New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 7 — Day-Fighters and Fighter-bombers
Day-Fighters and Fighter-bombers
Supremacy in the air over Western Europe was won only after a long and bitter struggle but by the beginning of 1943 the initiative had, in large measure, passed to the Allied air forces based in Britain. With the expanding production of British factories and the advent of more squadrons and supplies from the United States, these forces were now increasing steadily both in size and strength. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, had been seriously weakened by heavy losses of men and machines both in Russia and in the Mediterranean and these campaigns were to remain a steady drain on German air power. And although the Germans made desperate efforts to meet the growing air offensive from Britain by transferring units from other fronts and by energetic reorganisation of their aircraft production to provide more fighters, they were unable to prevent the Allies from steadily gaining the ascendancy in the West. This ascendancy became more clearly evident towards the end of 1943 when for five months scarcely a single German aircraft appeared over the United Kingdom in daylight, while during the same period the RAF alone flew more than 52,000 sorties by day over German or German-occupied territory.
An important contribution to this favourable turn of events was made by Royal Air Force Fighter Command. Its large and efficient organisation, ever on the alert, was not only a powerful deterrent to the launching of any serious aerial attack against the United Kingdom but it also made even effective reconnaissance most difficult for the enemy. At the same time the British fighter squadrons, sweeping forward in great strength from their island base, had maintained constant pressure against the Luftwaffe over France, Belgium and Holland, inflicting heavy casualties in men and machines and forcing the Germans to engage in a war of attrition in the West at a time when they were heavily involved elsewhere.
Patrols over enemy territory by very large formations now absorbed the major effort of the RAF day-fighter squadrons. This in itself was an interesting development, for Fighter Command had been built up primarily to defend the United Kingdom. However, when the Luftwaffe, after its defeat in the skies over England during the summer of 1940, did not return to the assault on any appreciable scale, Fighter Command had turned to the offensive and begun to seek out the enemy over his own airfields on the Continent. After page 170 a modest beginning early in 1941, formations of Spitfires had flown across the Channel in ever-growing strength until, by the middle of 1942, missions involving upwards of fifteen squadrons were a daily routine. The various operations did not always succeed in their purpose of drawing enemy fighters into battle, for the Germans often allowed large formations of Spitfires to fly unmolested over northern France and even at times ignored light bombing raids rather than risk action under unfavourable conditions. The range of the British fighters was also limited and, even when bombers accompanied them, the attacks frequently lacked sting. Yet there were occasions, notably at Dieppe in August 1942, when the Germans reacted strongly and major battles resulted. Intensive operations during that year had compelled the Germans to devote the whole output of their new Focke-Wulf fighter exclusively to meeting the RAF sweeps over the fringes of Occupied Europe, and units which might otherwise have been used in the Mediterranean or to reinforce the Russian front were kept at full stretch in Western Europe.
During 1942, when the Germans were sweeping forward in Russia and the Middle East, this pinning down in the West of as large a part as possible of German air strength by offensive sweeps and ‘circus’ operations with bombers had been the primary task of the day-fighter squadrons. But in 1943 there came a distinct change in their role. The Luftwaffe had suffered severe losses at Stalingrad and in Africa. Moreover, the daylight offensive by Allied bombers was now increasing rapidly and with it came the demand for more and heavier fighter escorts. This altered the whole nature of the day-fighter operations. Instead of bombers being used mainly as bait to lure enemy fighters into action, the bombing now became the principal mission and the supporting fighters were employed primarily to further that effort. ‘Circuses’ were thus gradually replaced by ‘Ramrods’, a code-name which signified the greater power and thrust of the new Allied offensive by day.
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1 In order to increase speed and lateral manoeuvrability, the Spitfire's wing span had been reduced by suppressing the wing tips which had previously rounded off the ellipse of the wing so harmoniously. The engines had been ‘cropped’ by reducing the diameter of the supercharger turbine. This allowed power to be stepped up rapidly below 3000 feet but above that height the power curve fell away rapidly. ‘Clapped’ expressed the general opinion among pilots of these machines, for while extremely fast at low level they became sluggish at 10,000 feet, the height at which most escort missions were now flown.
During 1943 offensive patrols over France and the Low Countries were flown principally by the forty-eight squadrons located south of the line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, well over half these units being stationed at airfields of No. 11 Group in south-east England. The squadrons were usually organised in two-squadron wings named after the base from which they operated, and Biggin Hill in Kent, Kenley in Surrey, Tangmere in Sussex, Hornchurch, North Weald and Debden in Essex, and Northolt in Middlesex, were among the famous Battle of Britain airfields from which fighter wings flew against the Luftwaffe.
The fighters now received valuable assistance from ground control in England during their missions over enemy territory. Specially sited radar stations of greater range and power were being built – the first had opened at Appledore, Kent, in June 1942 – which could detect the movements of enemy aircraft well inside the French and Belgian coasts. Controllers were thus able to pass information to the British squadrons as they flew across the Channel and even, on occasion, direct them into battle over enemy territory. The chief merit of this system, whose operational success was immediate and prolonged, lay in the fact that it deprived the enemy of the strong advantage previously given by his early-warning system. No longer could the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts take off from their fields at Abbeville and Amiens to reach the favourable height and position from which they were wont to ‘bounce’ the approaching Spitfires. Instead it was the British formations, forewarned of their move- ments, that frequently succeeded in springing the surprise.
The increase in Fighter Command's escort work was rapid. In April 1943 just over three thousand sorties were flown by the Spitfires as cover to Fortress and Liberator bombers of the United States Air Force and to Bostons, Mitchells, and Venturas of No. 2 Group page 172 Bomber Command. Within three months this total had been doubled, and before the end of the year large forces of American bombers were being escorted by formations of over 500 British fighters on a single raid. Normally bomber formations were escorted from the time they left the English coast until they returned, but when their targets were beyond fighter range, the bombers were escorted to the limit of the fighters' endurance and then met on return by large formations which covered their withdrawal.
Two operations, one in March and the other in June, illustrate the support given by Fighter Command to United States bomber forces during 1943 before they were able to have full cover provided by their own long-range fighters. On 13 March when the marshalling yards at Amiens were the target for seventy Fortresses, eleven squadrons of Spitfires were detailed as escort. The raid was in two parts. First of all the Fortresses, supported by RAF fighters, made a feint attack towards Dieppe to draw enemy fighters into the air away from the intended target. The Hornchurch Wing, which flew in simultaneously to deal with any reaction, succeeded in intercepting a mixed formation of some twenty Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts, and claimed three of them destroyed without loss. Then the Fortresses swept back across the Channel to pick up their escort for the main attack. Around them gathered the fighter wings from Northolt and North Weald, the Kenley Wing took station above as high cover, and slightly ahead were the Biggin Hill squadrons which were to act as target support. The whole force then made its way to Amiens by a somewhat circuitous route but the majority of the bombers identified and attacked the primary target. Over France small formations of German fighters made spasmodic attempts at interception, but none of the Fortresses was lost and the Spitfires claimed four German fighters destroyed, together with four more ‘probables’, for the loss of six pilots. The withdrawal of the main Allied force had meanwhile been covered by two Spitfire squadrons of the Debden Wing which patrolled the French coast from Cayeux to Dieppe.
On 22 June 235 Fortress bombers attacked the synthetic rubber plant at Huls, a few miles north of Krefeld. This first attack on the Ruhr by American bombers was attended by considerable success, over 420 tons of bombs falling in or near the target area; the entire plant was shut down for four weeks and full production was not achieved again until several months later. However, during the first part of their return flight from the Ruhr the Fortresses were heavily engaged by German fighters and sixteen of the bombers were shot down. But as the official American Air Historian records: ‘Losses would have been even greater if effective withdrawal support had not been provided by the twenty-three squadrons of Spitfires and the page 173 three squadrons of Typhoons from the RAF.’1 The fighters met the returning bomber formations at extreme range and drove off trailing German fighters. Pairs of Spitfires were also detached from squadrons to bring the stragglers home – an exhausting task as the damaged Fortresses often dragged along on a third of their total power, stretching the endurance of their escort to the limit.
Opposition to this American raid was further reduced by a simultaneous RAF attack on the docks at Rotterdam. Twelve Mitchells from the No. 2 Bomber Group provided the bombing force and they were escorted by four squadrons of Spitfires from the Kenley and North Weald Wings. After meeting over Orfordness the formations had flown across the Channel at sea level and then, near the Dutch coast, had begun climbing until over their target they were stepped up from 13,500 feet to just below 20,000 feet. A few Focke-Wulf 190s were then encountered but their attacks were not pressed home. One of them was caught by crossfire from the bombers and shot down. On their way out from the target the Spitfires engaged more enemy fighters, claiming two of them probably destroyed and one damaged for the loss of one British pilot.
This raid on Rotterdam was typical of the many missions during 1943 in which large formations of Spitfires escorted Bostons, Mitchells, and Venturas of No. 2 Group on bombing raids against enemy airfields, ports, ships and harbour installations, factories and power-stations and various rail targets, particularly engine sheds and repair depots. The Spitfire squadrons were also active in support of Coastal Command Beaufighters in their attacks on shipping in the North Sea and along the Dutch coast.
Interspersed with these various escort duties were sweeps by large numbers of fighters over Belgium and northern France, and on days of poor visibility the offensive was maintained by small formations in nuisance raids. Low-level attacks by fighter-bombers against military targets on the Continent and shipping in the Channel increased steadily as the months passed and were to prove a most profitable venture. There was, in fact, a constant challenge to the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe.
Spitfires and Typhoons were also employed on interception patrols against the German fighter-bombers which flew in from the sea to attack shipping and towns along the southern coast of England. But, as might be expected, such defensive patrols became a steadily decreasing commitment for the day-fighter squadrons until by June 1943 they accounted for less than one-seventh of the total effort during the daylight hours. Patrols to protect coastal shipping were, however, flown throughout the year, and the fighters frequently escorted aircraft from the rescue squadrons on their errands of mercy.
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In all these various tasks New Zealand fighter pilots played their part. Some flew with RAF squadrons, others with the two New Zealand day-fighter units, No. 485 Spitfire Squadron and No. 486 Typhoon Squadron, both of which were stationed in No. 11 Fighter Group throughout 1943. Twenty New Zealanders led fighter wings or squadrons for various periods during this year, and many posts on the operational and training staffs of Fighter Command and Group Headquarters were filled by experienced pilots in between their spells of operational flying. A significant group of men from the Dominion also served as ground crew at the front-line airfields. By September 1943, of the New Zealanders who had served with Fighter Command, 250 had lost their lives since the outbreak of war.
As the wing formation had now become the mainstay of the fighter offensive, it was upon the wing leader that a great deal of the responsibility for success in operations ultimately rested. He had to weld his squadrons into a fighting team, train them in tactics, brief them for particular missions and lead them into battle. During 1943 particular distinction in this role was won by Wing Commanders P. G. Jameson, who led the Norwegian Wing, A. C. Deere,1 who led the squadrons from Biggin Hill, and W. V. Crawford- Compton2 with the Hornchurch Wing.
1 Wing Commander A. C. Deere, DSO, OBE, DFC and bar, Distinguished Flying Cross (US), Croix de Guerre (Fr.); RAF; born Auckland, 12 Dec 1917; joined RAF 1937; commanded No. 602 Sqdn, 1941; Wing Leader, Biggin Hill, 1943; Wing Commander No. 84 Group, 1944–45; commanded RAF Station, Duxford, 1945–46; Air Staff, Malta, 1948–49; commanded RAF North Weald, 1952–54.
2 Wing Commander W. V. Crawford-Compton, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, Silver Star (US), Legion of Honour and Croix de Guerre with Palm (Fr.); RAF; born Invercargill, 2 Mar 1916; joined RAF Oct 1939; commanded No. 64 Sqdn, 1942; Wing Leader, Hornchurch, 1943; lecture tour in USA, 1944; Wing Leader, No. 145 Wing, 2nd TAF 1944; Planning Staff, No. 11 Fighter Group, 1945; Air Attache, Oslo, 1950–53.
During the first half of 1943 Jameson led the Norwegian Wing on almost every occasion they operated. In one period of nine weeks he led twenty-one missions over enemy territory, during which thirteen German fighters were claimed destroyed for the loss of only two pilots. Jameson himself destroyed two of the enemy aircraft and damaged another, but as a senior officer has recorded: ‘It was his splendid leadership and fine tactical knowledge which gained the greatest praise from those he led and with whom he worked at North Weald.’
Jameson's wing was now frequently called upon to protect American bombers. One day whilst escorting a force of Liberators over Dunkirk, there was a fierce battle in which the Norwegian pilots acquitted themselves particularly well in defence of the bombers and claimed eight Focke-Wulfs destroyed without loss. This action drew a special letter of commendation from the leader of the American 8th Air Force in Britain.
But there were other times when things did not go so well. In one battle Jameson became separated from his section and it was only through first-class aerobatics and sheer determination that he escaped being shot down. He afterwards reported the incident in these words:
I was leading the Wing …. sweeping five miles east of Dunkirk, Ypres, St. Omer, Gravelines …. The French coast was crossed at 19,000 feet and soon afterwards enemy aircraft were reported by Operations to be in the St. Omer area at 20,000 feet and higher …. About two minutes after receiving this message eight FW.190s were seen above, ahead and to star- board. I manoeuvred for height and position and eventually got above them and up sun. One section started to go down but I then saw many more enemy aircraft above us and up sun so I recalled the section and climbed again going into sun and towards St. Omer. When roughly over St. Omer, two FW.190s flew slightly above and across my bows from starboard to port. I turned quickly to try and get in a deflection shot, but owing to the slow climbing speed of the Wing, I stalled before getting a shot. The Huns page 176 rolled over and dived. My No. 2 and No. 3 mistaking each other for me, went after the enemy aircraft one of which was subsequently damaged.
About 10 seconds after stalling I saw about nine FW.190s approximately 10,000 feet below, i.e., at 12,000 feet. Thinking I had my section with me, I called up on the radio telephone and went down to the Huns. The enemy aircraft dived down to ground level, I followed as far as 2,500 feet but could not get nearer than 800 yards so I broke away and then found I was …. alone! There were patches of broken cumulus at 2,000 feet and I should have used this cloud to have gone home, but I started to climb towards Gravelines and when over there at about 20,000 feet, I was bounced by eight FW.190s.
I turned to meet the attack but the Huns formed a sort of circle around me and kept darting in to attack from all directions. I fired one burst and at the end of two seconds both my cannons stopped.
I called up the Wing and told them that I was being attacked but gave no height and only a very rough position. I had by this time got a little ‘het’ up and although I did try to tell the Wing my position, I think that I forgot to press the radio telephone switch.
The Huns continued to attack, sometimes in to 100 yards. I could see two great balls of fire coming from their cannons. I continually turned steeply almost in a stalled condition and every time I saw a Hun firing I flicked on a little top or bottom rudder.
Realising that I could not stay there forever, I wound the tail wheel forward and went down almost vertically doing tight aileron turns. The aircraft became unstable at the speed I achieved and on at least four occasions the nose dropped quickly and I hit my head on the cockpit cover with a bang.
By the time I got down to the cloud my windscreen and hood were completely frosted over with the exception of a visor about one inch wide around the rear of the hood. The Huns were still following as I flew into cloud. I then turned north-east and crossed the coast north of Dunkirk, by this time flying on the deck.
I steered a course of 280° for what seemed an incredibly long time and at last I saw land, cliffs, lighthouse and high ground behind. Where the …. what the …. After cudgelling my brains I had at last the sense to look at the sun …. it was Cap Gris Nez …. Compass u/s. Turning and keeping the sun behind my left shoulder I cut the engine revolutions and boost down and made for home, landing after being airborne for two hours and 15 gallons still in the tank, the aircraft and myself unscathed.
In March 1943, by which time he was credited with the destruction of nine German machines, Jameson was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order. A few months later he received the award of the Norwegian War Cross with Sword – the highest Norwegian decoration – in recognition of his ‘zealous leadership of the Norwegian squadrons in joint operations against the enemy which in a high degree has contributed to the results the Norwegian pilots have obtained in combat.’ By this time Jameson had been posted to No. 11 Group Headquarters as Training Officer and was later made Group Captain in charge of plans. Subsequently he returned to operations and after the Normandy invasion was to cross the Channel with the Second Tactical Air Force in command of a mobile wing.page 177
Biggin Hill in Kent was one of the famous fighter stations in England. In 1943 this notable airfield, greatly enlarged and with its runways extended, was a forward base for offensive patrols across the Channel, and appropriately enough was under the command of the famous Battle of Britain fighter pilot, Group Captain ‘Sailor’ Malan.1
Wing Commander Alan Deere was posted to this station in March 1943 as Wing Commander Flying on his return to operations after a period as Staff Officer at No. 13 Group Headquarters. To prepare himself for this new appointment, Deere had spent a fortnight at Biggin Hill in February, during which time he chose to fly as a junior pilot on sweeps and escort patrols. During one of these missions when an enemy formation split up and scattered, Deere showed typical aggressiveness by chasing a Focke-Wulf far into France and then shooting it down in flames.
Between March and September 1943 Deere led the Biggin Hill Wing on some of the most successful operations of its career and during this period sixty enemy fighters were claimed destroyed. He was leading the squadrons on 15 May when Biggin Hill recorded its thousandth enemy aircraft destroyed, to celebrate which event a memorable party was staged at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
Large forces of American bombers were now often escorted, and in one period of four weeks from the middle of July Deere led the wing on fifteen such missions. Strong formations of enemy fighters were frequently met in the vicinity of the target but due to his excellent tactics and fine leadership losses were low and the objectives effectively bombed. Indeed, throughout his period at Biggin Hill, Deere displayed great energy and initiative in developing new tactics for the successful escort of bomber formations in their daylight attacks. Many tributes to his leadership are recorded. ‘Since taking over the Biggin Hill Wing,’ writes Group Captain Malan, ‘he has been an outstanding example of selfless devotion to duty, tenacity of purpose, fearlessness in the face of the enemy and of understatement in his personal combat claims. Apart from being a brilliant individual fighter pilot, he has curbed his personal ambition when leading the Wing and accepted the more serious and exacting role and responsibility of leading. It is no exaggeration to say that he has been an inspiration to the whole of Fighter Command.’
1 Group Captain A. G. Malan, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, Croix de Guerre (Bel.), Military Cross (Czech.), Legion of Honour and Croix de Guerre (Fr.); born Wellington, South Africa, 3 Oct 1910; joined RAF 1936; commanded No. 74 Sqdn, 1940–41; CFI No. 58 OTU, 1941; served with British Air Staff, Washington, 1941–42; commanded Central Gunnery School, 1942; RAF Station, Biggin Hill, 1943; No. 19 Wing, 1943–44; No. 145 Wing, 2nd TAF, 1944; member of Directing Staff, RAF Staff College, 1945–46.
Reports of such breathtaking escapes and adventures during the early campaigns have tended to obscure the reputation as an outstanding leader which Deere subsequently won with both the Kenley and Biggin Hill Wings, and this aspect of a very notable career must therefore be emphasised. Deere was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order in June 1943, by which time he was credited by Fighter Command with a total of twenty-one enemy aircraft destroyed.
Wing Commander Crawford-Compton's record of service was also notable. His boyhood was spent at Waiuku, a prosperous farming district near Auckland, where he showed an early taste for adventure. Then, the year before the outbreak of war, along with three other young men, Compton had set sail for England in a ketch, hoping to join the Royal Air Force on arrival. But the boat was wrecked on an uncharted reef off the coast of New Guinea and, after spending twelve hours adrift on a raft constructed from the wreckage, the crew landed on a small island. There they had to stay with the natives for six weeks before they got away in a canoe. Compton continued his journey to England by working as a ship's carpenter on a tramp steamer. He joined the RAF as a ground mechanic, then trained as a pilot, and was posted to his first squadron early in 1941. A few months later he became one of the founder members of the first New Zealand fighter squadron to be formed in England, and soon showed himself an outstanding pilot. By the end of 1942, when he was appointed to command No. 64 Spitfire Squadron in the Hornchurch Wing, Compton was credited with the destruction of seven German machines. He had also won both the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar.page 179
The airfield at Hornchurch, on the outskirts of London and to the north of the Thames estuary, was now almost as notable a fighter base as Biggin Hill. In the First World War fighter aircraft had operated from Hornchurch to defend London against the German Zeppelin raids. During 1940 Spitfires had flown from the same field to cover the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and then once again in defence of London against the German mass attacks during the Battle of Britain.
In the early months of 1943, when the Hornchurch Wing was frequently engaged in sweeps over northern France and in escorting bombers to attack airfields and marshalling yards in the same area, Compton led his No. 64 Squadron on almost every occasion. The enemy did not always react in strength but there were some spirited engagements. One such action took place early in March when Compton was leading his pilots as part of the escort to American Liberators raiding Rouen. Focke-Wulfs attacked the force soon after it had crossed the French coast and in vicious attacks shot down two Liberators and one Spitfire. A running battle then developed which continued all the way to the target and back to the coast. The Spitfire pilots, considerably outnumbered, were kept continuously in action, beating off repeated attacks by groups of fighters but no more bombers were lost.
Early in the battle Compton sent one Focke-Wulf down after a head-on attack. Then, with another pilot, he chased three Focke-Wulfs over Rouen and shot one down; but almost immediately the two Spitfires were attacked by eight German fighters and, after his companion had been shot down, Compton was pursued all the way to the French coast.
Of another action in which he was engaged with his squadron against a formation of Focke-Wulfs over the French coast, Compton reported:
While leading No. 64 Squadron we were informed by Operations of two to three enemy aircraft over a ship off Calais. I dived down under a layer of cloud about 7,000 feet and searched for the enemy aircraft for two to three minutes. I could not see them so called up to say we would attack the ship. I had started my dive when I saw seven F.W.190s about two miles away coming from Cap Gris Nez. I pulled up sharply and managed to get above and behind without being seen. I fired a very short burst at the No. 4 but they went into cloud and saw no hits. I was attacked and broke away. One F.W.190 then closed in on my port and did not see me. I fired a second burst and saw hits on the fuselage and wing root. I was using armour piercing incendiary which, when they hit, left a streak of flame about 18” long. The enemy aircraft began smoking furiously and headed for the coast. I fired another short burst and saw hits. The enemy aircraft caught fire and hit the water about 100 yards off shore west of Calais. I broke away and experienced heavy flak from the shore and the ship …. We came back to mid-Channel at zero feet and then climbed to cloud height.page 180
In June 1943 Compton was appointed to lead the Hornchurch Wing which included the Mysore and Natal squadrons. During the next six months the wing distinguished itself under his leadership on many occasions and claimed a total of forty-one enemy aircraft, together with a similar number probably destroyed or damaged.
One of Compton's outstanding pilots at this time was Flying Officer Hesselyn,1 who joined No. 222 Squadron at Hornchurch at the beginning of July. Hesselyn had already distinguished himself in operations from Malta, where he had been credited with the destruction of twelve enemy machines in the heavy air fighting during the early months of 1942. A further seven German planes were now to be claimed by this keen young pilot during the four months he flew with the Hornchurch Wing.
A typical action in which Hesselyn played a prominent part was fought over Holland in the middle of August 1943. The squadrons from Hornchurch were escorting, as far as Antwerp, Fortresses bound for Germany, and they had just left the bombers and begun their return flight when twelve Messerschmitts were sighted below. Sweeping down to the attack, the Spitfires destroyed five of them, without loss. Hesselyn, who sent two down within a few seconds of each other, afterwards reported briefly:
The Wing dived and the enemy aircraft split up, four flying at 5,000 feet and 8/9 Me.109Gs climbing to 7/8,000 feet. We had got below the eight and Blue 1 and I climbed, he attacking the nearest while I went for the No. 2, attacking from the starboard quarter. I saw strikes, the enemy aircraft poured smoke, rolled on its back and crashed on the ground eight miles east of Neuzen. I turned to starboard and saw another Me.109G six hundred yards ahead. I closed in and fired from dead astern damaging it. A further burst showed strikes on fuselage and wings, the cockpit cover and some pieces flew off and the pilot baled out. Finally I saw the tail break off and the enemy aircraft crashed in the Estuary. Blue 4 witnessed my combat and the destruction of the two enemy aircraft ….
During his period of leadership of the Hornchurch Wing, Compton himself was frequently in action. One day towards the end of June while leading his Spitfires on a sweep over France, he was directed by control towards twenty to thirty Me109s flying high over St. Omer. Compton took his pilots into the enemy formation and in the subsequent fighting they claimed two Messerschmitts destroyed and another damaged, Compton himself accounting for one of those destroyed. A few weeks later, after a mission in which his wing escorted Bostons to bomb Courtrai airfield, Compton reported a rather unusual incident:
Two other German fighters were shot down by the Hornchurch Spitfires that day.
Early in September when the wing was escorting American Marauders to the marshalling yards near Ghent, it was attacked by about twenty FW190s from out of the sun. Compton turned his squadrons against the enemy fighters and, despite their initial dis- advantage, the British pilots were able to claim two of the Focke-Wulfs destroyed and two probably destroyed, for the loss of only one Spitfire. During the return flight Compton intercepted a Focke-Wulf over Dunkirk and shot it down into the sea with two short bursts.
A few weeks later while flying as high cover to Marauders in an attack on the airfield at Beauvais/Tille, Compton's squadrons claimed three enemy fighters destroyed and seven more damaged, without loss. The wing had been warned of enemy fighters climbing to intercept, and as soon as they were sighted diving towards the bombers Compton led his Spitfires to head them off. This manoeuvre had the desired effect, but other enemy formations then came in from ahead and astern. A general dogfight soon developed in which the total number of enemy aircraft engaged was estimated as between sixty and seventy. But none of the American bombers was shot down and German pilots were heard over the radio telephone bewailing the effectiveness of the British fighter protection.
In September 1943 Compton was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order and, in recognition of his work in protecting American bomber formations, the United States awarded him their Silver Star. After a period in the United States, Compton returned to operations early in 1944 with the Free French Wing, and soon after the invasion of Normandy he was leading the French pilots from a base in their own country.
1 Wing Commander C. E. Malfroy, DFC, DFC (US); RAF; born Hokitika, 21 Jan 1909; Cambridge University Air Squadron, 1931–32; entered RAF Aug 1939; commanded No. 417 Sqdn, 1941; No. 66 Sqdn, 1942; CFI No. 61 OTU, 1942; Training Staff, No. 10 Fighter Group, 1942–43; Wing Leader, Exeter, 1943–44; commanded No. 145 Airfield, 1944; Staff duties, AEAF and SHAEF, 1944; commanded RAF Station, Portreath, 1944, and RAF Station, Warmwell, 1945.
2 Wing Commander R. D. Yule, DSO, DFC and bar; born Invercargill, 29 Jan 1920; Cranwell cadet, 1938–39; permanent commission RAF Oct 1939; commanded No. 66 Sqdn, 1942; Wing Leader No. 15 Wing, 1943–44; killed in flying accident, 11 Sep 1953.
New Zealanders also played their part in the various subsidiary tasks undertaken by Fighter Command. They were particularly prominent in the fighter reconnaissance field where Group Captain P. L. Donkin, who had long experience in this work - he had served with Army Co-operation Command during the early years of the war – now commanded a Mustang wing and Squadron Leader Barnett1 led a Spitfire squadron that specialised in what were known as ‘Jim Crow’ patrols – reconnaissance flights over the Channel in search of shipping targets for the fighter and torpedo-bombers. In February 1944 Donkin was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order, the citation recording that ‘his careful planning and outstanding leadership had enabled his squadrons to undertake sustained offensive and photographic operations with notable success.’ Donkin was also commended for taking excellent photographs of heavily defended sections of the French coast – a task which became an increasingly important part of the work of all fighter reconnaissance pilots as preparations for invasion advanced.
Donkin had a remarkable experience of an entirely different kind early in 1944. He was flying a low-level reconnaissance over the Belgian coast when his machine was hit by flak. Unable to make base he baled out, dropped into the sea, and climbed into his dinghy. He found himself uncomfortably close to the enemy coast so paddled vigorously in order to put as much distance as possible between himself and the shore. On the second day his efforts nearly ended in disaster when he overbalanced and fell into the sea. Water soon became a problem and thirst drove him to catch a seagull and drink its blood. Fortunately on the third day it rained and he was able to gather sufficient water to keep alive. Searching aircraft passed overhead but failed to see the tiny dinghy in the wide expanse of sea, and it was not until Donkin had been drifting for six days that he was finally seen and picked up by a searching rescue launch. ‘Not the least of my trials during the long hours in the dinghy,’ says Donkin, ‘was the habit of Marauders testing their guns while going out on sorties. Bullets often peppered around too near to be healthy.’
Raids on enemy ships in the Channel and the Straits of Dover were now becoming an important part of Fighter Command's work and Squadron Leaders Pheloung1 and Kilian2 both led RAF squadrons engaged on such duties. Pheloung's Typhoons were stationed in Norfolk and usually operated over Dutch coastal waters, while Kilian's Spitfires flew patrols over the Channel from an airfield in Hampshire. Both squadrons reported many successful missions.
In these attacks on enemy shipping, the Typhoon fighter-bombers were frequently supported by long-range Spitfires which took the anti-flak role, sweeping in ahead to silence the German gunners. Such co-ordinated assault proved extremely effective although determined enemy gunners often gave the first aircraft a hot reception. While leading a June attack on a convoy off the Hook of Holland Pheloung lost his life. His machine was hit by fire from the ships, and during the return flight it was suddenly seen to make a sharp diving turn and then go straight down into the sea.
One Spitfire pilot gives this impression of an attack on the port of Cherbourg:
I aimed at the bridge between the damaged funnel and the mast and fired a long furious continuous burst, with finger hard on the button. My shells exploded in the water, rose towards the water line, exploded on the grey black striped hull, rose higher to the hand rails, the sand bags. A wind- scoop crashed down, a jet of steam spurted from somewhere. Twenty yards – two men in navy blue jerseys hurled themselves flat – ten yards – the four barrels of a multiple pom-pom seemed to be pointing straight between my eyes – my shells exploded all around it, then the four barrels fired, and I could feel the vibration as I passed a few yards above. Then the smack of the steel wire of the aerial wrenched off by my wing as I passed. My limbs were shaken by a terrible nervous tremor and my teeth were chattering. I zigzagged between the spouts raised by the shells. Half a dozen belated Typhoons passed to my right, bearing down beyond the long granite wall of the break- water. I skimmed over a fort – a curious mixture of crenelated towers and modern concrete casements – whose very walls seemed to be belching fire. Then I was in the middle of the roadstead – an inextricable jumble of trawler masts and rusty wrecks sticking out between the battered quays. The air was crisscrossed with tracer, lit up by flashes and dotted with black and white puffs of smoke.
One big ship was surrounded by explosions, flames and debris. He fore- masts bristling with derricks and her squat funnel well aft emerged from the smoke. The Typhoon attack was in full swing, bombs exploding all the time, with bursts of fire and black clouds of smoke continuing as they drifted away. A Typhoon vanished into thin air in the explosion of a bomb dropped by one in front. As I flew away one of the harbour cranes came crashing down like a house of cards ….
* * * * *
The part played by the two New Zealand day-fighter squadrons – No. 485 Spitfires and No. 486 Typhoons – must now be recorded. For both units this was an eventful year, and the account which follows may well serve to illustrate the experiences of many other squadrons with which New Zealand fighter pilots served.
No. 485, now regarded as one of the foremost units of No. 11 Fighter Group, operated first from a forward base in Sussex and then from Biggin Hill in the wing led by Deere; the New Zealand Spitfires were particularly prominent in bomber support operations but many other missions were flown, including sweeps over northern France, the protection of British convoys, defensive patrols against coastal raiders, and the escort of air-sea rescue machines. Altogether a total of 2634 sorties was made by No. 485 Squadron during the year, in which twenty-seven German machines were claimed for the loss of nineteen pilots.
At the beginning of January the New Zealanders, under the page 185 command of Squadron Leader Grant,1 were established at West Hampnett in the famous Tangmere sector of No. 11 Fighter Group. Tangmere was at this time commanded by Group Captain McGregor,2 a New Zealand pilot with fifteen years' service in the Royal Air Force, who after a notable career in Fighter Command was to win further distinction in the Middle East where he served on the staff of Air Marshal Tedder,3 and then as Air Officer Commanding, Levant.
In their first patrols from Tangmere the New Zealanders saw little action, but early in February there was a lively engagement with German fighters over Abbeville. Shortly after crossing the French coast the Spitfires were directed by their ground control towards a formation of some fifteen FW190s which they soon sighted and attacked. But while they were engaged with this force a further twenty Focke-Wulfs suddenly swept down out of the sun, and in the hard fighting that followed three New Zealand Spitfires were shot down. In the midst of the battle Squadron Leader Grant, who was leading No. 485 that day, had the distressing experience of seeing his younger brother4 shot down before he could intervene to save him. He did, however, succeed in destroying the German fighter which made the attack. Another Focke-Wulf was shot down by Flying Officer Hume.5
1 Wing Commander R. J. C. Grant, DFC and bar, DFM; born Woodville, 3 Jun 1914; metal spinner; joined RNZAF Nov 1939; commanded No. 485 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942–43; No. 65 Sqdn, 1943–44; No. 122 Wing, 1944; killed on air operations, 28 Feb 1944.
2 Air Vice-Marshal H. D. McGregor, CBE, DSO, Legion of Merit (US); RAF; born Wairoa, 15 Feb 1910; joined RAF 1928; permanent commission 1932; commanded Nos. 33 and 213 Sqdns, 1939–40; RAF Station, Ballyhalbert, 1941; RAF Station, Tangmere, 1942–43; Group Captain, Operations, Mediterranean Air Command, 1943–44; Allied Deputy Director of Operations, Intell. Plans, N. Africa and Italy, 1944; AOC Levant, 1945–46; Planning Staff, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Washington, 1949–50; AOC No. 2 Group BAFO, 1951–53.
3 Marshal of the Royal Air Force The Lord Tedder of Glenguin, GCB, Legion of Merit (US), Legion of Honour (Fr.), Order of Kutusov (USSR), Distinguished Service Medal (US), Order of the Crown with Palm (Bel.), Order of George I (Gr.), Croix de Guerre with Palm (Fr.), Order of Orange Nassau (Hol.); born Glenguin, Stirling, 11 Jul 1890; served Colonial Service, Fiji, 1914; joined RFC 1916; permanent commission RAF 1919; Deputy Air Member Development and Production, 1940; Deputy AOC-in-C HQ Middle East, 1940–41; AOC-in-C HQ Middle East, 1941–43; Air C-in-C, Deputy to General Eisenhower, 1944; Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, SHAEF Main (Air), 1944–45; CAS RAF, 1946–49; Chairman Joint British Services Mission, Washington, and British Representative on Standing Group, Military Committee NATO, 1950–51.
6 Wing Commander R. W. Baker, DFC; born Dunedin, 2 Mar 1915; analytical chemist; joined RNZAF Jul 1940; commanded No. 485 Sqdn, 1943; Planning Staff, No. 11 Group, 1944; commanded No. 487 Sqdn, 1945; killed on air operations, 22 Feb 1945.
Led by Baker, the New Zealand Spitfires continued to fly as part of the Tangmere Wing escorting bombers to their targets. In addition, many coastal patrols were flown to protect convoys and the south coast towns from sneak raiders, particularly during March when poor weather grounded aircraft at other stations. Occasionally, weather reconnaissances were also flown across the Channel, while other sorties were devoted to air-sea rescue searches.
When bomber formations were escorted over northern France there were frequent skirmishes with enemy fighters. One sharp encounter occurred towards the end of April. That day No. 485 Squadron was part of a large escort to Venturas bombing the Abbeville marshalling yards. As the Spitfires and Venturas swung round over Abbeville some forty Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts began a series of head-on attacks. Dogfights were soon taking place all over the sky, and by the time they reached the coast the escorting squadrons had claimed three German fighters for the loss of two Spitfires.
Sergeant Meagher1 was one of the successful pilots. He was flying close to the Ventura formation when:
…. two Me. 109s came in from 4 o'clock and one fired at a Ventura setting its engine afire. It then climbed up in front of me in order to make another attack on the bomber. I attacked it from 45° astern with one short burst from 50–60 yards range. It hung in the air for a moment and then dived straight down and I saw it hit the sea about three miles west of Cayeux. No-one baled out and by its straight dive it appears that I hit the pilot ….
Another pilot told how during the battle he saw the Focke-Wulf hit the ground at appalling speed while still on its back. Then it slid along scattering fragments everywhere and leaving a trail of blazing fuel, hurtled through two hedges, and finally crashed against a road bank in a shower of sparks.
Checketts, who began his career as a fighter pilot at the unusually late age of thirty, had already won distinction as flight commander with No. 611 West Lancashire Squadron at Biggin Hill. He was described by one senior officer as ‘a reliable leader and skilful pilot who was as keen a fighter as he was modest in his claims.’ Checketts was in action a few days before taking over the New Zealand squadron. He was leading his Spitfires on a sweep with the Biggin Hill Wing in support of Typhoons bombing the power-station at Caen and it was over this target that the fighting began.
‘We saw numerous enemy aircraft,’ Checketts afterwards reported, ‘includ- ing Focke-Wulf 190s and Messerschmitt 109s. Our squadron leader warned us and we broke into two sections as the top squadron (Free French) was attacked, and flew inland and up sun. Two Focke-Wulf 190s attacked Blue 4 and myself but we outclimbed them and they lost sight of us. Then they manoeuvred to attack Blue 1 and 2. I warned Blue 1 and he flew in front of me whereupon I attacked the Focke-Wulf 190 from behind and below with a great overtaking speed. I opened fire from 200 yards, and saw heavy strikes on fuselage and wings. The enemy aircraft appeared to stop, and shed cowlings and pieces, and smoke in dense clouds. I broke upwards and saw him spin down ….’
Throughout July the New Zealand squadron operated almost daily from Biggin Hill. On some days several missions would be flown, usually as cover for British bombers in their attacks on airfields and industrial targets in northern France and Belgium or as escort to American Fortresses bombing targets in France, Holland and Germany. Seven enemy aircraft were claimed destroyed during the month, together with two probably destroyed and five damaged, for the loss of only one pilot. On most occasions Deere led the wing, but sometimes Checketts or Commandant Mouchotte, commander of the Free French squadron now based at Biggin Hill, filled this role.
1 Wing Commander J. M. Checketts, DSO, DFC; born Invercargill, 20 Feb 1912; motor mechanic; joined RNZAF Oct 1940; commanded No. 485 Sqdn, 1943, and No. 1 Sqdn 1944; Wing Leader, Horne, Westhampnett and Manston, 1944; Wing Commander, Tactics, Central Flying Establishment, 1945.
A fairly typical day at Biggin Hill during the summer of 1943 is thus depicted by the New Zealand squadron commander:
We had been wakened at 0500 hours, and though I had stolen an extra forty winks, I felt really contented as I walked from the mess to hear ‘Al's’ briefing at 0600 hours.
The early morning sun gives promise of a sweltering day, and the ground mists are dispersing leaving the hawthorne and blackberries smelling fresh and clean. Even the sombre buildings look fresh – it is grand to be alive. The ‘show’ looks interesting and we expect some fights. Al decides not to fly with my squadron and as we go to dispersal he gives me a few final instructions. The Spitfires look sleek and pretty and my pilots were all happy and contented. I had had mail from home yesterday so had every reason to be pleased with life. As the pilots changed into flying kit I watched them and marvelled at their laughter, jokes and perfect fellowship. I only hoped I could always be in such grand company.
As we were strapping in, Al gave me a cheery grin and we waited for him to start up. I get a little tense at this time, because the minutes drag so slowly. At last his Spitfire starts and I start mine as all the others stir to life. I have a lovely aircraft and the huge engine splutters to life as Al taxies out for take off. I wait until his pilots form up on him and my boys taxi out behind me and form up on me in one long line abreast. As Al takes his aircraft off I glance over my pilots and take a last look at dispersal. Doc., Spy and Adj. are there waving, as well as our ground crews. I wave my hand as a signal to start and open my throttle. The long line of Spitfires slowly gather way, faster and faster until they become airborne. Wheels tuck away like birds and the aircraft take formation positions. I can see Al about three miles ahead and take up position behind and down sun as we slowly climb over the beautiful Kentish countryside. I look round at my squadron and then check my gunsight, gun safety catches, oxygen, wireless and petrol. England is away below and looks so fresh and green. I can see the channel from Ostend to Le Havre very blue and calm.
The bombers loom up in the distance like a swarm of bees and as they approach we take position and set course towards France, leaving England's white cliffs behind us. I open the boys to battle formation and search up sun for Huns. Controller reports Huns away to south-east and the formation looks in that direction as we drone on our way. Al's voice calls a turn to starboard and we approach our target unmolested. The bombers drop their eggs slap on the target and the huge bursts throw up immense clouds of dust and smoke – I'm glad I'm not there. Up comes the flak at us now, as well as at the bombers, and I hastily clamber for altitude because some bursts are pretty near. Al calls another turn, and so far no Hun aircraft has come near us though many are reported inland. The flak and target fall behind and we approach the French coast on the way home. Jerry seems to be crazy this morning because the flak is all round the bombers and the ominous black blobs speck the sky behind and to one side of us. As we cross out, Al's radio comes in and his voice asks if we are all alright. I answer that we are O.K. and we carry on.
England is awake now – I can see the smoke before we cross over her white coasts. We leave the bombers over the friendly coast and dive swiftly towards home and another breakfast. I hear Al break his squadron into page 189 sections for landing and watch the fours landing with swift efficiency. I break my boys and lead my four down, lower our wheels, open hoods, lower flaps and sweep in on to a lovely smooth aerodrome. I watch my other sections come in like graceful birds, as I taxi in.
As I clamber out my ground crew rush up and help me and say, ‘No luck, Sir?’. They always look at our gun patches and can tell whether we fire or not before we finish taxying in. I grin and say, ‘Not today boys.’ Al looks over the bay from his machine and hurries me up for a late breakfast. I grab my shoes, tie and dog and clamber into his car.
We laze in the mid-morning sun discussing the show and chattering away like children. Some of the pilots sleep, some just sit and generally take life easily. I inspect my tomatoes and chase my dog away from the precious plants, much to the amusement of the boys, because ‘Winkle’ won't wander far from me at any rate.
We are expecting another ‘show’ and Al calls us up for briefing at noon. This is to be a good one we hope. Al and Spy are still busy when I look in at 11.30 hours and so I keep out of their way and try to get the ‘gen’ on where we are going. Sailor comes in and we chat about aircraft, the morning's show and shotguns. He is a very fine fighter pilot and a jolly fine friend. Everyone files in and Al starts his briefing. He is very thorough and explains what he wants done and finally decides he is going to fly with my squadron. The pilots' voices murmur and finally break out into hopes that Jerry will come and fight. I like watching their expressions during briefings; some are sombre, some are keen, some express nothing, but I know that they are all keyed up and really anxious to get to grips with the Hun. They are all good boys and I think an awful lot of them. We have been briefed early so that we can have lunch without having to hurry.
The boys all go to the bar and have a beer before lunch. I am very dry and like to take my drink out on to the lawn and gaze across the valley into the soft green woods on the other side, with the nice white house in its very tidy grounds. The weather is too hot for lunch, but I have a little and go off to dispersal. We still have 15 minutes and the pilots are not all here yet. The radio-gram plays some new records and everything is peaceful. As the pilots come along we start to change into flying gear; Al arrives and everything is now very busy. Ground crews rushing here and there, pilots looking for gear and studying maps, phones buzzing and innumerable last minute questions and hustle. There are some disappointed faces too; pilots cannot go on every show and the boys hate to miss one.
Al and I sit in the sun as the pilots go to their machines and we finally have to stir. I am leading one of the sections and Al is leading the squadron. The old tense minute arrives, how I hate it too. I check and recheck my cockpit instruments and controls, but Al's motor bursts into life and I come back to earth with a start. As we taxi out I see the heatwaves from the ground rising like fire; the old Spits are very warm and we are really hot until we get airborne. The squadron forms on Al and off we go. Wheels tuck away and we meet the bombers and evade the coastal flak and approach the target. There is not much flak and I'm not certain where Jerry is. He is being reported near us to the south-east and south-west but we have not made contact. I'm disappointed but the bombs make a nice big mess on a Hun target. It's awfully hot and I'm glad when Al calls his turn. I have a look at my No. 2 and he is busy looking above and behind. I nearly look there too but check myself and look elsewhere - it is no good wasting a pair of eyes. In spite of our keenness we see no Huns and dodge the flak on our way over the coast and land at base after an uneventful show. The pilots page 190 cluster around Al and discuss the sweep and chatter away as they usually do, discussing tactics and all the things that happen on such a mission.
We don't think there is going to be another sweep today and the boys settle down to station duties and their non-flying tasks, or just read and write in the sun. I have a little office work to do and when I've finished we have a clay bird shoot and lay small wagers on our own skill at this fascinating training. At 1600 hours the pilots start to go up to the mess for tea and we have a nice hot cup and lie on the grass or go swimming. I think I shall change and go out this evening, so after a shower I don uniform but am informed of another sweep – we are to be briefed immediately. The pilots rush off to briefing but we don't expect to see anything on this sweep. Al is not flying with my squadron this time. Take off is 1800 hours and Al and I yarn about tactics on the way to dispersal. The boys are all there changing and the usual pre-sweep bustle is noticeable. I think it is a shame to fight on such a beautiful day and wonder what Jerry thinks about it. Winkle is very hot and just pants in the shade; he is very keen to retrieve a stick though and I think of home and the happy days I had duck shooting in the estuary, and of my friends who are now on all the English battlefronts.
We are assisted into the Spits and Al starts up. I feel the heat very much and my Spit, is hot to touch; she is a perfect machine though and I've had some good fights in her. These aircraft are beautiful and sleek; I love flying them and playing in the cloud valleys and tail chasing with my boys. The slipstream rushes the cool air into my cockpit as I taxi out after Al and watch his pilots form up on him and take off. My pilots form on me. I watched them take off one day when Sailor would not let me fly and they looked beautiful tearing down the aerodrome in formation and tucking their wheels away, almost like birds. I open my throttle and the Spits, gather way slowly then terribly fast and at last leave the ground. Al is a bit further away than I expected and we close to position just as we meet the bombers. One big circuit and we cross the coast over the blue water. The sun is strong and at 22,000 feet the bright sky is hard to look into. As we cross the French coast Huns are reported east, south, and west of us but as yet we don't see them. Al has called a turn to port 30 degrees as we approach the target and the Huns are still nowhere near us. The bombers drone on very steadily and look like big moths, only very sinister. We sweep slightly south of them and I watch their bombs burst on the target with a terrific upheaval. I carry on on my present course and call my turn to the pilots. We turn 120 degrees to port. The Huns should be in sight soon. Those specks over to port look suspicious and I finally identify 14 F.W. 190s approaching slightly below and above two miles away. I swing to attack and call Al on my radio that I've made contact and am attacking. My Spitfire is tearing along and I can see Jerry trying to get at the bombers. Suddenly we are among them, black crosses and sinister aircraft dart everywhere. I get on the tail of one and my sight picks him out. A two second squirt, the cannon vibrate my aircraft and cowlings, smoke and flame gush from the unfortunate Hun; anyway the only good Hun is a dead one. His leader rolls over and goes vertically down and I chase after him, closing the range slightly because of my superior speed; we tear down at a terrific speed and every time I fire my Spitfire judders to cannon recoil. At last I hit him on the starboard wing and close the range to 200 yards as he levels out at ground level. This Hun heads for the south taking my No. 2 and myself inland as fast as he can go. On my next squirt a cannon stops and I close the range to 100 yards and let him have machine gun only. I can see my bullets striking but he won't go down. At last a thin white trail of smoke, gradually turning black. I have to leave him because we page 191 are too far inland. We break to port and set course for England at ground level. The French peasants wave to us and I find I am wet with perspiration but the fascination of flying over enemy territory at zero feet, seeing people, towns, harvesting and the thrill I got out of one Hun destroyed and another probably destroyed make my wet clothing seem as nothing.
We maintain full speed and I look about for more Spitfires but there is only my No. 2 and myself so we fly back towards the coast and home.
* * * * *
During its first two months at Biggin Hill, No. 485 Squadron was credited with the destruction of more enemy machines than any other unit in No. 11 Fighter Group. There were many notable episodes. One afternoon towards the end of July the Biggin Hill Wing took off on its second mission of the day to act as high cover for eighteen Marauders whose target was the airfield at Tricqueville, some 30 miles south-west of Rouen. Altogether nine squadrons of Spitfires supplied escort and support, while four more squadrons flew a diversionary sweep over northern France. The New Zealanders for their part reached the target without incident, but shortly after turning for home they were ordered to ward off an attempted interception of the bombers by some fifteen Focke-Wulf 190s. A running battle followed at over 20,000 feet. It lasted for eight minutes, and when the New Zealanders landed back at Biggin Hill they were able to report four German fighters destroyed and another damaged, without loss to themselves. The successful pilots were Squadron Leader Checketts, two destroyed and one damaged, Flight Sergeant Strahan,1 one destroyed, and Flying Officer Rae2 who, with Pilot Officer Tucker,3 shared another.
Checketts related his first combat briefly:
Was leading No. 485 Squadron when I saw a bunch of F.W. 190s behind us, at the same level and down sun manoeuvring to attack us from above and up sun. I let them nearly get in range and then broke the Wing to starboard. Fired on one Focke-Wulf and saw it shed cowlings, flop on its back and then go down in flames.
In the ensuing mêlée Checketts became separated from his section, but near the French coast he sighted three Focke-Wulfs flying below him. He dived and opened fire. What happened in the next few seconds is best described in his own words:
Flying Officer Rae described his experiences during the same battle thus:
…. At approximately 20,000 feet several enemy aircraft approached from 6 o'clock slightly above. As a squadron we climbed into them. After manoeuvring for position, I picked out four menacing F.W. 190s above and climbed after them. One after another flicked away downwards attempting to lure us, obviously under instructions from their leader. I continued to climb up, however, and the F.W. 190 leading found himself alone and then, realizing his predicament nosed over and dived vertically down. I gave chase with Pilot Officer Tucker (my No. 2) still right with me. A long chase resulted with extensive low flying. The F.W. 190 tried every trick he knew from flying under high tension cables to going round church steeples but could not shake us off. My cannons both had stoppages and, although I observed strikes with the machine guns and slight smoking I decided that Tucker, who had stayed with me magnificently, could finish him off. So I flew formation with the F.W. 190 and had the pleasure of watching Tucker blast him into the ground with a short burst ….
A few days later the New Zealanders were covering United States Marauders during their return flight from France when Checketts saw a formation of German fighters coming in to attack the bombers. He led his squadron down to intercept but the enemy pilots saw the Spitfires approaching and dived away inland. A stern chase followed, during which Checketts destroyed a Messerschmitt and Flying Officer Gibbs1 damaged a Focke-Wulf.
‘I finally caught and hit him at 5,000 feet then he dived towards the ground,’ Checketts afterwards reported. ‘I broke away upwards and saw no other enemy aircraft so went down after him again. I got on his tail and opened fire …. I saw my cannon strikes hit the field ahead and below so lifted my nose and hit him full in the cockpit. The enemy aircraft hit the tops of some apple trees, caught fire and fell in the orchard, and finally skidded into a barn which it carried along for about 75 to 100 yards. The barn collapsed on the aircraft and the whole lot blazed furiously. I went back and took a cine film of the fire ….’
On the afternoon of 9 August the New Zealanders had a field day, claiming six enemy machines destroyed in a remarkable action which lasted barely a minute. Led by Deere, the Biggin Hill Wing had taken off on its second mission of the day to give close escort to thirty-six Marauders in their attack on St. Omer airfield. The bombers were flying in two formations and, shortly after crossing the French coast, these became widely separated. To give them added protection Deere ordered Checketts to escort one of the bomber formations with No. 485 Squadron while he took No. 341 French Squadron to cover the other.
Over Lille Checketts sighted what appeared to be four enemy fighters at about 5000 feet, so he led a section which included Rae, Gibbs, and Tucker down to attack them. But instead of four enemy machines there were no fewer than eight Me109s flying abreast, with one lagging slightly behind the others. Checketts, who was first in line of the diving Spitfires, opened up on the laggard Messerschmitt at 200 yards. He hit it squarely and saw it blow up. The remaining Germans, apparently unaware of their danger, had now veered slightly to port, which enabled Checketts to maintain his position. He opened fire on the Messerschmitt flying on the extreme starboard. It also blew up and Checketts had trouble in avoiding the debris. Indeed for a moment or two the remainder of his section could not see him as he flew through the smoke and pieces. Checketts then closed on a third machine and after a short burst saw it go down in flames. Meanwhile the other men had selected their targets. Rae opened fire on one Messerschmitt which blew up in a sheet of white flame. Gibbs also saw his target explode. Tucker watched the engine cowlings rip away from the Messerschmitt at which he fired and then saw black smoke begin streaming from it – smoke that soon turned to flames. Of the remaining two Messerschmitts, one escaped but the other was caught and hit by Checketts. He saw pieces of the fuselage break away. As the Spitfires turned for home the pilots saw four fires burning on the ground and streaks of black smoke in the sky with small pieces of debris fluttering earthwards – the aftermath of a most successful encounter.
* * * * *
‘Ramrod’ operations, as the escorted daylight bombing raids were known, were now being launched on an increasingly large scale. A single Ramrod would often involve various subsidiary and feint attacks for which the fighters would provide protection in addition to the advance and withdrawal cover and close escort for the main bomber force. To outwit the German fighter control and secure the maximum tactical advantage, each of these missions had to be accurately timed and the whole operation most carefully planned.
The growing weight and complexity of the Allied offensive by day is well illustrated by the series of missions flown by fighters and bombers on 17 August 1943. That day large forces of American Fortress bombers made a deep penetration into Germany to attack the ball-bearing plants at Regensburg and Schweinfurt. The bombers were escorted as far as Antwerp by RAF Spitfires and United States Thunderbolts and then, on their return flight, they were met again near Antwerp and escorted back to England. To divert German fighters from this main assault, simultaneous raids were launched page 194 against six marshalling yards and airfields in the Low Countries by RAF medium bombers, with strong fighter support. Altogether 1053 aircraft were employed on the whole operation,1 and this massive scale of attack naturally drew strong reaction from the enemy. Owing to the wide range of targets chosen the German fighter control, uncertain at first as to which was the main thrust, was unable to concentrate its force. Yet some bitter fighting occurred and in the main bombing raid on Germany thirty-six Fortresses were shot down – most of them during the time when they were without fighter escort. Fighter Command claimed fourteen German fighters destroyed for the loss of only four pilots, while United States fighter squadrons reported nineteen enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of three pilots.
The New Zealand Spitfire squadron's role on this occasion was to fly with the Biggin Hill Wing as high cover to Marauders in one of the diversionary raids. There were thirty-six Marauders in the bomber force and their target was the airfield at Bryss/Sud, near Arras. Led by Wing Commander Deere the Biggin Hill Spitfires met the bombers over Dungeness at 12,000 feet. Also at this rendezvous point were the close escort and escort cover wings, and a fourth wing flew ahead to clear the air over the target.
As usually happened the flight over the Channel was uneventful, but soon after crossing the French coast the Biggin Hill squadrons were attacked by some twenty-five Messerschmitts. A sharp battle ensued in which the Spitfires claimed three of the German fighters for the loss of one pilot. Flying Officer Rae scored a double success. After chasing one Messerschmitt some distance inland he turned back and soon saw other fighters above him. He was climbing to a favourable position for attack when suddenly two of the Messerschmitts dived on some circling Spitfires below. Together with another pilot, Rae turned and followed them down.
We met them head-on and I had a short burst at very close range and as one Hun shot underneath me, I saw strikes along the top of his fuselage. Then, after just avoiding a collision with another Messerschmitt, I turned to see the one I had attacked dive down with flames streaming from it. Then attacked the other German machine and after many violent manoeuvres and short bursts, I finally closed to within approximately 75 yards and opened fire again. The tail unit appeared to come to pieces and large flashes could be seen in the fuselage. I climbed away and watched the German machine skidding sideways through the air and burning until he finally crashed behind some woods.
1 They included 376 Fortresses, 268 Thunderbolts, 257 Spitfires, 104 Typhoons, 36 Marauders and 12 Mitchells.
The destruction of a Focke-Wulf in even more unusual circumstances was reported by Pilot Officer Houlton2 the following week. He drove the German fighter in a wild dive right down to ground level and then, after a lengthy steeplechase round woods and over an airfield, saw the enemy machine make a sudden turn, hit some overhead cables, and go down to explode in a mass of flames as it struck the ground. On this occasion Biggin Hill Spitfires were covering Fortresses attacking a target near St. Omer and had become involved with a large formation of Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts, estimated as between fifty and sixty machines. The British pilots claimed three destroyed and others damaged without loss.
Altogether the New Zealand squadron enjoyed a remarkable run of successes during its missions from Biggin Hill, but there were inevitably certain unlucky days. The 22nd August, for example, was particularly unfortunate. That day the squadron lost four pilots while covering a bombing raid on the airfield at Beaumont-le-Roger. Half-way between the French coast and the target the Biggin Hill Wing was attacked head-on by forty to fifty FW190s. Soon a further fifteen to twenty German fighters joined in, and bitter fighting developed in which the two Biggin Hill squadrons – No. 485 New Zealand and No. 341 French – became split up.
‘Spitfires and Focke-Wulfs swirled all around,’ writes one pilot. ‘There were shouts for help, a few highly-seasoned Parisian oaths and the New Zealanders yelling like demons. In a few seconds our impeccable formation had been scattered and in its place there was a mad jumble of enormous radial engines, of short sleek wings edged with lightning and black crosses all over the place. Tracer-bullets whizzed in every direction. I attacked a Focke-Wulf from three-quarters rear. A shell exploded in his cockpit. The perspex hood flew off and passed within a few feet of my machine. I twisted and turned. Parachutes had now begun to blossom on every side. Vertical trails of heavy black smoke hung in the air without dissipating. They marked the final trajectory of aircraft whose debris now lay scattered and blazing in the meadows 20,000 feet below. All the way to the coast the fighting went on. Then the Focke-Wulfs, short of ammunition and with tanks running dry, did not insist. They dived down and disappeared in the rising mist.’
When No. 485 eventually returned to base it was found that Flying Officers Rae and Sutherland and Flight Sergeants Clark1 and White2 were missing. However, Rae and White had landed safely. They evaded capture and subsequently got back to England, when it was learnt that Rae's motor had cut and forced him down in enemy territory, and that White had shot down a Focke-Wulf before being compelled to land in France. White related his experience thus:
When half way from the French coast to the target the Wing was attacked. I was flying Green 3 and was attacked from all directions by three or four F.W.190s, and my aircraft was hit in the glycol tank. I rolled and headed back towards the sea but finding my radio telephone dead, I headed back inland and was intercepted by eight F.W.190s, four of which immediately went on to another Spitfire which seemed to be in the same predicament as me. I went down from 12,000 feet to the deck with the four F.W.190s behind me. A few moments later saw one of them on the deck by itself so dived and attacked it from 150 yards. Glycol streaming from my engine caused the windshield to mist up. I looked out of the side and saw tree tops above me, so I pulled up and then saw the F.W.190 on the ground, crash- landed. After a few more manoeuvres I had a head-on with another F.W. 190 but my guns would not fire. My engine then stopped so I force landed near Balbec with pursuing F.W.190s still firing shells at me as I crash- landed.
Squadron Leader Checketts had a remarkable experience early in September. He was leading the squadron as high cover to Marauders bombing ammunition supplies in the marshalling yards at Cambrai, and the Spitfires were just swinging away from the target when some twenty Focke-Wulfs dived on them from out of the sun. The squadron broke up and dogfighting began. Checketts records how he sent one of the German machines down in flames and then:
Checketts was then about four miles east of Cayeux. He narrowly missed a power cable on the way down and landed in a field where peasants were busy harvesting. Immediately a boy took him on the back of his bicycle and hid him in the depths of a wood. Checketts was badly burnt on the face, arms and legs, and as he lost consciousness he could hear the Germans searching for him. When he came to he saw a man standing less than twelve paces from him. Checketts lay very still for some time, then suddenly something touched the back of his neck and a voice whispered ‘All right’. It was a French- man who had crawled up behind him. He warned him that the man standing near was a German soldier, so they crept stealthily away from the wood and after dodging soldiers and patrols eventually reached the Frenchman's home, where another British pilot was already in hiding. Checketts was nursed and fed, the people, he says, ‘starving themselves in order that I might have plenty.’ He was unable to see for five days and could not walk on account of his burns. Then after spending a fortnight in bed, or else hiding in a hayloft when German patrols were active in the neighbourhood, he received further help which enabled him to return to England within a month.
Checketts was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order a few weeks later. During the short period he had been in command of the New Zealand Spitfire Squadron it had destroyed eighteen enemy aircraft, with three more probably destroyed, for the loss of only seven pilots, three of whom, including himself, had made their way back to England.
Squadron Leader Hume, experienced pilot and determined fighter who had been with No. 485 for nearly two years, followed Checketts as squadron commander, and under his leadership the New Zealanders continued to fly intensively on escort duties and offensive patrols across the Channel. A vigorous action was fought on 16 September. That day the Spitfires were flying as high cover to Marauders attacking the airfield at Beaumont-le-Roger. Shortly after leaving the target the New Zealanders became involved with a mixed formation of Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. These fighters tried twice to get to the bombers but were prevented by a section of six Spitfires from No. 485 which dived on them and finally drove them down almost to ground level, while the rest of the Biggin Hill Wing was able to escort the bombers clear of the French coast. Among the pilots in action with the German fighters was a Maori pilot, Warrant page 198 Officer Wipiti,1 who shared a Focke-Wulf with Houlton. Another German fighter was shot down by Flying Officer Metcalfe,2 but a few moments later he was himself shot down, his Spitfire crashing in flames. Flight Lieutenant Gibbs lost touch with the others and was on his way to the coast when a Messerschmitt flew across his nose; he gave chase and shot it down into some woods. One pilot gives this fleeting impression of the battle:
The sky seemed full of enemy fighters brushing past me and attacking on every side in a firework display of tracer bullets. I saw a Focke-Wulf catch alight. Tongues of flame came from his punctured tanks, licking the fuselage and heavy black smoke trailed upwards. The German pilot threw his machine into a desperate turn. Then suddenly it exploded like a grenade – a blinding flash, a black cloud and debris floating down.
Another Focke-Wulf was breaking away hotly pursued by a Spitfire. I did my best to play my part and back our man up and give him cover but he was far ahead and I could not follow his rolls and turns. Climbing again I opened fire at any German plane passing within range and defended myself to the best of my ability.
Then I noticed two Huns converging on the tail of a Spitfire below me. A slight pressure of the rudder and I had one of them in my sights. Quickly I squeezed the firing button. Flashes appeared on his fuselage, so I pulled up out of my dive and saw him going down with a trail of smoke coming from his engine.
I was beginning to feel dizzy and my arms were aching – manoeuvring a Spitfire whose controls are stiffened by speed is exhausting work – especially at 25,000 feet. Was not sorry when the Germans, who had perhaps had enough, dived away towards their base and merged into the countryside far below.
From the middle of October No. 485 Squadron operated from Hornchurch in Essex for a few weeks before moving northwards to an airfield near Edinburgh, where it remained for the winter months. Apart from occasional patrols flown in defence of the Scottish capital and the Firth of Forth, this was an uneventful period and pilots were glad when, at the end of February 1944, the squadron returned south to Hornchurch to join the Second Tactical Air Force and take part in the final preparations for the invasion of Europe.
* * * * *
For No. 486 Typhoon Squadron, the second New Zealand day-fighter unit in the Royal Air Force, 1943 was also a year of particular interest and achievement. During the early months the Typhoons were employed mainly on interception patrols against the fast German fighter-bombers that flew in low over the sea to attack south coast towns and shipping. Lack of heavy bomber aircraft and the strength and efficiency of the British defences had compelled the Germans to adopt this form of reprisal against the Allied bombing raids. Even so, it was short-lived. High-powered radar stations along the south coast of England and a highly efficient Observer Corps1 now combined to provide an effective system of early warning against enemy raiders flying in low from the sea. Successful interceptions by British fighters became more frequent and the anti-aircraft guns also took their toll. By June 1943, with the mounting scale of the Allied bomber offensive, the Germans could no longer spare aircraft for even this modest scale of attack. Thereafter daylight raids by piloted aircraft against the United Kingdom were negligible and the Typhoon squadrons, including No. 486, were able to turn more to the offensive as the year advanced.
1 The members of the Observer Corps were all volunteers and included many veterans of earlier wars. They manned their posts, often sited in exposed conditions, in all weathers and it was frequently due to their prompt sighting and identification of enemy raiders that defending fighters and anti-aircraft guns were brought into action.
Interceptions became more frequent during February and March and three raiders were definitely destroyed, the successful pilots being Pilot Officer Murphy,1 Flight Sergeant Tyerman,2 and Flight Sergeant Fitzgibbon.3 Murphy's success occurred when he was nearing the end of a coastal patrol just before dusk one February afternoon. He chased a Ju88 through the gathering gloom just above the sea, scoring numerous cannon strikes; the enemy bomber then caught fire, hit the water, and burnt in a pool of flame. Tyerman was on patrol with Sergeant Jorgensen4 when control directed them towards Bognor Regis, the large seaside resort near Portsmouth. They sighted a Focke-Wulf bomber flying in low towards the town. To divert the German pilot from his objective Jorgensen opened fire at long range. The German turned away, at the same time jettisoning a bomb which burst on hitting the sea and threw up a large column of water right in front of Jorgensen's Typhoon. He pulled up sharply in an attempt to avoid it but quite a lot of water entered the air intake of his engine. He was just able to reach land before the engine stopped and then force-land in a field. Meanwhile Tyerman had closed on the Focke-Wulf and opened fire. He saw vivid strikes on the fuselage and pieces fall away. The enemy machine then slid along the surface of the water and disintegrated in a burst of smoke and flame.
A few days later Fitzgibbon reported the third definite kill after a long chase out to sea. On return to the English coast he found the countryside shrouded in mist and, running short of petrol, was forced to make an emergency landing. His Typhoon was wrecked but he escaped serious injury. Only a few weeks earlier, Fitzgibbon had had another narrow escape. While taking off in company with a second Typhoon a tire burst. His aircraft swung violently towards the other Typhoon. Its pilot just managed to accelerate enough to jump over Fitzgibbon's lurching machine, which then careered wildly across the aerodrome before it finally crashed into a hangar.
The system adopted was for two men to maintain an hourly vigil in their machines. Engines would be warmed up, after which the tanks were topped up at the petrol bowsers. Each pilot then checked over his instruments and completed the usual ‘drill before take-off’, so that everything was ready for a flying start. In the event of a scramble aircraft usually took off against the prevailing westerly wind straight across the airfield out of their pens, each of which was fitted with a loudspeaker connected to the Operations Room, a mile or so away. In the early dawn, when pilots who had been roused early might be inclined to doze in the cockpit, there might come a sudden click as the loudspeaker was switched on, then the duty WAAF's urgent call ‘Scramble – Clincher Red Section!’ and again ‘Clincher Red – Scramble!’ There would be a frozen second while the sleepy pilot became fully awake to find his hands already reaching automatically for the doping pumps, the ignition and the booster coil buttons. Opening the throttle the moment the engine fired, he was soon zigzagging his machine wildly between the aircraft parked out on the field and then away across the grass, with the Typhoon's Sabre engine sounding shrill and loud even through his earphones. In less than a minute the undercarriage would be raised and the Typhoon heading for the coast just above the treetops, slowly building up its speed to the maximum.
Guided by his Ground Control, who had been watching the ‘plot’ of the raider, the pilot would begin searching for his target. Often the radar plot would turn out to be false or the enemy machine would have already turned for home and a disconsolate pilot, denied the thrill of pursuit, would return to base cursing his luck after a fruitless search. But there were many successful interceptions, of which No. 486 Squadron continued to have its share. One action towards the end of May is thus recorded:
Squadron Leader D. J. Scott, Flight Lieutenant A. E. Umbers1 and Flying Officer A. H. Smith,2 were scrambled under Kenley control shortly after mid- day. They were informed of ‘bandits’ over Brighton and were vectored in that direction. But Scott at once realised that it would be impossible to catch the enemy there as he saw bombs already bursting so he flew straight out to sea in order to intercept.
Scott then fired a burst at long range to make the German pilot weave, which he did, and this enabled him to close more rapidly. Scott fired another two bursts and saw strikes on the fuselage and pieces of the aircraft breaking away. After his second burst the enemy machine blew up and cart-wheeled in the air, debris flying in all directions, through which Scott flew, pieces striking the main plane and oil cooler, without causing much damage. The other pilots went on after the main body but apparently the Hun had rear cover waiting for us some miles out to sea, for at this point five or six enemy fighters swept down in order to cut us off. In this manoeuvre they were successful for Scott was compelled to turn into them but was unable to position himself for a shot. Umbers abandoned his chase and came across to protect his leader's tail. As he did so something hit his starboard wing tip and on landing he found a hole clean through the wing, apparently made by a cannon shell but it had no effect on the handling of his aircraft. By this time another section, which had been scrambled from Tangmere, had arrived on the scene but the Hun had disappeared so our aircraft returned to base. Before turning back Scott flew over the burning wreckage on the water and signalled the position of the Hun but there was no sign of him.
Scott had taken over command of No. 486 at the beginning of April from Squadron Leader Roberts,1 a Londoner, who had led the squadron since its formation. Scott had begun his career with the RAF in 1941 with the night-fighter squadron commanded by R. F. Aitken, then a Squadron Leader. Scott soon won particular distinction as a night-fighter pilot and rose from the rank of Flight Sergeant to Squadron Leader in nine months. While flying intruder patrols with No. 3 Squadron, he accounted for five enemy machines. A typical attack was that made on a Dornier 217 over the airfield at Venlo. Scott sighted the German machine at about 1000 feet as it came in to land, oblivious of his presence and with its landing light shining brightly; after a long burst he had the satisfaction of seeing it crash in flames on its own airfield below. Before he was appointed to command the New Zealand Typhoons, Scott had served at Fighter Command Headquarters and then with No. 198 Typhoon Squadron. At Tangmere he soon proved himself an efficient and popular leader, welding his pilots into a first-class team. He was as thorough on the ground as in the air and soon his dispersal huts were a model which became renowned throughout Fighter Command. Neat lawns and flower beds were laid down and highly productive vegetable gardens were developed. All this work was done by the men in their spare time and the effect on squadron morale was particularly favourable.
1 Wing Commander C. L. C. Roberts; born Forest Hill, London, 22 Aug 1916; joined RAF 1935; CFI No. 57 OTU, 1941–42; commanded No. 486 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942–43, and No. 257 Sqdn, 1943; Sector Commander HQ Middle East, 1944; commanded No. 26 AACU, 1944–45.
As the weeks passed scrambles became less frequent and, after a period during which pilots became rather restless at their inactivity, No. 486 Squadron was allowed to turn to offensive patrols over the Channel and northern France. It was, in fact, shortly after Scott's arrival that the New Zealand Typhoons flew their first offensive patrols in between their periods of watchfulness along the south coast. Within a fortnight the squadron had claimed two Focke-Wulf 190s destroyed, another probably destroyed, and a fourth damaged in various sweeps across the Channel. Soon the Typhoons were also attacking enemy ships off the French coast. In one attack, early in May, a 3000-ton freighter sighted off Le Havre was left enveloped in smoke after ‘a violent explosion on the stern as ammunition detonated.’ Two flak ships escorting the freighter were also hit. The pilots had flown in at mast height in the face of anti-aircraft fire from all three ships and from coastal batteries. Such missions, which gave each pilot full opportunity to fire his guns and see his bullets kicking up clouds of spray around the ships as he swept down to attack and then pull out just above the masts, provided a welcome change from the weary hours of coastal patrolling or cockpit readiness that still filled so many days.
From the middle of 1943 RAF fighter-bombers were employed to an increasing extent in attacks on enemy airfields as well as on ports and shipping, and the New Zealand Typhoons frequently escorted these aircraft on such missions. There were definite advantages in using the fighter-bombers in offensive operations over northern France, for not only were these aircraft faster and less dependent on a strong escort but their versatility ensured full employment either as fighter or bomber, whereas the light and medium bombers might well be grounded for days on end owing to lack of suitable targets.
The typical fighter-bomber operation in which the New Zealanders took part at this time employed eight bomb-carrying Typhoons – nicknamed ‘Bomphoons’ by the service – escorted by a similar number of Typhoon fighters armed with cannon and machine gun. The aircraft would form up and set course across the Channel at low level in order to avoid early detection by the German coastal radar posts; then, some 15 miles from the French coast, the formations would begin to climb at a rate that would enable them to be just above the level of the enemy's light flak when crossing the coast. The machines continued to climb until they reached 12,000 feet when they levelled out and increased speed towards their target. On reaching it the ‘Bomphoons’ adopted an echelon formation and the leader rolled over and dived to the attack, releasing his bombs at about 7000 feet. Meanwhile the escort would be sweeping round the target, diving slightly to keep up with the bombers. As they page 204 turned for home all the Typhoons regained formation, when they were free to operate, if necessary, as a formidable fighter force.
It was in such a mission towards the end of June that the New Zealanders added two more Focke-Wulf 190s to their score. On this occasion Scott led nine Typhoons as escort to fighter-bombers of No. 181 Squadron in an attack on the large German-occupied airfield at Abbeville. It was a day of clear skies and bright sunshine as the force assembled over Selsey Bill and set off across the Channel, flying a few feet above the sea. The Typhoons crossed the coast near the mouth of the Somme, with the New Zealanders flying just over 1000 feet above and up sun of the fighter-bombers. Approaching Abbeville No. 486 Typhoons went slightly ahead and swept round to the south of the target as the bombers went down to attack. ‘Bombing was excellent,’ says a report of the action, ‘bursts were seen among buildings and aircraft on the field followed by a huge column of smoke which rose to 3000 feet.’ On the way out from the target the New Zealanders flew above and behind the bombers. Then, a few miles off the mouth of the Somme, Scott noticed a lagging bomber so he took part of the escort round to cover it. At this moment five Focke-Wulfs were seen coming out from the coast and, just as the leading pair opened fire on the straggler, Scott led six of his Typhoons down in a head-on attack. The Germans immediately broke away and turned inland but Scott caught up with one of them and opened fire. He saw his bullets ploughing up the foam on either side of the enemy fighter and then suddenly it pulled up violently, turned over, and dived straight into the sea. Flight Lieutenant Umbers chased another Focke-Wulf through a series of aerobatic manoeuvres, got in several sharp bursts, and then saw it go down into the Channel.
During these months the New Zealanders also played a not inconsiderable part in air-sea rescue operations. There was a particularly interesting episode in mid-July. A Wellington bomber had come down in the sea off the French coast after being damaged by flak in a night raid. The crew had been able to scramble into their dinghy and for the next day and a half had taken turns at paddling towards England. But a strong current carried the small craft back towards France and they made little headway. As their rations dwindled so did their hopes of rescue fade, for although they had seen many aircraft flying overhead and fired Very lights, none had noticed their dinghy.
The men had been in their dinghy for thirty-six hours when they were sighted by Wing Commander Scott while he was leading a formation of New Zealand Typhoons across the Channel to search for shipping in the approaches to Le Havre. A signal giving the page 205 dinghy's position brought the RAF Air-Sea Rescue organisation into action. Relays of Spitfires were ordered to patrol over the dinghy and a Coastal Command Hudson carrying an airborne lifeboat was ordered to the scene.
The New Zealand Typhoons had by this time returned to base to refuel, but soon Scott and four of his pilots were airborne again to relieve a formation of Spitfires patrolling over the dinghy. Shortly after they had taken over, the Hudson carrying an airborne lifeboat arrived on the scene under escort of four Spitfires. It is interesting to record here that the Hudson was navigated by Flying Officer Hender1 of No. 279 Squadron, one of the small group of New Zealanders flying with the Air-Sea Rescue squadrons at this time. Hender released his lifeboat skilfully and it floated down to land near the bomber crew. They were seen to board it, start up the motors, and set course for the English coast. By this time a further four Typhoons of No. 486 Squadron, led by Umbers, had arrived to take over the patrol from Scott. However Scott, who had just been warned by control of German fighters in the area, decided to remain as long as fuel permitted.
His action was well justified for, a few minutes later, a formation of fifteen Focke-Wulfs appeared from the south. Scott thereupon ordered both his sections into a defensive circle. The Germans hesitated to attack and remained hovering a few thousand feet above the Typhoons. Still maintaining a circle formation, Scott began to lure the Germans away from the dinghy – a delicate manoeuvre but it was successful. Then on reaching a point some ten miles away, Scott chose a moment when the enemy fighters were turning away from him as they circled above, ordered his pilots into battle formation, and pulled up sharply to the attack. The Germans quickly swung round and dived towards the tail of the New Zealand formation, opening fire as they swept down. Soon aircraft were milling about all over the sky and, as several pilots noted in their reports, ‘it was extremely difficult to distinguish friend from foe during the battle.’
Meanwhile Scott pulled up to join the remainder of his formation and saw a number of dogfights going on around him. Flight Lieutenant Umbers and Pilot Officer Sames1 were both hotly engaged. Sames was climbing to attack when he saw four Focke-Wulfs diving towards him. Suddenly one of them made a climbing turn in front of him, presenting an almost perfect target. Sames opened fire and saw strikes, a burst of flame from the engine, and pieces of fuselage break away. He continued to climb and turn, manoeuvring for a favourable position to continue his attack. Then he fired a second burst from above and behind and another from below the tail. There were strikes on the fuselage and wing root, whereupon the German machine went on its back down into the sea. There was no sign of the pilot baling out but more fragments were seen to fall into the water.
Umbers opened fire in a steep climbing turn on another FW 190, which was also climbing and turning in the same direction. As the German levelled off just above him, Umbers fired a second burst. He saw a violent explosion in the engine and on the leading edge of one wing. By this time Umbers' machine was practically standing on its tail and he was forced to stall turn and roll out. As he came out of the roll, he saw the enemy aircraft dive away with a dense cloud of black smoke pouring from it. He was about to give chase when he noticed a Focke-Wulf firing at another Typhoon, so broke away to help. Relieving Spitfires now appeared on the scene and the Germans fled, leaving the New Zealanders to return to base and report the destruction of two German fighters and the probable destruction of two more, without loss to themselves. Meanwhile the lifeboat had continued on its way unmolested. It was later met by a high-speed launch from Newhaven and the six members of the bomber crew landed safely, little the worse for their experience. As a mark of their appreciation and admiration for the part the New Zealanders had played in their rescue the bomber men autographed one of their yellow scull caps and presented this to No. 486 Squadron, together with the centre keel-board from the lifeboat. The latter, polished and varnished, was thereafter much prized as the squadron scoreboard, and by the end of the war it was to register a substantial total of enemy aircraft destroyed and ships damaged and sunk.
There were several notable attacks on ships in the Channel during the early part of August. On the 3rd a naval auxiliary vessel and twelve ‘R’ boats were attacked off the French coast. The larger ship was left burning and hits were reported on seven of the ‘R’ boats. A few days later an enemy coaster intercepted near Cherbourg was heavily attacked and set on fire. The following week two more coasters were found outside the estuary at Ouistreham and attacked in the face of considerable anti-aircraft fire from shore batteries as well as from the ships. Both vessels were hit and, as the Typhoons turned for home, one of them was on fire and the other appeared to be sinking. Similar attacks followed during the next few months.
The New Zealanders were now frequently flying as part of the complete Typhoon Wing that had been formed at Tangmere. One of the three squadrons would carry bombs while the other two acted as escort, and operating in this manner the Typhoons made some very effective attacks on targets in northern France. At other times the wing flew as part of the fighter escort in larger operations, covering Mitchell bombers in their raids on power-stations, ports and airfields, and marshalling yards.
In September Scott, who had led the squadron so well – only one Typhoon had been lost for nine enemy fighters destroyed – was appointed to lead the Tangmere Wing. His promotion to Wing Commander had come only twenty months after he had been commissioned. At the same time he was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order, the citation for which described him as ‘a first-class leader whose great skill and fine fighting qualities had been reflected in the high standard of operational efficiency of a squadron which has obtained many successes.’ At the beginning of 1944 Scott was appointed to command the base at Hawkinge in No. 11 Fighter Group, and shortly after the invasion of Normandy he was to lead a Typhoon Wing from an airfield in France.
A few weeks after his arrival at Hawkinge Scott was concerned in a very gallant episode. A Spitfire, damaged by enemy action, hit the ground a short distance from the boundary in attempting an emergency landing, bounced on to the airfield and burst into flames. Scott was among the first to reach the scene and ran straight to the page 208 fiercely burning cockpit to rescue the pilot. He had great difficulty in freeing him from his parachute and harness, and by the time he had succeeded in extricating the wounded man and carrying him to a safe distance, he was badly burnt about the face and hands.
Squadron Leader Waddy1 succeeded Scott in charge of No. 486 Squadron and under his leadership the New Zealanders continued to fly a wide variety of missions during the closing months of the year. The squadron's role now gradually changed from that of a pure fighter squadron to fighter-bombing. Many different types of target were bombed, but it was the attacks on enemy ports and shipping which produced the most spectacular results.
On 3 November the Typhoons sank two ‘R’ boats and five barges near the mouth of the Seine; electric pylons carrying power-lines across the river were also damaged. A fortnight later two 1000-ton naval auxiliaries were attacked off Le Havre. One was sunk and the other left blazing from stem to stern. ‘As the Typhoons went in at mast top height,’ says a contemporary account of the second action, ‘the pilots glimpsed red flashes from guns firing at them from the shore and streams of coloured tracer spurted from the ships. The sea was pattered with miniature geysers as the aircraft approached, then spurts of flame appeared on the ships and guns swung unattended as the crews fell dead. Then the second squadron added its quota of cannon shells, and as the pilots flew home they watched two black columns of smoke mounting into the still morning air.’
Air-sea rescue was still part of the squadron's work and one Beaufighter crew were particularly grateful for its watchfulness. A formation of Typhoons was returning from a mission over France when far below them they noticed a puff of smoke, followed by the twinkle of a red Very light. Down went the Typhoons, and on sighting the dinghy they signalled its position and threw out markers and rations. They continued circling until their petrol was almost exhausted and reached base as darkness fell with just sufficient fuel to land. Next morning the New Zealanders were disappointed to hear that Albacores of the Fleet Air Arm which flew out during the night to drop flares had failed to find the dinghy. It had probably drifted some distance from its early position with the strong wind and tide. Patrols during the next morning failed to find the dinghy and it was late afternoon when Scott led four pilots from No. 486 Squadron to continue the search. They flew over the empty sea until their petrol was running low and then, just as Scott was about to give the order to return to base, he sighted the dinghy again. A signal was sent and within a short time a motor launch reached the spot and the crew were safe.
By the beginning of 1944 No. 486 Squadron was fully occupied in both the fighter and the fighter-bomber roles. The sites from which the Germans were preparing to launch their secret weapons against England were now the primary target and the Typhoons were frequently called upon to escort Mitchells and Marauders to bomb the launching ramps and supply depots. They also carried bombs to these targets themselves. When because of low cloud or mist over France attacks on the flying-bomb sites were not possible, the Typhoons ranged widely over enemy territory, attacking targets of opportunity. Thus as the weeks passed the New Zealanders began to make their contribution towards the final preparations for the invasion of Europe, a contribution which was to be intensified when, early in April, the squadron was re-equipped with the Tempest fighter, the fastest machine then in service with the Royal Air Force.
* * * * *
The men of Fighter Command had now established a fine record of achievement in the daylight offensive against the Luftwaffe. During 1943 they had flown nearly one hundred thousand sorties over enemy territory, and although many of these sorties were made as close escort to Allied bomber formations when the fighter pilots were not free to seek combat except in defence of their charges, the final assessment of squadron reports showed the destruction of 705 German machines in the various missions over France and the Low Countries. German records give substantial confirmation of this total.
Less tangible but equally important results flowed from Fighter Command's effort. Within their effective range the day-fighter squadrons had achieved a large measure of air superiority over the Luftwaffe, thus enabling Allied bombers and fighter-bombers to launch heavier and more destructive daylight attacks. The Germans had long ceased to hold the initiative in the West and they were given no opportunity to regain it. Moreover, by helping to contain within the western zone two-thirds of all the first-line single-engined fighters of the Luftwaffe, including many of its best units, RAF Fighter Command had continued to give valuable aid to the fighting fronts in Russia and the Middle East.
By the beginning of 1944 Fighter Command sorties often exceeded a thousand a day, thus doubling the scale of attack achieved by the Luftwaffe over Britain for a few weeks in 1940. But the target area which Fighter Command now had to cover was much greater than that which had confronted the Germans, and there was the imminent threat of V-weapon attack to be met as well as the need to secure and maintain air supremacy for the approaching assault on the Continent. An even heavier scale of fighter and fighter-bomber attacks was therefore planned for the spring of 1944.