The Battle of Britain
When the first ‘flap’ came through 13 August at 1545 hours, Bob Tuck was in the bath. On hearing the ‘scramble’ bell pealing he leapt out of the water and dressed, without having time to dry himself. By the time he reached dispersal, Red and Yellow sections, led by the CO and Brian Kingcome, had already taken off.
He caught up with ‘Tich’ Havercroft and Pilot Officer Watling, a new replacement, who were also late and took off together forming Blue section. They climbed in loose echelon then received a course from ground control, which they realised would take them straight across England to the Sussex coast.
Tuck was still wet from his bath as they flew south eastwards over England. There was no sign of the others but, though he cursed at missing them, his lateness proved a blessing. The main body of the Squadron returned without having sighted an enemy machine while Blue Section, just off Portsmouth looking for their colleagues, spotted three JU 88s heading out to sea. Blue Section wheeled and dived down after them. Tuck recalls:
“The new chap was a little slow in turning, but Tich stayed right up with me. The 88s were in a fairly wide line abreast; honestly you couldn’t see anything between them and their own shadows on the surface. I managed to get up behind the port one and hit him hard. He started to lose speed immediately and streamed black oil and muck. I gave him another bash. He went splat! Into the water and as I flashed over him I could see him ploughing along like a bloody great speed boat in the middle of a tremendous cloud of white spray.”
“All this time Tich was banging away at the starboard one. I tried to get on to the leader, but by now we’d lost the extra speed from our dive and it was all we could do to keep up. The JU 88 was a wonderfully fast kite, especially when it had unloaded and the pilot was homeward bound with a Spit up his backside….”
“I was at long range – I think about nine hundred yards but I was managing to lob a bit on to him. This was one of the many times I cursed because I didn’t have cannon. I was hitting him all right but nothing was happening. We got well out over the Channel and I remembered to take a quick check on fuel – we’d been bending out throttles on the end of the ‘emergency’ slots for minutes on end now. My gauge was reading a bit low, so I lined up very carefully and gave him a last long burst. This time a few bits flew off him. Then I called up Tich and we broke off the attack. Tich left his Hun streaming a thick trail of oil.”
“Heading back for land we saw the new boy, very low on the water, circling the wreckage of the one I’d shot down. The crew of three were huddled in their rubber dinghy, looking up at the Spits, obviously very worried. I think the poor sods were afraid we’d strafe them.”
“I climbed to thirteen hundred, called up base and let them get a good fix on the position so that the Air Sea Rescue boys could come out and collect them. Then all three of us went down and once around the dinghy, making V signs and rude versions of the Nazi salute.”
“Brian Kingcome was furious when we got back. His crowd hadn’t seen a thing. I told him that if only he’d take a bath more often he would be more successful in life.”
The very next day Tuck was leading the same section and intercepted another three JU 88s at fifteen thousand feet eight miles north of Cardiff.
“This was one of the most interesting combats I ever had,” says Tuck. “There was Tich, myself and the new lad whose name I can’t for the life of me remember now.” (This was Pilot Officer Watling.) “We were heading almost exactly north, above some flat stratus cloud when control said: ‘Your plots are coinciding now. Bandits heading due south. Can you see them?’”
“Sure enough; within seconds Tich spotted them, three black dots coming smack at us. The closing speed was terrific, so I decided there wasn’t time for a head-on attack, although ordinarily I was a firm believer in that method – the Jerries had no armoured plate in the front, and if you hit the nose or cabin you had a very good chance of knocking out the whole crew, who always liked to sit close together and hold hands’ not like our bomber chaps, who were spread out in tail and nose turrets, in contact with one another only by intercom.”
“I pulled up a bit and took the boys round in a very steep turn, so that we came out on their tails well within range just a few seconds after they’d whipped by under us. Their rear-gunners let fly and suddenly I saw Tich give a lurch and then drop back, spewing glycol. He’d got a couple right through the radiator.”
“He called up, swearing like a drunken trooper, so I knew he wasn’t hurt. Not surprising, he was such a small target they could never hope to hit him…. He’d bags of altitude so although there were big hills below us, he’d a good chance of getting her down somewhere. The youngster and I pressed on.”
“I was just a bit worried about this kid – he was very inexperienced. These rear-gunners were good shots and wily enough to work together, all three bashing at one of us at a time to get a wicked crossfire. After a bit, I decided to pack in this stern attack and try something else.”
“We broke away, climbed a little and screamed ahead on full throttle. These particular 88s weren’t nearly so fast as some I’d come across – or maybe it was just that at this height the Spitfire had the measure of them. Anyway, we got ahead quite easily, turned around and got set to have a go at them head on.”
“By now I suppose we must have been right over Cardiff. As they came at us we throttled back hard and put our props to fine pitch, to brake us – to give us the lowest possible closing speed. We got everything lined up, trimmed up and set nicely long before they were in range. I got the dot of my sight resting neatly above the leader’s canopy, I yelled at the kid to do the same. Then we just waited for them. With that closing speed I opened fire well out of range – probably it was around two thousand yards. This would give me a chance to correct once I saw where my tracer was going. But I was lucky and didn’t need to correct, because from the very start of that long burst I seemed to be on the mark all right. I held the dot a shade high for a second or so, then at the last instant dropped it full on to his canopy.”
“By the time we’d pulled up and turned around, the leader had dropped right out and was going straight down. Afterwards we learned he’d crashed on the outskirts of Cardiff. They got a couple out of the wreckage alive.”
“We tore ahead of the remaining two and repeated the same performance exactly, out over the Bristol Channel. Would you believe it, the stupid clots still stuck to the same course! They could have ducked down into the cloud, a few thousand feet below, and we’d have had very little hope of finding them again. Extraordinary, those Germans – they’d probably had orders from the formation leader to maintain this height, speed and course and even though he’d gone now - they were still obeying! Quite a lot of them were like that – goose–step pilots.”
“On the second head-on attack I knocked some big chunks off the port machine and he went over in a sickening roll. He finished up on the south bank of the Channel.”
“The youngster had got some hits on the third one and now, left alone, at last this Hun forgot orders, stuck his nose down and tucked himself up in the stratus. Both of us managed to give him a farewell burst just before he disappeared – like a whale spouting. He seemed to have slowed a lot and he was definitely streaming oil and glycol. I felt sure he couldn’t live, but when we got back, the Intelligence types couldn’t credit us with a definite ‘kill’. An 88 had crashed well to the south, a little way inland, but some Clever Dick on another squadron claimed it.”
Meanwhile, Havercroft was gliding down and here is his account, from just before he was hit.
“I had closed in on the outer one and opened fire with a long burst. The sound effect of eight Brownings was like a giant linen sheet being torn in half. The explosive ammunition burst in twinkling flashes on the underside of his fuselage between the engines. I broke away to starboard and came in again on a long curve of pursuit giving him a further burst without any visible effect. Now I felt hot and the cockpit was full of fumes. My radiator was ‘of the clock’. I must have been hit in the coolant system. There was no alternative but to stop the Merlin by turning off the fuel supply. Was I over the sea or the land? The cloud cover below was complete. If over the sea I ought to bale out as ditching a Spitfire was not recommended. If I was over land and the cloud base was no higher here than it was when we took off from Pembrey it was probable that the clouds were full of mountains! I decided to try to make land so that my old faithful QJ-R (N3285) might be recovered and repaired to fight again another day. It was with relief that I broke through the cloud base at four hundred feet over mountainous country. I selected a likely spot with a road running close by. We were losing height rapidly. Judging the distance I left the undercarriage up and put the flaps down just as a line of power cables loomed up ahead. I couldn’t get underneath so pulled up the nose and then stuffed it down as we cleared the cables. We slid into the ground beyond in a shower of heather, earth and small stones. Silence. A sheep looked up and baa’d. I released my harness and parachute straps and got out onto the wing. The damage was comparatively slight. A single bullet had gone through the matrix of the radiator and out through the top surface of the starboard wing. A motorcycle and sidecar puttered up the steep hill from the valley below and stopped on the road nearby. A police sergeant and two Home Guards approached with rifles at the ready and bayonets fixed. I soon convinced them I was not a German airman. I had landed on Maerdy Mountain between Maerdy and Aberdare in the Rhondda Valley. After a pleasant night as the guest of the police sergeant in Maerdy I returned to my base next day. I had been posted as ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ but was back ‘on readiness’ that afternoon.”
On the same day Pilot Officer Alan Wright and a new pilot, Pilot Officer Williams, over the same area, attacked two HE IIIs. They claimed both as destroyed but the wreckage of only one was found so they had to settle for one confirmed.
There wasn’t much flying in the next two days and ‘A’ Flight, with Flight Lieutenant Kingcombe, was ordered to detach to Bibury. During the night more bombs fell, intended for Pembrey but they went wide and poor old Kidwelly took another bashing.
On 18 August Tuck made the news again. He had flown to Brooklands, the pre-war motor racing track that had been taken over by the Vickers Aircraft Company, to have a new camera gun fixture installed in his aircraft. Once the job was completed he flew to Northolt to refuel. He was having lunch in the Mess when the alarm went and the squadrons scrambled. The Station Commander, Group Captain Vass, known as ‘Tiny’ because of his massive bulk, grabbed a phone and Tuck overheard that a big battle was developing off Beachy Head, Sussex. At that moment the air raid siren went and all personnel were ordered to take shelter.
Tuck, pursued by the Station Commander, was ushered down a bunker where unwillingly he had to wear a tin hat like the rest. Looking out across the grass he could see his aircraft, the only one left at dispersal. He started to clamber out but Vass grabbed his ankle and hauled him back. They argued for precious minutes before the Station Commander agreed to ignore Tuck’s mad intentions. Turning his back Vass surveyed the sky to the east, while Tuck scrambled out of the bunker and dashed westwards. He started his machine himself, removed the chocks, leapt in and was airborne within two minutes.
Hornchurch was a sector station so Tuck contacted their control and followed their directions. They led him out over the coast to the fight, where he picked it up visually. It was the biggest ‘Dog-Fight’ he’d ever seen – dozens of 109s, Hurris, Spits, 110s and a few JU 88s.
A couple of the JU 88s were passing way below him dashing for home at sea level. He decided to ignore the main fight raging above him and dived well ahead and to the east of the two Junkers. Then he reversed onto west and came back at them in a head-on attack. He hit the port one first, it buckled, then a wing dipped and it cart wheeled into the sea in an explosion of surf and spray.
He pulled up into a ‘roll off the top’ and dived again at the second bomber. He passed above it then re-attacked from head-on the same as before. This time the enemy wouldn’t die; he just kept on firing back. The bomber grew bigger and bigger in his sights and he knew that if he broke off first, he would present his belly to the enemy gunner as a super target. He just held his target marker on the enemy’s cockpit, then he realised this one wasn’t going to break first. Somehow, just before they would have collided his reflex actions took over and Tuck jerked his aircraft aside. In that split second the enemy filled his engine with lead. The Merlin screamed in agony and the pressure dropped to zero, but somehow it kept on turning. Tuck continues the story:
“With what speed I had left I managed to pull up to around fifteen hundred feet. I was only about sixteen miles out, but I felt sure I’d never get back to the coast.”
“I can’t understand why that engine didn’t pack up completely there and then. Somehow it kept grinding away. I was very surprised and deeply grateful for every second it gave me.”
“As I coddled her round towards home I glimpsed the 88 skimming the waves away to port, streaming a lot of muck. In fact, he was leaving an oily trail on the water behind him. I had the consolation of thinking the chances were that he wouldn’t make it either.”
“I trimmed up and the controls seemed quite all right. The windscreen was black with oil. Temperatures were up round the clocks but she kept on flying after a fashion. Every turn of the prop was an unexpected windfall. That engine should have seized up, solid, long before this.”
“I knew it couldn’t last, of course, and I decided I’d have to bale out into the Channel. It wasn’t a very pleasant prospect. Ever since I had to bale out after a mid-air collision before the war, I’d had a definite prejudice against parachutes. But the only alternative was to try to ‘ditch’ her, and a Spit was notoriously allergic to landing on water – the air scoop usually caught a wave and then she would plunge straight to the bottom, or else the tail would smack the water and bounce back up hard and send you over in a somersault. Baling-out seemed the lesser of the two evils, so I opened my hood, undid my straps and disconnected everything except my R/T lead.”
“It got pretty hot about now. The cockpit was full of glycol fumes and, with the stink of burning rubber and white-hot-metal, I vomited a lot. I began to worry about her blowing up. But there were no flames yet, and somehow she kept dragging herself on through the sky, so I stayed put and kept blessing the Rolls Royce engineers who’d produced an engine with stamina like this. And in no time at all I was passing over Beachy Head.”
“I began to think after all I might make one of the airfields. The very next moment, a deep, dull roar, like a blowlamp, started down under my feet and up she went in flame and smoke.”
“As I snatched the R/T lead away and heaved myself up to go over the side there was a bang and a hiss and a gout of hot, black oil hit me full in the face. Luckily I had my goggles down, but I got some in my mouth and nose and it knocked me right back onto the seat, spluttering and gasping. It took me a little while to spit the stuff out and wipe the worst of it off my goggles, and by that time I was down to well under a thousand. If I didn’t get out quickly, my chute wouldn’t open in time.”
“It wasn’t the recommended method of abandoning aircraft – I just grabbed one side with both hands, hauled myself up and over and pitched out, head first. As soon as I knew my feet were clear I pulled the ripcord. It seemed to open almost immediately. The oil had formed a film over my goggles again and I couldn’t see a thing. I pushed the goggles up, then it got in my eyes, I was still rubbing them when I hit the ground.”
He landed badly, wrenching his leg and severely winding himself, in a field near Horsmonden in Kent. He saw his aircraft crash in another field a few hundred yards away. Then an estate wagon turned up and took him to the house in the nearby estate of Plovers, the home of Lord Cornwallis. Once he had stopped vomiting he ‘phoned his base, then his host offered him the use of his bath. Tuck washed the oil off leaving the bath covered in a thick film of black muck, then he was put to bed and slept for three hours.
When he awoke, feeling better he was driven back to Biggin Hill by his Lordship’s son. There a new Spitfire would be available for him to fly back to Pembrey. He spent that night in the sick quarters, the only accommodation available at Biggin Hill.
In the sick quarters he shared a room with the pilot of a JU 88 that had been shot down that afternoon. The German noticed Tuck’s medal ribbon and they started to discuss their various air battles. Afterwards the German removed his own medal, the Iron Cross, and said that while he was sitting in a prison camp he would like to think that his Cross was still flying. He asked Tuck to take it up with him whenever he flew, which Tuck did.
The next day, 19 August, back at Bibury ‘A’ Flight was on standby. At about 1500 a JU 88 flew overhead, dropped his bombs and the air gunner machined-gunned the parked aircraft. One Spitfire was badly damaged and several others were hit. The machine gun fire killed one airman on defence duty. ‘Yellow’ Section took off at once led by Flying Officer Paterson. They chased the JU 88 south and caught up with it in the Solent. Both Paterson and Pilot Officer Wade attacked it and brought it down into the sea. Wade’s machine had taken several hits and was streaming glycol and smoke, the pressure had dropped almost to zero and he knew he would have to force land. He selected a field, brought the aircraft into wind, and then the engine caught fire. The flames and smoke distracted him long enough to make him forget to lower the undercarriage but he landed successfully, wheels up, in a small field. As soon as the aircraft had come to a standstill, Wade jumped out and no sooner that he had time to run clear, the engine exploded.
No more enemy aircraft were seen until the Sunday the 25th, when Tuck, Bobbie Holland and Roy Mottram were scrambled to intercept a DO 17 that was bombing a small coaster in the Bristol Channel. Control vectored them onto the coaster and once they saw it they noticed a great plume of white spray shoot up off the ship’s port bow. They searched for a while without finding the DO 17, then they climbed above a layer of stratus between three and four thousand feet. Still they could see nothing so they dropped back down again and saw another white plume in front of the little vessel’s bows.
The Dornier saw them first and the rear gunner fired at the flight of Spitfires. Tuck had just time to see the flames from the machine guns before the German pulled up into cloud. Tuck followed him, throttling back to reduce the tremendous over-take and pressed on for the best part of a minute, searching for the bomber in the cloud. The next thing he knew he was being clobbered by the gunner again; he searched everywhere but still couldn’t see a thing. Then he realised that his enemy was right underneath him and the gunner was firing directly up into his belly. Tuck dropped back then down and fired a long burst from fifty yards to silence the rear gunner. He climbed a little, dropped the nose and ‘hosed’ the bomber from his starboard engine through the fuselage to the port engine then out to the wing tip.
The recoil from his guns made his aircraft stall and he dropped out of the cloud like a stone. In front of him he saw the Dornier emerge full of holes. Tuck’s engine was very badly damaged and obviously going to seize up pretty soon, but as he regained control and brought his aircraft out of the ensuing dive he saw the Dornier dive vertically into the water, less than half a mile from the coaster that it had tried to bomb.
He called up Holland and Mottram and told them the score. Holland had shot off somewhere chasing a shadow but Mottram came and joined him and surveyed the damage.
Chuckling over the R/T, Mottram told his leader that his aircraft was one hell of a mess underneath and added that he was in a lot of trouble with no mistake. Tuck’s engine was losing power so he cursed his number two and decided he would have to bale out again. He opened the canopy, undid his seat harness and disconnected his oxygen pipe, then, as he reached out for the R/T lead, heard Mottram ask,
Just then his engine gave a surge of power so Tuck decided to stay with it. The coast drew nearer and he was still at about twelve hundred feet, so he could still bale out if necessary. The Merlin gave a last gallant spurt of energy and died. St. Gowan’s Head was not too far off so Tuck decided he could just make it to the cliff tips if he stretched his glide as far as possible. He held the speed exactly at the correct gliding speed and descended a few hundred feet, slowly approaching the shoreline. Then he heard his Number Two pipe up again,
“Ha! Now you’ve had it! Should’ve gone out while you had the chance. You’ll never get over those cliffs!”
Tuck glared at his impudent wingman but Mottram, no respecter of rank, replied with a hoot of laughter and a V-sign. Predicting disaster really appealed to him.
As Tuck approached the edge of the cliffs he had to ease the nose a little higher than ideal to prevent himself crashing into the cliff face. The tail struck the ground first and the aircraft bounced to a height of about one hundred feet. The jolt reminded him that he had forgotten to fasten his straps again and there he was, not strapped in, at about one hundred feet and probably about to stall any second. For a few precious moments the needle on the airspeed indicator flickered well below stalling speed and he thought the Spit would drop a Wing and ‘plough in’. Luckily she didn’t. The nose fell first and he gained some speed, eased the nose out of the dive and brought it in for a belly landing. He spotted a hedge right across his chosen landing run which he thought would be ideal for breaking his fall, so he decided to put her down right on it. He did, but it wasn’t a hedge; it was a wall hidden by hawthorn. She came from about eighty miles an hour to standstill in about five feet, but Tuck continued on, straight towards the instrument panel.
When he regained consciousness he couldn’t recognise where he was, everything was very dark and he could hear a faint trickling sound and smell of petrol. He realised he was looking up at the wrong side of the instrument panel. He was jammed in the small gap for the feet down by the rudder pedals. Worried about fire he quickly struggled out and, with a slightly wounded leg, he hobbled away from his wrecked aircraft. Mottram was still circling above and gave a friendly wave. Tuck waved back then dropped off to sleep.
From hospital that night he phoned Mac, the adjutant at Pembrey, then realised that he couldn’t see anything, not even the phone in his hand. He just slurred out “Well g’bye ol’boy” and passed out.
It was delayed shock and he was kept in hospital from the Sunday ‘till the Thursday. Even when he returned to Pembrey he had to be medically ‘Boarded’ as he was still suffering from his leg injury.
Then he was confronted with yet another shock - he was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted to command 257 Squadron at Martlesham Heath. They flew Hurricanes.
On the same day Pilot Officer Hargreaves, at this time with ‘B’ Flight, was at Bibury, lost his way and crash landed at Martlesham. He was uninjured but his aircraft was badly damaged.
On the same night Pilot Officer Alan Wright made history for the Squadron by gaining one of the very first night victories of the war. The Luftwaffe’s major night attacks began 28 August. Their target on this night, and the three nights following, was Liverpool. They came in a long straggly line, with two minute intervals between each bomber so as to keep as large an area as possible under attack for as long as possible. The anti-aircraft defences were too weak to be very effective and the targets too spread out to be caught by an ‘Ack-Ack’ barrage. The weather, not the defence, was a greater factor in what losses the Germans suffered. During the four raids, 629 bombers crossed the coast and seven did not return; only one being shot down by a fighter.
Even that one successful interception was a near miracle; the total number of night fighter victories then stood at only three or four, two of which had been gained by ‘Sailor’ Malan in one night. This solitary success was scored over Bristol at 2245 hours on 29 August as the bombers were streaming in over the West Country on their way to Liverpool. Alan Wright was at twenty thousand feet over Bristol in his Spitfire - not the most suitable aircraft for night flying - when he saw a Heinkel held in the searchlight beams. He turned in behind it and fired, and at the moment a well-aimed group of shells burst around the two aircraft the fighter lurched violently. For a moment Wright thought he had been caught by return fire from the bomber but it was still flying steadily on, brilliantly illuminated by the beams like a great silvery moth. He closed in, fired another burst and immediately the searchlight went out, leaving nothing but the blackness of the night sky.
Straining his eyes, Wright saw among the stars two red-tinted glows that might be the exhausts of a bomber and not stars after all. Flying very carefully indeed, and using the distance apart of the two glow points as a guide to show him if he was closing in or dropping behind, he crept up slowly behind the bomber. If he once lost sight of them, by overtaking too fast or turning too sharply, he would probably never be able to pick them up again. When he fired, it was with very short bursts so that he would not be dazzled by the muzzle flashes of his own guns.
Repeatedly, the flashes of hits from his ammunition sparked on the fuselage of the bomber but it flew serenely on, apparently untroubled, unaware even that it was being attacked. Wright, like the others on the Squadron, swore at the Air Ministry for not giving them the Hispano Cannon with explosive shells. It became increasingly difficult for Wright to remain in position behind his intended victim because the Heinkel was flying more and more slowly.
He fired a last burst, expending all his ammunition, and one of the red glow points, which marked an engine exhaust, went out. With his speed now down to one hundred and twenty miles per hour, Wright hung on behind. Then when he saw a lick of flame appear on the Heinkel and grow larger, he turned away for home.
He did not know where he was exactly as navigation was by visual sighting or dead reckoning and the Spitfires endurance was limited; so he was anxious to go home as quickly as possible and it was some days before the Squadron learned the fate of the Heinkel. It had glided towards the coast as far as possible but had come down at Fordingbridge near Southampton. Until they were shown the bullet holes in their aircraft, the crew believed that they had been hit by AK AK fire.
That was the last kill the Squadron was to make while stationed at Pembrey for the following week and a half was very quiet. The pilots languished throughout the hot cloudless days waiting for action; they flew once or twice but nothing was seen. On Friday, 30 August, Havercroft crashed when landing at night again, this time at Bibury. There was ground mist and he misjudged the round out. The aircraft was badly damaged but luckily he was unhurt.
On 4 September a new arrangement started where the whole Squadron stayed at Pembrey with no aircraft detached to Bibury. ‘A’ Flight was to do all the night flying for one week and ‘B’ Flight all the day flying. A few patrols were made but still nothing was seen. Flight Lieutenant Paddy Green, who had been wounded in the Dunkirk operations 23 May, visited the Squadron while on sick leave; everyone was pleased to see that he was recovering well.
On Sunday, 8 September, the Squadron received news that would provide action for the most belligerent of its members. They were posted to Biggin Hill.
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The move coincided with a change in the Germans’ tactics. Up until this time the Luftwaffe’s attacks had been mainly directed against the fighter defence system and Biggin Hill itself had taken a terrible battering in the previous week. Hitler’s intention, happily never realised, was to neutralise the Royal Air Force’s fighter force in preparation for an invasion attempt. On 8 September, the weight of their attack was now shifted to the industrial targets with London as the main objective.
The bombing of London convinced the Government that invasion was imminent and units all round the South Coast were warned to that effect; in some places the church bells were rung. At Southampton, the Home Guard at the Super Marine factory was told that the enemy were landing in the Portsmouth area and that they were to defend the works at all costs.
Across the Channel, the German preparations for an invasion had exactly the same air of unreality and amateurishness as the British preparations had to resist them. Naturally enough both were hurriedly improvised affairs. The German troops had no Mae Wests and thought they might need them, so they collected empty tins and tied those onto themselves; additionally they were so seasick due to the rolling and pitching of the Rhine barges in which they were going to cross, that they could not have fought when they landed on the other side.
As darkness fell on 7 September, the first of two hundred and forty seven bombers crossed the coast, heading for the enormous beacon of burning dockland. All night the bombs rained down on London, adding to the fires kindled by the day bombers. London was so large it could hardly be missed and the actual target – the docks – was brilliantly illuminated. For the people who lived in Dockland this was the first of many nights of terror; but the rest of London was, as yet, hardly affected.
On 8 September the Sunday papers arrived a little late in the Mess at Biggin Hill and reported that four hundred people had been killed and fourteen hundred wounded. Everyone was quite dazed by the extent of the calamity. From then until the end of the month, the main weight of the daylight battle would be directed across Kent and Sussex to London. The switch to new targets gave Fighter Command much needed breathing space in which to rebuild its battered bases and strained control system.
92 Squadron, with its brilliant record of sixty three confirmed enemy aircraft destroyed and many more probably destroyed or damaged, were regarded by the occupants of Biggin Hill as a relaxed, rather scruffy crowd of pilots (in contrast to another Squadron with surface appearance perfect, with the polish and discipline of the Brigade of Guards and a mediocre record in action). Sartorially, they affected cravats, predominantly red the primary Squadron colour; some took to wearing pink pyjamas under their uniforms which they claimed prevented one from getting a sore neck through constant ‘look out’ and ‘checking your six o’clock’ (looking behind to see if the enemy were ‘bouncing you’). The pilots of Kampfgeschwader 2 referred to 92 Squadron pilots as the ‘Red Pullovers’ who seemed to be wearing something red at the neck and specialised in the high speed, head-on attack from above.
The Squadron next went into action on the following day, 9 September, and had a sharp lesson in survival. A flight of six, led by Squadron Leader Sanders, were between Canterbury and Margate on a course to intercept bombers coming in for London, when they were bounced by a staffel of ME 109s behind the bombers and on both flanks.
The first anyone knew about the bounce was when the rear flight of three aircraft, flown by Pilot Officers Saunders, Watling and Wright, were hit by the enemy from above and behind. Saunders and Watling were both wounded and had to bale out while Wright collected a burst that smashed the reflector sight a few inches from his head. A ‘Dog Fight’ ensued between the remaining three Spitfires and the seven 109s. The CO and Brian Kingcombe both obtained good hits on the enemy and when the attackers broke off two of them were pouring smoke and oil and both most unlikely to get home. They were claimed as probables. Sanders then chased a HE 111, which he shot down near the aerodrome.
At night the bombers continued to attack London, always passing over Biggin Hill and dropping a few bombs intended for the aerodrome. The golf course just to the east seemed to suffer most. The “Ak Ak” barrage was terrific; sometimes so intensive it seemed like bursts of machine gun fire. There was no chance of getting any sleep through it and it took a while for the Squadron personnel to acclimatise to this.
On 11 September, the pilots were scrambled to intercept a Valhalla (a large formation of bombers with a fighter escort numbering about two hundred aircraft total), between Dungeness and London at twenty to twenty-five thousand feet. Quite apart from the fighters the intensity of the firepower with which the bombers could concentrate on a single attacking fighter was enormous. The Squadron had, by now, decided that the orthodox, inflexible method of attacking the enemy was no good so they positioned as high as they could. Then when they spotted the enemy they found that they had at least five thousand feet height advantage. Get in and out quickly seemed the answer, and pick a bomber with plenty of room behind it so that when one broke away downwards there would be no risk of collision with the next astern. They each rolled inverted in a turn and dived five thousand feet into the German formation.
The bombers were mainly DO 17s and ME 110s and on this single pass seven were destroyed. Pilot Officers Edwards and Hargreaves were both hit and later reported as missing. When Wright pulled up after his attack, with all the speed of the dive behind him, he found a lame Heinkel being attacked by other fighters over East Grinstead. He joined them in finishing it off.
“I have often thought about this incident since”, he said afterwards. “A fighter pilot is very independent and for most of the battle he fights on his own.”
“He must know what is expected of him and the standard must be the highest attainable. If this is so, and I think it was in those days, then even the imaginative and maybe the nervous individual will do well. It struck me later on how many fighters were always finishing off the lame duck, the bomber that had to fall back from the main force. It was wrong really. True, no crippled bomber should be allowed to get home, but there were often more fighters after it than was necessary. The real reason was not lack of sportsmanship, nor was it sadism; it was just having to attack and naturally taking the easy meat. No one had thought to instruct us to use more discretion in choosing our targets; if they had, I have no doubt the advice would have been followed with more bombers destroyed.”
A few days later the remainder of Squadron personnel arrived from Pembrey; a convoy by road, while Mac McGowan, the adjutant, and Sergeant Mann flew in the two-seat trainer. Unfortunately the enemy attacked the latter during the transit flight and both had to bale out. McGowan was wounded. That evening the Squadron engaged several ME 109s. There was a lot of cloud, and although all of them were hit and obviously damaged, none were seen to crash so the intelligence boys at Biggin Hill wouldn’t credit the Squadron with any ‘confirmed’.
The following day the weather was fine and the enemy were intercepted at midday between Canterbury and Maidstone. Sanders, the CO, destroyed a DO 17 and many more were damaged including fighters. Another large formation was intercepted at 1430 hours and two HE 111s were definitely destroyed besides many other bombers, which were last seen struggling home losing height and more than likely to ditch before reaching the French coast. Pilot Officer Holland’s aircraft was badly shot up and he was forced to bale out. He was slightly injured on landing and was admitted to hospital at East Grinstead.
To minimise the possibility of a single bomb killing all the Squadron’s aircrew at once, the pilots were billeted in several private houses, usually several miles from the aerodrome. One such house was ‘Highover’, the home of Mr and Mrs Colin Dence, who provided a real homely atmosphere for the gallant crews where they could relax in the evenings. Many firm bonds of friendship were formed with the Dences and those dark days, and the debt owed to them, was repaid by maintaining contact by post and visits throughout the war years, and for many years afterwards.
Most of the pilots bought a car to transport themselves to work each day and by all accounts the overall danger to most pilots was increased as they raced to work, especially for one group who converted their private house into one of the most popular nightclubs for miles around. Somehow, the rather poorly paid young officers of 1940 had no trouble with taxing and insuring their cars, nor did they suffer from the local police or petrol rationing like most civilians.
From mid September 1940 the Squadron diary records continuous encounters with the enemy, too numerous to go into all of them in great detail. Each day the controllers looking at the radar screens could see a large build up above the German bases in Pas de Calais – obviously the bomber formations slowly circling and waiting for their fighter escorts to join up. At this stage it would not be clear whether their target was London or the sector stations, or perhaps even a shipping strike. In the south and southwest other forces would also appear out in the Channel at the limit of radar range – these could be stuka diversions, but just as easily they could be a threat to the surviving aircraft factories on the coast. Until the enemy actually crossed the coast and were reported, and then tracked, by the Observer Corps this wouldn’t become clear. It was then imperative to decide early which were the intended targets because at least twenty minutes had to be allowed in order to get the fighters into the air and up to a reasonable height; if caught under the Germans while still climbing, they would risk heavy losses at the hands of the escort and would in any case be ineffective against the bombers.
The Germans were vastly superior in number and often enough were in sufficient force to repel any attack, but radar did enable one British fighter to do the work of two or three German fighters by being in the right place at the right time. But, because the radar was inaccurate as to height and numbers and because it told the controller nothing about the composition of the enemy force, Fighter Command instituted the technique of ‘spotting’. 92 were often asked to provide a fighter for this duty. In mid September Wright twice performed this duty. He was to take off early, in advance of the raid, and watch it come in noting all these points and some others also – if escorted, how it was escorted and whether it was splitting in order to attach two targets instead of one. Both attempts were failures.
Early one morning he was scrambled too late, and saw not the start of the raid but its end - some bombers and fighters straggling back from London to the coast. In the afternoon, he took off from Hawkinge to carry out this lonely task once more, was vectored incorrectly and met two 109s. His orders were to avoid combat but there was no avoiding these two; they were climbing up after him so Wright dived into them from twenty eight thousand feet, and when they broke away, followed one down. The 109 was extremely fast in a dive but Wright’s Spitfire had already picked up speed, he tied onto it, firing, over Dungeness and when he eased back on the stick, promptly blacked himself out; he recovered consciousness, upside down, over Maidstone – thirty miles away. The Spitfire, which becomes tail heavy in a dive, had pulled out on its own accord; the Messerschmitt had the opposite characteristic and Wright doubted whether his opponent ever did pull out.
Later a flight from 92 Squadron was based at Hawkinge purely for ‘spotting’ purposes and eventually 91 ‘Nigeria’ Squadron took over the task.
The Squadron diary records the events of the next few days as follows:
“18th September: Weather fine, with patches of cloud about five thousand feet, but clear above. Squadron took off at 09.15 hours on patrol. Enemy intercepted and DO 17 was confirmed by Pilot Officer Bartley. Squadron again on patrol at 15.55 hours with 66 Squadron. Enemy was intercepted; two HE 111s were destroyed by Flight Lieutenant Kingcombe and one JU 88 by Pilot Officer Hill. Pilot Office Mottram injured. Pilot Officers Bartley and Pattinson forced landed but were unhurt. Squadron still giving good account of itself. Enemy activity at night continues.”
“19th September: Fine with broken cloud continued all day. Two aircraft took off to intercept enemy over base. JU 88 seen and intercepted. Although lost in cloud several times enemy aircraft was seen flying over Dover with smoke pouring from both engines and tail. No further activity today. Night raiders still pass over the aerodrome each night on way to London. AK AK barrage seems most effective.”
“20th September: Weather fine, but layers of cloud from four to nine thousand feet. Ten aircraft took off in the am and intercepted formation of ME 109s who surprised Blue Section from behind and above. Pilot Officer Hill crashed and burnt out in Dover Area and Sergeant Eyles crashed into sea. Squadron Leader Sanders destroyed a ME 109 and another was damaged by Pilot Officer Wade.”
The truth of Howard Hill’s ending was much stranger than reported on the evening of his death. He was seen to break off from the combat with the 109s of JG 51 led by Major Werner Mölders, just off the French coast and turn for home. Pilots of other Squadrons saw him struggling over the coast, loosing height but all attempts to contact him by R/T failed. Obviously he was assumed to have crashed.
In fact the crippled Spitfire reached Biggin Hill, but instead of coming into land it passed a couple of miles to the south at about twelve hundred feet, maintaining a steady course inland and gradually losing height. The Biggin Hill controller saw him, not knowing then that it was Hill’s aircraft. He tried to call him up but again there was silence. The fighter flew on to the west and vanished. For a month they found no trace of it, and then the pilot of an Anson trainer spotted the wreckage in a dense wood only seven miles from the airfield. A recovery team went out and found Hill’s Spitfire lodged in the tree tops over forty feet up.
They got ladders and climbed up. As they drew near the wreck they knew that Hill was still in the cockpit as there was a sweet, sickly smell that almost overpowered them. The body had been exposed to the sweltering sun for nearly thirty days, and under the thick Perspex the temperature must have soared to hothouse level.
When they reached the top and looked into the cockpit, at first they thought the sun must have burned him literally to a cinder. Beneath the canopy they distinguished only a black something and then, on closer inspection, they realised with horror that the body was sheathed in a crawling mass. Countless flies and other insects of a thousand species had entered through what was obviously a shell hole in the side of the hood.
Eventually it was established that a cannon shell had come through high on the port side and neatly taken off the New Zealander’s cranium, like the top off a boiled egg. Howard, of course, had died instantly, cleanly, but his Spitfire had lingered on, turned west, as if trying to reach home, somehow found its way back to the Biggin Hill area. It must have made a very good landing on the forest’s roof for the damage proved comparatively light.
The Squadron diary continues:
“21st September: Weather fine, still plenty of cloud and wind. Enemy attacks are made with large escorts of fighters. Squadron attacked and suffered one aircraft badly shot up. Bombers forced to turn back. Everybody now acclimatised to heavy Ack-Ack fire at night.”
“22nd September: Ten tenths cloud with wind and rain. A typical autumn day. No machines left the ground at all during the day. Weather in Channel must have been terrific and not at all good for the supposed invasion attempt. An air of expectation hung about the camp today. Pilots were undoubtedly glad of this little break afforded by the dismal weather.”
“23rd September: Weather fine with cumulus cloud. Squadron took off at 09.23 hours to patrol Gravesend and intercepted enemy over Tonbridge area. Two ME 109s were confirmed. Pilot Officer John Pattison was attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Gravesend. He received serious wounds to his right thigh from a cannon shell and crash-landed as he attempted to land at West Malling airfield. (He was admitted to Preston Hall Hospital, Maidstone and spent the next eight months in hospital, but recovered to rejoin the squadron in June 1941, he survived the war and lived to the age of 92). No further combats during the day. A clear night was made use of by the enemy for bombing in and around London.”
“24th September: Weather still fine. Early interception was made over the Rochford Area at 08.45 hours. Sergeant Fokes made a JU 88 turnover on its back, but not seeing it crash it was classed as a probable. Several other aircraft were damaged including two ME 109s. Pilot Officer Bryson, a much-liked Canadian, was shot down and crashed at North Weald. He had last been seen diving into a large formation of ME 109s. Sergeant Ellis crash landed at Gravesend but was unhurt. Squadron Leader Lister who was posted to us on the 20th for Supernumerary duties was wounded in the wrist and legs. He brought his aircraft back to Biggin Hill where he was at once admitted to hospital. Usual night activity around the aerodrome. Ten of our aircraft acted as a covering screen to bombers going to France.”
At about this time Lord Beaverbrook started the ‘Spitfire Fund’. It had originated in an enquiry from Sir Harry Oakes, a Canadian mining millionaire (later murdered), to Lord Beaverbrook the minister for aircraft production, asking to know what a Spitfire cost. The arbitrary figure of five thousand pounds was chosen (it actually cost much more) and Sir Harry duly sent a cheque for that amount. The idea, which had naturally no affect whatever on the actual production of Spitfires, had become amazingly popular and different counties and colonies were setting up funds of their own and ‘adopting’ fighter squadrons. It was the East India Fund who ‘adopted’ 92 Squadron and so the Squadron became known as ’92 East India Squadron’ and still is to this day.
The informal Squadron crest in 1940 consisted of the original Maple leaf with three flying swords superimposed on the leaf to signify that the CO and two flight commanders came from 601 Squadron when the Squadron was reformed. 601’s crest was a flying sword. As a result of the linking of Squadrons with donors to the Spitfire Fund, the crest had to be revised. The Maple leaf was retained, the flying swords eliminated and the cobra became the central part of the motif. The story of how they invented the motto goes as follows: Flight Lieutenant Vincent (Paddy) Byrne, a lovable Irish character, was to be seen going to the ablutions before breakfast completely starkers, swinging his sponge bag and bellowing in his Irish brogue “Foit or be killed or die the death”. Broadly translated into Latin, they were told this became “Aut Pugna aut Morere”. This was accepted by Chester herald and subsequently received the approval of the King.
On 25 September, the Squadron was scrambled first thing, after a formation of Dorniers. They flew as four sections of three aircraft, the fourth being known as ‘Green Section’. The formation flown by most fighter squadrons at this time consisted of the first three sections flying in ‘vics’ two astern with the leader of the fourth section flying ‘in the box’. The other two aircraft of the rear section acted as ‘weavers’ and it was their job to spot any enemy fighters that might approach from above or behind. The formation was flown as tight as possible and the leader alone searched the sky for the bombers.
On this occasion they were ‘bounced’ from the rear. The CO heard a warning shout from one of the ‘weavers’ and almost instantaneously his Spitfire shuddered from what must have been an accurate and heavy burst from astern. His engine was hit so he dived and headed back to base. By the time he landed high octane petrol soaked into his uniform jacket.
The rest of the Squadron ‘broke’ but the attackers got away. Then Green Section, led by Pilot Officer Wright, spotted the Dorniers that they had been sent to intercept. Wright attacked two of them then returned to Biggin Hill; later one was confirmed as destroyed by the observer corps at Hailsham. The weary CO, Philip Sanders wandered towards the intelligence officer Tom Wiese and lit up a cigarette. Then whoosh! he went up in flames and his hands were badly burned as he beat out the flames. He didn’t fly for another year until he was posted to command 264 squadron flying night fighters.
The next day, Flight Lieutenant Brian Kingcombe led the Squadron in the air. Kingcombe was not interested in the ‘ace’ conception fostered by the press; anyone who wasted time trying to confirm a ‘kill’ or hung on unnecessarily to a damaged bomber was quite simply not doing his job. Splitting them up with a quick head on attack from a high position, was his method; ‘continuous and unremitting performance’ his record.
11 Group were now trying to use Wings of two squadrons – the ‘train’. 92 joined with 72 Squadron as a rule. When Kingcombe was ‘driving the train’, or simply leading 92 Squadron, he inclined to ignore the controller’s instructions to go south and meet the enemy direct. That might mean an attack at the same level or worse an attack from the rear, with the bombers guns in front and the 109s coming down behind. Instead, he turned north and flew away from the enemy, then turned and came back, gaining height all the time, so that he was poised high up ready to take the Squadron down in a vertical dive on the bombers from head on. That would split up at least a portion of them before the fighters could interfere.
“As soon as they saw you coming, you could see the wings of some aircraft wobbling, occasionally a collision”, he said, “I don’t blame them. I’ve been in a bomber when a mock attack has been made by a fighter. Usually, we’d get in one good attack on the bombers, probably demoralising them, and then, in two cases out of three, there would be fighter trouble. As the battle went on, they became more and more reluctant to come down and engage – but some exceptions were keen.”
The Squadron diary for that day reads:
“Weather fine with high clouds, ideal for fighters. First ‘scramble’ came about 0900 hours. 92 along with 72 Squadron sent to intercept large formations of fighters and bombers. We attacked the bombers, DO17s and HE 111s. Before the fighter escort could reach them three bombers were destroyed. Afterwards one ME 109 destroyed and a probable DO 17 with other bombers damaged. We lost Acting Flight Lieutenant Paterson and Flight Sergeant Sydney, two experienced pilots in this combat which took place over a wide area.”
“Ten Spitfires took off at 1145 hours to join with two other squadrons over base. One of our pilots ‘weaving’ saw several ME 109s and attacked one, which he badly damaged. In the third sortie of the day eleven Spitfires took off at 1445 hours. Twenty JU 88s were intercepted, thirteen of these were destroyed and an ME 109 damaged. The fighter escort of ME 109s were too late to stop our aircraft from splitting up the bomber formation. Sergeant Oldfield appointed Acting Flight Lieutenant.”
Wright himself recalls the events of the 27th as follows:
“We engaged about twenty JU 88s flying towards Redhill; we made a head on attack and then split up. There were about twenty bombers and many 109s, the latter ‘very shy’. I wrote in my log book, I shot lumps off three and shared in another which crashed in flames.”
Finding himself alone under the bombers he tried a new method of attack, the ‘snap up’ – possibly this was the first time it was ever used. He flew at high speed two thousand feet below the bomber formation and out to one side, then pulled the stick hard back and lunged up almost vertically at their bellies, rolling over to fire and then breaking away sharply downwards. It kept the fighter out of view of the front and rear gunners right up to the break away and it reduced the fighter’s speed, at the moment of firing, to something like that of the bombers.
That was the last Valhalla – the final mass daylight attack on London that penetrated to the target. The following day no interceptions took place. Two patrols were made and on the second several ME 109s were seen but quickly turned tail when they saw the Spitfires. On the 29th Pilot Officer Williams intercepted a DO 17 between Canterbury and Maidstone and badly damaged it, but as the Dornier spiralled into heavy cloud he was unable to see the full results of his attack and could only claim a probable.
On 30 September, the Germans repeated their pattern of attack of 27th. The formations coming to London consisted of the usual groups of about twenty bombers, escorted by perhaps one hundred fighters; they were no longer trying to do real damage, dropping their loads mostly on the outskirts and the 109 pilots were obviously becoming increasingly weary of fighting for air superiority. This was the very last day of the mass attacks and none of them got home on the target.
Wright arrived at midday at Biggin Hill after a ‘day off’ (which was from 12 noon to 12 noon), found a Spitfire fighting two 109s over Reigate and disposed in flames of one of its opponents. In the afternoon he was airborne again and the Squadron joined 72 and 66 Squadrons over base and made for Maidstone. After attacking bombers and being attacked by a 109, Wright found himself alone, so he climbed up to twenty-five thousand feet. He sighted five 109s on their way out to the coast, got in a hasty burst at one, holing its glycol tank and was then out of ammunition.
All he could claim was a ‘damaged’ so he determined to follow the five enemy fighters to see what happened, reassuring that they would be too low on fuel to fight. The damaged German fighter went down into a long dive for the coast, crossing out to sea at about five thousand feet. Wright followed on behind. Its flight lasted seven minutes, then bursts of brown smoke came out of its engine, and it cart wheeled into the sea. Satisfied, Wright turned back for England, flying in a straight line two hundred feet above the water and looking round him. But he never saw his enemy.
There was a bang, the cockpit filled with smoke and the Spitfire heeled over and plunged down to the waves. The sea came up at him in a flash, appearing to fill the windscreen, but with the stick hard back he was pulling out and then banking sharply to turn in to face his attackers – two 109s. “After a turn or two they were gone. But I had great difficulty in maintaining an even keel – I needed both hands on the stick in the forward left corner of the cockpit. There was a roaring noise, which must have come from a piece of the wing surface, flapping and air was coming through a hole in the starboard side of the cockpit. My right leg was numb and bloody, my map riddled with bullets and my temperature gauge smashed, so that I could not tell if my glycol had been punctured. I headed north, but couldn’t recognise my landfall. I came across an airfield, but it was disused and covered with derelict cars as an anti glider measure. I pressed on along the coast until I came to another airfield which was Shoreham.”
The damaged Spitfire limped round the small civil airfield – most of the rudder had been shot away, half the elevator and the bottom of the fuselage had been ripped open from the tail nearly to the mainplane. But Wright managed to get his flaps down and make his approach; the slowly turning propeller looked ragged from the bullet holes and he could see from the position of the gashes in the wing that one tyre was burst. He eased back on the stick and touched down gently and was taken to Shortlands Hospital in Shoreham where the pieces of explosive cannon shell were removed from his thigh.
The Battle of Britain did not end – it died gradually away through a final phase in which the bomb load delivered was negligible but there were still a great many air battles, so that Hitler could maintain that the fight against England continued. The Germans had won a degree of air superiority over England but not to the extent of making an invasion possible. They had calculated at the beginning of August, that four days fighting would break British resistance in the air over Southern England. Six weeks after they had actually launched their great assault the British were still fighting, still inflicting heavy losses, still preventing the mass of the German bomber force from sweeping over in daylight to bomb aside all opposition. Clearly, some fundamental decisions would soon have to be made.
In an article written in German and not intended for publication in England, Adolf Galland (the wartime Inspector of Fighters for the Luftwaffe) wrote:
“Indisputably, Germany had air superiority at the time, but the decimated English fighter units flew with stubborn courage. This was a factor which would certainly have to be taken into account in planning future operations. The battle put up by the British fighter pilots deserves the highest admiration. In number often inferior, untiring, fighting bravely, it was they who in this most critical part of the war undoubtedly became the saviours of their country.”
The prime minister, Mr. Churchill has the last word on this battle and you can here his speech by clicking on this link: