Spitfires escort bombers over the North Sea

A Douglas Boston Mark III of No. 226 Squadron RAF flies over the docks at Flushing, Holland, having released its bomb-load during a daylight attack by twelve aircraft of the Squadron. Bombs can be seen exploding on the dry dock inner haven (bottom left). Undated.

Douglas Boston Mark IIIs of No. 88 Squadron RAF based at Oulton, Norfolk, flying at low level over the North Sea, in order to avoid detection by enemy radar, while on a daylight bombing sortie. Undated

On 1st August 1942 Rene Mouchotte flew two sorties out of Hornchurch, where No 65 Squadron was based. He was now Squadron Leader, the first foreign national to lead an RAF Squadron and flying Spitfires. Both sorties were escorting bombers on raids over occupied France and Holland. On the second attack on Flushing they encountered heavy flak and he and his wingman had a narrow escape:

Immediately after that some flak burst right in the midst of the Boston formation. I saw one wing jump 200 metres in the air, while an engine dropped like a stone. The plane leapt curiously, skyward, then began its tragic tailspin. Poor lad!

Unfortunately a second Boston had also been hit. Its port engine was smoking and the four other bombers were leaving it dangerously far behind. The Boche fighters might turn up and there were 150 kilometres of sea to cross.

I decided to stay behind it with my section as escort. It was not going very fast and we had to fly in S’s to keep with it. As I passed quite close I saw the engine had been stopped; then I saw the horrid sight of a treacherous little flame still licking the rear of the engine.

If only they could get back to England! With his plane flying crabwise on one engine, the pilot did not realize that he was flying due north instead of about 310 to make Martlesham.

Then I found I had no radio contact. It disheartened me. Impossible to make my pilots understand the fatal error. Fortunately we had no Fritz behind us. After half an hour the fire was bigger. Showers of sparks flew from it, black fragments broke away. The grey smoke became dense and black.

The situation was becoming critical. Was the pilot going to have his plane blow up? We were barely at 1,500 feet. I was afraid the wing would soon break off. He must take a decision, and quickly, but how could he be told without radio? Only five minutes later, with huge flames escaping, the pilot throttled back his single engine and ditched in the sea.

Two of the crew succeeded in saving themselves. I went down to their level; they did not seem to be wounded. I had time to see a third, motionless, his head in the water and a wide pool of blood round him.

We made for England; we had hardly any petrol left. A quarter of an hour got us to Martlesham where we immediately alerted the rescue service. A few minutes later six Spitfires took off and fast motor-boats made for the scene of the drama. Our two aircrew were saved

See The Mouchotte Diaries 1940-1943 .

Portrait of Rene Mouchotte the Free French pilot who flew with the RAF after escaping from France in 1940.

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