New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 11 — Day Fighters, 1941
Day Fighters, 1941
BY the end of October 1940 the German air attacks on the British Isles in daylight had largely spent their force; they had been replaced by night raids on London that were soon to be extended to the principal ports and industrial centres. But the daylight attacks did not cease abruptly. Indeed no sharp break was noticeable at the time as, throughout November, the enemy continued the fighter and fighter-bomber sweeps over Kent and Sussex which had been a feature of his operations during the previous weeks. However, the German formations now flew at less extreme altitudes than before, probably owing to the declining season, and it became easier to intercept them. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy and the proportion of British pilots lost was smaller than in earlier months.
In November 1940 there were two interesting developments in the enemy plan and method of attack. Firstly, there was a brief renewal of daylight bombing attacks on shipping in the Channel and Thames Estuary, in which the Germans employed Junkers 87 dive-bombers which had not been seen in action since the middle of August. Secondly, Italian bombers and fighters appeared for the first time in raids against England.1 At first the Italian bombers crossed the Channel under cover of German fighter escort and then, growing bolder, under escort of their own fighters. It proved a costly intervention and after a fortnight’s operations the Italian force was withdrawn. On 11 November, after an unusually intensive day’s work by his squadrons of No. 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Park reported:
The enemy was most active. During the day attacks were directed against London and against shipping off the Essex coast and the Estuary. Italian aircraft were used in large numbers for the first time, unescorted by German fighters. Several formations of Ju. 87s also operated at low level with escorts of Me. 109s at 8000–15,000 feet. The Ju. 87s were variously reported in ragged formations, twenty in vics of five and two formations of thirteen to fifteen aircraft. It is reported that damage to shipping was slight whereas enemy casualties were high, the Italians suffering heavily.
1 During October Mussolini had despatched 40 bombers (Br20s) and 54 fighters (CR42s) to bases in the Brussels area to take part in the assault on Britain. It was, however, more of a political gesture than a serious military effort.
Two attacks in the morning were made by Me109s over Kent, with a few enemy aircraft penetrating to the outskirts of London. Seven squadrons were despatched to intercept and many combats took place. Then just after midday, about 60 enemy aircraft, Ju. 87s. with Me. 109 escort, attacked shipping off the Essex coast and the Estuary. Eight squadrons were airborne, four of which had successful combats. An hour later a further attack was made on shipping by about 50 enemy machines, believed to be all Italian. Of the nine bombers, eight were destroyed and the other damaged. Five fighters were also destroyed, one probably destroyed and a further five damaged with no loss to our own squadrons in either aircraft or pilots.
Altogether, on this day 25 enemy machines were claimed for the loss of two British pilots. Subsequently enemy activity was on a more restricted scale and both the fighter sweeps and the attacks on shipping finally petered out early in December. Thereafter the Germans were content to send over single aircraft, usually in cloudy weather, to bomb aircraft factories and similar objectives. These intermittent raids did little material damage but they did have a considerable nuisance value and, for a time, caused a degree of concern and disturbance in industry out of all proportion to their strength.
New Zealand fighter pilots stationed in the south of England at this time were frequently engaged with their squadrons in defeating these various forms of attack. In particular, there were a number of lively encounters with enemy formations intercepted during the November attacks on coastal shipping. While the Junkers 87 dive-bombers were no match for the British fighters, their escort of Messerschmitts had always to be reckoned with. During an engagement early in the month one New Zealand pilot had just sent a German bomber into the sea when his Spitfire was hit by cannon shell, which tore off part of a wing and wounded him in the arm and leg. He managed to turn on his assailant—a Messerschmitt 109—and drive him off, then landed his damaged machine in a field.
During this same period several New Zealanders shot down Messerschmitt fighters intercepted in sweeps over south-eastern England. Flying Officer J. N. Mackenzie and Pilot Officer E. P. Wells achieved particular distinction while flying with No. 41 Spitfire Squadron based at Hornchurch, the famous fighter airfield in Essex which had suffered heavy bombing attacks during the summer months. Mackenzie had been with this squadron from the outbreak of war and had taken part in the patrols over Dunkirk. During the Battle of Britain he had led a section with conspicuous success and was now credited with the destruction of six enemy aircraft and a further three probables. On one occasion during page 226 November 1940, he displayed unusual audacity by joining three Messerschmitts in formation and shooting one of them down into the sea before they were aware of his presence. Among Wells’ achievements was the destruction of one of a formation of enemy fighters which he attacked alone after becoming separated from his squadron during a patrol. He was also the first British pilot to engage the Italian fighters on 11 November as they approached the East Coast. Flying on convoy patrol with his squadron, he had broken away to investigate a patch of oil on the sea when he caught sight of some biplanes in small formations at various heights above him. They came down in diving attacks. Wells avoided them and eventually succeeded in gaining enough height to make the same manoeuvre against several of the Italian machines. He was able to get in a long burst at one Fiat, upon which ‘large pieces flew off the front of the engine and the aircraft went down in cloud’.
Among other successful pilots at this time was Squadron Leader Blake, whose exploits included the shooting down of a Dornier and a share in the destruction of another whilst on protective patrol over a damaged destroyer in the Channel. Flying Officers Hayter and Rabone and Pilot Officer Spurdle1 each claimed at least one victim in interceptions by their squadrons. One day early in December Spurdle’s No. 74 Squadron scored a notable victory by claiming, without loss to themselves, eight of a group of enemy fighters which they pursued across the Channel to France. Spurdle saw his victim dive into the sea. No. 74 was led by the famous South African fighter pilot, Squadron Leader ‘Sailor’ Malan,2 who had served with the Union Castle Line before joining the RAF. Malan had already won distinction during the Battle of Britain and came to be regarded as the top-scoring fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force.
1 Wing Commander R. L. Spurdle, DFC and bar; Wanganui; born Wanganui, 3 Mar 1918; warehouseman; joined RNZAF Sep 1939; transferred RAF Jul 1940; retransferred RNZAF Jul 1945; commanded No. 80 Sqdn, 1944–45; Staff duty, Admin Plans, No. 83 Group, 2nd TAF, 1945; Wing Leader, No. 39 Wing, No. 83 Group, 1945.
2 Group Captain A. G. Malan, DSO and bar, DFC and bar; Croix de Guerre (Bel), Military Cross (Czech), Legion of Honour and Croix de Guerre (Fr); South Africa; born Wellington, South Africa, 3 Oct 1910; joined RAF 1936; commanded No. 74 Sqdn, 1940–41; CFI, No, 58 OTU, 1941; served with British Air Staff, Washington, 1941–42; commanded Central Gunnery School, 1942; RAF Station, Biggin Hill, 1943; No. 19 Wing 1943–44; No. 145 Wing, 2nd TAF, 1944; member of Directing Staff, RAF Staff College, 1945–46.
Those responsible for the air defence of Britain experienced no such feelings of frustration. They were, in fact, glad of this respite for they knew that the fighter force available to meet renewed German attacks on a large scale was relatively weak. Indeed, at the end of 1940, barely half the operational day squadrons in Fighter Command were, in the strictest sense, first-line squadrons, while many of the remaining units had only a few pilots fully up to operational standard. At the same time it was necessary to find instructors for the expanding training organisation, while calls were already being made for pilots to be sent to the Middle East.
In the event, the mass attacks made by the Germans in the summer of 1940 were not repeated, as the main strength of the Luftwaffe was being husbanded for the Russian campaign. But even so the strength of Russian resistance could not be foreseen; it appeared that the Germans might secure an early decision on the Eastern Front and then turn to renew their daylight attacks in the West. Therefore, advantage was taken of the period of freedom from such attack to strengthen the fighter force and the organisation upon which its successful operation wholly depended. In 1940 the flanks of the air defence system had stood roughly on the Firth of of Forth and Portsmouth. Expansion of the group and sector control system was continued so that, by the middle of 1941, short-range fighters could be operated under close control over almost every part of Great Britain with the exception of north-west Scot- land. This development was accompanied by a considerable expansion of the artillery and balloon defences. In addition, the page 228 chain of coastal radar stations, in which members of the WAAF did outstanding service as operators and watchers, was extended in an endeavour to provide complete early warning over the western sea approaches and also to deal with the problem of the low-flying raider.
As the year went on, the expanding training organisation was able to provide an increased flow of pilots to keep pace with losses and the postings of men to other commands. In this respect the contribution of the Commonwealth countries was substantial. Pilots trained in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were now reaching the United Kingdom in increasing numbers and, during 1941, many were posted to reinforce the Royal Air Force fighter squadrons. Altogether just over 400 New Zealand airmen served with Fighter Command in the course of that year, the large majority as pilots with operational squadrons, although a few men played their part in various duties in the complex ground organisation. Some of the more experienced pilots also served for a time as instructors in operational training units or as controllers in the fighter operations rooms.
1 Wing Commander J. S. McLean, OBE, DFC; born Hawera, 19 Feb 1912; joined RAF 1932; commanded No. 111 Sqdn, 1941; Wing Leader, North Weald, 1941; commanded RAF Station, Hunsdon, 1941–42; RAF Station, Catterick, 1943; Staff duty, Organisation, No. 10 Fighter Group, 1944; commanded RAF Station, Preddanack, 1945.
When, in February 1941, the Germans resumed air action by day against the British Isles, it was on a limited scale and directed mainly against shipping along the coasts and in the Atlantic approaches. Occasional raids on aircraft factories persisted for a short time, but thereafter the only enemy activity over land in daylight consisted of reconnaissance flights and a few ‘tip and run’ attacks on coastal towns and airfields. However, in conjunction with the enemy’s vigorous U-boat offensive, minelaying and the night bombing of ports, the renewed air attacks on shipping represented a serious threat to British survival, so, from March onwards, Fighter Command devoted an increasing portion of its effort to the protection of coastal convoys. For the pilots this meant flying ‘standing patrols’ over the ships or else waiting ready in their aircraft for reports of enemy bombers approaching the coast. With the limited number of machines available at any particular point and the short endurance of the contemporary fighter aircraft, it was not possible to provide continuous cover, yet many pilots achieved remarkable totals of hours flown during these months.
The patrols themselves were exacting and hazardous. Ships’ gunners were apt to ‘shoot first and look afterwards’ while a sudden deterioration in the weather could make the handling of a high-performance fighter a difficult business. Moreover, because of the enemy’s tip and run tactics, such engagements as did occur were seldom conclusive. Usually the German machine escaped into cloud—that refuge of the pursued, enemy of the pursuer—and pilots could only claim ‘some damage’ with an occasional ‘probable’. Nevertheless the fighter patrols, unspectacular as they were, acted as a useful deterrent and on many occasions ships were saved from actual attack, the bombers being driven off or else forced to drop bombs aimlessly in order to make good their escape. At the same time British merchant ships were being armed and, in particular, armour plate protection given to the gunners, with the result that, as the months passed, attacks on coastal convoys in daylight steadily declined. Meanwhile the desultory raids over land by fighters and fighter-bombers had almost entirely ceased, as with the opening of the campaign against Russia in June the German Air Force had been forced to adopt a more defensive role in the West. Subsequently the expected release of both fighters and bombers from the Russian front failed to materialise and the British Isles remained immune from heavy air attack. Fighter Command, page 230 although still charged with important defensive duties such as the protection of coastwise shipping and the interception of occasional bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, was therefore able to turn towards the offensive over the Continent.
The first offensive patrols by fighters had been flown in December 1940, and during the next six months four main types of operation were gradually developed. First there were sorties with Blenheim bombers which attacked targets within fighter range in order to provoke the enemy into accepting combat under less favourable conditions. These soon came to be known as ‘circus’ operations. At other times in clear weather large formations of fighters went out alone on sweeps over northern France, ‘trailing their coats’ as it were, seeking combat with the enemy. Then, on days when the sky was more overcast, single aircraft or small flights ranged over the same area, darting out from cloud cover to machine-gun airfield buildings, grounded aircraft, artillery and searchlight posts and similar objectives. These latter sorties, known as ‘Rhubarbs’, supplemented the bombing attacks already being made by aircraft of both Bomber and Coastal Commands on fringe targets.
Offensive operations on a large scale began with a sweep over the coast of France by five squadrons of fighters on 9 January 1941. The first sortie with bombers followed shortly afterwards when dispersal pens serving landing grounds near Calais were attacked. Altogether 27 such circus operations were flown during the next six months, the objectives for the bombers including the docks at Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne, a number of airfields, coastal ship- ping, and industrial plants known to be working for the Germans. In addition more than forty sweeps by fighters without bombers were made during the same period.
Unfortunately, these early offensive operations seldom succeeded in bringing the enemy to action. Indeed, until June 1941, no major fighter battle occurred. The Germans seemed reluctant to accept combat under normal conditions and remained content to pounce on stragglers or otherwise exploit any favourable circumstance of height or weather that arose. This was disappointing, but at least Fighter Command could claim that it had wrested the initiative from the enemy and was forcing him onto the defensive.
From the outset New Zealand pilots, many of them veterans of the Battle of Britain, flew on these various offensive patrols; but with the limited opportunities for combat, few men were able to report successes against the enemy during the early months of 1941. Among those more fortunate was Pilot Officer Spurdle who, after an eventful sortie on 1 March, was credited with the destruction of page 231 two Messerschmitts. That day Spitfires from three squadrons had been ordered to sweep from Etaples to Dunkirk, and as they approached the French coast twelve Messerschmitts were sighted flying towards them. The Germans were slightly higher than the British formation. Spurdle got in one of the first bursts, ‘pulling the nose of his aircraft up and firing at the leader’. The enemy machine burst into flames and went down. Spurdle’s second success came while the Spitfires were retiring across the Channel. He saw his leader being attacked by a Messerschmitt so caught up and opened fire. The German plane was seen to crash into the sea. A few weeks later the same pilot had a further encounter while flying on a small intruder patrol. It was a dull afternoon when, in company with another Spitfire, he crossed the Belgian coast and headed south to shoot up the airfield at St. Omer. Flying back to the coast, Spurdle’s aircraft was suddenly hit by machine-gun fire and cannon shells. Part of his controls was shot away and the engine began vibrating badly but he managed to climb into cloud before the German attacked again. On emerging from cover a few moments later, he sighted his assailant just ahead and got in a quick burst. The Messerschmitt went down to crash-land in a field. Spurdle was then able to get his damaged machine back across the Channel.
Squadron Leaders Jameson and W. G. Clouston both led their squadrons in a number of the early offensive operations. Clouston’s No. 258 Squadron, in which a majority of the pilots were New Zealanders, had adopted the fernleaf as its unofficial badge, this emblem being painted on the Hurricane aircraft with which the squadron was equipped. For a short time after its formation in November 1940, at a base in Yorkshire, the pilots had been employed in escorting convoys off the north-east coast. There followed a period of three months at Jurby, Isle of Man, where patrols were flown to intercept German aircraft attacking the north-western ports of the United Kingdom, including Belfast. Then had come a welcome change to offensive operations after a transfer to one of the ‘front line’ airfields in south-eastern England.
Towards the end of May the squadron took part in the largest circus operation that had so far been launched. This was an attack on a Benzole refinery near Bethune by a force of 18 Blenheims, supported by twelve squadrons of fighters. No. 258 was one of the three squadrons of the Kenley Wing which acted as close escort to the bombers. The remaining squadrons provided advance and withdrawal cover. After forming up over Kent, the Blenheims and their escort crossed the Channel without incident but, as they page 232 approached the target, a formation of Messerschmitts attempted to attack the bombers. The enemy were eventually driven off, but further confused fighting developed after the target had been bombed. Clouston and several of his pilots were among those involved in these combats, after which four Messerschmitts were claimed destroyed for the loss of three British fighters and one bomber.
In most of the contemporary operations such encounters as did occur were skirmishes rather than sustained air battles, although so far a slight advantage appeared to rest with the attacking forma- tions.1 At the same time valuable experience was being gained and the first steps taken towards developing an offensive against the Luftwaffe that was later to supplement the attacks of Bomber Command on German airfields and aircraft factories. Two important changes had meanwhile been made in the organisation of the flying units in Fighter Command. The first was the employment of the section of two aircraft instead of three. This was considered more efficient when a formation broke up in the course of combat as pilots could give and receive greater mutual protection. The second change was the more general adoption of the three-squadron wing as a tactical unit, an innovation which had been the subject of lively controversy during and after the Battle of Britain. Now, however, with the respite from further heavy daylight attack and the need to employ large formations on offensive patrols, there were obvious advantages in having three-squadron wings at certain bases in southern England so that pilots who were to fly in these wing formations could live and train together.
In June 1941, with the German attack on Russia, it became necessary to check the withdrawal of Luftwaffe units to the East and, if possible, to force the return of some of those units already transferred. It was clearly to Britain’s advantage to prevent a rapid German victory and, by aiding Russian resistance, gain a respite for the development and expansion of Russia’s strength. It was therefore decided to intensify the air offensive—in particular, to increase the number of escorted bombing raids against the industrial area of northern France, since it was only in defence of targets in this area that the enemy had so far reacted at all energetically.
1 Between 1 January and 13 June 1941, 50 British pilots were lost in daylight offensive operations, while the German records admit the loss of 58 fighter aircraft in active operations over northern France during the same period.
Throughout June and July 1941 many such air battles were fought and the destruction of enemy fighters in large numbers reported. But in the confused fighting, where many aircraft were milling round at the same moment in a small area, there was much honest error and it was impossible to know for certain the result of every individual encounter. There were also the disadvantages inherent in fighting over enemy territory. It now appears that during these two months some eighty German fighters were destroyed for the loss of 123 British pilots. Nevertheless, in spite of this adverse balance, the Royal Air Force offensive was imposing a considerable strain on the German fighter squadrons in the West. German records reveal that, by the end of July, their day fighter strength in that area had been reduced by one third owing to losses sustained in meeting the British attacks.
New Zealand fighter pilots—at this time concentrated largely in the squadrons based in the south—took part in all but two of the circus operations flown during June and July. Several experienced pilots led formations in these missions. At the beginning of June Wing Commander Jameson was appointed to lead the No. 12 Group wing of which his old squadron formed part, while Squadron Leaders Aitken, Blake, W. G. Clouston and McLean each led squadrons. In August Clouston went to Malaya to form No. 488 Squadron, McLean was appointed wing leader at North Weald in No. 11 Group, and Blake wing leader at Portreath. At the same time Squadron Leaders Deere and Gray, who had flown together during the Battle of Britain, each assumed command of Spitfire squadrons in the south of England. Deere had returned to flying in May after periods as a flying instructor and controller in page 234 an operations room, while Gray had been with No. 1 Squadron where he had done valuable work as a flight commander and in training new pilots.
The New Zealand fighter squadron under Squadron Leader Knight had begun to take part in offensive patrols over northern France towards the end of June. On the 23rd, when No. 485 participated for the first time, eleven Spitfires flew with the wing led by Jameson as part of the 18-squadron cover for 24 Blenheims detailed to attack a power station and chemical works in northern France. The particular task of Jameson’s wing was to patrol between Le Touquet and Hardelot at between 15,000 and 20,000 feet and cover the withdrawal of the bombers and their close escort. The patrol proved uneventful until the fighters turned for home, when they were engaged by a formation of Messerschmitts. Jameson himself was attacked by two of the enemy but, catching one machine in his sights as it broke away, succeeded in shooting it down. Other combats in which New Zealanders were involved proved inconclusive.
Until the end of June the New Zealand Squadron remained at Leconfield, in Yorkshire, sending detachments south for particular operations on five successive days. Then followed a quick move to Redhill, Surrey, where for the next four months the unit flew as part of the Kenley Wing in various types of offensive operations over France. In addition, individual pilots flew convoy patrols and occasional sorties to protect air-sea rescue aircraft and launches. With the long hours of daylight of the northern summer came a period of intensive flying, and although many sorties were unevent- ful, the continued activity was welcomed by pilots who had found their sojourn in a northern sector of England extremely irksome. During July the squadron took part in 22 of the 30 circus operations flown, with the bombers attacking such targets as industrial plants and power stations in the Lille area, at Bethune and Hazebrouck. On many days the squadron’s Spitfires provided close escort, a difficult task particularly in cloudy weather, since it involved meeting the bombers at a fixed time at the rendezvous point, forming up, and then maintaining close contact throughout the flight to and from the target. Occasionally, however, the role was changed, and the New Zealanders flew as ‘forward cover’, ‘target support’, or as ‘withdrawal cover’ to the bomber force.
On 5 July Flight Lieutenant Wells scored No. 485’s first success over France. Thirteen Spitfires from the squadron, in company with others from No. 258, led by Clouston, were flying as part of the close cover to Stirling bombers in their attack on a steelworks at Lille. As the British formation neared the target area several page 235 Messerschmitts approached the bombers. Wells got on the tail of one of them and, after a brief attack, the enemy machine went down and the pilot was seen to bale out. A few minutes later, when the Spitfires were returning to the French coast, he attacked a second Messerschmitt. After a few short bursts the enemy machine caught fire and went spinning down. Three days later, when the squadron was covering the withdrawal of bombers from France, Pilot Officer Stewart1 intercepted a Messerschmitt over the Channel and shot it down into the sea after a brief engagement. Subsequent missions brought no further successes until the following week, when Wells claimed another victim while the squadron was escorting bombers to Cherbourg. Wells, now commanding a flight, soon became known as ‘Hawk-Eye’ among his fellow pilots—perhaps not altogether surprising for one who had been a clay-pigeon shooting champion in New Zealand before the war.
No. 258 Squadron flew many offensive patrols over northern France during June and July. One of its most successful days was on 16 June when Clouston led the Hurricanes as part of the close escort to Blenheim bombers in an attack on targets at Boulogne. German fighters were met as the British formation approached the port and a series of dogfights soon developed. Flight Lieutenant Bush saw two Messerschmitts on the tail of a Blenheim which was almost down on the sea endeavouring to shake them off. He dived on one of the German fighters and shot it down into the Channel. The other then turned away and the Blenheim escaped. About the same moment an English pilot from the squadron sent a second Messerschmitt down but was himself forced to bale out of his damaged machine during the return flight. He was subsequently rescued from his dinghy. Pilot Officers Dobbyn,2 Marshall,3 and McAlister4 were among others who reported successful engagements during the brief battle in which the British squadrons claimed eleven German aircraft destroyed for the loss of three pilots. Two bombers also failed to return. No. 258 Squadron was one of the fighter units sent to Malaya a few months later, and several of the original New Zealand members were still with the unit during the last flights in defence of Singapore before its capture by the Japanese.
Flight Lieutenant Hayter had several successful combats while flying with No. 611 Squadron. He had begun his operational career with a bomber squadron early in 1940. Then he transferred to fighters and during 1941 was commended for the initiative and skill which he displayed in leading his flight and, on occasion, his squadron in offensive operations over France. He was later to win further distinction in command of a fighter squadron in the Middle East.
Flying with No. 74 Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Carlson2 and Pilot Officer Sandman3 had a number of lively engagements. Towards the end of June both men were twice involved in dogfights on the one day. In the initial stages of one combat Carlson’s machine was badly hit but, by skilful manoeuvring, he was able to turn sharply upon his adversary and shoot him down into the sea. Sandman came out of his encounters with a ‘probable’ and one ‘confirmed’ which his leader saw spin down and crash. On this occasion his squadron was covering Blenheims attacking the marshalling yards at Hazebrouck, and the enemy’s reaction was somewhat stronger than usual. Unfortunately Sandman was one of several pilots lost during a sweep over France a few days later and was taken prisoner. Carlson continued flying and later served with distinction in the Middle East.
1 Wing Commander R. J. C. Grant, DFC and bar, DFM; born Woodville, 3 Jun 1914; metal spinner; joined RNZAF Nov 1939; commanded No. 485 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942–43; No. 65 Sqdn, 1943–44; No. 122 Wing, 1944; killed on air operations, 28 Feb 1944.
During the same month Squadron Leader Blake had an unenviable experience. He was leading his Spitfire squadron in an attack against enemy ships at Cherbourg when, on the way out from the port, Messerschmitts appeared in strength. In the ensuing dogfights Blake shot two down, but his Spitfire was badly damaged and eventually he was forced to land on the sea. The aircraft sank immediately and it was some seconds before Blake could struggle free and reach the surface.
Remember seeing a seagull pass the wing tip then everything seemed to happen at once. Water flowed over me. Undid the straps and tried to get out but the parachute was holding me into the seat. The instinct was to release the parachute but I stifled the urge as the dinghy was in it. It was very dark and I realised the aircraft was over the vertical and well down so twisted round in the cockpit and wriggled my head and shoulders out. I could see it was lighter in one direction which must be the way up. Kicked off and seemed to rise at an incredible speed. I felt like a cork as I burst out of the surface of the sea. I inflated the dinghy by turning on the CO2 bottle and scrambled in. Fortunately it was calm but there was no land in sight. And it was dreadfully quiet. However a slight wind began to blow me steadily north toward the Isle of Wight.
Nine hours later Blake was picked up by a searching launch to find that his successes had been confirmed by other pilots.2
1 Group Captain D. R. S. Bader, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, Legion of Honour and Croix de Guerre with Palm (Fr); England; born London, 21 Feb 1910; Cranwell Cadet; permanent commission RAF 1930; invalided out of RAF 1933; rejoined RAF Nov 1939; commanded No. 242 Sqdn, 1940–41; p.w. 9 Aug 1941; commanded Sector HQ North Weald, 1945. Bader was involved in a crash shortly after he joined the Royal Air Force. Both legs were amputated, one completely and the other at the knee. However, he soon became very skilful in the use of his metal legs and when war came in 1939 he argued his way to a medical board and passed into active service with a fighter squadron. During the Battle of Britain he led a Canadian squadron with great success and subsequently, in 1941, led many sweeps over the Channel and northern France. On 9 August of that year he was last seen by Sergeant West in hot pursuit of a Messerschmitt which was attempting to dive away from him. He sent the enemy machine down in flames but, whilst pulling up after the attack, collided with another Messerschmitt. Bader escaped from his crippled fighter by parachute and was captured. He was forced to jettison one of his legs which got caught in the controls so a new pair of artificial limbs was dropped for him on St. Omer airfield shortly afterwards.
2 Blake adds an interesting postscript. ‘This was the first time the fighter-type dinghy had been used in our squadron and all the pilots thought it was the answer—“ocean-travel made easy”. The next day there were arguments about how to get into it so we all went down to the swimming pool and they each took a dinghy, jumped in and inflated them. They all sank. A chill feeling in my stomach made me realise there was an element of luck somewhere. My dinghy had been kept in the office while the others had been left in the aircraft where they perished. Dinghy servicing was introduced smartly’.
As might be expected, the large-scale operations did not always run smoothly. Often protection of the bombers in the target area became difficult when their formation was split up by anti-aircraft fire; sometimes there was a time lag at the rendezvous point while, in cloudy skies, maintaining close protection was not easy. Indeed this occasionally produced unpleasant surprises. One day towards the end of July, a Spitfire squadron flying on a circus operation to Lille became separated from the rest of the wing in cloud and later joined up with what they believed to be a formation of British fighters. After flying in company for a few seconds through broken cloud, they found themselves attacked by what was, in reality, a squadron of Messerschmitts.
Towards the end of the month two further victories came to No. 485 Squadron, Sergeant Sweetman1 and an English pilot each reporting successful combats when their formation was attacked whilst returning across the French coast. In the same engagement Sergeant Griffith’s2 machine was badly damaged and he was forced to bale out only a few miles from the enemy shore; but his luck held and he was picked up by a British rescue launch within an hour. Altogether the squadron had been fortunate in losing only four pilots during the month since, as the enemy gained more experience in repelling the British attacks, his opposition had become more effective. With improvements in the German warning system,3 the British formations now frequently found Messerschmitts above them when they crossed the French coast and the balance of advantage began to turn against Fighter Command. In August 98 British fighter pilots were lost for the destruction, according to German records, of only 33 enemy machines.
3 At the beginning of the year the Germans had possessed no elaborate defensive system in northern France such as existed in southern England, but under stress of the Royal Air Force offensive they had developed a chain of radar and reporting stations which gave them, by the autumn of 1941, a fairly efficient warning system. They were then able to broadcast information regarding the approach of the British formations to assist their fighters in making interceptions.
New Zealand pilots flew on all but one of these missions. On 4 September 18 of them were with fighter squadrons which escorted bombers to attack the power stations at Mazingarbe. This was the type of target which the enemy was anxious to protect and he reacted in considerable strength, a total of 75 German fighters being reported airborne on various interception patrols. As the main British force crossed the French coast and flew towards the target, formations of Messerschmitts were encountered and it fell to the pilots of the North Weald Wing, acting as close escort, to ward off attacks on the bombers. McLean, who was leading this wing, was able to shoot down one Messerschmitt which he saw overtaking the bomber formation and several of his pilots had similar successes. Most of the enemy’s attacks were repelled and only one bomber was shot down. The rest got through to their objective and reported successful bombing, including several direct hits on vital portions of the power plants. Meanwhile, pilots in the other squadrons covering the main operation became involved with the enemy in spirited combat and claimed seven Messerschmitts for the loss of six Spitfires. Flight Sergeant Caldwell1 had a remarkable escape during an engagement about ten miles inside the French coast. Endeavouring to outmanoeuvre a group of three Messerschmitts, he was suddenly attacked from behind by a fourth. A burst through the after end of the fuselage shot away elevator cables and damaged the radio. Bullets spattered against the armour plating behind him. The engine was also hit, smoke began to fill the cockpit, and glycol smeared the windscreen. The German then left him as finished but he managed to recover. ‘My aircraft went temporarily out of con- trol,’ Caldwell afterwards reported. ‘But I found that by opening the throttle I could keep the nose up. This was the only thing possible as I had no fore and aft control with the stick.’ Eventually he was able to turn for home; he got within ten miles of Dover when the engine caught fire and he was forced to bale out. His plight was observed, however, and he was picked up by a rescue launch after he had been paddling his dinghy for about half an hour.
Such losses now became more frequent. During September and October enemy opposition to the Royal Air Force offensive over France had noticeably stiffened and fairly heavy casualties, amounting to 108 pilots, were inflicted on the attacking squadrons. This loss was certainly not offset by the 43 fighter aircraft which German records show were lost during the same period in resisting the British attacks, more particularly as most of the German pilots who baled out over their own territory lived to fight again. The enemy had clearly increased the advantage which he had regained after British successes earlier in the year. This was confirmed by the results of the last circus operation of 1941, flown on 8 November, when only five German aircraft were claimed for the loss of 14 British pilots. These mounting losses, which coincided with heavy casualties in Bomber Command, brought about a decision to decrease the scale of Royal Air Force offensive operations until the following spring. The outbreak of war with Japan a few weeks later provided added justification for conserving British air strength, since it was felt that the demands of the Pacific war might well mean a reduction in the number of aircraft available for the European theatre.
Although the intensity of the fighter offensive was substantially reduced during the closing months of the year, New Zealand pilots continued to fly with their squadrons, escorting bombers to attack the Channel ports and enemy shipping in the narrow seas. Ranging further inland under cover of cloudy skies, single aircraft or small formations shot up railway yards, fuel installations, anti-aircraft gun positions and enemy-occupied airfields. The latter ‘freelance’ sorties offered much scope for individual initiative and original tactics. Pilots were free to attack military targets as opportunity offered, with the result that a railway engine, a minesweeper, and grounded enemy aircraft might be among the objectives reported after a single successful sortie. The air attacks on enemy shipping in the Straits of Dover, which had been maintained fairly intensively during the second half of the year, now practically denied this passage during the hours of daylight to the Germans, who were forced to move their convoys through at night or under cover of low cloud— a procedure which exposed them to attack by units of the Royal Navy. Heavy losses had been suffered by the Blenheim bombers in page 244 their low-level attacks on well-armed convoys, for while the supporting British fighters could usually ward off enemy air attack, they were unable to deal effectively with the German flak-ships, by whose accurate fire many Blenheims were crippled during their bombing run.
An interesting and timely innovation in the air attacks on surface targets at this time was the employment of the Hurricane as a fighter-bomber, this versatile machine1 having been adapted to carry two 500-pound bombs slung under the wings. The first squadron to be equipped with the ‘Hurri-bombers’ was, from the beginning of December, commanded by Squadron Leader Mowat, who had flown in fighter operations from the outbreak of war. Spitfires from No. 485 Squadron escorted the Hurricanes on several of their early missions against such objectives as power stations, enemy airfields, the Channel ports and shipping in the Straits of Dover, and in many of these attacks effective bombing was reported. Targets at sea proved difficult to locate at this season of the year, but on one clear day the Hurricanes were able to claim the destruction of a merchant vessel and two escorts in convoy off St. Valery and indeterminate damage to several ships in Boulogne harbour.
1 Earlier in the year Hurricanes had been converted for catapulting from merchant ships. A later development was the fitting of cannon and rocket projectiles. Thus equipped, Hurricanes acted very successfully as ‘tank busters’ in support of the Army in the Middle East, on the Continent and in Burma, In fact there was scarcely a theatre of war in which this fine British machine, which had been the mainstay of the defence during the Battle of Britain, did not render most valuable service.
Nevertheless the RAF did retain the initiative in the West, and the blows struck by Bomber and Fighter Commands during 1941 marked the first stage in wresting from the enemy the air supremacy which was necessary before a successful invasion could be attempted. The German Air Force, deeply committed to the support of campaigns in Russia and the Mediterranean, was now relatively weaker, and the air superiority which it held over the Continent more open to challenge.