Authors: Bickers Richard Townshend
The air forces of the Low Countries were rapidly swamped and their airfields captured. The Dutch Air Force, De Luftvaartafdeling, numbered 124 aeroplanes. The 1st Regiment had one reconnaissance squadron, one medium bomber squadron, and four fighter squadrons with a strength of 20 Fokker D31s and 23 Fokker G1As. The 2nd Regiment had four reconnaissance squadrons, and two fighter squadrons flying Fokker D31s and Douglas DB8s.
L'AÃ©ronautique Belge mustered 157 aeroplanes. The 1st Regiment consisted of 59 reconnaissance types. The 2nd Regiment comprised 78 fighters: 11 Hurricanes, 13 Gladiators, 30 Fairey Foxes and 24 Fiat CR423. The 3rd Regiment had 40 reconnaissance and light bomber types.
There had been little growth in the French Air Force; indigenous manufacture was slow and deliveries were awaited from the United States. The first Bloch 151 and 152 single-seater fighters had been delivered. These had a 1,080 hp Gnome-RhÃ´ne engine, two 20mm cannon and two 7.5mm machine guns. Their top speed was 323mph (520km/h) and ceiling 32,810ft (10,000m). From February the Potez 631 had six additional 7.5mm machine guns, under the wings.
On May 10, 1940, which is when the French insist that the Battle of Britain began, l'ArmÃ©e de l'Air fighter groupements and groupes had available to them 828 combat aircraft, of which 584 were serviceable. Of these serviceable aircraft, 293 were Morane Saulnier MS 406s, and 121 were Bloch 151 and 152; the others were Curtiss 75s, Dewoitine 520s and Potez 630s and 631s.
Operationally, l'ArmÃ©e de l'Air basic organisation was territorial, with four Zones d'OpÃ©rations AÃ©rienne: Nord (ZOAN), Est (ZOAE), Sud (ZOAS) and Alpe (ZOAA).
While the Dutch and Belgian Air Forces were being knocked out and the vagaries of the rudimentary control and reporting system were starving the British Air Forces in France of information, both the AASF and Air Component were hectically embroiled in the air battle. Nos. 85, 87, 607 and 615 Squadrons had seen little action hitherto. No. 1 Squadron had shot down 26 enemy aircraft, and No. 73 Squadron 30 during their first
eight months in France. From May 10 onwards all the fighter squadrons were fully stretched from dawn to sunset.
On the first day of the Blitz, Kain bagged a Do 17. On the following day he shot down another and a Bf 109. On the 12th, an HS 126. Orton, who by now also had a DFC, was shot down on the 10th but got his own back the next day by destroying a Ju 88 and a Do 17. Clisby, the fiery and aggressive Australian, made two kills on the 10th, both Do 17s, before being hit by French anti-aircraft fire. On the 11th he brought three Bf 109s down, followed on his last sortie that day with an He 111. This landed in a field and Clisby lobbed in beside it to make sure none of the crew got away. One of them did run for it, but Clisby sprinted after him and brought him down with a rugby football tackle.
Three more Hurricane squadrons arrived to join the Air Component: No. 504 on the 10th, Nos. 3 and 70 on the 11th. By then No. 501 had settled in and Flying Officer Pickup had recorded its first kill, a Do 17. âGinger' Lacey flew two sorties that day but did not encounter the enemy. Six of his comrades were luckier: Pilot Officer C. L. Hulse and Sgt P. Morfill each got a Bf 110; Flying Officer C. E. Malfroy, a New Zealand Davis Cup player, and F/Sgt A. D. Payne each shot down an He 111 and Flt Lt E. S. Williams and Sgt R. C. Dafforn destroyed Do 17s. The day after that, Lacey flew patrols totalling 3 hours and 45 minutes without result. Others on the squadron destroyed 12 of the enemy. The first hours of the Germans' surprise attack had brought disaster to the Fairey Battle squadrons. Nos. 12, 103, 105, 142, 150, 218 and 226 were all ordered to make a low-level attack on a German column in Luxembourg strongly protected by 20mm and 37mm flak. Thirty-two bombers went in at 250ft (75m) and 13 were shot down. All the others were damaged. On May 11, Do 17s bombed CondÃ©-Vraux airfield, where they destroyed six of No. 114 Squadron's Blenheims and left all the remainder unserviceable. Enemy troops on the move in Luxembourg were again a target for eight Battles, of which only one, severely damaged, returned.
May 12, incongruously Whit Sunday, witnessed one of the most tragic and bravest ventures of the war as well as one of the most crass. This unholy day began with the loss of seven out of nine Blenheims from No. 139 Squadron during an attack against one of the ubiquitous German columns, this time near Maastricht. It was succeeded by an attack that 24 Blenheims based in England carried out on Maastricht town, where they lost 10.
The second sacrificial slaughter by the AASF occurred over the two
Albert Canal bridges, for which six volunteer crews of 112 Squadron were required. Every crew stepped forward, so the first six captains' names on the squadron's daily battle order were called. The wireless in one aircraft was found to be unserviceable and when the crew transferred to another its hydraulic system was proved faulty. Of the five that took off, two were shot down and their crews taken prisoner. Another crash-landed at base, full of holes. Two were destroyed, but one damaged the bridge at Weldwezelt with bombs. The leader of the formation, Flying Officer âJudy' Garland and his observer, Sgt T. Gray both won the Victoria Cross. With callous injustice, the air gunner, Leading Aircraftman L. R. Reynolds, was ignored.
On May 11 two of the AASF's Blenheim squadrons had been obliterated by bombs, and now, on this darkest of days yet, No. 139 Squadron lost seven more Blenheims out of nine that made an attack on German troop concentrations near Maastricht.
Lacey had his first success on the 13th. Detailed for dawn patrol with two other sergeants, he could not start his engine and took off after they were out of sight. No thought of the folly of flying alone on an offensive patrol occurred to him: he was too inexperienced. At 20,000ft (6,096m), enjoying a BBC programme of dance music that was all his radio would pick up, he saw â. . . a big, fat Heinkel all on its own'. A moment later a Bf 109 came in sight 5,000ft (1,525m) below and between him and the Heinkel. Lacey dived, shot it down at 50 yards (45m) range, then gave the He 111 the same treatment. Hardly had he landed when he was ordered on another patrol and destroyed a Bf 110.
On the 14th, 35 Battles out of 63 that took off, and 10 Blenheims out of 15, were destroyed. The Air Component lost 11 Hurricanes and the AASF lost five. Against this, 12 enemy aircraft were brought down.
A momentous change in Britain's outlook on the war had coincided with the German onslaught: the dynamic and optimistic Winston Churchill had replaced the torpid and doleful Chamberlain as Prime Minister. At a meeting of the War Cabinet that morning two cardinal decisions were taken: to bomb the oil refineries and marshalling yards in the Ruhr; and not to post any more valuable and irreplaceable fighter squadrons to France.
Fighter reinforcements were, however, being provided. Each morning one flight from each of six Hurricane squadrons flew to a French base, where it joined a flight from another squadron to make up a composite unit of 12, and operated from there throughout the day. Air Commodore
P. M. Brothers, CBE, DSO, DFC, then a flight lieutenant on No. 32 Squadron, recalled the fatigue this imposed. It meant being woken at 0230hrs and landing back at Biggin Hill as late as 2230hrs. But he was a flight commander and that wasn't the end of his day. The ground crews were as much a part of the squadron as the pilots, so he would visit them, probably taking a crate of beer, and tell them how the flight had fared. He made his first kill on May 19 over Dunkirk: a Bf 109.
Flights from eight other squadrons were sent for periods of a few days. Wing Commander F. W. âTaffy' Higginson, OBE, DFC, DFM, was a flight sergeant on No. 56 Squadron when he landed at Vitry-en-Artois on the 17th for what turned out to be a brief but turbulent spell. On the first day he shot down a Do 17 and an He 111; on the next a Bf 110. On the 19th what was left of the flight moved westwards before the rapid enemy advance, to a temporary landing ground. He was ordered to return by road to Vitry and destroy any Hurricanes and petrol that remained. He drove there through a tide of refugees, to find the Germans so close that small arms fire was audible. His only means of destroying the three or four abandoned Hurricanes was to shoot holes in the petrol tanks with his revolver and throw a match at the vapour. It was not as easy as it sounded and as soon as he had the fires raging he dashed back to his own aeroplane, the only one left at the other field. He arrived in time to see a strange pilot clambering into the cockpit. His reaction was instantaneous, irrespective of the other's rank. Taffy, a trifle under middle height, but a boxing champion and a tough rugger player, â. . . grabbed him by the collar and dragged him off the wing', he remembers, and asked, âWhere d'you think you're going?'
âTo England,' was the reply. âNot in my **** aeroplane, you're not!' said Taffy. Of the six pilots of No. 56 Squadron who had come to France, only two returned: Taffy Higginson and one other.
The fighter pilots who achieved high scores during the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain modestly attribute the RAF's victory to their comrades who grafted away day after day exactly as they themselves had done, repeatedly met the enemy and engaged in many combats, but had only two or three confirmed victories to show for it; some claimed none at all. Forty per cent of enemy aircraft destroyed were attributable to only five per cent of pilots.
Like the Poles, Norwegians, Dutch and Belgians before them, the British and French armies had been reeling back under the weight of the
German avalanche of tanks and dive bombers, supplemented by a horde of conventional bombers and swarms of fighters. With the Allied soldiery, perforce, went their air forces, stumbling in the direction of the Channel coast.
The German General Staff had remembered, while the British and French had forgotten, the basic tactical lesson of the Great War: that air power is not merely a matter of numbers of aircraft; it is the power to establish air superiority applied to conquest. The nation unable to establish air superiority over the vital area must fail to frustrate the enemy's major plans and cannot hope to influence decisively the course of the land battle to gain and hold territory. The British had proved in 1918 that they understood this, when the Royal Air Force was created as an entity independent of the Army, instead of a mere branch of it as the Royal Flying Corps had been. Trenchard, who had commanded the RFC in France, and Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, had learned that while one army can overcome another by attrition, the modern way must be first to blind the enemy by eliminating his aerial reconnaissance and then to defeat his bombers and fighters.
The Germans had blasted their way across Belgium and France along five parallel routes. From north to south, the 39th Panzer Korps under Schmidt, the 16th under HÃ¶ppner, the 15th under Hoth, the 41st under Reinhardt and the 19th under Guderian had surged ahead at such speed that the British and French forces that had advanced into Belgium began retreating on May 16. On the 18th St Quentin and Cambrai were taken; Amiens and Abbeville fell on the 20th and German advanced units reached the Channel coast at Noyelles. From there the whole of Guderian's attack turned northwards towards Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk.
Kain still figured in the headlines. On May 19 he accounted for a Ju 88, a Do 17 and a Bf 110; on the 20th an Hs 126 and, his 17th victory, a Do 17. By now he was one of the last two original pilots still with No. 73 Squadron, and was kept on to train new pilots before being sent to England on leave in early June. Taking off, he did a farewell slow roll over the airfield, crashed and was killed.
Clisby took his score to 16 by May 15, before being killed in action. Orton, who in one action fought 27 Bf 109s and took out two of them, had been credited with 15 confirmed kills and three strong probables before being shot down, burned on the face and returned to England by the end of the month. No. 87 Squadron, which had been marking time
until May 10, soon produced some outstanding performers, one of whom was Flying Officer R. M. S. âRoddy' Rayner. He opened his score with a Bf 109, an He 111 and a Do 17 on May 19 and went on to shoot down two more before being wounded in the leg and repatriated. He fought again in the Battle of Britain.
One of the least-known episodes of the air fighting over France occurred on June 5. At 1700hrs eight Dewoitines of Groupe 2/7 took off to patrol the d'Athis-PÃ©ronne area. Within 15 minutes 15 Bf 109s bounced them out of the sun. A bigger formation of 109s was covering the attackers. Warrant officer Ponteins was shot down in flames. Sergeant Bret broke away from an attack so violently that he suffered a severe heart lesion and barely managed to land. Second Lieutenant Louis was the next to go down in flames. Three others got away unharmed. Second Lieutenant Pommier Layrargues set his sights on a 109 and gave it a burst from 45 degrees off head-on. Bits flew off it and its pilot parachuted out and hid in a corn field but was seen by some infantry who caught him and took him to be interrogated.
He was the great Werner MÃ¶lders, who already had 25 confirmed victories and was destined to precede Galland as Commander of the Luftwaffe fighter arm. (The French Air Force records claim that he had 34 victories then, eight in France and the rest in the Spanish Civil War.) He asked to meet the pilot who had vanquished him, but Pommier Layrargues never knew how eminent was his adversary: he was killed in a fight with three Bf 109s a few minutes after having taken MÃ¶lders out. He was 24 years of age and considered to have a brilliant career in prospect. MÃ¶lders was in captivity for less than three weeks: France surrendered on June 22.
Some leading exponents of fighter combat and leadership who won fame in the Battle of Britain emerged from obscurity at this period. Douglas Bader, a flight commander on No. 222 Squadron, shot down his first Hun on June 1: a Bf 109 over Dunkirk. Also over Dunkirk, Robert Stanford Tuck, a flight commander on 92 Squadron, drew blood for the first time when he destroyed a 109 on May 23. A day later he added two Bf 110s to his score and on the next two Do 17s. He had a third share in a Do 17 on the 25th and destroyed an He 111 and a Bf 109 on June 2. A. G. âSailor' Malan, whom his comrades of the time regard as the outstanding leader in the Battle of Britain, shot down a Ju 88 and an He 111 on May 21, and a Ju 88, an He 111 and a Bf 109 during the next six days.