Author’s note: I am not a historian, therefore there may be factual inaccuracies in this story but I have endeavoured to at least make it credible. However, No. 501 Squadron did exist at this time, as mentioned, and my limited research indicated that the call sign used in the story was theirs.
By the time that Daniel James Mulgrew entered the war it could be argued that the tide had already turned and the combined allied forces were gaining traction in all of the most significant theatres of Europe, North Africa and Southern Asia. The Battle of Britain had ended several years previously, when Danny, or DJ as his comrades in No. 501 Squadron knew him, was still a grammar school boy in his native Hampshire. Although the Luftwaffe had by this time all but abandoned its plans for bombing Britain into submission, there was still a need for a vigilant air defence of the island. After undertaking the training necessary to fly a fighter aircraft in combat, Danny was posted to the RAF auxiliary squadron tasked with this role. It was during a flight back to his squadron’s base following another successful sortie that this story begins.
“Mandrel zero five to Mandrel leader, come in. Over.”
“Mandrel leader to Mandrel zero five, go ahead. Over.”
“Mandrel leader, I may have a problem. I think that I have damage to my control surfaces as handling affected. Too far from base, I’m going to have to put her down somewhere, Skipper. Over.”
“Roger that, Mandrel zero five. Good luck and apprise base of situation upon landing. Mandrel leader out.”
“Roger Wilco, Mandrel leader. Mandrel zero five out.”
I wasn’t particularly worried at this point as forced landings had been part of our training, although fortunately I’d never had to make one for real. The Hurricane is a trusty steed, however, and if the gods are looking down on me I will make it back down to the ground in one piece; and if they are smiling, I may even make it back to base in time for tea!
The view out of the cockpit canopy was both good and bad: good inasmuch as every piece of farmland I passed over seemed to be fully planted with crops and those that weren’t often contained livestock; both of which our poor beleaguered island nation relied on for its vital food supplies. That was also the bad news, however: my kite could land on pretty much any strip of flat land, if necessary, but nothing that I saw below me really fitted that description; it looked like this was going to be a bumpy ride after all!
And then as if the old girl’s handling problems weren’t enough to contend with, the Merlin in front of me began to cough and splutter as it misfired. Now, the Hurricane was designed to be fast and manoeuvrable at speed during dogfights, but without enough power and the ability to balance its flight characteristics, the only direction I would be going is down, and rather rapidly at that. Flying on a wing and a prayer as they say, I began my descent while I still had reasonable amounts of both capabilities. I suppose that I could have bailed out and hoped that abandoning my aircraft would at best lead to the loss of several square yards of some farmer’s crops, but I chose to ride my luck, which had served me well ever since I first earned my wings; besides which, I was now below the altitude when parachuting was a viable option. No, it was a case of reduce my airspeed as much as possible and then hang on!
Under normal circumstances my fuel load would be reduced by now, but there should be enough to get me home safely; but of course at times like this nothing is ever ruddy normal! I had to fight to control my descent all the way, but so far so good. If this was an airfield landing I would have lowered my undercarriage by now, but with nothing but these uneven ploughed fields below me I decided to take a chance and leave it up. I knew that if the front end dipped too much as I landed on my belly then the prop would dig in and I would likely end up flipping the fuselage over, which would result in leaving me possibly hanging from the straps of my harness, which would make me even more vulnerable and potentially unable to free myself once the aircraft stopped moving.
Now I know that some of the chaps in the squadron believed in and put their trust in the man upstairs, but there were others like me who had turned away from the Christian teachings of our childhood, refusing to believe that a just and merciful God would do nothing as half the world suffered and thousands upon thousands died in order to satisfy the demands for power of a few evil men. Apart from my comrades, I either knew of. or knew personally, too many innocent men, women and children who had been sacrificed to mankind’s delusions of misguided superiority.
As the ground below me and I rapidly came towards each other, I briefly thought about my own family, hopefully all safe at home and mercifully sheltered from the madness elsewhere. This was it: relax as much as possible, we were taught, and hope that it wasn’t our day to die!
I woke up disoriented but somehow knowing that I had managed to swap the cramped cockpit of my Hurricane for a warm and comfortable bed. My next instinct was to try and move, if only to convince myself that I had avoided a date with the undertaker. I was to be disappointed, however, as my brain was sending the messages to my limbs but my arms and legs appeared to be ignoring these.
I felt a light but positive pressure being applied to my chest, and then the gentle but insistent female voice from somewhere above me:
“Lie still, the doctor said that you weren’t to move!”
I tried to talk but my mouth was dry and my lips and tongue refused to form the words I wanted to say; I did however manage to articulate something that approximated ‘water’.
“All right, but only a few sips,” my ministering angel stated. Some sort of cloth was placed below my chin and a hand behind my head elevated it enough so that the tumbler held to my lips was at the right angle to imbibe what seemed like only a few drops of the life-giving liquid. Left up to me I would have drained the glass, but it was taken away as soon as my mouth was barely moistened; but at least it now felt that my mouth was no longer full of sand.
“Where—” was all I as able to utter before a finger was held against my lips: “No more questions now. Try to sleep and perhaps we can answer some of them for you later.”
I didn’t even know for sure whether it was day or night outside, but I assume that the girl or woman adjusted a lamp that was in the room, because the light became dimmed and my body told me that it was time to rest and I slipped out of my conscious state and into that darker place we all must go to.
I once again opened my eyes and found myself in the land of light, having dwelt for some time in the land of shadows. If I dreamed at all it was a mass of confusion and I remembered little of it. I still couldn’t move of my own volition, but at least now every ache and pain that my body was experiencing brought me one step closer to regaining full consciousness.
“How are you feeling this morning, young man?” a kindly male voice asked me.
“Better, thank you, Sir,” I croaked, “May I have—water?”
“Of course, just drink it slowly. Joyce, if you wouldn’t mind—” I was awake enough for my eyes to focus on a pretty young thing who once again raised my head enabling me to drink. As the water slipped down my throat my gaze never left her face, even when her complexion reddened and she was forced to look away from me.
“Now, if you are feeling better, perhaps you would care to answer a few questions for me; your name, for example?” the man asked me.
I thought that I was in England, but I couldn’t be sure, and that part of my brain that made me naturally cautious came into play.
“89650342; Mulgrew, Daniel, James; Pilot Officer; No. 501 Squadron, Royal Air Force.” The man laughed softly.
“Very commendable, Pilot Officer Mulgrew, but I can assure you that you are neither a prisoner of war nor in enemy occupied territory! You can remember your service information, but can you remember what happened on the day that you crash landed your aircraft?”
I still wasn’t entirely satisfied, as we had been told that some of the German interrogation methods were very convincing, but just looking at—what did he say her name was: Joyce, that was it—yes, just looking at Joyce I wanted to believe what the man was telling me was true. However, I held my tongue.
“Very well, Pilot Officer! Perhaps you are right not to believe me, but I may possibly be able to convince you another way. You may not trust me, but would you trust a child? Joyce, would you mind?”
The young woman left the room, only to return a few minutes later carrying a child in her arms.
“Peter, this is Pilot Officer Mulgrew; he was the man who flew the aeroplane that crashed into our field. Would you like to say hello to the gentleman?” The small boy nodded: “Hello! Are you really a pilot?” he asked, in a very natural-sounding English accent. I smiled, all doubts gone: “I am indeed, Peter! And thank you very much for coming to talk to me!” Peter smiled and when Joyce put him down on the floor he scampered out of the room. The other man resumed speaking:
“If you are satisfied, Pilot Officer Mulgrew, perhaps you would answer my question now. If you should be wondering who we are, I am Doctor William Kenworthy and I have been treating your injuries. This young lady is Missus Joyce Chapman and that other young fellow was her son, Peter.”
I must say that the knowledge that Joyce Chapman was married disappointed me, but then I had no reason to believe that such an attractive young woman wouldn’t be. With brief pauses every now and then to sip more water, I gave my audience of two my account of the forced landing. In return the Doctor explained to me that one of Joyce’s farm hands had witnessed my attempted landing and had hurried back to the farmhouse, where fortunately for me there was a telephone installed. Mrs Chapman rang the local civil authorities, who as well as arranging for the investigation of the crash site, contacted Dr Kenworthy in case there were any injured parties.
Apparently I had managed to land my aircraft in more or less one piece and right side up, but the impact had still been fairly substantial and I had managed to fracture the tibia in my right leg, approximately mid-way between my ankle and my knee, as well as which I had broken a bone in my left wrist. The seat’s safety harness, whilst stopping me from being thrown out of the Hurricane, nevertheless had left my torso heavily bruised, but taking into account my other injuries, that was considered to be superficial.
“Unfortunately, your neck and head were unrestrained, Pilot Officer, which no doubt accounted for the concussion you suffered.” I knew that my neck was a little sore and now I knew why.
“Has anyone contacted my squadron, Doctor?” He nodded: “That falls within the purview of the constabulary. They would have been able to recognise your aircraft by its identification number. They would also know that you are receiving medical treatment for your injuries.”
“How long, Doc?”
“It has been three days since your accident occurred.” I nodded: “And how long before I can return to my squadron?”
“Ah, that is harder to answer, Pilot Officer. I did my best to reset your broken bones, but it will be some time, at least several months, perhaps, until I will know how good a job I’ve done. I will make my report to your Commanding Officer, but there is a possibility that your war may be over, at least with regard to active duty; however, that is the most pessimistic prognosis. Your C.O. may yet decide to have you transferred to one of the services’ medical facilities, where I am sure they have treated many injuries such as yours.”
I hadn’t even considered the possibility of never flying again; I had seen chaps with a lot more serious injuries than mine were who were back behind the controls. But then again, from what we’d been told on the QT, perhaps the war really would be over before I had healed enough to get back.
For me the worst part of being laid up like I was, was not so much the inconvenience of the injuries themselves, but rather the fact that I was so dependent on others for those things that I had hitherto taken for granted, and chief among these was the lavatory arrangements; and not just the chamber pot that had to be collected and emptied by Joyce Chapman, but the sheer awkwardness of using the thing when one’s leg is immobilised by a thick plaster of Paris and bandage outer support. I was also practically incarcerated in an upstairs bedroom of the Chapman’s farmhouse, as its narrow staircase would be difficult for me to negotiate in my present circumstances. I therefore spent much of my waking day watching life go by from the bedroom’s small window that overlooked most of the comings and goings of the farm’s workforce, which like many of employments that functioned during hostilities, that workforce consisted of mainly women, most of whom seemed to relish the responsibility previously denied them when their husbands, brothers and sweethearts were home in peacetime. My one compensation was that Joyce Chapman would always make time to come and keep me company and thus prevent me from losing my sanity on account of the hours of boredom, and more often than not young Peter would accompany her; she even managed to rig up a radio set for me to listen to, which I suppose was the second best thing that happened to me while my injuries were slowly healing.
Joyce and I were also now on familiar, first name terms, and I learned that hers was a sad but not uncommon tale. Her husband, Alastair Chapman, as a farmer, was in a reserved occupation so he had no need to take an active, fighting part in the war, but either out of a sense of patriotic duty, or perhaps simply because he saw it as way to escape from his endlessly repetitive life on the farm, he had volunteered to do his bit for King and Country. His regiment was sent to Tobruk, in Libya, where in 1941 they were part of the siege which lasted for 241 days before they were relieved. While the allied troops consisted of predominantly Australians, there were contingents from other countries including Britain, India and Poland. By its conclusion, the Australian forces made up the bulk of the casualties during the siege, with over three thousand killed, missing or injured, there were, however, also over five hundred British casualties, numbering eighty-eight dead, four hundred and six wounded and fifteen missing. In one of the graves of the war cemetery at Tobruk lies the body of infantryman Alastair Chapman, who succumbed to first a German bullet and then dysentery, which succeeded in doing what the bullet alone could not. Alastair Chapman sadly never saw his son and now Joyce Chapman had vowed to keep her husband’s farm going for as long as she had the strength and the will to do so.
At twenty-five years old Joyce was two years older than I was, but I think that I sensed a mutual affinity between us. I still intended to return to my squadron as soon as the medicos said that I was fit enough, and because of this I never openly admitted my growing affection for Joyce; I was a front line fighter pilot and so my life expectancy was in reality only as long as the next sortie; the Chapman’s had already lost one husband and father, so I was reluctant to compound their situation by adding my possible demise to their current situation.
During my recovery I did receive a most welcome visit from my Squadron Leader, informing me of the decision that had been made regarding both my treatment and my convalescence. In short, since my injuries, which though debilitating were not life-threatening, combined with what we had been previously told that the war in Europe was hopefully drawing to a close, I was to be left in the capable care of Doctor Kenworthy and Missus Chapman, thus freeing up a place in a hospital for someone in much greater need. I would, however, retain my present rank until such time as I was officially discharged from military service. He wished me well, thanked me for my service, and passed on the good wishes of my comrades before departing again. Oh, he did leave me with a bundle of letters that I’d been sent by my family since my incapacity. The letters were gratefully received, but emotionally I was still in a peculiar state, as I had effectively been left to come to terms with once again becoming a civilian after my years as a serviceman in wartime conditions. I tried to tell myself that I had at least made it through the war with only relatively minor injuries, and even these were thought to be temporary at most. Now I suppose all that I needed was a new purpose in life once the peace was actually declared and I, like the rest of the world, could get back some semblance of normality again.
The day finally arrived when the Doc could free me from the heavy cast on my leg. Initially I was rather horrified to see how much the muscles in my damaged limb had atrophied, but Doctor Kenworthy said that that was ‘normal’, and that once I began to exercise my leg the muscles would return to something approaching the way they were before the crash. What he was most interested to see, however, was the way that the bones had been realigned and had subsequently fused, as if that had not been done properly I could end up with a permanent misalignment and even a limp. I was certainly glad that he had chosen to keep that little tidbit of knowledge from me! Luckily for me he had done his job well. I still had an extended period of recuperation and exercise ahead of me, but he said that a working farm was a grand place for that to take place! I would still need crutches until my leg was strong enough to take my weight, at which time I could switch to a walking stick. Much patience would still be required on my part, but I could rightly begin to look forward in my life with a genuine sense of optimism. I looked towards Joyce for her reaction, but the only indication that she gave me was a faint smile.
My C.O., Squadron Leader ‘Lofty’ Lofthouse, had also brought my personal belongings with him, including my civilian clothing, so at least I had something to wear other than things belonging to the late-Alastair Chapman and a few other assorted items that Joyce had gathered together from unknown sources. One of the few things that I had been able to do for myself was shave, once my wrist was stronger and that, as well as being able to wear my own clothing, had an overall beneficial effect on my mental well-being. I still had to navigate the elements to use the outside lavatory, but even that simple activity aided my emotional recovery I’m sure.
Another factor in the healing process, and one which was altogether more subtle, is the way that I have been absorbed into the Chapman family’s life. The days start early, because of the daily routine needed to look after a herd of dairy cows, what with the milking and the feeding, etc. The farm is not huge by some standards, but there is hardly any of it that can be considered wasted space.
As I have already alluded to, one of the first things that I noticed as soon as I was more mobile again, was the number of women on the farm. There are the WAAF’s of course in the RAF, but it is still a predominantly male environment and we had been given plenty of warnings about ‘fraternisation’; although human nature being what it is, it is not unknown for affairs of the heart to circumvent standing orders. In wartime Britain generally, however, with many of the menfolk who were young enough away at the war somewhere, thousands of young women had volunteered to do their jobs, including those in the Women’s Land Army.