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Authors: Bickers Richard Townshend

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■ Unsung Heroes

It is fitting at this point to pay tribute to the least-known fighter pilots and their air gunners who took a massive toll of the enemy over a period of a few weeks during the spring of 1940: the air crews of 264 Squadron, who flew two-seater Defiant fighters, that are always eclipsed by the Hurricanes and Spitfires. The first Defiant squadron, No. 264, commanded by Sqn Ldr Philip Hunter, a greatly liked and admired leader, had made a encouraging début on May 12 on a patrol near The Hague. A Ju 88 was seen over the sea, bombing two British ships. Hunter and two others went after it and Hunter's air gunner, Leading Aircraftman F. H. King, shot it down. On May 20, 264 Squadron shot down 17 Bf 109s without loss and 11 Ju 87s and 88s which established an unbroken record for the number of aircraft destroyed by any squadron in one day.

The reason for this success, it appears, was that the enemy mistook the Defiant for a Hurricane. Bf 109 pilots thought they could attack it from astern with impunity but were disabused when the four guns in its rotating turret blasted them to oblivion. Bomber crews were unperturbed when a Defiant flew in front of them for the same reason and were equally astonished to find themselves under fire. The ideal attack by a Defiant was to cross ahead of its target at 90 degrees, so that the air gunner could swing his guns to point over the beam. The guns could not fire forward, so a Defiant was defenceless against a head-on attack.

On May 27 over Dunkirk 264 Squadron met Bf 109s for the first time. Seeing eight of these, Hunter ordered the squadron to form line astern. LAC King sent a 109 down in flames. Two other Defiants shared another 109 destroyed. The squadron landed, refuelled and returned to the Dunkirk area. This time they saw 12 He 111s of which they bagged three. By May 31 the squadron's total victories stood at 65.

■ The Evacuation at Dunkirk

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, and Allies, is one of the epic and best-recorded accomplishments of the war, and needs no full and detailed account here. The evacuation, mainly through Dunkirk, began on May 26 and continued under extreme pressure until June 4. Altogether 338,226 men were taken off the Dunkirk beaches to safety in Britain, among them 112,000 Frenchmen who wanted to keep on fighting. Remnants of the British and French armies fought on in France
until the last were rescued from St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire, Nantes, Bayonne and St Jean-de-Luz by June 19.

No. 501 Squadron was the last of the RAF units to depart. It continued patrolling until June 18, first from Le Mans, then Caen and finally Dinard. On June 18 Ginger Lacey left France with five victories to his name.

■ The Effect on the Battle of Britain

What of the effect of those nine months of prelude to the Battle of Britain? At the outset the RAF had less knowledge of air fighting than the Luftwaffe, which had learned much in the Spanish Civil War. It returned from France enriched by new knowledge: the fighters' guns were now harmonised at 250 yards (228m) instead of 400 (365m); the tight V formation was being abandoned in favour of the flexible pairs of the Luftwaffe; the set pattern attacks had been discarded and pilots had adapted themselves to the realities of action, in which the formations of attackers and defenders split into individual combats.

Dowding, who had resisted constant demands from the French and pressure from Churchill to base more fighter squadrons in France during May and June, had proved himself right and a Commander-in-Chief of genius. Park, from whose Group the majority of the fighters that were detached to France for one or a few days belonged, demonstrated his unequalled worth as a tactical commander, and the harmony between these two men, essential to Britain's survival in the coming months, was made clear. The Battle of France was, in fact, a perfect rehearsal for the Battle of Britain.

Fighter Command, however, was weakened by the loss of many pilots and aircraft, but so was the Luftwaffe. The consequence of pilot casualties was that many British fighter squadrons were under-strength during the coming months, but the same applied to the Germans. Britain had the better of it in that her aircraft production under Lord Beaverbrook exceeded Germany's, and losses of Spitfires and Hurricanes were made good more quickly than Messerschmitts were replaced.

The RAF's morale had always been high and was even higher after its success against an air force that greatly outnumbered it. The morale of the Luftwaffe after Poland, Norway, Holland and Belgium had been hugely inflated by complacency, conceit and arrogance. Its experience in France left it severely shaken.

One final question remains: why didn't Hitler invade Britain immediately he had sent the BEF and its accompanying RAF formations packing?

The answer seems to lie partly in the fact that he could not resist halting his advance at the coast in order to focus world attention on the signing of the French instrument of surrender. Another is his admitted reluctance to smash Britain because it would lead to the disintegration of the British Empire, to the benefit of the USA and Japan at the cost of German blood.

A third and highly convincing reason is that the Luftwaffe had never been properly equipped for such an operation and neither it nor the Army had been suitably trained, The Luftwaffe and Army generals were experts in Blitzkrieg warfare. They were tactical geniuses and brilliant exponents of land warfare conducted by the Army and Luftwaffe in cooperation. But an assault on the British Isles would have entailed strategic planning that was entirely strange to them: they were simply not up to the task. It is true that Holland and Belgium had been taken at devastating speed by the use of paratroops. But at that time Germany possessed only 4,500 of these, and by June 1940 this force had scarcely increased in size. It was far too small to take and hold an adequate area of southern England, let alone cope with the difficulty of transporting an invading army across the Channel, when the Royal Navy dominated the seas and would have seen the German Navy off in quick time. Anyway, barges towed at an average of four knots against a current that runs at times at five knots would have been at a ludicrous disadvantage even without a determined opposition.

The most convincing reason of all is clear to anyone who has read Hitler's autobiography,
Mein Kampf
. In it he declares that his mystical intuition always warned him that any war waged against Britain must end in disaster for Germany.


t 1100hrs on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. One hour and three minutes later a Royal Air Force Bomber Command Blenheim of 139 Squadron took off from Wyton on the first operational sortie of World War II. Its task was reconnaissance of German naval ports, and to ensure accurate identification of vessels a Royal Navy officer was aboard. From a height of 24,000ft (7,270m), in perfect visibility, he noted three battleships, two cruisers and seven destroyers in Schilling Roads, off Wilhelmshaven.

The weather was deteriorating. Thundery atmospheric conditions and the long distance from base distorted the signal reporting the sighting and delayed further action until the Blenheim landed. At 1815hrs, nine Wellingtons of 37 and 149 Squadrons from Feltwell and Mildenhall, respectively, with 18 Hampdens of 49 and 83 Squadrons from Scampton and 44 and 50 Squadrons from Waddington, were airborne on what would have been the first British bombing raid of the war. Bad weather and nightfall frustrated them and they returned without having seen their targets. By 2240hrs the Wellingtons had touched down, and the Hampdens by two minutes after midnight.

The combined firepower of the battleships or the cruisers alone would have ensured that a force of 27 contemporary medium bombers
was inadequate to sink or even damage severely one quarter of the 14 ships it was intended to attack. But these two formations were a generous provision out of Bomber Command's modest total of up-to-date aircraft.

The RAF's Order of Battle at home at that date was:

529 Battles, 338 Blenheims, 169 Hampdens, 160 Wellingtons and 140 Whitleys. The Battles were obsolescent and only the Blenheims and Wellingtons met contemporary performance requirements.

347 Hurricanes, 187 Spitfires, 111 Blenheims, 76 Gladiators and 26 Gauntlets. The biplane Gauntlets and Gladiators were obsolescent and the three-seater Blenheims, designed as bombers, were a makeshift as night fighters.

Coastal General Reconnaissance (GR) aircraft:
301 Ansons, 53 Hudsons, 30 Vildebeests, 27 Sunderlands, 17 Londons and 9 Stranraers.

Army Co-operation aircraft:
95 Lysanders, 46 Hinds and nine Hectors.

There were also Oxfords, Harvards, Harts, Tiger Moths and Blackburn D2s at training schools; Magisters, Mentors and Vega Gulls for communication; Henrys and Wallaces to tow targets for gunnery practice and to exercise anti-aircraft batteries.

The total of operational types was paltry compared with Germany's. In particular the fighter strength was smaller than the Luftwaffe's and even more outnumbered by the huge enemy bomber force against which it was to defend the United Kingdom. But, although Fighter Command was still at a numerical disadvantage when the Battle of Britain began ten months later, its numbers had grown and only one squadron of the obsolescent Gladiator fighters remained.

In Britain, flying by the armed forces began in 1912 with the formation of the Royal Flying Corps. It comprised two Wings: Military, under War Office control, and Naval, answerable to the Admiralty. In 1914 they separated and the Naval Wing became the Royal Naval Air Service. On April 1, 1918, both were combined to form the world's first independent air arm, the Royal Air Force, with its own Air Ministry. (In 1924 the Admiralty created the Fleet Air Arm.)

The development of British military aviation was precipitated in August 1914, when Germany, ambitious to rule Europe, invaded Britain's allies France and Belgium. The total aircraft strength of the Service was 179. When the war ended in November 1918 the RAF had 397 operational
and training squadrons, at home and in France, Italy, the Middle East, India and Canada, with some 3,300 aircraft.

After the armistice the RAF quickly diminished as squadrons were disbanded, but its campaigning continued. No. 221 Squadron had been sent to Russia in 1918 to help the White Russians, who were fighting the Bolsheviks, followed by 47 Squadron in June 1919. In August, No. 221 returned home, then went to Somaliland in 1920 to put down a rising. No. 47 stayed in Russia until April 1920.

Britain had an empire to protect. The RAF maintained a higher level of training and a sharper state of operational preparedness than any other air force in the world and was gaining operational experience that was denied to anyone else. In 1923 the aircraft carrier
Ark Royal
took aircraft to the Dardanelles to prevent a threatened attack by Turkey against Greece, which would destabilise the Levant. These were joined by a squadron from Egypt, another from Malta and one from Scotland. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Service was responsible for keeping the peace in the Middle East, where aeroplanes were the only means of patrolling the vast desert areas, and in the mountains of the North-West Frontier, across which Pathan tribes constantly made armed forays into India. By January 1925 the RAF, most of whose aircraft were types that had seen service in World War I, consisted of 43 squadrons and four flying training schools, stationed in Britain, Malta, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Aden, Sudan and India.

It was organised in geographical commands: at home, Inland Area and Coastal Area (the RAF College at Cranwell and School of Technical Training at Halton also had Area status); overseas, Middle East (headquarters in Cairo), Iraq (HQ Baghdad), India (HQ Ambala) and Mediterranean (HQ Malta).

Of its squadrons, 10 were fighter, flying the wartime Snipe or Bristol Fighter and the 1924 Grebe or Siskin; 19 were bomber, operating the wartime DH9A or Vimy, and 1924 Fawn or Virginia; two were bomber-transport, equipped with the 1922 Vernon; and 10 were Army cooperation, with the Bristol Fighter. In 1927 the Air Ministry posted squadrons to Hong Kong and Shanghai; and to Singapore in 1928.

The Service was also pioneering in the wider practice of aviation. It carried mail between Britain and its army on the Rhine and between Cairo and Baghdad. It made long-distance proving flights, such as from the Cape to Cairo in 1925 and from England to Australia in 1927.
Between December 1928 and February 1929 it carried out the world's first large-scale airlift when 318 British and other European women and children, followed by 268 men from the British Legation and other diplomatic missions, were evacuated from Kabul.

Later in 1929 a specially built Fairey monoplane made the first nonstop England to India flight, in under 51 hours. In 1931, flying the Supermarine S6B from which the Spitfire was developed, the RAF set the world's speed record at 407.5mph (652km/h) and won the Schneider Trophy outright for three successive victories in the biennial race. In 1933 it achieved the world long-distance record of 5,309 miles (8,494km), in 57 hours 25 minutes, non-stop between Cranwell and Walvis Bay, South Africa, again in a Fairey monoplane built to Air Ministry specification. In 1937, it broke the world altitude record with a climb to 53,937ft (16,344m) in a Bristol 138A. The RAF was experienced and a world-beater in aviation matters, with excellent equipment and highly trained personnel, but was unprepared for the tremendous conflict that was to come.

A minority of officer pilots, those who had graduated at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, were granted Permanent Commissions. The majority entered on Short Service Commissions that gave them four or five years with the regular force and four years on the Reserve. To ensure a civilian back-up on which to draw in an emergency, the Auxiliary Air Force was formed in 1925, to train air and ground crews at weekends and annual camps. By 1939 the AAF comprised 21 squadrons. Also in 1925, the Oxford and Cambridge University Air Squadrons were raised and in 1935 one at London University.

BOOK: The Battle of Britain
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