Memoirs of Michael John Hyett Royal Air Force, 601 County of London Squadron

Michael John Hyett (deceased) April 1924 – February 2012
Royal Air Force, 601 County of London Squadron

The following was written by Michael, as a record of his service during the Second World War and is published with the kind permission of his widow Sylvia.

I was fifteen and still at school when war broke out in September 1939. After nine months’ evacuation to the country, I returned to London in July 1940 to attend a Technical school for one year. That summer, as I lay on the grass watching the Battle of Britain overhead, a fascination and longing to be a fighter pilot grew inside me. Watching condensation trails across the sky and hearing the machine guns, as Spitfires and Hurricanes engaged the German planes, my friends and I were oblivious to the dangers of a career as a pilot. From what I had heard, I only knew that it seemed far less dangerous than fighting in the trenches!

At age seventeen and whilst working in a bank, I tried to volunteer as a pilot but was told to join the Air Training Corps and re-apply when I had turned eighteen. I would read avidly the latest reports on the Battle of Britain, my desire to be involved in the ‘action’ still driving me on until finally, I turned eighteen and enlisted after passing my medical. In February 1943 I received my calling-up papers and went to the receiving centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. I was kitted out and sent to Scarborough for elementary training, flying for a few hours in Tiger Moths at Brough.

September 1943 saw us sail from Greenock into the Atlantic, dodging U-boats! It took eight days to reach Gibraltar, then we sailed on through the Mediterranean, finally docking at Suez in Egypt. There we were off-loaded into a transit camp as our ship (I think the Llangibby) was needed in the invasion of Italy. We understood later that it was sunk.

After three weeks in the desert, we continued by the Highland Brigade down to Durban in South Africa, where we stayed in another transit camp for a few weeks, before travelling by train up to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, where we did a short refresher course in ground subjects. We moved on again by train, to Salisbury (now Harare) where we did our elementary flying training in a single-engined Canadian trainer called a Cornell. After completing 85 flying hours of dual and solo flying, I went on to Cranborne in March 1944 to do my advanced flying on Harvards, where, I did another 190 hours flying training and passed out, receiving my service wings on 3rd November 1944.

After three wonderful weeks’ respite, game shooting in the Zambezi Valley, we flew up in stages to a rest camp in Heliopolis at Cairo, then on to an Operational Training Unit at Ismalia in Eygpt close to the River Nile. It was called 71 OTU (Operational Training Unit). After a few hours on Hurricanes, we graduated to Spitfires which were much lighter on the controls and produced a ‘bucking bronco’ when I took off. The Harvards and Hurricanes were heavier to handle.

In early April 1945 I joined 601 County of London Squadron under Wing Commander “Cocky” Dundas, which had already been at Belleria in north-east Italy for five months. With the war entering its final phase, the Germans were entrenched on the banks of the River Senio and British troops needed strong air support to drive the Germans back across the River Po and out of Italy. Our task was to cut off the supply line of ammunition to the German front, by bombing and blowing up bridges across the River Po, thus destroying any potential ferries or transporting vehicles.

The breakout across the Senio began on 9th April 1945, the Wing flying 121 sorties that afternoon in an uncompromising bombardment on the German targets. For 18 days there were attacks, with two or three sorties continuing relentlessly, day in, day out, from dusk until dawn. Although most of the time the assault was constructive, destroying pre-selected targets, we increasingly went on free-ranging missions as the enemy dropped back, targeting anything that could possibly be construed as enemy transport, even down to horse and ox-drawn wagons.

In total the Wing flew 4644 operational hours, compromising 3661 sorties; 851 bombs were dropped; 345,380 rounds of 22mm cannon and 804,291 rounds of machine gun ammunition were expended. At the beginning of the mission we started out with over 100 aircraft; by the end, anti-aircraft fire had claimed 55 of our aircraft, 41 were damaged beyond repair. A further 31 were damaged. Nine of our pilots had been killed, three were missing, one became a Prisoner of War. Three more were injured and several baled out behind enemy lines but were able to return.

Hugh “Cocky” Dundas, now the youngest Group Captain at age 24, said in his book ‘The Flying Start’, that the last 4 – 6 months of the war in Italy were, in his opinion, the most dangerous and terrifying period of the war. Not only were the Germans now extremely accurate in their ground-to-air firing, but a consignment of 500lb bombs that we used had faulty detonators and at least two of our pilots were blown up in bomb dives. (Ref: pages 159-161 of ‘The Flying Start’ by Hugh Dundas).

My role in the assault, however, ended on 20th April, the day before my 21st birthday and on the day that would turn out to be Hitler’s final birthday. We were on a sortie to bomb a position northeast of Bologna on a stretch of road that was entrenched with heavy German guns.

Having dropped our bombs, diving from 6,000 feet down to 2,000 feet, we circled the area and found at least one of the guns. Coming in to strafe on the second run, I felt the aircraft being hit and buffeted around. ‘Phoning’ Flight Lt ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, I was told my plane was pouring out black smoke from punctured oil and glycol tanks and that I should put down in a field to our left. The field looked perfect with lush grass so didn’t anticipate any problems other than those normally associated with ‘crash-landing’ a fighter plane! What I hadn’t realised however, was that under the grass were irrigation channels, so as I approached, one of my wheel legs caught in the channels. The starboard wing was torn off as the aircraft somersaulted 10 times, breaking into three portions, before coming to a standstill, cockpit uppermost, with yours truly apparently lifeless in his seat!

Fellow pilots circled above me in the sky until a jeep arrived from a nearby Welsh Regiment to take me, first to a farmhouse called Cuazzaloca, then to the Army hospital in Rimini. My mother used to say that the long journey, whilst unconscious, and along rough tracks, couldn’t have helped much. I was unconscious and left in the foetal position for 8 weeks and not expected to recover from my head injuries. Lack of medical knowledge in those days meant head injuries being left to heal themselves. With the nurses so busy with other patients and being unable to feed myself, with both arms in plaster, I frequently went without food and my weight dropped to five stone.

In July 1945 I travelled by ambulance train to Naples and from there was flown back to Shenley Hospital in north east London, where my cousin would visit and feed me. Finally I was transferred to No. 1 RAF Hospital at Halton. It was a miserable time – the head injury had caused paralysis down one side of my body, I had little memory and I was unable to read. A minor speech impediment, which I had before the accident, had developed into a serious stammer. The head injury had also stimulated bone growth in my elbows, which required an operation once the plasters had been removed. I only recovered 75% of movement and in later life developed arthritis in both wrists. My mother discovered a singing instructor who could cure stammering – he had realised that those who stammered, did not stammer when singing, so by giving voice development exercises they gradually stopped stammering. It took two to three years to reduce my stammering.

I was invalided out of the RAF with 100% disablement in July 1946. However, the process of my recovery was to be long and difficult, taking many more years.

In 1982 following retirement from Lloyds Bank Foreign Department, I began to get a strong urge to seek out the location where I crashed, and thanks to an historian in the Public Records office at Kew, I was able to identify the village of Tombazza, north-east of Bologna in northern Italy. I wrote to the Mayor of Tombazza and requested help from the Italian Air Attaché in London. Within a matter of months arrangements were made for an emotional return to the area that had so affected my life.

So it was that in April 1999, I returned to the place where 44 years before, my life had been dramatically changed forever. After a flight over the old battle zones in a light aircraft, my host Bernado Cattani, took me to the very field where my plane had crashed. There was a row of cars and a gathering of people; amongst them were two journalists and, to my amazement, four people who had witnessed my crash! It was a very emotional moment. On the penultimate evening, Bernado threw a big party for local war enthusiasts including the witnesses to my crash. To complete a very emotional four days – into the party was carried an eight foot length of my Spitfire’s fuselage, peppered with bullet holes, which had been used for 54 years as a dog kennel! The fantastic four days I spent with the Cattani family will live in my memory forever.

Michael J S Hyett was born in Hackney, London on 21st April 1924. Due to his injuries he was only ever able to return to light work at Lloyds Bank. After 42 years of marriage, Michael’s first wife died leaving two children and four grandchildren. Michael remarried and lived a quiet but happy life with his second wife and family in Kent. Michael died on 19th February 2012 and in tribute to him, a Spitfire flew over the village church during the funeral service.