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New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)

CHAPTER 2 — Early Operations from Britain and France

page 23

Early Operations from Britain and France

WHEN war with Germany began on 3 September 1939, the Royal Air Force was in no position to undertake any large-scale offensive action, and for some time British policy was governed by the consideration that the less bombing there was the better. Considerable apprehension was felt about the effect of heavy air attacks on London and the fact that Bomber Command was far from being able to return blow for blow. Therefore, following President Roosevelt’s appeal1 to the governments of Europe, Britain quickly responded with instructions to her armed forces prohibiting bombardment of anything except ‘strictly military objectives’. Contrary to general expectation, however, the Germans had no intention of launching an immediate air assault against the British Isles. Instead, they poured out radio threats while they completed their conquest of Poland. Hitler, in fact, hoped to isolate the Polish ‘incident’ and to declare a temporary truce; early in October he actually made overtures for peace with the Western democracies. Thus, after the capitulation of Poland, there followed a period of inaction which was perplexing to many observers, and there was soon much talk of a ‘phoney war’. This epithet was, however, hardly applicable to the war at sea, which was real and continuous from the outset. Britain’s increasing dependence on seaborne supplies had not escaped the notice of the German naval commanders, not all of whom subscribed to the Nazi doctrine of a short war in which victory would be achieved by the superior power of the Luftwaffe. Recalling how the German Navy had brought Britain to the verge of defeat in 1917, they saw that if the northern exits of the North Sea were forced open and eventually controlled, a fruitful campaign might then be launched against British commerce in the Atlantic.

The early months of the war were, therefore, mainly concerned with the efforts of the Royal Navy, aided by slender air forces

1 Roosevelt appealed to each of these governments’ to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian population or unfortified cities upon the understanding that the same rules of warfare shall be scrupulously observed by all their opponents’.

page 24 (principally those of Coastal Command), to restrict the operations of German U-boats and prevent surface raiders and major naval units escaping into the Atlantic. Meantime British fighter pilots and many of the bomber crews chafed at their inactivity.1 The coastal squadrons, on the other hand, were called upon from the outset to fly long hours on reconnaissance over the North Sea or on anti-submarine patrols and as escorts to shipping.

There were, by this time, some fifty New Zealanders scattered among the units of Coastal Command, and as soon as war began they were engaged upon one or other of these duties. No. 48 Squadron, whose Ansons escorted convoys and hunted U-boats in the Channel, held particular New Zealand interest. In 1918, as a fighter reconnaissance unit, it had been commanded by Sir Keith Park, then a major. Now, at the beginning of the Second World War, there were seven New Zealand pilots on its strength and it was once again commanded by a New Zealander, Wing Commander Findlay, whose service with the air arm dated from the days of the Royal Flying Corps. On 3 September 1939 No. 48 Squadron had commenced operations from an airfield near Portsmouth and a week or so later established an advanced base at the airport on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Subsequently the squadron’s Ansons assisted in the rescue work of the SS Domala, the first ship sunk in the Channel by enemy action. They were also early in combat with the enemy although at first the Anson, with its low speed and lack of armament, proved no match for the German aircraft encountered. However, after two machines had been lost because of these disadvantages, the squadron improvised two Lewis gun mountings in the cabin, with the guns firing through the windows to cover the blind spots on either side. One of the original members of the unit records that ‘the crew of the first aircraft so fitted collected an unsuspecting Hun’. This was typical of the expedients adopted by RAF crews in the early days to overcome the difficulties under which they operated.

The Avro Anson, originally a civil transport machine, was the mainstay of Coastal Command in the initial stages and most of the reconnaissance patrols, designed to prevent the escape of German raiders from the North Sea, were also flown by these aircraft. From bases on the east coast of Scotland a continuous

1 ‘The first week of the war we were expecting to be bombed at any moment’, writes a fighter pilot. ‘But no bombers came and soon the tension gave way to a feeling of unreality. Boredom soon followed’. In Bomber Command ‘The days passed slowly. September petered away and brought the fogs of October. Flying training was often cancelled. We spent day after day in the crew room, sometimes listening to lectures. Occasionally some aircraft were wanted but they did not always go. Standing to. Standing by. Standing down. The days dragged by in the same dreary routine’.

page 25 line patrol was directed towards Norway, supplemented by searches at dawn and dusk to the north and south of this line. New Zealanders shared in these duties from the outset. On the third day of the war one of them, Pilot Officer Edwards,1 was attacked by an enemy seaplane over the North Sea. His guns failed; the machine caught fire and crashed on the sea. The enemy pilot, keen to have confirmation of his victory, landed and picked Edwards up and he became the first British officer to be made prisoner of war. But the early air patrols were, on the whole, monotonous and unexciting, and as autumn deepened into winter the conditions under which the aircrew operated were often extremely arduous. Apart from having to fly in the stormy weather prevalent around the coasts of Britain at the close of the year, some of the squadrons were based at airfields that were either improvised or still under construction. Many were sited in bleak and remote spots where the wind seemed perpetual and mud universal. Indeed, in almost every respect the early months of the air war at sea were a period of difficulties and trial during which experience in the technical side of air-sea warfare had to be painfully accumulated. Special radar equipment for the detection of enemy vessels was slow in appearing and both weapons and aircraft often proved disappointing in performance. In particular, the anti-submarine bombs carried were too few and two small to inflict serious damage.

The majority of aircraft carried only 100-pound bombs which were not lethal even if a direct hit was obtained while the U-boat was still on the surface. A British submarine which sustained a direct hit at the base of the conning tower from one of these bombs suffered no damage to its pressure hull. The 250-pound bomb carried by the flying boats was not much better as it had to detonate within six feet of the hull before inflicting serious harm. Owing to a rather uncertain fuse the minimum height of release was 600 feet to avoid damage to the aircraft, with the result that accuracy was a matter of luck. The only bomb-sight available required a steady run up to the target at an altitude in excess of 3000 feet, so was quite useless against such an elusive and momentary target as a quick-diving submarine. Furthermore, except in the Hudsons, there was no efficient distributor whereby a properly spaced stick of bombs could be dropped, which meant that they fell singly or in a ragged salvo. On most occasions the U-boat lookouts were able to give warning of the aircraft’s approach so that their vessel was already beneath the surface before bombs could be released.

1 Squadron Leader L. H. Edwards; RNZAF; Wellington; born New Plymouth, 22 Jun 1913; joined RAF May 1939; transferred RNZAF May 1944; p.w. 5 Sep 1939.

page 26

Fortunately the Germans started the war with a comparatively small fleet of U-boats, some fifty in number, of which only half were of the ocean-going type. Mechanical defects and the distance they had to travel from their German bases, made even longer by the harassing from the air, rendered their operations against shipping during the first six months of the war more of an irritant than a real menace.1 Concentration for the Norwegian campaign produced a deceptive lull in their activities, and it was not until the second half of 1940 that intensified operations by both German U-boats and aircraft in the Western Approaches seriously threatened Britain’s supply lines.

Thus, in the early months of the war the main interest was in northern waters. Here the maintenance of the regular reconnaissance patrols made heavy demands on both men and machines, yet in spite of difficulties experienced in keeping aircraft serviceable there were few days on which searches were not flown. Unfortu- nately, however, the northern patrols failed to achieve their object, for during the closing months of 1939 U-boats, armed merchant raiders, and German warships succeeded in passing through the North Sea into the Atlantic. The battleship Admiral Graf Spee had slipped through at the end of August and caused considerable anxiety until brought to an ignominious end at Montevideo four months later by British forces which included HMS Achilles of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy. The failure to prevent such break-outs was largely due to the fact that the reconnaissance patrols, owing to the limited range of the Anson, were weakest at the very place where they needed to be strongest, that is, immediately off the south-western coast of Norway. A second reason was that the enemy’s attempts to break out of the North Sea were made under cover of bad weather in poor visibility. The failure to locate the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in November 1939 may be attributed almost wholly to the latter cause.

Strong enemy opposition in the air over the North Sea also made it very difficult to maintain effective reconnaissance since at this time the Royal Air Force possessed no long-range fighter aircraft. The Anson, though reliable, had only light defensive armament, while the Hudson, which came into use in October, was also insufficiently armed. In air combat it lacked manoeuvrability and was regarded by some as difficult to handle. The inevitable result

1 The total tonnage lost by U-boat action between September 1939 and the end of March 1940 amounted to 350,000 tons compared with 700,000 tons during the single deadly month of November 1942, when the Battle of the Atlantic was at its height. The outstanding achievement of the U-boat command during the first months of the war took place in the early hours of 14 October 1939, when a German U-boat, braving tides and currents, penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak at anchor.

page 27 was that many air combats over the North Sea during the first months were indecisive. But there were a few successful engage- ments. On 1 January 1940 Pilot Officer Carey,1 whilst on patrol over the North Sea in a Hudson of No. 220 Squadron, encountered two Heinkels. He immediately attacked one of them. The first shots registered hits and the enemy aircraft crashed into the sea. Carey then turned his attention to the second Heinkel and, after exhausting his front-gun ammunition, manoeuvred so as to enable his rear gunner to fire on the enemy, but before the results of this engagement could be observed the German machine entered cloud and was lost. Unfortunately, a few months later both Carey and his navigator, Pilot Officer Vartan,2 were lost when their aircraft flew into the Newcastle balloon barrage while they were returning from patrol in thick weather.

In addition to the North Sea reconnaissance patrols, the airmen with Coastal Command engaged in various other tasks during the first winter of the war. Convoys were escorted, special searches made for suspicious or distressed vessels and protection given the fishing fleets, all of which involved long hours of tedious flying. Only occasionally were these patrols enlivened by a brush with an enemy plane or by the sighting and attack of a submerging U-boat, and even then decisive results were rare.3 The arduous and monotonous nature of the work was accentuated by the unusual severity of the winter that year, with frost and snow over most of the British Isles for several months. The record book of one squadron in Scotland, with which several New Zealanders were flying, contains this entry in January 1940:

Fourteen inches of snow covered the aerodrome. An attempt was made to clear two runways with a snow plough—finally runways were made by towing grass rollers behind a lorry. These proved satisfactory while freezing conditions lasted.

Under such conditions landing and taking off, particularly at night, was a hazardous business, and location of a base on return from a long patrol frequently proved very difficult when, in addition to the snow, there was fog or mist. Casualties were not uncommon.

From October 1939 the protection of convoys and the fishing fleets—the ‘Kipper’ patrols—along the east coast of Britain was shared by the fighter squadrons. Although, at first, there were few interceptions of enemy aircraft, these patrols did provide the

1 Pilot Officer G. W. F. Carey, DFC; born Christchurch, 25 Apr 1916; joined RAF Mar 1939; killed on air operations, 14 Jul 1940.

2 Pilot Officer P. K. Vartan; born Dannevirke, 18 Jun 1918; joined RAF Oct 1938; killed on air operations, 14 Jul 1940.

3 At the time, over-eager acceptance of inconclusive evidence of destruction led to exaggerated claims, particularly with regard to U-boats. Only one of these vessels was sunk as a result of air attack during the first six months of the war.

page 28 fighter pilots with some relief from the comparative inactivity and suspense that had been their lot since war began. Fighter Command had been organised principally to defend the British Isles from air attack, but instead of the mass raids expected there had been only a few small attacks on naval bases and warships at Rosyth and Scapa Flow. Indeed, for the first nine months, enemy activity was almost entirely confined to reconnaissance and occasional attacks on shipping in the North Sea. In the new year when the enemy raids on coastal shipping increased, several New Zealand pilots were among those who reported engagements with German aircraft. Early in February Flying Officer Carbury1 shared a kill with two members of his squadron, the enemy machine, a Heinkel 111, being forced down into the sea by their attacks. But most of the encounters were inconclusive. Often after pursuing his quarry through cloud a pilot would perhaps get in a burst at long range and then lose touch. On the whole, fighter operations from British bases continued to be routine. The maintenance of monotonous ‘standing patrols’ over convoys and fishing vessels imposed a considerable strain on both the pilots and their aircraft, but these months spent on investigation and identification, with an occasional engagement, provided experience which was to be of great value in the hard fighting that lay ahead.

The early operations of Bomber Command were restricted both by British policy and the course of events, with the result that activity was mainly confined to training flights and reconnaissance over enemy territory by night. But some squadrons did see early action in the war at sea. Their task was to locate and attack units of the German Fleet. Unfortunately, training and equipment for such duties were in an elementary stage; moreover, the enemy warships were well defended, both by their own massed batteries of anti-aircraft guns and by squadrons of fighters. Thus while British bomber crews displayed courage and fortitude of a high order in pressing home attacks, their efforts could hardly be assured of success.

New Zealand airmen flew on several of these eventful missions. On the first day of the war Flying Officer Litchfield2 was navigator in the leading aircraft of a small formation of Wellingtons which made a search for units of the German Fleet reported at sea in the vicinity of Heligoland. The bombers flew through thunderstorms and ice-laden clouds but in the extremely bad visibility were unable

1 Flying Officer B. J. G. Carbury, DFC and bar; born Auckland; joined RAF Sep 1937.

2 Flight Lieutenant F. L. Litchfield; England; born Croydon, London, 21 Feb 1914; joined RAF 1936; transferred RNZAF Jul 1945; p.w. 6 Aug 1941.

page 29 to locate a target. On the afternoon of the following day a force of 15 Blenheims and 14 Wellingtons was detailed to attack enemy warships observed by reconnaissance that morning near Wilhelmshaven and in the Schillig Roads. As well as fighter opposition, there was considerable anti-aircraft fire from both ships and shore batteries and altogether five Blenheims and two Wellingtons were lost. Two New Zealanders who took part were fortunate to survive. Squadron Leader Lamb1 led a section of Wellingtons but, before they could attack, they were set upon by enemy fighters and two of the Wellingtons were shot down. After jettisoning his bombs, Lamb succeeded in reaching cloud cover and returned safely. Sergeant Innes-Jones2 was navigator in one of a formation of five Blenheims which found and attacked the Admiral Scheer in the Schillig Roads. His was the only aircraft to pass through the withering fire from the warship and return to England. From German sources we now know that several bombs hit the Scheer but failed to explode—being fused for eleven seconds delay, they probably bounced overboard from the armoured deck.
Further searches were flown at intervals during the next weeks but it was not until 3 December that another attack was made on German warships. On that day twelve Wellingtons found and bombed two cruisers and six smaller craft off Heligoland. The bombs were dropped from 10,000 feet and this enabled the aircraft to escape without casualties. However, it also reduced the effectiveness of the attack, and the only damage inflicted was the sinking of a minesweeper through which a bomb passed without exploding. Eleven days later twelve Wellingtons were sent to search the Heligoland area. Over the North Sea the crews found themselves flying through storms, with heavy cloud down to within a few feet of the sea. Nevertheless the formation kept on course and was able to locate a German naval force at sea. As they approached their target the Wellingtons met heavy anti-aircraft fire. They were also attacked by fighters. Three bombers went down in flames while a fourth, captained by Flight Lieutenant Hetherington,3 was heavily hit and later crashed while attempting to land at base. The air battle developed into a running fight along the German islands and continued until the bombers were well on their way back to England. One pilot reported seeing four aircraft crash into the sea in flames and records in his diary: ‘It was growing dark and these aircraft burned for some time after hitting the water. They looked

1 Squadron Leader L. S. Lamb; born Wellington, 5 Aug 1910; joined RAF 1930; killed in aircraft accident, 30 Oct 1939.

2 Squadron Leader M. H. S. Innes-Jones; RNZAF; Blenheim; born Wellington, 5 May 1917; joined RAF 1934; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944.

3 Flight Lieutenant E. J. Hetherington; born Timaru, 16 Oct 1914; joined RAF 1936; killed on air operations, 14 Dec 1939.

page 30 like four enormous beacons and not only lit up the water but illuminated the sky as well.’ Squadron Leader McKee led the British formation this day and he was subsequently commended for ‘his leadership and accurate flying without which losses might have been heavier’. Flying with him was Corporal Knight1 who, as chief wireless operator of the formation, succeeded in obtaining useful bearings from German stations and in passing messages to base, including sighting reports of the enemy warships. He performed this task under difficult conditions and in spite of continual distractions, not the least of which was the enemy tracer passing near him.

Aircraft from Bomber Command continued to search the North Sea, but after further heavy losses in an engagement with German fighters on 18 December 1939, when 12 out of 24 Wellingtons were shot down, orders were given for the cessation of daylight attacks and reconnaissance in force close inshore. These early bombing operations had, in fact, already demonstrated what was to be confirmed by subsequent events—that in the face of the superior German fighter force, unescorted heavy bombers with low speed and restricted firepower could not be successfully employed in daylight attacks.

Meanwhile, from the first nights of the war, Whitleys and Wellingtons of Bomber Command had been dropping propaganda leaflets over German towns. These missions had a dual purpose. It was hoped that the presence of British aircraft over many parts of the Reich would impress their own vulnerability on the German people, Goering having previously boasted that enemy aircraft would never penetrate the German defences. More important, the British crews would be able to acquire useful information and experience. They were ordered to study landmarks, the effectiveness of the German blackout, the position of searchlights and guns, activity on enemy airfields, and generally make themselves familiar with the country over which they flew. Altogether, these long flights by night over enemy territory contributed much to the later efficiency of Bomber Command, paving the way for improvement not only in high-altitude flying but also in the provision of aids to navigation, in facilities for emergency landings and escapes from damaged machines. The aircraft engaged in these early ‘leaflet raids’ met little opposition from the enemy defences, possibly because the Germans felt the leaflets could do little harm and did not wish to betray gun and searchlight positions. All the same the conditions under which the bomber crews operated during the icy winter

1 Flight Lieutenant C. B. G. Knight, DFM; RNZAF; Whenuapai; born Tolaga Bay, 7 Jun 1912; joined RNZAF 1937. Knight was the first member of the RNZAF to be decorated in the Second World War.

page 31 of the first year of the war were extremely severe. They frequently flew through vile weather in which wings and fuselage were so heavily coated with ice that it became difficult to maintain height. Ice would also jam the ailerons, elevators or rudders and cause the pilot temporarily to lose control. All too often the heating system would fail and men would suffer acute pain from the cold at high altitudes. Frostbite was common. On many flights the crews saw the strange light of St. Elmo’s fire playing about the wing tips and propellers; sometimes the whole aircraft would be outlined in violet light, sparks would fly from one point to another, and every movement of the crew crackled in the electric air. Even the leaflets crackled and gave off sparks as they dropped through the chutes after the bundles had been cut. One pilot, on experiencing this phenomenon for the first time, declared that he found it ‘much more frightening than being shot at’. In these early days the crews also had little radio assistance and, for the most part, they had to rely upon dead-reckoning navigation.
The kind of thing that could happen on these missions is well illustrated by the experiences of Pilot Officers Gray1 and Long2 one night in November 1939. Gray was the captain and Long the navigator of a Whitley detailed to drop leaflets over Cuxhaven and then reconnoitre for warships in that area and in the vicinity of Heligoland. The first part of the flight was uneventful, but just after the leaflets had been dropped the aircraft ran into a snowstorm and, as a result of ice formation, became extremely hard to control. Then, a few moments later, it was struck by lightning which tore away large portions of the fabric on both wings. Gray nevertheless determined to complete his task and turned his damaged machine towards Heligoland. But soon he found great difficulty both in climbing and maintaining airspeed, owing to the damage and the increasing weight of ice. Finally the Whitley began to lose height rapidly and it was not until it had fallen several thousand feet that Gray managed to regain some sort of control. Now quite certain that a landing in the sea was inevitable, he ordered his wireless operator to send an SOS and his navigator to prepare the dinghy for launching. However, after a further struggle with the controls, he found he could just manage to hold the aircraft in the air so requested a course to steer for home. During the long return flight across the North Sea, which had of necessity to be carried out at a low altitude, heavy rainstorms were met and the aircraft was only just controllable—any easing of the pressure required to

1 Flying Officer K. N. Gray, DFC, Czechoslovakian War Cross; born Christchurch, 9 Nov 1914; joined RAF 1937; killed in aircraft accident, 1 May 1940.

2 Flying Officer F. H. Long, DFC; born Masterton, 16 Jul 1916; joined RAF May 1939; killed on air operations, 13 Mar 1941.

page 32 maintain it on an even keel at once resulted in a downward plunge. But Gray, of small build and not particularly robust, displayed exceptional skill in handling his aircraft; eventually the English coast was reached and the Whitley landed at an airfield in East Anglia.1

New Zealand airmen were also with the bomber squadrons which, from mid-December, flew offensive patrols over enemy seaplane bases as a counter-measure to the laying of magnetic mines by these aircraft in the entrances to British ports. The patrols visited the islands of Sylt, Borkum, and Norderney and attacked seaplanes taking off and landing. They also bombed any lights that were seen, thus restricting enemy activity by causing the dousing of flare paths. These operations, which included several attacks on the bases themselves,2 caused a notable reduction in enemy minelaying from the air and gained time for the development of a reply to the German magnetic mine.

These early months of the war with Bomber Command hold special interest for the Dominion in that they saw the formation of No. 75 New Zealand Squadron, soon to take a prominent part in the first bombing raids on Germany, and with which many New Zealanders were to serve with distinction. Altogether 1370 aircrew from the Dominion were to serve with the squadron for various periods during the Second World War, and of these men 442 lost their lives whilst flying with the unit and a further 77 after leaving it. The squadron’s story really begins early in 1937, when New Zealand decided to obtain 30 Wellington bomber aircraft from the United Kingdom.3 Shortly afterwards the preliminary arrangements were concluded, it being understood that the first six of these aircraft would be ready for transit about August 1939. At the same time a New Zealand officer, Squadron Leader Buckley,4 was sent to England to gain experience with this new type of aircraft.

1 Both Gray and Long subsequently lost their lives while serving with Bomber Command. Gray was killed a few months later when his Whitley struck a hill in bad weather and was burnt out. Long failed to return from an attack against Berlin early in 1941.

2 On 19 March 1940 the seaplane base at the island of Sylt was the target for the largest-scale bombing raid thus far launched by either side. Thirty Whitleys and 20 Hampdens were employed in the attack, which was primarily a reprisal for a raid on Scapa Flow by 15 German bombers four days previously.

3 This decision was one of the results of the acceptance by the New Zealand Government of a report submitted by Air Chief Marshal Sir Ralph A. Cochrane on the future policy and development of the New Zealand Air Force. He was at this time serving with the Royal Air Force as a Group Captain and was lent to New Zealand to make this report. Air Chief Marshal Cochrane was New Zealand’s first Chief of Air Staff and from 1950 to 1952 Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Royal Air Force.

4 Air Commodore M. W. Buckley, CBE, Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Seacliff, 3 Aug 1895; served in RNAS during First World War; joined NZPAF 1926; commanded NZ Flight, 1939–40; No. 75 (NZ) Sqdn, 1940; RAF Station, Feltwell, 1941; AOC Northern Group, Auckland, 1942–43; AOC No. 1 (Islands) Group, Guadalcanal, 1943–44; DCAS, RNZAF, 1944–45; AOC RNZAF HQ, London, 1946–50.

page 33 He was attached to one of the first squadrons in Bomber Command to be equipped with Wellingtons and later served as its flight commander at Marham, in Norfolk.

It was at this station, on 1 June 1939, that a New Zealand Air Force unit was established, with Buckley as its commanding officer, to form and train crews and then despatch the Wellingtons to New Zealand. Meanwhile arrangements were being made to supply men to fly the aircraft. Some were sent from New Zealand, but most of the pilots and navigators were selected from aircrew already serving with or on attachment to the Royal Air Force. During the next few weeks men began to arrive at Marham in ones and twos until, by the end of July, the unit consisted of twelve officers, all pilots, and six airmen.1With Squadron Leader Buckley doing the flying training and Squadron Leader Kay in charge of navigation, the unit was busy during this and the following months preparing for the 13,000-mile flight to New Zealand.

The advent of war, however, raised a fresh problem, for all the members of the unit were now keen to stay in Britain and take part in operations against the enemy. This was solved by the prompt action of the New Zealand Government, which waived its claim to the aircraft and placed the personnel of the unit at the disposal of the Royal Air Force, an offer that was readily accepted. It now appeared that the unit would be disbanded and its members posted to RAF squadrons, but the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Bomber Command, expressed a strong desire that the New Zealand Flight, as it was now known, should retain its identity and be employed as a separate unit within his command. His suggestion was forwarded to New Zealand by the Air Council, who pointed out that, apart from its direct military value, the presence of a New Zealand unit, however small, would have a stimulating effect on the peoples of Great Britain and France.2 The Government expressed willingness to co-operate but indicated that, at the moment, it would not be possible to provide the necessary flying and maintenance personnel for a full squadron without seriously delaying the expansion of the training schemes to which New Zealand was already

1 They were Squadron Leaders M. W. Buckley and C. E. Kay, Flight Lieutenant C. C. Hunter, Flying Officers J. Adams, A. A. N. Breckon, J. N. Collins, A. B. Greenaway and F. J. Lucas, Pilot Officers W. H. Coleman, T. O Freeman, W. M. C. Williams and N. Williams, Sergeants W. D. Steven and T. R. Read, and Leading Aircraftsmen D. C. McGlashan, J. T. White, E. P. Williams and R. A. J. Anderson. These men were to form the first flight. They were joined in August 1939 by Squadron Leader R. J. Cohen, who was to command the second flight, and Flight Lieutenant I. G. Morrison, who was to be a member of it. Owing to the war this second flight was never formed.

2 At this time a Canadian fighter squadron was being formed in England and a Royal Australian Air Force squadron was preparing to commence operations with Coastal Command.

page 34 committed. Early in December advantage was taken of the presence in London of the Hon. P. Fraser, then Deputy Prime Minister, to discuss the proposal further, when it was suggested by Air Ministry that if sufficient New Zealand personnel were not available, the full complement could be made up by men from the British Isles. Mr. Fraser confirmed the desirability of forming a New Zealand Squadron and agreed to discuss this suggestion with his colleagues and the New Zealand Air Staff on his return.

Meanwhile the members of the New Zealand Flight, somewhat restless at the uncertainty regarding the future of their unit, had begun training for an operational role. This was necessary since, until the outbreak of war, the unit was interested only in the flight to New Zealand and therefore was not proficient in armament, photography or operational flying. During the second half of September the flight had moved to RAF Station, Harwell, and then, in January 1940, to Stradishall, near Newmarket. A further move took place in the following month to Feltwell, in Norfolk, where at last the unit found a more permanent home.

During this period all kinds of technical and administrative difficulties had to be overcome. Equipment for training had to be borrowed from other units; key maintenance personnel were posted and had to be replaced. When aircraft arrived they were mere skeletons and had to be fitted with all the gear used on operations. But under Buckley’s enthusiastic leadership such difficulties were overcome and the flying training continued. Gradually more air- crew, including a number of New Zealanders, were posted to the unit by the Royal Air Force, which also supplied additional maintenance personnel. Then, early in March, the New Zealand Government finally approved the formation of a New Zealand Squadron within the Royal Air Force, and shortly afterwards, on 1 April 1940, Air Ministry issued instructions that ‘No. 75 (N.Z.) Squadron should be formed round the existing New Zealand Flight at Feltwell.’ As far as possible it was to be manned by New Zealanders then serving in Britain, but for the time being ground and maintenance staff would be provided by the Royal Air Force.

Meanwhile, in addition to its training programme, the squadron had already commenced flying against the enemy. The first sortie was made on 27 March, when three Wellingtons were despatched to drop leaflets on Brunswick, Ulzen and Luneberg. The captains of the three aircraft were Squadron Leader Kay, Flying Officer Collins 1

1 Flight Lieutenant J. N. Collins; born Wellington, 31 Mar 1917; joined RNZAF Jul 1939; killed on air operations, 21 May 1940.

page 35 and Flying Officer Adams.1 Pilot Officer Freeman2 flew as second pilot to Kay, with LAC Williams3 as wireless operator. Pilot Officer Harkness4 was second pilot to Collins and Pilot Officer Larney5 was second pilot to Adams. The remainder of the crews were men from Britain. Difficult weather conditions were experienced throughout the flight but the mission was completed without incident, the squadron record book reporting briefly that:

The three aircraft took off independently and set course for Dorum on the German coast. Leaflets were dropped over the areas detailed from heights of 7–10,000 feet. Navigation was by dead reckoning and ‘astro’, very few fixes being obtained and these were considered unreliable. Squadron Leader Kay had considerable success with Astro navigation which proved fortunate as on entering heavy clouds the wireless transmitter burnt out and was useless for the rest of the flight. Exceedingly bumpy weather prevailed and the freezing was also severe, the temperature at one stage being —28°.

Four similar sorties were made early in April by Wellingtons from the New. Zealand Squadron, the captains of which were Flight Lieutenant Breckon,6 Flying Officers Coleman,7 N. Williams8 and W. M. C. Williams.9 Although searchlights were active on each occasion they failed to locate the high-flying aircraft, which were able to complete their task successfully. The opening of the Norwegian campaign a few days later brought the squadron fresh duties and saw the start of its bombing operations against the enemy.

* * * * *

During the early months of the war a small group of New Zealand airmen saw service in France with the squadrons of the Royal Air Force which had been trasnferred to that country at the

1 Wing Commander J. Adams, DFC, AFC; born Christchurch, 31 Aug 1913; joined RAF 1937; transferred RNZAF Jun 1939; commanded No. 5 Blind Approach Training Flight, 1941; CO No. 40 Sqdn, RNZAF, 1943–44.

2 Wing Commander T. O. Freeman, DSO, DFC and bar; born Lawrence, 5 Jun 1916; joined RAF 1936; transferred RNZAF Jul 1939; commanded No. 115 Sqdn, 1941–42; commanded RNZAF Fighter Wing, New Georgia, 1943; killed on air operations, 17 Dec 1943.

3 Flight Lieutenant E. P. Williams, DFM; Wellington; born Rotorua, 22 Sep 1916; joined RNZAF May 1938.

4 Squadron Leader D. J. Harkness, DFC; born Midhurst, Taranaki, 16 Sep 1916; joined RAF Dec 1938; killed on air operations, 31 May 1942.

5 Squadron Leader G. K. Larney, DFC; RAF; born Wellington, 18 Oct 1912; joined RAF Jun 1939.

6 Wing Commander A. A. N. Breckon, DFC; RNZAF; Ohakea; born Auckland, 28 Nov 1913; joined RAF 1935; transferred RNZAF Jun 1939; commanded Navigation Training Sqdn, Bassingbourn, 1940–41; held various commands and staff appointments in New Zealand and Pacific, 1941–45.

7 Flying Officer W. H. Coleman, DFC; born Christchurch, 29 Nov 1916; joined RAF 1937; transferred RNZAF Jul 1939; killed on air operations, 25 Jul 1940.

8 Flight Lieutenant N. Williams, DFC; born Frankton Junction, 4 Oct 1915; joined RAF 1937; transferred RNZAF Jul 1939; killed on air operations, 11 May 1941.

9 Squadron Leader W. M. C. Williams, DFC; born Wanganui, 31 Aug 1912; joined RAF 1936; transferred RNZAF Jul 1939; killed in aircraft accident, 15 Jul 1943.

page 36 outbreak of hostilities. The air units among which these men were scattered were organised in two separate parts, each having distinct functions. The first part, the Advanced Air Striking Force, was a bomber force made up of ten Battle squadrons from Bomber Command, under whose control it remained for several months. The idea behind its despatch to France was that, should the Germans begin bombing, these medium bombers could retaliate on Ruhr targets at closer range than from Britain. The second part, the Royal Air Force Component, was intended to form an integral part of the British Expeditionary Force for which it was to provide reconnaissance and protection. It thus consisted of aircraft for reconnaissance, together with four fighter squadrons, all of which were under the control of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in France, General Lord Gort.1 This division of control and the need for closer co-operation with the French led, in January 1940, to the creation of a unified British Air Force France Command but, even so, many problems remained unsolved.

Until the German attack on the Low Countries opened early in May 1940, no bombing operations were flown from France since, as has already been indicated, the Allies were anxious to avoid initiating any action which would arouse German retaliation. For reasons of his own, the enemy also refrained from starting any unrestricted bombing offensive, so that instead of the inferno which many had anticipated there was an unexpected, if foreboding, calm. Nevertheless, although the squadrons in France made no bombing raids, they were employed in exercises with the ground forces in their areas and on reconnaissance and leaflet dropping operations over Germany. While most of these missions were uneventful they were occasionally enlivened by the impartiality with which some anti-aircraft gunners treated all aircraft they sighted. One New Zealander with No. 73 Squadron had the unenviable experience of being shot down over Calais in September by the French artillery to whom he was demonstrating a Hurricane for recognition purposes. Fortunately he was uninjured and was able to make a forced landing on the beach near the town. There were also odd incidents such as when one British crew, after a leaflet dropping sortie, inadvertently landed at a German airfield near the frontier. Fortunately they realised their mistake before the Germans reached them and took off again to reach France safely.

1 Field Marshal Viscount Gort, VC, GCB, CBE, DSO, MVO, MC, Legion of Honour (Fr); born 10 Jul 1886; joined Grenadier Guards, 1905; Chief of Imperial General Staff, 1937–39; C-in-C BEF, 1939–40; Inspector-General to the Forces, 1940–41; Governor and C-in-C, Gibraltar, 1941–42; Governor and C-in-C, Malta, 1942–44; High Commissioner and C-in-C, Palestine, and High Commissioner, Transjordan, 1944–45; died 31 Mar 1946.

page 37

For fighter pilots stationed with the British Army close to the Belgian border the winter of 1940 was a period of grinding mono- tony. Day after day they made their way through snow, slush, and mud to their cheerless dispersal points, to remain at readiness throughout the daylight hours. This tense waiting was always one of the most trying and difficult situations with which fighter pilots had to contend, and during this period it was particularly hard for them to accept continued inaction.

In some contrast to this dull existence were the experiences of the men serving with the two Hurricane squadrons attached to the Advanced Air Striking Force near the Franco-German border. One of these pilots, Flying Officer Kain,1 nicknamed ‘Cobber’ by his comrades in No. 73 Squadron, was soon to become widely known for his exploits. Throughout his school days Kain had been keen on flying and after leaving college had joined the Wellington Aero Club, making his first solo flight after only six hours’ dual instruction. In 1936 he had travelled to England where he obtained a short-service commission in the Royal Air Force within a few months of his arrival. He trained as a fighter pilot and quickly became an expert at aerobatics, first with Gladiators and later with Hurricanes, and in 1938 gave an exhibition in the Empire air display at Hendon. Although deservedly popular among his fellow pilots, Kain was a strong individualist and soon became recognised as something of a ‘wild devil’. In France his squadron was based at Rouvres, a small village midway between Verdun and Metz and roughly 35 miles from the frontier over which the Hurricanes patrolled. One who knew the squadron well declares they were a ‘happy, carefree bunch, full of confidence and making the best of the situation in which they found themselves’. At first incidents were few, but on 30 October 1939 the first enemy aircraft was shot down over France by an English pilot of No. 1 Squadron. A few days later, on 8 November, Kain scored his squadron’s first victory by destroying a Dornier 17. He was on the ground at his aerodrome when he first sighted the enemy aircraft flying high above. He leapt into his Hurricane and climbed to intercept. At 25,000 feet he was able to close on the Dornier and get in three bursts at short range. Nothing happened for a moment, then white smoke began to pour from one of its engines. Kain broke away, but as the enemy did not fall he climbed again and opened fire, continuing until he was within fifty yards. At this point the Dornier banked steeply and spiralled to earth to crash in the middle of a small village, ten miles north-east of Rouvres. ‘Fortunately’, says a

1 Flying Officer E. J. Kain, DFC; born Hastings, 27 Jun 1918; joined RAF 1937; killed in flying accident, 7 Jun 1940.

page 38 contemporary report, ‘beyond a bedridden woman who suddenly found the use of her legs again, a few broken windows, and a burnt out cowshed, no damage was caused’. But for some months such combats were the exception rather than the rule. Apart from one day towards the end of November when six enemy aircraft were destroyed, one of them by Kain, interceptions were at a minimum throughout the winter months. Incessant rain waterlogged airfields; then came heavy snowfalls accompanied by blizzards which gave the snow a treacherous coating of ice. Nevertheless, during the greater part of this time the fighter pilots continued to maintain readiness or fly ‘standing’ patrols over vital areas.

It was not until March that the enemy renewed his activity over France. On the second day of that month Kain again distinguished himself in an encounter with seven Heinkels which he chased into Germany. Then, on being attacked by fighters, he turned and shot one down. Eventually, although nearly blinded by smoke and fumes, he managed to regain a friendly airfield.

During the next few weeks Kain continued to figure conspicuously in his squadron’s activities. On one particularly active day towards the close of the month 14 British pilots had combats and claimed seven of the enemy without loss to themselves. Kain accounted for one of the aircraft destroyed, and possibly a second, before he himself was forced to bale out of his blazing Hurricane.1 He landed alongside a wood to find himself in the midst of a skirmish between opposing patrols so sought cover and then made his way on foot towards what he hoped were the French lines. After a short time he was picked up by a French captain who took him on the back of a motor cycle to the nearest village, where he received medical attention. Kain was up and about the following day, walking with the aid of a stick.

About the same time Flying Officer Stratton,2 who was with No. 1 Squadron, shared in the destruction of the first Messerschmitt 110 to be shot down by the Royal Air Force over France. He was flying

1 He afterwards told how ‘Three of us were on patrol when we sighted four Messerschmitts which came around at us in twos. We turned with them and I got in a side shot at the last one. He stalled and then spun down with smoke and flame pouring out of his machine. Then more Messerschmitts appeared and the sky seemed full of planes dashing about. Found another flying loose and put a burst at him. He turned on his side and went down smoking. Then the sky seemed suddenly clear. But almost at once there was a crash, the top of the hood was shot away and my machine caught fire. The shock must have knocked me out for a moment since when I came to the Hurricane was in a steep dive and flaming. Could not get out until I’d pulled her out of the dive. By that time my face and hands were burnt a bit. Forgot to pull the ripcord at first and when the parachute opened it jerked me sideways—one shoulder strap had slipped off. Down I went through a bank of cloud….’

2 Wing Commander W. H. Stratton, DFC and bar; RNZAF; London; born Hastings, 22 Jul 1916; joined RAF 1937; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944; commanded No. 134 Sqdn, Middle East and India, 1943–44; OC Flying Wing, Wigram, 1945; served with BCOF, Japan, 1947–48.

page 39 in a section of three Hurricanes which intercepted nine of these new enemy fighters north-east of Metz. The battle began at 26,000 feet and Stratton later reported:

I endeavoured to turn on to the enemy nearest me, but immediately went into a spin. A number of Messerschmitts were firing their rear guns. I recovered from my spin and was beginning a steep climb when a 110 dived past in front of me, so I made a steep diving turn on to his tail. He made little effort to shake me off and I expended all my ammunition. When I broke away one of his engines was on fire.

This same aircraft had previously been damaged by the leader of the section. After Stratton’s attack it was last seen gliding in an easterly direction giving out clouds of smoke. The German pilot escaped by parachute and was later captured. The third pilot of the section had meanwhile damaged two other Messerschmitt 110s. All three airmen were afterwards entertained at a special dinner in Paris (at Maxim’s in the Rue Royale) which had been promised by Air Marshal Barratt1 to the first pilot to destroy one of these aircraft. These successful combats deserved celebration since they dispelled the rumours which usually surrounded new enemy aircraft, and which in the case of the Messerschmitt 110 had credited it with a higher performance than was proved on closer acquaintance.

Sporadic engagements with German reconnaissance machines continued until the end of April when there was a lull in air activity on the eastern frontier. New Zealand pilots were involved in several inconclusive encounters but most of their work consisted of routine patrols covering army movements into the outer defences of the Maginot Line. The lull was short-lived for, on 10 May, Germany invaded the Low Countries, and the few squadrons of the Royal Air Force in France were soon engaged in violent air battles with practically the whole strength of the Luftwaffe. But before this happened the Germans had already invaded Norway and Denmark to secure their northern flank against any possible diversion from the projected campaign against France.

1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur S. Barratt, KCB, CMG, MC, Order of the Crown and Croix de Guerre with Palm (Bel), Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol), Legion of Honour (Fr), Croix de Guerre with Palm (Fr); RAF (retd); England; born Peshawar, India, 25 Feb 1891; joined Royal Artillery 1910; seconded RFC 1914 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC-in-C, British Air Forces in France, 1940; AOC-in-C, Army Co-operation Command, 1940–43; AOC-in-C, Technical Training Command, 1943–45; Inspector-General of the RAF, 1945–47.