When he was just 17, Geoffrey Wellum joined the RAF in August 1939 and served with 92 Squadron throughout the Battle of Britain. In 1942 he went to 65 Squadron at Debden as a Flight Commander and from there to Malta later that year. He led 8 Spitfires off HMS Furious to Luqa during Operation Pedestal. He now lives in Mullion in Cornwall and has three children.
Enlisting in the Air Force weeks before the outbreak of WW II, Geoffrey Wellum found himself fighting the Germans over the English Channel, a Spitfire pilot at just eighteen years of age. Compelling and wise, First Light is his incredible story. Here, in an exclusive interview, Geoffrey tells us the haunting story of life as a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain.
As a young Spitfire pilot, did you ever imagine that one day you might be an author?
No, one didn't think ahead in those days. I was too full of flying this wonderful aeroplane to worry about writing about it, and you had to survive first. I never thought about writing at all.
What was it like flying a Spitfire for the first time?
I think the Spitfire flew me for the first time. I only had one hundred and forty hours, which isn’t a lot, and the thing just took me by the scruff of the neck. You opened the throttle and you had this terrific surge of deep power and acceleration and you were hanging on to the thing. But once you got settled into it, you were up there and you’d got the wheels up and you’d settled down the pitch and the air screw and flaps things like that, it was a wonderful exhilarating feeling. It was like sweeping around the sky in a wonderful machine with two hundred and ten knots on the clock, which was well over three hundred when you did all the corrections.
Can you talk us through a typical day for you in The Battle of Britain?
I was woken up about half past four, or probably a bit earlier than that. You then went across to the mess to have a bit of toast, then the transport used to turn up to take you down to dispersal. At dispersal in the early dawn you caught the faint silhouette of the Spitfires. You’d hear the clank of spanners and the ground crew talking to each other, ‘get them chocks placed right’, ‘what have you done with that spanner?’, ‘give me that two-inch-box, all that sort of thing.
You then got out your flying gear and made your way to your Spitfire which the crew probably had up and running. It was then that you had your private thoughts. You’d notice things like dew on your flying boots; the serenity of the moment; the light just gradually increasing. You offered up a little prayer, ‘give me this day please’. When you’d got your parachute on you waddled round the trailing edge, up onto the wing and into the cockpit. You then heard your last ‘cheerio mate’ and would shut the little door and away you went.
Nine times out of ten you ended up waltzing into one hundred and fifty plus - the morning raid - the Germans were a little bit predictable. You went into one hundred and fifty plus, like a lot of gnats on a summer evening, and you’d think ‘dear god where do we start in on this lot?’. If you survived that first one with crossfire you broke away and did it again. And if surviving that sortie you landed, refuelled and rearmed and that was the morning show.
Normally you’d probably do a convoy patrol in between. A flight would go off and do a convoy patrol of a convoy going up the East coast, and they’d be relieved by B flight. What would normally happen is B flight would be recalled if they had an inkling that something was going on the other side, if the radar was picking up things. The same thing happened in the afternoon, you got a scramble and you were in the thick of it again. At the end of the day we used to say ‘thank god I got through that – where’s Jim, where’s Butch?’, and then dismiss it from your mind.
When you weren’t flying, what were you doing?
Trying to relax, but just waiting for that wretched telephone to go, which is in a way more taxing. Once you had got the scramble and you’d got to your aeroplane you were committed, you were there, you had this thing strapped onto you called a Spitfire and you hurtled up into the wide blue yonder. But the waiting could be a devil.
And in the evenings?
In the evenings one went back and had a bath, had food in the mess and then went down to the White Hart. It helped you to go to these pubs. You talked to the locals and you were back in civilian life again.
There must have been moments when you thought you wouldn’t make it back?
If you saw somebody behind you getting mighty close and having a squirt at you, you knew the meaning of the word ‘fear’. I used to react by shouting and swearing and yelling at him, and always turning into him, never stay still. Ten seconds and you’d had it, under those circumstances, so keep turning, turn into him. The one hundred and nine couldn’t stay with a Spitfire on a tight turn, particularly when you knew how to get around in a Spitfire. If you survived a fortnight or three weeks, you knew your way around.
Every day friends would be missing, how did you cope with that?
Ignore it. If you lost somebody a new bloke came and you took him down to the White Hart so there was somebody to replace him. And they fitted into the squadron very easily because you were a very small, tight knit community. Fighter Command was an airforce within an airforce, it was the best flying club in the world and we had our own rules. Once you let your imagination run away with you, you might just as well pack up.
Do you still see any of your comrades?
There’s only one left from my squadron, Alan Wright. I see him occasionally, we met at Plymouth where we were laying a wreath on behalf of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. There’s only one left, the rest have gone by the wayside.
Could you tell us how the book came to be published?
I wrote the book in bits and pieces twenty-five years ago, not as a book but just as little essays. They all went into a bottom drawer. Later, somebody came and wanted to interview me about a book they were writing, and we had a very nice talk and interview. I said to him ‘that might help you’ and it was one of the chapters that I’d written. He seemed to like it and it turned out that he was something to do with Penguin, and it really went on from there. It was never ever written for publication, it was purely a personal thing.
Has the book brought some of the memories back?
Terribly, yes. It’s not only the book but there was also the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain recently. Prior to that you’d shut it all off, but it in the back of your mind you’d not dismissed it. It’s causing a little bit of a sleep problem at the moment.