RAF Fighter Command continued with a policy of taking the fight to the enemy with a series of ‘sweeps’ over northern Europe known as ‘Rhubarb raids’. This was designed to force the Luftwaffe to maintain a significant number of aircraft in the west, helping to relieve the pressure on Russia. The military value of attacking ground targets in France and the Low countries was limited and it proved to be costly in terms of aircraft and pilots. Many experienced pilots, veterans of the Battle of Britain, were lost in this way.
It was on one of these raids that Robert Stanford-Tuck, one of the celebrated RAF aces, with 29 kills to his credit and five probables, was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. He had the misfortune to crash land close to the gun crew he had just attacked, having killed some of the gunners. Fortunately they seem to have been distracted and amused by the remarkable fact that one of his bullets had passed down the barrel of their gun. HistoryNet has an account of his career including this last patrol:
Biggin Hill was shrouded with mist and drizzle when Tuck and Canadian Flying Officer Bob Harley took off on a mission on January 28, 1942. After crossing the English Channel at low altitude to avoid radar detection, they reached the French coast near Le Tourquet. They continued 21 miles inland to their target, an alcohol distillery at Hesdin.
They set the distillery’s four alcohol vats on fire, then followed a road farther inland. The pair strafed a German truck and shot at high-tension electrical wires. Then Tuck saw they had entered a wide valley crammed with railroad tracks; ahead was the town of Boulogne, with its heavy anti-aircraft defenses.
The British planes turned. Tuck did not want to run a gantlet of heavy flak, and he intended to find his way back to base over a quieter section of the coast. Then he saw a train engine stationary on the tracks. He couldn’t resist the temptation. ‘I thought ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,” Tuck recalled. He and Harley attacked the train engine. ‘We dived on that engine together….I think we both scored hits, and the whole issue disappeared in a tremendous cloud of steam.’
Tuck lost sight of Harley and banked to avoid a collision. When he came out of the steam cloud he was hit by German 20mm and 37mm flak. ‘I think everything in the Boulogne area opened up on me,’ Tuck said. ‘I was caught in their cross-fire, and at this low altitude with a forty-five degree bank on, they just couldn’t miss.’
Tuck’s Spitfire was hit in the engine. It belched black smoke, covering his windscreen with oil. Too low to bail out, he shoved his canopy back and began looking for a field in which to crash-land. Peering through the smoke, Tuck sighted an open field, banked his Spitfire around and began gliding in. Suddenly, he saw tracers flash over his head. He saw a truck-mounted, multiple-barreled 20mm flak gun firing at him.
Angered, Tuck shoved the stick forward and fired a single burst at the 20mm before hitting the field a few yards beyond. At first, he expected to be lynched for shooting up the flak gun. Instead, to his surprise, the Germans complimented Tuck for his marksmanship–one of his 20mm shells had gone up the flak gun’s barrel, splitting it open like a banana.
Bomber Guy has an interesting tribute video: