I was going to be a Spitfire pilot. We all were – backs to the wall, fighting to the death against a merciless invader…
This was 1959, an English prep school; War Picture Library with a torch after lights out. For the price of a Mars Bar, you could borrow Boddington’s flying helmet. It had P/O Boddington inked on the inside and smelled of rubber and sweat and excitement.
Ten years later came the film – Battle of Britain. I went to see it every night until the money ran out. Edward Fox with his silk scarf. Susannah York, fetching in her WAAF officer’s cap.
It remained a fantasy, of course – until now.
Admittedly, I’m not in a Spitfire, climbing through Angels Ten. But the fight for survival – the merciless invader. That’s all here.
And just because I’m a hundred miles up the Gambia, not at Biggin Hill – and I’m up against cockroaches instead of the Luftwaffe, it’s still as desperate a struggle as anything Michael Caine, and Douglas Bader and P/O Boddington had to face.
I knew they were coming, of course: the books and Facebook groups are full of warnings about not bringing cardboard packaging aboard (they lay their eggs in cardboard). There is advice about Boric Acid and Nestles Milk – but that’s no good in a dogfight.
Nobody forgets their first contact with the enemy: I was chopping onions, had discarded the papery outer skin and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, a movement – a flash of scuttling shiny brown carapace.
Wheeling instinctively onto the attack, I stabbed with the vegetable knife. It went wide, but the enemy banked and ran for cover under the engine casing.
That’s when the training kicked in: Don’t let him get away. He’ll be back with his chums, telling them I’m a pushover – won’t last two weeks, just as Kurt Jurgens told Ralph Richardson.
So, fight like hell! Off with the engine casing. There’s the bastard, running for cover along the ledge above the CAV filter. Gun button to “fire”. Press the tit – but, Oh no! Out of ammunition (I’d put the vegetable knife down).
I grabbed a spoon, but a spoon is not a precision weapon. It wouldn’t fit into the corner.
Bare hands, now: slapping and missing until, with a cold and steely deliberation, I bring out a forefinger and crush him into the woodwork. Still, he won’t die: A mess of legs and whiskers stuck to the skin, waving defiance. The coup de grâce, then: I bring down the thumbnail; grind him in two.
Yet this is just the beginning. Over the ensuing days, the raids increase both in size and frequency. I keep a daily tally in the back of the logbook. The Nine o’clock news begins with Alvar Liddell reciting the day’s score as if it were a test match.
For a time, it is touch and go. The blackest day brings eleven incursions, eight kills. The cockroaches don’t give up. They come in numbers. I adapt my tactics: don’t go for two at once. Nobody can catch two rabbits…
Tally-ho! The carpet comes up, then the cabin sole: I burrow into the tins of chickpeas and bottles of mayonnaise until – there he is – backed up against freshwater manifold. Out with the forefinger.
It’s relentless: ten, a dozen sorties a day and no quarter given. After the early clashes, I would flick my victims into the galley waste bin – until I found one of them, mortally wounded, yet still trying to escape. After that, over the side, they went – over the stern, in fact – into the two-knot tide sweeping them away with the river. I wouldn’t trust the buggers not to climb up the anchor chain.
Of course, it couldn’t go on. Not at this level of attrition. There had to come a time when one of us would crack. Remember the scene right at the end, when the pilots are waiting at dispersal, lounging in broken armchairs, sleeping on the grass?
Edward Fox (he survived) folds his newspaper and looks up at the sky.
And the sky is empty.
Cut to the Luftwaffe packing up and heading for Russia.
It has been ten days since a cockroach has shown its face aboard Samsara. The battle is won. I’m not a hero – somebody had to do it – and yet the war grinds on: when I restocked the onions the other day, I sat in the dinghy peeling off the outer skin, dropping the pieces carefully over the side.
Do you think they sell Boric Acid in the market?
*You can read more about Boddington and his flying helmet in Old Man Sailing, the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Old-Man-Sailing-dreams-lifetime/dp/B08TQ9KV48