In a small house overlooking the Cornish coastline, Geoffrey Wellum and David Morgan greet each other warmly. Wellum was the youngest man to fly in the Battle of Britain and, at 96, is now one of the last of The Few; Morgan, by contrast, was involved in the last dogfight that saw enemy planes shot down, 36 years ago in the Falklands War.
They have never met before but there is, instantly, an unspoken ease between them. It’s obvious that they know things about each other that even their intimates do not. Wellum was 18 when the Battle of Britain began. His comrades called him “Boy”.
He flew three, and sometimes five, sorties a day and the most extraordinary thing in his extraordinary career is that he lived. When he thought he would die, he writes in his memoir First Light, he said to himself: “Laurie, Peter, Nick and all you others, won’t be long before I join you, I shall be on my way in a moment, hang on mates, don’t be impatient.”
Now he says, “You took it for granted that somebody wasn’t going to be there in the evening. At the time you brushed it off, and had this feeling, ‘It can’t possibly happen to me; it’s always going to happen to the other bloke’.”
He describes the battle very matter-of-factly, and sometimes with laughter, as if, even now, he can’t believe he survived: “Raids all day long of 150 plus. They were pretty good, the Germans. The first thing you know is a quick squirt [of bullets] and away – to get out of the crossfire. Everything happens very quickly.”
The RAF couldn’t shoot down the vast formations of Messerschmitt 109s; there were too many. Their job, rather, was, “to turn them back”. It’s easy to forget that in the summer of 1940 the future rested on the skill of less than a thousand pilots who, together, denied Germany the air superiority required for invasion.
As GK Chesterton wrote, of another war, “They died to save their country and they only saved the world”.
“The most [enemy planes] we ever had over the Falkland Islands at one time was 12,” Morgan tells him, to which Wellum replies, “We couldn’t really miss 150 plus, because it filled the sky,” as if the task of the pilot sitting before him was harder.
“You had to search for your targets. You fought a very different war to ours – over all that sea and to find a little ship in the middle of all that ocean in the pitch dark. The only bit of sea we had was the Channel, of course. Which seemed to get wider every day.” He giggles. His medals shake.
Wellum and Morgan appear in a BBC1 documentary to commemorate the centenary of the RAF and are meeting today in the veteran’s modest home at RT’s invitation. For Morgan, it’s a rare chance to share his own experiences with someone who understands better than anyone else the torment of the cockpit.
On the day of his dogfight in the Falklands, Morgan was supposed to do training exercises in his Sea Harrier. He describes the manoeuvres.
“Yes”, interrupts Wellum, as if he, too, did them only yesterday. The comradeship is explicit. Morgan tells the story very calmly. I can hear pain – and also necessity – in his voice. “As we got close to the islands I saw this huge
“Yes”, interrupts Wellum, as if he, too, did them only yesterday. The comradeship is explicit. Morgan tells the story very calmly. I can hear pain – and also necessity – in his voice. “As we got close to the islands I saw this huge column of black smoke coming up from the [Sir] Tristram and the [Sir] Galahad. They had been hit.”
The Welsh Guards were aboard. Morgan saw a landing craft and four Argentinian aircraft about to attack it. They dropped two bombs. “I whipped the aircraft over, locked a missile, fired it, and it came off my port wing, dropped slightly and then went straight up his jet pipe. A huge explosion.”
“Serves him bloody right,” says Wellum, who used to shout at the Luftwaffe pilots from his cockpit.
“I was just completely elated,” continues Morgan. “I then shot the second guy down and once again felt huge elation at having done it. He managed to eject and went over the top of my aircraft. I switched from anger at having seeing them attack the boat, to elation at having shot them down, to incredible empathy for the pilot on the end of the parachute.”
Morgan’s colleague shot the third plane down. The fourth plane fled.
Boredom, elation, grief and terror; so these are the emotions of the fighter pilot. “The waiting,” says Wellum. “That’s the bit that got me. Sitting at dispersal waiting and knowing jolly well that that telephone was going to ring.”
“I’m still very bad with telephones,” admits Morgan. “I will do almost anything to avoid speaking on the telephone.”
“So am I,” returns Wellum. “You became an automaton. You accepted it. It wasn’t until three years later – I was in Malta – and I had a breakdown there. I quite frankly felt utterly destroyed by the war. Whether it was this PTSD we didn’t know anything about – it hadn’t been invented – but it must have been something very similar.”
Now, he says, “It gets a little vague but I can still see things. You never forget it but you put it at the back of your mind.”
I think it’s easier that way. We only see the heroism, and it comforts us. It is rather harder for the heroes.
“I suffered from PTSD really badly after the conflict,” says Morgan, “and being a fighter pilot I cured myself.” It’s a joke. “But I hadn’t cured myself. What helped me is that I’m close friends with the Skyhawk pilot I failed to shoot down. The fourth of the formation.”
His name is Hector. He came to stay with Morgan and “we had about 98 pints of scrumpy, several bottles of wine, and then shared a bottle of port after the meal. Then we got the back of an old map and two coloured pens and debriefed the fight.”
Hector told him not to worry, he was only doing his job. And, of everything they told me, this is the most extraordinary. But they are not like other men. The sky is an alien land.
By Tanya Gold
RAF at 100 is on Sunday 8.30pm BBC1