Hurricanes attack bombers head on

Hurricanes from No.85 Squadron in flight earlier in 1940

As the Luftwaffe’s assault on Britain’s air defences continued the RAF had to develop tactics that avoided unnecessary air combat with enemy fighters and targeted the bombers.

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend led No. 85 Squadron’s Hurricanes into the attack on 26th August:

There was one way to get at the bombers without getting mixed up with the fighter escort. ‘Stand by for head-on attack and watch out for those little fellows above,’ I called.

Then I brought the squadron round steadily in a wide turn, moving into echelon as we levelled out about two miles ahead on a collision course. Ease the throttle to reduce the closing speed – which anyway allowed only a few seconds’ fire. Get a bead on them right away, hold it, and never mind the streams of tracer darting overhead. Just keep on pressing on the button until you think you’re going to collide – then stick hard forward.

Under the shock of ‘negative G’ your stomach jumps into your mouth, dust and muck fly up from the cockpit floor into your eyes and your head cracks on the roof as you break away below.

See Peter Townsend: Duel of Eagles: The Struggle for the Skies from the First World War to the Battle of Britain

A fleet of Dornier 17 light bombers, Summer 1940. The Dornier 215 was a variant of the 17.

Pilot Officer Frank Walter-Smith was one of those taking part in the attack:

At approx 1500hrs the squadron was ordered to scramble. At 15.27 we sighted 18 Dornier 215s flying in a stepped up formation. The whole squadron delivered a frontal attack led by the CO. On the second attack (another frontal) the bottom section of three broke away from the main body. This section was attacked again by myself and F/O Woods-Scawen. The Dornier 215, at which both of us aimed, broke formation and both of us attacked it at the same time. Bits were seen to break off and the Starb’o motor emitted black smoke. The plane then went down in a long glide and disappeared into the clouds. My bursts were of two and three seconds duration. Claim: Half Dornier 215 destroyed.

For combat reports see TNA Air 50.

RAF Fighter Command was now starting to lose experienced fighter pilots at an unsustainable rate. Just a few names illustrate the personal stories behind the statistics:

No. 85 Squadron was based at Croydon from 19th August 1940, one of the front line stations. Of the twenty pilots in the Squadron on that day, fourteen were shot down within the next two weeks, two of them twice.

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend was shot down on the 31st August, wounded in the foot by cannon shell, he had his big toe amputated but returned to flying on the 21st September. Frank Walter-Smith was shot down on August 29th but parachuted to safety over Hawkhurst airfield. Although he had a few toes shot off he returned to the Squadron the same day. He was later to continue flying until he was killed in an air accident in 1941. His full story is on BBC People’s War.

F/O Patrick Woods-Scawen, who shared in the claim of 26th August, was killed when his parachute failed to open on the 1st September. His brother F/O Tony Woods-Scawen, from No. 49 Squadron was killed the next day, 2nd September, when he baled out of his burning Hurricane at too low a height.

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