Peter Giddens Memoirs of RAF Seletar

Spitfires in Singapore

By the toss of a coin my first Operational flying tour began on spitfires in Singapore.  After a jet fighter course on Meteors in county Durham two of us, Dickie Littlejohn and I, were selected for a photo reconnaissance course at Benson, Oxfordshire and at the time we were told that to posts were available - one in Germany flying Meteors and the other in Singapore on Spitfires. We agreed that the only way to decide was to toss a coin and I won ans , of course chose Spitfires in Singapore. (as dickie would have done, except that he wanted to get Married and that was easier from Germany that Singapore.

After flying the latest Meteor Jet fighters, going back to piston engined spitfires was a distinctly retrograde step but it would be my last opportunity to fly this delightful and famous aircraft - and there was a war going on in Malaya which added to the excitement of the flying. I Arrived at 81 Squadron at Seletar on December 30th 1951 and was greeted as a unique specimen - I was the first post-war trained pilot to join the squadron, the first Cranwellian and the only pilot with jet experience. I was 6 or 7 years younger than the average; most of the squadron had WW2 experience and many had DFCs. My Flight Commander was a small, fair haired, very quietly spoken man names John Grant who had been flying Spitfires for nearly ten years and had a facial twitch to prove it.

As there was no two-seat spitfire I did some flying in the back of a Harvard trainer with John Grant to get used to the complete lack of forward vision behind the enormous Rolls-Royce Griffon engine in our spitfires. Then, after John had shown me the knobs, tits and levers in the cockpit and I had read the pilots notes many times, I was ready for my first Spitfire flight on 12th January 1952. I strapped in and immediately felt at home in the little cockpit. The explosion of the 12 bore cartridge churned round the huge 5-bladed propeller and the little aircraft vibrated and shook. The noise was tremendous and waves of exhaust fumes swept back from the outlets just in front of me on both sides and into the cockpit with the hood open. Immediately the engine temperature rose (it was nearly 90 deg and 85% humidity in the mid morning Singapore) and i had to take off within 3 minutes or the engine would overheat.

I called for taxi clearance on R/T and taxied to the runway past the squadron Hangar.  Outside were all the Pilots, with gloomy expressions and black armbands, some apparently weeping and holding blackboards on which was written the first line of the Squadron Song 'Oh what a pity, he was so young and pretty...... and someone was carrying a large first aid box.  Black humour abounded in fighter and Recce Squadrons and I gave a Cheerful two finger wave. At the end of the runway I Quickly did my pre take off checks.

T - Trims (set fully left to counteract the enormous torque effect of the huge engine power)

M - Mixture (Automatic on the Griffin) - Supercharger to auto (to cut in automatically at 15,000ft and again at 30,000ft)

P - Propeller pitch (Fully fine for maximum power

etc

etc

When I had completed them i had a vague feeling that I had omitted something but hadn't time to do it again - The engine was overheating. I lined up on the runway and opened the throttle fully. Immediately we leaped forward while I tried to get usedto the thunderous roar and keep straight with a bootfull of rudder. I caught an occasional glimpse of the runway centre line passing between the engine cowling and the leading edge os the wing and assumed we were roughly in the middle of the runway but after 400 yards we were airborne. I changed hands on the stick to raise the undercarriage with the leaver near my right knee and as I did so - the engine stopped. I was about 100ft up, flying at 150 knots with the wheels down over the Johore  Straights with thick Jungle on the other side - a fatal combination. I a cold sweat I glanced at the engine instruments, which all seemed OK, and as I did so I caught sight of the throttle, which was closed.  I gently opened it and the engine sweetly responded and we began to climb again.

With full power the Spitfire climbed at nearly 5000ft per minute and I soon passed 10,000ft and turned so as not to go too far up county over Malaya. Halfway through the turn I looked down on a carpet of Jungle covering southern Malaya there was a tremendous bang from the engine. Half a dozen wild thoughts assailed me - I had been hit by flak from somewhere, or by a Hun out of the sun, or I had collided with something, or that huge propeller had broken up.......; Again I glanced at the engine instruments and as I id so noticed a little switch which was labelled SUPERCHARGER - AUTO. Of course it cut in automatically (and with a tremendous thump) at 15,000ft. I heaved another sigh of relief and continued climbing up to 40,000ft (with another bang at 30,000ft) which was quite a comfortable hight with pressurised cockpit. I levelled out and got used to the Spitfire in level flight, in turns and simple aerobatics. It was immediately evident why ever pilot enthused about it - the Spitfire was light and sensitive on all controls and instantly leaped forward or "stopped" when the throttle was opened or closed. It was small and neat and you seemed to wear it like a glove and be an integral part of the aircraft. But you could see nothing straight ahead and had to keep doing gentle turns

I Practiced some approaches on a level cloud top with wheels and flaps down and realised that it had to be a continuously curved approach almost to the touchdown; and feeling more confident, returned to Seletar for my first landing. After a couple of dummy approaches and overshoots I made a circuit "in anger "with a completely curved approach and ouch down - and it was perfect. a "Greaser ". Knowing that this was beginner's luck I continued the landing into a take off and went round for another. This time I didn't quite curve enough and found myself going straight fou the last 100 yards with absolutely no view of the runway. Inevitably I leveled out too high and she dropped heavily to the ground - but nothing broke and I kept straight and soon stopped the engine. John Grant met me and we discussed the flight. Finally he said "She's a beautiful aeroplane to look at and to fly but do watch it, she bites back if she's mistreated ". How right he was.

( A few weeks later we sang the squadron song "for real "when Paul Skeaping and Wink Williamson were killed over the Malay/Thailand border. Paul was the son of Barbara Hepworth, the Sculptress, and shred a room with me. I year later later we sang it again when Jimmy Morgan, the Squadron Commander, had an engine failure, did everything wrong and crashed into the Johore Straits and was seriously injured.