The Man Who Fell To Earth
(1918 – 1982)
RAF Pilot and Squadron Leader
He was a friend of Dickie's and that was always good enough for me, both members of a fraternity (85 Squadron) that is all but gone now. Like the Hole in the Wall Gang in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid they belong to a different age, one overtaken by a modern world which replaced the horse drawn cart with petrol powered motors and the propeller with jet engines.
Albert. It's not a romantic name; a bit too Victorian, too bowler hat, for a young man who embraced so unreservedly the new craze, as it was then, of flying. For a man accustomed to wearing an aviator's helmet and often enough to carrying and using a parachute (a piece of kit that would save his life on more than one occasion). A barnstormer unafraid to take the fight to the enemy, to pitch his aircraft into the most hostile of skies.
He had the right to be called ace but that would have been too pretentious, too ironic. So he acquired the nick name "Zulu", in recognition of his South African origins. A fitting name for the bravest of warriors.
Ace In A Day! And not just once but twice. Shooting down at least five enemy aircraft in a single day. He would have been modest about that in an age when you didn't brag — or shoot a line, as they called it — about your achievements. It just wasn't done. Bad form that could easily translate into bad luck, and no pilot wanted that following him into the air.
And like Dickie he was a Hurricane pilot, guiding that most robust of aircraft through the aerial storms that came and went in the summer of 1940, his aircraft a more redoubtable shield than the one offered by the faster but more delicate Spitfire.
Try as I might, I couldn't find a picture of him frowning into the camera. It can only have been a love of flying, or the absurdity of a handful of pilots taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, that kept the gloom at bay. And in the middle of the Battle of Britain there would have been plenty to scowl about. The odds, never favourable, of surviving a scramble, of evading the bullets and rocket shells of Goering’s airborne death squads.
But live he did, and not just through the Battle of Britain but through its predecessor the Battle of France (often flying back to England in a badly damaged Hurri). And then on to overseas service in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): a grass airfield in the middle of the jungle, where yet again he took a tumble in the air, falling back to earth to survive fever and injury.
Shot down in flames repeatedly — a bail out specialist who would only abandon his plane when both plane and pilot were in extremis — he always went back to his squadron, even after he was badly burned and blind for two weeks. What made him do it? Honour? Duty? Most certainly; but also the call of the sky. The siren song of the deep.
The destroyer of Messerschmitts. And Heinkels. And Junkers. A slayer of dragons in an age when that meant something. When dragons still existed in a dying age of gallantry, before they morphed into demons.
He was the golem that enemy pilots tried hard to avoid. One of the few who lived to tell of his adventures. The man who fell to Earth and lived to walk away. To climb back into his Hurricane and take to the skies again.