New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 2 — Early Operations from Britain and France…
WHEN war with Germany began on 3 September 1939, the Royal Air Force was in no position to undertake any large-scale offensive action, and for some time British policy was governed by the consideration that the less bombing there was the better. Considerable apprehension was felt about the effect of heavy air attacks on London and the fact that Bomber Command was far from being able to return blow for blow. Therefore, following President Roosevelt’s appeal1 to the governments of Europe, Britain quickly responded with instructions to her armed forces prohibiting bombardment of anything except ‘strictly military objectives’. Contrary to general expectation, however, the Germans had no intention of launching an immediate air assault against the British Isles. Instead, they poured out radio threats while they completed their conquest of Poland. Hitler, in fact, hoped to isolate the Polish ‘incident’ and to declare a temporary truce; early in October he actually made overtures for peace with the Western democracies. Thus, after the capitulation of Poland, there followed a period of inaction which was perplexing to many observers, and there was soon much talk of a ‘phoney war’. This epithet was, however, hardly applicable to the war at sea, which was real and continuous from the outset. Britain’s increasing dependence on seaborne supplies had not escaped the notice of the German naval commanders, not all of whom subscribed to the Nazi doctrine of a short war in which victory would be achieved by the superior power of the Luftwaffe. Recalling how the German Navy had brought Britain to the verge of defeat in 1917, they saw that if the northern exits of the North Sea were forced open and eventually controlled, a fruitful campaign might then be launched against British commerce in the Atlantic.
1 Roosevelt appealed to each of these governments’ to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian population or unfortified cities upon the understanding that the same rules of warfare shall be scrupulously observed by all their opponents’.
There were, by this time, some fifty New Zealanders scattered among the units of Coastal Command, and as soon as war began they were engaged upon one or other of these duties. No. 48 Squadron, whose Ansons escorted convoys and hunted U-boats in the Channel, held particular New Zealand interest. In 1918, as a fighter reconnaissance unit, it had been commanded by Sir Keith Park, then a major. Now, at the beginning of the Second World War, there were seven New Zealand pilots on its strength and it was once again commanded by a New Zealander, Wing Commander Findlay, whose service with the air arm dated from the days of the Royal Flying Corps. On 3 September 1939 No. 48 Squadron had commenced operations from an airfield near Portsmouth and a week or so later established an advanced base at the airport on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Subsequently the squadron’s Ansons assisted in the rescue work of the SS Domala, the first ship sunk in the Channel by enemy action. They were also early in combat with the enemy although at first the Anson, with its low speed and lack of armament, proved no match for the German aircraft encountered. However, after two machines had been lost because of these disadvantages, the squadron improvised two Lewis gun mountings in the cabin, with the guns firing through the windows to cover the blind spots on either side. One of the original members of the unit records that ‘the crew of the first aircraft so fitted collected an unsuspecting Hun’. This was typical of the expedients adopted by RAF crews in the early days to overcome the difficulties under which they operated.
1 ‘The first week of the war we were expecting to be bombed at any moment’, writes a fighter pilot. ‘But no bombers came and soon the tension gave way to a feeling of unreality. Boredom soon followed’. In Bomber Command ‘The days passed slowly. September petered away and brought the fogs of October. Flying training was often cancelled. We spent day after day in the crew room, sometimes listening to lectures. Occasionally some aircraft were wanted but they did not always go. Standing to. Standing by. Standing down. The days dragged by in the same dreary routine’.
The majority of aircraft carried only 100-pound bombs which were not lethal even if a direct hit was obtained while the U-boat was still on the surface. A British submarine which sustained a direct hit at the base of the conning tower from one of these bombs suffered no damage to its pressure hull. The 250-pound bomb carried by the flying boats was not much better as it had to detonate within six feet of the hull before inflicting serious harm. Owing to a rather uncertain fuse the minimum height of release was 600 feet to avoid damage to the aircraft, with the result that accuracy was a matter of luck. The only bomb-sight available required a steady run up to the target at an altitude in excess of 3000 feet, so was quite useless against such an elusive and momentary target as a quick-diving submarine. Furthermore, except in the Hudsons, there was no efficient distributor whereby a properly spaced stick of bombs could be dropped, which meant that they fell singly or in a ragged salvo. On most occasions the U-boat lookouts were able to give warning of the aircraft’s approach so that their vessel was already beneath the surface before bombs could be released.
Fortunately the Germans started the war with a comparatively small fleet of U-boats, some fifty in number, of which only half were of the ocean-going type. Mechanical defects and the distance they had to travel from their German bases, made even longer by the harassing from the air, rendered their operations against shipping during the first six months of the war more of an irritant than a real menace.1 Concentration for the Norwegian campaign produced a deceptive lull in their activities, and it was not until the second half of 1940 that intensified operations by both German U-boats and aircraft in the Western Approaches seriously threatened Britain’s supply lines.
Thus, in the early months of the war the main interest was in northern waters. Here the maintenance of the regular reconnaissance patrols made heavy demands on both men and machines, yet in spite of difficulties experienced in keeping aircraft serviceable there were few days on which searches were not flown. Unfortu- nately, however, the northern patrols failed to achieve their object, for during the closing months of 1939 U-boats, armed merchant raiders, and German warships succeeded in passing through the North Sea into the Atlantic. The battleship Admiral Graf Spee had slipped through at the end of August and caused considerable anxiety until brought to an ignominious end at Montevideo four months later by British forces which included HMS Achilles of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy. The failure to prevent such break-outs was largely due to the fact that the reconnaissance patrols, owing to the limited range of the Anson, were weakest at the very place where they needed to be strongest, that is, immediately off the south-western coast of Norway. A second reason was that the enemy’s attempts to break out of the North Sea were made under cover of bad weather in poor visibility. The failure to locate the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in November 1939 may be attributed almost wholly to the latter cause.
1 The total tonnage lost by U-boat action between September 1939 and the end of March 1940 amounted to 350,000 tons compared with 700,000 tons during the single deadly month of November 1942, when the Battle of the Atlantic was at its height. The outstanding achievement of the U-boat command during the first months of the war took place in the early hours of 14 October 1939, when a German U-boat, braving tides and currents, penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak at anchor.
In addition to the North Sea reconnaissance patrols, the airmen with Coastal Command engaged in various other tasks during the first winter of the war. Convoys were escorted, special searches made for suspicious or distressed vessels and protection given the fishing fleets, all of which involved long hours of tedious flying. Only occasionally were these patrols enlivened by a brush with an enemy plane or by the sighting and attack of a submerging U-boat, and even then decisive results were rare.3 The arduous and monotonous nature of the work was accentuated by the unusual severity of the winter that year, with frost and snow over most of the British Isles for several months. The record book of one squadron in Scotland, with which several New Zealanders were flying, contains this entry in January 1940:
Fourteen inches of snow covered the aerodrome. An attempt was made to clear two runways with a snow plough—finally runways were made by towing grass rollers behind a lorry. These proved satisfactory while freezing conditions lasted.
Under such conditions landing and taking off, particularly at night, was a hazardous business, and location of a base on return from a long patrol frequently proved very difficult when, in addition to the snow, there was fog or mist. Casualties were not uncommon.
3 At the time, over-eager acceptance of inconclusive evidence of destruction led to exaggerated claims, particularly with regard to U-boats. Only one of these vessels was sunk as a result of air attack during the first six months of the war.
The early operations of Bomber Command were restricted both by British policy and the course of events, with the result that activity was mainly confined to training flights and reconnaissance over enemy territory by night. But some squadrons did see early action in the war at sea. Their task was to locate and attack units of the German Fleet. Unfortunately, training and equipment for such duties were in an elementary stage; moreover, the enemy warships were well defended, both by their own massed batteries of anti-aircraft guns and by squadrons of fighters. Thus while British bomber crews displayed courage and fortitude of a high order in pressing home attacks, their efforts could hardly be assured of success.
Aircraft from Bomber Command continued to search the North Sea, but after further heavy losses in an engagement with German fighters on 18 December 1939, when 12 out of 24 Wellingtons were shot down, orders were given for the cessation of daylight attacks and reconnaissance in force close inshore. These early bombing operations had, in fact, already demonstrated what was to be confirmed by subsequent events—that in the face of the superior German fighter force, unescorted heavy bombers with low speed and restricted firepower could not be successfully employed in daylight attacks.
New Zealand airmen were also with the bomber squadrons which, from mid-December, flew offensive patrols over enemy seaplane bases as a counter-measure to the laying of magnetic mines by these aircraft in the entrances to British ports. The patrols visited the islands of Sylt, Borkum, and Norderney and attacked seaplanes taking off and landing. They also bombed any lights that were seen, thus restricting enemy activity by causing the dousing of flare paths. These operations, which included several attacks on the bases themselves,2 caused a notable reduction in enemy minelaying from the air and gained time for the development of a reply to the German magnetic mine.
1 Both Gray and Long subsequently lost their lives while serving with Bomber Command. Gray was killed a few months later when his Whitley struck a hill in bad weather and was burnt out. Long failed to return from an attack against Berlin early in 1941.
2 On 19 March 1940 the seaplane base at the island of Sylt was the target for the largest-scale bombing raid thus far launched by either side. Thirty Whitleys and 20 Hampdens were employed in the attack, which was primarily a reprisal for a raid on Scapa Flow by 15 German bombers four days previously.
3 This decision was one of the results of the acceptance by the New Zealand Government of a report submitted by Air Chief Marshal Sir Ralph A. Cochrane on the future policy and development of the New Zealand Air Force. He was at this time serving with the Royal Air Force as a Group Captain and was lent to New Zealand to make this report. Air Chief Marshal Cochrane was New Zealand’s first Chief of Air Staff and from 1950 to 1952 Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Royal Air Force.
4 Air Commodore M. W. Buckley, CBE, Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Seacliff, 3 Aug 1895; served in RNAS during First World War; joined NZPAF 1926; commanded NZ Flight, 1939–40; No. 75 (NZ) Sqdn, 1940; RAF Station, Feltwell, 1941; AOC Northern Group, Auckland, 1942–43; AOC No. 1 (Islands) Group, Guadalcanal, 1943–44; DCAS, RNZAF, 1944–45; AOC RNZAF HQ, London, 1946–50.
It was at this station, on 1 June 1939, that a New Zealand Air Force unit was established, with Buckley as its commanding officer, to form and train crews and then despatch the Wellingtons to New Zealand. Meanwhile arrangements were being made to supply men to fly the aircraft. Some were sent from New Zealand, but most of the pilots and navigators were selected from aircrew already serving with or on attachment to the Royal Air Force. During the next few weeks men began to arrive at Marham in ones and twos until, by the end of July, the unit consisted of twelve officers, all pilots, and six airmen.1With Squadron Leader Buckley doing the flying training and Squadron Leader Kay in charge of navigation, the unit was busy during this and the following months preparing for the 13,000-mile flight to New Zealand.
1 They were Squadron Leaders M. W. Buckley and C. E. Kay, Flight Lieutenant C. C. Hunter, Flying Officers J. Adams, A. A. N. Breckon, J. N. Collins, A. B. Greenaway and F. J. Lucas, Pilot Officers W. H. Coleman, T. O Freeman, W. M. C. Williams and N. Williams, Sergeants W. D. Steven and T. R. Read, and Leading Aircraftsmen D. C. McGlashan, J. T. White, E. P. Williams and R. A. J. Anderson. These men were to form the first flight. They were joined in August 1939 by Squadron Leader R. J. Cohen, who was to command the second flight, and Flight Lieutenant I. G. Morrison, who was to be a member of it. Owing to the war this second flight was never formed.
2 At this time a Canadian fighter squadron was being formed in England and a Royal Australian Air Force squadron was preparing to commence operations with Coastal Command.
Meanwhile the members of the New Zealand Flight, somewhat restless at the uncertainty regarding the future of their unit, had begun training for an operational role. This was necessary since, until the outbreak of war, the unit was interested only in the flight to New Zealand and therefore was not proficient in armament, photography or operational flying. During the second half of September the flight had moved to RAF Station, Harwell, and then, in January 1940, to Stradishall, near Newmarket. A further move took place in the following month to Feltwell, in Norfolk, where at last the unit found a more permanent home.
During this period all kinds of technical and administrative difficulties had to be overcome. Equipment for training had to be borrowed from other units; key maintenance personnel were posted and had to be replaced. When aircraft arrived they were mere skeletons and had to be fitted with all the gear used on operations. But under Buckley’s enthusiastic leadership such difficulties were overcome and the flying training continued. Gradually more air- crew, including a number of New Zealanders, were posted to the unit by the Royal Air Force, which also supplied additional maintenance personnel. Then, early in March, the New Zealand Government finally approved the formation of a New Zealand Squadron within the Royal Air Force, and shortly afterwards, on 1 April 1940, Air Ministry issued instructions that ‘No. 75 (N.Z.) Squadron should be formed round the existing New Zealand Flight at Feltwell.’ As far as possible it was to be manned by New Zealanders then serving in Britain, but for the time being ground and maintenance staff would be provided by the Royal Air Force.
The three aircraft took off independently and set course for Dorum on the German coast. Leaflets were dropped over the areas detailed from heights of 7–10,000 feet. Navigation was by dead reckoning and ‘astro’, very few fixes being obtained and these were considered unreliable. Squadron Leader Kay had considerable success with Astro navigation which proved fortunate as on entering heavy clouds the wireless transmitter burnt out and was useless for the rest of the flight. Exceedingly bumpy weather prevailed and the freezing was also severe, the temperature at one stage being —28°.
Four similar sorties were made early in April by Wellingtons from the New. Zealand Squadron, the captains of which were Flight Lieutenant Breckon,6 Flying Officers Coleman,7 N. Williams8 and W. M. C. Williams.9 Although searchlights were active on each occasion they failed to locate the high-flying aircraft, which were able to complete their task successfully. The opening of the Norwegian campaign a few days later brought the squadron fresh duties and saw the start of its bombing operations against the enemy.
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2 Wing Commander T. O. Freeman, DSO, DFC and bar; born Lawrence, 5 Jun 1916; joined RAF 1936; transferred RNZAF Jul 1939; commanded No. 115 Sqdn, 1941–42; commanded RNZAF Fighter Wing, New Georgia, 1943; killed on air operations, 17 Dec 1943.
6 Wing Commander A. A. N. Breckon, DFC; RNZAF; Ohakea; born Auckland, 28 Nov 1913; joined RAF 1935; transferred RNZAF Jun 1939; commanded Navigation Training Sqdn, Bassingbourn, 1940–41; held various commands and staff appointments in New Zealand and Pacific, 1941–45.
Until the German attack on the Low Countries opened early in May 1940, no bombing operations were flown from France since, as has already been indicated, the Allies were anxious to avoid initiating any action which would arouse German retaliation. For reasons of his own, the enemy also refrained from starting any unrestricted bombing offensive, so that instead of the inferno which many had anticipated there was an unexpected, if foreboding, calm. Nevertheless, although the squadrons in France made no bombing raids, they were employed in exercises with the ground forces in their areas and on reconnaissance and leaflet dropping operations over Germany. While most of these missions were uneventful they were occasionally enlivened by the impartiality with which some anti-aircraft gunners treated all aircraft they sighted. One New Zealander with No. 73 Squadron had the unenviable experience of being shot down over Calais in September by the French artillery to whom he was demonstrating a Hurricane for recognition purposes. Fortunately he was uninjured and was able to make a forced landing on the beach near the town. There were also odd incidents such as when one British crew, after a leaflet dropping sortie, inadvertently landed at a German airfield near the frontier. Fortunately they realised their mistake before the Germans reached them and took off again to reach France safely.
1 Field Marshal Viscount Gort, VC, GCB, CBE, DSO, MVO, MC, Legion of Honour (Fr); born 10 Jul 1886; joined Grenadier Guards, 1905; Chief of Imperial General Staff, 1937–39; C-in-C BEF, 1939–40; Inspector-General to the Forces, 1940–41; Governor and C-in-C, Gibraltar, 1941–42; Governor and C-in-C, Malta, 1942–44; High Commissioner and C-in-C, Palestine, and High Commissioner, Transjordan, 1944–45; died 31 Mar 1946.
For fighter pilots stationed with the British Army close to the Belgian border the winter of 1940 was a period of grinding mono- tony. Day after day they made their way through snow, slush, and mud to their cheerless dispersal points, to remain at readiness throughout the daylight hours. This tense waiting was always one of the most trying and difficult situations with which fighter pilots had to contend, and during this period it was particularly hard for them to accept continued inaction.
It was not until March that the enemy renewed his activity over France. On the second day of that month Kain again distinguished himself in an encounter with seven Heinkels which he chased into Germany. Then, on being attacked by fighters, he turned and shot one down. Eventually, although nearly blinded by smoke and fumes, he managed to regain a friendly airfield.
During the next few weeks Kain continued to figure conspicuously in his squadron’s activities. On one particularly active day towards the close of the month 14 British pilots had combats and claimed seven of the enemy without loss to themselves. Kain accounted for one of the aircraft destroyed, and possibly a second, before he himself was forced to bale out of his blazing Hurricane.1 He landed alongside a wood to find himself in the midst of a skirmish between opposing patrols so sought cover and then made his way on foot towards what he hoped were the French lines. After a short time he was picked up by a French captain who took him on the back of a motor cycle to the nearest village, where he received medical attention. Kain was up and about the following day, walking with the aid of a stick.
1 He afterwards told how ‘Three of us were on patrol when we sighted four Messerschmitts which came around at us in twos. We turned with them and I got in a side shot at the last one. He stalled and then spun down with smoke and flame pouring out of his machine. Then more Messerschmitts appeared and the sky seemed full of planes dashing about. Found another flying loose and put a burst at him. He turned on his side and went down smoking. Then the sky seemed suddenly clear. But almost at once there was a crash, the top of the hood was shot away and my machine caught fire. The shock must have knocked me out for a moment since when I came to the Hurricane was in a steep dive and flaming. Could not get out until I’d pulled her out of the dive. By that time my face and hands were burnt a bit. Forgot to pull the ripcord at first and when the parachute opened it jerked me sideways—one shoulder strap had slipped off. Down I went through a bank of cloud….’
2 Wing Commander W. H. Stratton, DFC and bar; RNZAF; London; born Hastings, 22 Jul 1916; joined RAF 1937; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944; commanded No. 134 Sqdn, Middle East and India, 1943–44; OC Flying Wing, Wigram, 1945; served with BCOF, Japan, 1947–48.
I endeavoured to turn on to the enemy nearest me, but immediately went into a spin. A number of Messerschmitts were firing their rear guns. I recovered from my spin and was beginning a steep climb when a 110 dived past in front of me, so I made a steep diving turn on to his tail. He made little effort to shake me off and I expended all my ammunition. When I broke away one of his engines was on fire.
This same aircraft had previously been damaged by the leader of the section. After Stratton’s attack it was last seen gliding in an easterly direction giving out clouds of smoke. The German pilot escaped by parachute and was later captured. The third pilot of the section had meanwhile damaged two other Messerschmitt 110s. All three airmen were afterwards entertained at a special dinner in Paris (at Maxim’s in the Rue Royale) which had been promised by Air Marshal Barratt1 to the first pilot to destroy one of these aircraft. These successful combats deserved celebration since they dispelled the rumours which usually surrounded new enemy aircraft, and which in the case of the Messerschmitt 110 had credited it with a higher performance than was proved on closer acquaintance.
Sporadic engagements with German reconnaissance machines continued until the end of April when there was a lull in air activity on the eastern frontier. New Zealand pilots were involved in several inconclusive encounters but most of their work consisted of routine patrols covering army movements into the outer defences of the Maginot Line. The lull was short-lived for, on 10 May, Germany invaded the Low Countries, and the few squadrons of the Royal Air Force in France were soon engaged in violent air battles with practically the whole strength of the Luftwaffe. But before this happened the Germans had already invaded Norway and Denmark to secure their northern flank against any possible diversion from the projected campaign against France.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur S. Barratt, KCB, CMG, MC, Order of the Crown and Croix de Guerre with Palm (Bel), Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol), Legion of Honour (Fr), Croix de Guerre with Palm (Fr); RAF (retd); England; born Peshawar, India, 25 Feb 1891; joined Royal Artillery 1910; seconded RFC 1914 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC-in-C, British Air Forces in France, 1940; AOC-in-C, Army Co-operation Command, 1940–43; AOC-in-C, Technical Training Command, 1943–45; Inspector-General of the RAF, 1945–47.