Spitfires

Throughout March 1940 the pilots all went on their first solo in the Spits.  Then began the formation practices and fighter attacks using a Blenheim as target.  Some small incidents occurred, often on landing when sometimes overzealous braking would turn an aircraft onto its nose. But the Spit proved to be a very robust machine that would put up with any amount of punishment.  On the night of the 9th there was an air raid ‘flap’ and all aircraft had to be dispersed on the aerodrome. In the darkness and confusion two aircraft were pushed into each other with resulting damage to the wing tips.

For the next week the Squadron was dispersed to Gatwick each evening and operated out of Gatwick and Croydon daily. They continued to practice formation flying, quick take offs and practice interceptions on Blenheims.  During one interception exercise on the 25th, Flight Lieutenant Byrne’s engine was observed to be pouring out black smoke and oil and he prepared to force land on a racecourse near Edenbridge in Kent. Unfortunately at the last minute the unexpected appearance of horses and riders in the field he had selected caused him to make a quick ninety degree turn into a small field alongside, the result being that the Spitfire was written off. Flight Lieutenant Byrne escaped with a bruised head and a little concussion. A leaking oil pipe was the cause of all his problems.

By the third week of March most of the aircraft had had their guns aligned and several pilots went to Biggin Hill to shoot into the Butts in order to check the harmonisation of the gun sights.

For another two days the Squadron stayed at Gatwick but on the first day they couldn’t fly because the aerodrome was water logged and on the other they couldn’t fly because of the proximity of the Gatwick Race meetings!

Back at Croydon 92 were nearly operational and almost ready to fight in the war that the Britain had joined six months previously. At the end of the month a new flying programme was started. Pilots were divided into five sections. One section was kept at readiness, three available and one released. The same day, Sergeant Havercroft, taxiing his Spitfire with an airman on the tail weighing it down, taxied behind two Spitfires fanning petrol out. The airman jumped off the tail to go and hold the wing tip when Sergeant Havercroft’s machine tipped on its nose and broke the prop. ‘Tich’ Havercroft was so short that he had to have two rubber cushions under his parachute before he could see over the instrument panel.

Throughout April the flying practice continued and for the first time the pilots practiced attacking ground targets, as well as practicing air to air firing. A little night flying was carried out but this was marred by poor weather conditions. During the month, apart from one Spit which tipped on its nose when landing, there was only one serious incident. Pilot Officer Motram, who had taken off at 14.30, noticed that his starboard wheel would not come up nor would his port wheel go down. After a considerable time had elapsed and with numerous suggestions being passed from the CO over the radio, he managed to retract the starboard wheel and hold it up by continuous pumping.  At 1700 hours, with the starboard wheel now hanging down at an angle of forty-five degrees, Pilot Officer Motram made a perfect ‘Rentre-a-terre’ landing before a large and enthusiastic audience, doing the minimum amount of damage under the circumstances and with only ten gallons of petrol left.

On 1 May Flying Officer Mac McGowan and Flying Officer Bob Tuck were posted onto the Squadron. McGowan, whose son was also to join 92 flying Lightnings thirty-five years later, was the new adjutant; and Bob Tuck, posted from 65 Squadron, became a new Flight Commander.

Tuck, a Regular Officer, expected to find 92 very different from the ‘professional’ pilots of 65 and was astounded and delighted to discover the atmosphere of the Croydon Mess even wilder and woollier than Hornchurch where he had come from. Moreover, he recalls that in some mysterious way these wartime chaps had managed to learn the entire range of RAF slang and idiom, all the rude songs, all the traditional nicknames (Chippie Wood, Shady Lane, Dickie Bird, etc) and most surprisingly of all, they had the same cynical approach to anything that savoured even faintly of militarism, rhetoric or red tape. Even the youngest of them, he says, had acquired the languid arrogance of experienced pilots.

Because most of them were new to Spitfires, and Tuck had been flying them for nearly a year and a half, they used to squat in a circle on the grass between flights and listen to him. In the air, as the ‘Phoney War’ was obviously over and they realised that very soon, perhaps within days or hours, they would go into battle, they practiced their combat drills with a quiet ardour. 

They were a cosmopolitan bunch, and the range of Commonwealth accents gave the Squadron some distinction. There were two Canadians ‘Eddie’ Edwards and John Bryson, a former member of the Mounties; Howard Hill from New Zealand; Pat Learmond from Ireland; and Paddy Green from South Africa.  For administrative purposes the Squadron at this time was split into two Flights of six or seven, but in the air they flew as three units of four.  Tuck’s flying section were all English - Bob Holland, Allan Wright and Sergeant ‘Tich’ Havercroft.  The remaining pilots at that time were John Gillies, Peter Cazenove, Roy Motram, ‘Nobby’ Hargreaves, Bill Williams and Tony Bartley. Green led the second flying section and the CO headed the third. There were two or three remaining pilots, with their aircraft, which were held as reserve. 

At this stage of the war it was the Hurricane not the Spitfire that was getting all the glory over France, while the Spits were being held in reserve for the air defence of Britain herself.  Somehow, to the fury of all on 92, the Hurricane had always received a great deal more publicity than the Spit, although undoubtedly it was slower, heavier and not nearly so agile. The Hurricane had smashed a number of records when it first came into service, one of them being a flight from Edinburgh to London at an average speed of 400 mph. There must have been an 80 knot wind behind it because the top speed of the aircraft was nearer 320 mph. The pilots of No 111 Squadron, the first unit to be equipped with the Hurricane, had built up a myth about how much skill and guts it took to handle this killer machine and that the pilots who flew it had no vices, just bulging biceps with which to wrestle with the controls.

Undoubtedly 111 Squadron had started this as a joke, but the joke was being taken seriously by the public and the press, and the Air Ministry made no attempt to dispel the myth. So it was ‘Hurricane’ and not ‘Spitfire’ that was on every schoolboy’s lips and in every newspaper article one saw.

Tuck says that not only was this state of affairs galling for the Squadrons who had Spitfires and the Supermarine Company who made them, but it had a more serious repercussion too; for some years most newly trained pilots held the Hurricane in almost superstitious dread and without doubt, a number of them crashed while learning to fly it through lack of confidence or sheer nervousness.  Their fears were quite groundless for Tuck says that the aircraft was much more sedate than the Spitfire which reacted full-bloodedly to the slightest movement of the controls. Had official steps been taken in 1939 to strangle the legend of the ‘killer plane’ he believes that there would have been fewer crashes among the trainee pilots of Fighter Command.

At this early stage of the war most fighter pilots still wore the white flying overalls they wore in peacetime. They also wore leather helmets with built in earphones and an oxygen mask incorporating a microphone. With their large tinted goggles they presented a typical ‘Biggles’ picture.

The parachute harness ran over each shoulder, down the back, through between the legs and up over the belly. All four ends clipped into a quick release box in the pit of the stomach. The lock had to be rotated clockwise and rapped smartly with the fist to instantly free the pilot from the harness when he landed. The pilots were quite pleased and confident with their equipment although there were some stories of pilots in France operating this quick release lock while still in a parachute descent, thereby falling to their deaths. The only explanation given was that they were probably suffering from wounds or burns and so did this deliberately to end their suffering.

On 9 May the Squadron moved to Northolt, Tuck leading the first seven and the CO leading another nine in the afternoon. They were declared ‘operational’ for the first time and immediately held six aircraft at dispersal points on ‘readiness’. The following day the Germans invaded Holland. Everyone knew that the time had come and those on leave were recalled immediately.

The Squadron remained on operational readiness from that time onwards and in the following week flew only a few uneventful escort sorties. Three Spitfires, led by Tuck, escorted a Flamingo carrying the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill, to Le Bourget airport near Paris on the 16th.  The Prime Minister’s mission – an important one in the light of the Battle of Britain - was to tell the French Premier that Britain could send no more fighters to France.

On the morning of 23 May they took off early and flew to Hornchurch. There they had breakfast while the aircraft were refuelled, then they briefed for a patrol over the French coast. At last, after all the practise and waiting, the testing time had come. With Bushell leading them, the twelve Spitfires flew down the coast on ‘Offensive Patrol’ inviting the enemy to attack. They flew over Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk but still nothing rose to meet them and there was no sign of the hundreds of JU 87B Stukas that were supposed to be dive bombing the British troops.

Flying very close together, the formation flew up and down the coast with each member straining his eyes to catch the slightest reflection of sun against metal.  For what seemed like hours they flew on, the strain of flying in an exact formation position beginning to tell on each pilot. Then one of them gave an ear-piercing shriek,

“Here they come – eight o’clock.”

Then Pat Learmond was killed. His aircraft exploded in a lurid ball of flame and the whole formation split up. Bushell was yelling orders but he couldn’t be heard above the general din of pilots shouting out the enemy’s position.

The ME 109s were diving out of the cloud behind and slightly to the left, in a long line. Tracer was smashing straight through the formation and the leader, who must have been the one that shot Learmond, came whistling through the formation a second later. He pulled up steeply to get back into cloud but Tuck saw him and gave chase.

Climbing at full power after the Messerschmitt, Tuck lost him as he went into cloud but kept on hoping to pick him up on top. The cloud was thinner than he had expected and as he broke on top he saw the Messerschmitt not more than a mile in front of him. Tuck realised that his shallower angle of climb had actually closed the distance between him and his target. The German was flying perfectly straight so he obviously thought he was safe up there! Tuck pushed his throttle forward hard, breaking through the wire locking, which guarded the ‘emergency power’, and dived his Spitfire into the cloud tops and flew along with only his canopy just out in the clear.

The Messerschmitt grew larger in his sights, so he must have been closing. A sudden wave of elation flooded through him, but he checked it and relaxed. He mustn’t get too excited now; just remain cool, methodical and precise.

Tuck had visited Germany twice before the war. He liked the people more than the French because he thought them cleaner, more industrious and he liked their beer. But on this occasion he gave no thought to the pilot, the one who was going to die just because he was not checking his six o’clock.

Slowly the gap closed and through a small gap in the clouds Tuck noticed that they were passing over the Normandy beaches. He was now just within maximum range so he checked his turn and slip indicator, checked the rudder a little to centralise the needle, then thought:    

“Why open up at this range if I can get closer. I’ll only damage him at this range.  Let’s get in there and blast him to bits.”

And so he pressed on in to five hundred yards, then tracking the German’s canopy with the dot in the gun sight he gave a gentle squeeze on the gun button.

The eight Browning S.303 machine guns burst out their vengeance and as his aircraft shook and rattled he could see his tracer pouring into the German’s canopy and wings. He hosed it for three or four seconds then the Messerschmitt started to climb as bits started breaking off and hurling themselves back at the attacker. The aircraft seemed to hang there for a moment with its nose pointing vertically upwards; then it flickered, dropped and went into a descending spiral.

Tuck dived below the cloud and waited for a long time before the doomed Messerschmitt appeared. Although it was against orders he had to follow it to see it crash, just to be certain. It took a long time for, as its speed built up, the nose would rise and it started to climb again. This would slow it down, a wing would drop as if trying to shake Tuck off, then the nose would drop and the speed would build up again. Finally it crashed into a ploughed field and blew up.

Tuck flew back to base and landed where he met Green, Bryson and Bartley. They, too, had each got a 109. The total score for the Squadron was six ME 109s with the loss of Pat Learmond, whose burning wreck had been seen to crash on a French beach.

Back at base, Bushell, in turn, was kicking the ground in disappointment. He’d followed a Hun for three minutes then lost him in cloud before he could get a squirt at him.

As the machines were refuelled and re-armed they gulped tea and sandwiches.  A van arrived with some new bullet proof windscreens, straight from the factory, and these were fitted during the turn round. This was the only protection the Air Ministry could offer as at this time the Spit was without any form of armour plating.

They took off again from Hornchurch at 1345 with Bushell leading, Tuck bringing up the rear section as Blue One and ‘Tich’ Havercroft as Blue Three.  ‘Tich’ continues the story:

“On the patrols organised to cover the evacuation of the BEF from France we were operating outside the UK radar and radio control environment, something which had not been foreseen and for which we had no training. R/T silence was obligatory during the channel crossing and until we engaged. We always crossed the channel low (three to five hundred feet), generally in VICs line astern. As Blue Three at the rear of the formation I always seemed to be about to skim the water which fortunately remained calm during the Dunkirk evacuation. The first time we went over, reception on the R/T was completely blotted out by a dreadful continuous whining hum which became almost intolerable. We assumed it might be Hun jamming but I doubt if they had the time to set up such interference. Just before the French coast we climbed to about twelve thousand feet and joined our patrol line some twenty miles inland of Calais and Dunkirk. Bushell saw the enemy first and put us all into line astern climbing steeply straight ahead. For a moment I didn’t see the reason and then realised with a shock that we were climbing into the eye of a huge defensive circle of ME 100s each covering each other’s tail, similar to the tactics used in the western movies when the covered wagons were used to fight off the Red Indians.”

“I actually had time to count forty of them but there may have been more. We got to their level rapidly and Bushell led us inside their circle but going the opposite way round. They couldn’t stand this and split in all directions; just, of course, what he wanted them to do. From then on I can’t recall things very clearly. There were Spitfires and Messerschmitts everywhere. I took a shot at a couple with little apparent effect, but I may have got one. I looked around and saw a JU 87 diving steeply ahead of me and across my nose so I rolled over and followed him – right down to ground level, indicating four hundred plus. I levelled out about a hundred and fifty yards behind him and gave him all the ammunition I had got left. He wobbled and the rear gunner stopped firing. I hadn’t realised I was being shot at from the ground. Yellow and red balls of fire were coming up from either side of the road, jammed with what I took to be French forces and subsequently observed them as German tanks and trucks. I broke away and kept low and fast, but received one hit in the starboard wing.  Keeping low all the way out of France I returned to Hornchurch.”

Tuck was also right in the middle of the fight and as a 110 drifted in front of him, he saw the rear gunner swing his barrel round and start firing at him. Tuck ducked as the bullets ricocheted off his new windscreen; he fired back at the gunner, the front cabin, the fuselage, the lot. At last the gunner stopped firing and Tuck saw bits breaking off the port wing, while the port engine was pumping out black smoke. Finally flames broke out along the wing; it flipped onto its back and went down.    

Tuck rejoined the fight which was raging up above.  Everyone was yelling at once, calls like:

“Look out he’s in your six.”

“Watch that bastard behind you.”

“I got one, I got one chaps.”

Over the R/T, it’s hard to identify such excited cries and clearly all this hysteria wasn’t doing any good at all.  Someone yelled, 

“Shut up for Christ’s sake!” But it didn’t do any good.

Then Tuck saw a 110 directly above him with Bartley not fifty yards behind it, pouring continuous fire into its belly. If the 110 blew up they would all have been killed.

Then a jolt struck his windscreen and he saw a 110 charging straight at him, firing head on. Tuck fired back and as they closed at over six hundred mph each knew that the first to break, thereby exposing his fuselage to the apparent fire, would be the first to die. Tuck watched until they were so close he knew they must collide, then he closed his eyes and just held the controls firm and kept pressing the button. He never knew how they missed but he wheeled his aircraft round and gave chase to the 110. The Messerschmitt dived, its rear gunner firing continuously and Tuck firing back. Then he flew under some high tension cables. Tuck knew that if he climbed over them he would expose his belly and be killed. So he hung on, put one final burst into the enemy’s machine and killed the rear gunner.

The German pilot, realising that now he was at the mercy of the Spit, crash landed in a field. Tuck thought good luck to him; he deserved to get away with it. Then he circled, slid back his canopy and waved to the pilot as he saw him climb out of his wrecked aircraft. Tuck thought he saw the pilot wave back but then saw that he was holding a Schmeisser automatic machine pistol.  Then the German fired.

Tuck drew away, went in again low, drew his sight on the firing German, checked his turn and slip indicator. Then very coolly opened fire with his last few rounds. The German staggered about a little, and then fell.

On the way back across the Channel, as Tuck joined up with Bartley they greeted each other with remarks about the state of each others’ aircraft.  They arranged a bet as to who had the most holes in his aircraft, the loser to buy beer all evening.

As they approached Hornchurch, Tuck’s engine started coughing and rasping, then before he had quite made it, it seized up completely. He only managed to put it down on the grass verge in front of the control tower. Immediately the Station Commander, in his Humber, squealed to a halt and Group Captain ‘Daddy’ Bouchier stepped out.

“You can’t leave that aircraft here man.  Goddamn it, don’t you know the drill?” he roared.

“Get it over to dispersal immediately, this area must be kept…” – his voice tapered off as he noticed Tuck’s machine full of shell holes.

“Yes....yes....you are in a bit of a mess, I see.”

Slowly the tension eased and they ended up looking at one another over the port wing which was full of holes. Then they both started laughing, one as he realised his mistake, the other with nervous reaction having survived his first day’s combat.

But half an hour later when the Squadron’s losses were known they were all very glum. Sergeant Klipsch, John Gillies, Pat Learmond, and the CO, all shot down. Green had been wounded by a piece of armour-piercing shrapnel in his thigh. He had flown back fainting and vomiting with a thumb stuck in the wound to stop the flow of blood. The MO said the leg could be saved but he would be off for a long time; he was taken to Shorncliffe Hospital.

It had been a glorious day for 92 Squadron with twenty-three German machines brought down. McGowan that evening wrote in the diary:

“....but the loss of the CO and the three others had been a very severe blow to us all and to the Squadron which was created and trained last October by our late Squadron Leader.”

Later that evening Bouchier came into the Mess and told Tuck he was giving him the Squadron and asked him whom he wanted for a Flight Commander. Tuck chose Brian Kingcome, an old friend from 65 Squadron.

As the Group Captain left Bartley came in and claimed his free beer.  Flourishing a signed and witnessed report from the ground crew chief, he claimed his aircraft had twelve more holes than Tuck’s.

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