Return to Unit

by | May 14, 2010 | Stories | 0 comments

10th July 1943.
The aircraft flew unsteadily through the thickening sea mist. Flight Lieutenant Mike Peters struggled wearily to keep it straight and level. He was an old hand–a survivor of the Battle of Britain and now he needed all his skill to nurse this failing aircraft back to base. Faint from loss of blood his concentration was slipping in his tiny world of noise, vibration, faintly glowing instruments and fear.

He forced himself to check. Fuel state OK, airspeed indicator not working, altimeter reading zero and silence from his radio. Engine temperature rising ominously. The blanket of sea fog gave him no chance of climbing above it with the dying engine. He cursed the enemy gunner’s lucky shot that had caused him to abort his mission and return to unit. The near miss anti aircraft shell had damaged the plane and sent a piece of shrapnel into his leg. Usually by now he would have finished his sweep over France, destroyed a few enemy troop trains or tanks and made for home with the rest of the Squadron.

His only chance of survival was to ditch as gently as possible in the sea and hope to be picked up. Throttling back carefully he strained his eyes to catch a glimpse of the sea surface. With his attention fully on the view out of the side window he mercifully failed to see the brown wall of the low earth cliff as the plane bored into it at flying speed. The engine was pushed back into the cramped cockpit killing him instantly. The wings sheared off as the fuselage buried itself deep into the soft clay. The under wing rockets, still armed, exploded completing the destruction of the wings into thousands of small pieces, which rained down onto the oily sea. The same explosion brought down the earth behind the deeply buried cockpit sealing the pilot forever in his metal tomb.

The blast was heard at a nearby Coastguard station but was logged as one more exploding sea mine broken adrift from its moorings and cast up on the beach.
Back at the Squadron anxious eyes watched for any sign of his return and calls were made to air-sea rescue units around the coast. As the hours passed all hope faded and Mike Peters was recorded as “missing in action” to join the ranks of aircrew with no known grave.

10th July 1998.
Dennis Rogers surveyed the house with pride. A retired senior airline pilot he had taken on the challenge of restoring his old family home with enthusiasm. It was a solidly built nineteen thirties “stockbrokers Tudor” house and he had enjoyed the project of modernising it over the past year. It stood some fifty feet above the sea with fine views of the Solent over a long garden running down to the substantial sea wall built after the War.

With the building now complete the final work was to supervise the construction of the swimming pool he had promised his wife. Today the digger driver was due to arrive and the excavation work could begin. He thought with pleasure of entertaining friends and family round the pool in the summers as he remembered years ago when he had lived in this house as a boy. He had noticed the “for sale” advert in a local paper sent to him on one of his overseas trips and the idea of owning his father’s old house, with its boyhood memories appealed. More recently an elderly widow had lived there but the house had stood empty after she had moved into a nursing home.
He remembered the dismay he had felt at his first sight of the overgrown garden and peeling paintwork. Now the main work was completed and next week he could hand over to his wife to choose the interior decorations and furnishings. At this point he would be able to spend more time with the other love of his life—a fully restored wartime Hawker Typhoon fighter kept at a nearby private airfield. Like most pilots he never lost interest in flying and was at his happiest at the controls of his beloved Typhoon.

The chill air broke in on his reverie. He shivered and headed indoors. He was staying in the house rather than driving back home to Oxford. The evening was growing chilly as the sun dropped lower in the sky. A sea mist was forming out on the horizon. As it advanced and cold air met warm it piled up and thickened reddening the setting sun and bringing darkness early.

He stood by his bedroom window and watched the mist creeping up to the sea wall, into the garden and finally winding its tendrils around the walls of his house. He heard the mournful mooing of the foghorn out in the Channel as the dense cloud
enveloped the coastal strip.

He slept uneasily in the almost empty bedroom and found himself awake in the early hours. The mist had dispersed and bright moonlight shone through the curtainless windows. Fully awake now he shivered in the cold room. His senses were assailed by a familiar odour. High-octane aviation fuel. There was another familiar smell too, of the inside of an aircraft cockpit, a subtle blend of anti-corrosion paint, plastic wiring, leather and Plexiglas familiar to all pilots. A man was standing at the foot of his bed. The figure was dressed in wartime flying overalls and he could see the RAF pilots brevet and the two rings of a Flight Lieutenant on the epaulettes. He felt not fear but sympathy and kinship for this shadowy pilot. In his head he heard a voice. “Sorry about the landing, old boy-not one of my best. I was trying to get home-didn’t quite make it. You will help me get home, won’t you”? Then the apparition faded and Dennis fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

Summer sunlight and the rumble of a heavy diesel flooded into the room waking Dennis with a start. “Blast” he thought, “I was supposed to get up early and check that the digger driver was fully briefed for the job”. He recalled the disturbing experience of last night. It had to have been a dream. He didn’t believe in ghosts. Yet it was all so vivid that he decided to ask around. Maybe someone local knew if the house had a reputation for being haunted.

Some hours later Geoff Hedger whistled tunelessly as he worked the controls of his JCB. He had lived in the village all his life and had saved enough to start his own business and buy his own machine. This job was going to be easy he thought. No underground cables or services pipes to worry about -just virgin clay. The large oblong space for the swimming pool was marked out with surveyor’s pegs and tape and he had already started digging a narrow trench down one boundary. He operated his narrow digging bucket watchfully though. After all in 1912 someone had found a buried hoard of gold Roman coins less than a mile from here.

Captain Rogers had been out to see him start. He seemed nice enough bloke–brought him a mug of tea. Funny how he had asked about the house being haunted and funnier still how silent and thoughtful he had been when told of old Maude’s ramblings about a ghost appearing in the bedroom. Load of nonsense of course. He concentrated on digging a straight line moving the controls deftly enjoying the feeling of power at his fingertips. He’d do a nice accurate job for the Captain, collect his pay and move on to the next booking.

Enfield Grange was an exclusive retirement and nursing home for the well-heeled elderly and Dennis had made an appointment to visit Mrs Maude Byles, the previous owner of his house. The Matron introduced him to a sprightly lady who looked much younger than her ninety years. She led him onto the terrace where they sat under a sunshade and talked about the village and the house. She remembered his parents living there but had not known them at the time. She said how glad she was that the house had gone to a caring owner and talked of the happy times she had spent there. A maid brought tea and as she poured she looked up at him shrewdly and said, “Now why don’t you tell me the real reason for your visit? It’s about the ghost, isn’t it? You don’t need to worry, he’s quite a friendly ghost”. Startled, Dennis found himself telling her the whole story. She nodded. “Yes, both my husband and myself have seen your ghost but we didn’t like to say too much about it for fear of being thought eccentric or even mad. We called in a medium at one stage but all she could tell us was that she sensed an unhappy earthbound spirit in the vicinity of the house. We concluded that there may have been a plane crash out to sea somewhere and as the visitations didn’t seem menacing or frightening we just lived with them”.
After promising to take her to see the house when his wife had finished the interior work Dennis took his leave. “Do call again”, she said with a twinkle. “It’s so pleasant to meet someone young–this place is full of old people”.

Back at the house Dennis found a note pinned to the front door. It was from the digger driver and said simply “Please phone me. I’ve hit a snag”. He phoned the number and Geoff told him that the digger had struck a hard metal object about ten feet deep. Geoff had once before turned up a live artillery shell in his digging and was worried that this may be a similar hazard. As a precaution he had notified the Army Bomb Disposal team using the contact number most digger drivers carry in their cabs. They would be phoning him in the morning but in the meantime all work had to stop.

That night in spite of the news Dennis slept a good night’s sleep. No ghostly apparition or dreams disturbed him and he woke in the morning rested and ready for anything the day may bring. At first light an Army Landrover carrying a Sergeant, a corporal and three soldiers arrived. Spades and metal detectors were unloaded together with the essential equipment to make tea. They started their investigations cautiously and after about an hour the Sergeant approached the house. “Well, Sir” he said,” There’s a large mass of metal down there. It’s an aircraft engine and we have uncovered a casing with Napier embossed on it. There is no unexploded ordnance present so we are returning to our base. We have no records of an aircraft crash hereabouts but there are a number of crash sites unaccounted for in the south. Why don’t you have a word with the Aircraft Archaeology Society–they would be interested if it is an engine down there”.
Three days later Dennis stood at the edge of a large hole in his garden in company with a group of earnest young men of the Aircraft Archaeology Society. They had worked patiently removing small amounts of earth and clay from the bottom of the “dig” as they now termed it. Gradually they had revealed the shape of a Napier Sabre twenty four cylinder engine complete with a large three bladed propeller bent backwards round the cowling like flower petals. Dennis’s excitement mounted as he recognised the engine as an identical unit to the one that powered his own Typhoon. The excavations continued towards the rear of the engine until a shattered Plexiglas windscreen came into view.

Don Hartridge, the leader of the party shone his flashlight into the cavity beyond and peered through. He clambered out of the hole with a solemn face and announced, “Sorry, lads we’ve got stop work, there are human remains in the aircraft”.
Once again the work was abandoned. A party of RAF men arrived with equipment to lift the wreck gently out of the hole. Identity discs on the skeletal figure in the Typhoon cockpit solved the mystery of the Typhoon’s last flight.

The removal of the long dead pilot took place with ceremony at eleven o’clock in the morning. An RAF Padre was present and a smartly uniformed bearer party carried the coffin to the waiting hearse.
Dennis chose not to be among the group of officials, Press and Service people present when the pilot was carried reverently in his coffin. As the cortege passed through his garden a Typhoon in wartime colours made a low pass over the site. The bearer party halted, the Officer saluted and all faces turned skyward as the aircraft thundered overhead. Dennis had paid his respects to a fellow pilot as Flight Lieutenant Mike Peters finally returned to his unit.

He never built the swimming pool in the garden. In its place is a rockery with one large slab on which is engraved an image of a Hawker Typhoon in flight.


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