The glorious ‘Few’ who are defending Britain

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at 'A' Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at ‘A’ Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.

The war had now seemingly resolved down to a simple scenario. Britain was under direct threat from a German invasion. At present the Royal Navy stood in the way of any amphibious landing – yet only so long as her ships could be protected from the air. In the ‘narrow seas’ between Britain and the continent of Europe if the Luftwaffe got the upper hand then no ship would be safe.

It was now readily apparent to those within the military command that only the thin line of ‘fighters boys’ of RAF Fighter Command kept Britain safe. It was a stark reality to confront, especially when they met the young men themselves, many of whom were only just out of school.

General Hastings “Pug” Ismay was Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence and Churchill’s principal military adviser, standing between the military establishment and the politicians, he saw the situation as clearly as anyone:

The German Air Force had been at full stretch throughout the Battle of France, and it was not until the first week in July that the Battle of Britain started in earnest.

As usual, the Prime Minister took every opportunity to go and see things for himself, and I accompanied him on many of his visits to fighter stations in Kent and Sussex.

From the moment one set foot on the tarmac, one sensed the tension in the air – the pilots standing by ‘on readiness’, waiting to ‘scramble’ into their machines at a moment’s notice.

It was impossible to look at those young men, who might within a matter of minutes be fighting and dying to save us, without mingled emotions of wonder, gratitude, and humility. The physical and mental strain of the long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day were normal, six or seven not uncommon), must have been prodigious.

And yet they were so cheerful, so confident, and so obviously dedicated. They were always thrilled to see Churchill, and they gave me a kindly welcome.

But they seemed a race apart, and I felt an intruder. They brought to my mind something that I had once read in the Old Testament. I looked it up when I got home. ‘And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.’ [Malachi, chapter III, verse 17]

See The Memoirs of General the Lord Ismay K.G., P.C., G.C.B., C.H., D.S.O..

Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.

Air combat over the Channel at Dover

The Junkers 87 'Stuka' dive bomber was vulnerable to attack and invariably had fighter protection, in this case the Me 109.

Following an ‘air battle’ RAF pilots completed a combat report describing in considerable detail their engagement with the enemy. The cumulative intelligence gained from such reports, about the relative performance of aircraft, tactics, weaponry etc, was immensely valuable. For the pilots these reports represented their claims to ‘kills’ so it was important that they presented as much information as possible that might corroborate or support their claim. It is therefore in the official records that we have some of the most vivid accounts of the air war that now began in earnest over Britain. Pilot Officer Jack Hamar was a Hurricane pilot with 151 Squadron who went to intercept Stuka bombers attacking a shipping convoy off Eastbourne, in the English channel:

At 1500 hours the Squadron was ordered off from Rochford to intercept E/As [Enemy Aircraft] south of Dover. At approximately 1520 hours, when the Squadron was almost over Dover, a bunch of Me 109s were sighted about 5,000 feet above our formation, in which I was flying Red Two.

As it looked as though the E/A were about to attack us, the leader ordered our defensive line astern tactics. As we turned sharply to port, two Me 109s were seen diving to attack the last aircraft in our formation. ‘Milna Leader’ attacked the leading Me 109 and I the second.

I turned inside the E/A, which had pulled up into a steep left hand climbing turn. I closed rapidly and opened fire at about 250 yards with a 45° deflection shot. The E/A seemed to falter and straightened out into a dive. I placed myself dead astern at about 50 yards.

I opened fire, closing to almost no distance. I saw a large explosion just in front of the pilot and a large amount of white smoke poured from the E/A, which by this time was climbing steeply.

I was then forced to break away quickly due to fire from the rear, lost sight of the E/A and therefore did not see it crash. This action was also witnessed by Flying Officer Forster.

TNA Air 50

The combat was witnessed by a BBC radio reporter, standing on the cliffs of Dover. Charles Gardner gave a live running commentary that was later to become famous:

The Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out at sea: there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive-bombers, Junkers 87s. There’s one going down on its target now – bomb! No! He missed the ships, it hasn’t hit a single ship – there are about 10 ships in the convoy but he hasn’t hit a single one and – There, you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now.

There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about 10 German machines dive-bombing the convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel. I can’t see anything! No! We thought he had got a German one at the top then, but now the British fighters are coming up. Here they come.

The Germans are coming in an absolutely steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now. I can hear machine-gun fire but I can’t see our Spitfires. They must be somewhere there.

Oh! Here’s one coming down. There’s one going down in flames. Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak – coming down completely out of control – a long streak of smoke – and now a man’s baled out by parachute. The pilot’s baled out by parachute. He’s a Junkers 87 and he’s going slap into the sea – and there he goes: SMASH! A terrific column of water and there was a Junkers 87. Only one man got out by parachute, so presumably there was only a crew of one in it.

Now then, oh, there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are the Germans. There was one definitely down in this battle and there’s a fight going on. There’s a fight going on and you can hear the little rattles of machine-gun bullets. Crump! That was a bomb, as you may imagine.

Here comes one Spitfire. There’s a little burst. There’s another bomb dropping. Yes, it has dropped. It has missed the convoy. You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all this. The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where bombs have burst, but as far as I can see there is not one single ship hit, and there is definitely one German machine down.

And I am looking across the sea now. I can see the little white dot of a parachute as the German pilot is floating down towards the spot where his machine crashed with such a big fountain of water two minutes ago.

In fact he was mistaken. The pilot shot down was British, although rescued from the sea Pilot Officer Michael Mudie died the next day in hospital. The original recording can be heard in the BBC Archives.

Opinion was divided over the nature of Gardner’s broadcast. There were letters to The Times complaining that mortal combat was being reduced to the terms of a sporting contest. However Mollie Panter-Downes reported in her weekly column for New Yorker magazine:

The majority of citizens, possibly less squeamish, sat by their radios, hanging onto their seats and cheering.

This perspective appears to have been very accurate, it is consistent with a ‘Listener Research Report‘ that was urgently conducted by the BBC, concerned about the controversy, after the broadcast.

46 Squadron successful in skies over Narvik

RAF Hawker Hurricane aircraft from 1940, as flown by No. 46 Squadron in Norway
Shellbursts and fire on the shores of Bjerkvik at the head of the Herjangs Fjord, opposite Narvik, which was shelled by the Royal Navy, 5 June 1940.
Shellbursts and fire on the shores of Bjerkvik at the head of the Herjangs Fjord, opposite Narvik, which was shelled by the Royal Navy, 5 June 1940.

In Norway operations continued around Narvik, which the Allies had finally occupied on 28th May 1940. In an attempt to address the German air superiority which had bedevilled the earlier Norwegian campaign (see 24th April) Hawker Hurricanes of No. 46 Squadron had flown off the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on the 27th May and were now operating from a temporary airfield. In the early hours of 7th June Squadron Leader K.B.B. ‘Bing’ Cross was preparing for an air patrol:

I was taxying [my] aircraft down to the end of the run way when I saw 4 He.III K.’s approaching the aerodrome from the N.E. I had not my straps done up or my helmet on, but as the He.’s were heading direct for the aerodrome, I pulled the emergency boost control and took off. As the enemy aircraft approached the aerodrome they appeared to see my aircraft and Red 2 and turned away to port onto a more southerly course. Red 2 joined me and we climbed up after the enemy. My speed was 240 mph and I was climbing slightly. I set the sight at 80ft. span and 250 yards range and opened fire at that distance from the dead astern position at the aircraft flying in the ‘box’, Red 2 attacking the extreme starboard machine.

I fired a 4 second burst and there was a burst of black smoke and the undercarriage dropped. Heavy return fire was coming from all four rear upper gun positions and it appeared that the top gunners had twin guns. I had now closed to about 80 yards and broke away downwards to port. As I did so I noticed that my oil pressure had dropped to zero. I turned towards the aerodrome, gradually losing height and landed.

There were a total of twelve bullet holes in my aircraft; one in the screen, two in the oil tank, one in the petrol tank, one in the engine, two in the wing and five in the hood behind my head.

The He. III K. was dropping behind the formation as I landed, his undercarriage was down and smoke pouring from the starboard engine.

Squadron Leader Cross claimed a ‘probable’ for this action, see TNA Air 50/20. It now seems that he had a ‘confirmed’: details and photographs of the Heinkel III that crash landed in the early hours of 7th June 1940 are at the Norwegian aircraft wreck site ktsorens.thilde.org. 46 Squadron had 14 kills to their credit during the 10 days they were in Norway.

In London the decision had now been taken to evacuate Norway, even as the Allies were gaining the upper hand in the area around Narvik. All troops and aircraft were needed for the defence of Britain.

The Hurricane aircraft of No 46 Squadron had never been flown onto an aircraft carrier and did not have the arrester hooks that were considered necessary to land such a fast aircraft on a carrier (they had been loaded onto the carrier, not flown, for the trip out to Norway). Therefore the orders were for these aircraft to be destroyed before the Squadron’s personnel returned.

Squadron Leader Cross was having none of it. His entire Squadron volunteered to land their Hurricanes on HMS Glorious in order to get them away, in a manoeuvre that had never been attempted before with this aircraft. None of the pilots had any experience of carrier landings. Using sandbags in their tail planes to give them extra weight, landings were successfully achieved by the entire Squadron later on 7th June.

Smoke rises from burning port installations at Narvik after a bombardment by HMS CAIRO, 8 June 1940.
Smoke rises from burning port installations at Narvik after a bombardment by HMS CAIRO, 8 June 1940.

RAF outnumbered in last dogfight over Germany

Viewed from a wrecked German hangar, two Hawker Tempests of No. 3 Squadron RAF receive attention from ground crew in a dispersal at B80/Volkel, Holland.
Viewed from a wrecked German hangar, two Hawker Tempests of No. 3 Squadron RAF receive attention from ground crew in a dispersal at B80/Volkel, Holland.
Tempest Mark V, EJ743, on a test flight following completion at Langley, Buckinghamshire. This aircraft served with No. 3 Squadron RAF.
Tempest Mark V, EJ743, on a test flight following completion at Langley, Buckinghamshire. This aircraft served with No. 3 Squadron RAF.
The Dornier Do 18 flying boat.
The Dornier Do 18 flying boat.

While the Germans began to surrender in large numbers the overall situation remained very unclear. It was far from inevitable that there would be a complete surrender within days. For a long time there had been a suspicion that Hitler would make a last stand in a mountain redoubt. Even though he was now believed to be dead there was plenty of evidence that some fanatical units would continue to fight on.

In these circumstances there could be no slackening of pressure when identifiable threats emerged. French pilot Pierre Clostermann, who although only a Sous-Lieutenant in the French Air Force was now leading a Wing within RAF Fighter Command, commanding many officers who were technically senior in rank to him.

By the 3rd of May they thought they were on “the last lap” but it appeared that the Germans might be trying to hold out in an area from the Kiel Canal, in northern Germany up to Norway. Luftwaffe aircraft appeared to be massing to support a large convoy to Norway. Late in the evening he was ordered up to attack German transport planes on the ground. Maintenance problems meant he only had twenty-four planes instead of the normal complement of ninety-five:

In front of us, either on the ground or just taking off, were more than 100 enormous transport planes – theoretically my primary objective. In the air, about 100 enemy fighters. One group at 1,500 feet, another at 3,000, a third at 4,500 and two others on a level with us, i.e. at about 10,000 feet. Above us there were certainly one more, perhaps two. And I only had 24 Tempests!

My mind was quickly made up. Filmstar Yellow and Blue Sections would attack the fighters above us, and Pink, Black and White Sections, commanded by MacDonald, would engage the Focke-Wulfs below us.

In the meantime I would try to slip through with my Red Section and shoot-up the airfield. I passed this on over the radio and then, closely followed by the rest of my section, I released my auxiliary tanks and went into a vertical dive, passing like a thunderbolt at 600 m.p.h. through a formation of Focke-Wulfs which scattered about the sky like a flock of swallows.

I straightened out gradually, closing the throttle and following a trajectory designed to bring me over the airfield at ground level, from south-west to north-east. All hell was let loose as we arrived. I was doing more than 500 m.p.h. by the clock when I reached the edge of the field. I was 60 feet from the ground and I opened fire at once.

The mottled surface of the anchorage was covered with moored Dornier 24’s and 18’s. Three lines of white foam marked the wake of three planes which had just taken off. A row of Blohm und Voss’s in wheeled cradles was lined up on the launching ramps. I concentrated my fire on a Bv I38. The moorings of the cradle snapped and I passed over the enormous smoking mass as it tipped up on the slope, fell into the sea and began to sink.

The flak redoubled in fury. A flash on my right, and a disabled Tempest crashed into the sea in a shower of spray. Jesus! The boats anchored off shore were armed, and one of them, a large torpedo boat, was blazing away with all it had. I instinctively withdrew my head into my shoulders and, still flying very low, veered slightly to the left, so fast that I couldn’t fire at the Dorniers, then quickly swung to the right behind an enormous Ju 252 which had just taken off and was already getting alarmingly big in my gunsight. I fired one long continuous burst at him and broke away just before we collided. I turned round to see the Ju 252, with two engines ablaze and the tailplane sheared off by my shells, bounce on the sea and explode.

My speed had swept me far on — straight on to the torpedo boat which was spitting away with all her guns. I passed within ten yards of her narrow bows, just above the water and the thousand spouts raised by the flak. I caught a glimpse of white shapes rushing about on deck and of tongues of fire from her guns. The entire camouflaged superstructure seemed to be alive with them. Tracer shells ricocheted on the water and exploded all round over a radius of 500 yards. Some shrapnel mowed down a flock of seagulls which fell in the sea on all sides, panic-stricken and bleeding. Phew! Out of range at last!

I was sweating all over and my throat was so constricted that I couldn’t articulate one word over the radio. Without realizing it I had held my breath through the whole attack and my heart was thumping fit to burst. I regained height by a wide climbing turn to port. What was happening? The situation looked pretty grim. A terrific dog-fight was going on above the airfield. Three planes were coming down in flames – I was too far to see whether they were friend or foe. Another, pulverized, had left a trail of flaming fragments in the sky and a fifth was coming down in a spin, followed by a white trail of smoke. Yet others were burning on the ground.

The radio was transmitting an incomprehensible chaos of shouts, screams and curses, mingled with the vibrations of cannon firing. Near the torpedo boat, in the middle of a patch of foam, the remains of a plane were burning and heavy black smoke curled up from the sheet of burning petrol.

What had happened to the rest of my section? …

More men had been lost, he returned with just thirteen planes out of twenty-four. It had been his last battle.

See Pierre Clostermann: The Big Show

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.

The RAF also made a fateful attack in the Baltic on this day, when rockets from Typhoons of 198 Squadron hit the SS Cap Ancona, causing “one of the biggest single-incident maritime losses of life in the Second World War.”

Captain Baldwin then ordered the other four planes from the 198th Squadron to follow him. They dove fast and low on the Cap Arcona. No smoke billowed from its large stacks, indicating it was still at anchor in the bay. The target was locked, and the Typhoons released their rockets on the defenseless liner. All of them found their mark, the first rockets striking the large gray liner directly between the first and second smokestacks atop the ship. The next barrage hit the third funnel and sports deck.

The story is told in ‘The Nazi Titanic’, which was one of my featured titles in 2016 and you can read the full excerpt here.

Meanwhile Montgomery received the first German delegation at his HQ but they did not have authority to surrender all the forces facing the British 21st Army Group, and he sent them back to Doenitz to reconsider.

Field Marshal Montgomery (second from the left) greets the German delegation (L to R – Admiral von Friedeburg, General Kinzel and Rear Admiral Wagner) on 3 May 1945 at Lüneburg Heath.
Field Marshal Montgomery (second from the left) greets the German delegation (L to R – Admiral von Friedeburg, General Kinzel and Rear Admiral Wagner) on 3 May 1945 at Lüneburg Heath.

At the same time the Canadians were trying to put emergency measures in place to assist the Dutch population, even though the 117,000 German forces they had cut off in the Netherlands had not yet surrendered.

 Boy outside blackmarket restaurant hoping for food handout. Kids often carried spoon 'just in case'.  Date: 1944-1945 Place: Amsterdam, Netherlands
The occupying Germans were still fighting, and the occupied Dutch were still suffering serious privation under them. The oppressors had flooded the farmlands of western Netherlands and blockaded food and supplies to civilians. The abject neglect of the Dutch by the occupying Germans caused the death of at least 18,000 civilians in the terrible famine known as the Hunger Winter. Boy outside blackmarket restaurant hoping for food handout. Kids often carried a spoon ‘just in case’.
Dutch civilians loading a Canadian-supplied truck with food,
Dutch civilians loading a Canadian-supplied truck with food, following agreement amongst Germans, Dutch and Allies about the distribution of food to the Dutch population. 
Date: 3 May 1945 Wageningen, Netherlands (vicinity)

Captain R.T. Partridge encounters the enemy up close

The Blackburn Skua: the Fleet Air Arm fighter that operated from HMS Ark Royal

Captain R.T Partridge (Royal Marines) was Squadron Leader with 800 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm. While based in the Orkneys he had led their [permalink id=4649 text=’attack on the Konigsberg’]. Now the Squadron was based on HMS Ark Royal, which reported the following incident:

On Saturday, 27th April, 1940, three SKUA aircraft of 800 Squadron took off at 1230 to provide fighter patrol over the ANDALSNES area, Captain Partridge and Lieutenant Bostock formed the crew of the leading aircraft.

2. During this patrol a HEINKEL 111 bomber was sighted and attacked by all three aircraft. The attack was successful and the German machine was forced down on the side of a hill about twenty miles South East of AALESUND. The crew were seen to climb out of their wrecked aircraft. Continue reading “Captain R.T. Partridge encounters the enemy up close”

263 Squadron land at Lake Lesjaskog

A pre war RAF Gloster Gladiator

The British land forces operating in central Norway were to bitterly complain that they rarely, if ever, saw their own aircraft. It was not for want of trying by the Fleet Air Arm. They were now operating aircraft from the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and Glorious. Because the air threat to the ships themselves they stayed 100-150 miles offshore, which in consequence stretched the operating capabilities of their aircraft. An account of the difficulties encountered by Midshipman ‘Doc’ Goble when he ran out of fuel when flying a Skua from the Ark Royal on the 24th April 1940 can be found on Dinger’s Aviation Pages.

RAF Bomber Command were making frequent sorties to [permalink id=4395 text=’bomb the German held airfields’]. An attempt was now made to base a RAF fighter squadron in Norway itself but they would have to operate from an improvised airfield in the snowbound centre of Norway to support the troops intended to attempt to take Trondheim. For this reason 263 Squadron, equipped with eighteen Gloster Gladiator aircraft, believed to be suitably robust to operate in these conditions, were embarked on HMS Glorious. Continue reading “263 Squadron land at Lake Lesjaskog”

Erhard Milch leads Luftwaffe assault on Norway

Erhard Milch addresses Luftwaffe pilots in Norway, 23rd April 1940

Erhard Milch had commanded a fighter squadron in the First World War even though he was not a pilot himself. After the war he had several roles in the development of the German aircraft industry and was a founding director of Lufthansa, the national German airline. When the Nazi’s came to power he played a key role in the rapid expansion of the Luftwaffe and was a close associate of Goering.

He came under investigation by the Gestapo because his father, Anton Milch, was a Jew. However his mother swore an affidavit that her husband was not the father of any of her children, and Erhard was able to obtain a German Blood Certificate, required by Nazi race laws to continue in State related employment. He was assisted by Goering who famously declared “I decide who is a Jew”. Subsequent research has revealed that Milch’s mother was herself a Jew, making it very likely that Milch was himself wholly Jewish. In only slightly different circumstances the Nazi regime that he served would have been fatal to Milch. Continue reading “Erhard Milch leads Luftwaffe assault on Norway”

Townsend brings down first plane over England

A Hurricane aircraft scrambles

Peter Townsend was Squadron Leader with 43 Squadron, based at Acklington:

On the morning of the 3rd of February, in a cutting wind, the other pilots in my flight and I, went for our Hurricanes dispersed on the far side of the airfield. Far away at Danby Beacon Radar Station, the duty operator picked up the phone, it was 09.03 – the operator had seen a blip, then another – unidentified aircraft, some 60 miles out to sea, were approaching at 1000 ft. Continue reading “Townsend brings down first plane over England”