Laurence Rees: William Walker was in his mid twenties when he joined the Royal Air Force just after war had been declared. He knew he’d shortly be risking his life in aerial combat against the Germans. What hadn’t been quite so clear to him was that he’d also be risking his life in training.
Words of William Walker: During my training I had two very narrow escapes from death. In those days, whilst we were flying, we used to take each other up as a passenger and then we’d swap over and the other chap would be a passenger. And this chap, Woods, who I shared a room with, I had taken him up, flown and then he became the pilot and I was his passenger. And he was shooting up the home of a girlfriend, which meant diving down on this house and pulling up very sharply. And I was terrified, as you can imagine, because he did this several times. And the following day he was doing precisely the same thing with a chap called Wallace as his passenger and he pulled out too quickly, the plane stalled and they were both killed. It could have so easily been me the day before.
The second occasion that I had a narrow escape from death was when I was on my first solo night flying. I had done exactly 40 minutes night flying during instruction when I was sent on solo, and I got into a steep turn and the gyro toppled and I literally crashed at 200 miles an hour into a field some distance from the aerodrome. The plane was a complete write-off, the wings had broken off. All that was left was a little bit of the plane where I was sitting. The plane had hit with such force that the wing, and the engine, was mounted on the front, had flown off and landed, finished up about 150 yards away from the plane. And I climbed out unscathed and walked back over several ploughed fields to the crew room and everybody thought they were seeing a ghost, because they’d sent out an ambulance to bring back the body. I was more terrified of night flying than anything else. I was more terrified of night flying than anything else. It was really absolutely terrifying.
Laurence Rees: Having survived basic training, William Walker joined 12 Group. And now whilst still on operational training he was directed towards incoming German warplanes.
Words of William Walker: I was being vectored onto this thing, and I realised I’d never fired a gun, nobody had even shown me how to fire a gun, and I had no idea what happened when you did fire the guns. So, anyway, there was a button on the joystick which said this – fire on and off. So I turned, I thought I’d better turn it onto on, so I turned it to on and approached a Dornier. And I’d pressed the firing button and there was a trace of bullets flying all over the place all appeared to be hitting the Dornier, which caught fire and I saw it crash into the North Sea, and I was absolutely thrilled. Here I was, I’d done five hours on Spitfires and I’d got my first Hun. I went back and landed and was being debriefed by the intelligence officer, and I just got to the bit where it caught fire when the flight sergeant came in and said, ‘Excuse me sir, did you know your guns weren’t loaded?’ And then everything became clear, what had happened was that the previous two planes had gone in and hit it but obviously the fire didn’t start till I got there.
Laurence Rees: But very shortly William Walker was most certainly going to have the chance to fire his guns in battle – on ‘Eagle Day’, the 13th of August 1940, when the Germans launched a massive air attack on Britain.
Words of William Walker: Suddenly the radio went absolutely mad. ‘616 Squadron scramble, 616 Squadron scramble.’ So we jumped up, dashed out of the Mess and grabbed whatever transport we could, got down to dispersal and jumped into our plane and all took off individually and more or less formed up when we were airborne. And we were vectored onto what proved to be a raid of some 80 aircraft, mostly Junkers 88s. And I had never seen so many aircraft in the air before at one time. I was just amazed. And they were unescorted because they’d come from Norway, their fighter escort had to turn back as soon as they’d reached the coast because they hadn’t got enough fuel to get back to Norway, so they couldn’t escort them overland. And I managed to shoot at three before my ammunition ran out. And the squadron knocked out I think about ten or twelve altogether. I think anybody who flew a Spitfire knew they were flying something rather special. I think the cockpit was small but you fitted into it and you were very much part of the plane you were flying.
Laurence Rees: Just a few days later, William Walker and his Spitfire were to be involved in another duel against German war planes in an encounter that would all but cost him his life.
Words of William Walker: We were scrambled to patrol Dover - Dungeness, and we were patrolling when we met a whole squadron of Messerschmitts which appeared, and all three of us were shot down. Teddy Snorbin was shot down, very badly burnt but he survived, although he was killed later. Sergeant Ridley, my great friend, was killed, and I got a bullet in my leg and my plane was shot to pieces. And I realised that I would have to bail out, so I opened the hood and pulled back the cover and tried to jump, but I’d still got my helmet on which was plugged into the radio which pulled me back, so I took my helmet off and fell out and I was still at 20,000 feet.
I wasn’t going to take any chances so I pulled the ripcord straightaway, and the extraordinary thing was that as I came down, whilst the air had been filled with aircraft, on the whole of my journey down in my parachute I never saw another aircraft. But I could see below dense cloud so I had no idea where I was, and it wasn’t until I got through the clouds that I realised I was over the sea, so I blew up my Mae West and eventually landed in the sea and I could see some distance away a shipwreck sticking out of the water. I didn’t realise then, because I didn’t, I didn’t know that part of the world at all, but it was wrecked on the Goodwin Sands.
And eventually I managed to swim and reached it and sat on it, but it was at a rather acute angle and I kept slipping off, and eventually after about half an hour or so a fishing boat arrived and took me off and gave me a large cup of half hot tea and whisky, which I drank, and they wrapped me in a blanket. My leg was hurting a bit, a bit painful, and then when we got to a mile off the shore an RAF launch had come out and I was transferred to that. But when I was on the RAF launch they had a loo and the hot tea and whisky had worked on my cold tummy to some extent and I retired to the loo and I couldn’t leave it. The airman kept knocking on the door and saying, ‘Are you alright?’ and I was just in agony.
Anyway, eventually I was able to leave and was lifted up the steps of Ramsgate Harbour and a crowd had collected and they all cheered, and a dear old lady came forward with a packet of cigarettes which she handed to me as I was lifted into the ambulance and was taken to Ramsgate Hospital. And they had been terribly badly bombed and had no kitchens, and all they could provide me whilst I was there, ‘cause I had to spend a night there, was a cup of tea and some bread and butter, and I was put to bed under a whole lot of electric light bulbs and it was some 12 hours before I was able to feel anything at all. I was suffering from hypothermia. And, anyway, I spent the night there and I admired the people there. They were running the hospital and people in Ramsgate were in, and they had been so badly bombed and were still carrying on with their normal duties.
Laurence Rees: The next day he was taken by ambulance to another hospital. But en route he asked if he could visit his squadron headquarters nearby.
Words of William Walker: I then said to the driver to drive down to dispersal so I could say goodbye to my chums, and I went, drove down to dispersal and there was nobody there, they’d all been shot down or killed. My squadron had in fact, in the ten days prior to my being shot down, had lost ten pilots. Five killed and five wounded. But there’s no question in my mind, looking back, in retrospect, that the losses, the heavy losses in so short a time, was in no small measure due to the fact that the pilots were less trained than they should have been.
Laurence Rees: As for his German opponents, the men who had wrecked havoc on his squadron, he looked at them with calm and cold eyes.
Words of William Walker: They were simply the enemy and shooting down a German meant little or nothing in terms of inner feeling. But I remember when for some time I flew with some Poles, and their hatred had to be seen and heard, they really hated the Germans, and quite rightly so. They had invaded their country, they’d lost their country, they were fighting in England for their country. The only other person I think I met, who was a great friend of mine, was Jeffrey Page, who was terribly badly burnt. And he, I remember, we were in hospital together and I can remember him saying, he had something like, oh, well over a dozen operations and his ambition in life was to kill one German for every operation he had. And he succeeded.
Laurence Rees: Whilst no one disputes the bravery and sacrifice of the pilots in the Battle of Britain, in recent years there have been increasing attempts by some historians to downplay the importance of the actual battle in the overall history of the war. Some even question how serious Hitler ever was about pushing forward with an invasion of Britain. It’s revisionism that William Walker has little time for.
Words of William Walker: That’s rubbish. That was a very serious plan, that was why he was bombing the airfields. He had to destroy air cover and had to destroy airfields otherwise he couldn’t invade. But there’s no doubt about it, had he destroyed our air cover and put us in the position of being unable to compete with the German Air Force he would have invaded, no question about it.