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Hanging by a thread - Teddy Donaldson

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Friends loaned me a book about Teddy Donaldson. I had never heard of him despite the fact that Air Cadre EM 'Teddy' Donaldson CB, CBE, DSO, AFC, LoM (USA), was a Battle of Britain Ace. His brushes with death meant that many others have been able to live.

It's easy to forget that the Second World War was never a foregone conclusion, and that the Allied Victory against the Nazis hung by a thread. Every day in spring 1940 small squadrons of British flyers went on missions that sent them into the fire of anti-aircraft guns, often as many as 300 anti-aircraft guns, and Messerschmitts attacking them from the air. Freedom and peace hung by the threads of the RAF, by the very threads of their uniforms. Here is one account, taken from the book RAF Top Gun by Nick Thomas -

On June 30th 1940, Teddy was wearing his best dress uniform after greeting a high-ranking ministerial visitor, and tucking into a rare treat of turkey for lunch when he was told to take off immediately to escort bombers bound for German ammunition and fuel dumps in France. He and squadron raced to their Hurricanes. They successfully accomplished the mission over France, and were turning for home when they were attacked by Messerschmitts Bf 109s. Teddy emptied his ammunition into two of them and found himself 10 feet above sea level. He climbed, ready to form up his squadron, and was jumped by a Bf 109, whose pilot boasted to his fellow Germans, 'Watch me get this one'.

Teddy had only a few rounds left. Unaware of this at first, the German remained cautious of letting the Hurricane get onto his tail. Teddy got a few rounds off but then his guns fell silent. So he began throwing his much slower Hurricane into tight turns, trying every trick in the book, and many not in the book, to shake off the Messerschmitt. He tried a collision-course attack, the Bf 109's bullets and cannon-fire spraying the air around him. As they hurtled ever closer, the Messerschmitt pumped cannon shells into the helpless Hurricane. Teddy felt the terrific judder as shells drummed into the wing and fuselage. With a collision speed well in excess of 600mph, the two fighters wheeled a second away from disaster.

An explosion ripped through the fuselage below Teddy's feet as half the floor disappeared. The oil tank was blown out of the leading edge of the wing. The petrol tanks ruptured and burst into flames.

The air filled with choking fumes. Teddy was engulfed in a sheet of flames. Gloves on fire, he tried to push the hood back and saw the aluminum skin of the starboard wing melting before his eyes. Streaming flames, and with the Messerschmitt continuing to attack, Teddy put his Hurricane into a 100mph glide above the Channel and wondered whether he had enough time to jump and inflate his Mae West.

As he tried to climb out, he was thrown clear, tumbling 800 feet while he yanked on his rip cord. The canopy inflated, and he plunged into the Channel like a torpedo, dragged under by the canopy. The prevailing wind began dragging him back toward France where capture awaited. He freed himself from the parachute, and began to swim away from shore, the cold water hitting him like an axe, and his waterlogged clothes dragging him down. He was preparing himself for the death experienced a few days earlier by his friends, Flight Lieutenants Ives and Newton, when he saw a high-speed launch gunning towards him. He reached for his service revolver.

Lady Luck. The launch was British. He was stripped and wrapped in towels. His best uniform was draped over the exhaust pipe. Landed at Margate, he put on his uniform, now completely blackened, and hitched a lift back to North Weald, arriving in time to find the mess mourning his demise. His name had been wiped off the duty boards and his successor as squadron leader, 'Tin Ribs' Ironside had already been chalked up. Walking in, Teddy looked round, noted the board, and said, 'Not just yet, son'.

He applied for compensation for his dress uniform, but his request was declined on the grounds that 'he was foolish to wear his best uniform on operations'.

Edward 'Teddy' Mortlock Donaldson was one of three aviator brothers to win the DSO during World War II. After the war, he became a world air speed record holder.

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