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In April 1943, a young officer arrived at Penshurst to join ‘C’ Flight, 653 Squadron. He was no ordinary pilot and this was no ordinary RAF outfit. Lyell Munro was a soldier and 653 was an Air Observation Post Squadron whose pilots were Royal Artillery and whose ground crew were RAF.
AOP pilots were expert gunners, skilled flyers and incurable rule breakers. Flying from airstrips just behind the front lines, without armament and often with no parachute, they controlled the fire of hundreds of guns and their enemies learnt to dread the sight of the little green Austers in the skies above the battlefield. An incautious movement, a puff of smoke or a chance flash of reflected sunlight could bring tons of high explosives raining down.
They flew alone without ground control, scanning the skies constantly while they directed the guns. Closing at over 250mph, an attacking ME 109 left no time for indecision. Reactions had to be instinctive and evasive action instant. Failure was fatal.
After the War ended, the survivors went back into civilian life and few histories mention them or what they did. Lyell’s is one of only two personal accounts that are known to exist and it is likely that there will be no more. Written for his family and his comrades in ‘C’ Flight it is a story told without heroics, but with a deep affection for the men with whom he flew and worked.
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