Aside from a number of reconnaissance flights by individual aircraft, two major attacks were launched on the southeast by the Luftwaffe today. The second attack began at 14:40, and comprised two phases. The first consisted of 50 fighters in two formations, which made landfall between Dover and Dungeness at 20,000 feet and headed towards Maidstone. One formation split up just north of Maidstone, and eight of these aircraft flew to the Isle of Sheppey, then on to Hornchurch, Tilbury and Gravesend; the remainder headed towards the docklands and Central London. Twenty aircraft from the second formation flew into London, and bombs were reported to have been dropped at Eltham, Poplar, along the Thames Estuary, and at Wanstead. All enemy aircraft returned to the Channel on reciprocal courses, and 11 Group responded by ordering up 12 squadrons to intercept them.
The second phase commenced as the first ended, when 60 fighters crossed in in two formations between 25,000 and 30,000 feet, and headed for Maidstone again. One formation split into two at Rochester, one group flying to Biggin Hill and the other, comprising approximately 15 aircraft, to Central London. The other formation headed for Hornchurch, but turned southeast just south of the area and flew over the docklands, providing significant activity in a triangular area between Hornchurch, Maidstone and Kenley. Bombs were dropped at Blackheath, near Manston, at New Cross and Ramsgate, and along the Thames Estuary. On this occasion, 11 Group detailed ten squadrons to intercept the Luftwaffe, some of which were already airborne in response to the first phase.
In total, the Group’s fighters claimed three Me109s destroyed, two probably destroyed and two damaged; all of them the work of the Hornchurch Wing. 41 and 222 Squadrons were ordered up together at 14:50 to patrol Hornchurch, the former unit leading. 41’s contingent comprised ten pilots under the command of Sqn Ldr Finlay. The two squadrons managed to reach an altitude of 25,000 feet in the Maidstone area, and were on a course of 270°, when Finlay sighted a number of fighters.
He ordered the pilots into line astern in preparation for an attack but it soon became clear that they were friendly aircraft. The Wing then continued their climb, but a short while later three Me109s were seen below the Squadron, travelling on an easterly course in a loose formation. A number of Spitfires were also seen approaching them from their far side, clearly intent on attacking them. Finlay banked hard to starboard and dived on the Me109s, closing on the tail of one he picked out and immediately fired a burst of three seconds from 150 yards down to 100. This caused smoke and sparks to emit from beneath the cockpit area, but Finlay could not press his attack home as he was himself attacked from above.
It was later apparent from reports submitted by 222 Squadron, that just as 41 Squadron was attacking the trio of Me109s, a further 20 to 25 Me109s appeared out of cloud at 30,000 feet, and immediately dived on the rear of 41 Squadron. Seeing this, 222 Squadron dived on the enemy aircraft and a dog fight ensued, which saved 41 Squadron from a potential disaster.
As it was, Sqn Ldr Finlay was hit by fire from above by an Me109, although it had no immediate effect. He broke off sharply when he was attacked, and blacked out for a time. When he regained consciousness and control of his aircraft, he found himself alone and patrolled the Ashford area by himself for approximately 20 minutes, in the hope of finding a lone straggler. Unable to do so, he returned to Hornchurch where he found he could not lower his undercarriage, and belly-landed, causing Cat 2 damage. He claimed his Me109 damaged for the expenditure of approximately 500 rounds.
Plt Off Robert Boret was also attacked “by an aircraft of unknow[n] type with two glass windows”, which was believed to have been an Me110, but could not be confirmed. However, he appears to have evaded successfully, as no damage is recorded. Sgt Plt Leslie Carter was also on the receiving end:
“CO Finlay led us into the muck again & I was just finishing off an Me109 when I had a bullet in the rad & about six in my oil cooler. I cut the motor & went straight down with a cockpit full of fumes. However I flattened out & managed to make a perfect landing at Rochford. Kite ‘N’ is U/S. Army Officer brought me back to Romford & a lorry to the camp.”
However, 41 Squadron inflicted their own damage that afternoon, too. Sgt Plt John McAdam became separated from the rest of the pilots after the initial dive and evasion, and subsequently patrolled alone in the Ashford area at 12,000 feet, in the hope of catching a straggler. He succeeded in doing so when he sighted a lone Me109 ahead of him and 2,000 feet below him, flying in a southeasterly direction.
He immediately dived onto its tail and closed to just 50 yards, where he opened fire with a two-second burst, expending 320 rounds. The Messerschmitt’s pilot put the aircraft into a quick dive for cloud cover, and as McAdam overshot him he clearly saw some holes in the rudder, which he assumed he had caused, but “the a/c did not appear to be out of control”. McAdam was unable to locate the aircraft again and returned to base to claim the Me109 damaged in the Ashford area.
Significantly more success was enjoyed by Fg Off James Walker and Plt Off Eric Lock. Walker sighted the Me109s coming in from above, but cloud cover initially confused matters and he lost both the enemy aircraft and the rest of the Squadron. Climbing again towards 21,000 feet in an attempt to re-join the unit, he sighted a single Me109 at approximately 17,000 feet, but four miles away diving towards France. He accelerated after it, out over the Channel, and was within ten miles of the French Coast when he finally caught up with it.
Clearly confident that he was almost home and well out of danger, the Messerschmitt’s pilot did not see Walker approaching and he was able to close to 100 yards where he opened fire with a three-second burst from astern. He saw his tracer enter the fuselage and wings, and then black and white smoke issued from the engine. The enemy pilot banked hard to port and applied boost to evade him, but Walker fired a deflection shot at the aircraft lasting five seconds from ranges of 250 yards down to 200.
At this point, the pilot tried the opposite tack and climbed steeply to starboard. However, Walker was on him again, firing another deflection shot of five seconds from 250 yards closing to 150. By now the Me109’s engine was seriously smoking, but then it stopped, “so that the prop was just turning over slowly”. The pilot made a controlled ditch of his aircraft into the Channel around two miles off the French coast, and Walker then flew back across the Channel to Hornchurch and claimed the Me109 destroyed.
Meanwhile, rearguard Plt Off Eric Lock, had also been busy. Having remained approximately 2,000 feet above the rest of the pilots whilst they dived on the original three Me109s, he soon saw a small formation of Me109s pass beneath him in line abreast, apparently on their way down to attack the Squadron. Diving on them, Lock picked out the aircraft on the port side of the formation, and fired two short bursts from astern.
The aircraft tried to evade his fire, but was already emitting glycol from beneath its starboard wing. Lock followed it down, firing as he went, but the pilot made a steep climbing turn to evade his fire. In doing so, however, he showed Lock his vulnerable underside, and Lock fired another burst straight into it. The engine started smoking, but the aircraft was finished and it dived straight into the Channel around ten miles off Dover.
As Lock returned to the English coast, he sighted a formation of five Me109s crossing out south of Dungeness on their return to France. Banking around to come in behind them, he targeted one that was lagging a little behind the rest. He fired three bursts at it from astern and slightly below, which resulted in the aircraft immediately spinning down towards the sea. Taking his opportunity, he fired at another Me109 in the same formation, and was able to get in two bursts before his ammunition ran out.
However, this aircraft started smoking and commenced a shallow dive towards the Channel; Lock was convinced that “these two Me.109’s would not get home”. He returned to base and claimed his first Me109 destroyed and the second two probably destroyed.
The last pilot was on the ground at Hornchurch again at 16:37, where it was revealed that 222 Squadron, and very likely Plt Off Lock, had saved the Squadron from a potential disaster. 222 had managed to shoot down one Me109 themselves, for no loss, and this aircraft was seen to come down four miles west of Hawkinge, where the uninjured pilot climbed out of his aircraft and set fire to it. For their part, 41 Squadron had claimed two destroyed, two probably destroyed and two damaged, equating to two-thirds of 11 Group’s total claims for the day.
[Excerpts from my "Blood, Sweat and Courage" (Fonthill 2014). Sharing permitted, but no reproduction without prior permission, please.]
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