Hugh Dowding is retired from the RAF

Yet the reserved uncharismatic, Dowding, nicknamed “Stuffy”, was not popular amongst the higher echelons of the RAF. Some argued that he was not a sufficiently personable leader and should be spending more time visiting the front line Squadrons. There was no evidence that any fighter Squadron needed any form of inspiration – but this was just an alternative view of military leadership.

Hugh Dowding, official portrait
Hugh Dowding led RAF Fighter Command throughout the Battle of Britain but was soon retired.
Hugh Dowding
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, escorted by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, visit the Headquarters of Fighter Command at Bentley Priory, near Stanmore, Middlesex..

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding had been the driving force behind the development of Britain’s air defences in the immediate pre war period. He had organised and overseen the the integration of radar within the RAF command structure and had championed the development of both the Hurricane and the Spitfire. When war came he had warned Churchill not to lose valuable fighter resources in the defence of France.

During the Battle of Britain itself he had carefully managed the fighter Squadrons available and had worked tirelessly to respond to the various changing threats from the Luftwaffe. He had the strategic oversight to see the need for always keeping a proportion of fighters in reserve and the necessity of rotating Squadrons so that some could be ‘rested’ and fresh pilots brought into the battle successively. It was his supreme organisational abilities that put the RAF in the best possible position to combat the Germans.

Yet the reserved uncharismatic, Dowding, nicknamed “Stuffy”, was not popular amongst the higher echelons of the RAF. Some argued that he was not a sufficiently personable leader and should be spending more time visiting the front line Squadrons. There was no evidence that any fighter Squadron needed any form of inspiration – but it was an alternative view of military leadership.

Dowding was probably better placed than anyone to face the new challenge – getting the RAF’s night fighter capabilities up to speed and integrated with the rapidly developing radar technology. But he was overdue for retirement and he was told that his time was up with a telephone call.

Despite his nickname he was well regarded by fighter pilots and his devotion to them is evident in his final message:

November 24th 1940

My dear Fighter Boys,

In sending you this my last message, I wish I could say all that is in my heart. I cannot hope to surpass the simple eloquence of the Prime Ministers words, ‘Never before has so much been owed by so many to so few.” The debt remains and will increase.

In saying good-bye to you I want you to know how continually you have been in my thoughts, and that, though our direct connection may be severed, I may yet be able to help you in your gallant fight.

Good-bye to you and God bless you all.

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding

Hugh Dowding
RAF Battle of Britain pilots, photographed with Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding at the Ministry of Information, 14 September 1942.

Spitfire versus six Messerschmitt 109s

One Messerschmitt did a barrel roll to the left. I fired at him as he did so, and he dropped back. I was then engaged from astern, and lost a bit of ground. By the time we got to Hastings I had caught up the rest of them again, and knocked bits off one. Another was half a mile or more below and behind the others as they crossed the coast. He was dropping back rapidly, and I was hoping to finish him off when six more Messerschmitt 109’s came down at me from over the Channel in line abreast.

Solo Spitfire in flight
Spitfire F Mk.1 in flight viewed from slightly above.

The relative merits of the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt 109 have been debated ever since the Battle of Britain. Whatever the different technical performance of the different airframes, engines and armaments one factor was never predictable – the capabilities of the pilot. Sometimes, fighting for their very life, exceptional pilots could overcome heavy odds.

The Battle of Britain, as it would eventually be designated, was now drawing to a close. But in late October the Germans were still conducting fighter sweeps across southern England and RAF fighter squadrons were still meeting them.

One Spitfire pilot describes how he was detached from his flight to investigate enemy aircraft and then returned to join his colleagues above south East London. Moments later he realised he had mistakenly joined a patrol of enemy Me 109s and was weaving between enemy aircraft:

When I realized what I was doing I got a pretty fair shock. I went in to attack double quick. One Messerschmitt did a barrel roll to the left. I fired at him as he did so, and he dropped back. I was then engaged from astern, and lost a bit of ground.

By the time we got to Hastings I had caught up the rest of them again, and knocked bits off one. Another was half a mile or more below and behind the others as they crossed the coast. He was dropping back rapidly, and I was hoping to finish him off when six more Messerschmitt 109’s came down at me from over the Channel in line abreast.

They went into line astern and circled round me at about 30-yards intervals. But number six was about 100 yards behind number five, so I went for him. He climbed steeply in a close turn. I had about 300 miles an hour on the clock, so I pulled up almost vertically and gave him a burst flat into his feet from beneath. He rolled over and went straight down.

By this time number one was on my tail, so I went down behind number six, who was still going straight down in a slow aileron turn at 10,000 feet. But number one was still worrying me, so I went into a steep left-hand turn—and blacked out. On recovering from my black-out there were no more enemy in sight, so I climbed up again and went home.

Unfortunately the source does not give the exact date or the name of he pilot. See Norman Macmillan :THE ROYAL AIR FORCE IN THE WORLD WAR

Spitfire F Mk.1. Six aircraft of 65 Squadron
Spitfire F Mk.1. Six aircraft of 65 Squadron in starboard echelon formation. From near to far in the photo can be seen Spitfires FZ-L, FZ-O, FZ-P, FZ-A, FZ-H, and FZ-B.
RAF Spitfire in flight
A Spitfire Mk 1 from the Battle of Britain.

A multi-national Royal Air Force

During the German invasion of Poland he flew reconnaissance missions in an unarmed trainer aircraft but managed to take the fight to the enemy by throwing hand grenades out of his aircraft at columns of troops. He survived being shot down and was ordered to Rumania when Poland collapsed. Here he was interned but managed to escape and made his way, via North Africa, to France where he again served with a Polish unit. It is believed that he shot down as many as 11 aircraft during the German invasion of France.

Josef František was a gifted fighter pilot who achieved a remarkable record of thirty-one confirmed victories and one probable victory in aerial combat during the Second World War. This made him the top Allied fighter ace of the first year of the war. Three of these confirmed victories came over Poland, eleven over France and seventeen during a six week period of the Battle of Britain. Although an ethnic Czech, František served with the highly successful 303 'Kosciuszko' Polish Fighter Squadron of the RAF. He died in a flying accident on 8 October 1940, three weeks after the drawing was made. ORDE 19 Sept 1940
Josef František was a gifted fighter pilot who achieved a remarkable record of thirty-one confirmed victories and one probable victory in aerial combat during the Second World War. This made him the top Allied fighter ace of the first year of the war. Three of these confirmed victories came over Poland, eleven over France and seventeen during a six week period of the Battle of Britain. Although an ethnic Czech, František served with the highly successful 303 ‘Kosciuszko’ Polish Fighter Squadron of the RAF. He died in a flying accident on 8 October 1940, three weeks after the drawing was made.
ORDE 19 Sept 1940
Josef-Frantizek in RAF uniform
The Czech ace Josef Frantisek died in an air crash on 8th October 1940.

The 8th October 1940 saw the death of the top scoring Battle of Britain fighter pilot Jozef Frantizek. A Czechoslovakian Air Force pilot, he had moved to Poland after the Nazi takeover, where he served with a Czech unit within the Polish Air Force. During the German invasion of Poland he flew reconnaissance missions in an unarmed trainer aircraft but managed to take the fight to the enemy by throwing hand grenades out of his aircraft at columns of troops. He survived being shot down and was ordered to Rumania when Poland collapsed. Here he was interned but managed to escape and made his way, via North Africa, to France where he again served with a Polish unit. It is believed that he shot down as many as 11 aircraft during the German invasion of France.

Arriving in Britain in June 1940 he was posted to the Polish 303 Squadron. Here he survived another crash whilst converting to Hurricanes. 303 Squadron did not become operational until 31st August. Frantizek opened his scoring on 2nd September when he shot down an Me 109. By the 30th September he had 17 confirmed kills and one probable. He was the top scoring pilot of the Battle of Britain, despite only being operational for a fraction of the official period designated as the Battle.

His rate of kills was exceptional and seems to have been borne of a highly individualistic, even indisciplined, outlook but he was indulged with considerable freedom by Squadron Leader Kellet of 303 Squadron with remarkable results. A part of his method was to attack straggling aircraft making their way back home across Kent. Yet he must have been a exceptional airman to bring down a total of nine Me 109s whilst flying a Hurricane during this short period. His results are in marked contrast to the debates about the relative performance of the Spitfire and the Me 109, or the need for an organisational response, such as the Big Wing. A crucial factor in fighter combat was evidently the skills and length of experience of the individual pilots.

Frantisek was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal at the end of September. The reasons for his crash in Ewell, Surrey have never been clearly established but it seems very likely that battle fatigue and exhaustion played a significant part.

The 8th October 1940 also saw the arrival in Britain of the first contingent of the Indian Air Force, a significant proportion of whom would also make the ultimate sacrifice.

Indian air force pilots arrive in Britain 8th October 1940
An unofficial welcome for the 24 Indian Air Force pilots arriving in Britain on 8th October 1940. Eight of them would die during training or on operations.

For more on the Indian air Force see Bharat Rakshak.com.

Top fighter pilot reflects on ‘Big Wing’ tactic

All too frequently, when returning to North Weald in a semi-exhausted condition, all we saw of 12 Group’s contribution to the engagement, was a vast formation of Hurricanes in neat vics of three, steaming comfortably over our heads in pursuit of an enemy who had long since disappeared in the direction of France. Our reactions on such occasions, though mostly of resigned amusement at first, grew to be more harshly critical later on.

Journalists from Dominions newspapers watch a flight of Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No. 56 Squadron RAF taking off for a sortie over France from North Weald, Essex. In the foreground another Hurricane Mark I of the Squadron, P2764 'US-P', stands at its dispersal point near the perimeter track on the south-western edge of the airfield.
Journalists from Dominions newspapers watch a flight of Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No. 56 Squadron RAF taking off for a sortie over France from North Weald, Essex. In the foreground another Hurricane Mark I of the Squadron, P2764 ‘US-P’, stands at its dispersal point near the perimeter track on the south-western edge of the airfield.

Just a week after the furious aerial engagements of the 15th September the weather changed and the tempo of the battle over south east Britain suddenly subsided. Fog and thick cloud kept many of the Luftwaffe fighters grounded. It was the clearest indication yet that the Germans had failed to overcome RAF Fighter Command and would not have the time to do so before the weather changed for the worse and the seasons turned.

Two fighter pilots of No. 249 Squadron RAF at North Weald, Essex. Flight Lieutenant T F Neil (left) saw action in the Battle of Britain and, by November 1940, had shot down 11 enemy aircraft and shared 2. At the time of this photograph he was a flight commander on the Squadron, soon to proceed to Malta where he increased his score to 17 by December 1941. Flying Officer R G A Barclay (right), had returned to operations with 249 Squadron after being shot down in November 1940 with 5 enemy aircraft credited to him. He commanded No. 601 Squadron RAF in April 1942, and from July, No. 238 Squadron RAF in North Africa. He added a further 2 to his score before being shot down and killed on 17 July 1942.
Two fighter pilots of No. 249 Squadron RAF at North Weald, Essex. Flight Lieutenant T F Neil (left) saw action in the Battle of Britain and, by November 1940, had shot down 11 enemy aircraft and shared 2. At the time of this photograph he was a flight commander on the Squadron, soon to proceed to Malta where he increased his score to 17 by December 1941. Flying Officer R G A Barclay (right), had returned to operations with 249 Squadron after being shot down in November 1940 with 5 enemy aircraft credited to him. He commanded No. 601 Squadron RAF in April 1942, and from July, No. 238 Squadron RAF in North Africa. He added a further 2 to his score before being shot down and killed on 17 July 1942.

The pause in operations was welcomed by the many of the exhausted pilots, and there was time to take stock. Nineteen year old Pilot Officer Tom Neil was well on the way to establishing himself as one of the top scoring pilots of the battle. At 249 Squadron at North Weald, he was right at the front line of the battle:

For the next several days, the weather was marginal and the Huns soporific – except at night. I flew two or three times, through and between massive cloud banks and towering pyramids of cumulus, but intercepted nothing.

Down at dispersal, where we seemed to spend most of our life, besides eating, sleeping, sitting around and talking, the games of L’Attaque and Totopoly were very popular. As with snooker, Crossey seemed always to beat me at L’Attaque but I did rather better at Totopoly, winning as much as five shillings — almost half-a-day’s pay – on several occasions. There were many raised voices in the course of the games, Butch, in particular, becoming positively animated.

Such periods of comparative inactivity also allowed us to give more attention to the intelligence summaries which appeared at regular intervals.

Those produced by 11 Group, gave details of each squadron’s achievements over the preceding several days and always included a list of the more successful pilots and their tally of Huns. There were also comments, sometimes in the plainest of language, on the situation in general and the manner in which 12 Group had repeatedly failed to provide reinforcements in time.

The 12 Group summaries were largely similar, except that the virtues of the large formation were constantly being extolled and accounts of what had recently occurred given in terms scarcely flattering to II Group.

As the weeks passed, this peevish tiff — because it was nothing more dignified than that — became so childishly acrimonious that even I, who had no interest in the politics of command, began to feel that the group commanders, Air Vice Marshals Park and Leigh-Mallory, were demeaning themselves. Did high-ranking officers really speak to each other in such a way? To us, as might be expected, Park was the hero and Leigh-Mallory the villain, although never once did we even approach the point of being openly critical of either.

Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, of 242 Squadron, the protégé of Leigh-Mallory and a person of considerable influence in 12 Group, was generally regarded as being the main advocate of the Balbo [the Italian originator of the ‘Big Wing’ formation] and usually led the huge formations we encountered from time to time.

Three pilots of No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron standing outside the Officers’ Mess at Duxford, 20 September 1940. They are (left to right): Pilot Officer William ‘Willie’ McKnight, Squadron Leader Douglas Bader and Flight Lieutenant George Ball.

Acknowledged everywhere as being a tremendously gutsy character, flying as he did with artificial legs, he also had the less enviable reputation of being somewhat over-devoted to his own interests, a characteristic which did not endear him to everyone, particularly those of us who suffered as the result of his personal enthusiasms.

All too frequently, when returning to North Weald in a semi-exhausted condition, all we saw of 12 Group’s contribution to the engagement, was a vast formation of Hurricanes in neat vics of three, steaming comfortably over our heads in pursuit of an enemy who had long since disappeared in the direction of France. Our reactions on such occasions, though mostly of resigned amusement at first, grew to be more harshly critical later on.

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Tom Neil was to live to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the war, flying in a memorial flight on Battle of Britain Day 2015, when Prince Harry gave up his seat in a Spitfire for him. He continued to be very open in his views on aspects of the battle, which he makes clear in his memoir, and in this interview with the Daily Mail:

We had the wrong aircraft. The Hurricane Mark 1 was pretty useless and the Spitfire wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, either.

By the end of the war, they’d produced 24 different Spitfires and some of them were first-rate, but for the first few years we had a lot of problems.

I’m afraid the Messerschmitt 109 was the better plane in many ways.

The Spitfire could fire continuously for just 14.7 seconds on each run and then you were out of ammunition and had to go home. The Me109 could last 55 seconds.

It was smaller, with a bigger engine and had better fuel injection. The Hurricane was slower and had exposed fuel tanks. One hit and they could turn the cockpit into a barbecue in three seconds.

This led to the question why they had won the Battle of Britain?:

Because we never, ever, for one moment had the slightest doubt that we would win. Defeat just simply didn’t occur to us.

And we had this brilliant replacement system. Churchill and Beaverbrook [Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister for Aircraft Production] had got all these factories going.

I remember we lost seven planes in a matter of minutes and the squadron was back to full strength with aircraft the next lunchtime. If we crash-landed, we could repair some of our planes. And if we baled out and survived, we could get back up again the same day.

But if a German crashed or baled out over Britain, that was it. They wouldn’t get another chance. And in the end, they decided that they didn’t like fighting over Britain.

Groundcrew refuelling a Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 32 Squadron from a refuelling truck whilst the pilot waits in the cockpit, Biggin Hill, August 1940.
Groundcrew refuelling a Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 32 Squadron from a refuelling truck whilst the pilot waits in the cockpit, Biggin Hill, August 1940.

Douglas Bader leads the ‘Big Wing’ into attack

They were directed to enemy aircraft by A.A. fire and made a perfect approach with the Spitfires between the Hurricanes and the sun and the E/A below and down sun. The Hurricanes had to wait until Spitfires and Hurricanes already engaging the enemy broke away. The Spitfire Squadrons above held the enemy fighters off and 242 Squadron went in with the other Hurricane Squadrons to destroy the bombers.

The RAF met successive waves of German aircraft on the 15th September and came off best, although not as decisively as the contemporary propaganda suggested.

The RAF Fighter Command Squadrons often faced very much larger numbers of German aircraft, both bombers and fighters, as Geoffrey Wellum describes so vividly. It really was the case of ‘the Few’ against overwhelming odds on many occasions. So one response was to try to change the odds through organisation and discipline:

The Squadron, with S/Ldr. D.R.S, Bader, D.S.O., leading Group Wing which also had 302, 310, 19 and 611 Squadrons, assembled over DUXFORD before noon, and proceeded south, the three Hurricane Squadrons at 25,000 feet and the two Spitfire Sqdns. at 27,000 feet.

They were directed to enemy aircraft by A.A. fire and made a perfect approach with the Spitfires between the Hurricanes and the sun and the E/A below and down sun. The Hurricanes had to wait until Spitfires and Hurricanes already engaging the enemy broke away. The Spitfire Squadrons above held the enemy fighters off and 242 Squadron went in with the other Hurricane Squadrons to destroy the bombers.

1 Do.17 destroyed – S/Ldr. D.R.S.Bader, D.S.O.

Pilot, with the leading Section of the formation, attacked the last Section of 3 Do.17’s, of which he attacked the middle one. He opened fire at 100 yards in a steep dive and saw large flash behind the starboard motor of the Do.17 as its wing caught fire and thinks he must have hit the petrol pipe or tank. He attacked other E/A but it was difficult to get them in his sights an the sky seemed to be full of spitfires and hurricanes queuing up to attack E/A.

As all the bombers were destroyed, S/Ldr.Bader’s final comments are worthy of repetition:

“It was the finest shambles I have been in since for once we had position height and numbers. E/A were a dirty looking collection.”

242 Squadron claimed five Dornier 17 bombers and one Me 109 destroyed plus one Dornier damaged in this attack. The original combat report can be read in full at the RAF Museum site.

The ‘Big Wing’ strategy attracted controversy within the RAF at the time and continues to do so. This meant forming up large groups of aircraft composed of several different Squadrons, as described here, to meet the Luftwaffe in strength. It was only ever practiced by the RAF’s 12 Group, commanded by Leigh-Mallory. They were responsible for the area north of the Thames so potentially had the advance warning and the time to form up in this manner. Whereas 11 Group, based south of the Thames and meeting the German aircraft as they came over the Channel, operated a much more flexible approach of scrambling individual Squadrons to meet the various threats as they were plotted.

Although this particular post combat report purports to show that the Big Wing was a resounding success, it was written under the aegis of Douglas Bader who was one of the chief proponents of the practice. Critics of the theory said that it took too long for the Big Wing to form up and that it was often in the wrong place when it did form up, unable to respond to the rapidly changing scale and direction of the raids coming in. The number of kills claimed, which were far more than were subsequently established, made it difficult to evaluate at the time.

‘Over-claiming’ was not confined to the Big Wing Squadrons, it was a feature of all units operating in the Battle of Britain, on both sides. It was one of the reasons why Goring claimed that ‘Britain only has 50 Spitfires left’ : the 15th September was to prove him to be dramatically wrong. Although the contemporary claims of 185 German aircraft shot down were also very exaggerated – the real figure is now put at 56 – the Luftwaffe still suffered disproportionately on the 15th and it could subsequently be seen as a turning point in the battle.

Still from camera gun footage taken by Pilot Officer Keith ‘Skeets’ Ogilvie of No. 609 Squadron showing a Dornier Do 17Z (F1+FH) of 1./KG 76 piloted by Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe under attack, 15 September 1940. The aircraft was later abandoned and flew on until being rammed over central London by Sergeant Ray Holmes of No. 504 Squadron. It crashed on Victoria station with two of the crew baling out. Zehbe was attacked by civilians and died of his injuries the following day.

Spitfire versus Dornier

Things are starting to get rough. Automatically I have followed my self-imposed drill that I always do at times like this. Reflector sight on; gun button to fire; airscrew pitch to 2,650 revs; better response. Press the emergency boost over- ride, lower my seat a notch and straps tight. OK, men, I’m all set. Let battle commence. Please, dear God, like me more than you do the Germans.

‘I press the gun button and all hell is let loose; my guns make a noise like tearing calico…’
But Geoffrey Wellum’s first combat with a Dornier was head on.

Like all battles the experience of those involved could be wildly different. There were many pilots in RAF Fighter Command who were now exhausted by the constant tension and the need to fly several missions a day.

Yet the real genius behind Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s command of the battle was that he carefully managed the deployment of Squadrons to front line bases as much as he could. There was still time for fresh Squadron’s to be blooded.

Geoffrey Wellum was just over 18 years old when he went into combat with No. 92 Squadron for the first time on 11th September, when they were directed to intercept a mass of German bombers :

I glance round at the ten brave little Spitfires and a strengthened resolve flows into me. Well, there’s not many of us but we’ll knock shit out of some of you, at least for as long as we can. One thing to say that now but, in amongst that lot, things may turn out to be different. Must be some other friendly squadrons about somewhere, at least I bloody well hope so, but I’m damned if I can see them.

How the hell can ten of us cope with this lot? Where do we start? Only one answer, attack and get stuck in and trust in the Lord. This is interception. Good God, I’ve never seen so many aircraft in one bit of sky before. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Not long to go now. Brian’s voice is in my earphones. ‘Gannic from leader. OK boys, in we go. A good first burst and away. Watch for 109s.’

Voices over the R/T. Urgency. ‘109s above the first lot coming round to six o’clock, 3,000 feet above.’ ‘Six more at four o’clock high.’ ‘I see them, they’re starting to come down, here they come, watch ’em, Blue Section. Break into them, Blue, break starboard, break, break for Christ’s sake.’

Things are starting to get rough. Automatically I have followed my self-imposed drill that I always do at times like this. Reflector sight on; gun button to fire; airscrew pitch to 2,650 revs; better response. Press the emergency boost over-ride, lower my seat a notch and straps tight. OK, men, I’m all set. Let battle commence. Please, dear God, like me more than you do the Germans.

I hold Brian’s Spitfire in view some thirty feet away and look ahead for a potential target and at the same time I assess the situation. This will be a head-on attack from below and it’ll be bloody hot work. The lower lot are Dorniers; can see them very clearly now and closing rapidly. Pick my target. A Dornier slightly out of formation, you’ll do. A quick glance above and behind. No 109s immediately behind but that bunch up there might be troublesome. Just a mix-up of aeroplanes; in fact, bloody chaos. Now for my target. There, I see you, you sod. Back in tight formation now, however; never mind, have a crack at him.

All at once, crossfire; heavy and pretty close at that. Bloody front gunners. My target, concentrate, the target. Looking at him through the sight, getting larger much too quickly, concentrate, hold him steady, that’s it, hold it … be still my heart, be still. Sight on, still on, steady . . . fire NOW! I press the gun button and all hell is let loose; my guns make a noise like tearing calico.

Geoffrey Wellum’s memoir ‘First Light’ was not published until 2002. It’s quickly became a best seller and a classic autobiography of World War II, not just of the Battle of Britain.

See also the memoirs of Brian Kingcome – A Willingness to Die, who led No. 92 Squadron that day.

The current RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight now fly a Spitfire with the ‘QJ-K’ markings of Geoffrey Wellum’s 92 Squadron aircraft, as flown on 11th September 1940. There is much more detail about Geoffrey Wellum’s career there – but really, you just have to read his book.

Spitfire versus Messerschmitt

Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for – a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight.

Spitfires in flight: a contemporary British image.
Three Spitfire Mk Is (including R6712, YT-N, and R6714, YT-M) of No. 65 Squadron, taking off from Hornchurch, August 1940. Note censor's marks on factory chimney behind.
Three Spitfire Mk Is (including R6712, YT-N, and R6714, YT-M) of No. 65 Squadron, taking off from Hornchurch, August 1940. Note censor’s marks on factory chimney behind.

The attacks on RAF airfields were now at their most intense, with the Luftwaffe re-doubling their efforts to destroy RAF Fighter Command on the ground as much as in the air.

Richard Hillary - his memoir of the Battle of Britain became a best seller during the war.
Richard Hillary – his memoir of the Battle of Britain became a best seller during the war.

Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary left a vivid portrait of life in a front line Squadron during the Battle of Britain. No 603 Squadron had arrived at Hornchurch on the 27th August and immediately found themselves very much in the thick of the action. Hillary had already claimed five ME 109s shot down and two probables when his luck ran out on the 3rd of September:

I was peering anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us warning of at least fifty enemy fighters approaching very high. When we did first sight them, nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must have been 500 to 1000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm of locusts. The next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself.

As soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets. One Messerschmitt went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in a half-roll; I was heaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain height, with the machine practically hanging on the airscrew.

Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for – a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight.

At that moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second of sharp agony, remember thinking “So this is it!” and putting both hands to my eyes. Then I passed out.

Burnt to the face and hands, Hillary was to endure a series of operations with the pioneering plastic surgeon Archie McIndoe, becoming one of the early members of the Guinea Pig Club. It was while he was recuperating that he wrote his classic memoir ‘The Last Enemy’, which brought him considerable acclaim. Despite his injuries he persuaded the RAF to let him return to flying. He died in an air crash in early 1943.

See Richard Hillary: The Last Enemy.

Dornier Do 17Z-3 W.Nr. 2669 of 4./KG3 burning itself out after crash-landing at Princes Golf Club on Sandwich Flats, near Ramsgate, following an attack on Hornchurch, 31 August 1940.
Dornier Do 17Z-3 W.Nr. 2669 of 4./KG3 burning itself out after crash-landing at Princes Golf Club on Sandwich Flats, near Ramsgate, following an attack on Hornchurch, 31 August 1940.

303 (Polish) Squadron’s first combat patrol

‘A’ Flight, at 16,000 ft east of Biggin Hill, saw about 60 Dorniers going east, protected by fighters. The bombers were in tight vics with sections of Me109s circling around them. Some fighters were covering them above. ‘A’ Flight attacked out of the sun and took enemy escorts by surprise. Each of our pilots selected one Me109 and six dogfights took place.

An Me 109 that just made the coast of France.
303 Squadron shot down six in under an hour on their first combat patrol.
Pilots of 303 Squadron pictured during the Battle of Britain

Highly experienced fighter-pilots from the Polish Airforce who had escaped from occupied Europe were being formed into their own Squadrons. 303 Squadron was still training with Hurricanes when they made their first kill on the 30th August. Squadron Leader Kellett decided that further training was unnecessary. As a consequence they were declared operational the next day:

INTELLIGENCE PATROL REPORT 31:8:40

No. 303 (Polish) Squadron, ‘A’ Flight

13 Hurricanes Up: Northolt 18:05
13 Hurricanes Down: Northolt 19:04

1. ‘B’ Flight made no contact with enemy. ‘A’ Flight, at 16,000 ft east of Biggin Hill, saw about 60 Dorniers going east, protected by fighters. The bombers were in tight vics with sections of Me109s circling around them. Some fighters were covering them above. ‘A’ Flight attacked out of the sun and took enemy escorts by surprise. Each of our pilots selected one Me109 and six dogfights took place.

2. Squadron Leader Kellett, Red 1, ordered his section to attack 3 Me109s which were circling in towards the bombers. He fired several bursts totalling six seconds in all. Enemy aircraft swerved from side-to-side and pulled up his nose into a steep climb in his endeavour to escape, but he burst into flames and fell perpendicularly.

3. Red 2, Sgt Karubin, shot down his Me109 in flames – only evasive tactic was a dive – as surprise was complete. Red 3, Sgt Szaposznikow’s, opponent rolled and dived, finally rolling onto his back and falling vertically training a thick cloud of black smoke.

4. Yellow 1, F/O Henneburg, tried to lead his Section up against 4 Me109s which were diving to attack the Hurricane, but they became engaged with other Me109s and he attacked alone. He fought one enemy aircraft to the coast and it fell into the sea about six miles south of Newhaven.

5. Yellow 2, P/O Feric, attacked a Me109 from 70 yards and the engine caught fire. The pilot baled out. Only 20 rounds per gun were fired. Yellow 3, Sgt Wunsche, fired two burst at 150 to 100 yards. The engine caught fire and the enemy aircraft crashed in flames. Sgt Wunsche is also certain that he saw a Me110 crashing with both its engines in flames.

6. All six of our pilots destroyed their enemy fighter, but not one of them was able to make contact with the bombers.

7. This is the first action by a Flight of No 303 (Polish) Squadron.

Enemy casualties – Six Me109s destroyed.
Our casualties – Nil.

All our aircraft serviceable.

Intelligence Officer,
No 303 (Polish) Squadron,
RAF Station, Northolt.

Although they missed the first two months of the battle 303 Squadron were to become the top scoring Squadron during the official period of the Battle of Britain, with 126 kills.

The August 1940 Operations log for 303 Squadron – who were still in training when they made their first kill on 30th August 1940.

For more on 303 Squadron see Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum.

The Luftwaffe bombing attacks were still being directed against military targets – but this made little difference to those civilians living in the vicinity. Florrie Collinge lived close to the A.V. Roe factory in Manchester:

31.8.40
We had a hectic night on Saturday, 31st August. They came over at about 11 o’clock and we could hear them over our house. We watched at the back door, the flashes and the verey lights dropping for half an hour before we got the siren. As soon as we came into the house we heard bombs dropping somewhere behind the house, then we heard a screaming bomb which ended in a dull thud.

I went into the pantry (my aid raid shelter) for a little while, then came out and sat in the big chair, while Harry lay on the couch. We couldn’t go to bed until we got the “all clear”. We were both dozing when a loud knock came at the door; it was the wardens. They told us to get out of the house at once and go into the shelters, as we were in a danger zone which had to be evacuated. Sixteen bombs had dropped nearby without exploding.

The shelters were packed with people, and we stayed there until 2.45 a.m. when we got the “all clear”, but they wouldn’t let us go home as they said bombs had dropped behind our houses. From Mills Hill Bridge to Bay Tree Avenue, and part of Middleton Junction was a prohibited area. Engineers were already on the job looking for the bombs.

Some of the people were in night attire with just a coat round them and carpet slippers on their feet, but they wouldn’t allow them to go home for anything. We were fortunate enough to be fully dressed as we stay up late every night waiting for the bombers. They brought a motor coach for us, right up to the shelter, and took us to Cowhill School.

When we got there the place was full — about 200 of us. They brought us hot tea, Oxo, and two kinds of biscuits. Also, at 8.00 a.m. we were given tea, bread, butter and biscuits. We were in the school all night. At 9.00 a.m. on Sunday, they came to tell us we could go home as they thought the danger was over behind our houses, then they took us all home in motors and ambulances. They didn’t find any bombs in the field behind our house, but three were found a little further away.

They have found more since, buried deep in gardens, back yards and streets. These are roped off and the houses evacuated until the bombs have been removed.

I was worried to death all the Saturday night because I had left Tiny and Joey (the two budgies) in the house, and Tony, the cat, shut up in the kitchen. We were informed that there was no telling when we would be allowed to go home. I never missed my home so much in all my life.

Read the whole of Florrie Collinge’s diary on BBC People’s War.

Dornier Do 17Z-3 W.Nr. 2669 of 4./KG3 burning itself out after crash-landing at Princes Golf Club on Sandwich Flats, near Ramsgate, following an attack on Hornchurch, 31 August 1940.

RAF Ace ‘Sailor’ Malan’s Ten Rules for Air Combat

TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING

Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”.

Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.

Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out”.

Still from gun camera film shot by Flight Lieutenant A G "Sailor" Malan, leader of 'A' Flight, No. 74 Squadron RAF, recording his first aerial victory, a Heinkel He 111 over Dunkirk. Although debris and billowing smoke issue from the Heinkel's starboard engine and the starboard undercarriage has dropped, Malan's claim was categorised as unconfirmed since he did not observe the aircraft's destruction. 'A' Flight was based at Hornchurch but was flying out of Rochford at this time in order to shorten the patrol range to France. By the end of July 1941, Malan had achieved a total of 27 and seven shared confirmed victories, and two and one shared unconfirmed victories to become the highest scoring pilot of the war in Fighter Command.
Still from gun camera film shot by Flight Lieutenant A G “Sailor” Malan, leader of ‘A’ Flight, No. 74 Squadron RAF, recording his first aerial victory, a Heinkel He 111 over Dunkirk. Although debris and billowing smoke issue from the Heinkel’s starboard engine and the starboard undercarriage has dropped, Malan’s claim was categorised as unconfirmed since he did not observe the aircraft’s destruction. ‘A’ Flight was based at Hornchurch but was flying out of Rochford at this time in order to shorten the patrol range to France. By the end of July 1941, Malan had achieved a total of 27 and seven shared confirmed victories, and two and one shared unconfirmed victories to become the highest scoring pilot of the war in Fighter Command.

The weather meant that there was some respite for RAF Fighter Command on the 27th. The Luftwaffe had made a number of bombing attacks overnight but the day was relatively quiet with only scattered attacks and a number of photographic reconnaissance flights – they were still trying to establish how much damage they were inflicting.

Throughout the battle there was some re-arrangement of the fighter squadrons, with those that had been in the thick of the battle being rested in more northerly airfields, while fresh Squadrons were rotated south to replace them. No 74 Squadron went to Lincolnshire in mid August. The War Artist Advisory Committee immediately took the opportunity to try to get a portrait of their Squadron Leader.

74 Squadron Operational Record Book – 27 August, Kirton Lindsey

Mr Mansbridge RA who has been appointed by the Air Ministry to paint portraits of famous fighter pilots arrived and painted portrait of S/L Malan DFC (bar).

Colour oil painting of Sailor Malan by Cuthbert Orde, 1940

‘Sailor’ Malan had already become an ‘Ace’ and his aggressive battle leadership, now that he was Squadron Leader, was to become renowned throughout the RAF. His famous ‘Ten Rules’ were soon to be seen displayed by many Fighter Squadrons, as well as in Training Schools:

TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING

Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”.

Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.

Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out”.

Height gives you the initiative.

Always turn and face the attack.

Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.

Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.

When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.

INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAMWORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.

Go in quickly – Punch hard – Get out!

Contemporary newsreel produced by Ministry of Information, seen by the public in cinemas during this period, ‘Fighter Pilot’ has a compilation of gun camera footage:

A portrait from 1943. Group Captain A G "Sailor" Malan, Officer Commanding No. 145 Wing based at Merston, climbing in to the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire before taking off from Appledram, Sussex.
A portrait from 1943. Group Captain A G “Sailor” Malan, Officer Commanding No. 145 Wing based at Merston, climbing in to the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire before taking off from Appledram, Sussex.
Also on this day: The controlled detonation of a German bomb, which fell on the parade ground at RAF Hemswell, Lincolnshire, on 27 August 1940. The bomb did not explode, but buried itself deep in the ground where it was subsequently destroyed by the Station Armament Officer.

Hurricanes attack bombers head on

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.

Hawker Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron RAF, October 1940.
Hawker Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron RAF, October 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

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, 1940

Citation of award of second DFC to acting Squadron Leader Peter Townsend

“In July, 1940, whilst leading a section of the squadron to protect a convoy, this officer intercepted about twenty or thirty enemy aircraft, destroying one and severely damaging two others. The enemy formation was forced to withdraw. Under his command, the squadron has destroyed eight enemy aircraft while protecting convoys against sporadic enemy attacks. In August, 1940, his squadron attacked some 250 enemy aircraft in the Thames Estuary. He himself shot down three enemy aircraft, the squadron as a whole destroying at least ten and damaging many others. The success which has been achieved has been due to Squadron Leader Townsend’s unflagging zeal and leadership”.
Awarded as a bar for on the ribbon of the first DFC.

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.

 

Also on this day: Wellington bomber crews photographed at a press event after the first raid on Berlin, which took place on the night of 25/26 August 1940.
Two crew members of Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, R3811 ‘BL-G’, of No. 40 Squadron RAF enjoy the fresh air while waiting to take off from Wyton, Cambridgeshire. On 26 August 1940, R3811 failed to return from a night intruder sortie over Querqueville and Maupertus airfields in France, all the crew being killed.