At 12.40 pm on Wednesday, 17 March 1943, a dozen pilots of the Royal Air Force’s Number 92 Squadron were sitting in their Spitfires on the coastal desert airstrip at Bou Grara, 360 kilometres southwest of Tunis, capital of Tunisia. On ‘cockpit standby’, with hoods open in the baking heat, they awaited orders. The enemy was expected to be active in strength in their sector, and 92 Squadron had been tapped to intercept them. Some pilots were relaxed as they waited. Others sat tensely behind their controls.
‘Scramble, 92 Squadron!’
Chocks in front of the Spitfires’ front wheels were whipped away, Rolls-Royce Merlin engines roared, and, in pairs, the Spits surged forward, bouncing down the sandy runway as they gathered speed. Buffeted by a strong southeasterly wind, they lifted into the air, their undercarriages retracting beneath them as they climbed. By 12.43, all twelve aircraft were airborne.
Flying Mark Vb Spitfire number AB136 in that scramble was Flying Officer Paul Brickhill, a twenty-six-year-old from Sydney, Australia. Just five feet six tall, handsome, with a pencil-thin Errol Flynn moustache, Brickhill was flying as wingman to a Briton, Flying Officer Mick Bruckshaw. Both were part of the squadron’s B flight, led by Flight Lieutenant Peter ‘Hunk’ Humphries. As the Spitfires, engines straining, clawed for height, Brickhill concentrated on sticking to his number one like glue. This was Brickhill’s thirty-fifth operational sortie. Up to this point, he had flown fifty-five combat hours. The fifty-sixth was to prove fateful.
Climbing to 10,000 feet, the squadron levelled out beneath a blanket of grey, featureless altostratus cloud, with the sun a dull white orb through the murk above. With cockpits closed and oxygen masks strapped in place, the pilots retained tight formation as they headed northeast, up the coast towards the Axis’ Mareth Line. For fifteen minutes, they flew in silence, eyes constantly peeled for dots in the sky ahead, dots that would represent the ‘Jerry’ aircraft they were hoping to intercept.
Their course took the Spitfires over the opposition front line, and into enemy territory. From around the enemy-held town of Gabes, flak shells began to be flung up in their path, bursting in thick profusion. The black shell-bursts were too far away to worry about. ‘When you see the red flash, you know it’s too bloody close,’ recalled John Ulm, who would later be shot down by flak while flying a Spitfire.
An eagle-eyed member of 92 Squadron spotted Messerschmitt Bf 109s – known as Me 109s to Allied pilots – flitting through cloud behind the exploding anti-aircraft shells. They were flying several thousand feet higher than the
Spitfires and heading south on a course that would bypass them. After the British pilot radioed the enemy’s height and direction, the squadron’s commander gave an order. One after the other, the Spitfires banked to intercept their opponents.
The enemy formation was made up of a dozen bombcarrying Luftwaffe Me 109 fighter-bombers, escorted by six Me 109 fighters, plus three Macchi 202 Folgore fighters from Fascist Italy’s Regia Aeronautica. In the past, the Luftwaffe had used Junkers 87 dive-bombers for ground attack, but they were too slow and too vulnerable against Spitfires, which had knocked them from the sky with ease. This was why some Me 109s had been converted into fighter-bombers. The bomb-laden Messerschmitts above today were on their way to attack Allied ground forces, while their escorts had the job of protecting them from opposition fighters.
Now, as the 92 Squadron Spitfires’ new course saw them again cross the enemy’s Mareth Line defences, the six covering Messerschmitts peeled away and came diving down at them, leaving the Macchis with the fighter-bombers. While B section continued on after the fighter-bombers, Hunk Humphries led Brickhill and the rest of his section in a climbing crossover turn that took them across the top of the other Spits, and into the path of the oncoming enemy fighters.
The Luftwaffe fighter tactic was to fi re during the dive, continuing on past their opponents, pulling up below them and climbing to attack again from below. As sand-coloured Messerschmitts came scooting by, flame and lead spurting from their guns, Hunk Humphries and his section got in a brief burst at them, and then the enemy had gone, scattering in all directions below the Spitfires like naughty schoolboys running from their teachers. Taking three Spitfires with him and leaving Bruckshaw and Brickhill as top cover, Humphries dived after the Me 109s.
Bruckshaw, with Brickhill tucked in beside and a little behind him, eased down to 9000 feet and flew on, looking out for the remaining enemy fighters and ready to dive down onto the tails of any Messerschmitts or Macchis that latched onto their comrades. As Brickhill scanned the sky beneath them, he spotted a pair of Me 109s.
‘Couple at five o’clock, Hunk,’ Brickhill warned section leader Humphries below by radio. ‘Keep an eye on them.’2 Bruckshaw and Brickhill were three kilometres out to sea by this stage, flying south. As Bruckshaw scanned the sky above, Brickhill watched the two Messerschmitts below. Now, Bruckshaw saw three aircraft approaching head-on from the south, five hundred feet above. Bruckshaw identified them as Spitfires, apparently from 92 Squadron’s B section and, oddly, flying in line ahead. What was to follow would take place in seconds.
With a glance at his watch, Bruckshaw noted the time: 13.05 hours. When he looked up again, he saw the first approaching Spitfire suddenly and violently turn to port. The second Spitfire in the line of three, flying just fifty metres behind the leader, immediately followed suit. The third aircraft, instead of tailing them, broke off and dived towards Bruckshaw and Brickhill. To his horror, Bruckshaw realised that the third aircraft was not a Spitfire, but an enemy Macchi 202, which had a similar profile to the Spit. At that moment, it dawned on Bruckshaw that the Macchi had been chasing the two Spitfires. He also realised that the Macchi’s divingturn would bring it down behind Brickhill and himself.
Craning his neck to track the descending Italian fighter’s course, Bruckshaw yelled a warning.
‘Paul! Behind you! Break! Break! Break!’ As he spoke,
Bruckshaw saw orange flame flicker from the Macchi’s wings.
He quickly threw his own Spit into a tight defensive turn.
Brickhill, looking over his right shoulder to try to spot the unseen enemy and mentally kicking himself for being careless, never caught sight of his attacker. Instead, he felt what he described as ‘that dreadful jolting that shakes an aircraft like a pneumatic drill when cannon shells smack home in quantity’.3 A series of explosions almost deafened him. His Spit was sent flicking into an uncontrolled turn.
Aware of shrapnel flying up between his legs, Brickhill expected a cannon shell to pierce the armour protecting his seat. His body ‘tensed and shrank, expecting personal attention from a shell at any moment’. It was, he would later remark in a moment of understatement, a nasty feeling. Shattered cockpit fittings flew past his face. He felt pain in his back.
More pain in the back of the head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw large chunks flying from his port wing. The cockpit filled with black smoke. And then the engine died.4
All was eerily silent as the crippled plane began to fall from the sky in a slow spin. Brickhill let it twirl a few times, figuring that would put his assailant off, before pulling the stick back into his stomach. The nose came up a little. But still the aircraft spun, rotating slowly. He tried to correct the spin and resume something approaching straight and level flight. Even if the engine was dead, he might glide down to the desert and make a belly landing. But now the stick simply fell forward, loose, floppy – like a broken neck, he thought.
He no longer had control of the aircraft. It fell lazily from the sky in what Brickhill would describe as a curiously flat spin. He was struck by an incredulous realisation that it was doomed, and it was time he got out.5
Mick Bruckshaw had seen the bullets from the Macchi crash into the underside of the port wing close to Brickhill’s cockpit and create several explosions. It was there that the shells for Brickhill’s cannon were stored. The Italian’s bullets had detonated Brickhill’s own ammunition. Because Brickhill had not seen his attacker, with cannon shells clearly shattering his cockpit and controls, and because Me 109s were armed with cannon and Macchis were not – the Italian fighters were only equipped with machineguns, and a paltry two at that – the Australian firmly believed he had been done for by a Messerschmitt.
Bruckshaw quickly lost sight of Brickhill’s aircraft once it was hit. He had his own problems, for the Macchi had left Brickhill to his fate and latched onto Bruckshaw’s tail.
The Briton was desperately attempting to throw him off.
Although Macchi 202s were poorly armed, they were fast and manoeuvrable, and Bruckshaw had his work cut out. Brickhill, in his falling, slowly spinning fighter, reached up, grabbed the cockpit hood’s twin toggles, and yanked, hard. The hood fell away. As the cockpit quickly cleared of smoke, cool air massaged his face when he ripped off his flying helmet and oxygen mask. But his left arm felt increasingly numb, and soon it was useless to him. With his right hand he unbuckled the Sutton harness holding him firmly in his seat, then shrugged off the straps. Summoning all his strength, he launched himself out the left side of the cockpit.
Halfway out, the slipstream drove him back. Heaving himself out a second time, he found that his parachute pack, strapped on his backside, had caught fast beneath the rightangled rear corner rim of the cockpit’s little door flap. Once again the slipstream pushed him back. He found himself in the crazy position of lying with his back against the side of the fuselage, pinned there by a combination of slipstream and the trapped parachute, as the plummeting plane continued to spin. Kicking and struggling with the wind rushing by his face, he was like a bear caught in a trap. He tried to reach something, anything, that could be used for leverage. But nothing was within reach of his right hand.
Lying there, breathing hard, he looked over his left shoulder, to see the coastal foreshore below revolving slowly as if he were on an underpowered aerial merry-go-round, with the ground getting closer by the second. He estimated that he and his Spitfire were now at about 7000 feet. It occurred to him that he was about to die. ‘There is no great fear in looking closely at death,’ he would later say. At that moment, he would recall, he merely felt an angry irritation, the kind he’d experienced after spilling beer down the front of his tunic.
But he wasn’t giving up. Resuming his struggles, he twisted one way then the other, straining to get a handhold on the rim of the cockpit. With that, he would be able to pull himself back in, and free his parachute. But the forces against him were too great. Exhausted, he sagged back. Resigned to his fate now, feeling only disappointment that it was all going to end like this, he began to count off the swiftly decreasing altitude: 5000 feet; 4000; 3000; 2000.
And then, to his amazement, as the Spitfire spun, it suddenly released its hold on him. Falling clear, he felt curiously free and light. Looking down, he saw that his flying boots had been plucked from his feet, and he was in his socks. Panic suddenly gripped him. Had his parachute been ripped away when he’d been flung clear? Reaching to his rump, he was relieved to find the bulky pack still in place. Without hesitation, he grabbed the ripcord’s D-ring and yanked, praying that the shells that had come up through the cockpit floor hadn’t shredded the chute. With a tug at the shoulders and a ‘crack’ above, the parachute opened. Undamaged silk filled with air, and the parachute successfully deployed, slowing his descent.
Thousands of feet above, still engaged in his duel with the Macchi that had shot up Brickhill, Mick Bruckshaw momentarily glanced earthward, saw Brickhill’s Spit nosing toward the ground, then spotted a white parachute blossoming. Bruckshaw calculated that Brickhill’s chute had opened at around 2000 feet.
Brickhill thought it was closer to a thousand feet by the time it deployed. With increasing pain in his shoulder and back of the head, he hung uncomfortably beneath the shrouds. Looking down, he saw his Spitfire make one final rotation before ploughing headlong into the desert. There was a surprisingly violent explosion – much larger than if the fuel tanks alone had gone up. The wreckage began to burn furiously.
Above, Bruckshaw had shaken off the Macchi. As he banked, he saw Brickhill’s Spitfire go into the ground, and saw his colleague’s parachute descending not far away, to the southwest of the burning aircraft. Bruckshaw quickly noted the location’s map reference, Z.6109. That put it on the northern edge of No Man’s Land, closer to enemy lines than Allied lines. Rather than hang around any longer alone and invite the attentions of enemy fighters directed by Axis troops on the ground, Bruckshaw turned south and made a beeline for Bou Grara.10
Brickhill was coming down fast. He could see that he was about to land on flat, muddy sand extending several hundred metres to the Mediterranean shore, where low waves were breaking. The wind was still pushing strongly from the southeast, blowing him north, away from his lines and towards the enemy. He thought to himself that had it been blowing in the opposite direction it would have taken him to safety.
With the wind driving him backwards, he attempted to twist the shrouds to face the other way and see where he was going. He’d only succeeded in twisting part of the way before, unprepared, he hit the ground, hard. The impact forced an involuntary ‘Aaah!’ from his lips as he was slammed onto his back on the wet sand. That wasn’t the end of it. Rolled over, he was dragged for a distance by his chute before coming to a stop. The abrupt landing had winded him. In pain from his wounds and gasping for breath, he struggled to his feet.
But the breeze gusted again, the canopy refilled with air, and he was mobile once more, as he was dragged backwards across the sand, on a careering course over which he had no control.
As he was carried along, feet trailing in the sand, he dazedly fumbled with the chute’s quick-release box with his good right hand. Attached to the front of the parachute harness, this box featured a button that had to be turned, after which it was necessary to give the box a solid thump.
The harness would then drop away, freeing him from the parachute. But after being hauled across the desert, the box had filled with sand. The button refused to turn. Continuing to struggle with the release mechanism, Brickhill was dragged at least two hundred metres.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw that he was being taken in the direction of a narrow waterway rippling towards the sea. Just beyond it, a line of entangled barbed wire marked the enemy’s front line. As he reached the waterway, he finally succeeded in getting the release catch to work. The harness sprang open, and he fell free, landing on his back on the sand.
Beside him, the chute emptied of air and gently collapsed into the stream.
He tried to stand, but, weak from exertions and wounds, he only fell back down on his rump. Sitting there, shaken and disconsolate, he became aware of the business end of a rifle pointing at him, no more than four metres away. Looking up, he saw the rifle’s owner, an Italian soldier, splashing through the stream towards him. Ten metres beyond the stream stretched the barbed-wire entanglement, and standing in front of it, with a bunch of scruffy soldiers around him, was an immaculate Italian colonel with rows of decorations on his tunic and perfectly pressed riding breeches with a broad gold stripe down the sides. The soldier who crossed the stream took Brickhill’s arm and hauled him to his feet, then helped him stumble across the water to the colonel, who made a courteous little bow to him. ‘For you, the war is over,’ the colonel declared in heavily accented English. This phrase, heard by tens of thousands of captured Allied servicemen during the war, was apparently the only English the officer knew.
Brickhill would later say: ‘The first few minutes after being shot down sometimes seem pretty unreal while the grey matter is trying to adjust itself to violently changed conditions.’
In his now wet socks, he was escorted through an opening in the barbed wire and along a series of low trenches to a dressing station. There, he stripped off his shirt and trousers and an Italian medic tended to the splinter wounds on his back and head, and contusions to his left leg. Handed a large ‘dixie’ mess tin half-filled with a brown liquid, he was urged to drink. Taking a wary sip, he found the tin contained cognac, fiery and warming. As he sat with the dixie in hand, an Italian corporal came to him.
‘You are most lucky,’ said the corporal in good English.
Brickhill didn’t feel all that lucky, having just been shot down and become an unwilling guest of the Italian First Army.
‘That was our minefield your parachute just dragged you across,’ the corporal continued.
That explained, Brickhill cogitated, why his plane had gone up with such a bang. It had landed smack dab on top of a mine! It had been a miracle that the parachute had dragged him all the way through the minefield without setting off another mine, a million to one chance that, like his plane, he hadn’t been blown sky high. Even though he was now a prisoner of war, Brickhill had to agree with the corporal; he was a bit lucky after all. Raising the dixie to his lips once more, he downed the remaining contents in one go. Brickhill hadn’t been destined to die that day. Years later, he would be grateful to the anonymous pilot who shot him down and changed the course of his life. Now, the former Sydney journalist was about to be sent to a place he would make world famous, and which would make him world famous.