R.A.F. Middle East - The Official Story of Air Operations

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I .PATTERN OF AIR POWER I—Something New in the Middle East AboVE 35,000 feet without a pressure cabin a man struggles to remain conscious even with the help of oxygen. He can suffer not only from intense cold but also from temporary paralysis of the limbs, expanding gases which distend the intestines, and sometimes from “the bends,” an affliction which deep-sea divers can also know, in which all the joints of the body are gripped in a pain said to be more intense than any other. Great height also has a temporary effect on a man’s mind, plunging him into despondency against his will. On August 24th, 1942, Flying Officer G.W.H. Reynolds, D.F.C., flying a Spitfire which had been modified and stripped of most things save its guns, sighted a Ju.86 reconnaissance aircraft with two men sitting insecurely a pressure cabin in the nose, just north of Cairo. He pursued it towards Alexandria and then out to sea at an ever-increasing height. At 37,000 feet he almost reached it and began to zig-zag back and forth just below in order not to overshoot. The Ju.86 zig-zagged in the same way, trying to stay just above the Spitfire and force it to lose a little height on each turn. The long, slow duel in the rarefied atmosphere proceeded in this manner until Reynolds was at a height of 40,000 feet. He realised that he could not get any higher until he had used some more petrol to lighten his aircraft. He started to calculate how much petrol he could use and how far out to sea he could go before he would be forced to turn back in order to reach home safely, for he had aban­doned his Mae West life-saving jacket and his dinghy to save weight, keeping only a parachute. In the middle of these calculations he temporarily blacked out, having just sufficient time to turn his oxygen tap to “full emergency” to bring himself round again. He then slowly forced the Spitfire higher still. At 42,000 feet he was practically level with the Ju.86, slowly closing. At a range of 50 yards he opened fire. Flame and grey smoke whipped backwards from the starboard engine of the enemy, which banked sharply to the left. Reynolds had intended to follow but his Spitfire began not to function properly and he fell nearly 10,000 feet very quickly. The pilot’s own physical endurance was practically exhausted.“ I had been experiencing great pain at that height,” he said, “as I was over 40,000 feet for nearly half an hour and felt rather ill. toAdded this, my petrol and oxygen were low and I wished to get home as quickly as possible. I landed at base with five gallons of petrol left.” He did not know when he landed whether or not he had destroyed the Ju.86, but its loss was afterwards confirmed. The first stratosphere reconnaissance aircraft had been shot down. The destruction of this Ju.86 was the first success in a struggle between the German strato­sphere reconnaissance of Egypt—the only day­light activity over that country that the Luftwaffe usually dared attempt—and a small group oftest pilots and engineers of the R.A.F. who maintained that these high-flying Germans, inaccessible to any other weapon, could be reached and destroyed by a modified Spitfire even in the hot skies of that part of the world. The pilots who undertook this task were not young men. Reynolds, who destroyed the first Ju.86, was a man approaching 40 years of age, yet he flew above 40,000 feet some 25 times within a month. His first success came only after much trial and endurance, but the three other Ju.86 aircraft which the Germans pos­sessed for this work of reconnaissance were soon to be destroyed as the first had been. 6
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