JACK Brindley’s smile suggests today can’t get much better. But it will.
At precisely 9am the 90-year-old former night fighter pilot will hear the three words he hasn’t heard in 65 years: “Prepare for take-off.”
The Second World War veteran has been invited to join 160 of his former comrades for a reunion event to commemorate the sacrifices they made risking their lives in the war-torn skies over Europe, North Africa and the Far East.
He can’t wait to leave his New Forest care home to spring up the runway with the help of his walking stick.
Though he isn’t quite as nimble as he was, and today’s aircraft certainly won’t be adorned with busty glamour girl “Dirty Gertie” – who took her position as a good luck charm on the nose of his favourite fighter plane – Jack knows the familiar controls will conjure memories as vivid as the day he last flew in 1949.
His eyes come alive as he recalls the moment he would climb into the claustrophobic cockpit of the Bristol Beaufighter with his best friend and navigator Peter Long, both clutching a box of chocolate raisins – the small treat they’d look forward to each time they risked their lives on an operation.
“I remember very well. The Beaufighter had a single pilot, so there you were surrounded by instruments and glass. My navigator would sit about 20ft behind me, almost at opposite ends of the aircraft.
“It’s important to know I never had an automatic pilot. Every minute in my logbook was a real minute flying the aircraft. It takes a good deal of your attention, especially if you are flying low and attacking something, your attention is all on that, so Pete got me out of a slight jam more than once,” he smiles.
He’s not kidding. He fails to mention the fact that any of the 1,000 hours in his logbook could well have been his last in the aircraft, which was armed with four cannons and six machine guns, and was nicknamed “whispering death” by the Japanese.
One such occasion was Christmas Eve 1942, when British intelligence discovered the Japanese were planning to bomb Calcutta and Jack’s RAF 89 Squadron was deployed.
Then there was the time enemy fire pulverised his Beaufighter from the ground as he flew over central Burma to perform “rhubarbs”, or night attacks, on targets such as supply convoys and river traffic.
Bullets fired from the ground tore dozens of holes in the plane’s wings and the craft’s fuselage, luckily missing the duo.
“I was occasionally shot at from the ground, it was always a risk. If you are coming in to attack something and you are almost there, there is simply no avoiding it.
“Your job is to stay shooting at what you are shooting. You wouldn’t do much good trying to avoid it. The aircraft got some holes in it but neither me nor my navigator got hit.
“Of course there is fear. If you are being shot at and you are not afraid, then you are a fool. You get back on the ground and just think thank goodness it wasn’t me.
“End of that little bit of story,” he says, smiling as he recalls the bacon and eggs that used to await him on his safe return.
You must have been a pretty good pilot, I say to Jack, who insisted, despite the nurse’s raised eyebrows, that I take the big comfy chair in the library of his residential home, Wilverley’s Forest Oaks, in Brockenhurst.
“I just did my job,” says Jack modestly.
“I was a member of the Goldfish Club though. I haven’t told you about that, have I?”
An unofficial award it may be, but it is the one the pilot, who joined the RAF as a trainee in 1941, seems most proud of.
“It’s ditching an aircraft and escaping in a boat,” he remarks casually. “The Army had three unofficial clubs in the war – the Goldfish Club if you escaped in a dinghy, the Caterpillar Club if you escaped in a parachute, and the Flying Boot if you escaped from captivity and walked back. During the war they weren’t official badges, but they turned a blind eye and you could wear them.”
Jack, who everyone called Orse because he looked like actor Orson Welles, certainly wore his with pride. A sparkle in his eyes, his instinctive memory kicks in as he describes exactly how he brought down his Beaufighter into the sea off the south coast of Portugal before getting into a rubber dinghy.
“I was en route to Morocco and I was having trouble first with one, then with both engines. It got to the point where the aircraft was inoperable and it was only a question of time before I had to put it down in the sea.”
The heavy all-metal fighter buckled in the sky as he tried to steady all 41ft of it.
“It was all over the shop so I put out a Mayday message. ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
This is – I forget what my call sign was – I am probably about to ditch. End of message.’”
What went through Jack’s mind when he didn’t receive a reply, he had no time to think about.
He leans forward in his seat, steadying himself on his stick, as he relives how he first opened the hatches above him while still in the air to avoid getting trapped, aimed the Beaufighter in line with the waves and stalled it moments before it touched the water. They had just 90 seconds to get out.
“The Beaufighter isn’t known for its floating abilities – definitely not designed for that. I did it all well, but as soon as it hit the water it started to go wrong. First thing was I tried to get to my feet without undoing my harness so I had to get back in the seat and undo that, then I hadn’t undone my intercom.
“Finally I got out on the wing, and the wing was already awash with water. I looked down and Pete was already in the water waiting for me. I slid down the wing and jumped in.”
The fighter plane automatically launched a two-man dinghy from the wing when it made contact with water.
“The aircraft sank and there we were in this dinghy, not knowing that anyone knew we were there. It was getting dark and it was cold. We knew we only had about three or four hours of daylight left.”
Unknown to the men, who later would become each other’s best man at their weddings, their location was picked up. Four hours later a US Navy Destroyer appeared, throwing down rope netting on which they clambered aboard. “They kept saying ‘Are you alright? Are you alright?’ I said ‘Yes, of course, I’m cold and I’m wet and I’d like to change’, but they kept repeating it.
“Eventually the penny dropped. United States Navy ships are dry, which means no alcohol on board except in the medicine chest, where there are bottles of brandy. They wanted me to say anything like ‘I got a bit of a biff’ and that was enough justification for them to break the seal and get out not one but two bottles of brandy.
They even gave us a little bit,” he chuckles.
To many veterans, wartime experiences remain a private affair reserved only for quiet moments. But Jack is enjoying every memory.
“I have to confess, it’s a wicked thought I suppose, but I look back with pleasure on my time in the squadron. Everyone knewwhat we had to do and everyone got on well together, so we just got on with the job. You tend to forget the nasty bits.”
Jack, who became a flying instructor after the war until 1949, training many refugee pilots to re-establish foreign air forces, will dust off his memories today when he clambers into the cockpit of a Beech King Air at Bournemouth Airport, thanks to the organisation Project Propeller which is hosting the reunion to commemorate 70 years since D-Day.
Today the veterans will remember old times, enjoy lunch and listen to live wartime music – an atmosphere not too dissimilar to that before a mission, when Jack would often play cards or poker dice with his comrades, all showing a brave face regardless of what thoughts might be haunting the young aircrew’s mind.
The grandad of 17 and great-grandad admits he won’t be able to resist pacing around the craft, letting his eyes roam across the plane and stooping down to check the tyres as he did so meticulously more than half a century ago.
“It will certainly bring back all sorts of memories.
I wonder if they’ll let me hang on the controls,”
he beams, the years falling from his face.
“I will certainly chance my luck, but I expect to be told off. Flying really is a different world. If you get above one layer of cloud and you are below another layer of cloud, it really is a separate world up there.”