RAF over Dunkirk beaches – Captain Leah is captured

2nd Lieutenant David Callander in the full dress uniform of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at his graduation from Sandhurst in 1939. He won the Military Cross at La Bassee, near Dunkirk, as commander of the 1st Battalion’s anti-tank platoon. Their three two pounder guns accounted for 21 German tanks.
A working party of the 1st Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders at Aix in France, November 1939.
A working party of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at Aix in France, November 1939.
Men of the 1st Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.
Men of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.

Captain Leah’s remarkable diary of just eighteen days in the movements of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in France 1940 is representative of many in the British Expeditionary Force. The move forward from France into Belgium, the attempt to establish new positions and then the confusing and exhausting retreat as they sought to avoid being outflanked. The transition from peacetime army to experiencing shellfire for the first time and then rapidly on to full scale murderous battle, with the loss of many friends and colleagues.

In just one respect the The 1st Battalion the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were different, they were members of the Highland Brigade in France 1940, the last unit of the the British Army to fight in kilts.

There were many examples of successful British actions like the counterattack at Escaut that might well have have led to further successes had the whole British force not been completely outflanked by the German breakthrough to the coast. They were not a beaten army. Captain Leah’s diary reveals just how lucky some were to get away to Dunkirk and how only slightly less luck led to long years as a prisoner of war:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

28th May

Floundering about in mud and water and crossing last wire fences. Kilt badly torn. However we covered about 7 1/2 miles and dawn found us on outskirts of Laventie. By this time we were more or less clear of enemy except for odd motor cyclists but very tired and hungry. Here made unfortunate mistake of deciding to lay up for another day until dark. Poured with rain and had to take to houses – for a few hours but got out again about 8 a.m. Spoke to Frenchman and family who had seen no enemy and then took cover in orchard. In afternoon surrounded by Coy of enemy. Half of us asleep at this time. Henderson hit and several enemy. Kerr’s platoon got clear away and are home.

[Captain Leah was taken prisoner by the Germans]

Taken to H.Q. either of Bde or Division. Asked if we told troops that Germans shot all English and French prisoners. Pr. civilians. Given a plate of noodle which I badly needed. Searched by probably Intelligence Officer and left with equipment. Raining hard all afternoon and spent unpleasant hour on motor bike before getting into truck, soaked to the skin and troops not much better. Travelled back along column to Reception Camp.

[space] police – given bread and three bars of chocolate amongst us. Three Royal Scots and several French here. Buchanan threw a fit. Embussed again and taken on to Bethune. Still soaked but fire of sorts going and got dry by following morning. Extremely hungry this evening and went to sleep at 8 p.m.

Here separated from troops but still in same camp.

[added note] Turner and Nicholson hit on 27th in field outside La Bassee. Henderson hit Laventie.

28th. 8 miles [marching].

[Entry No.19, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

At present we have little more information about Captain R. Leah whose short diary was deposited with the War Office sometime after the war.

Spitfire Mk I in flight, May 1940.
Spitfire Mk I in flight, May 1940.

Meanwhile the RAF were doing their utmost to provide air cover to the evacuation now under way from Dunkirk.

Hugh Dundas, nineteen years old, had only just completed his training and been posted to 616 Squadron. He had flown his first Spitfire in March 1940. On 27th May they had moved to an airfield at Rochford, Essex, so that they were closer to the beaches at Dunkirk. His memoir, published in 1988, opens with a typically vivid , and candid, account of his first day in action.

The two Skuas of the Fleet Air Arm swooped by in the opposite direction, twisting and jinking. In the headlong manner of their flight there was something reminiscent of agitated sheep running from dogs. And killer dogs indeed were at their heels. I saw the black crosses and the swastikas, plain and clear, and recognized them as Messerschmitt 109S.

Fascinated, I craned my neck to watch the five planes, now diving away behind and to starboard. From the leading Messerschmitt came thin trails of grey smoke as the pilot fired his guns. The group faded into specks which, in an instant, disappeared beneath the thick black smoke cloud rising from Dunkirk and stretching down the Channel for seventy or eighty miles.

Perhaps this little cameo lasted before my eyes for about five seconds, it was a lightning personal introduction to the use of guns in earnest and to the terrifying quality of air fighting. But I did not at that time have so much as one second to reflect upon it, for I was suddenly aware that the formation in which I was flying as last man in the last section was breaking up in violent manoeuvre. My own section leader, George Moberley, wheeled round in a climbing turn. As I followed I heard a confusion of excited voices on the radio. Then I saw another Messerschmitt, curving round. It had a bright yellow nose. Again I saw the ripples of grey smoke breaking away from it and the lights were winking and flashing from the propeller hub and engine cowling. Red blobs arced lazily through the air between us, accelerating dramatically as they approached and streaked close by, across my wing.

With sudden, sickening, stupid fear I realized that I was being fired on and I pulled my Spitfire round hard, so that the blood was forced down from my head. The thick curtain of blackout blinded me for a moment and I felt the aircraft juddering on the brink of a stall. Straightening out, the curtain lifted and I saw a confusion of planes, diving and twisting. My eyes focused on two more Messerschmitts, flying in quite close formation, curving down towards me. Again I saw the ripple of smoke and the wink of lights; again I went into a blackout turn and again the bullets streaked harmlessly by.

At some stage in the next few seconds the silhouette of a Messerschmitt passed across my windscreen and I fired my guns in battle for the first time a full deflection shot which, I believe, was quite ineffectual.

I was close to panic in the bewilderment and hot fear of that first dog fight. Fortunately instinct drove me to keep turning and turning, twisting my neck all the time to look for the enemy behind. Certainly the consideration which was uppermost in my mind was the desire to stay alive.

‘A sincere desire to engage the enemy’ – that, Winston Churchill has written, was the criterion by which Lord Haig had judged his fellow soldiers. That, above all else, was the impulse which Churchill himself admired and demanded in fighting men. I found out that day, 28 May 1940, over Dunkirk, in my first close encounter with Britain’s enemies, how hard it is to live up to that criterion. When it comes to the point, a sincere desire to stay alive is all too likely to get the upper hand. Certainly, that was the impulse which consumed me at that moment that day. And that was to be the impulse which I had to fight against, to try and try and try again to overcome, during the years which followed.

See Hugh Dundas: Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years

For more on the situation at Dunkirk the Open University has an interactive guide..

A Royal Navy destroyer on its way to Dunkirk, May 1940.
A Royal Navy destroyer on its way to Dunkirk, May 1940.