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Being a POW made him a survivor
Tales of legendary feats of pilots who defended our land during the Second World War never cease to fill us with a sense of awe. LUCYA SZACHNOWSKI talked to one man whose story is one of personal courage and danger.
RECCE PILOT: Flying Officer Peter Harding reminisces
SIXTY years ago, on August 27, 1941, Spitfire pilot Peter Harding flew out over Germany alone and unarmed.
It was his 23rd reconnaissance mission over enemy territory during the Second World War. From each of his previous trips he had returned without incident.
This time, he was not so lucky.
Mr Harding, who lives in Chislehurst with his wife Sheila and is now aged 82, said: “I was flying a Spitfire from which they had taken out all the machine guns and put in two extra fuel tanks where they had been, then taken out the radio and put another tank in its place, giving me 90 extra gallons of fuel.
“I had a camera installed, pointing downwards, and I was sent out over Germany to take reconnaissance pictures. On my 23rd trip my engine stopped.”
Flying Officer Harding had no choice but to bail out. Deep in enemy territory without a radio, he had little chance of being rescued, yet he was unafraid.
“On my first two flights I was petrified but once I got used to it I wasn't afraid at all. I used to love flying out alone and unarmed over Germany, strangely enough.
“I loved the fact I was getting away with it. There I was, in the heart of enemy territory. I wasn't fired at or chased once.
“I wasn't even afraid when I got engine trouble. I got out in my parachute at 10,000 ft and landed about five miles away from the aeroplane, which I saw spiralling down. Some of it went 10ft into the ground and the rest was torn to pieces,” said Mr Harding.
“After I landed, I tried to get to some woods in order to hide. I intended to have a good go at getting home. But, wherever I ran, there was someone looking for me. Eventually a large policeman spotted me. He started walking towards me and I saw his gun holster was still buttoned up. He came up to me and asked me, in German, if I was the 'English flier'.”
Mr Harding was lucky enough to have been discovered by people who were not wholehearted supporters of the Nazi regime.
“After apprehending me, the policeman took me to a house where a woman offered me a cup of coffee and cake which was a very dangerous thing for her to do at the time,” he said.
“When I returned to Germany after the war, I tried to find the woman who had been so kind to me but she had died. Her two daughters, who had made silk dresses out of my parachute, wanted to see me. Now, when I go over there, they treat me like a long-lost brother. They also told me if I had managed to make it to their house without being arrested, they would have hidden me.”
He was taken to a prisoner of war camp, but his parents learnt of his capture 10 days before the official notification because German propagandist Lord Haw Haw listed his name in a radio broadcast. He remained in captivity until near the end of the war, when he was liberated by the Russians.
“I was moved from camp to camp many times," said Mr Harding. “We were put on a forced march when we were told the Russians were coming and I had to spend a night in the open. I had just recovered from an attack of bronchitis at the time.
“When I got back home I was still coughing and doctors told me I would probably continue to suffer from it unless I lived somewhere like Switzerland. But I simply got on with my life and haven't suffered chronically.
“I have enjoyed life. I would love to do it all again even with the prison camp.”
He added: “Being captured and spending the rest of the war in the camp probably saved my life. If a German plane had caught up with me and by summer 1941 they were starting to build planes which could go as high as Spitfires I would probably have been killed.”