6/10ths cloud with early mist and fog, in a southwesterly wind of 10 mph, and poor visibility. 41 Squadron was airborne on three patrols today, but was only called upon to intercept the first of the seven raids mounted by the Luftwaffe. Three of these were directed against Kent and London, two on Portsmouth, one on shipping in the Thames Estuary and one on Dover. Although the attacks were “more varied than hitherto”, they were generally of a smaller nature than recently.
The first attack commenced when nine Me109s crossed in at Dover, penetrated as far as the Sittingbourne area, and dropped bombs in that area and at Dover. A second formation of nine Me109s crossed in 15 minutes behind them, and circled the Canterbury area until 08:30.
11 Group had Kenley’s 253 and 605 Squadrons in the air at the time, having been airborne since 07:35, and they were ordered onto the Maidstone patrol line in anticipation of the initial plots making landfall. When this occurred, 41 and 603 Squadrons were also sent up at 07:50, too, 41 Squadron’s contingent comprising ten pilots under Flt Lt Norman Ryder. The Wing was airborne minutes later and ordered onto the Rochford Patrol Line, but when the Kenley Wing intercepted the Luftwaffe, the Hornchurch Wing was moved onto the Maidstone line to replace them.
41 and 603 were subsequently ordered to intercept the second formation of nine, designated Raid 7, but did not see any sign of them. However, it was believed that the Luftwaffe had nonetheless seen them, as they were recognised by the Observer Corps to have turned about and dived for the French coast. The Kenley Wing was more successful, and although 253 Squadron was unable to engage the Luftwaffe, 605 Squadron succeeded in claiming one Me109 destroyed, two probable and four damaged, although they sustained the loss of their Officer Commanding, Sqn Ldr Archie McKellar, who was killed in action.
It was on return from this patrol, however, that 41 Squadron’s Plt Off Norman Brown (P7507) had a flying accident that could have had a fatal outcome. He was amongst five pilots that inadvertently entered the London Balloon Barrage, and was lucky to have survived when he struck a balloon cable and crash-landed near Dagenham, just east of London. Brown was injured in the accident and his aircraft, initially considered to have only suffered Category C damage, was struck from charge ten days later.
Brown recalled many years later that whilst the Squadron was on the patrol, the weather had deteriorated over Hornchurch during their time away, and B Flight’s pilots were directed to land at RAF Gravesend instead. This was executed without problem and they subsequently had sufficient time at the airfield to refuel and enjoy some breakfast before they were recalled to Hornchurch.
However, as Flt Lt Tony Lovell’s aircraft would not start again, he was left behind at Gravesend and Plt Off Denys Mileham took the lead of the remaining five.4 As the weather was still poor, however, they flew in close formation but ultimately lost their way and accidentally entered the Barrage Balloon area east of London.
In the low cloud cover, the pilots did not realise their error. They were below the level of the balloons themselves, and the cables would have been the only indication they were there. Under the prevailing conditions, however, the cables would have been practically invisible. Indeed, Brown saw nothing until he had struck one of the obscured hazards. He remembered,
“The first I knew of any problem was the flight performing a very tight turn, at which point I struck a balloon cable. I thought of trying to get out but decided against it for a number of reasons. I slid down the cable, losing speed, finally stalling and doing a ‘flick roll’, at which point I lost a part of the wing and the cable apparently broke… and I went into a steep dive. In pulling out of the dive, I met serious control problems and the aircraft rolled onto its back and at this point I thought it was the end as I was only a few hundred feet up. Somehow or other the Spit was turned the right way up in a shallow dive and I found that as long as I did not try to pull out I could prevent it from turning again.”
A Barking schoolboy by the name of Tommy Thomas was watching the incident from the forecourt of his grandfather’s garage on Ripple Road. He recalled seeing two Spitfires suddenly break through 10/10ths cloud just east of the old Barking Power Station, when the higher of the two suddenly banked to port with a balloon cable around the port wing.
He remembered hearing a loud “swish and twang” as the cable hit the ground just in front of the petrol pumps. The balloon, to which the cable belonged, was located on the green opposite the Ship and Shovel Public House on Ripple Road. Still coming down at this time, Brown recalled that,
“Luckily I spotted an open building site just beyond the railway line, so I directed the machine there. As the site was small and surrounded by houses, I deliberately aimed to strike a six foot metal boundary fence in the hope it would take some speed off. I recall automatically going to select ‘flaps down’ but the airspeed was much too high. On crashing, the aircraft turned over violently and the hood smashed closed and I was trapped for what seemed a lifetime and I suppose I went completely berserk, as I was sure I was about to be cremated.”
After what seemed to Brown “an eternity”, he was rescued from his upturned aircraft and was able to walk away with no physical injuries. The incident would, however, continue to haunt him for many years to come. He recalled, “From that day I started a series of horrific nightmares and I could scarcely bear to sit in a Spitfire with the hood closed. […] In retrospect, and with the wisdom of years, it is clear that I should have reported sick or asked to be taken off flying temporarily, but no fighter pilot will ever willingly do either and certainly at twenty one I did not, and fought on, and turned down an opportunity to transfer to Training Command. Some days were hellish but on the whole I felt I was winning and continued to fly with the Squadron throughout Nov., Dec. , Jan., and Feb.41.”
Brown was extremely lucky to have survived the incident with no physical injury and was flying with the Squadron again that afternoon, prior to being released on two days’ leave.
[Excerpt from “Blood, Sweat and Courage” (Fonthill, 2014); sharing permitted, but no reproduction without prior permission please. Image: © Robin Smith, “Seek and Destroy”, which has always reminded me of this event.]
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