MOTAT oral history interview with Graham Breckon
Maker and role
Graham Breckon, Interviewee
George Hedge, Interviewer
28 May 2000
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Side 1 of 1
Narrator: This is an interview with Graham Francis Breckon. The interview is for the Oral History Centre in Wellington. The interviewer is George Hedge and the interview is being recorded at 35 Wai-iti Road, Orewa. This is side number 1.
This is the story of a fighter pilot, Graham Francis Breckon, of Dargaville, New Zealand. Unfortunately, through illness, he has difficulty in speaking and has given me his permission to record his experiences. The narrator is George Hedge.
[George Hedge reads written material produced by Graham Breckon]
The first time I was shot down was straightforward, copy book style. We were jumped at about 12,000 feet, south of London as we were climbing like hell to intercept bandits at 15,000. There were Messerschmitts and Spit[fire]s wheeling everywhere. I managed to get a few bursts away when suddenly I copped one myself, in the engine. A burst of smoke and pieces of cowling flying off.
I pushed over and dived into the cloud cover immediately below. I came out of the cloud at about 5000 feet, with the whole sky to myself and a dead engine, but no fire. Everything peaceful and quiet. I picked up a ploughed paddock which wasn’t full of stakes, and put her down in a graceful belly landing. Walked 100 yards to a farmhouse and phoned my squadron at Biggin Hill. They sent a wagon round, picked me up, and I was flying again the same evening.
In July 1941 I returned to operations after a spell, and was posted to 722 Squadron RAF, stationed at Groves End [sp?], east of London, which was a satellite strip of Biggin Hill. I was quite happy as I had earlier been at Biggin Hill on 609 Squadron. We were flying Spitfire 5s, which were a great improvement on the old ‘Ones’ and ‘Twos’ that I’d been on.
Daylight fighter operations had virtually finished over England, although the night bombing blitz on London was in full swing. We were doing odd interception attempts, just on twilight, for early arrivals, but not very successful and we were not suited to night flying, nor had the navigation aids.
However, we had started sweeps over France. A sweep consisted of three or four squadrons teaming up and doing a sweep over northern France to entice the German fighters up. Eventually we had to add three or four [Short] Stirling bombers to the bait to get the 109s up. These were generally staged at heights of 30,000 feet for the cover fighters, and down to 15,000, which the Stirlings lumbered along at, with their close escorting fighter squadrons increased to seven or eight. We lost a lot of Stirlings.
We also did quite a few low-level sorties, escorting [Bristol] Blenheims, against coastal shipping on the French coast, and in poor weather we sometimes engaged in rhubarbs, which involved two aircraft in tight formation, climbing into the murk and the cloud, flying southeast for half an hour or so on instruments, and dropping out of the cloud, finding and attacking any likely target such as transport or staff cars, trains, etc. Back up into the cloud, head north, and then finding your own aerodrome. A lot of fun, but only nuisance value.
About the middle of July, I was on a sweep over France, flying at number 2, Blue Section, at 30,000 feet when we were jumped by about eight [Messerschmitt] 109-Fs, and in the ensuing melee, I managed to get several short bursts in, but observed no damage. At one stage I felt my aircraft shudder from a hit, but everything seemed normal and suddenly the sky was clear and we re-formed and headed north over the coast, still at about 20,000 feet. As we crossed, we received our usual greeting of German flak, but generally never close enough at that height to more than rock you.
I then noticed that my fuel was very low, and realised that I had received damage to either the fuel tank or lines. I called up my section leader and informed him. When my engine cut out about halfway across the Channel, Blue Section went in a reasonable steep dive towards the English Channel as to maintain reasonable speed as there was possible enemy fighters about.
I called Air Sea Rescue and told them I was bailing out over the Channel, close to the coast near Brighton. It is impossible to land a Spitfire on water. The weight of the engine will take her straight to the bottom and we had been instructed never to try, always bail out. By this time my Section mates had left as they would have been low in fuel too.
I had levelled out into a glide now and opened the canopy, and all I had to do was roll her over, pull the pin in my harness and fall out, pull the rip cord and hope that the chute opened. I still had a fair amount of height in hand and those white cliffs seemed to beckon me and the sea looked awfully cold and deep. I guess I was scared of my chute not opening, or something. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, it is not easy to bail out over water, out of a plane that is still flying OK even without power. I though I could make the beach, and decided to try. It was not long before I knew I would make it, and I came in over a pier a little fast, as I knew I daren’t overshoot, dropped the flaps and held her down just above the beach, ready for a belly landing, but my speed was still too high at about 120 miles an hour.
The cliffs at the far end seemed to be coming up a bit fast, so I eased the stick forward and felt her scrape the ground in a graceful glide up the beach. I climbed out quite proud of that belly landing, and bloody relieved to be back on English soil. I grabbed my parachute and wandered up the beach.
I wondered why there was nobody on the beach, but went up through a gap in the barbed wire to where some naval personnel were coming down to meet me. They took me up to their mess, gave me a good nip of rum and then told me I had landed on the only 100 yards of beach in 60 miles that didn’t have a mine on it. It had been kept clear for counter-actions. I had quite a few rums that afternoon before proceeding back to my squadron.
This was another glaring example of that beautiful aeroplane’s ability to absorb that burst of fire and withstand a belly landing at 120 miles per hour, and let you walk away. When you settle into the cockpit of a Spit, the plane seemed to wrap itself around you. You both become one. Everything was at your fingertips, a wonderful feeling of security and of being able to match it with anyone.
Three days later, the morning of the 20th of July, dawned fine and cloudless. We took off in sections at 8 a.m. and landed in section formation at Beacon [Biggin?] Hill, ten minutes later. Landing in formation is always a little thrill itself. You are tucked in alongside his wing tip and tail plane, slightly behind. Your eyes are glued on him. When he drops his wheels, you drop yours. When he drops his flaps, you drop yours, and the first thing you know of the landing is when you feel the bump and the ground is racing past you.
After a short briefing, we were off again as close escorts to [Bristol] Blenheim light bombers on a coastal raid. We picked up the eight bombers at the coast and set off, a wave of top level across the Channel. We reached the French coast and no sign of any shipping, but the Blenheims turned west and soon came upon two small freighters which they immediately turned to, climbed, made their run and bombed, with no apparent results that I could see. All this with no opposition at all. It seemed too good to be true.
We immediately set off north, nearly tipping the waves, weaving all the time, squinting to spot any bandits. We could see our supporting squadrons high up. It was flying at this level in single-engine aircraft that you really appreciate that Rolls-Royce Merlin purring in front of you, and the faith that you had in it.
We crossed our own course [coast?] without incident. The bombers turned off to the west without any warning, one barely 20 feet above me. We landed back at Beacon in section formation again, just on 12, in time for a quick lunch before another briefing.
It was at St Omer in northern France. Half a dozen Stirling bombers with eight squadrons stepping up from the bombers to 30,000 feet top cover. Our squadron was top cover. We climbed to this height over the English channel before the bombers arrived, then the whole formation swung south together. It looked like a formidable force from our position but I knew full well how quickly it could dissolve into a wheeling mass of individuals, pairs or sections of aircraft, friend or foe, and no obvious advantage to either side. And then, just as quick, the sky became empty.
We crossed the coast of France at 32,000 feet, and at this height your aircraft was terribly sloppy in the thin air. You would move the controls and wait for the aircraft to respond, but height was everything. We could still see vapour trails above us which betrayed enemy aircraft. We eased the stick forward and returned to 30,000 building up speed to over 300 miles per hour, just to be ready for them. Turned on gun sights and kept craning our necks, as we knew they must come. There was not a cloud in the sky and everything, including the vapour trails, seemed too beautiful and serene to be abruptly transformed into a violent battleground of wheeling aeroplanes and gunfire.
I saw German fighters diving down away ahead of us, and heard the squadron leader warning the other squadrons on the RT [radio transmitter], and suddenly they were upon us. Not the ones straight above us that I had been watching, but from our left and above. There were about eight Messerschmitt 109-Fs. I called a quick warning on the RT and broke hard left, turning into them. Then I was through but saw another dozen or more 109-Fs joining in. I managed to fasten onto one, and could see my cannon shell hitting from about 80 yards but without any apparent vital damage. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I caught that frightening sight of a cannon winking at me. At the same instant as I was starting to turn into him, the cockpit erupted into flame.
I slammed my foot on the stick into the far corner and tried to shield my face with my hands, never thinking to pull my goggles down from my forehead which was the main reason for wearing them. Probably a result of panic. I reached up and grabbed the toggle which jettisons the hood and, with relief, I saw it fall away. These had only been fitted the previous month as it was impossible to slide your hood open over 200 miles an hour, due to the pressure.
I released my safety harness and was thrown out of the aircraft, but in further panic had not disconnected my oxygen or RT, and for a few seconds was still attached to the aircraft, before they tore out of my helmet. All this was because I committed the fatal error of pressing my attack too long when the sky was full of enemy planes – a lesson I knew only too well from previous experiences.
I was falling free, turning slowly end over end, at about 25,000 feet, wondering what my face was like, because of the pain. As I knew I was well above the oxygen limit of 15,000 feet, I realised I had better pull the rip cord in case I passed out.
I saw the little pilot chute go out between my legs, pulling the main chute with it. Then there was a jerk and I was hanging in my harness like a limp rag doll being sick as a dog. All this had happened in a very short time, but it seemed to have occupied hours. As I floated down, I could see the planes around me but none came close, and away to the north the coast and the English Channel, and I suddenly realised I was over enemy country, but the pain was such that I didn’t give a damn.
It took about 20 minutes to reach the ground where I landed copybook style on my feet, and forward on my stomach. I released my chute and just lay there with my hands over my face. Suddenly I heard voices above me. I removed my hands and saw three French peasants who backed off when they saw my face, but then came and helped me up and took me to a house close by.
The first thing they did was to produce a bottle of brandy from which I had a long drag. Then there was a noise outside of a motorcycle and the next minute the door burst open and three German soldiers in coal scuttle helmets stood there, one pointing a Luger [pistol] at me. This all seemed like a dream, They just looked like what I had read about.
I had had my 20th birthday a fortnight ago, and suddenly I felt how young I really was. Up until now my war had always been aeroplanes, a helmeted figure in opposing planes, gunfire and bombs but never a personal enemy, and it came as a shock. During the last 12 months I had aged well beyond my maturity, but suddenly the reality of my youth was brought back.
When the soldiers saw my burns they put the gun away and took me in a motorbike and sidecar to a first aid dressing station where they swathed my head in bandages and gave me an injection of morphine, I think, as it dissipated nearly all the pain. While we were there, two Luftwaffe pilots arrived on another motorbike and sidecar. They were the squadron which had shot me down. It was Adolf Galland [?] Squadron which was based just out of St Omer.
They took charge of me and we proceeded to their squadron dispersal where most of their pilots, having returned, were sitting around having a drink. Most of them spoke English as, pre-war, there was a lot of travel between England and Europe. I had a few drinks with them and met the pilot who had put paid to my war effort. I was his tenth victim. I could easily have been sitting around at our own dispersal. They then took me to the hospital at St Omer.
The next fortnight was pretty much a blank as I only had brief periods of consciousness, and every time I came to, there was another sister sitting by my side. This was due to my burns and shock. Later, I met the German surgeon who had attended my face, and the German sisters who staffed the hospital, along with the French maids.
There were about five British pilots there, including Douglas Bader who had arrived some time when I was in fairyland. One thing that did impress me was the German pilots from the squadron, who came to see me and brought chocolate and cigarettes when I was convalescing.
About a month ago I was shot down. I was discharged from hospital and proceeded to four years prisoner of war life in Germany. But that, of course, is another story.
The recording equipment is a Sony Walkman WM D6C professional tape recorder and Sony ECM-144 clip-on microphones. [repeated]