Authors: Bickers Richard Townshend
Douglas Bader's best score in one day was two, and he achieved it three times. The first occasion was on August 30 when the squadron he commanded, No. 242, encountered more than 70 bombers approaching six abreast with more than 30 110s above to cover them. Bader led his squadron in a dive at the fighters, which instantly broke formation. One, ahead of him, was too slow and he set it alight with a couple of bursts. Two more bursts sent another down in flames.
On September 7, when the Luftwaffe first attacked London, he destroyed a Bf 110 that went down with smoke pouring from it and another that crashed near a railway line and exploded. In the process, his own Hurricane's port aileron was torn to shreds and the cockpit was holed. On September 10, leading, for the first time, the Big Wing for which he had been pleading, he took his own and four other squadrons into action. Levelling off at 23,000ft (7,000m), he could see some 40 enemy aeroplanes over the Thames Estuary at 16,000ft (4,875m). He led his formation down and in the ensuing whirligig of twisting, climbing, diving aircraft and a network of tracer bullets and shells, amid the smoke and flames of burning aeroplanes, in a sky dotted with descending parachutes, he took out first a Ju 87 and then a Do 17. These made his score 11Â½ confirmed.
There is one name to add and one more event, which appropriately happened on the last night of the Battle of Britain, to tell about those who fought in it without finding themselves in the limelight. Perhaps in narrow terms of definition Wg Cdr W. S. Gregory, DSO, DFC, DFM, doesn't strictly qualify for inclusion in an account of pilots' battle days, but he belongs by every possible right in any narrative about distinguished fighter aircrew. He is known as âSticks', because before the war he played the drums in a well-known dance band. He was also flying in his spare time as an air gunner in the VR and was posted to 29 (Blenheim) Squadron when war was declared. In 1941, as a radar navigator, he was crewed up with Wg Cdr J. R. D. Braham, whose prowess as a night fighter pilot won him a DSO with two bars and a DFC with two bars. But on October 31, 1940, he was flying with a P/O Rhodes when the controller told them they were very close to a hostile. They couldn't see it, but, Sticks Gregory remembers, âWe came out of cloud and there, following us, was an He 111 with its cockpit lights on, crew map-reading! I don't know who was the more frightened, the German gunner or me. Anyway, I fired my single Vickers into the cockpit
without stopping. The range was no more than 200ft. The Heinkel went into a dive under us and Rhodes finished it off with his four Brownings.'
An agreeable note on which to conclude. But that wasn't quite the end of it. âWe were happy, Sector were happy and so was Squadron Leader Widdows, our CO. He was congratulating us when the Flight Sergeant armourer came into the Ops Room and asked who was the gunner on Blenheim L6741. I said, “I was, Chiefy.” “You're on a charge,” he announced, “for shooting off a full pan of ammunition without a pause.” And he produced a bent and ruined gun barrel!'
Obviously the hazards an RAF pilot or air gunner faced in the course of his battle day â or night â did not all lie in the guns of the enemy. And if life was a compendium of inconsistencies, the unifying factors that were common to all participants were high morale, total determination to win and inexhaustible courage.
ecause the British traditionally do not dramatise a situation, the average RAF fighter pilot felt no personal hatred for his enemies in the air. Animosity was directed at the machines they flew whose intrusion over Britain was resented as an intolerable insolence. Similarly, German pilots regarded the RAF as opponents in a lethal sport, not detested foes; but the differentiating truth remains that they were in the wrong and Britain and her allies, defending their countries, were in the right.
Life for both sides ran on much the same lines. Whether operating from bases in Germany or, after the conquest of the Low Countries and France, from airfields in the Pas de Calais, the daily routine was basically the same for German fighter pilots as it was for British. They rose at first light, they were released at dusk and in the intervals they waited at dispersals to be sent into action. On small French aerodromes the crew room was a tent, the aircraft were dispersed under camouflage netting, among trees where possible, and meals were eaten out of doors. Men passed the time by reading, playing cards or board games, sleeping and leg-pulling. As the British squadrons in France had done, the Germans either lived under canvas or in billets with local families; they set up their messes in huts on the airfield or hotels.
At the end of a hard day a German fighter pilot sought relaxation in the nearest town's restaurants, dance halls and cinemas. Female company was not
hard to find. Politically, France was divided and lethargic. In general, the Nazis were not unpopular. The French Army and Air Force had been soundly defeated and earned contempt. Success and the power it bestowed exerted a strong attraction. Healthy, uninhibited, dashing young German airmen, under orders to be on their best behaviour towards the race they had beaten, and with money to burn, had the magnetism of a conqueror, to which Frenchwomen were not immune. The German bomber crews shared this existence from the beginning of the Blitzkrieg on France until the end of the Battle of Britain, because they were carrying out the assault and the fighters were present only to defend them.
Leutnant Kurt Ebersberger, of II/JG26, who later commanded a Staffel, 4/JG26, has provided an excellent description of the life of a fighter pilot during the early days of the assault on France. He refers to a comrade, Leutnant Otto-Heinrich Hilleke, who was killed in action on June 26: âWe miss his humour and harmonica playing.' (In this form of musical diversion there was a sharp difference between what was acceptable in a German officers' mess and a British; in the latter a mouth-organ was definitely not considered an officer-like instrument). Ebersberger recalls, âOften when we were at Chicore, our second base in Belgium, after dinner in our handsome ChÃ¢teau, with a bottle of good burgundy at hand, Hilleke used to play for us. We would discuss the events of the day and air fighting as well as many matters that were not connected with the Service. Anything unpleasant was dismissed with a joke, so that we were always in a happy and confident mood. We were at ease and out of sight of higher authority. When we felt like it we went out roaming the district.'
Next morning they were out at dispersals at first light once again to escort bombing raids on Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. âGoing back and forth we saw below us the widespread fighting in Flanders, burning towns and villages, flames at the mouths of heavy guns which were often a signpost for us when returning with our last drop of petrol. Until Dunkirk fell we flew almost every day with our bombers as they attacked ports, fuel tanks and ammunition dumps along the coast. The British began to embark their troops and ship them back to their island.'
On most days they made contact with Spitfires and Hurricanes. âIt didn't suit the British that we interfered with their withdrawal plan.' That must be the prize platitude of the campaign. âWe were often outnumbered, which didn't bother us in the slightest.' And that must be the most unconvincing boast; the Luftwaffe consistently outnumbered the RAF. âThe Gruppe commander flew in the lead with “Hinnak” (Hilleke's nickname) near him. They were the first to engage the enemy and had a stack of victories. Hinnak was our most successful pilot and
hasn't yet been overtaken.' His score was 21 when he was shot down. âWe often heard him say something jocular on the radio, to make everyone feel relaxed.
âThe most memorable experience we had was the first time we took off from Chicore to rendezvous with a bomber formation. The weather was atrocious and we hadn't the slightest idea of our whereabouts. The bombers were above cloud and couldn't see us. We were flying so slowly that it seemed we were almost at a standstill. Presently we saw water below. We were over the Channel. Hinnak called, “We're flying against England!” and burst into the England Song. This was the popular song whose first line was “Wir fliegen gegen En-ge-land”. They had to keep a close watch on their petrol consumption and on the radio somebody asked, “Can everyone swim?” It was the sort of quip that would equally have amused their opponents. Then they saw Dover and “. . . great was the delight at being over England for the first time”.'
Hilleke's sense of humour was also typical of fighter pilots the world over. On another sortie across the Channel when the formation had momentarily scattered under attack, a voice on the radio was heard saying plaintively, âWait for me to catch up, I'm all alone.'
âYou're not alone,' Hilleke retorted immediately. âThere's a Spitfire on your tail.'
On June 3 there was a big raid on Paris. In the morning they flew to an aerodrome half-way to the target and refuelled. At about 1400hrs they were ordered off and, âglowing with ardour, we started our engines'. Luftwaffe formations came from all directions. âIt was an impressive sight.' Hilleke's aircraft developed trouble and he had to turn back, as did Ebesberger shortly before reaching Paris. The latter says that when they discussed the mission that evening they were all astonished by the paucity of defending fighters and anti-aircraft guns.
A few days later they moved to Le Touquet. âIt was an incomparable moment when we were all sitting together on the terrace of our hotel, to see the sun sink into the sea. Hardly had we settled down than we were off inland again; the next day we found ourselves on a big clover field at Bois Jean, south of Montreuil. At Le Touquet we had installed ourselves in big tents captured from the British. A pleasant camp life soon established itself. Our quarters lay a good distance from the airfield. In the evenings after dark the British flew regularly over the aerodrome on their way south to the Front. We tried a couple of times to take them by surprise, but never succeeded because of the thick haze.
âOur most enjoyable flights were along the steep coast from Dieppe to Le Havre with British or French warships going to and fro beneath us. On the way back we would fly low over the beaches all the way from Le Touquet and French people peacefully swimming would point at us. How fast we went and what a row
we made. Unfortunately we went swimming only once, on our second free day since May 10. All the essential servicing of the aircraft was done in the morning, then we all crammed into vehicles and went off to lie on the beach. During such hours one forgot the war.'
From Le Touqet and Bois Jean they moved to Morgny, 43 miles (70km) north of Paris. The airfield, says Ebersberger, was the usual sort of place, but with a little contrivance soon became most comfortable. They lived in a chÃ¢teau belonging to the Comte de Fabymasnille, a grand place set in a huge estate. The German Army had crossed the Seine but there wasn't much employment for the Staffel. Soon after, the French capitulated and it returned to Germany. âWe would rather have attacked England immediately, but orders are orders.'
Oberst Josef Priller, known as âPips', who in turn commanded No. 1 Staffel and No III Gruppe of JG26 before commanding the Geschwader itself, and was credited with 101 victories, described life on the Channel coast as âreadiness and sorties'. Fighter pilots existed in a state of uncertainty greater than any experienced by ground troops. A soldier in the front line could foretell by numerous signs if and when an enemy attack were imminent. When he was to make an attack, he was told in advance the exact time that he would do so. A fighter pilot had to be ready to take off at once with virtually no warning before the order came. In the summer months, these conditions prevailed for three quarters of the 24 hours in every day. The weeks and months passed in this manner with seldom a short break on a rare quiet day. Even during the Battle of Britain, when most of his time in the air was spent escorting bombers, the pilot had to be prepared to fend off an enemy air raid at any moment.
The Gruppe to which at that time Priller's Staffel belonged moved to the Calais area on July 22, 1940. He says that after the turbulent air operations in France an even harder period began for the Luftwaffe pilots on airfields along the Channel. It was the height of summer, which meant 16 to 18 hours of daylight and for fighter pilots as many hours of alertness, and hasty take-offs to repel expected attacks or to cover their own bombers. Moving such a large formation with all its technical equipment was arduous, but by the 25th it was fully operational and flying over England. It lost two of its number near Margate and three near Dover that day. It was noteworthy, he points out in apparent complaint, that the Luftwaffe fighters were not only under extreme pressure, severely stretched and fighting over hostile territory, but also were faced by the entire British Empire plus a large number of Czechs, Poles and Frenchmen.
When escorting bombers over England, he alleges the Messerschmitts were constantly meeting large formations of Spitfires and Hurricanes numbering 20,
40 and even 60, coming at them from all directions. Dowding and Park would have been gratified to know that this was the impression given by the small number of defending fighters they were eking out.
After taking part in a few sorties, Staffel and Gruppe commanders quickly formed a clear picture of the enemy, Priller recounts. Squadrons, flights and sections were led by experienced pilots who were highly competent and keen, while the rest were novices who still had a lot to learn. The Luftwaffe fighters' tactic, like the RAF's, was to split up the opposing formation as quickly as possible. The south of England was strongly defended, Priller records, especially around London, and repeats that the Germans were on most occasions assailed from all sides by large numbers of fighters.
His memory does not seem to be entirely accurate for his statements do not conform exactly with British records, which include diagrams made at the time showing the tracks of enemy incursions and of the fighters that went up to intercept them. However, from the cockpit of a Bf 109 the impressions of a pilot who was of necessity highly apprehensive of the Spitfire, which he had learned in the most unpleasant way was more than a match for his own aircraft, were understandably different from those of anyone studying archives many decades later. From the cockpit of any aircraft in contact with the enemy there always seemed to be a frightening number of them around and a lot more flak sites than had been mentioned at briefing. The problem, as Priller says, was to take evasive action without being scattered far and wide.