One night in September 2008 I was at a formal dinner put on by the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Sydney branch. Sitting at my table was a very interesting man. On his lapel was a tiny golden caterpillar, with bright ruby red eyes, not unlike this one:
That suggested he had a story to tell!
Peter Batten was his name, and indeed he did have a story. In March 1987 he became the last Australian to eject from a Mirage jet fighter, after his engine flamed out off the coast near Newcastle, NSW. He was rescued by a fishing boat with only minor injuries. I had recognised the golden badge on his lapel as the emblem of the Caterpillar Club, a loose association of airmen united by one common thread (ahem): taking to the silk to escape from a disabled aeroplane. Started by Irvin Aerospace in 1926, the Club recognises aircrew regardless of their nationality.
The first member of the Caterpillar Club that I met was Phil Smith, pilot of Lancaster LM475 B for Baker. He once showed me his caterpillar badge, which is how I recognised Peter’s some years later. In 2003 I wrote to Irvin to see what information they held on Phil’s escape but due to British privacy laws they could not release anything. Lucky, then, that I now have a copy of an unpublished manuscript that Phil originally wrote for his grandson, in which he relates exactly what he could remember:
We were just about to drop our bombs when everything went hot and dry and red. When the flame had gone out, I was still in my seat but could feel no aeroplane around me. I immediately released my seatbelts and then my parachute. It seemed to open immediately. There was sufficient light for me to see that one of the two straps supporting me had been half cut through. I floated to the ground holding with both hands the damaged strap above the cut. This helped soften my landing which was on what appeared to be a flat grassy field. […] I seemed to be all in one piece but my flying helmet and one flying boot had gone. (C03-004-024)
As we now know, Phil sheltered with a French family until the invasion forces passed his position in September 1944. There is a letter in Mollie Smith’s collection from the great Leslie Irvine himself, written to Phil in October congratulating him for his escape – it took a little longer for the badge to reach him, “owing to supply restrictions” (A01-042-001).
And when I visited Phil in the late 1990s, hanging on his wall was a frame enclosing the tiny golden caterpillar with the ruby red eyes.
Text © 2012 Adam Purcell
Image from http://www.merkki.com/images/ccpin.jpg