Spitfires versus Focke-Wulf 190s over France

Early Mark IXBs of 611 Squadron based at Biggin Hill in late 1942.

Early Mark IXBs of 611 Squadron based at Biggin Hill in late 1942.

On 21 March 1943 No. 341 Squadron RAF, also known as the Groupe de Chasse n° 3/2 “Alsace” arrived at Biggin Hill, one of the front line fighter stations in the south east of England. It was composed of members of the Free French forces fighting alongside the Allies, under Squadron Leader Mouchotte. They were now equipped with Supermarine Spitfire L.F Mk.IXs, one of the most refined versions of the fighter aircraft. From here they mounted sweep patrols over the English Channel, probing the German defences of occupied Europe.

An armourer of No. 3101 Servicing Echelon uses a periscope unit to adjust one of the .303 Browning machine guns on a Supermarine Spitfire Mark IXB of No. 341 (Free French) Squadron RAF, jacked up before a gun harmonization board at Biggin Hill, Kent.

An armourer of No. 3101 Servicing Echelon uses a periscope unit to adjust one of the .303 Browning machine guns on a Supermarine Spitfire Mark IXB of No. 341 (Free French) Squadron RAF, jacked up before a gun harmonization board at Biggin Hill, Kent.

Gun harmonisation board at Biggin Hill, Kent

Gun harmonisation board at Biggin Hill, Kent, set up for a Supermarine Spitfire Mark IXB of No. 341 (Free French) Squadron RAF, which has been jacked up into a level flying position in the Blister Hangar fifty yards beyond by armourers of No. 3101 Servicing Echelon. The discs on the board have placed in order to harmonise the guns so that their lines of fire converge on a point 250 yards from the aircraft. The four small outside discs are the harmonising points for the four .303 Browning machine guns, while the larger discs inboard of these are for the two 20mm cannon. The upper centre spot is for the pilot’s reflector sight, and the lower spot to the left of centre is for the camera gun.

Amongst their number was Pierre Closterman – who was to go on to write one of the classic accounts of air combat from the war. After about a month at his new station Closterman was yet to see combat. The Luftwaffe did not always seek to confront the RAF when they patrolled over France, preferring to fight only when they had sufficient numbers:

Still nothing new. I felt both disappointed and relieved. Time seemed to pass very slowly. I felt I was dreaming with my eyes open, lulled by the slow rhythmical rocking movement up and down of the Spitfires in echelon, by the gentle rotation of the propellers through the rarefied and numbing air. Everything seemed so unreal and remote. Was this war?

‘Look out, Brutus leader, Grass Seed calling. Three gaggles of twenty plus converging towards you, above!’ Holmes’s voice had made me jump. Martell now chimed in: ‘Look out, Brutus, Yellow One calling, smoke trails coming three o’clock !’

I stared round and suddenly I spotted the tell-tale condensation trails of the Jerries beginning to converge on us from south and east. Christ, how fast they were coming! I released the safety catch of the guns.

‘Brutus calling. Keep your eyes open, chaps. Climb like hell!’ I opened the throttle and changed to fine pitch, and instinctively edged closer to Martell’s Spitfire. I felt very alone in a suddenly hostile sky.

‘Brutus calling. Open your eyes and prepare to break port. The bastards are right above!’ Three thousand feet above our heads a filigree pattern began to form and you could already distinguish the glint of the slender cross-shaped silhouettes of the German fighters.

‘Here they comel’ I said to myself; hypnotised. My throat contracted, my toes curled in my boots. I felt as if I were stifling in a strait-jacket, swaddled in all those belts, braces and buckles.

‘Turban, break starboardl’ yelled Boudier. In a flash I saw the roundels of Martell’s Spitfire surge up before me. I banked my aircraft with all my strength, opened the throttle wide, and there I was in his slipstream! Where were the Huns? I dared not look behind me, and I turned desperately, glued to my seat by the centrifugal force, eyes riveted on Martell turning a hundred yards in front of me.

‘Gimlet, attack portl’ I felt lost in the mélée. ‘Turban Yellow Two, break !’ Yellow Two? Why, that was me! With a furious kick on the rudder bar, I broke away, my gorge rising from sheer fear. Red tracers danced past my windshield … and suddenly I saw my first Hun!

I identified it at once-it was a Focke-Wulf 190. I had not studied the photos and recognition charts so often for nothing. After firing a burst of tracer at me he bore down on Martell. Yes, it certainly was one – the short wings, the radial engine, the long transparent hood: the square-cut tail-plane all in one piece!

But what had been missing from the photos was the lively colouring – the pale yellow body, the greyish green back, the big black crosses outlined in white. The photos gave no hint of the quivering of the wings, the outline elongated and fined down by the speed, the curious nose-down flying attitude.

The sky, which had been filled with hurtling Spitfires, seemed suddenly empty – my No. One had disappeared. Never mind, I was not going to lose my Focke-Wolfe. I was no longer afraid.

This first combat was not to be anything other than a taster for Closterman . He did not score his first victory until July 1943. See Pierre Closterman: The Big Show

The Focke Wulf 190

The Focke Wulf 190

Sous-Officier Pierre Clostermann, when serving as a pilot a with No. 341 (Alsace) Squadron of the Free French Air Force.

Sous-Officier Pierre Clostermann, when serving as a pilot a with No. 341 (Alsace) Squadron of the Free French Air Force.

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