A fighter sweep across the Channel

Supermarine Spitfire Mk VBs of No. 131 Squadron RAF being prepared for a sweep at Merston, a satellite airfield of Tangmere, Sussex, June 1942.

RAF Fighter Command continued to maintain fighter sweeps across the Channel to confront the Luftwaffe, even though they were often costly affairs. On occasions these involved huge numbers of aircraft in an attempt to dominate the air over northern France. It was all part of the strategy of forcing the diversion of German fighters away from Russia.

In April Rene Mouchotte’s Squadron of Free French airmen fighting with the RAF had just transferred to Tangmere on the south coast after converting to Spitfires in Scotland. Early on the morning of the 10th April they made their first sweep, this time a large operation involving all of 2 Group:

Twelve of us took off three at a time; we gained altitude slowly, here and there picking up other squadrons, punctual at the meeting points, progressively coming in to join us, taking up position on either side, above and below so that we formed the point of an enormous arrow of about 250 fighters. All 2 Group had sent their squadrons – Northolt, Hornchurch, Kenley, Hawkinge, the Poles, the Czechs, the famous American Eagle Squadron, etc.

We left England by Beachy Head, climbing to 20,000 feet beneath a dazzling blue sky I could already see Le Touquet in front, with its blue swimming-pool. Why did that detail strike me? I scanned the sky pretty sure that no Boche would ever dare to attack such an enormous force as this. A violent wind at our altitude soon brought us to the spot. The total lack of opposition from the coastal batteries at once put me on my guard and immediately I heard a concert of shouts: ‘Look out! A 109 behind you! Ten 109s in front, We’re attacking’

Then the voice of Wing Commander Robinson, magnificently calm, speaking to us: ‘Buck up, chaps, we’re going to have some funl’ Then we went into hell, attacked from below while four Focke-Wulfs fell on us from behind, out of the sun. Our squadron was the centre ofthe whirlwind. There were shouts on all sides. De Scitivaux dived suddenly turning to port; followed by my number two, I kept close to him. Looking over my shoulder, I saw four 109′s diving; we were in the best possible position to be shot down.

Our speed was terrific. I used both hands to pull the stick back and fly straight up to deal with them, which gave me the worst black-out I have ever had, I hoped to make the Huns turn tail or at least change their plans, thus allowing de Scitivaux to continue the attack on his Boche – which I hadn’t spotted. As soon as I could see again, I was flying almost vertically and just had time to glimpse a 109’s tracer coming from above. Our two planes had just missed each other, but his bullets and shells both missed their mark. I never saw de Scitivaux again.

I regained both consciousness and my balance. A swarm of planes was whirling all round. It was hard to distinguish Huns from friendly aircraft. Twice I saw a plane spinning down in flames. A solitary Spitfire seemed very pleased to join forces with me. We gained altitude, zig-zagging wildly; I have never watched what was going on behind me with such attention.

A score of Focke-Wulfs passed very close, apparently without seeing us. They were painted a fine dark green. Not being a lunatic, I was not going to stop them. In the scuffle that followed, eight Spitfires appeared from goodness knows where, spinning madly I joined them. It was frightful, for we were hopelessly entangled, shaving past each other by miracles. I saw swastikas, then Spits, dived after one ofthem, it vanished, I pulled out…. Nothing! I was all alone with my inseparable number two, alone in the huge sky

Three pilots from his Squadron, including Wing Commander Robinson and de Scitivaux, were lost in this battle. See The Mouchotte Diaries 1940-1943 .

Rene Mouchotte had disobeyed orders after the fall of France and fled to Britain to join the RAF. Free French pilots eventually formed an all French Squadron led by Mouchotte.

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