Lieutenant Harry Strawn from Swissvale, Pennsylvania, was a pilot with the 309th Squadron of the 31st Fighter Group, which he joined in 1942. Throughout the war he maintained a diary which forms the basis of this book.
Strawn’s unit arrived in the United Kingdom in June 1942 to a typical British summer: “The weather is terrible today, cold and raining ... I have a beautiful cold now and this weather isn’t helping me much ... In fact I really want to get some warm clothes. This cold weather will put us all in bed ... No heat in the stove as they are short on coal in this country.” Welcome to wartime Britain.
The Americans clearly had little appreciation of what had happened in the first year or two of the war. “Spent most of the evening talking with my bat boy about the battle of England [sic]. They really are funny chaps. I guess England was just about gone if Hitler could have held out a little longer.”
The food was also a surprise to the Americans. When he was given what was, presumably, kippers for breakfast he could scarcely believe it. “Tried to feed me fish for breakfast of all things,” he complained.
Despite the peculiar ways of the strange country he was now in, Strawn was enamoured with both the British girls and the Spitfires that his squadron was issued with. After familiarisation with their aircraft the 309th Squadron was posted to RAF Westhampnett on 1 August 1942. Less than three weeks later Strawn was thrown into what was the largest air engagement since the Battle of Britain – the fighting in support of the Dieppe raid. More than sixty Spitfires were destroyed that day, with the 309th Squadron losing three aircraft. Strawn noted in his diary that “My mission turned out very good as we were not attacked by anything”.
Further experience was gained on the 20th of the month, with Strawn flying on Circus 207. It was still summer in Britain, though, which meant that the weather was entirely unsuitable for flying. When it did actually stop raining and the squadron was able to engage the enemy, Strawn observed that “the Germans are plenty good and have a good fighter plane in the Fw 190 ... You have to keep your eyes open all the time and looking around, for in most cases they come down on you from above and out of the sun.” Regardless of his appreciation of the enemy, he concluded that, “We have a good ’plane to meet them with in the Spitfire, and one the British should be very proud of. For myself I hope I never have to fly any other make.”
Soon Strawn was able to say goodbye to the British climate as his squadron was posted to North Africa. He remained in North Africa until he was posted to an advanced flying school in Texas in late 1943. He was reassigned to combat operations in the Pacific, where he saw out the rest of the war.
As well as his diary entries and some letters home, To War in a Spitfire includes excerpts from interviews that Harry Strawn gave after the war. These tend to describe his combat experiences in considerably more graphic terms, and make good reading.
This book is well furnished with photographs, and is full of interesting and amusing anecdotes.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.