remote the chances, I now realised that there was something I could do about it. Reaching upwards I grasped the parachute rigging lines. Until that moment I had been unaware that there was no skin left on the palms of my hands. I learnt that day that fear can be positive – it helps to kill pain.
Hand over hand I went up those rigging lines. Just as the Jap opened fire I felt the parachute collapse and, as guaranteed by my captain friend, I did indeed drop like a stone. Tracer tore through the sky above me. Thank God for the captain! It had worked and I could fight back. Now for the crucial test. I let go of the rigging lines and swung free.
The parachute billowed out above me and my rapid descent slowed causing me considerable pain once again in the nether regions, but also infinite relief. But the aircraft once again was approaching and once more I repeated the process. Again it worked; bullets passed above me and once more the parachute opened. But this time I noticed that, as it was opening, some of the rigging lines became entangled and threatened to collapse the canopy.
I muttered to myself, 'Don't leave it collapsed for too long.' To my dismay I saw that my torturer had now been joined by one of his pals who had come to take part in the fun, attacking from a different direction. Once more I did the dropping act but bullets from one or both of the Japanese ripped through the parachute silk. Yet again, the canopy deployed as soon as I let go of the rigging lines. Looking down I estimated I was 2,000 feet above the jungle below.
'Only room for one more drop.' For what I hoped was the last time I began to climb the rigging lines. But I had left it late. Bullets whistled round me and I felt some graze my clothing. By a miracle none of them hit me. Pressing home his attack the pilot looked as though he was going to ram me. Thinking of the ground so close below I let go of the rigging lines. His aircraft roared over me and now trees were rushing up from below. In desperation I searched for a clear spot. A clearing in the trees on my left appeared, but could I steer myself there? Gingerly, I pulled the rigging lines on the left side and found myself slipping towards the clearing. The ground rose, fast, and I braced myself. When I hit, the impact was more than anticipated but I rolled on the blessed earth with a surge of relief. But my ordeal was not over. The Japs were still intent on killing me. I staggered to my feet and ran for cover. But my parachute harness anchored me.
I reached down for the release knob to free myself. In those days the parachute webbing was gathered into the harness and fastened by a big round serrated metal knob. For safety's sake it was designed to be stiff to turn. The idea was that one just banged the metal knob to be free of the harness. Did I say that fear killed pain? Gripping and turning that cold metal in my raw hands was a sensation which will live with me forever. But fear makes you braver and, bullets spattering around me, I grasped the knob, turned and banged it, staggered a few paces, and collapsed into the undergrowth.
Fear may delay pain but the moment fear goes pain begins. From the time I had catapulted myself out of my blazing Buffalo the only intense pain I had felt was when the 'chute first opened and when I had tried to turn that terrible release knob. Now, as the roar of the Japanese engines faded away, I surveyed my sorry state. My khaki short-sleeved shirt and my trousers were scorched black, the trousers pretty much burnt away. My arms, which a short time ago had been strong, sunburnt and covered in bleached blond hair, were now a livid red and covered in blisters the size of grapefruit. Long strips of burnt skin hung from them as they did from my hands and fingers. My legs, only to some extent protected by my trousers, were in much the same state.
However, it was then that I noticed that blood was gushing from a large hole in the back of my left thigh. Closer inspection revealed that a bullet had entered the top of my thigh and passed straight through. The pain, which I was to live with for many days, really began at this point. I took in my surroundings. The clearing in which I had landed was pretty much on top of the mountain which overlooks the centre of Penang Island. Jungle covered the slopes all round me but I could see the city of Penang itself on the seashore far below. 'The quicker I start getting off this mountain,' I thought, 'the more chance I have of getting to the bottom without running out of blood.'
My wounded thigh seemed to bear my weight so the bone was obviously still intact. With one last look at the parachute which had saved my life I started to wend my way gingerly through the trees doing my best to avoid contact with the undergrowth. About 300 yards down the mountain, I stumbled onto a rough path. The going on the path was difficult and my left leg was becoming weaker and weaker. Some fifteen minutes later I realised I was not going to make it as I was losing blood at a hell of a rate and had a swimming feeling in my head. I longed to rest but I knew that to stop was fatal. I struggled on but another five minutes of drunken progress saw me collapsed in a heap. My burns hurt so much and I was so utterly tired that I felt hopeless and just did not care any more. I passed out.
Cold water poured onto burnt flesh feels like boiling oil! As I had drifted down on my burning parachute, my helmet, oxygen mask and goggles had protected most of my face from the flames. But a narrow strip of flesh between goggles and helmet had been exposed. The cold water on this raw strip woke me up with a jerk. Two small Malayans stood above me and one of them was pouring water on my head from a wooden bowl. They backed off when I tried to sit up, obviously scared that this weird looking, half-burnt, bloodstained animal was going to attack them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Life's Too Short To Cry"
Copyright © 2006 Tim and Diana Vigors.
Excerpted by permission of Grub Street.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I: PENANG,AND JOHORE HOSPITAL,
II: EARLY DAYS AND BEAUDESERT,
III: ETON AND CRAMMERS,
IV: HOLIDAYS, HUNTS,AND FIRST FLIGHT,
VI: TIPPERARY AND ASTON DOWN,
IX: JUNE AND JULY 1940,
X: AUGUST TO DECEMBER 1940,
XIII: PRINCE OF WALES AND REPULSE,
XIV: TO JAVA,