Defence Versus Offfence

Actually, once you have done a few hours’ flying in a Spitfire and become accustomed to the great power and speed, then it is an extraordinarily easy machine to fly and it is absolutely marvellous for aerobatics. Practically everybody who has flown a Spitfire thinks it is the most marvellous aircraft ever built, and I am no exception to the general rule. I grew to like it more than any other machine I have flown. It is so small and compact and neat, yet it possesses devastating fire power, and it is still probably the best and fastest fighter in the world. The new fighters which will soon be coming into service will have to do very well to equal the Spitfire’s amazing record of success.

—Flight Lieutenant D.M. Crook

And now I see with eye serene / The very pulse of the machine; / A being breathing thoughtful breath, / A Traveller between life and death; the reason firm, the temperate will, / Endurance, foresight, strength and skill; / A perfect Woman, nobly planned, / To warn, to comfort, and command; / And yet a Spirit still, and bright / With something of angelic light.

—from She Was A Phantom of Delight by William Wordsworth

As the Battle gathered pace, the growing concern of Dowding and his commanders would have puzzled the Luftwaffe’s top fighter aces—men like Werner Mölders and Adolf Galland. Day by day, it was plain that their onslaught was being slowly but decisively repulsed. On one visit to Mölders, at the headquarters of Fighter Group 51, Major Fritz von Forell found his old friend in despair following yet another abortive conference with Goering. “It will turn out all right,” Mölders mimicked the Reichsmarschall’s lusty optimism. “Everything’s been all right so far.” Then he ended gloomily: “So far! I wonder if Goering is really the general, politician and strategist that we need?”

Although Mölders was reluctant to acknowledge it, the Luftwaffe was as unequal to the task of neutralizing the RAF as Lord Gort’s British Expeditionary Force had been to check the relentless advance of the panzers from the west.

All along, the Luftwaffe’s main role had been to support the army in the field, as in Poland and France. Its strength had always lain in short-range fighters, like the ME 109, which the old hands called ‘Emil’, divebombers like the Stukas that had wrought such havoc at Dunkirk, and twin-engined level-flight medium bombers. On paper this was the world’s largest air force, with 4,093 first-line aircraft (with 3,646 operational) yet at the outbreak of war it had lacked night bombers, bombs larger than 1,000 pounds, air torpedoes, modern mines, modern armament and bombsights.

From Karinhall, his vast feudal estate forty miles northeast of Berlin, Goering had thus far run the Battle as his own private war, without reference to either the Army or the Navy. Euphoric on a daily intake of thirty paracodeine tablets, a mild drug to which he was addicted, the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, lived in a world of fantasy, where the trappings of a nouveau-riche quite eclipsed the battlefront of the Pas de Calais: an art gallery packed with Renoirs, a bowling alley, a private cinema, gold-plated baths and canary cages shaped like divebombers. As a thrusting Minister of Aviation from 1935 on, Goering had brought the Luftwaffe to its peak, but he now so disdained technical detail that Erhard Milch, as Inspector-General, was granted an audience once every three months.

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On the Spitfire fighter production line at the Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, factory where nearly 12,000 Spitfires and 300 Lancaster bombers were built during the Second World War.

A Rolls-Royce Merlin aero engine being installed in a Spitfire at the Castle Browwich plant in the Second World War.

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A member of the Royal Observer Corps at his post during the Battle.

It was thus in keeping that Goering pinned most of his faith in two planes supremely unfitted for the combat. Pride of place was given to the twin-seater, twin-engined ME110, known as Zerstörer (destroyer), an escort fighter designed to clear the way for mass bomber attacks, with a maximum cruising range of 680 miles. But the ME110, when loaded, outweighed the streamlined ME109 by almost 10,000 pounds. In the French campaign, it had won easy laurels, but its lack of manoeuvring and speed were a byword with the pilots.

In combat their stock tactic was what the RAF called “the circle of death,” a defensive gambit which had the machines circling warily, each guarding the other’s tailplane. “They broke formation and formed a great big circle,” Sergeant John Burgess, a Spitfire pilot remembered. “I’m not sure that forty were in the circle, but certainly a part of them was”. It was a tactic that Major Hennig Strümpell, an ME 109 commander for Fighter Group 2, viewed with distaste. Early in the battle he had found himself, like Burgess, in the middle of one such circle, dogfighting with a Spitfire, while ME110s blasted tracer at both of them impartially.

Yet to all arguments against their use, Goering remained obdurate: “If the fighters are the sword of the Luftwaffe, the ME110 Zerstörer is the point of that sword.” Goering’s resolute faith in the Stuka troubled his commanders, too. When the Luftwaffe held the sky, the JU87 Stuka had been unrivalled for precision bombing and close infantry support; in recognition of this, they now made up one-third of the Luftwaffe’s bomber force. Yet their disastrous losses in the convoy attack of 8 August had presaged the shape of things to come, and twice within ten days, on 12 and 18 August, the pattern was repeated. The Stukas, their speed throttled back by air brakes, streaked for their target at 310 mph; lacking any such brakes, the ME 109s protecting them screamed past at 375 mph, so that time and again the RAF picked off the Stukas with unerring accuracy.

The sortie of 18 August was no exception. Briefed to attack targets round Portsmouth harbour in the hope of drawing up British fighters, Major Paul Hozzel joked incredulously: “But that’s just like showing a dog a sausage.” In the melee that ensued, Hozzel was proven right: many of his Stukas blew up like fantastic fiery rockets with their bombs still on board. Oberleutnant Kurt Scheffei crash-landed near Caen so weak from loss of blood that the ground crews had to lift him from the plane. One wing commander, Major Walter Enneccerus, limped back to complain bitterly to the top brass: “They ripped our backs open right up to the collar.”

At his Cherbourg headquarters, even the 8th Flying Corps martinet commander, the Baron von Richtofen, was appalled by the news: eighteen out of twenty-eight Stukas had been lost or severely damaged. His diary entry was succinct:” A Stuka wing has had its feathers well and truly plucked.” From this moment, the Stukas—280 aeroplanes—were virtually withdrawn from the battle.

A bitter bone of contention then with Goering’s pilots was the role of the ME 109. As fast as a Spitfire (its maximum speed was 354 mph) and faster than a Hurricane, it could outdive and outclimb both, and its worth had been more than proven in the Spanish Civil War. Yet in the Battle, more often than not, it was forced to play nurse-maid to the lumbering bombers—all of them, from slim pencil-shaped Dorniers to slow scantily armed Heinkel 111s were dubbed ‘furniture vans’ by the fighter pilots. Often 120 fighters were assigned to protect a bomber formation forty miles long—“as frustrated as polo ponies,” commented the war correspondent Leonard Mosley, “acting as outriders on a herd of slaughterhouse steers. “The ME 109s with an operational radius of 125 miles and a tactical flying time of ten minutes, were thus severely hampered. If the RAF chose to fight, they were left with eight minutes combat time before breaking away.

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Fighter pilots of the German Air Force in the summer of 1940.

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A British ARP warden wearing his gas mask.

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Barrage balloons whose mooring cables were intended to imperil low-flying enemy aircraft over the cities of Britain.

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Wartime scenes in the Castle Bromwich Spitfire factory before and after a German bombing raid.

Soon, as with Dowding’s crews, every Luftwaffe pilot was feeling the stress. Each found himself watching his fuel gauge anxiously in the interval of scanning the sky; the red warning bulb on the instrument panel that showed fuel running low prompted a code cry: “Trübsel” (distress). As Oberleutnant Hans von Hahn reported in a letter home, “There aren’t many of us who haven’t made a forced landing in the Channel in a badly shot-up plane or without a propeller.”

Although Goering could scarcely ignore the mounting Zerstörer losses—for its fifty-three-feet span as against the 109’s thirty-two feet always led the RAF to single it out—he now reached an incredible decision. From 16 August every Zerstörer must be shepherded into battle by an escort of ME 109s—a fighter in the farcical predicament of itself needing fighter protection.

Few of the wing commanders summoned to Karinhall felt comfortable in Goering’s presence. Away from the fighting front, hemmed in by natty staff officers with white and raspberry striped trousers, Adolf Galland felt ill-at-ease, and the ritual of ‘the cigar game’ particularly bothered him: all Goering’s favourites covertly tucked stolen Havanas up their sleeves, and the Reichsmarschall, pounding their forearms in farewell, would break the cylinders, hooting with laughter, before making good the loss. Mölders, on at least one occasion, had doubts concerning Goering’s sanity. Following his release from a Toulouse prison camp, once France fell, Mölders had been dining at Karinhall when Goering, without warning, had clapped an empty wine glass on the tablecloth. “Look Emmy,” he hailed his wife, shaking with crazy laughter. “Look what I’ve got! A flea! A present from Mölders from captivity!”

Strangely, neither air fleet commander attempted to wean Goering from his world of fantasy. Feldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, whose 300-pound bulk earned him the nickname ‘The Monocled Elephant’, remained remote from the conflict in Air Fleet Three’s Paris HQ; as the one-time commander of the Condor Legion, Sperrle was a specialist in low-level saturation bombing and thus to some extent out of his depth.

By contrast, Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring, abandoning Air Fleet Two’s HQ in Brussels, had installed himself in ‘The Holy Mountain’, a bomb-proof HQ forty steps below ground at Cap Blanc Nez, determined to check on the triumph or failure of every plane that took off. Neither man had much contact with Goering, who was once surprised in his Paris hotel suite by his signals chief, General Wolfgang Martini, clad only in a sky-blue dressing gown and describing by telephone to Emmy how he was at that moment on the cliffs at Calais, overseeing the squadrons that thundered towards England.

One of the few men to voice a caution was Oberst Werner Junck, Air Fleet Three’s regional flight commander. If the ME 109 was to be employed increasingly as a bodyguard, he suggested, serious thought should be given to stepping up fighter production, since only 320 ME109s had rolled from the assembly lines during July. At the current rate of attrition, the Luftwaffe would need to shoot down four British fighters for every one they lost. But Goering saw any such move as fatal to home front morale. “I must take your pulse to see if you are all right physically,” he told Junck, a patronising hand outstretched, “It seems you have taken leave of your senses.”

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A still from the 1942 British Aviation Pictures film The First of The Few.

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General feldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, a veteran of the First World War and the Spanish Civil War, commanded Luftflotte 3 in the Battle of Britain.

It was at this time too that Goering issued an order which beggared belief: it had come to his attention that the Zerstörers called their tactical manoeuvre ‘the circle of defense’, and this was expressly forbidden. It would be ‘the offensive circle’, in keeping with Luftwaffe belly-fire, from now on. “Ah,” sighed Oberleutnant Friedrich Vollbracht, whose Zerstörer group had been wiped out by mid-September, “it’s still the same old circle.”

Through black misfortune, the RAF, too, had their Zerstörer counterpart, a twin-seater fighter the Boulton Paul Defiant. As far back as 29 May, the Defiant had confounded all the sceptics with a ‘kill’ of thirty-seven Stukas over Dunkirk; ten days later their ‘bag’ had risen to sixty-five, while the Germans, mistaking No. 264 (Defiant) Squadron for humpbacked Hurricanes, had been mown down by the withering fire from the rear gunners. At Kirton-in-Lindsey, on the Lincolnshire fens, 100 miles from the battleline, Spitfire pilot John Burgess remembered 264 well: “They were a little full of their own importance and they’d done well over Dunkirk and they were expected to wipe the Luftwaffe from the skies.” Soon after breakfast on 20 August, their CO, Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, signalled the walkover. “Just stuff a toothbrush in a parachute bag,” he briefed them confidently. “Don’t worry about kit.”

The severe mauling that another Defiant squadron—No. 141—had undergone in mid-July was thus conveniently forgotten.

This was no oversight on the part of Dowding or of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, commanding No. 11 Group. For Dowding, after four years at Stanmore, Fighter Command had become his life, with no salient detail escaping him. A vegetarian and a near-teetotaller, who also dabbled in spirtualism, Dowding was never known to enter the officers’ mess; his entire day was a punishing routine at his desk broken only by quick breaks for lunch and dinner at ‘Montrose’, the rambling villa nearby where his sister Hilde kept house. Although his austere demeanour hid a sardonic sense of humour—“It makes me look like a gloomy newt peering from under a stone,” he commented on his official photograph—he somehow never achieved rapport with the pilots known as “Dowding’s Chicks.” When Squadron Leader John Ellis, commanding No. 610 Squadron, broached the wastage of novices downed on their first flight, the C-in-C, on a visit to Biggin Hill, was frosty. If twelve planes were serviceable, twelve pilots would at all times be airborne.

“They’re really nothing but passengers who never check on their tails,” Ellis volunteered, but beyond his first pronouncement, Dowding refused to be drawn.

At HQ 11 Group, Uxbridge, Keith Park, a canny New Zealander, and not one to suffer fools gladly, was equally aware of the Defiants’ vulnerability: direct and informal, Park, as his P.A., Flying Officer Donald Wiseman knew, had made ‘going round his men’ a speciality, open to the views of everyone from ground crews to ops room staff. Yet by 21 August, neither Park nor Dowding could see any other way; six squadrons had been pulled from the battle-line, 426 aircraft had been written off and 222 were undergoing repairs. The breach was wide open and No. 264 Squadron would have to fill it.

What followed, as every squadron survivor would testify, was stark slaughter: with the Defiants it was gunners like Pilot Officer Fredric Sutton and Flight Lieutenant Clifford Ash who called the tune and by now the Luftwaffe knew it. Lacking all forward armament and with a maximum speed of 304 miles an hour, the pilots relied solely on their gunner’s verbal instructions to manoeuvre into a firing position. The aerial twentieth century equivalent of cannon fodder, they were powerless against frontal attack, as one novice, Flight Lieutenant E.W. Campbell-Colquhoun, promoted to pilot after one flight, soon discovered. Unable even to identify the buttons and switches on his instrument panel, he mistakenly joined up with three ME 109s, whose cannon shells exploded his Very cartridges. Choking with smoke, his Defiant alive with bouncing coloured balls, he touched down at Manston and pelted for a slit trench. This five-minute skirmish cost the squadron six men and three machines, and on 25 August, tangling with more than fifty ME 109s over Herne Bay, three more were lost.

By 28 August, after only four days in action, the massacre of the Defiants was complete: eleven aircraft had been sacrificed, and fourteen lives, among them Squadron Leader Philip Hunter. Flight Lieutenant Campbell-Colquhoun telephoned his wife to drive him back to Kirton-in-Lindsey. His hands were shaking so badly that it was impossible to light a cigarette, let alone grip the steering wheel of their car.

In the last resort, the Battle of Britain was to resolve into an unremitting combat of Hurricanes and Spitfires against ME 109s, with the public’s affections, perversely centred on the Spitfires. As early as 8 August, the merchant skippers of the Channel convoy had hailed their Hurricane-saviours as Spitfires. As late as 15 September, a German pilot, shot down by a Hurricane near Maidstone, had added his tribute, “Well done, Spitfire. “Two years later, on the Battle’s second anniversary, the movie epic The First of the Few, starring Leslie Howard in the role of the Spitfire’s creator, Reginald J. Mitchell, set the seal on the legend.

Yet sheer logistics gave that legend the lie. All told only nineteen Spitfire squadrons took part in the Battle; at peak, on 30 August, exactly 372 Spitfires were ready for operations. By contrast, Hawker Hurricane squadrons totalled thirty-three, with a total of 709 planes available for front line operations on 30 August.

The Spitfire legend began, by sheer chance, on Wedsnesday, 10 July, one month before battle was finally joined. It was then that a broadcast made on Beaverbrook’s behalf by Lady Reading, chairman of the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence) exhorted all British housewives to yield up “everything made of aluminium, everything that they could possibly give to be made into aeroplanes… cooking utensils of all kinds… if you are doubtful, give our aeroplanes the benefit of the doubt and please be generous …”

The response was overwhelming. One WVS official, leaving Broadcasting House minutes later, saw women hurrying to the collecting depot with saucepans still warm from the stove. The Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose donated miniature teapots and kettles forgotten from the nursery. At Oxted, Surrey, one Home Guardsman was put to work with a sledgehammer demolishing all the aluminium articles in a garage thirty feet long. One old lady, handing in a frying pan, set the keynote: it was to go towards a Spitfire, which she felt had the edge on a Hurricane. Ten months later, when the Battle was virtually over, the appeal had yielded a thousand tons of metal, yet as one Beaverbrook aide, David Farrer commented caustically: “It is doubtful if the gift of pots and pans created a single Spitfire or Hurricane … but to a considerable number of people … (Beaverbrook) had given a sense of purpose.”

The reality as most front-line veterans knew, was different. To some pilots, like Pilot Officer Red Tobin, no aircraft ever sang a blither tune than the Spitfire’s 1,000 hp engine—“the sweetest little ship I’ve ever flown,” he had written in a letter home. Others in turn would rhapsodise over the eight powerful .303 Browning machine-guns, the rate of climb (2,530 feet a minute), the maximum speed (at 19,000 feet) of 355 miles an hour. Some are still uncompromising. “All the Hurricanes couldn’t have won the Battle of Britain,” said Norman Ryder, a flight commander on No. 41 Squadron. “All the Spitfires could. A Hurricane was virtually useless at 23,000 feet and a lot of fighting was going on above that height.” Flight Lieutenant Finlay Boyd, of No. 602 Squadron, who turned down command of a Hurricane squadron, agrees. “From a fighting point of view, as a dogfighter, they were never surpassed.”

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Boulton-Paul Defiants of No. 264 Squadron at Kirton-in-Lindsey.

Other ‘aces’ more consciously weigh the pros and cons. “The Spitfire was better than the 109,” allows Al Deere, “except in a straight dive, we could do anything they could do, and better.” “Without question, the Spitfire was far better at altitude than the Hurricane,” said Geoffrey Page, “so we knew when flying Hurricanes that the ME 109 could outdive us … the Hurricane was a more rugged aeroplane … it would take in more punishment when hit by enemy fire.”

To its credit, the Spitfire, with its classic elliptical silhouette and beautiful thin wings matched up to a pilot’s definition: “If it looks right, it is right.” Almost all the survivors’ evaluations stress a feminine comparison. A bulldog and a greyhound is the simile that occurred to Geoffrey Page; to Pilot Officer Glen Niven, of 602, it was “like driving a racing car as opposed to a truck.” For Bob Doe, himself a violinist manqué, “it was a musician’s aeroplane.” Yet even admirers conceded that the stressed-metal Spitfire, less resistant to exploding cannon shells, needed the care of special servicing units at designated “Spitfire bases.”

Most pilots who acknowledged the Hurricane’s supremacy at first did so grudgingly For Robert Stanford Tuck, his first encounter, on 9 September, was with “a flying brick, a great lumbering stallion.” Bob Doe’s appraisal, after time on Spitfires, is earthier: “a brick-built shit-house.” Yet both men at widely divergent times, confessed themselves won over by the fighter’s indomitability. “She was solid,” Tuck admitted freely. “She was steady as a rock and was a wonderful gun platform. My God, the punishment those Hurricanes could take.” “It was strong,” Doe amplified. “It could turn on a sixpence. It was a brutal machine where the guns were really fixed firmly.” John Burgess was another Spitfire pilot attesting to the Hurricane’s worth. “Because the Spitfire was reckoned to be a better match for the 109s … the Hurricanes were usually vectored to the bombers.”

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A Mk I Spitfire of No. 19 Squadron at RAF Fowlmere in 1940.

Flight mechanics echoed that enthusiasm: the Hurricane, with its traditional construction of wood and fabric stiffened by a metal tube framework, and its powerful 1,030 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, was a ground crew’s dream. It was a “go anywhere, do anything plane,” in one man’s estimate, “a defensive fighter, a workhorse,” in the words of its historian Paul Gallico. Eric Marsden remembered how at Westhampnett “We could turn our Hurricanes in 145 Squadron round in eight minutes … the whole thing was rather like a modern pit stop in Grand Prix car racing.”

It was a classic case of the plane meeting the need of the hour: by 1941, the Hurricane, now reduced to a fighter/bomber role, was obsolete in fighter-to-fighter encounters. Yet the Hurricanes which took part in the Battle made 80 per cent of the ‘kills’ claimed by Fighter Command. One such was claimed over Southampton on 16 August, when twenty-three-year-old Flight Lieutenant James Nicholson, until then a stranger to combat, was, surprisingly, jumped by an ME110 Zerstörer at 18,000 feet and hit by four cannon shells. One shell tearing through the perspex hood, peppered his left eye with splinters and blinded him with blood. A second shell struck his reserve petrol tank and in one searing moment his plane took fire. More shells tore away his trouser leg, disabling his left heel.

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A shot-up tail fin of a German Stuka divebomber.

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WAAF plotters at work during the Battle.

But Nicholson was piloting a Hurricane, and although his cockpit was now an inferno, the instrument panel “dripping like toffee”, it continued to fly straight and true, closing on the ME110 at 400 mph as his right thumb, boiling with white blisters, pressed the gun button. Aftewards he swore—perhaps partisan testimony—that although the Zerstörer twisted and turned to evade the bullets, his Hurricane, “as though by an instinct of her own, was following the evasive action.”

The Hurricane held its course long enough for Nicholson to see the Zerstörer fall smoking for the sea, then at 5,000 feet, with flames lapping at his trousers, he baled out. His was just one of 1,715 Hurricanes involved in the Battle, yet three months later, when it was all over, Flight Lieutenant Nicholson was the one pilot in Fighter Command to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace. / The soul that knows it not Knows no release from little things; / Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear / The sound of wings. / How can life grant its boon of living, compensate / For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate / Unless we dare / The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay With courage to behold the restless day, / And count it fair.

Courage by Amelia Earhart

And thou are dead, as young and fair / As aught of mortal birth; / And form so soft, and charms so rare,/Too soon returned to earth!

—from And Thou Art Dead by George Gordon, Lord Byron

They had developed a painful sensitivity to certain sounds: the telephone and the Tannoy. Each made a preliminary noise. The telephone produced a little click before it rang; the Tannoy uttered a gentle buzz.

—from Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson

Having mastered the cockpit drill, I got in and taxied out on the aerodrome, sat there for one moment to check that everything was OK, and then opened up to full throttle. The effect took my breath away. The engine opened up with a great smooth roar, the Spitfire leapt forward like a bullet and tore madly across the aerodrome, and before I had realized quite what happened I was in the air. I felt as though the machine was completely out of control and running away with me. However, I collected my scattered wits, raised the undercarriage, and put the airscrew into coarse pitch, and then looked round for the aerodrome, which to my astonishment I saw was already miles behind.

—Flight Lieutenant D.M.Crook

Do unto the other feller the way he’d like to do unto you / an’do it fust.

—from David Harum by E.N. Westcott

They plough the’ drome and scatter/The Hurricanes around: “Well, what the hell’s the matter / If I came in too near the ground?” / Then comes the flight mechanic upon the scene to mourn / And to him says the dimwit / “I didn’t hear the horn!” / A spot of work, and out she goes, / I hope we’ll pack up now. / Another bastard’s on his nose—Why did I leave the plough! / So out again with lots of rope, / We’d like to use it on the dope! / We find him smoking Players Please / As we wade in mud up to our knees. A still small voice within us sings / If only we could have your wings, / And you the spanners, drivers, screw—We’d see that you had lots to do. / Dear Lord, who gives the angels wings—/We pray you so to order things / That wingless creatures like the erk / Shall not be done to death with work.

—from A Fitter’s Lament by Jack Ashford

Snap back the canopy, Pull out the oxygen tube, / Flick the harness pin / And slap out into the air, / Clear of the machine. / You knew that you must float / From the sun above the clouds / To the gloom beneath, from a world / Of rarefied splendour to one Of cheapened dirt, close-knit / In its effort to encompass him / In death.

—from Parachute Descent by David Bourne

Yes, quaint and curious war is! / You shoot a fellow down / You’d treat if me where any bar is, / Or help to half-a-crown.

—from The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy

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