RAF chaplain Guy Mayfield was posted to RAF Duxford, a key fighter base, in February 1940, just a few months before the Battle of Britain. There, he became a confidant to the young airmen who would fly and die in the confrontation that would secure our survival. His wartime diary, published for the first time to coincide with the RAF’s 100th anniversary today, is an enthralling yet darkly humorous insight into the remarkable lives of The Few…
December 12, 1939
At midnight yesterday I became a chaplain Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Edwards, the Assistant Chaplain-in-Chief of the RAF, described in his first talk to us, 30 new-fledged chaplains, what kind of war we might have to face.
He didn’t seem to know very much himself, but said that it was expected to become violent by the spring, and that by the summer of 1940, 40 per cent of the aircrew we should meet on our stations would be dead. The average age of RAF personnel, not simply aircrew, is 23. Certainly the first impression gained in the mess here is one of extreme youth. The pilot officers in particular look like schoolboys. One feels the temptation to tell them that they are staying up too late.
January 21, 1940
Everyone is extremely friendly to RAF chaplains; more so, I am told, than to Army ones. This is probably because we look a bit more dashing in our ‘a***-over-tip’ caps. The two chaplains’ badges with wings which we wear on our lapels are misinterpreted often as being the brevet which pilots wear or as some decoration for aerial valour. I get embarrassed when people on a bus thank me for ‘the splendid show you fellows are putting up’.
Scramble: Spitfire pilots rush to their cockpits in RAF Duxford
I have arrived at my station, RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire. There was a warm welcome, for my arrival implied the station had become more important. I was taken to the mess. The doctor, Browne, also RAF Volunteer Reserve, gave me a very cold, clinical look and exclaimed: ‘My God! What next? A b****y parson!’ But when he saw me drink gin, he unbent.
I took the funeral of Pilot Officer Arthur Delamore of 222 Squadron and buried his poor bits and pieces. 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. 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. The chaplain was the one person who must not be shaken. He must not drown his sorrows.
Went out to watch 19 Squadron night-flying after dinner. Bitterly cold and the wind cut through my greatcoat. Trenchard crashed while we were there.
THE talk in the mess this evening was about bailing out. It seems that even if your parachute doesn’t open, you remain conscious till you make your hole in the ground. The station engineering officer told us of fingernails torn away in attempts to open the parachute when the release device has failed or the wearer can’t find the release.
Trenchard’s funeral. A fine day for it. It was a particularly unhappy affair. His fiancee was there: her looks were sufficient to make one want to cry. I tried to say good things to her when the service was over. The waste, the criminal waste that these funerals represent.
The new station commander is [Group Captain Alfred] ‘Woody’ Woodhall. Had tea with him and his monocle. Soon after his arrival he sent for me and talked about the morale and discipline of the pilots. I was to get them to bed earlier. I was to see that they drank less. ‘But how, sir?’ ‘By drinking with them yourself and setting an example.’
Confidant to the few: Guy Mayfield during his days as an RAF chaplain
New WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] CO has arrived, thank God. But first impressions suggest that she is a shocker. She is a parson’s wife and wants to run the WAAFs like a Sunday school. Wants me to hold compulsory parade services for them. She seems to be a maniac for compulsory everything (no wonder her husband said: ‘Join up, my dear, your duty is clear’).
Germany invades Norway and Denmark. So it has started. By June who will be left? Please God all of them but almost certainly not. 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.
Felt encouraged by increase of eight in the number of communicants. We had 15 at Easter; the usual number is about three to five. There are a nominal 1,000 on the station, but possibly only a third are off-duty and free to come at any time. Smalley [a squadron adjutant] has told me not to worry about numbers: ‘When they hear the first big bang and mess their pants, they’ll come all right.’
Blunden came to see me for most of the morning. It took a long time to get him to talk plainly and simply for he was very frightened. He is being made to sign for an aircraft as being airworthy when he knows that it isn’t. He is a fitter and the Flight Sergeant tells him to sign. Fortunately, I’ve got the confidence of Nicky [Nicholls], the adjutant. So I went and told him what was happening but begged him to act without names coming up. He asked nothing except the name, and the Flight Sergeant departed to a posting which at my hint had nothing to do with aircraft. The Flight Sergeant has gone, no reason given. The Spitfire [in question] has been rechecked.
Bader’s crash-landing fury
May 1, 1940
Douglas Bader came in from a patrol. He has been doing more than his share of patrols. He landed with his undercarriage up. We all saw it. The aircraft isn’t very good; but he isn’t hurt. He is flying off on leave, so he strode with his parachute from the crashed aircraft to the Maggy [two-seater plane]. He was still in a furious temper at landing with his wheels up, and all our soothing had no effect. He took his parachute, and flung it hard on the wing of the Maggy, saying, “F*** everything.” ’
Hero pilot: Douglas Bader in October 1940
The parachute went straight through the wing, making a lovely hole in it. So that was the second aircraft he had temporarily written off in an afternoon. But it restored his balance. Another aircraft was found, and he took off in that.
TEA here with Douglas, who described his adventures yesterday with the rear gunner of a Dornier [German aircraft] who bailed out and got caught in the tail. The other crew bailed out successfully.
The Dornier did several loops; the man could not free himself, so, mercifully surely, Douglas, to use his word, ‘squirted’ him. The night barrage and bomb flashes over London have been visible this week. Douglas was saying how it makes him see red to find the Germans over London in the day time just plastering the civilians.
Germany invaded Belgium and Holland. The whole station and, I expect, the RAF is in a flap. The machine gunners are being trained in musketry, though there aren’t enough rifles for them.
The dug-outs are being pumped free of water. A most secret order from Air Ministry tells us how to make pikestaffs from sharp knives, presumably to stick up the backsides of the parachutists when they land; and of course they won’t be firing on us when they come down! I was with Douglas Bader when the order came for 222 Squadron to leave at once for Digby [an RAF base in Lincolnshire]. So that for the moment is goodbye to Douglas, who is one of the bravest men I have ever met and one of the most cheerful. He will be an immense loss to us all on the station, because of his courage, his cheerfulness; the example of his two wooden legs has kept us all up to the mark.
Hell of flap this evening. At 9.30pm it was reported that ‘they’ were coming in by the hundred over Yarmouth. The mess emptied in a minute and beer was left unfinished. The Medical Officer and I went to 66 dispersal point. In 15 minutes everything was called off. A false alarm.
I’ve drawn a gun and ammunition from 19 Squadron armoury. This is contrary to the Geneva Convention [as a non-combatant, Mayfield was not allowed to be armed]. But as the war is now being run, I don’t think that German parachutists will respect that on a dark night when they can’t see what I am. As parachutists are alleged to be disguised as clergymen, I don’t want to be shot by one of our own guards without a fight, either.
19 Squadron have shot down ten. The Hornchurch wing have 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. Twenty parachutists over Dover last night – killed before they landed. No further news of Peter and the others.
The afternoon well spent in Cambridge in getting a steel helmet and trying to get a revolver licence and a revolver. 264 Squadron have shot down 35 German planes today. Great exultation.
Frankie Brinsden has told me about Peter [Watson]. The action took place early on Sunday. He was shot down at 8am. 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.
Played squash with John Baker and beat him. Our secret rocket defence was let off by accident. The specially trained corporal pressed the button in an idle moment, probably leaned his elbow on it. Up went, for all to see, a row of rockets with wires dangling on the end. The idea is that they rise to the height of raiders; the wires catch the props or wings and down come the planes.
Aberhart made a forced landing and was shot up and killed – a nice lad indeed. Coward [another airman] got a cannon shot through his leg. He was losing a lot of blood so he bailed out at 10,000ft, and a delayed drop to 4,000! Then as he floated down he made a tourniquet with [the straps of] his helmet: he has lost his leg.
Got back here at 4.30pm and heard, with a great shock, that Pinkham, the CO of 19, had been shot down and killed near Snodland. This news has cast a gloom over us, for we liked him very much. He was young for his command but a grand man who evolved the new fighter tactics. He will find friends from his squadron waiting for him.
Heard that Peter King was killed a day or two ago. This is a sad knock. I saw him here last Sunday at lunch but hadn’t a chance to say more than hello to his ‘there’s the Padre’. I shall miss him most awfully. It seems only a few days ago that he was in here asking should he get engaged to his nurse, poor little thing.
Last night [Johnny] Boulton was in fine fettle and bubbling over inside himself, so to speak. After a little prompting I found out that he’d shot down an Me 110 – his first combat and second operational flight. It fell down over the Goodwin Sands.
Had lunch at that very good pub at Stowmarket. Back here at 6.30pm to hear that the wing had shot down 19 Germans. Everyone was safe except for Johnny Boulton. That came as a nasty blow.
Sinclair came back today after his adventures on Monday. He bailed out and landed in Purley High Street! As he picked himself up, a young man walked across to help him. His only comment was ‘Fancy seeing you here, Gordon.’
Douglas Bader has got the DSO [Distinguished Service Order], Eric Ball the DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross]. This is as it should be and one wonders why Douglas [who’d returned to Duxford after his posting to Digby] wasn’t given the DSO weeks ago. Sat in the hall after lunch and talked to his boys as they came in from a terrific air fight over London. The total score for the day is put at 185.
January 16, 1941
The King and Queen came to lunch today. He gave out ‘gongs’ in the hangar after lunch but not before there had been a row. The gongs had not come. It was suggested to HM that he should merely shake the pilots by the hand.
He wasn’t having this. Regardless of discipline and everything else, he walked up and down the anteroom and later in the corridor outside telling Woody and the AOC very loudly that, unless the gongs came, he was going away [after explaining to the pilots why he couldn’t present them].
The last words I heard from HM were these, icy cold and with his stammer: ‘Very well. Get me the Air Ministry on the secret line and I’ll talk myself.’ The gongs came. The Queen, as they say, looked a picture. She may have a figure like a dumpling well-camouflaged but the result is one of great charm and grace.
She flashed her smile around and won all hearts. [Dr John] Apley [one of Duxford’s medical officers] managed to play shuv ha’penny with her, but we didn’t allow him to keep the coins.
Duke of Kent came here on Tuesday to inspect welfare arrangements. Insisted on seeing me alone in my office and told me to phone him at Buckingham Palace if there was any difficulty I couldn’t overcome; he added that he could talk to his brother about it, too. Inspected the airmen’s mess, and I pointed out our wonderful soup cauldrons, all steam-heated, and invited him to have a taste. I saw the Sergeant cook purple with excitement and went over to find out what was wrong: it wasn’t soup, it was tea. I explained to the Duke before he drank it.
The Rev Guy Mayfield was posted to an overseas station on December 2, 1941, and ended his Duxford diary. He died in 1976.