Night fighter interception over the North Sea

As we came out of the turn, the pressure eased, and I could see that we had the other aircraft cold. John’s handling of the Beaufighter had clinched that.Oosing head-on at nearly seven miles a minute on a dark, hazy night with no moon and no horizon, he had started to wheel a heavy and rather unstable aircraft around when only a mile away, and yet he had pulled out of that turn little more than that distance behind.

 Bristol Beaufighter in flight
A Bristol Beaufighter pictured later in the war when equipped with rockets - mainly used in an anti shipping role.

In late August 1941 C.F.’Jimmy’ Rawnsley was observer with Bristol Beaufighter pilot John Cunningham. Cunningham later gained fame as ‘Cats Eye’s Cunningham’ – one of the top RAF night fighter aces. British propaganda promoted the idea that he had exceptional night vision – in fact it was just a ruse to cover the existence of airborne radar. The first sets were very crude but they were beginning to make an impact on the effectiveness of the night fighters.

G.C.I. – Ground Control Interception , ‘Seacut’ – had just told them that there were too many ‘Big Friends’ – bombers departing from East Anglia – cluttering up the ground based radar screens for them to guide them onto enemy intruders. But then Rawnsley got a blip on his A.I. – Airborne Interception – radar which had a rather more limited range:

“Contact … head on … port about,” I gabbled.”Hard as you can … its well below us.” The words came out in one exploding breath.

Without a second’s hesitation John hurled the Beaufighter around on its wing-tip.

My face was flattened against the visor, and the tubes began to grow dim with the onset of a blackout. The blip slewed over to the right, slowed up, and then began to recede.

With an effort I managed to focus my eyes, and I saw that it was sliding back towards centre. “Ease off,” I warned John. “You’re holding him at six thousand feet. Steady I ”

As we came out of the turn, the pressure eased, and I could see that we had the other aircraft cold. John’s handling of the Beaufighter had clinched that.

Oosing head-on at nearly seven miles a minute on a dark, hazy night with no moon and no horizon, he had started to wheel a heavy and rather unstable aircraft around when only a mile away, and yet he had pulled out of that turn little more than that distance behind.

When John got his visual he found that it was a bandit all right. It was another Heinkel, weaving gently and ineffectively from side to side. His first shots started a fire inside the bomb-bay. We pulled clear and flew along on the port quarter, watching it burn.

The enemy crew had plenty of time to bale out as the Heinkel went flying steadily on its course for some minutes while the fire ate its way along the fuselage. The flames began to engulf the tail, and plumed out behind. Then slowly the bomber nosed over and went down like a rocket into the Wash.

I took a fix while John orbitted, reporting to control. We were thirty-five miles north-west of base, and the time was six minutes past ten. Seacut had no more trade to offer so we went out to sea again to cool our heels for an hour off Cromer.

It was Rawnsley and Cunningham’s first kill together. Not surprisingly Jimmy Rawnsley’s gripping memoir was something of a hit when it was published after the war, revealing methods of operation that had been kept secret until then. It seems extraordinary that it is currently out of print. See C.F Rawnsley: Night Fighter

Low level air attack in Iraq

In any case, a really low cross-country flight is a wonderful experience. It is the only time one can get the feeling of an aeroplane’s terrific speed. The ground streaks past under the wings unbelievably fast. Different coloured patches of sand flow by; it’s like running your hand across a patchwork quilt. You lift your machine gently upwards to clear hummocks, and then ease her down again the other side to stay low, low, low. As one approaches the target, the adrenalin starts to pump, giving a tingling sensation between the shoulder-blades, and maybe some sweat trickles down.

Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 14 Squadron RAF in flight over desert, possibly in Iraq where the Squadron was based from August to October 1941. The nearest aircraft is Z5860, which was shot down during a raid on an enemy vehicle convoy on the Derna-Bardia road on 14 December 1941, all its crew being killed.
Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 14 Squadron RAF in flight over desert, possibly in Iraq where the Squadron was based from August to October 1941. The nearest aircraft is Z5860, which was shot down during a raid on an enemy vehicle convoy on the Derna-Bardia road on 14 December 1941, all its crew being killed.
A Fordson Armoured Car of No. 2 Armoured Car Company RAF, operating with 'Habforce', waits outside Baghdad, while negotiations for an armistice take place between British officials and the rebel government during the Iraqi Revolt. Label A Fordson Armoured Car of No. 2 Armoured Car Company RAF waits outside Baghdad, while negotiations for an armistice take place between British officials and the rebel government during the Iraqi Revolt, May 1941.
A Fordson Armoured Car of No. 2 Armoured Car Company RAF, operating with ‘Habforce’, waits outside Baghdad, while negotiations for an armistice take place between British officials and the rebel government during the Iraqi Revolt, May 1941.
Captured Messerschmitt Bf 110D "The Belle of Berlin" in British markings on a landing ground in North Africa. This aircraft served with II/ZG76 in Iraq and was captured after crash-landing near Mosul in May 1941. It was used as a communications aircraft and later as a unit 'hack' by No.267 Squadron RAF.
Captured Messerschmitt Bf 110D “The Belle of Berlin” in British markings on a landing ground in North Africa. This aircraft served with II/ZG76 in Iraq and was captured after crash-landing near Mosul in May 1941. It was used as a communications aircraft and later as a unit ‘hack’ by No.267 Squadron RAF.

On the 16th May 1941 the [permalink id=11438 text=”RAF base at Habbaniya”] in Iraq had been subjected to a surprise attack by German Me 110 and Heinkel III bombers. It was a particular surprise because the Luftwaffe had not yet been seen in Iraq, where the RAF had been largely successful in beating off the Iraqi airforce. However the base had just received two long range Hurricane IIc’s, armed with cannon. They were now capable of providing a fighter escort to a bomber attack by Blenheims, on the German planes based at Mosul. Tony Dudgeon was then a Squadron Leader at the RAF training school in Habbaniya and was very familiar with how such attacks were conducted:

It was 200 miles each way, and they made the trip at very low level, doing the simplest kind of navigation — following the road. To be accurate, not really a road, but a number of tracks across the desert, first to Haditha and then bearing right for Mosul.

It was simple, but by no means stupid. First, flying on your own with no radio surveillance over 200 miles of featureless desert it is dead easy to get lost. Second, being right down on the ground, there were less chances of being seen from above, and no one below on those meandering tracks would be able to pass on the word ahead.

In any case, a really low cross-country flight is a wonderful experience. It is the only time one can get the feeling of an aeroplane’s terrific speed. The ground streaks past under the wings unbelievably fast. Different coloured patches of sand flow by; it’s like running your hand across a patchwork quilt. You lift your machine gently upwards to clear hummocks, and then ease her down again the other side to stay low, low, low. As one approaches the target, the adrenalin starts to pump, giving a tingling sensation between the shoulder-blades, and maybe some sweat trickles down.

Final checks. Bombs — ‘fused’. Guns — safety-catches ‘off. All set. The landmarks signifying the target appear ahead; in this case dusty-green trees near the airfield, and some houses, sticking up out of the yellow sand. Will the enemy react?

Then the attack — utterly absorbing — total concentration — not an atom of space in your conscious mind for fear. You are not relaxed enough, or with time enough, to think about yourself.

Next, if you have not been badly hit, more concentration on the task of getting away and back home, safely. Bomber-boys used to say that up to the instant of bomb-release, you were working for your King and Country; when you heard the words ‘Bombs Gone!’ you began to work for your wife and family.

When they returned, our force reported that they had burned one Heinkel, blown up a Messerschmitt and damaged four other aircraft, including a Ju.52 transport. One Hurricane did not return because, it was believed, he had flown into the fragments of his exploding Me.110.

The pilot of that missing Hurricane was Flight Lieutenant Sir Roderic MacRobert of 94 Squadron. He was the third and last of three brothers to lose his life flying; two in the war and one in a 1938 accident. Their mother, Lady MacRobert, presented three Hurricanes to the RAF for use in the Middle East, each bearing the family crest and the name of one of her sons. Later she also presented a Stirling bomber to the Air Force, named ‘MacRobert’s Reply’.

Dudgeon later rose to become Air Vice Marshall. His account of the brief Iraqi campaign is in:
A. G. Dudgeon: The War That Never Was.

Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc's armed with cannons from No 3 Squadron, September 1941
A Hurricane Mk II b with long range tanks, from No 79 Squadron based at Swansea, used for convoy escorts.

THE NAME OF MACROBERT LIVES ON

Second ‘Eagle Squadron’ formed

By day, the usual enemy reconnaissances were flown, and defensive fighter patrols were maintained over the Dover Straits and over coastal areas. A number of small-scale offensive daylight sweeps covered Kent and South and South-West Coastal regions; our fighters destroyed eighteen Me. 109’s, and probably destroyed six others. We lost six aircraft, but four of the pilots were saved. Ten Me. 109’s dived from 29,000 feet to 100 feet to attack Rochford aerodrome, and destroyed the control office.

The Spitfire VBs of No 92 Squadron in May 1941, based at Biggin Hill, one of the front line stations in the south. The Mk V Spitfire now usually had the B armament - two 20mm cannons and four machine guns - after reliability problems with the cannons had been resolved. Had cannons been available during the previous summer Fighter Command's success rate would have been even better.

RAF fighter command remained busy, flying 3,808 sorties during this week. Even if the pressure on the southern counties fighter squadrons was much less than the previous summer, there was constant probing by the Luftwaffe and there were still attacks being made on airfields:

By day, the usual enemy reconnaissances were flown, and defensive fighter patrols were maintained over the Dover Straits and over coastal areas. A number of small-scale offensive daylight sweeps covered Kent and South and South-West Coastal regions; our fighters destroyed eighteen Me. 109’s, and probably destroyed six others. We lost six aircraft, but four of the pilots were saved. Ten Me. 109’s dived from 29,000 feet to 100 feet to attack Rochford aerodrome, and destroyed the control office.

From the Air Situation Report for the week, TNA CAB 66/16/25.

It was on the 14th May that the second ‘Eagle Squadron’, No 121 Squadron was formed from United States volunteers in the Royal Air Force. No. 71 Squadron had been operational since February 1941 – they would suffer their first fatal casualty on 17th May – P/O S Mike Kolendorski . Before 1941 American airmen had flown as individuals in different RAF squadrons. No. 121 Squadron was initially equipped with Hurricanes but converted to Spitfires in November.

RAF fighters go on offensive

Our fighter patrols operated over Northern France on five days. Few enemy aircraft were encountered, but A.A. fire was generally heavy and accurate. On the 25th and 26th, an escort and screen was provided for a small bomber force which attacked shipping targets at Dunkirk and Calais. About 100 fighters were employed on each occasion.

A posed shot of a Hurricane being re-armed with the 3,990 rounds of .303 ammunition that each plane carried, 28th March 1941

RAF Fighter Command was now beginning “Rhubarb raids”, offensive attacks across the English channel by small numbers of fighter aircraft, sometimes just a pair, intended to strafe targets of opportunity. These were hazardous operations, often at the limits of range, with the added danger inherent in crossing the channel twice. Losses quickly mounted:

Our fighter patrols operated over Northern France on five days. Few enemy aircraft were encountered, but A.A. fire was generally heavy and accurate. On the 25th and 26th, an escort and screen was provided for a small bomber force which attacked shipping targets at Dunkirk and Calais. About 100 fighters were employed on each occasion.

From the Air Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/15/19.

RAF and RAAF control the skies over Libya

Our fighters have continued to maintain their ascendancy over the Italian Air Force. On the 26th Gladiators of the Royal Australian Air Force shot down without loss two, and probably six, of a number of C.R. 42 fighters “which were escorting a bomber formation, and on the 28th Hurricanes shot down three bombers and a fighter, again without loss.

RAAF Gladiators return to their base in the Desert. They were more than able to hold their own against the Italian biplanes.

Our fighters have continued to maintain their ascendancy over the Italian Air Force. On the 26th Gladiators of the Royal Australian Air Force shot down without loss two, and probably six, of a number of C.R. 42 fighters which were escorting a bomber formation, and on the 28th Hurricanes shot down three bombers and a fighter, again without loss.

There is much more on No. 3 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force at their website which describes the Gladiator:

The little single-bay, all metal biplane was robust and highly manoeuvrable and therefore ideal for aerobatics which meant, in war time, good at dodging the enemy in a dog-fight.

More importantly, it didn’t have any bad faults once it had been correctly rigged. It was armed with four .303 machine guns … two in the fuselage firing between the propeller blades by means of an interrupter gear and two in blisters under the wings. Its 840 horse power Mercury 8A engine propelled it at a maximum speed of 250 miles per hour at 15,500 feet and it could climb to this height in 6 minutes before reaching its ceiling at 32,800 feet. It cruised at 210 miles per hour and could land at 59 miles per hour. In all, an aeroplane that, whilst lacking some of the performance qualities of the sleek, fast enemy aircraft being introduced into the Western Desert, was still a regular little terrier which had quite a lethal bite.

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.

Captain R.T. Partridge encounters the enemy up close

Whilst following the HEINKEL down after the attack. Captain Partridge realised that his engine was failing and that he would he forced to land immediately. Selecting a frozen lake which appeared to have a road running beside it, he landed his machine successfully with the undercarriage up. A bent airscrew was the only damage and the machine came to rest alongside the road in about four feet of snow.

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”

Erhard Milch leads Luftwaffe assault on Norway

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”.

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”