Unseen diary of RAF chaplain captures the heroism, sacrifice and humour of The ...

RAF chaplain Guy Mayfield was posted to RAF Duxford, a key fighter base, in February 1940, just a few months before the Battle of Britain. There, he became a confidant to the young airmen who would fly and die in the confrontation that would secure our survival. His wartime diary, published for the first time to coincide with the RAF’s 100th anniversary today, is an enthralling yet darkly humorous insight into the remarkable lives of The Few...

December 12, 1939

At midnight yesterday I became a chaplain Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Edwards, the Assistant Chaplain-in-Chief of the RAF, described in his first talk to us, 30 new-fledged chaplains, what kind of war we might have to face.

He didn’t seem to know very much himself, but said that it was expected to become violent by the spring, and that by the summer of 1940, 40 per cent of the aircrew we should meet on our stations would be dead. The average age of RAF personnel, not simply aircrew, is 23. Certainly the first impression gained in the mess here is one of extreme youth. The pilot officers in particular look like schoolboys. One feels the temptation to tell them that they are staying up too late.

January 21, 1940

Everyone is extremely friendly to RAF chaplains; more so, I am told, than to Army ones. This is probably because we look a bit more dashing in our ‘a***-over-tip’ caps. The two chaplains’ badges with wings which we wear on our lapels are misinterpreted often as being the brevet which pilots wear or as some decoration for aerial valour. I get embarrassed when people on a bus thank me for ‘the splendid show you fellows are putting up’.

Scramble: Spitfire pilots rush to their cockpits in RAF Duxford

Scramble: Spitfire pilots rush to their cockpits in RAF Duxford

February 2

I have arrived at my station, RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire. There was a warm welcome, for my arrival implied the station had become more important. I was taken to the mess. The doctor, Browne, also RAF Volunteer Reserve, gave me a very cold, clinical look and exclaimed: ‘My God! What next? A b****y parson!’ But when he saw me drink gin, he unbent.

February 23

I took the funeral of Pilot Officer Arthur Delamore of 222 Squadron and buried his poor bits and pieces. He was a shy, elegant young man with whom no one could get on terms. He was night-flying for training and he crashed for no apparent reason. In the evening there was a rowdy dance in the sergeants’ mess. I didn’t dance, but talked to anyone who wanted to and propped up the bar. The chaplain was the one person who must not be shaken. He must not drown his sorrows.

February 29

Went out to watch 19 Squadron night-flying after dinner. Bitterly cold and the wind cut through my greatcoat. Trenchard crashed while we were there.

March 3

THE talk in the mess this evening was about bailing out. It seems that even if your parachute doesn’t open, you remain conscious till you make your hole in the ground. The station engineering officer told us of fingernails torn away in attempts to open the parachute when the release device has failed or the wearer can’t find the release.

March 4

Trenchard's funeral. A fine day for it. It was a particularly unhappy affair. His fiancee was there: her looks were sufficient to make one want to cry. I tried to say good things to her when the service was over. The waste, the criminal waste that these funerals represent.

March 13

The new station commander is [Group Captain Alfred] ‘Woody’ Woodhall. Had tea with him and his monocle. Soon after his arrival he sent for me and talked about the morale and discipline of the pilots. I was to get them to bed earlier. I was to see that they drank less. ‘But how, sir?’ ‘By drinking with them yourself and setting an example.’

Confidant to the few: Guy Mayfield during his days as an RAF chaplain

Confidant to the few: Guy Mayfield during his days as an RAF chaplain

March 23

New WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] CO has arrived, thank God. But first impressions suggest that she is a shocker. She is a parson’s wife and wants to run the WAAFs like a Sunday school. Wants me to hold compulsory parade services for them. She seems to be a maniac for compulsory everything (no wonder her husband said: ‘Join up, my dear, your duty is clear’).

April 9

Germany invades Norway and Denmark. So it has started. By June who will be left? Please God all of them but almost certainly not. Of course as a Christian, I should say: ‘This doesn’t matter; the real life starts when this one ends.’ I know that is true and I believe it but if the physical joys are pagan, then one is still fond of them. How dreadful to die before finding out how much better life is at 30 than it was even at 22, or how happy marriage can be.

April 14

Felt encouraged by increase of eight in the number of communicants. We had 15 at Easter; the usual number is about three to five. There are a nominal 1,000 on the station, but possibly only a third are off-duty and free to come at any time. Smalley [a squadron adjutant] has told me not to worry about numbers: ‘When they hear the first big bang and mess their pants, they’ll come all right.’

April 16

Blunden came to see me for most of the morning. It took a long time to get him to talk plainly and simply for he was very frightened. He is being made to sign for an aircraft as being airworthy when he knows that it isn’t. He is a fitter and the Flight Sergeant tells him to sign. Fortunately, I’ve got the confidence of Nicky [Nicholls], the adjutant. So I went and told him what was happening but begged him to act without names coming up. He asked nothing except the name, and the Flight Sergeant departed to a posting which at my hint had nothing to do with aircraft. The Flight Sergeant has gone, no reason given. The Spitfire [in question] has been rechecked.

May 10

Bader's crash-landing fury 

May 1, 1940

Douglas Bader came in from a patrol. He has been doing more than his share of patrols. He landed with his undercarriage up. We all saw it. The aircraft isn’t very good; but he isn’t hurt. He is flying off on leave, so he strode with his parachute from the crashed aircraft to the Maggy [two-seater plane]. He was still in a furious temper at landing with his wheels up, and all our soothing had no effect. He took his parachute, and flung it hard on the wing of the Maggy, saying, “F*** everything.” ’

Hero pilot: Douglas Bader in October 1940

Hero pilot: Douglas Bader in October 1940

The parachute went straight through the wing, making a lovely hole in it. So that was the second aircraft he had temporarily written off in an afternoon. But it restored his balance. Another aircraft was found, and he took off in that.

September 19

TEA here with Douglas, who described his adventures yesterday with the rear gunner of a Dornier [German aircraft] who bailed out and got caught in the tail. The other crew bailed out successfully.

The Dornier did several loops; the man could not free himself, so, mercifully surely, Douglas, to use his word, ‘squirted’ him. The night barrage and bomb flashes over London have

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