As the shooting war finally began it was the RAF who were immediately thrust into battle. Some units would suffer grievous losses as they attempted to go up against the Luftwaffe in outmoded aircraft. The Fairey Battle, a single engined monoplane fighter-bomber with three crew, had only been in service for two years but soon proved to be a hopeless match against single seater German fighters.
More promising was the Hurricane. Although some RAF squadrons had had less than a month to become familiarised with the aircraft after converting from biplane Gladiators in April, they were soon proving their worth. They were hopelessly outnumbered however. RAF Fighter Command was still coming up to strength and would prove very reluctant to release more aircraft to the continent.
Twenty-three year old Paul Richey had already quickly shot down two Me 110 in his Hurricane on the 12th May when he tangled with another three:
I turned, but they were still there; so were the other two from above. In a moment I was in the centre of what seemed a stack of 110s, although there were in fact only five. I knew I had scarcely the speed or height in my wooden-blader to dive away and beat it, so I decided to stay and make the best of it. Although I was more manoeuvrable at this height than the Huns, I found it impossible to get in an astern shot because every time I almost got one lined up tracers came whipping past from another on my tail.
All I could do was to keep twisting and turning, and when a 110 got behind me make as tight a turn as possible, almost spinning with full engine, and fly straight at him, fire a quick burst, then push the stick forward and dive under his nose. I would then pull-up in a steep climbing turn to meet the next gentleman.
Obviously they couldn’t all attack at once without colliding, but several times I was at the apex of a cone formed by the cannon and machine-gun fire of three of them. Their tactics consisted mostly of diving, climbing and taking full deﬂection shots at me. Their shooting seemed wild. This manoeuvre was easily dealt with by turning towards them and popping over their heads, forcing them to steepen their climb until they stalled and had to fall away.
But I was not enjoying this marathon. Far from it. My mouth was getting drier and drier, and I was feeling more and more desperate and exhausted. Would they run out of ammunition? Would they push off? Would help come? I knew I couldn’t hold out much longer.
After what seemed an age (actually it turned out to be at least fifteen minutes, which is an exceptionally long time for a dogfight) I was flying down head-on at a 110 which was climbing up to me. We both fired – and I thought I had left it too late and we would collide. I pushed the stick forward violently.
There was a stunning explosion right in front of me. For an instant my mind went blank. My (aircraft seemed to be falling, limp on the controls. Then, as black smoke poured out of the nose and enveloped the hood, and a hot blast and a flicker of reﬂected flame crept into the dark cockpit, I said ‘Come on — out you go!’, pulled the pin out of my harness, wrenched open the hood and hauled myself head-first out to the right.
The wind pressed me tightly against the side of the aircraft, my legs still inside. I caught hold of the trailing edge of the wing and heaved myself out. As I fell free and somersaulted I felt as if a giant had me on the end of a length of wire, whirling me round and round through the air.
I fumbled for and pulled the rip-cord and was pulled the right way up with a violent jerk that winded me. My head was pressed forward by the parachute back-pad that had slipped up behind, and I couldn’t look up to see if the parachute was OK. I had no sensation of movement – just a slight breeze as I swung gently to and fro. For all I knew the thing might be on fire or not properly open.
I heard the whirr of Hun engines and saw three of the 110s circle me. I looked at the ground and saw a shower of ﬂaming sparks as something exploded in an orchard far below: my late aeroplane.
Paul Richey would go on to shoot down another seven aircraft before he was badly wounded on the 16th May – he therefore missed the Battle of Britain. His experiences in these few days in France would later become the best seller Fighter Pilot when it was published in 1941.
Meanwhile the British Expeditionary Force were still moving up to the front in Belgium. There was still time to enjoy a good lunch and admire the countryside:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Sunday 12th May
We entrained about 5.15 a.m. in the morning and were given coffee by the family and had breakfast from the Company Cookhouse. The road was crowded with transport and proceeded at snail’s pace most of the way. Self, C.S.M. Maclean and Cpl Cameron in 8 cwt [8 hundred weight truck or lorry] then the rest of “B” Coy – Bde H.Q. – remainder of Battalion. Fortunately no enemy bombing although the effects of yesterday’s efforts could frequently be seen.
Met Nigel on motor bike towards end of the journey. Debussed about a mile in Forest Soignies instead of Petit Espinette. Peter marched the company on to Overryssche and I waited for Coy Comdrs recce, meanwhile having a very good lunch in the restaurant opposite entrance to Forest.
Motored straight to Maemel Fort with Maurice and Coy Comdrs (Reech, Archie Stewart, Alex McCall answering for Donald who was billeting, Laurie and self). Lovely weather and most attractive countryside. Bn. H.Q. on the hill in the Farm House, M. T. in the orchard below Bn H.Q. and “B” Company in the wood towards the end of the track to the orchard. All had a very wide front. “A” Company on the right in Tombeek area, B Company in the centre, and C Company in the village of Terlanenen. Today we spent settling in and did no digging. Spent a very comfortable night in the open.
Coy 8 miles marching. Self 3 miles.
[Entry No.3, for the first entry see 10th May 1940.
See TNA WO 217/15
Meanwhile just as the British moved forward the Wehrmacht were making their audacious move through the Ardennes that was to swiftly unravel the Allied front. An excellent summary of the campaign can be found in the West Point History of World War II, an invaluable guide to the whole war, which I reviewed in 2015.