Like all battles the experience of those involved could be wildly different. There were many pilots in RAF Fighter Command who were now exhausted by the constant tension and the need to fly several missions a day.
Yet the real genius behind Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s command of the battle was that he carefully managed the deployment of Squadrons to front line bases as much as he could. There was still time for fresh Squadron’s to be blooded.
Geoffrey Wellum was just over 18 years old when he went into combat with No. 92 Squadron for the first time on 11th September:
I glance round at the ten brave little Spitfires and a strengthened resolve flows into me. Well, there’s not many of us but we’ll knock shit out of some of you, at least for as long as we can. One thing to say that now but, in amongst that lot, things may turn out to be different. Must be some other friendly squadrons about somewhere, at least I bloody well hope so, but I’m damned if I can see them.
How the hell can ten of us cope with this lot? Where do we start? Only one answer, attack and get stuck in and trust in the Lord. This is interception. Good God, I’ve never seen so many aircraft in one bit of sky before. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Not long to go now. Brian’s voice is in my earphones. ‘Gannic from leader. OK boys, in we go. A good first burst and away. Watch for 109s.’
Voices over the R/T. Urgency. ‘109s above the first lot coming round to six o’clock, 3,000 feet above.’ ‘Six more at four o’clock high.’ ‘I see them, they’re starting to come down, here they come, watch ’em, Blue Section. Break into them, Blue, break starboard, break, break for Christ’s sake.’
Things are starting to get rough. Automatically I have followed my self-imposed drill that I always do at times like this. Reflector sight on; gun button to fire; airscrew pitch to 2,650 revs; better response. Press the emergency boost over-ride, lower my seat a notch and straps tight. OK, men, I’m all set. Let battle commence. Please, dear God, like me more than you do the Germans.
I hold Brian’s Spitfire in view some thirty feet away and look ahead for a potential target and at the same time I assess the situation. This will be a head-on attack from below and it’ll be bloody hot work. The lower lot are Dorniers; can see them very clearly now and closing rapidly. Pick my target. A Dornier slightly out of formation, you’ll do. A quick glance above and behind. No 109s immediately behind but that bunch up there might be troublesome. Just a mix-up of aeroplanes; in fact, bloody chaos. Now for my target. There, I see you, you sod. Back in tight formation now, however; never mind, have a crack at him.
All at once, crossfire; heavy and pretty close at that. Bloody front gunners. My target, concentrate, the target. Looking at him through the sight, getting larger much too quickly, concentrate, hold him steady, that’s it, hold it … be still my heart, be still. Sight on, still on, steady . . . fire NOW! I press the gun button and all hell is let loose; my guns make a noise like tearing calico.
Geoffrey Wellum’s memoir ‘First Light’ was not published until 2002. It’s quickly became a best seller and a classic autobiography of World War II, not just of the Battle of Britain.
See also the memoirs of Brian Kingcome – A Willingness to Die, who led No. 92 Squadron that day.
The current RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight now fly a Spitfire with the ‘QJ-K’ markings of Geoffrey Wellum’s 92 Squadron aircraft, as flown on 11th September 1940. There is much more detail about Geoffrey Wellum’s career there – but really, you just have to read his book.