Friday, 14 October 2016

Remembering John 'Bunny' Haire

Sometimes, to get a good grip on an unbearably huge topic it pays to focus on the small stuff. Living on an island is handy for that. A limited environment lends itself to an appreciation of the tinier details. It enables a microcosmic perspective to develop and flourish.

Last weekend I spent pennies on a little boot-sale whim of a book which has taken my breath away. "Battle in the Skies over the Isle of Wight" by H.J.T. Leal is an extraordinary WW2 dossier - a day-to-day account of life and death beneath just one tiny patch of aerial battleground.

In chronological order the known lives, deaths, injuries and heroic escapades of German, English and (notably) a large number of Polish airmen are diligently recorded. There are tales of great derring-do and cute old-fashioned attitudes in this modest volume: a captured Luftwaffe pilot is taken to the pub for a pint before being led away as a prisoner of war, for example. And a crash-landed Messerschmitt fighter plane is paraded through Newport town centre, where a 3d donation to the 'Spitfire Fund' will buy your turn in the cockpit.

But there's horror, too. Young pilots burning to death in their cockpits or crashing headfirst into one of our cliffs. And there's the ever present almost-daily daylight terror of 500-plus German killing machines crossing the island at rooftop height, droning their way over the Solent, intending to flatten Coventry or Exeter or Southampton.

The RAF would try to stop them. And the recounted tales of dogfights - those yarns that have made it to the pages of history, anyway - make for thrilling and chilling reading. Take the story of Hurricane pilot Sergeant John 'Bunny' Haire.

He crashed on the island twice. The first occasion, on the afternoon of Sunday October 27, 1940, saw his aircraft crippled by a German ME109 near Bembridge, during a fierce aerial dogfight. He managed to bank his stricken plane 20ft over a cliff to the sea, where it dropped in just six feet of water. Miraculously, he was unhurt. He clambered out onto the wing, then waded to shore. The local coastguard took him in, he was given dry shoes to replace his soaked boots, and after a bath and some food he was sent back to base.

After a few days' leave, he was back on airborne patrol. Then, a little over a week later, the 20-year-old Sergeant was shot out of the Isle of Wight skies for a second time.

Local ARP warden George Calloway said in a letter: "The Hurricane was on fire, having been attacked by Messerschmitts, and looked like it was going to crash on the houses of Arreton. Instead of baling out, the pilot stayed in the aircraft and steered it away into open fields. Only then did he attempt to bale out, standing on the wing before jumping. However, he had left it too late for his parachute to open fully and he fell to the ground.

"I rushed into the field with others including the Rev Edward Burbidge to try to help. Sadly, he died as the vicar was saying prayers over him. We used the farm gate to carry his body out of the field."

Local farmer George Moody wrote a letter to John Haire's parents:

"Several planes were fighting overhead and one came circling down out of a clear blue sky over the farm. Smoke seemed to be coming from one side of the machine and the pilot, after going round twice, turned into the wind as if to land. Almost at once, however, flames poured out from the front of the plane and it made a dive to earth, the pilot baling out at once. 

"I dashed in my car to the field, but unfortunately could do nothing. The plane was blazing and the ammunition going off, while a short distance away lay the pilot. I took his helmet off but could do nothing for him. 

"I was very struck by the peaceful and calm expression on the face of the gallant boy. He was untouched by fire and to my inexperienced eye seemed to be asleep. His parachute was ineffective because he was so low when he baled out. 

"I am a farmer and unused to letter writing but I would like to express my deepest sympathy to the parents of this very gallant gentleman, may God rest his brave soul. Happily this is not the end - it cannot be; such dauntless courage and bravery could never be finished. His spirit somewhere lives on and will never die."

John Haire's body was returned to his native Belfast. Meanwhile, the German pilot who shot him down this second and final time was himself shot down and killed - also over the Isle of Wight - three weeks later. And the RAF pilot who shot the German pilot who shot John Haire was also shot down and killed. And so it continued...

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