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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.

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