New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 16 — Day Fighters During 1942
Day Fighters During 1942
THE third winter of war found the Luftwaffe involved in operations on three fronts, in Russia, the Mediterranean and in Western Europe, and this was already causing some anxiety in the German High Command. However, the enemy hoped for an early successful conclusion to the military operations on his Eastern Front and in the Middle East, which would then enable him to turn his full might upon the British Isles. Meanwhile he was content to conduct a holding campaign in the West so that the main strength of the Luftwaffe could be deployed in support of the German Army in Russia and in the Mediterranean, where the air assault on the island of Malta had already begun.
In this situation the role of Royal Air Force Fighter Command in Britain was to pin down and destroy in the West as large a part of the German air strength as possible, by a continuation of the offensive sweeps and circus operations with bombers over northern France. The Germans were astute enough to counter this strategy with small but widespread raids on British shipping and coastal targets which kept a considerable force on defensive patrols, but they were unable to prevent the development of a vigorous air offensive by RAF fighter wings from south-east England. At its peak, from March to the end of June, no fewer than 22,000 sorties, an average of 180 a day, were flown across the Channel.
Throughout 1942 there was to be a steady movement of British pilots and machines to the Middle East, with the result that the fighter force available in the United Kingdom for day operations against the Luftwaffe remained static at about eighty squadrons. During the second half of the year, when the loss of experienced leaders and fighter pilots was being keenly felt, Fighter Command was to be strengthened by the introduction of the Spitfire IX and the Hawker Typhoon. The Typhoon, designed primarily as a bomber interceptor at medium altitudes, was to prove as versatile a machine as its forerunner, the Hurricane, and with its superior speed and armament was to be very effective in interceptions of the enemy’s fast ‘tip and run’ raiders over southern England. The advent of the new type of Spitfire was particularly welcome for the contemporary Spitfire VB was badly outclassed by the new German fighter, the Focke-Wulf 190. It was partly because of this disadvantage page 334 that the balance of casualties over the whole year favoured the enemy by almost two to one, more than was actually thought at the time. Nevertheless it is significant that during 1942 the enemy’s output of Focke-Wulf fighters was devoted exclusively to meeting the RAF attacks, and units which might otherwise have been used to reinforce the Eastern Front were kept at full stretch in Western Europe.
New Zealand representation in Fighter Command during 1942 included two commanders of day-fighter bases—Wing Commander J. S. McLean, who had led the North Weald Wing during the previous year and was now in charge of RAF Station, Hunsdon, and Wing Commander H. N. G. Isherwood, who took command of RAF Station, Church Stanton, in January. Wing Commanders P. G. Jameson, M. V. Blake, and E. P. Wells were also to lead fighter wings during the year. Jameson continued to command the No. 12 Group wing based at Wittering and Blake to command the Portreath Wing in No. 10 Group, while Wells who led the New Zealand Spitfire Squadron during the early months, was appointed to command the Kenley Wing of No. 11 Group in May 1942. All three men were to win distinction as wing leaders. Six day-fighter squadrons were commanded by New Zealanders for various periods during the year. Squadron Leaders A. C. Deere and C. F. Gray both led Spitfires from the famous fighter airfield at Hornchurch, Essex, while Squadron Leader N. J. Mowat led Hurri-bombers from Manston in Kent. Spitfire squadrons at other airfields in southern England were commanded by Squadron Leaders D. Carlson, J. R. C. Kilian,1 C. E. Malfroy and R. D. Yule. In addition some thirty New Zealanders held positions as flight commanders in squadrons and a small group served in administrative and maintenance duties. Five New Zealand doctors were medical officers in Fighter Command during 1942.
No. 486 Squadron, the second New Zealand squadron in Fighter Command, began forming at Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire, on 3 March 1942, and was equipped with Hurricane aircraft for night fighting. The first commanding officer was Squadron Leader Roberts,1 an experienced English pilot who had fought in the Battle of France. His two flight commanders were Flight Lieutenants J. G. Clouston and H. N. Sweetman. Clouston had begun his operational flying at the end of 1940 in No. 258 Hurricane Squadron, which was then commanded by his brother, Squadron Leader W. G. Clouston. He afterwards flew Spitfires before joining the New Zealand unit. Sweetman had flown with No. 485 Squadron from its formation and had already won distinction as a fighter pilot. By the end of the month the new squadron had its full complement of 24 pilots, all of whom were New Zealanders, and flying training was begun. This involved practice flights in company with Bostons fitted with searchlights, the idea being that the Boston should locate German raiders, catch them in the searchlight beam and so enable the Hurricanes to come in for the kill. But although in theory this method of night fighting appeared attractive, it did not prove as successful in practice as had been expected.
1 Wing Commander C. L. C. Roberts; RAF; born Forest Hill, London, 22 Aug 1916; joined RAF 1935; CFI, No. 57 OTU, 1941–42; commanded No. 486 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942–43; No. 257 Sqdn, 1943; Sector Commander, HQ Middle East, 1944; commanded No. 26 AACU, 1944–45.
Among the pilots who flew with the fighter squadrons during 1942 were many young men who had newly arrived in Britain on completing their training under the Commonwealth training scheme. For these youngsters their posting to an operational squadron was the culmination of a long period of anticipation and restless yearning. Inspired by the exploits of the fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, they had applied to join the RNZAF’ to fly Spitfires’. Enlistment had been followed by months of training and intensive study at an initial training wing, where lectures were interspersed with physical training and what was familiarly known as ‘square bashing’. Then came a course of several months at a flying training school, successful completion of which brought the coveted pilot’s wings. After completing further training in New Zealand or Canada, the pilot went to one of the operational training centres in Britain to master the handling of fighter aircraft in use by the front-line units. Eventually he reached his first squadron, but even then there was much still to be learnt about current fighter tactics, and it was in this respect that the more experienced pilots were able to supply what youthful enthusiasm and inexperience lacked.
In March 1942 the Royal Air Force offensive over northern France was renewed in strength. Among the many missions flown during the next few months, the most important were the circus operations in which bombers were escorted to attack important objectives with the intention of inducing German fighters to accept combat with Fighter Command’s covering forces. The targets attacked included power stations, chemical works, steel mills, airfields and aircraft factories. Other missions included sweeps over the enemy coast and attacks on ports and shipping in the Channel.
For the fighter squadrons these operations followed a fairly similar pattern. The early morning hours at the forward airfields would see the pilots gathered near their aircraft at the dispersal points. Some men might already be on dawn patrol or at readiness. The flights of the squadrons usually had separate dispersal huts a few hundred yards apart, an arrangement which avoided concentration of fighter aircraft and incidentally encouraged a corporate spirit and a healthy rivalry. The pilots were detailed for operations by their respective flight commanders and, until news of an impending operation was received, the men continued training or discussed tactics. Soon a telephone call might bring orders for an immediate patrol or warning of briefing for a large-scale operation a few hours later. The briefing was usually conducted by the wing leader, who explained in detail the forces that would be employed, their various roles, particularly that of his own squadrons, the target, rendezvous point, the heights at which squadrons would fly and any information peculiar to the mission. The period between briefing and take-off was always trying, even for the experienced pilots. Conversation tended to take on an enforced light-heartedness, many cigarettes were smoked and many short visits made as the time for take-off approached. Eventually the pilots went out to their aircraft, had a final look round and climbed into their cockpits. Straps were tightened, helmets buttoned, masks adjusted, and with a whine and then a roar which shattered the stillness the squadron commander’s engine started up. Soon the fighters were taxi-ing slowly out into the wind. Where the surface was good the Spitfires took off in flights, or even as a complete squadron spread right across the airfield. It was an inspiring moment, and even old and hardened hands were impelled to pause and watch the sleek machines as they swept across the field, to lift gently off the ground and then tuck their wheels neatly into place before soaring off into the sky. For the first few minutes after take-off each pilot was busy adjusting engine revolutions and boost, checking oxygen and instruments and trimming the aircraft. Then climbing formation—three in line astern—would be adopted. By this time a wide circuit of the airfield had been made, other squadrons of the wing would be in contact, and the whole formation would set course on the climb for the rendezvous. Soon the bombers would be sighted and the fighter squadrons would take up their positions, some close in, others above and below. The whole force would then set course for the target. Ahead and out of sight of this main stream, other squadrons would be creating a diversion, while behind others would be taking off and joining up preparatory to providing withdrawal cover for the main force on its way home. As the aircraft flew in over the French coast, radio messages would page 339 warn the wing leaders of enemy fighters which had been plotted by British radar stations. Then the whole fighter formation, unless split up by determined enemy opposition, made a wide sweep round the landward side of the target while the bombers dropped their loads and flew out again, fighter squadrons rearranging themselves so as to protect the bombers and each other from attack out of the sun. As the Channel coast was reached, the withdrawal of the bombers would be covered by some of the escorting fighters sweeping back or by the arrival of squadrons specially detailed for this purpose. Frequently the main attack met only slight opposition and, apart from the black puffs of bursting anti-aircraft shells, the fighter pilots would see little sign of enemy activity. Diversionary sweeps had drawn off the German fighters or else, finding themselves at a tactical disadvantage in height and position, they had refused combat.
A circus operation, typical of many in which New Zealanders took part, was flown on the afternoon of 13 March when Boston bombers, covered by 14 squadrons of fighters drawn from five wings, attacked the marshalling yards at Hazebrouck. The Kenley Wing, which included the New Zealand Spitfire Squadron, reached the target just before the bombers and while sweeping the area saw the Bostons attack. There were bursts amongst the railway sidings and on the main line, and a large building was set on fire. The New Zealand Spitfires met no enemy aircraft despite the fact that, on reaching the English coast on the return journey, they swept back over the Channel. No. 452 Australian Squadron had only a slight brush with the enemy in which one Focke-Wulf was shot down without loss, but No. 602 Squadron became involved with Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs soon after leaving the target and claimed four of them for the loss of one pilot.
The Biggin Hill Wing, which also gave forward cover, flew in over the airfield at St. Omer, and as the Spitfires approached the target area they met two small formations of Focke-Wulfs. Diving on the enemy, they were able to destroy two of them and damage another but three of the Spitfires were later shot down. The wing had then become split up and the leader ordered pilots to return to base. Meanwhile the Northolt and Hornchurch Wings had made a rendezvous with the bombers over Gravesend, and the formation crossed the Channel and flew in between Gravelines and Calais. This force reached the target without incident, but on the way back to the French coast 20 Messerschmitts attacked and in the dogfights which followed three enemy machines were claimed for the loss of one Spitfire. The bombers suffered no loss and were safely escorted back across the Channel after being met at Calais by the page 340 Tangmere Wing, which had swept along the French coast from Cap Gris Nez.
But not all missions were on quite such a large scale; for example, on 26 March, when Bostons attacked ships and docks at Le Havre, the fighter escort consisted of six squadrons of Spitfires. No. 485 Squadron, led by Crawford-Compton, flew as part of the Kenley Wing which gave top cover. Some five miles short of the target, the wing met a strong formation of Messerschmitts and a running battle continued until the French coast was left behind. Several New Zealand pilots were able to report successful combats. Compton sent one Messerschmitt crashing into the sea just off Le Havre. He then dived on the tail of another which was making a head-on attack against Pilot Officer Mackie,1 who afterwards told how: ‘It was firing everything at me as it came head on. I went straight for it, head on, firing all machine guns and cannon guns and just missed colliding as we came together, by pulling up above it.’ Compton was able to follow the Messerschmitt as it broke away and sent it spinning down near Fecamp. Meanwhile Sergeant Maskill, 2 after evading stern attacks from two Messerschmitts, had sent a third down in flames. He was again attacked, his Spitfire being hit in the engine and one wing, but he reached England safely. Altogether, British pilots claimed six of the enemy, but two Spitfires and two bombers failed to return. In the bombing attacks the Boston crews reported direct hits on a ship in dock and on a nearby warehouse, other bombs being seen to burst on the dock entrance.
1 Wing Commander E. D. Mackie, DSO, DFC and bar, DFC (US); Otorohanga; born Waihi, 31 Oct 1917; electrician; joined RNZAF Jan 1941; commanded No. 92 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943–44; commanded No. 80 Sqdn and Wing Leader, No. 122 Wing, 1945.
3 Group Captain F. V. Beamish, DSO, DFC, AFC; born Dunmanway, County Cork, 27 Sep 1903; Cranwell Cadet; permanent commission RAF 1923; commanded RAF Stations, North Weald, 1940–41, Debden, 1941 and Kenley, 1942; killed on air operations, 28 Mar 1942.
The March offensive on the whole drew substantial reaction from the Luftwaffe units in northern France, but it appeared that the German pilots particularly those flying the Focke-Wulf, did not seem settled in their tactics or confident of their relatively new machines. Yet their interceptions had not been without success as, for example, in the circus operation of the afternoon of 24 March when they shot down nine Spitfires for the loss of only two Focke-Wulfs. In April, however, the German pilots showed an increasing willingness to give battle and displayed a growing consciousness of the superiority of the Focke-Wulf 190 in combat with the Spitfire VB, and the balance swung more in favour of the enemy. Fighter Command suffered a serious reverse on 12 April when escorting Bostons to attack the railway marshalling yards near Amiens. Focke-Wulf 190s were up in full strength to intercept the British force; eleven Spitfires and one of the Bostons were shot down and British pilots were able to claim only two of the enemy. Nevertheless, April was a month of intensive and varied activity by Fighter Command, no fewer than 60 large-scale missions being flown. On one day, targets were attacked on a 400-mile front from Brittany to Flushing. After making two sweeps and taking Hurricane bombers to attack ships off the Brittany coast, Spitfires escorted Bostons to bomb the docks at Le Havre and Flushing, an aerodrome at Morlaix, and the marshalling yards at Abbeville.
3 Flight Lieutenant H. L. North, DFC; born Dunedin, 31 Oct 1919; joined RAF Jan 1939; killed on air operations, 1 May 1942.
Spitfires from the New Zealand Squadron were airborne on 26 of the major attacks during the month, and on a typical sweep on the evening of 24 April they had a very successful encounter with Focke-Wulfs over the French coast in which Squadron Leader Wells, who was leading the Kenley Wing, Flight Lieutenants Crawford-Compton and Kilian, and Pilot Officer Palmer each reported successful combats. ‘We were flying at 18,000 feet just inside the French coast,’ Wells afterwards reported, ‘when we saw the Focke-Wulfs coming up towards us from Abbeville. We turned out of the sun and took them by surprise. Opened fire and saw my target turn slowly in a haphazard way and go down in a spiral. It crashed in a ploughed field and disappeared in a mass of flames.’ Compton’s target also went spinning down in flames. Kilian saw cannon shells burst in the fuselage and wing of the machine he had attacked, while flames and smoke burst from the enemy machine at which Palmer fired.
We were attacked by Focke-Wulf 190s from all angles. I fired at one but it dived away and I did not see the effect of my fire. Then a stream of tracers passed just under my port wing so I pulled up sharply and turned to see another Focke-Wulf approaching. Gave it a long burst and saw it give out a cloud of black smoke as it went down. Closed in again to give several more bursts and could see liquid streaming from the starboard wing but my windscreen fogged up as I pulled out of the dive. Anti-aircraft gunners scored a direct hit in my main plane as I flew out over the coast.
Among the New Zealand pilots flying with other squadrons at this time Pilot Officer Stenborg2 won particular distinction by shooting down four enemy aircraft within five days. His first success came on the morning of 26 April when his No. 111 Squadron was supporting the attack on St. Omer. Stenborg saw a Focke-Wulf about to attack another Spitfire. He opened fire at long range, then closed in to finish off his victim and saw it hit the ground and burst into flames. The next day he avenged the loss of a fellow pilot by shooting down the Focke-Wulf which had attacked him. Two days later he scored a double success when, after one combat, he saw the Focke-Wulf hit the ground and, after the other, the German pilot baled out. This determined pilot went to Malta in the following month, where he scored further successes. Another to win distinction at this time was Flight Lieutenant H. L. North, who was now a flight commander with the Australian Squadron in the Kenley Wing. After serving with No. 43 Squadron from the outbreak of war, North had joined the Australian unit on its formation and ‘had on several occasions led the squadron with great dash, courage and initiative’. Already credited with the destruction of five enemy aircraft, he was shot down on 1 May 1942 while leading the Australians in an attack against St. Omer.
In one sweep inland towards the end of May, the British squadrons lost six Spitfires when enemy fighters intercepted in strength. The Kenley Wing had just reached Abbeville and turned south when ‘at least 30 Focke-Wulfs dived to attack and dog fights continued until the Spitfires crossed the coast at Dieppe.’ Two Spitfires from the New Zealand Squadron were shot down and a third damaged in the withdrawal, during which ‘the enemy fighters dived from 1000 to 2000 feet above continuously until the coast was reached’. A few days later, when Spitfires from the Hornchurch and North Weald Wings swept between St. Omer and Le Touquet, they were intercepted on the way out and seven Spitfires were shot down. Deere’s No. 403 Canadian Squadron fought against heavy odds and suffered severely. Deere was leading the squadron as rear cover in the North Weald Wing, and on the way out over Le Touquet they were attacked from above by some fifteen Focke-Wulfs. Just as Deere turned his Spitfires to meet this attack, two more enemy formations came upon them and in the running fight that followed the squadron lost six Spitfires. Deere himself was heavily attacked page 345 from all sides and exhausted all his ammunition, but ‘being continuously engaged there was no time to observe results’. However, he later saw two aircraft hit the sea just off the French coast and a Spitfire break in half in mid-air as the pilot baled out. He was then chased to mid-Channel by a Focke-Wulf which, without ammu- nition, he could not engage. After this enemy machine broke away, Deere saw another pilot bale out so he circled the area until rescue boats approached. Near the English coast he saw another pilot in his dinghy and was able to direct two rescue launches to pick him up. One of Deere’s pilots afterwards reported:
I was attacked at the same time as Squadron Leader Deere; saw a Focke-Wulf come up dead in front of me and gave him a short burst as he climbed past; he stall-turned over on his back and spun away. Thought I had him until later saw another do the same manoeuvre. Got on the tail of another Focke-Wulf and opened fire with machine gun only as cannons had both jammed but was almost at once attacked by other enemy machines. In twisting and turning to evade them, found myself at one stage upside down and hanging on my straps. On righting myself I was below 3000 feet and heading for France instead of home. Passed over many small villages all of which seemed to have A.A. batteries that opened fire on me. Eventually got on the right bearing for home and saw an enemy fighter crash into the sea on the way out.
In the face of the more determined and skilful German opposition, it was not possible for Fighter Command to continue the sweeps and circus operations on an intensive scale without suffering heavy losses, but at the same time the enemy could not be allowed to retain the initiative. Therefore, from July onwards, in an effort to confuse and scatter the enemy defences, small but more widespread attacks were launched, low-level raids on airfields, railways, and industrial objectives being interspersed with sweeps and circuses flown at greater heights. In addition, attacks on coastal targets were continued.
The attacks on ports and shipping had already produced good results. Squadron Leader Malfroy had led his No. 66 Squadron in a typical mission on 15 May against a convoy off the Brittany coast. Malfroy led the attack from sea level and his Spitfires raked the ships with cannon fire. Hurri-bombers from No. 175 Squadron then followed them in and one ship burst into flames, two direct hits being seen amidships on another vessel which blew up and sank almost immediately. Then, one day towards the end of June, Spitfires from North Weald sighted and attacked three minesweepers off the Belgian coast. Strikes from cannon shells were seen on all three ships and one of them made for the shore and beached itself; a second vessel caught fire. Just after they had completed their attack, the Spitfires were intercepted by a formation of some twenty Focke-Wulfs, and in the ensuing air battle four enemy machines page 346 were claimed for the loss of three Spitfires. Flight Lieutenant Kilian, who was leading Spitfires from No. 222 Squadron this day, was able to report a successful engagement:
I got on the tail of a Focke-Wulf 190 and managed to get in two short bursts before having to take evasive action myself. I then lost sight ofmy target for a few seconds but when I next saw it, it was gliding towards the sea. It went on down and crashed about 100 yards from another Focke-Wulf 190 which had gone down a few seconds before.
The Hurri-bombers continued to have success in their attacks on ships as well as in low-level raids on land targets. In one attack on a small convoy off the Brittany coast towards the end of July, a small merchant ship was set on fire and cannon strikes were reported on another and on two of the escorts. A few days later, in the same area, a convoy of five merchant ships and a tanker was attacked. After the bombing Pilot Officer Peters1 and fellow pilots from No. 175 Squadron saw one merchant ship sinking, another damaged, and the tanker on fire.
Altogether the summer months saw continual and varied activity by the front-line units in southern England. Many squadrons with which New Zealanders were flying now combined coastal convoy patrols, shipping searches, and attacks with escort duties to bombers and sweeps over northern France. Pilots might fly on several different types of operation in one day. As one squadron diary records:
We have been very busy making sweeps, attacking ships and rushing off into enemy territory shooting up all and sundry, and almost always shooting up coastal targets and ships on the way back. In one month the squadron also took part in sixteen large operations over enemy territory.
While much of the air fighting occurred in the large operations, the smaller missions also produced their share of incident. On one occasion, while leading his Spitfires over the Cherbourg area, Squadron Leader Yule was in combat with two Focke-Wulfs; one exploded in mid-air and crashed in the sea, and the second was last seen flying inland with smoke pouring from its engine. In the middle of June two pilots from the New Zealand Spitfire Squadron, Pilot Officers Mackie and Hume,2 had an eventful flight when, in a typical small operation, they were detailed to attack rail targets at Etaples. Flying in low over the French coast, they followed the railway running northwards towards their objective. Just south of Etaples, Mackie sighted and attacked a railway engine and saw it blow up in a cloud of smoke and steam. Farther north, Hume scored hits on a goods train and Mackie shot up another locomotive. Both Spitfires were hit by flak during their flight but returned safely.
The tasks of the British air squadrons under Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory1 included the covering of the approach and withdrawal of the ships as well as the assault itself. In addition to bombing shore batteries, shooting up strongpoints on the seafront at Dieppe and laying smoke screens, a constant air umbrella was maintained above the battle area. Squadrons were controlled from No. 11 Group operations room, where Leigh-Mallory could follow every stage of the battle as it was plotted before him on the great wall map. In addition the military and naval commanders could ask by radio-telegraphy for assistance, while fighter controllers in two ships were in direct contact with the fighter squadrons as they came in over the battle area and were able to change ground targets and direct air cover as the situation demanded.
The air co-operation was excellent (says a military report). Throughout the action there were frequent requests for smoke curtains to be laid and batteries to be bombed. These requests were met to the limit. In addition no enemy aircraft were allowed to interfere if they could be driven off and not many got through. Though damage was caused to several ships by near misses, the only major success which the German air force could claim was a destroyer and this itself was an accident. She was hit and badly damaged by a bomb from a Junkers 88 which jettisoned its load on being attacked by one of our Spitfires. By ill-luck the destroyer happened to be underneath where the bombs fell. The return of the force to England was mostly uneventful thanks to the air cover which was maintained over the ships.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, KCB, DSO, Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol), Order of Kutuzov (USSR), Legion of Merit (US); born Mobberley, Cheshire, 11 Jul 1892; joined Lancashire Fusiliers 1914; seconded RFC 1916 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC No. 12 Fighter Group, 1937–40; AOC No. 11 Fighter Group, 1940–42; AOC-in-C, Fighter Command, 1942–43; AOC-in-C, AEAF, 1943–44; missing 14 Nov 1944 and death presumed.
The New Zealand Spitfires flew four patrols over Dieppe as part of the No. 12 Group wing led by Wing Commander Jameson. On the first patrol of the morning, in which Jameson flew a Spitfire from No. 485 Squadron, the formation met enemy fighters in strength as soon as they approached Dieppe and dogfights began at once. Three Focke-Wulfs were shot down and several others badly damaged, but five Spitfires were lost. The New Zealanders, however, escaped casualty and were able to report the destruction of two enemy machines. Jameson attacked a Focke-Wulf which was diving on one of his Spitfires and sent it down in flames. Other pilots saw it hit the sea. Flying Officer Chrystall1 attacked another Focke-Wulf and saw the pilot bale out as it went down, while a third enemy fighter was seen flying inland, smoking badly, after it had been attacked by Flying Officer Black.2 The squadron’s next two patrols were without inci- dent, but while covering the return of the ships during the afternoon the Spitfires intercepted a formation of Dorniers and drove them off. There were some brief exchanges of fire as pilots chased the bombers among the clouds but no conclusive combats were reported.
During the day’s fighting many British fighters were damaged and some reached England only with difficulty. After one combat Pilot Officer Copland3 found his Spitfire had been badly hit so he headed for home, but about half a mile from the English coast his engine stopped and he was just able to reach the coast and crash-land in a field. Copland had already completed four patrols with his No. 131 Squadron, and in various encounters had shared in the destruction of two enemy aircraft and had damaged a third.
There was an explosion on the windscreen and I was blinded. Put my hand to my helmet and felt it was partially burnt away, so jettisoned the hood, released my straps, slammed the stick forward then went hurtling out. My parachute opened shortly before I hit the water, and after inflating the dinghy I struggled into it. My eyes were very painful and felt as though they were filled with sand which turned out to be fine specks of glass in the eye balls.
Soon the tide swept the dinghy away from the French coast, and all that day and night Blake drifted at the mercy of wind and tide. The following afternoon the wind changed and began to blow him towards the English coast, but just as darkness was falling a German patrol boat sighted his dinghy and picked him up. After receiving attention from an eye specialist in Paris, Blake was put on a night train for Germany. Pretending to be ill during the journey he evaded his guards and jumped off, but unfortunately the train had increased speed and he hit the ground heavily. He was recaptured when forced to seek help for his injuries.
The closing months of 1942 saw the squadrons and wings continuing with sweeps and the escort of bombers over enemy territory; smaller formations also flew across the Channel to make further low-level attacks on ships and land targets. In August Fortresses of the United States Air Force began operations against targets in northern France, and during the next months Spitfires frequently escorted them on these missions. On 28 August Fortresses attacked the aircraft factory at Meaulte, near Amiens, one of the largest aircraft establishments in France, where the Germans were now repairing bombers and fighters. The American bombers were covered and escorted throughout their flight by a large force of British fighters drawn from eight squadrons, while others flew out later to cover the return journey. There were several skirmishes with Focke-Wulfs; among the Spitfire pilots who reported successful combats were Crawford-Compton, whose No. 611 Squadron formed part of the bombers’ close escort. Near the target, he led his section down to intercept five Focke-Wulfs which were coming up from behind. After giving the leading machine one short burst he saw the pilot bale out. Then, together with several of his fellow pilots, he attacked another enemy aircraft; but although it went spinning down they did not see it crash. Crawford-Compton, who had begun his operational career with the New Zealand Spitfire page 353 Squadron on its formation, was now recognised as ‘a fighter pilot and flight commander of exceptional merit.’ Before leaving to take command of No. 64 Squadron at the end of 1942, he had raised his score to at least eight enemy aircraft destroyed. After one engagement in November he reported briefly:
We had just turned back into France after being warned that enemy aircraft were approaching from St. Omer when I spotted eight Focke-Wulfs about 4000 feet below us. Warned the squadron and we dived on them. They split up in all directions. One Focke-Wulf shot up almost vertically and as it turned off the top of the climb I opened fire; the elevators and part of the rudder came away, the machine turned over on its back, flew like this for a few seconds and then dived towards the ground. Saw the pilot bale out as it went down.
This combat took place when Compton’s squadron was making a sweep over St. Omer with the Biggin Hill Wing as a diversion to a large attack on Le Havre.
The experiences of No. 485 Squadron during the last months were typical of those of many squadrons with which New Zealand pilots were flying. As part of Jameson’s No. 12 Group wing, the New Zealand Spitfires flew many sorties as cover for the Fortresses, Liberators, Bostons and Venturas. On 9 October, when 36 squadrons co-operated with more than 100 American Fortresses and Liberators in their attack on the Fives-Lille locomotive works—the largest daylight bombing raid thus far launched—the New Zealanders flew in the main diversionary sweeps over enemy airfields. Early in December when RAF light bombers, including Venturas from No. 487 New Zealand Squadron, attacked the Philips radio works at Eindhoven in Holland, No. 485 Spitfires covered the with- drawal. They patrolled the Scheldt Estuary but sighted no enemy aircraft. On the way back, however, they found several dinghies and were able to help in the rescue of crews from bombers which had come down in the sea.
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While offensive operations were the main concern of the day fighter squadrons throughout 1942, a considerable effort had to be devoted to the defence of the United Kingdom and the interception of the Germans’ small but cleverly conceived raids against British shipping and coastal targets. On certain occasions an intensive effort was made to protect convoys and naval forces, notably at the end of October 1942, when large concentrations of shipping assembled and sailed for the landings in North Africa.
In addition to their attacks on British shipping during 1942, the Germans also developed what came to be known as ‘tip and run’ raids against towns and military targets on or near the coast. It must be remembered that at this time the increasing bombing raids over Germany by the Royal Air Force were causing no little anxiety to the German High Command, and there was a growing demand for reprisals against Great Britain. Added to this the enemy was anxious to pin down in the British Isles as much as possible of the growing strength of the RAF. The Luftwaffe was now fully extended on the Russian and Mediterranean fronts and few bombers could be spared for an offensive against the United Kingdom. The Germans, therefore, adopted the expedient of employing the Messerschmitt, and later the Focke-Wulf fighter, each carrying one or two bombs, to make low-level attacks at a number of widely scattered points. The fighter-bombers flew across the Channel just above the sea to escape radar detection and swept over the coastal towns, dropped their bombs, machine-gunned streets, buildings and railways, and then quickly flew out again over the sea. Occasionally in cloudy weather small formations ventured inland—the city of Canterbury was attacked one Saturday afternoon in October during its most crowded shopping period—but the majority of the raids were confined to coastal targets.
In September 1942, by which time the German fighter-bomber attacks had become particularly irritating, the first few Typhoon squadrons to become operational were directed to interception patrols. Early in the month an enemy raider, with pieces flying off both engines and its rudder shot away, plunged into the sea off the north-east coast, giving Pilot Officer Perrin1 his first victim. Perrin was on patrol with another pilot from his No. 1 Typhoon Squadron when two German fighter-bombers were sighted. When the Typhoons gave chase the enemy machines separated, so Perrin engaged one while his companion went after the other. A few moments later both machines were caught and, after a few accurate bursts, driven down in flames.