Diary of high jinks and horror sheds light on pilots of war
Chaplain's account of airfield life during the Battle of Britain is hailed as one of the finest accounts of a fighter station at war
A previously unpublished diary by a Royal Air Force chaplain to Battle of Britain pilots barely out of their teens casts new light on the lives of the young men who fought in the conflict.
The journal, to be published later this year to coincide with the RAF’s centenary commemorations, records Reverend Guy Mayfield’s posting at RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire as dogfights raged over southern England and losses mounted among his flock.
His account includes depictions of airfield life, ranging from high jinks in the mess to relentless scrambles to intercept enemy aircraft, as well as his interviews with young fighter pilots.
Carl Warner, a historian at the Imperial War Museums, which is publishing the journal for the first time as Life & Death in the Battle of Britain, said it was “one of the finest accounts of a fighter station at war”.
“It is full of insight into the mind of a man who made an enormous, unsung contribution to victory, and into those of others on the station whose mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing he cared about so deeply.”
The book “provides us with access to the most heartfelt, deep and meaningful conversations that took place in 1940 as ‘the few’ faced the most monumental challenge of their young lives”.
Mayfield had been a curate in central London and an assistant newspaper editor before the war and was posted to Duxford from early 1940 to late 1941.
While there he became friends with Douglas Bader, the RAF ace who had lost both legs in a flying accident before the war.
His diary recalls Bader as “one of the bravest men I have ever met and one of the most cheerful”, whose “example of his two wooden legs has kept us all up to the mark”.
Mayfield recalled that at first Bader “used to say ‘Sorry, Padre’ every time he said ‘bloody’; this was every other word. I bore this for a while; then I started saying, ‘Bother! Sorry, Douglas.’
“When he called me a ‘God botherer’, I replied that his lack of attachment to institutional Christianity probably bothered God more than even I did. After that we were friends and talked.”
Warner said some of the most moving sections were where the young pilots confided in their chaplain and as the casualties mounted.
In one passage, Mayfield wrote: “You wake up in the morning; for an instant the horrors have been forgotten, and then slowly they crowd in as consciousness returns. War, mud, blood and tears. One isn’t afraid of dying. The heartache is to see these young men waiting to have their lives cut short. While they wait there’s nothing much for them to do. They talk to me.”
On the edge of an abyss
By New Year’s Eve of 1940 he wrote that he “hadn’t the heart to sing Auld Lang Syne in the bloody world as it now is”.
“There is no time for ‘old acquaintance’. Who’ll be left to remember? If it is remembered next year, how much of it without bitterness and sadness, how much of it will be remembrance of times lost, of things left unsaid and unshared?
“I can’t sing when we are on the edge of an abyss once again and about to be robbed of comrades and friends as we were last summer.
“The summer was one of brilliant sunshine, heat, shimmering landscape; I remember walking to the Mess every day, with the impression that the sky was black and heavy as lead …
“I don’t doubt for a moment that we shall win the war. But I can’t doubt that we shall suffer and that gay and good people will go down.”
Mayfield survived the war and died in 1976.
Extracts of his diary have been displayed in exhibitions before, but it has never been published.
Warner said: “It gives rare insight into the thoughts and feelings of young men who, underneath the famous ‘Brylcreem Boys’ exterior, were real people who overcame their own fears day after day.”
The Daily Telegraph