BRITISH COMICS

(Rover Homepage)

THE PHANTOM FLYER

First episode, taken from The Rover issue: 1313 August 26th 1950.

A BALE OUT

Straight out of the sun came the three German Messerschmitt 110 twin-engined fighters, and directly he saw them, Flying Officer Fletcher, of the Royal Air Force, knew he was in for a bad time. It was September, 1940, and the Battle of Britain had started only a few weeks ago. The Germans, or Nazis, as they were known then, had overrun France and were now poised to knock out Britain.

Day after day and night after night, the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, was sending over hundreds of bombers and fighters in an attempt to destroy the Royal Air Force, paralyse Britain’s war industries and so pave the way for an invasion by sea. Fletcher’s Spitfire was nearly empty of fuel, for he was returning over Kent from a Channel patrol. He had been separated from his squadron and was returning alone. All the time he was on the alert for a formation of enemy bombers but he had seen none. Disappointed, he had hung on rather longer than he should have done, and had not turned for home until the petrol in his tank had nearly exhausted. Under these conditions, his chances against three crack enemy machines were slim. Sam Fletcher gritted his teeth and opened the throttle. The enemy fighters opened fire with their cannon as they dived after him. Shrieking through the air at nearly four hundred miles an hour, the Messerschmitts made a formidable team. Flying Officer Fletcher saw thick banks of clouds ahead and hurled straight into them. Once in their cover he nose-dived. Down for more than a thousand feet he sped, then he did an outside loop, which brought him back to the spot where he had entered the clouds. The Messerschmitts were now in front of him, somewhere in the clouds. A few moments later he saw them, and dived towards the middle plane. He opened the throttle and began to overtake the Nazis planes. In a remarkably short time the outline of the central Messerschmitt appeared within his gun-sight, and he pressed the button which controlled the eight machine-guns with which the Spitfire was armed. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Spurts of flame came from the wings. Eight streams of bullets were concentrated on the Messerschmitt, and literally cut it in half. The machine dropped out of formation, and spun earthwards with black smoke pouring from its engines. The Spitfire pilot banked and side-slipped towards another bank of cloud. The remaining two Messerschmitts banked and came after him. Thankfully he entered the sheltering cloud, made another quick turn, then his motor spluttered ominously, and almost immediately became silent. The thing he had dreaded had happened—he had run out of petrol. If he had been able to make straight for home, he would have had sufficient to last him, but the recent wild accelerations, the turns, the twists, and the rapid climbs, had made heavy demands on his small reserve. He was helpless. Instinctively he nosed the plane down. He was flying at about 12,000 feet at the time, and he knew that there was going to be plenty of time for the Nazis to riddle him with machine gun bullets before he reached the ground. He must bale out quickly. He banked the Spitfire slightly to the left and went over the side. “Good-bye, old bird!” he muttered, as he dropped head first into space. Somewhere above him he heard the ominous bang-bang-bang of the German cannons. Not until he had counted ten did he pull his release cord, and feel the sudden jerk of the straps under his arms. His parachute opened and his fall was instantly checked. He was drifting downwind over pleasant downland countryside. He even had time to look back at the Spitfire. It was still planning down at a shallow angle. He could pick out the black band round the nose, the special marking of 134 Squadron. “I shouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t lodge somewhere in a tree without much damage,” he murmured. The German airmen, satisfied that the plane was destroyed, were streaking to France. The Flying Officer had made several parachute descents before, and he knew what to look out for in the way of a safe landing ground. Bump! He had hit just where he had expected, and rolled over and over four times as the parachute dragged him along. When he pulled himself to a halt, and started to detach his parachute, he was unhurt. “My luck’s in again,” he thought. “It might have been a heap worse. Hullo, there goes the old lady!” The Spitfire had just passed over his head on her way down. She was still gliding quite smoothly, and on a fairly even keel. She passed over a hayrick, and then disappeared beyond a ridge about three miles away. There appeared to be a hollow in that direction. The grounded pilot strained his ears for some sound of a crash, but heard nothing. “Not so dusty!” he decided. “they’ll manage to salvage something out of her. She hasn’t caught fire anyway, or I’d have seen smoke.” Someone shouted from near at hand, and turning round he saw that a cyclist had stopped on the roadway. It was a young farmhand. He was only too willing to lend Fletcher his bicycle so that the airman could reach a phone in the neighbouring village. So less than ten minutes later, Flying Officer Fletcher was reporting to his Squadron Leader at their depot about twenty miles from the village. “I’ll be here at the inn until the tender arrives,” he concluded. “I know the exact spot where the plane landed. I shouldn’t be surprised if we found her almost undamaged. Very good, sir!” Squadron Leader Norris had informed him that he would send over an R.A.F. tender with men at once, so there was nothing for Sam Fletcher to do for the next half-hour, but examine his bruises, and assure the anxious villagers he was uninjured.

THE MYSTERIOUS CARETAKER

A sergeant was in charge of the break-down gang which arrived, and the leader pulled up only long enough for Fletcher to jump aboard. Villagers had directed him to an old quarry road which crossed the downs and which would bring them to the hollow where the Spitfire had landed. With these instructions to guide him, the young driver made good speed over the rough ground, and Sam Fletcher strained his eyes to right and left as they crossed the bridge.

“I’d say it was more to the right than the left,” he muttered. “It had a slight right bank on it when I last saw it, and—I that is?” he inquired suddenly, pointing to a dark concealed object. “No, sir, those are only bushes,” said the sergeant. “I can’t see it anywhere around here. Maybe it went beyond the next ridge.” “No, it couldn’t do that. It didn’t have enough elevation to do that. It’s somewhere in this valley,” insisted the officer. “Stop the tender. We’ll spread out and search. It might be in one of those clumps of bushes and gorse.” The ten men who formed the tender crew clambered out and began to search. The sergeant organised them in sections, and they combed the valley from end to end, while Fletcher stood on the roof of the driver’s cab with a pair of field glasses in his hands and scoured the countryside. He was puzzled. He was certain that this was the valley where his machine had landed, yet where was it? The men kept signalling to each other, and finally the line of uniformed figures returned to the tender. “No sign of it, sir!” reported the sergeant. “I’m afraid you were mistaken.” “I’m not mistaken!” snapped Fletcher, his nerves on edge. “There’s my parachute over there on the higher ground. It’s drifted with the wind from where I landed. I tell you I saw the Spitfire come over that ridge and head here. It must be here.” “We’ve searched everywhere, sir,” said the sergeant stolidly. “I think—” “You think you ought to go and look in the next valley for it?” inquired Fletcher rather sarcastically. “All right go and do so, but I’m staying here. I’m going to take a look round myself.” “Very good, sir!” Away went the tender, and Flying Officer Fletcher started to walk up the centre of the valley, peering behind bushes, into hollows, and once into a disused quarry. He saw nothing of the Spitfire. It was a baffling business. He walked towards a wire fence that surrounded a group of beech trees where he had previously seen a house. A badly painted gate appeared to be the only entrance. The officer’s hand was on the latch when from behind came a harsh unpleasant voice—“Want anybody?” A moment before, Fletcher could have sworn he was the only person in the valley, but here at his shoulder was one of the ugliest men he had ever seen. Dressed in greasy, oil-stained clothes, the man walked with a limp, one leg being longer than the other, and one hip thrust out, but it was his face that made the airman want to shudder. It was inhuman, ghastly, unnatural. One eye was almost closed, and much higher than the other. The nose was a perfect Roman nose, set in twisted cheeks which were pitted and seared as though by fire. The mouth was big, more like a gash than a mouth, and was curled in a snarl. On his head this stranger had a greasy cap pulled right down to his ears. His hands were driven deep into his greasy trouser pockets. “Want someone?” he repeated. “There is no one at home except me.” “Er—I—I was looking for a plane,” stammered Fletcher, feeling rather foolish at having to make such a confession. “Do you live here?” he went on. The man pointed towards the tumble-down farm-house which could just be seen through the trees. “Caretaker!” he explained. “What’s this about a plane?” “I made a forced landing after an air fight about an hour ago. The plane came down in this valley. Did you see it come down or hear a crash?” asked Fletcher. The man looked at him sullenly, then shook his head. “No plane here, mister. I’ve been here all the time, an’ would’ve noticed. No plane could’ve come down here without me seeing. Look for yourself!” He waved a gnarled, grimy hand towards the open space around them and once again Fletcher felt that sense of helpless bewilderment. “Couldn’t it have come down among those trees?” he asked. “Its not here. But look for yourself!” snapped the sinister stranger, and jerked the gate open. It was not a pleasant invitation, but Fletcher passed on to the grass-grown drive leading to the house, and walked in and out of the trees, glancing up at each in search of tell-tale wreckage. His guide followed just at his heels, and as he walked, his left foot dragged on the ground with a weird scraping sound. The two men emerged of the wide, flat lawn in front of the house. “Better look in the old barn in case it flew in through the window,” grunted the guide sarcastically. They circled both the house and the barn. Everywhere were signs of neglect and decay. Flying Officer Fletcher was glad his tour was finished. It was obvious that the Spitfire was not there. The limping man accompanied him to the gate. Fletcher thanked him for letting him look round the property. The man turned on his heel and limped away. Fletcher stood a moment then saw the tender coming over a rise of the road. The sergeant with the tender had nothing to report. Although they had covered the countryside for several miles around, the R.A.F. had found no sign of the Spitfire, and nobody with whom they had spoken had seen anything of it. The machine had vanished. “Drive me back to Squadron H.Q.” growled Fletcher. “Leave the men here to look around on their own. The Squadron Leader will send further orders.” Thirty minutes later Fletcher was entering the office of his Squadron Leader. A tall, lean, hatchet-faced man. Norris had a row of medal ribbons on his chest, and a look in his grey eyes that junior officers usually found very disconcerting. “Well, glad to see you looking so fit, Fletcher,” he said. “Good work bringing down that 110. We got news of that before we heard from you. How’s your plane?” “That’s what I’d like to know. It’s disappeared!” said the Flying Officer, and saw Norris’ eyebrows go up sharply. “It sounds crazy, but it’s done exactly that—disappeared!” As he told the story his eyes roamed more than once to the photo behind the Squadron Leader’s table. It was the photo of another Squadron Leader, short, rugged, with a devil-may-care look on his youthful, handsome face. Around the picture frame were badges and souvenirs from forty different German planes, all victims of Hoodoo Hart, the most venerated hero of 134 Squadron. Hoodoo Hart had been the greatest air ace the Squadron had produced during the last Great War. Although he had not gone into action until 1918, then being only eighteen years of age, before the November of that same year he had become a Squadron Leader and had shot down forty enemy machines in single combat. After the Great War was over, 134 Squadron had been disbanded, but Hoodoo Hart had remained in the Air Force for twenty years afterwards, becoming the best known instructor the air schools possessed. Many of the present day pilots owed their skill to Hart and his name was respected in every R.A.F. mess, especially in the newly re-formed 134 Squadron. A year or two before the war had begun, Hart had gone to the United States to fly in a civil air line, but when Germany had invaded Poland in 1939, he had cabled his request to be reinstated as a fighter pilot in his old squadron. But the authorities had turned down his offer. “Too old at forty,” they had said, and Squadron 134 had indignantly discussed the matter for weeks afterwards. To them it seemed absurd that one of the greatest pilots ever known should have been refused a chance to fight for his country in her hour of need. Since then nobody had heard from, or about Hoodoo Hart. The Squadron Leader was as puzzled as Fletcher. “Of all the crazy things that ever happened,” he was saying. “Of course the plane’s somewhere around! I’ll send out another fifty men to scour the countryside. You get off to bed, Fletcher, and don’t worry your head any more about it. We’ll find the old crate before nightfall.” Sam Fletcher took a last look at the photo on the wall, then turned on his heel. It was said that Hart had always put a hoodoo on his opponent’s machines—well, someone had certainly put a hoodoo on this missing Spitfire!

THE EXTRA FIGHTER

These were busy days in south-west England. Hour after hour, waves of German bombers and escorting fighters were sweeping in from the sea in a desperate effort to smash Britain’s air resistance. Hour after hour, day after day, our young airmen went up to do battle against desperate odds.

Squadron 134 was well in the battle zone, and sleep was a luxury which few of the fighter pilots were granted in the week that followed the disappearance of Fletcher’s Spitfire. There was so much excitement, so many casualties and so many new faces coming into the Squadron that everyone soon forgot that mysterious affair. The plane had never turned up, although the police and military were still seeking it. For Sam Fletcher, life had become one whirl of take-offs, head-on battles, dizzy spins, bursts of machine gun fire, and limping returns to the landing field with a machine which threatened to fall to pieces under him. One morning, soon after dawn, the order came to take off and intercept a large formation of German fighters and bombers which were coming up the Thames estuary. Sam Fletcher was one of the pilots who raced to the waiting machine. Casualties had been heavy the previous day, and only a group of five Spitfires, with the familiar black band round their noses, stood in readiness. All the others had been shot down. Reinforcements in men and machines were on their way, but there was no time to wait for those. London was in peril, and the remaining five must hurl themselves into the fight. Ten seconds later the five planes were in the air, flying in V-formation as they streaked eastwards to intercept the foe. Fletcher was acting as formation leader that morning, and it was he who set the direction and who flew at the apex of the V-formation. At twenty thousand feet they hurtled through the sky, and soon they sighted the raiders ringed by burst of anti-aircraft fire. Sam Fletcher gulped. He could not help it, for he had never seen so many planes in his life. There were hundreds of them, perhaps two hundred black bombers flying in close formation, with German fighters stepped up in layers above them. In order to reach those bombers and prevent them from dropping their loads on London, it would be necessary for the British planes to penetrate the protecting squadrons of fighters. It looked a suicidal thing for five lone planes to attempt, but Sam Fletcher did not hesitate. Choosing the thickest part of the enemy armada for his attack, he dived straight for it, the other four Spitfires behind him. Planes leapt up in front of them. Exhaust smoke nearly blinded them. Machine guns spluttered and enemy cannons roared. How they did it, Sam Fletcher never knew, but they eventually broke up the outer defences of that vast enemy formation, and found themselves among the bombers. One Spitfire went down, but the other four were unharmed, and grimly set to work on the bombers. Sam saw another of his group collide in mid-air with a Dornier, saw the two machines go whirling earthwards locked together, and swallowed hard when he realised that left only three, including himself in action on the British side. For some reason he found himself with a few seconds to spare, and glanced around to see how the survivors of 134 Squadron were faring. There was one machine on the tail of a Heinkel which was trying to dive out of the danger zone. There was another twisting and turning in a corkscrew dive with three Messerschmitts after it. Then Sam Fletcher blinked. How did it come about that there was still another Spitfire in the act of sending a big Dornier hurtling to earth in flames? “We started with five, two have gone down, so there should be three left, including myself,” he muttered. “But there are three out there besides me. It can’t be possible! I must be seeing double somewhere. Good work!” He yelled with excitement when the Spitfire, which had just disposed of the Dornier, did a brilliant barrel roll, looped steeply upwards, and was on the tail of a Messerschmitt 110 before the Nazi knew he was going to be engaged. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Went the Spitfire’s guns, and there was one Messerschmitt less. “Good work,” panted Sam Fletcher, as he came about to seek some more victims. “I’ve never seen that done better. That’s the sort of stuff Hoodoo Hart used to try to teach the chaps, and—hullo! There are the other two all right. I’m not wrong. There are three Spitfires besides myself. That means there’s an extra one flying with us.” Where had the Phantom Flyer come from? Why did his machine have the same black band on its nose as the Spitfires of 134 Squadron? Sam Fletcher knew perfectly well there had been no spare machines at the depot, and even if any had arrived in the last half-hour, they could not have been painted in the time. He was so puzzled about this that for a few moments his attention was taken from the fight. Crash! Something under his machine, rocking him burst wildly. Bang! Bang! He was under fire from above as well. Two Messerschmitt 110’s were making a set for him, one below and one above his tail. They had him in a V of fire. It was one of the worst possible positions for a pilot to be in. If he dived, the one above would get him through the cockpit. If he rolled—  What was that? Something hissed past him so closely that its wings nearly touched him. He held his breath, thinking it was the end, but with a quick bank the other pilot avoided collision at the last moment, and at the same time he let loose with his guns on the Messerschmitt below. There was a terrific explosion as the German burst into flames. His petrol tank had been ripped in two. The Spitfire which had leapt so recklessly to the rescue did a half-roll to get clear of the wreckage of its victim, and as it did so, Sam Fletcher glimpsed the crouching pilot. It was only a momentary glimpse, in a split fraction of a second, but it was enough to show him that the pilot wore a scarlet flying helmet with ear pieces which almost covered his face. Then the Spitfire had flipped to the right and climbed to attack another formation of bombers, leaving Fletcher more dazed and bewildered than before. He knew there was no man in Squadron 134 with a scarlet flying-helmet. They were not allowed to wear such things!

 

THE PHANTOM FLYER 15 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1313 – 1327 (1950)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007