Diary of an RAF Station Chaplain during the Battle of Britain

by
13 April 2018

‘All one’s prayers can’t keep them in the sky’

IWM

Pilots of the Duxford Wing relax with drinks at Fowlmere. In the middle, with a moustache, is Harry Steere, who was decorated for bravery before the Battle began. He was killed in 1944, aged 30

Pilots of the Duxford Wing relax with drinks at Fowlmere. In the middle, with a moustache, is Harry Steere, who was decorated for bravery before the B...

FROM February 1940 to the end of 1941, the Revd Guy Mayfield served as the Station Chaplain at RAF Duxford, living and working alongside fighter pilots engaged in the Battle of Britain.

In blue RAF-issue notebooks he kept a detailed diary, transcribed by his son, Piers, and published this month by the Imperial War Museum. Stories of dancing, hangovers, and singing the Internationale at 1500 feet sit alongside accounts of missing planes, funerals, and letters to bereaved relatives.

Among the pilots with whom he formed a close relationship was a young Yorkshireman, Peter Watson. In the spring of 1940, they discussed how to live “if you are twenty and will be dead by the end of the summer”.

2 February 1940

I have arrived at my station and thanks to being at QJ, Chaplains HQ, was able to ensure that it is an operational fighter one — R.A.F. Duxford. . .

The entry into the anteroom of the Mess was an ordeal. As a “relative” squadron leader I am one of two senior officers; only the CO has a higher rank. So when I went in, hoping not to be noticed, everyone sprang to their feet — “everyone” being without exception fighter pilots — and said, “Good evening, sir”.

PIERS MAYFIELDGuy Mayfield

After that no one knew what to do or say next. But the situation was saved by a short pilot officer, with a rather cynical smile, who came across the room and said with a Yorkshire accent, “May I have the honour of getting you a drink, sir?” He expected me, as he told me later, to say “Lime juice”. And he was visibly shaken when I asked for gin.

(A day or two later I found out who he was — Peter Watson, one of the enfants terribles of 19 Squadron.) . . .

23 February 1940

I took the funeral of P/O Delamere of 222 Squadron and buried his poor bits and pieces at Whittlesford. He was a shy, elegant young man with whom no one could get on terms. He was night-flying for training and he crashed for no apparent reason. There were relatives to be written to. In the evening there was a rowdy dance in the Sergeants Mess. I didn’t dance, but talked to anyone who wanted to and propped up the bar.

(Lots came, for beer heightens the theological instincts of the English. I had not felt like going to the dance. I had been shaken a bit by the crash, by writing to the next of kin, and by the funeral. When I got to my quarters I wondered whether this was how an R.A.F. chaplain should work. I didn’t know but it seemed to be the alternative to shutting oneself away both from the spilled blood and guts and from the human beings. I went on trying to follow that way.

The chaplain was the one person who must not be shaken. He must not drown his sorrows. He should not be heavy, whatever his feelings were. He should be there. The policy seemed to work well, for almost always after a dance or a party, I would get people coming to see me to be taught, or to ask for help.)

29 February 1940

Tried to write an address this morning without success; further attempt this afternoon. Searched SHQ files for a letter on welfare. Confirmation class at 6 p.m. “Surgery hours” longer than usual and particularly full about questions re marriage. One airman asked my advice on first-night behaviour; the first night is to be spent in the Charing Cross Hotel. Did he undress in the same room as his wife? A sergeant who is RC wants to be received into the C of E.

19 Squadron were night flying after dinner. Went out to the Chance light to watch. Bitterly cold and the wind cut through my great coat. Clouston and Baker with me. We didn’t have to run it for once. Trenchard crashed while we were there. He had been missed, and we were looking for his lights when the Ops room phoned that he had crashed three miles from Whittlesford.

Heard later that he was killed at once. Clouston, who is a flight commander, went off at once to the pilots’ room. I stayed with Baker, and when the last aircraft was down, we walked back across the aerodrome to the Mess feeling very heavy. I stayed in the Mess, trying to make conversation and keep people from brooding over Trenchard.

(There were a crowd of pilots in the anteroom, sitting about silently and pretending to read “Flight” or the “Aeroplane”. I forced conversation and after a while there was a roaring discussion about the moral and personal habits of air officers and group captains which lasted till the small hours.)

Midnight – 2 a.m. – Talked to Watson who came off-duty as Orderly Officer.

(I was just about to get into bed feeling that I had done my stint when Peter appeared with beer and questions following upon Trenchard’s death. It was a relief to be able to talk realistically to him, not about Trenchard, but about the things which we keep concealed for the most part beneath the surface.

What happens when you die? Is it wrong to be frightened of dying? How should you live if you are twenty and will be dead by the end of the summer? This was the first of many talks which only appeared sad and startling in retrospect.

At the time they seemed almost to be part of service shop. Most of the pilots who came late at night to drink beer and talk followed this one topic, and when we became really involved in the war in May, they talked almost every night.

But Peter and, later on, Harold Oxlin, pushed the subject to the frontiers and we talked without restraint. With the others, I had always to be considering what to say, how best to say it, not only in principle, but to the person. With these two, the talk was unselfconscious.)

IWMFunerals at the church of St Mary and St Andrew. Although RAF Duxford took its name from the village it borders, it is in Whittlesford’s peaceful churchyard that many of Duxford’s airmen are buried, including several of those Guy cared for, and over whose funerals he presided

9 April 1940

Germany invades Norway and Denmark. So it has started. This short time at Bridlington has made me feel afresh the horror and futility of the war. I know I am sentimental about Yorkshire. The clouds were high as I came back over the Wolds yesterday and spring was in the weather, and there should have been lots of hope in one’s heart. It looked like the best country in all the whole world.

The Wold road, either via Market Weighton or via York, always grips me. It seems so wicked that the Yorkshire pilots at Duxford, for example, Peter, Peter King, John Baker and Bob Oxpring, may not see Flamborough Head again where I drove mother this time, or drive up Garrowby Hill again to Bridlington. When I was their age, I felt morally certain I had years left in which to go over the Moors and Dales. If you want to know what a Yorkshire man thinks about the Dales, ask Peter. His reply would have warmed Basil Woodd’s heart (my first vicar).

But by June who will be left? Please God all of them but almost certainly not. And we shall be weeping for our children “because they are not’’. Unlike real children, these young men are mature enough to know what they miss, as it seems to them, if they go down. Of course as a Christian, I should say “This doesn’t matter; the real life starts when this one ends.”

I know that is true and I believe it but if the physical joys are pagan, then one is still fond of them. How dreadful to die before finding out how much better life is at 30 than it was even at 22, or how happy marriage can be.

Mother has been machine gunned while coming home from shopping at Bridlington and had to lie down in the gutter. Father’s train to Hull is machine gunned now and then by raiders. But both of them spoke about these things without surprise or resentment. Victorians are tough. Saw a Hampden chasing a German raider over Bridlington Bay last night. German got away.

3 May 1940

PIERS MAYFIELDGuy’s friend Pilot Officer Peter Watson and his pet dog, Prince

The war, or the future of it, has got me down badly. I’ve been thinking over what Peter said to me yesterday after we had landed. He took up the trivial and broken ends of our conversation at Norwich. We walked out over the aerodrome for that is the only place where you can be private, if not safe.

 

I talked to him about low flying; what I’ve experienced with him is mild compared to what he does in a Spit. I told him, plainly and, at the risk of wounding his esteem, that other pilots who like him thought he is doing things in the air for which he isn’t good enough yet, and, even if he is good enough, are damn silly anyway.

I talked about the girl at Norwich, the gist of what I said being that he isn’t old enough to be stable yet, and that this piece, even from his own account, didn’t sound extra hot. He accepted it all and replied in a very depressed way: “What does it matter? I shall be killed anyway; if not killed, I shall be maimed; there won’t be much left to live with, and no job to go to after the end of the war. What kind of experience is this for taking a job and settling down?”

He said the R.A.F. would contract when the war was over; there would be no future for him there. So why not grasp some experience of something, anything, while there is a short time left? We talked and walked for a long time, very frankly and about many things with a directness that I never wanted to talk to any young man about. It clouded over the impression of wonderful weather at Old Catton, the spring and the distant hopes.

Hanging over everything is the threat of the ominous and immediate future. We both of us smelled death. So he feels the hurry to do things while there is time, and before they go or he goes. Love and life are flying away. Life at Old Catton and here is “Beer today and gone tomorrow.” 19 is a good squadron and I am fond of them all, but, oh, to have known them and their prestige and pride in the days of peace when there wasn’t any hurry because death wasn’t near.

20 May 1940

. . . Peter asked if he might come and talk. We had a long conversation about dying, about not having much time to live, about the next world, about oneself in this world, about not caring what other people think. It was a grim conversation which disturbed me very much though I don’t think I showed it. I could hardly have it so freely and agonisingly frank with anyone else. How many will come back? Which ones? All one’s prayers can’t keep them in the sky.

 IWM“Woody” Woodhall, Duxford’s Station Commander during the Battle of Britain, with whom Guy Mayfield formed a close working relationship. “Woody” finished the war as a Group Captain, and was one of the most widely respected fighter controllers in the RAF. Mayfield later became Archdeacon of Hastings

It is difficult to keep the Christian hope and the faith in the little change between the two lives. Peter and I talked long about this, and how death didn’t matter. But it does matter. I am thankful to be trying to do something as a priest, but that it should be telling young men of twenty, real good young men — and Peter isn’t the only one who asks and talks — how to die, and why there is nothing to be afraid of (except the pain which we don’t mention). I am not to let this get me down. I am to be the cheerful one on the station. Say my prayers. Germans evidently busy again in Belgium for they have got a standing patrol of their aircraft 60 miles off Harwich.

26 May 1940

19 Squadron have shot down ten. The Hornchurch wing has shot down 40 in all off the Belgian coast. Sinclair, Stevie, Peter and one other are missing. Too numb to feel much; all one can do is to pray off and on all day. We are preparing for an invasion. 20 parachutists over Dover last night — killed before they landed.

No further news of Peter and the others. They went up before breakfast towards the French coast and met about 30 Ju’s. They fell for the usual German trick, for above them MEs were waiting. It’s said that Peter and Michael Lyne got a German each. We are here all depressed and anxious about these casualties.

9.30 p.m. Rather more hopeful news. Sinclair has landed at Manston. A Sergeant Pilot is in a French hospital. Logical Lyne is wounded and landed on Margate beach. He is at Deal Hospital. (The nurse tried to remove his trousers on the beach in order to dress his wound, but he resisted this.) Peter was last seen baling out over the Channel near the French coast; there is a chance he was picked up. Stevie was last seen flying towards Germany. Ball is wounded in the head.

This has been a black and anxious Sunday: I wish I could pray as I sleep. What night thoughts for the twentieth century! Goodbye to Peter, returned with a smart salute from the cockpit; and last talk at dispersal about seeing Thel and having dinner next week.

Tonight you don’t know whether he is alive or not. It sounds so easy to say, “He bailed out over the sea”. But have you ever seen the inside of a Spit? Imagine bailing out of that, with the wind resistance, at 250 mph at the slowest! And then — he is a good swimmer. I go on saying prayers — I do for all my friends, and he is — was — one of the most loyal; but where does the prayer reach him? Whether in the flesh or the spirit I cannot say, to adapt St Paul.

This day last week we were sitting here talking about dying and was trying to explain how the Christian faith made it easier, what prayer did, how the good things we love are imperishable. He talked again about it and quoted me to myself, notably on the drive back from Thel when we were suddenly recalled. So he took it all in.

5 June 1940

Went up in a Defiant in the air gunner’s seat. A lovely day for it, all sun and no cloud. We saw 19 coming home below us. They flashed by and we turned to follow them over Cambridge and then watched from above as they beat up the aerodrome. We were up for half an hour. It was a lovely, thrilling time though not very comfortable. I am too large for the turret. I was much too nervous to move it about. Getting out in a hurry must be uncomfortable. But how hard for the gunners
fighting in those cramped boxes.

IWMEric Ball (left), “Willie” McKnight (right) and the irrepressible Douglas Bader (centre). McKnight was killed in January 1941

Frankie Brinsden has told me about Peter. The action took place early on Sunday morning. He was shot down at 8 a.m. A cannon shell hit his aircraft. He seemed to be some time getting out. The aircraft was on fire. He was seen to float down with his chute open. There was no doubt as to his identity, for he was wearing his favourite black overalls, the only pilot to have them. It is most probable that he was very badly wounded when the plane was hit. The sea was black with oil.

French and Germans were shooting those who parachuted. The Germans were taking no prisoners. One takes refuge in the likely hope that he was badly wounded enough to be unconscious before he reached the water. Stevie was seen spinning out of control over German territory. It is good to have 19 Squadron here again; but one recalls the lines:

Remember those who came not back from the war,
The bowed heads, the veiled faces.

A nice letter has come from Mrs Watson. They cling to hope. I must write and tell them gently not to hope any more. Peter showed me the ropes of the R.A.F. and didn’t allow me to feel too strange. I told him that there was no need to feel sorry for the dead, that dying was not a lonely business, that the real life, where he would have the fullness of the good things he loved here and had so little time to enjoy or work for, started when this life ended. Once again one will learn from him. But it’s a heavy business at times here, and lightened by being able to say thank you to God for knowing him.

If you have seen the inside of a Spitfire, you will know how it could become hell on earth or in the sky. Imagine trying to escape from the cockpit, wounded, and the plane doing over 300 mph. People are calling them “knights’’ and it’s just. They are the bravest of the brave. Thank God to have known so well a very “parfit gentle” one. He has made one’s own life so much happier and richer. One thing I will try not to be and that is sentimental. That would quickly draw — in a Yorkshire accent— the rebuke of “bullshitting”.

John Baker has confirmed Frankie’s account of Peter. He was hit in the side of the cockpit by a cannon shell from a ME 109. He was on the tail of another ME and had shot down a Ju 87. He came down in the sea off Calais harbour. I wonder how he managed to pull himself out of the cockpit. He can’t have lived very long.

16 December

. . . I try to keep this diary factual and make it merely a record. It’s as well. I feel I am losing the faculty for constructive, analytical thinking about myself. All one’s work is giving out; there’s little chance for anything to come in in return. I don’t analyse my own reactions to events critically enough. It’s a pity; it would help if I could.

One goes from experience to experience, hoping that the total will survive into peace if one lives to see it. So, too, one makes friends and makes them faster with the more intelligent and prays that this too may survive.

I pray that I may contrive to persuade the honest doubter about Christianity. I wonder sometimes how far the pace with which one gets to know people in these days of a short future and few reservations make it harder to convince them. It didn’t with Peter and Bob. But I see now the mistake of not presenting Christianity as essentially a matter for reasoning faith.

13 July 1941

. . . On Sunday mornings, it seems without end, I walk across the field at early dawn to celebrate communion in the chapel; there is a clear blue sky, with the threat of another scorching day; noises from the barrack blocks of the men getting up; and I say my prayers as I go; I can’t pray for temporal welfare only; but for eternal and temporal welfare of the people on my “diptychs”. Though a plea for their safety gets in; and for their safe return with honour (defend them in the heights).

IWMThe front cover of Life and Death in the Battle of Britain — this is a composite image and artificially coloured. The original photograph was taken on 27 September 1940. Walter “Farmer” Lawson (left), Brian “Sandy” Lane (centre), and George “Grumpy” Unwin (right) had all been in heavy combat that day, and Lane had also experienced difficulties with his aircraft. By this stage of the Battle, both Unwin and Lane had already been decorated for bravery. Lawson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross two months later, and went on to command No.19 Squadron after Brian Lane. He was killed in August 1941, aged 28

I suppose the simplest Christian prayer would be to commend them to God and his love. But it’s not easy to be simple; there are some things that are bound to happen; and I don’t want my prayers merely to be a safety valve; I do try to make them in line with God’s will, which is their safety; even though He doesn’t attach as much importance to the temporal part as I do. And I can’t take the position that He must be on our side; war is wrong anyway; and, even though those who get caught up in it may start by having clean hands, they can’t remain very long like that. It’s all soiling in the end.

Have returned again and again to the story of wrestling Jacob and have now read all the commentaries I have on it; but of course the commentaries miss the point of the story as a type of spiritual experience of God and man.

The point is often made that there is some identity between God and man in the common experience of suffering; but those who make the point don’t expand it enough. They don’t go on to say that suffering involves hanging on like grim death, hanging on to you know not what, with your eye-lids, rather than let go. “I will not let thee go, unless thou bless me.” There are times when I think I must be agnostic about what I hang on to: except it’s something more solid than I am, and immovable.

I suppose that; despite what I’ve written earlier, much of my prayers must be a safety valve; and if God is pity and mercy, why shouldn’t they be? As long as they aren’t becoming self-centred and a chat with God-in-my-pocket.

I don’t think there is too much risk of this and therefore of subjectivism, for so much of the prayer comes up as the result of allusion; in what one sees, hears, does; so that the actions of duty and service routine, the sight of familiar objects and the association of people with things, become the occasions for, as it were, a step to one side to let the light in and my own darkness out.

Passages in italics were written by Guy Mayfield at a later date, as he reflected on
his wartime impressions

 
Life and Death in the Battle of Britain is published by the Imperial War Museum on 19 April at £9.99. Pre-order the book here.

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