THE OTHER ENEMY
The Luftwaffe was not the only enemy as the so-called ‘Phoney War’ continued into the new year; the weather also wrought havoc this winter in England’s northeast.
The first serious snows had fallen in November 1939, which made flying difficult. After one particularly heavy dumping, snow ploughs were brought out and every available hand at the station was issued a spade or similar tool and put to work clearing a usable landing strip. After much sweat and effort, a single runway was cleared, which was lined with large mounds of shovelled snow. It was intersected at various points with entry and exit paths leading to the perimeter track and dispersals areas.
It was a bitterly cold winter throughout the United Kingdom and at the beginning of January 1940 the country experienced its coldest conditions since 1894, the thermometer falling below 0°F in many places. The Thames froze over at Kingston, lochs froze up in Scotland, and ice covered stretches of the Humber, Mersey and Severn. The southeast suffered its heaviest snowfall for forty years.
On the Continent, the icy conditions stretched from Scandinavia to Italy. France reported it was their coldest winter since 1917 and several people died of the cold in Italy, the temperature falling in Milan in late January 1940 to 14°F. Even on the other side of the Atlantic, Washington DC bemoaned the fall of 15 inches of snow, whilst Richmond, Virginia, experienced the heaviest snowfall in over 30 years.
RAF Catterick, too, was hit with heavy snows in late January. Seven inches were dumped on the aerodrome on the 22nd of the month, and more snowfall followed on the 26th and 27th. As a result, the airfield was closed on 27 January, and all operations were cancelled until the end of the month.
Plt Off ‘Wally’ Wallens recalled the difficulties facing him and his fellow pilots in the snow;
“It was a very dodgy operation, taking off and landing in such conditions, particularly with the Spitfires having such restricted visibility when taxying [sic], ploughing about in clouds of snow, pilots not knowing whether they were on or off the runway.
[…] Landing on packed snow in bright sunlight could be very tricky as, like landing an amphibian on still, glassy water, one’s judgement of height could be so affected that one might hold off much too high or virtually fly into the deck with a resounding thump.”(1)
On 29 January, two runways were cleared for emergency flying by 400 men from the Catterick Army Camp and, on 1 February, 219 Squadron’s Blenheims were permitted to fly again; permission for 41 Squadron’s Spitfires followed a day later. The weather did not, however, improve a great deal into the first weeks of February and flying was kept to a minimum. Flt Sgt ‘Shippy’ Shipman recalled the monotony of this lack of activity,
“There were many long hours of waiting and thinking. One read books and played cards until one was sick of both. Boredom was the immediate enemy, and sleep was often the result. We had one young pilot officer who became so irritable, angry and tensed up that he did nothing but pace up and down by himself; he was almost a nervous wreck. Another pilot went down with an ulcer.”(2)
[Excerpt from my “Blood, Sweat and Courage” (Fonthill, 2014). Sharing permitted, but no reproduction without prior permission.
Quotes: (1) "Flying Made My Arms Ache"; Sqn Ldr R. W. ‘Wally’ Wallens, DFC, retd., 1990, Self Publishing Association Ltd; (2) "One of ‘The Few’; The Memoirs of Wing Commander Ted ‘Shippy’ Shipman AFC", John Shipman, 2008, Pen & Sword. Image © Swanwick family.]
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.]
At 1120 on the 22nd of October, 1942, three Spitfires took off from Llanbedr on an authorized cloud training flight.
The fighters were last seen over the sea off Aberdovey, about 20 miles south of Llanbedr and the last radio contact came shortly after that.
At 1430 the Spitfires were declared overdue and an air search was initiated, but the search was hampered by the extensive cloud layers in the area, ranging from a cloud base at 800 feet above sea level to tops at 18,000 feet.
Nothing was found, and on the following day weather conditions were so bad that aircraft could not take off at all.
On the 24th, however, the weather had improved and the search was resumed. At 1300 the three missing planes were sighted, wrecked and burned out, on Tarren Hendre, a 2,077-foot mountain about 7 miles northeast of the coastal town of Towyn.
It appeared that the planes had flown into the terrain in level flight and in near-zero visibility. The Spitfires were completely destroyed by impact and fire and the pilots must have died instantly.
Flight-Lieutenant Frank Gillitt (in BM573), Flying Officer Ronald Harrison (in R7296), and Flying Officer Thomas Scott (in BL518), all killed in a flying accident.
When baling out of his stricken aircraft on 9 August 1941, Wg Cdr Douglas Bader was compelled to leave behind his right artificial leg as it was stuck in the cockpit.
He unstrapped the prosthesis and jumped with only his left artificial leg, and was injured on landing, damaging the ‘good’ leg, and breaking the waist harness in the process; the leg that had remained... with the aircraft was destroyed when his Spitfire hit the ground. Bader was hospitalised for a short period in St. Omer, from where he managed to escape with the help of a French nurse, but had barely reached the home of a local farmer when he was found and re-captured.
In much the same way that Galland, Mölders, and other German Aces were respected by the Allies, and indeed pilots before them such as von Richthofen and Udet, so too was Bader by the Luftwaffe. Being in a rather uncomfortable position without the full use of his legs, he therefore used his status to ask them if they might arrange for the RAF to drop a replacement right leg.
In a rare case of collaboration between two countries at War, the Luftwaffe assented to Bader’s request and sent a message to the RAF to arrange it. Thus, Operation Leg was born, and formed a part of Circus 81 on the morning of 19 August. Officially, the aim of the mission was to attack Gosnay Power Station, which, ironically perhaps, was the failed target of Circus 68 on 9 August – the very operation Bader was lost on.
However, the secondary, although preliminary, objective was to drop Bader’s leg by parachute. The Luftwaffe offered the RAF a safe thoroughfare to St. Omer but once the job was done the ‘ceasefire’ was over and the war was back on; the bombers and fighters would continue on to their attack on Gosnay.
The Operation Order for Operation Leg foresaw the bombers making rendezvous over Manston at 10,000 feet at 08:30, with Tangmere’s Escort Wing stepped up and back at 11,000, 12,000, and 14,000 feet, the Escort Cover Wing at 15,000, 17,000 and 20,000, the Target Support Wings at 22,000, 24,000, 28,000, and 32,000 feet, and finally the Rear Support Wing at 28,000 and 32,000 feet.
The orders pertaining to the dropping Bader’s leg also included a role for the Tangmere Wing: “The leg is to be dropped by a Blenheim when West of ST. OMER. The Wing Leader of the Tangmere Escort Wing is to report by R/T when the parachute has opened ‘LEG GONE’. Tangmere Controller is to report to Group Controller immediately he receives this message.”
In the event, the Circus was delayed by two hours and the Tangmere Wing was airborne at 10:05, and rendezvoused with the Blenheims over Manston at 10:30. 41 Squadron deployed eleven pilots led by Sqn Ldr Gaunce and provided a Close Escort for the bombers at 11,000 feet.
41 Squadron comprised Gaunce P8759, Beardsley W3565, Rayner W3636, Mitchell W3383, Morgan R7350, Glen R7307, Marples W3713, Palmer W3564, Swanwick W3634, Bodkin R7304, and, Brew R7267.
Kenley’s Escort Cover Wing also rendezvoused over Manston with the bombers and Tangmere Wing, and they proceeded together uneventfully to St. Omer via Dunkirk. At 10:57, 18 Squadron Blenheim IV, R3843, dropped Wg Cdr Bader’s replacement right artificial leg over the southwest corner of St. Omer Airfield from 10,000 feet; the parachute opened and Wg Cdr Woodhouse confirmed this fact to the Tangmere Controller. The specially built wooden crate that was dropped was clearly marked with a large Red Cross symbol, and landed near the village of Quiestède.
The formation then continued on to Gosnay, approximately three-and-a-half miles southwest of Béthune, to complete the main objective of the Circus. Intent on making a bombing run at 10,000 feet, the bomber crews were once again foiled when they found ten-tenths cloud cover over the target area. This was mostly concentrated between 8,000 and 10,000 feet, but large cumulus clouds reached up to 20,000 feet, and storm clouds were scattered over the target area. This left them little choice but to abandon the attack, and Gosnay was spared yet again. No alternative target was located and no bombs were dropped at all.
The Tangmere Wing did not sight the Luftwaffe all the way to the target, and turned with the bombers to escort them back out. The Blenheims’ return was initially covered by the same cloud cover that had thwarted their attack, but the weather deteriorated as they neared the coast and the bombers were forced to drop to just 1,000 feet to get under the cloud base. This resulted in them being fired at by the German coastal defences, which were no doubt surprised to see six RAF bombers roar over their heads at little more than 300 metres. The result was that all the aircraft were hit by Flak and one man was wounded.
The Tangmere Wing sighted a few German aircraft on their way out but they showed no inclination to fight and were not engaged. The three squadrons left the bombers about ten miles off Manston and made for Westhampnett and Merston, where they landed in time for lunch at 12:00.
The Kenley Wing, on the other hand, saw and engaged a number of Luftwaffe aircraft. 452 Squadron was attacked from behind approximately 15 miles inland and one aircraft was hit by cannon and forced to return home early. On the way back out, the Squadron was continuously attacked by Me109s, which split the pilots up, and cost the lives of Fg Off Eccleton and Sgt Plt Gazzard, whilst Plt Off Willis was wounded in action. In return, they claimed one Me109F destroyed and two probably destroyed.
A section from 602 Squadron dived to attack three enemy aircraft below them without result, and another section was dived upon by three Me109s from above, but neither a claim nor a casualty was subsequently reported. On the way back out again, a number of small formations of Me109s also attacked 485 Squadron and several engagements took place, resulting in the loss of Sgt Plt Miller, for claims of one Me109 destroyed, one probably destroyed and one damaged.
Northolt’s Target Support Wing made landfall on the French coast west of Gravelines at 10:45, stepped up and back at 22,000, 25,000 and 27,000 feet. Approximately five minutes after crossing in, they were attacked by 15 Me109s in two formations. 306 Squadron went into a defensive circle and subsequently claimed an Me109F destroyed for no loss, whilst 308 Squadron split up and claimed another destroyed, but lost the rest of the Wing in the process and patrolled the coast for ten minutes before returning home. 315 Squadron had difficulty maintaining contact with 306 and 308 Squadrons on account of cloud and were not engaged at all. However, pilots of the Wing report seeing an Me109 hit and destroyed by German Flak in the Calais area.
Hornchurch’s Target Support Wing crossed the French coast six miles east of Dunkirk between 28,000 and 32,000 feet at 10:45. 611 Squadron sighted ten Me109s 24,000 feet over Poperinghe, Belgium, which they chased all the way to Dunkirk without result. 403 Squadron attacked another 15 Me109s in the Poperinghe area and ultimately claimed four destroyed, one probably destroyed and two damaged for the loss of Plt Off Anthony, who was shot down and captured, and Plt Off Dick who baled out off Dover with combat damage and was rescued by ASR.
Soon after crossing in, 603 Squadron sighted 20 Me109s approaching from the south at 20,000 feet. They were engaged by one of the Squadron’s sections, which claimed two destroyed, two probably destroyed and one damaged for no loss, whilst the rest of the unit covered them at 30,000 feet. Ultimately, none of the Wing’s squadrons reached the Gosnay area, and they withdrew after they had been informed that the bombers had crossed out.
Finally, Biggin Hill’s Rear Support Wing, made landfall on the French coast ten miles southeast of Dunkirk, between 27,000 and 28,000 feet. The Wing then made a wide sweep to starboard and in doing so sighted a number of formations of two to four Me109s at altitudes down to 13,000 feet. Whilst 72 and 92 Squadrons remained above for cover, 609 Squadron dived down to attack the enemy aircraft, and claimed two damaged. The Squadron’s Plt Off Ortmans sustained combat damage and baled out into the Channel but was picked up by ASR and returned safely.
[Excerpts from my “Blood, Sweat and Courage” (Fonthill, 2014). Sharing permitted, but no reproduction without prior permission, please]
Supermarine "Spitfire" Mk.I coded serial number N3126 EB-L of 41 Squadron of the Observer Corps, flown by Pilot Officer Ted "Shippy" Shipman, then based at RAF Catterick. On 15 August 1940 he shot down the Messerschmitt Bf-110C Zerstörer coded M8 + CH of Staffel 1 Zerstörergeschwader 76 -1./ZG76- piloted by Oblt. Hans Ulrich Kettling. The combat was filmed by the movie machine guns "Spitfire". The 3rd photo depicts what remains of Oblt. Hans Ulrich Kettling's Messerschmitt Bf-110C after the crash. The last picture shows Ted Shipman (left) and Hans Ulrich Kettling well after WW2, when they met in 1985.
Extract from One Of 'The Few". The Memoirs of Wing Commander TED 'SHIPPY' SHIPMAN AFC by John Shipman.
“There was an almighty bang and everything changed. After the roar and racket of the past quarter of an hour, there was suddenly total silence. There was glass everywhere except in the instrument panel where it belonged. My right arm wouldn’t obey my commands but hung loose at my side. Almost every dial, indicator and gauge in front of me had gone haywire. Not a squeak from the radio; not a murmur from the engine; no wind noise; total silence; and around me total chaos.”
Sgt Plt Peter Graham, 41 Sqn, on being hit by Flak, when a 20mm high explosive shell entered his cockpit, during a Rhubarb* to the Le Havre area, 23 July 1943.
As quoted in "Blood, Sweat and Valour" (Fonthill, 2012), and reproduced with Peter's permission.
* Term used to describe raids over over France – either ‘sweeps’ involving the whole squadron, or ‘rhubarbs’ when a pair of aircraft would go out on a roving patrol.
Instigated as part of a campaign to seize air superiority from the Germans in preparation to a landing in Europe
4 July 1944 – Poor weather continued throughout the morning, with cloud and mist. The first wave of V1s did not come over until 08:30, but thereafter 108 were plotted by 11 Group. Of these, 84 crossed the coast and 52 were shot down by fighters.
Weather conditions prevented 41 Squadron from getting airborne until after lunch, but from 12:40 onwards twelve anti-Diver patrols were flown over the Channel, southeast of the Isle of Wight, and the last pair landed at Friston at 22:30. However, despite their efforts, just one victory could be claimed by the Squadron, which was shared between Fg Off ‘Momo’ Balasse and Flt Sgt Freddie Woollard on the third patrol.
Blue Section (Balasse EN229 & Woollard MB856) was airborne at 14:10 to patrol an area ten miles out to sea between Hastings and Rye. The pair were vectored onto a Diver by Wartling Control at 14:30, and soon spotted it approaching Dungeness at 3,000 feet on a course of 340° and at an IAS of 340-350 mph.
Balasse and Woollard took turns firing on the V1, attacking it from quarter astern to full astern, at ranges of 250-200 yards, and sent it down to explode on impact at a location they described as “approx. 1 Mile W. of Lydd. (actually N. of Rye.)”. They returned to base at 15:30, claiming the Squadron’s fifteenth destroyed V1 (13 + 2 shared).
[Excerpt from "Blood, Sweat and Valour" (Fonthill, 2012)]
The Squadron’s mascot, a black French Poodle by the name of Perkin, had belonged to Fg Off Reg Hoare until he was shot down on 1 April 1943. The Squadron kept the dog following Hoare’s loss, but he ran around their bases more-or-less wild at times, until he was adopted by Plt Off Peter Gibbs after he joined the unit in January 1944.
Finding Perkin in a poor state with rashes all over his body, Gibbs, an animal-lover at heart, caught him, treated the inflammations, and bound his paws so he couldn’t scratch himself. In time, the rashes healed and, in apparent thanks, Perkin became devoted to Gibbs and would follow him wherever he went.
They became such good friends that when taxiing out for flights, Perkin would jump up onto the port wingtip of Gibbs’ aircraft to escort him to the runway. At this point, he would jump down and wait for his return. On landing again, Perkin would reverse the process, jumping back up onto Gibbs’ wing to escort him on the taxi back to dispersals. When Gibbs stopped the engine and dropped the cockpit’s side flap, Perkin would run down the wing and jump into the cockpit to greet his best friend.
When the Squadron moved base, Perkin would also ride with Gibbs in the cockpit, sitting on his lap, with his paws on either side of the gun sight, but with his head down, almost like a child too afraid to look, so that Gibbs could see to fly.
He was clearly quite a bright dog, but he had a penchant for cows milk. This was not unusual in itself, but Perkin would cheekily take a drink directly from any suitably located cow’s udder whenever he wished! This earned Perkin, whose rank by this time was Flying Officer, his own unique decoration, the DOCT, or 'Distinguished Order of the Cow Tits', and he would appear on the pilot rota as “F/O Perkin DOCT”.
When the Squadron moved to the Continent in December 1944, Gibbs was forced to leave Perkin behind, but placed him in the care of his father. At the end of the War, however, Perkin was returned to Reg Hoare following his repatriation, much to the sadness of both Gibbs and his father.
41 Squadron's second dog during the summer of 1943 was a white Bull Terrier by the name of Monty
Monty belonged to Flt Lt Hugh Parry, who had obtained him during his time as a Test Pilot with Vickers, and had brought him with him when he was posted to 41 Squadron in March 1943.
91 Squadron, which formed the other part of the Spitfire XII Wing, had their own dog, too: a large Alsatian, named Boris, who was their mascot. However Boris did not see eye-to-eye with 41 Squadron’s pooches, and Monty and Boris had a bad falling out that summer. Hugh Parry recalled that they…
"…got into a terrible fight because Boris, a jumped-up ‘Wing Commander’, tried to eat Monty’s food. Despite everyone doing everything to separate them – blazing newspaper, soda-water siphons, buckets of water, etc. – it was to no avail. Ultimately one of Boris’ legs was removed at the knee and he was taken to the local vet and put down. Monty had a badly skinned head but otherwise was okay."
When Parry was shot down in September 1943, Monty was sent to live in Southampton. Not understanding the circumstances, however, he was often seen at the railway station trying to board a train back to Tangmere.
[Images: Both images are Monty in Summer 1943; both copyright Hugh Parry]
A single He111, designated Raid 23A, entered into 13 Group from 12 Group just west of Dishforth at 15:29. The aircraft flew north over the town of Leeming and dropped bombs on RAF Leeming, slightly damaging some transports and wounding three people. The airfield’s anti-aircraft batteries engaged the aircraft with their 40mm gun, but the 13 Group Controller quickly vectored 41 Squadron to the area.
Four sections were in the air at the time, and the pilots converged on Leeming. At 15:35, Flt Lt Tony Lovell (X4683) sighted the He111 one mile northwest of RAF Leeming flying east at 1,800 feet at approximately 180 mph, and gave chase. At around the same time, Sqn Ldr Patrick Meagher and Sgt Plt Bill Palmer (X4718) also arrived in the area.
Lovell made an attack on the aircraft, expending a single, four-second burst from dead astern, closing from 200 yards to 50 as he fired. This caused a small, unidentified piece of the aircraft to dislodge itself and fly off. However, he was unable to make a further attack as a result of “another Spitfire being close to [the] E/A”. After this, Lovell did not see the aircraft again.
Palmer sighted the aircraft briefly between cloud patches and informed Meagher, who had not seen it. As such, Meagher told Palmer to follow it and take the lead. Meagher then glimpsed the aircraft, too, but when he turned to follow Palmer, got lost in cloud and took no further part in the pursuit. Palmer also momentarily lost the aircraft but soon spotted it again and quickly closed to within 100 yards to identify it. Palmer’s aircraft therefore appears to have been the Spitfire to which Lovell refers.
Being in an advantageous position, and afraid he would lose the aircraft into cloud, Palmer attacked it immediately. Opening up from below and astern, he fired a three-second burst as he closed from 100 yards to just 20, resulting in heavy return fire from the Heinkel’s ventral gunner. Climbing above the bomber’s tail and out of his range, Palmer made a second attack from above and behind, once again closing from 100 yards to 20 as he fired a four-second burst, although this time with slight deflection. He saw no result of his fire, but also experienced no return fire from the dorsal gunner. It was later assumed this was the result of the gunner having been hit.
He then dropped below and behind the aircraft again to make his third attack, on this occasion firing another four-second burst, from 40 yards closing to 20. The ventral gunner was likely hit during this attack as Palmer experienced no further return fire from him. His fire also caused the port engine to explode; pieces of the engine dislodged themselves and flew back towards him, and oil sprayed across his windscreen.
When Palmer broke away, the Heinkel disappeared into cloud and was not seen again. He tried to locate it, and asked the Controller for a new vector, but his message was not heard. It was assumed this was the result of a number of sections being in the air at the same time and the Controller likely conversing with them when Palmer sought to contact him. Left little choice, he returned to base.
The last pilot was on the ground at 16:25. Palmer submitted a Combat Report for the operation, in which it is recorded that he had expended 1,760 rounds in the attack. Lovell had fired 740 rounds, but despite his contribution to the Intelligence Report that was submitted for the operation, he did not make a formal claim for the aircraft and Palmer was therefore granted the whole victory: one damaged He111. It was his first claim.
The aircraft claimed damaged today is believed to have been He111P-2, 5J+NL, WNr 1623, of 5/KG4, which crash-landed at Soesterberg in the Netherlands on return with 35% damage. The Flight Engineer/Gunner, Fw Wilhelm Rahrig, was wounded, but none of the other crew members were hurt.
[Excerpt from "Blood, Sweat and Courage" (Fonthill, 2014). Sharing permitted, but no reproduction without prior permission, please]
A northwesterly wind, light inland and 10-15 mph on the coast, in fair to cloudy skies with scattered showers and visibility of 2-4 miles. The day started innocuously enough with an uneventful routine patrol 11:05-11:40 (Draper, Briggs & London), which was completed before the day’s first hostile raid was plotted.
During the early afternoon, however, two enemy raids were recorded. In the first of these, at 14:28, a Ju88 was plotted three miles east of Dunbar, which dropped a bomb near a submarine, but caused no damage. A section from another squadron investigated, but the plot faded before they were able to intercept the aircraft. However, as that plot faded, another appeared 120 miles east of the Isle of May, which was designated Raid 65. The plot moved in a southwesterly direction and made landfall north of Acklington, then continued south towards Middlesbrough.
In response, ten pilots of 41 Squadron were ordered into the air at 14:50, to patrol Seaham Harbour; this was the first time the unit was airborne in such numbers for some time. Eight minutes later, as they were near Blyth at 2,500 feet, Blue Section, comprising Flt Lt Tony Lovell (X4683) and Plt Off Archie Winskill (R6623), were ordered to intercept the raid, which was reported as 1+ aircraft at 24,000 feet, and subsequently as a single aircraft at 21,000 feet.
The pair climbed fast through 7,000 feet of cloud on a vector of 010 degrees and broke above it into clear blue sky. As they reached 17,000 feet, they sighted a one-mile-long vapour trail another 7,000 feet above them, moving in the opposite direction. On approaching the aircraft, which they recognised as a Ju88, they noted it was “painted duck-egg green or pale blue underneath” and “very dark green on top”. Lovell felt the camouflage was very effective as it made it invisible from below; the Ju88’s position was only given away by its vapour trail.
The two pilots climbed with full boost, turning towards the Ju88 as they did so, to approach it from astern. The aircraft belonged to Toussus-le-Buc, France, based 1.(F)/123, which had re-positioned to Stavanger, Norway, for a photo-reconnaissance mission to Manchester. “Taking advantage of its vapour trail, Lovell “stalked up behind him until [its] wingtips were seen on either side of [its] tail”, and was “very effectively hidden” by the vapour trail as he did.
At 15:03, Lovell was within 250 yards range, and commenced his attack over Ouston. He opened fire with a three-second burst with no deflection, closing to 200 yards, and immediately struck the fuselage, which caused pieces to dislodge. There was no return fire, but the Ju88 dived steeply to port. Lovell followed it down in its slipstream, making “continuous bursts when [the] opportunity [was] offered”. At one time, he thought he was being fired at, but then realised it was his own de Wilde ammunition striking the dorsal gun tunnel.
Having fired 2,720 rounds at the aircraft, he broke away to port, but by this time the starboard engine had feathered. One of the crew baled out, and Winskill observed that his parachute did not deploy, “though it was extended in a straight line”. The crewman then disappeared into cloud, as did the aircraft, which was now free-falling out of control, its pilot likely having been disabled in the attack.
The Ju88 subsequently crashed at high speed on in the Eston Hills, diving deep into the peat on Barnaby Moor, around four miles south of Middlesbrough, at 15:17. It exploded on impact, creating a large crater, and was “smashed to bits”. The three crew members remaining on board were killed instantly, and the airman that baled out landed dead in trees along Flatts Lane, Normanby.
Lovell and Winskill then regrouped with the rest of the Squadron, completed their patrol, and landed at Catterick again at 15:50. Winskill had flown approximately 500 feet behind Lovell throughout, but had not opened fire. Although Lovell was not using a cine gun during his attack, the victory was never in question: Winskill had witnessed the entire combat and, moreover, as it was one of only two Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed over land in England that day.
The victory constituted the Squadron’s first confirmed destroyed enemy aircraft since 27 November 1940, and would ultimately prove to be Lovell’s last on 41 Squadron. He was the unit’s third highest scoring Ace of World War II, having claimed 9-2-3 in the ten-month period between his first and last victories (31 May 1940-30 March 1941).
[Excerpt from my “Blood, Sweat and Courage” (Fonthill, 2014). Sharing permitted, but no reproduction without permission, please.]
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