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Keeping the Spitfires in the air

While the pilots were undoubtedly the heroes of the Battle of Britain, it was the ground crew who helped keep the aircraft protecting our skies in the air. Often battle scarred, the planes would limp home while day in day out the ground crew patched them up and got them airborne again.

Sergeant Stan Hartill was 19 years old when he joined the RAF as an airframe fitter. Stan joined 609 Squadron, looking after Spitfires at Middle Wallop for one week when the Battle of Britain broke out. He tells us about a typical day on the ground as Britain fought for its freedom in the skies.

"I was 19 and working in a munitions factory when war broke out. In February 1940 I decided that I didn't want to risk being called up and put in the army so I joined the RAF. In July 1940 my first posting was to Middle Wallop with 609 Spitfire Squadron.

Former RAF Airframe Fitter, Stan Hartill

"We got 14 shillings a week, equivalent to 10p today. When I first arrived at Middle Wallop the roofs on all of the hangars were missing because the airfield had been attacked by German bombers who had tried to put all the RAF Fighter aerodromes out of action. I remember thinking, 'What on earth am I being posted to!'

"Our day's started very early – sometimes 7am and we'd go through until the last Spitfire came home. When a Spit landed there was so much that needed to be done – I would fill the tank with petrol, a mechanic would remove the camera on the Spitfire – there was lots to do to get it ready to go off again but we all mucked in together.

"When the bell went for the Spitfires to take off, the pilots would run out to the aeroplane. Their parachutes were already in the Spitfire so I would jump on the wing and help the pilot strap in, you'd then turn the oxygen supply on – in the early Spitfires the pilot couldn't reach the oxygen supply so the ground crew had to turn it on and God help you if you forgot to do it!

"To start the Spitfire there was a starter trolley with a battery and a great big lead that was plugged into the engine. Once the pilot started the engine, the ground crew had to go and unplug this great lead from the engine and we’d be within two feet of the propeller! You were very careful not to put a foot wrong! Then we'd remove the chucks and the Spitfire was ready to take off.

"We worked very, very long hours with hardly any time to eat and drink. When the Spits came back we always knew if it had been in action because the Mark II had 8 Browning guns and we used to cover the portholes in the wings that the guns fire through with fabric to help the aerodynamics.

"If the patches of fabric were missing we knew they'd been in action. The power plug was put in for the batteries and straight away, within minutes every Spitfire had to be refuelled.

"A Spitfire holds 84 gallons of petrol and we had to fill them right to the brim then go round to make sure there were no bullet holes. If there were we couldn't cope with repairing them in the field so they were flown to the Spitfire factory 30 miles away and professionally repaired and returned to us in no time at all.

"It was quite an operation but we never moaned – how could we when we knew what those young pilots were going through?"

Stan Hartill, now 94, was supported by the RAF Benevolent Fund after the maintenance charge on his flat was increased by 20 per cent and he struggled to cover the costs. The RAF Benevolent Fund helped Stan with the cost and also provided financial assistance to help run his daughter's car, so that he can get out and about and maintain his independence.

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