Harry Tapner served on 208 Sqn at the end of WWII, flying the Spitfire on Tactical Reconnaissance operations in Italy. The following story is an extract from his memoirs, entitled: “So ….. you’re going to be a pilot?”, which we reprint here with kind permission from Harry’s family.
The tradition of Christmas required the officers to visit the various sections after the dinner to take a festive drink with the men. I had earlier stated that I was not teetotal, but not a heavy drinker; for this statement I had been rostered for a dawn flight on Boxing Day.
The visits to the various sections meant that a considerable amount of alcohol was offered and it would have been extremely bad form not to have a drink with any particular section. This meant that more was consumed than should have been. Each section had its own favourite drink, which resulted in mixing a considerable variety of beverages. The weather had decided on a belated white Christmas and the snow started to fall in the late evening; when returning to the Mess, a few hours before dawn, the ground was very white.
At first light on Boxing Day the effect of the lack of sleep, the excess of alcohol and the intense whiteness of the terrain tended to induce drowsiness. After weaving and keeping a constant lookout over endless whiteness for over an hour, it was on the landing approach when I found it difficult to keep my eyes open. They did however, open very quickly when I heard and felt the aeroplane touch something. I had lost too much height in my torpid condition and brushed the tops of some trees on my approach to the airfield. With an instant waking reaction I slammed open the throttle: I had set the mixture to rich on the approach, so the engine responded instantly and managed to lift the aeroplane back into the air. I was now too far down the runway to make a safe landing, so I kept the throttle open. The undercarriage was raised and when height and speed had been reached the flaps were raised.
On the new approach I remained fully alert and brought the aeroplane down in the manner to which it was accustomed. I learned a few hours later that the radiators had been filled with twigs, which was not a good thing for the engine.