Manston takes the full force of Luftwaffe attack against airfields, 12th August 1940
Al Deere of No.54 Sqn recounted:
‘We had just settled down to the inevitable game of cards in our dispersal hut at Manston (pontoon was the normal relaxation between operations) when the telephone shrilled warningly. How we hated the dispersal telephone; its very note was abnormal and the unexpectedness with which it rang had the immediate effect of producing an awful sick feeling in the pit of one’s tummy. A pin could have been heard to drop as, with cards poised and eyes turned expectantly towards the orderly as he reached for the receiver, we strained to hear the message from the now faintly urgent voice which came over the wire. “Hornet squadron scramble”. Table, cards and money shot into the air as the pilots dived headlong for the door.’
Suddenly the telephone rang and ‘Jumbo’ Gracie grabbed for the receiver: ‘Scramble. . . seventy-plus approaching Manston . . . angels one-five.’ In the fighter pilots’ jargon, angels’ signified height per thousand feet, so the message was plain to all: more than seventy German aircraft were approaching Manston at 15,000 feet. It was 5.20 pm on Tuesday, August 12.
There was no time for further reflection. As he pelted the fifty yards to his waiting Hurricane, the suspense was banished and Page’s mind was clear and alert, with only physical action to preoccupy him. Right foot into the stirrup step, left foot on the port wing, one short step along, right foot on the step inset in the fuselage, into the cockpit. Deftly his rigger was passing parachute straps across his shoulders, then the Sutton harness straps. . . pin through and tighten the adjusting pieces. . . mask clipped across and oxygen on. He had primed the engine, adjusting the switches, and now his thumb went up in signal to the mechanics. The chocks slipped away, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines roared into life, flattening the dancing grass with their slip stream, and Page was taxiing out behind ‘Jumbo’ Gracie.The Hurricanes climbed steeply, gaining height at more than 2,000 feet per minute, and the voice of Wing Commander John Cherry, North Weald Controller, filled their earphones, calling ‘Jumbo’ Gracie: ‘Hullo, Yorker Blue Leader, Lumba Calling. Seventy-plus bandits approaching Charlie Three, angels one-five.’ Then Gracie’s high-pitched voice acknowledged: ‘Hullo, Lumba, Yorker Blue Leader answering. Your message received and understood. Over.’ One of the squadron’s pilots chipped in: lack of oil pressure was sending him home. Again Gracie acknowledged, and now ten Hurricanes swept on to intercept seventy German aircraft. Page thought idly, odds of seven to one — no better nor worse than usual. As they followed the serrated coastline of north Kent his altimeter showed 10,000 feet.Suddenly, what looked like a swarm of midges was dancing in the top half of his bullet-proof windscreen. But Page, craning closer, knew better. They were several thousand feet higher than the Hurricanes, and more deadly than any insect — thirty Dornier 215 bombers escorted by forty Messerschmitt 109s. He heard ‘Jumbo’ Gracie call, ‘Echelon starboard — go’, and saw Constable-Maxwell’s Hurricane slide beneath Gracie’s. Cheerfully Page thumbed his nose at Constable-Maxwell, then took up position slightly to the right and astern. Habit prompted him to lock his sliding hood in the open position — for a hurried exit, if need be.The Dorniers turned north, setting course over the sea, but the Hurricanes were gaining on them banking, in pursuit; minute by minute, the distance between the fighters and the slim pencil-shaped bombers was closing. To Geoffrey Page, it was suddenly like an express overhauling a freight train: there was time for bomber and fighter pilots to exchange silent glances as the Hurricanes forged on for the bomber leader. Swiftly, Page glanced behind and aloft, but no— the Me 109s weren’t pouncing yet.At 600 yards, too far away to register, Page opened fire on one of the leading machines, then abruptly stopped short. One moment there had been clear sky between himself and thirty Dorniers. Now the air was criss-crossed with a fusillade of glinting white tracer-cannon shells converging on the Hurricanes. He saw Gracie’s machine peel from the attack; the distance between Page and the leading bombers was only thirty yards now. Strikes from his machine-gun fire flashed in winking daggers of light from a Dornier’s port engine; it was suddenly a desperate race to destroy before he himself was destroyed.
As a thunderclap explosion tore at his eardrums, Page’s first reaction was: I can’t have been hit. It could happen to other people, but not me. Then all at once fear surged again as an ugly ragged hole gaped in his starboard wing. And then the petrol tank behind the engine, sited on a level with his chest, blew up like a bomb; flames seared through the cockpit like a prairie fire, clawing greedily towards the draught from the open hood. A voice Page barely recognized was screaming in mortal terror: Dear God, save me — save me, dear God.’
Desperately he grappled with the Sutton harness, head reared back from the licking flames, seeing with horror the bare skin of his hands on the control column shrivelling like burnt parchment in the blast furnace of heat. Struggling, he screamed and screamed again. Somehow — he would never know how — he extricated himself from the cockpit, and began falling like a stone, powerless to stop.