New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 3 — Meeting the German Attack
Meeting the German Attack
THE Germans began their invasion of Norway and Denmark at dawn on 9 April 1940. Within twenty-four hours, as a result of careful preparation and amazing treachery, all Denmark was in German hands and the principal Norwegian ports and airfields had been captured. The story of what happened in Norway reads like a modern version of the Trojan Horse. There the Germans had created a large group of sympathisers under a Major Quisling and these people—known as ‘The Fifth Column’— formed the spearhead of the attack. They were quickly supported by paratroops and by infantry disguised as seamen or civilians and previously embarked on ships trading with Norway. The capture of Oslo, which fell in two hours, was typical. Fifth columnists seized the main buildings and radio stations and then, helped by airborne troops, held them until seaborne forces broke through the harbour defences to reinforce.
Air power was, however, the decisive factor. It enabled the Germans to make simultaneous airborne landings at key points in both countries and then fly in transport aircraft with infantry and supplies. In Denmark the airfields at Aalborg fell to the Germans with ease, as did the whole of Jutland and Copenhagen itself; demonstrations by bombers and fighters, together with a massed fly past of transport aircraft bound for Norway, had the desired effect and brought about complete capitulation. In Norway airborne landings at the main ports were quickly followed by fighter attacks on the airfields and the small Norwegian Air Force, caught unawares, was almost annihilated on the ground. Paratroops then landed and secured the airfields as forward bases for the Luftwaffe. At Trondheim, where the airfield did not fall until the second day, the Germans improvised a landing strip in the snow near the port and transport aircraft were able to fly in with their loads. Reports of these events were received in London with incredulity; indeed there were many in Britain who, unappreciative of the extent to which air power could now be exercised over narrow waters, felt that by invading Norway Hitler had blundered. They were soon to be disillusioned.page 41
During the short campaign the RAF did what it could to bring aid to the hard-pressed Norwegians and to units of the Allied armies which joined them. Among the tasks in which New Zealand airmen assisted were reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast, laying mines, and bombing enemy airfields and shipping. In particular, the spacious airfield at Stavanger was frequently attacked by both Bomber and Coastal Command aircraft during the first weeks. The initial attack on this target was made by Bomber Command at dusk on 11 April when six Wellingtons, preceded by two Blenheims, bombed at low level in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire. One Wellington, in which Pilot Officer Rankin1 was flying as second pilot, was seen to crash in flames after being hit. The same night New Zealanders flew with the force of Whitleys and Hampdens which swept the Kattegat and attacked several vessels. On the following morning 23 Blenheims, 36 Wellingtons, and 24 Hampdens were despatched to attack a naval force reported by a reconnaissance aircraft. Most of the Blenheims abandoned the search because of low cloud, while the Wellingtons saw little and lost three of their number in an engagement with Messerschmitts. Only one formation of twelve Hampdens sighted a target, bombing two warships without success. Six Hampdens were lost, one of them captained by Flying Officer Johnstone.2
Subsequent attacks on both ships and airfields proved equally ineffective in hindering the German occupation of Norway. This was really not surprising for no preparations had been made and the aircrew lacked many of the things necessary for successful bombing, such as large-scale target maps and photographs that could be studied beforehand. Indeed, they often crossed the North Sea searching for the targets allotted them with nothing better than a sheet of an extremely small-scale map or a tracing from the town plans in a tourist guide to Norway. In consequence a considerable number of crews were unable to find their objectives. A second adverse factor was the weather since, by day, the British aircraft, operating without fighter escort, were ordered to attack their targets only when they had cloud cover. This often obliged the pilots to turn back. On the other hand the clouds that were deemed indispensable to daylight attack were generally accompanied by foul weather. Moreover the whole of Norway was still deep in snow, rendering identification of landmarks difficult; the upper air was bitterly cold, and when clouds gathered they were laden with snow, freezing drizzle and hail. Flying conditions over the North Sea were also treacherous, with gales accompanied by rain and sleet frequently sweeping across it.
1 Pilot Officer D. J. Harkness and LAC E. P. Williams were members of his crew, which also included a naval observer.
‘In places the clouds came down almost to sea level’, Breckon afterwards reported. ‘Visibility was reduced to 500 yards or less and we had the most terrific bumps that members of the crew had ever experienced. At one point when we were flying at 200 feet in a heavy snowstorm we doubted whether we should be able to find our way safely out of the fiord.’
Altogether the Wellington was in the air for over 14 hours, making this the longest reconnaissance that had been flown up to this time. Three days later Breckon made another flight of nine and a half hours to Trondheim.
Similar patrols were flown by other New Zealanders during the first days of the campaign. On 9 April Squadron Leader L. E. Jarman,1 as captain of a Wellington from No. 9 Squadron in Bomber Command, made a reconnaissance of part of the Norwegian coast. He had very little cloud cover and his machine came under heavy fire from the ground. He also narrowly missed interception by enemy fighters but managed to secure useful information on the disposition of German naval forces at Kristiansand, Bergen, and at intermediate points. As flight commander of his squadron, Jarman subsequently led formations in several attacks on targets in Norway, and on one occasion his was the only aircraft to reach and attack Stavanger airfield in the face of weather conditions which compelled the return of the other aircraft engaged in the operation. Jarman had previously served with an RAF bomber squadron in the Middle East. In May 1940 he was commended for his ‘consis- tent courage and determination’ in early operations with Bomber Command.
1 Group Captain L. E. Jarman, DFC; RAF; born Christchurch, 17 Aug 1907; joined RAF 1929; permanent commission 1934; CFI, No. 23 OTU, 1941; commanded RAF Station, Litchfield, 1941–42; SASO, No. 93 Group, 1942–43; commanded RAF Station, Kirmington, 1943; RAF Station, Wyton, 1943–44; SASO, No. 205 Group, Italy, 1944–45.
2 Wing Commander E. W. Tacon, DSO, MVO, DFC and bar, AFC; RAF; born Napier, 6 Dec 1917; joined RAF May 1939; Coastal Command, 1939–41; flying training appointments in Canada, New Zealand and United Kingdom, 1942–44; commanded No. 236 Sqdn, 1944; p.w. 12 Sep 1944; Commander of the King’s Flight, 1946–50.
The bombing attacks, minelaying, and reconnaissance patrols were continued throughout April. Aircraft from Coastal Command flew continuously over the North Sea and along the Norwegian coast reporting enemy movements and, as opportunity offered, attacking ships and targets inland. The crews of the Hudsons and Blenheims operating from bases in Scotland had a gruelling time as they were also called upon to protect British naval forces and convoys in northern waters. Bomber Command directed its main effort against German-occupied airfields in Norway and Denmark, and there is evidence that these attacks caused a reduction in the scale of the enemy’s bombing in the Aandalsnes and Namsos areas. In particular, little air interference was experienced by the Allied land forces during their evacuation, when heavy bombing attacks were maintained against German airfields on four successive nights. But meanwhile, owing to the distance they had to fly, and faced with an enemy air force superior in numbers and possessing bases in the area of combat, there was little that the squadrons of Coastal and Bomber Commands could do to aid the ground forces in contact with the enemy. Because of the limited range of its aircraft Fighter Command was unable to operate from Britain, but after the Allied Expeditionary Force landed an attempt was made to provide it with some support by sending fighters to operate from page 46 bases in Norway. Several New Zealanders were to play a distinguished part in these operations. On 21 April when No. 263 Gladiator Squadron was despatched to operate from the vicinity of Aandalsnes, the main Allied base, Flying Officer Vickery1 sailed with the advance party to advise on the preparation of landing grounds. Eventually a site was chosen at Lake Lesjeskogen, the surface of which was frozen. Then, in the face of enemy bombing of the jetty at Aandalsnes, and a shortage of both equipment and transport, petrol and ammunition dumps were established in the woods by the lake and the surface of the proposed landing ground cleared. On the evening of 24 April Pilot Officer Jacobsen2 was one of the 18 pilots who flew their Gladiators to this lake from the aircraft carrier Glorious. None of these men had ever taken off from a carrier before. Unfortunately, from the moment of its arrival the unit was thrown on to the defensive in the protection of its base from German bombing attacks, and this situation was further aggravated by a serious shortage of stores, equipment and spare parts, and of quick rearming and refuelling facilities. It was with such handicaps and against a background of snow and ice that the ill-equipped squadron attempted to fight off the German bombers. Its pilots made a gallant, if brief, stand against overwhelming odds.
Shortly after daybreak next morning the Germans began bombing the frozen lake and continued to attack periodically all through the day until dusk. By midday the surface of the lake was pitted with bomb craters and ten of the Gladiators had been destroyed whilst waiting on the ice to be refuelled and rearmed—tasks which the pilots themselves had to undertake. During the afternoon the five aircraft still serviceable were flown to the landing area at Setnesmoen which had been prepared by the advance party. The next morning two more aircraft were lost, one by enemy action and the other by engine failure. That afternoon Jacobsen took off on patrol in the one remaining serviceable aircraft. He was twice in combat with Heinkels but in each case lost touch before he could complete his attack. The last flight of the day and the last before the squadron was ordered to return to Britain was again made by Jacobsen. He took off in the late afternoon in an unsuccessful attempt to intercept several enemy aircraft which were bombing the landing ground.
The squadrons began patrols immediately, their main duty being to defend the fleet anchorage at Skaanland, the military base at Harstad and, where possible, to give close support to sea and land forces in contact with the enemy. Despite the absence of an air-raid warning system and the inadequate landing ground, the squadrons operated during the next few weeks with considerable success and gained a definite air superiority in that region. Two days after their arrival Jameson led a section of Hurricanes which found and destroyed two Dornier flying boats on the surface of Rombaks Fiord. These aircraft, which were carrying reinforcements and supplies to German ground forces in the Narvik area, were discovered after a flight over unfamiliar country, well concealed against the almost vertical side of a fiord. Although this made attack difficult, Jameson rearranged his formation, surprised the enemy, and set both aircraft on fire before they could retaliate. Reconnaissance an hour later showed that they had sunk. The following day Jameson destroyed a Junkers 88 which was one of three intercepted by his section south-east of Narvik. He afterwards reported:
I surprised the rearmost enemy aircraft by climbing up under his tail. On opening fire at 200 yards, a bright flash appeared from the 88 and my windscreen was obscured by oil. After breaking away, noticed black smoke was coming from his starboard engine. As I approached again he jettisoned his bombs so fired another burst at about 250 yards. The starboard engine began to burn and the fire gradually spread to the fuselage. Shortly before the machine crashed on the cliff of a fiord, one of the crew jumped by parachute.
1 Group Captain P. G. Jameson, DSO, DFC and bar, Norwegian War Cross, Silver Star (US), Order of Orange Nassau (Hol); RAF; born Wellington, 10 Nov 1912; joined RAF 1936; commanded No. 266 Sqdn, 1940–41; Wing Leader, Wittering, 1941–42, and North Weald, 1942–43; Planning Staff, No. 11 Fighter Group, 1943–44; commanded No. 122 Wing, 2nd TAF, 1944–45.
On the same day Jacobsen attacked a convoy of six German lorries on the north of Beis Fiord, setting two on fire and causing a number of casualties. Vickery also made several similar sorties attacking motor vehicles, railway stations, troops and strongpoints, including what was later found to be the German headquarters at Hundalen. On such missions the aircraft frequently sustained damage from enemy anti-aircraft fire and returned like lame ducks looking much the worse for wear and, as one pilot put it, ‘with odd bits fluttering or trailing in the breeze’. On 2 June Jacobsen had an eventful patrol during which he attacked four enemy bombers and shot down three of them, with the fourth probably destroyed. Here is his account of this notable engagement:
I was on patrol with another aircraft in the Narvik area along the railway to the Swedish border. Encountered two Ju. 88s and ordered my No. 2 to attack the second aircraft. I attacked the first from approximately 300 yards and attempted to close range, but enemy aircraft drew slowly away whilst diving. Chased him into Sweden and fired another two-second burst at approximately 400 yards, after which enemy machine disappeared into cloud. At this moment the other Ju. 88 crossed my path. After a two-second burst, the enemy dived vertically through cloud, apparently out of control. On following, I had great difficulty in avoiding crashing into mountain sides. Returning to Norwegian territory, I encountered many enemy aircraft low-flying in a wide sweep on Swedish border about Björnfjell. Engaged a Heinkel 111 which pulled up in a stall and dived into ground. On breaking away from this engagement, was attacked by one Junkers 88 and three Heinkels 111s from above and head on. Evaded this attack and positioned myself on another Heinkel 111 at which I fired a burst of three seconds from 250 yards below beam. Was then engaged head on by another Heinkel 111. By evasive tactics, managed to get a point-blank burst of three-seconds as the enemy machine broke away. It was last seen diving, apparently out of control. Now found myself inside a circle of enemy aircraft consisting of two Junkers 88s and six Heinkels 111s. Enemy aircraft again employed head on attack. Fire was also encountered from above and below. I was now using every possible device to evade enemy fire, but noticed that my aircraft had been hit in the engine, and that one of my flying wires had been shot away. After diving to avert collision, I positioned myself on a Heinkel 111 and fired approximately four-second burst. This caused enemy aircraft to rock violently and it was last seen gliding earthwards. On breaking off engagement I was subjected to fire from above and below. My engine was hit and oil tank evidently pierced as my windscreen became coated with black oil which made it impossible for me to see so I broke off engagement and used evasive tactics to avoid attacks which were now being made by four enemy aircraft from above. My engine was giving considerable trouble, but I managed to lose enemy aircraft and return to base.1
Although the Allies captured Narvik on 28 May, the evacuation of northern Norway had already been decided upon because of the disasters which had befallen the Allies in Belgium. Fighter protection was provided for the withdrawal of the ground forces on 7 June, and on this and the following day the twenty remaining aircraft were flown onto the carrier Glorious and the Bardufoss landing ground was destroyed. Actually orders had been received to destroy the Hurricanes as none of the pilots had previously landed on a carrier. However, following a successful test landing by Jameson and two other pilots, all the Hurricanes were flown on without loss. Unfortunately, the following day the Glorious was sunk by the German battle-cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Jameson and his commanding officer were the only survivors from the airmen who had embarked. They were picked up 120 miles off the coast by a small Norwegian merchant ship after spending three days on a Carley float. It was indeed an irony of fate that fighter pilots who had displayed such gallantry, both in their operations against the enemy and in salvaging their aircraft, should be lost during their evacuation to England.
The efforts of the Royal Air Force to strike at the enemy in Norway did not, however, cease with the withdrawal of the fighter squadrons and the British troops. Throughout the following months bombing attacks were made against enemy communications and airfields. Reconnaissance along the Norwegian coast and over the North Sea was also continued, with the double purpose of watching enemy shipping movements and observing developments in the Norwegian ports. New Zealand airmen continued to share in these tasks, which were carried out by aircraft of Bomber and Coastal Commands.
* * * * *
With startling swiftness the Germans followed their seizure of Norway by a violent onslaught on the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Novel methods of attack confused and bewildered the defenders and, within a few brief weeks, this blitzkrieg culminated in the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk and the collapse of French resistance. The failure of the Allies to co-ordinate the efforts of their land and air forces prevented them from offering effective opposition to an enemy whose unorthodox tactics and swift moves soon proved utterly disconcerting. With their greater page 50 mobility and superior armoured strength, the Germans were able to pierce fixed defence systems and then carry out a series of enveloping movements. As their ground forces swept forward they received full support from the Luftwaffe, for the Germans had already developed methods of close co-operation between aircraft and the armoured columns such as had not yet been attempted by the Allies.
The German attack opened in the early hours of 10 May 1940 with assaults on the frontiers of Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium. Simultaneously parachutists and airborne forces landed at strategic points inside their borders, while airfields and communications both in these countries and in France were heavily bombed. The small Dutch and Belgian air forces were overwhelmed at the outset and the French Air Force suffered severely. Practically the whole available strength of the Luftwaffe1 was thrown into the opening attacks in order to clear the way for the advance of the ground forces. By the end of the first day the Dutch defences were in confusion; the three main airfields at The Hague had been captured by airborne troops and transport aircraft landed after obstructions had been removed. In the Rotterdam area the important Moerdijk bridge was captured and held intact, and some 1200 airborne troops were landed at Waalhaven airfield before midday. Infantry were also brought in to Rotterdam by transport float planes. Elsewhere throughout Holland confusion was successfully spread by paratroops. Very quickly the power of the Luftwaffe achieved the desired result; in particular the savage bombing attack on the centre of the city of Rotterdam had an immediate demoralising effect, and on 15 May the Dutch army capitulated after five days’ fighting. Meanwhile, in Belgium, German operations had gone according to plan. The capture of Fort Eben Emael was typical. Here 70 paratroops landed at dawn on the first day within the outer walls and, breaking up into small groups, began to force their way through the inner workings of this modern fortress. Reinforcements arrived by air and within twenty-four hours the demoralised garrison surrendered. Thus one of the most important forts of the Belgian defence line fell with only five casualties to the German paratroops. Other airborne operations in Belgium achieved similar success and most of the main bridges and roads were held for the advancing German armies. These now pressed forward in the Ardennes, feeling their way for the main armoured thrust.
1 The air forces employed by the Germans included some 1300 bombers, including 350 dive-bombers and between 1200 and 1500 fighters. In addition they had about 450 transport aircraft and a similar number of reconnaissance machines. These forces were backed by a generous supply of replacement aircraft and crews, the latter fully and efficiently trained and of high morale.
Aerial reconnaissance gave the Germans an accurate picture of the Allied dispositions, and on 13 May their main armoured spearhead struck through Charleville and Sedan and crossed the Meuse. A strong effort was then made by the Lufwaffe in support of the advancing forces. Bombers, with strong fighter cover, attacked bases, troop concentrations, railway marshalling yards and movements of the Allied armies by road and rail, while French airfields were subjected to continual bombing. Strong dive-bomber forces were also employed to prepare the way for the armoured units. As soon as air reconnaissance or ground reports established that points of resistance were holding up the advance, a heavy concentration of air striking power would be called in. On occasion up to nine sorties were flown by single aircraft. As a result the British and French armies were paralysed to a degree that was a revelation to even the Germans themselves, and the legend of the dive-bomber grew.
From the outset the Royal Air Force in France, equipped with a handful of Hurricane fighters and a few squadrons of relatively obsolete Battles and Blenheims, attempted to reply to the enemy’s massed air attacks and hinder the advance of his armoured columns. Both air and ground crews made an heroic effort against overwhelming odds, and the fact that it availed little detracts nothing from the many acts of gallantry performed. The support they could receive from the squadrons based in the United Kingdom was limited by the distance involved and by the rapid dislocation of communications. Nevertheless aircraft from Bomber Command operated over the battle area from the first day, whilst fighters from forward airfields in Kent maintained patrols along the Belgian and Dutch coasts to the limit of their range. Three Hurricane squadrons were also sent to France as reinforcements on 10 May, and during the next few days, as calls for further assistance increased, more pilots and the equivalent of six squadrons were sent across the Channel. In addi- tion, fighter aircraft were despatched each day to operate from bases on the Continent. But with the collapse of the Allied front and the loss of airfield facilities that followed the German bombing, it was considered unwise to strip Britain’s defences further and commit the major resources of Fighter Command to the battle in France.1 Later, however, as the battle in the north approached its climax, a maximum effort was made by all three Home Commands to cover the evacuation from Belgian and French ports.
1 This historic decision, one of the most vital of the war, since it made possible the victory over Britain a few months later from which all else flowed, was not made until 19 May when complete collapse in France appeared inevitable. Even then it came only as a result of urgent representations by Sir Hugh Dowding, the C-in-C Fighter Command.
At the beginning of May 1940 there were 600 New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force, the majority flying with units of Bomber, Fighter, or Coastal Commands based in the United Kingdom. However, in France there was now a significant representation among the bomber units and in the fighter and reconnaissance squad- rons, with a few men serving in administrative posts or on ground duties. Among the senior officers on the Continent were Group Captains Carr and Russell, both veterans of the First World War returning once more to their former battlefield. Two New Zealand medical officers were also with the RAF in France at this time. During the air operations of May and June 1940, 44 New Zealanders lost their lives. Fourteen were to receive awards for deeds of gallantry in fighter and bomber attacks or for sterling service with the reconnaissance units, whose flights often involved penetrations at low level far behind the enemy lines, and which, in the case of the photographic unit, were made in unarmed aircraft.
1 Wing Commander C. E. Malfroy, DFC, DFC (US); 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.
Typical of the aggressive spirit which the British airmen continued to display was Pilot Officer Simpson’s1 engagement with a Messerschmitt 110 on 18 May. After attacking with a long burst, Simpson saw the Messerschmitt make a sudden turn and dive towards the ground, so he broke away. But the enemy recovered and made off over the treetops. Simpson gave chase and after a long pursuit, during which he exhausted all his ammunition, was rewarded by seeing his quarry hit the ground and break up. The following day Kain scored a further success while flying with his squadron as escort to Allied bombers detailed to attack German columns north of the Aisne. On the way to this target enemy bombers were sighted, with three formations of Messerschmitts flying high above them. The Hurricanes set about the bombers, Kain getting a burst into a Junkers 88 in a head-on attack. He then turned and attacked the same machine from the rear and saw it plunge earthwards. The German fighters now dived to join in the fray and Kain fired on one of them, a Messerschmitt 110, as it emerged from a cloud. The enemy machine turned over and spiralled down into the clouds below, black smoke pouring from it. Altogether in this engagement the Hurricanes claimed seven bombers and one fighter for the loss of three of their own formation. Earlier on the same day Flying Officer Ward,2 flying in a section of four Hurricanes, was responsible for the destruction of a Henschel 126 intercepted near Valenciennes. After one of his section had attacked without result, Ward followed and got in several good bursts. As he broke away smoke began to pour from the German machine. He then closed and made a second attack, whereupon the enemy aircraft blew up in the air. Ward had arrived in France only two days previously in company with five other pilots to deliver new aircraft to No. 87 Squadron. On hearing how sorely pressed the unit was at the time, the ferry pilots, who had no definite orders, elected to remain in France. They went into action immediately and took part in the many tasks the squadron was called upon to perform. Only two of the six—one being Ward—lived to return to England.
The strain of conflict was now becoming severe as the fighter squadrons were subjected to increasing pressure from German fighters over the airfields in France. Frequent bombing attacks on these bases also demanded that considerable effort be expended in defending them. Enemy air operations, on the other hand, were wholly offensive and increasingly effective in disrupting the Allied defences. Nevertheless the fighter pilots continued to fly intensively on interception patrols and operated from forward airfields until the last possible moment. On one occasion a flight of Hurricanes returning from patrol were about to land at their advanced landing ground when they were frantically waved away by men on the ground. Somewhat puzzled, the pilots opened up their engines and went round again to find a column of German tanks moving up to the airfield.
Heavier bombers, based in the United Kingdom, were also operating over the battle area from the beginning of the campaign. Their first attack was launched on the night of 10 May against the important Dutch airfield at Waalhaven, near Rotterdam, and three Wellingtons from No. 75 New Zealand Squadron were among the 36 aircraft detailed. Crews reported hits on buildings as well as on the aerodrome itself, and the Dutch were able to recapture Waalhaven for a short period the following morning. During the next four days and nights New Zealand airmen were among the crews of the small formations of Blenheims and Wellingtons which flew from England to attack enemy columns, bridges and road junctions, Wellingtons from No. 75 Squadron operating on two nights against such targets without loss. But the bombing attacks were insufficient to hinder the rapid advance of the enemy. By 14 May pressure against the Allied forces in Belgium was increasing while, farther south, the situation in the area round Sedan was deteriorating rapidly. Here was the most serious of the penetrations the enemy had made in the Allied lines. Powerful armoured forces had broken through weak French defences north of the Maginot Line, crossed the Meuse and made their way into open country, where they met with practically no opposition.
6 Wing Commander T. B. Fitzgerald, DFC; RNZAF; Wellington; born Timaru, 11 Jul 1919; joined RNZAF Jun 1937; transferred RAF Jun 1938; test pilot, Hawker Aircraft Ltd., 1942; test pilot, De Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd., 1943–44; Wing Leader, Coltishall 1944; Admin duties, HQ 2nd TAF, 1945.
During the next few days the whole situation changed rapidly. The German armoured forces poured through the widening gap at Sedan and advanced westward towards the valley of the Somme and the Channel ports. Further north, the Allied forces in Belgium began their withdrawal, abandoning Brussels and Antwerp. With the enemy’s rapid advance and his bombing of landing grounds, the air forces in France were forced to retire to less vulnerable positions in the rear, and from this time onwards a succession of moves, combined with failing communications and supplies, had their effect on operations from bases on the Continent.1 In addition, the roads were crowded with refugees, making it difficult to distinguish friend from foe. The presence of these refugees on the roads did, however, make it easier for airmen who were shot down to return to their units. One New Zealand pilot, who baled out over Belgium after being attacked by a swarm of Messerschmitts, landed near some German tanks. He hid in a wood for some time, then got old clothes from a farmhouse and eventually, after ‘dodging about for eight days’, as he put it, joined a refugee column with which he remained for a further week. At last a lorry gave him a lift to the vicinity of the airfield where his squadron was based, and he arrived back just in time to join in the retreat before the airfield was captured. Another New Zealander, shot down after a combat in which he had accounted for at least one of his assailants, found himself far behind the German lines. A Belgian gave him clothes in which he disguised himself as a peasant refugee. For ten days he moved across country towards the German front, which he passed by crawling through long grass and swimming a canal. Occasionally he obtained food and shelter at a farmhouse or cottage and finally reached Dunkirk, only to be arrested by the French. He managed to establish his true identity, however, and got back to England in a motor torpedo-boat. On rejoining his squadron he found that he had been listed as killed and his affairs wound up. Even a forced landing in France could be a hazardous business; one bomber pilot writes of ‘spending a bad hour with a farmer who brandished a shot gun’, before he was identified and rescued by a member of his squadron.
1 One squadron record contains the following note: Once again the squadron packed up…. The convoy arrived after a hectic journey minus the ration lorry which had been struck by a bomb during the night. Eventually we established ourselves in tents in a forest alongside the airfield which was very boggy in patches.’
1 Flying Officer J. E. Vernon, DFC; born Roxburgh, 21 Aug 1915; joined RAF Aug 1938; killed on air operations, 7 Jun 1940.
2 Although it had been previously decided that, in the event of a German attack in the West, Bomber Command should attack oil targets in the Ruhr, the opening days of the German offensive witnessed much debate on these matters. The British Air Staff were of the opinion that the role of the heavier bomber was a strategic one, i.e., the attack on German industry and communications, and they were anxious to conserve their slender force of these aircraft for this purpose. However, at this period the relative power of the opposing air forces was so disproportionate that the employment of the British bomber force, in whatever form, would not have redressed the adverse balance which had been struck upon the ground.
3 The difficulty of identifying towns, let alone individual factories, in the smoke-laden Ruhr, had yet to be realised.
By 20 May the situation on the Continent was critical. The enemy had widened the breach at Sedan and the advance of his columns beyond Cambrai towards Arras now threatened the rear of the Allied armies in Belgium. In fact the forces in the north of the German irruption were, as the enemy raced towards the Channel coast, increasingly cut off from those in the south. By the 22nd this severance was complete. The Germans then exerted maximum pressure on the land forces in Belgium and within a few days it became clear that retirement on Dunkirk and evacuation from that port was the best that could be hoped for the Allies in the north.
Throughout those crowded days of the last week of May 1940, when Belgian resistance collapsed and the armies in the north fought doggedly to hold Dunkirk and its perimeter, the British air squadrons made strenuous efforts to stem the German advance and to beat off the attacks of the Luftwaffe on the bridgehead. Following the withdrawal of the majority of the fighter squadrons from France on 22 May, fighter patrols over the northern battle area had to be flown from airfields in England, but in spite of this handicap the British squadrons continued to give battle, and page 60 indeed, as the main strength of the home-based fighter units was thrown in, the Luftwaffe began to falter. In particular the appearance over Belgium of new British aircraft, such as the Spitfire and Defiant, had a most disconcerting effect on the German airmen, and, on more than one occasion, an enemy formation jettisoned its bombs and fled at the sight of a few Spitfires. ‘Now for the first time,’ noted General Halder in his diary on 24 May, ‘enemy air superiority has been reported by Kleist.’ And on the same day the War Diary of the German 19 Corps recorded: ‘Enemy fighter resistance is so strong that our own air reconnaissance was practically impossible.’
It was during this period of intensive air activity that many fighter pilots first saw action against the enemy. Men who had come eagerly to Fighter Command and spent long months in training, yearning all the while for combat, were now given the opportunity of showing their mettle and matching their skill against that of the German pilots.1
1 Shortly afterwards one New Zealander wrote home: ‘When the Germans invaded Belgium and France no one in my Squadron had seen a German aircraft, much less been in action against one. We’d had plenty of flying but it wasn’t very different from peace-time flying. Like a lot of others we were just waiting to get our chance. We didn’t have to wait long!’
4 Wing Commander A. C. Deere, DSO, OBE, DFC and bar, DFC (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 Station, North Weald, 1952-.
5 Wing Commander C. F. Gray, DSO, DFC and two bars; RAF; born Christchurch, 9 Nov 1914; joined RAF Jan 1939; commanded Nos. 403, 616, 64 and 81 Squadrons, 1941–43; Wing Leader, Malta, Sicily and Europe, 1943–45; commanded RAF Station, Skeabrae, 1945; Directorate of Air Foreign Liaison, 1947–49; British Joint Services Mission, Washington, 1949-.
10 Wing Commander R. M. Trousdale, DFC and bar; born Auckland, 23 Jan 1921; joined RAF Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF Jan 1945; commanded No. 488 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942–43; killed in aircraft accident, 16 Jun 1947.
11 Wing Commander R. D. Yule, DSO, DFC and bar; RAF; 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.
Flying with another section of his squadron on the same patrol was Flying Officer Brinsden. When about to join combat he saw Clouston’s first victim go into the sea. A few seconds later he was able to send another dive-bomber hurtling after it. Deere scored a first double success in more unusual circumstances on 23 May. He was one of two Spitfire pilots detailed to escort a Miles Master —a two-seater training aircraft—that was attempting to rescue a British pilot forced down at Calais-Marck, an airfield which by this time was in no-man’s-land. The three aircraft reached this airfield without incident, but just as the trainer was taking off with its passenger, Deere’s companion shouted over the radio-telephone that Messerschmitts were approaching. Almost at the same moment one of them dived on the Master but overshot. Deere at once turned on the Messerschmitt and fired two short bursts. It carried on for a short distance then crashed into the sea a few yards from the shore, where its tail remained sticking up out of the water for some months afterwards. He then set about another German fighter which turned over on its back and crashed in Calais itself. An attack on a third Messerschmitt found Deere with his ammunition exhausted so he made for the nearest cloud and returned safely across the Channel. Meawhile, the training aircraft and Deere’s companion, who had destroyed at least one other German fighter, had also made good their escape.
On the following day Deere’s No. 54 Squadron, with which Gray was also flying, experienced its first big air battle when it engaged two large bomber formations escorted by Messerschmitts. page 62 In the many dogfights which followed nine German aircraft were claimed destroyed, with an additional four probables. Of these Deere was credited with one Messerschmitt destroyed and Gray with a probable, in what was his first combat. The next day Gray shared in the destruction of another Messerschmitt whilst escorting Allied bombers over Gravelines, but his Spitfire was badly damaged by fire both from enemy aircraft and the ground. Deere had a similar experience the following morning while escorting ammunition ships into Dunkirk. His section of Spitfires engaged some twenty Messerschmitts and in the resulting mêlèe he had his port wing partly shot away. However, he was able to claim two of the enemy before breaking away to limp home. He afterwards reported tersely:
We saw enemy bombers attacking destroyers off Calais. On going into attack, we were in turn set upon by Messerschmitts 110s. Shot one down in flames after three bursts but immediately became sandwiched between two more, experiencing considerable fire. Steep turned and got on the tail of one of them and after three short bursts, both his engines commenced smoking and, losing height rapidly, he prepared to land north of Calais.
While the air battles continued, the Allied forces in the north were being compelled to give ground. In spite of a dogged defence, Calais fell on 26 May and the evacuation from Dunkirk began that evening. During the next seven days ships of the Royal Navy, assisted by small craft of all kinds, plied back and forth across the Channel carrying the battle-worn troops of the British Expeditionary Force to England. All the time the Germans were pressing in upon the narrow exit from the east and from the west, while the main effort of the Luftwaffe was turned against Dunkirk, its beaches and the crowded ships. Bombers and dive-bombers, with their attendant fighters, were thrown in to the fullest extent that local airfields and supplies permitted. To frustrate these attempts to prevent the evacuation, the squadrons of the Royal Air Force now concentrated upon protecting the Dunkirk area and covering the Channel crossing, while the town of Dunkirk itself, covered by a great pall of black smoke from burning oil depots and abandoned equipment, formed a sombre background to the struggle on land and in the air.
Throughout these grim and desperate days Bomber Command Wellingtons and Blenheims gave valuable assistance to the ground forces striving to prevent the enemy from reaching the beaches. No. 75 Squadron made nine attacks and crews reported good results on each occasion. Meanwhile the Ansons and Hudsons of Coastal Command were busy protecting the stream of small craft making their way to the English coast. They also searched for the helpless —the crowded lifeboats, the men drifting on rafts or in the sea— page 63 and, having found them, directed ships to their rescue. But it was inevitable that the main burden of protecting the evacuation should fall upon the fighter squadrons. How well they acquitted themselves in this task is best indicated by the heavy losses they inflicted on the enemy. During the period 27 May to 3 June the Germans, according to their own records, lost 189 aircraft, while British losses during the same period were 131 machines of which 99 were fighters. As the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force afterwards reported: ‘The embarkation of the force would have been well-nigh impossible but for the fighter protection provided.’
The fighter patrols over Dunkirk were controlled by No. 11 Fighter Group, which at this time was under Air Vice-Marshal Park. He was now 48 years of age and was just recovering from a serious operation. Nevertheless, he was not content to direct the battle from England but flew his Hurricane over Dunkirk to study the situation which had developed. On his return he urged that patrols in greater strength be flown over the evacuation area, but the problem was how to meet the conflicting demands of strength and continuity and yet conserve the slender fighter force for the great trial of strength over Britain which was impending. These considerations had restricted the first patrols over Dunkirk to single squadrons, with consequent heavier losses in combat. After strong and repeated representations Park was able to employ patrols of two squadron strength, and although this meant leaving short periods during which there was no air cover, casualties were reduced and there was a marked increase in the number of successful combats. The British squadrons were able to break up many of the enemy formations and thus mitigate the intensity of the bombing attacks on the points of embarkation. Inevitably many of the combats took place out of sight of the troops on the beaches, so that the effect of this intervention was not fully realised at the time. Yet fighter Command did succeed in achieving a large measure of air superiority over Dunkirk, and in so doing scored a notable victory over the hitherto all-conquering Luftwaffe. A few days later, in the course of one of his characteristic speeches of those days, Winston Churchill declared:
Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements …. There was a great trial of strength between the British and German air forces…. They tried hard but they were beaten back; they were frustrated in their task.
Many of the New Zealand fighter pilots who took part in the Dunkirk patrols scored successes against the enemy. Several had page 64 remarkable escapes. One day Flying Officer Ward had his Hurricane badly damaged in combat over Belgium. The gun sights were shot away and his starboard petrol tank was leaking, so he decided to land on a French aerodrome and refuel before returning across the Channel. But just as he began to glide down he saw two Dorniers begin a dive-bombing attack on the airfield he intended to use. Ward dived on the tail of one of them and gave it two short bursts, hitting it despite the absence of gun sights. The second Dornier escaped into cloud. Again he prepared to land but was almost at once attacked by German fighters. However, after some sharp evasive action he managed to get down. The damaged tank was now spurting petrol and the ground staff refused to refuel his aircraft as they regarded it as suicidal for him to fly the machine in that condition. Ward then seized a bayonet and opened out the holes in the leaking tank, emptying it, and then had the other filled. With insufficient ammunition or petrol for further combat he took off for England, only to run into a formation of six Messerschmitts a few moments later. He gave the leader a burst as he came down head-on, then dived to escape further attack and returned safely across the Channel.1
On 28 May Deere was leading his squadron on their fourth patrol of the day when they encountered 17 Dorniers. In the engagement which followed, return fire from one of these aircraft hit the oil system of his Spitfire, and while Deere was half blinded by smoke from the burning oil his engine seized. He was then flying at barely 800 feet over the Belgian coast between Nieuport and Dunkirk, so he made for a stretch of beach along which his Spitfire slithered, finally coming to rest on its nose. Although injured in the head Deere scrambled out of his aircraft, set it on fire, and began to make his way on foot towards Dunkirk. After a hazardous and eventful journey, partly made by converting abandoned cars to his own use, he finally reached that port and returned by ship to England.
1 Unlike many fighter pilots, Ward was not superstitious. His Hurricane bore a coat of arms of his own designing—a shield, quartered, bearing a broken hand-mirror, a hand holding a match lighting three cigarettes, a man walking under a ladder the figure 13, and under the shield the motto: ‘So what the hell.’
1 Wing Commander N. J. Mowat, DSO; born Oamaru, 18 Sep 1914; joined RAF Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF Jan 1945; commanded No. 607 Sqdn, 1941–42; No. 166 Wing, India, 1942–43; held various appointments India and ACSEA, 1943–44; commanded RAF Station, Peterhead, 1944–45; killed in flying accident, 7 Nov 1946.
Such were the engagements in which the fighter pilots were involved as again and again they returned to the battle area to challenge the Luftwaffe and make their contribution to the salvation of the thousands of men on the beaches below. Their efforts were not in vain, for the evacuation was succeeding beyond all expecta- tions.1 The harbour and approaches to Dunkirk and its neighbouring beaches were thick with craft of every kind, and as the battle continued on land and in the air above, the troops boarded their boats in orderly fashion. Some carried Bren guns which they tied to the rigging and used as anti-aircraft weapons. Others fired their rifles in defiance as the German aircraft swooped down on them. Ships were battered or sunk and there were casualties; but repeatedly, as the waves of bombers came over to attack, the British fighters broke in among them and drove them off or marred their aim so that their bombs fell harmlessly into the sea.
The protective patrols were continued until 4 June, by which time some 336,000 British and French troops had been disembarked in the south-eastern ports of England. On that day Admiral Ramsay,2 who was in command of the operation, addressed the following message to the Commanders-in-Chief of Fighter, Bomber, and Coastal Commands:
I and the forces under my command who have been engaged on the evacuation of the Allied Armies owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Royal Air Force for the support and protection which they have given to us. We are fully conscious of the severe strain these operations have imposed on all taking part and we are filled with admiration for the courage and devotion of our comrades in the air.
1 On 4 June the British Prime Minister stated in the House of Commons, ‘… a week ago I feared it would be my lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our history’.
The German Air Force now directed all its energies to the continuous bombing of communications, towns and airfields, gradually paralysing and undermining the defence. During the third week of June, as the collapse of France became imminent, the remaining squadrons of the Royal Air Force were withdrawn to England. By that time they had fought a vigorous rearguard action across France, through the areas of Rheims and Troyes to the region of the Loire. Finally, operating from the vicinity of Nantes, the fighters had covered the evacuation of the remaining Allied forces from the western ports of France. In all squadrons few of the original flying personnel survived; one Battle squadron, it is recorded, had lost its complete complement of aircrew twice over.
In the course of the brief campaign in France during June 1940, New Zealand airmen also took part in the operations flown from bases in England. Those serving with the fighter squadrons involved carried out offensive patrols and low-level attacks on enemy aero- dromes. They also escorted bombers on their missions over France. One particularly successful low-level attack on an enemy-held aerodrome near Rouen was made on 20 June by the Hurricanes from No. 245 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Whitley.2 Flying with him were Flight Lieutenant Mowat and Pilot Officer Spence.3 The attack was made by two sections, led by Whitley and Mowat respectively, a third being left above for protection. There were some fifty German aircraft on the ground and a considerable number of these were reported damaged and four left on fire. Targets in France were also attacked on every possible night by Wellingtons and Whitleys of Bomber Command, 27 such sorties being flown by bombers from the New Zealand Squadron during the first part of June. Typically, on the night of the 5th, seven Wellingtons were led by the flight commander, Squadron Leader Kay, in an attack on the crossroads and marshalling yards at Cam- brai. Two nights later eight aircraft were despatched to bomb individual targets: Flight Lieutenant Breckon attacked a bridge across the Somme, while Flying Officers Freeman and N. Williams bombed a road junction south of Bailleaux and Pilot Officer W. M. C. Williams a German convoy near Abbeville. Kay, detailed to attack enemy units sheltering in the forest south of Bailleaux, was able to identify and bomb road junctions by the light of parachute flares and then scatter incendiaries in the forest. They started good fires. Not content with this success, he went down and machine-gunned the woods to add to the enemy’s confusion.
1 The officer of Kain’s squadron who compiled the combat reports and kept a record of his squadron’s successes credits Kain with the destruction of at least 14 enemy aircraft, with several more probables.
2 Group Captain E. W. Whitley, DSO, DFC; RAF; born Epsom, Auckland, 17 Aug 1908; joined RAF 1930; commanded No. 245 Sqdn, 1939–40; RAF Station, Haifa, 1941; No. 234 Wing, Middle East, 1942; Nos. 209 and 210 Groups, Middle East, 1943; Fighter Leaders’ School, 1944; No. 58 OTU, 1945; RAF Station, Church Fenton, 1945.
During the last days the airfield at Nantes was crowded with a strange assortment of machines as civil and communication aircraft were pressed into service to aid the evacuation. There were similar scenes at other points. Many men also left from the western ports where the German air attacks on the transports were heavy. Fighter patrols gave what protection they could and were able to drive off many attacks, but one disaster occurred at St. Nazaire on 17 June when the liner Lancastria was dive-bombed and sunk and upwards of 3000 perished. A British pilot from No.1 Squadron reported the destruction of the bomber which hit the ship. The fighter pilots were, in fact, the last to leave, with the enemy vanguard almost within striking distance. On completion of the final evacuation at Cherbourg, the last Hurricane to fly over the town and harbour was, appropriately enough, piloted by Air Vice-Marshal Park.
Throughout the short compaign the British airmen had played their part well. In gallant, if forlorn, attempts to stem the enemy advance they had battled against superior odds in the air, reconnoitred and pressed home attacks in the face of heavy fire from the ground. The casualties suffered by the Royal Air Force during the battles in Belgium and France included over 600 aircrew, nearly half of whom were pilots. In addition it had lost, from all causes, over 900 aircraft, including 386 Hurricanes and 67 Spitfires, losses which the service could ill afford at this early stage of its expansion. On the other hand, the men who survived, particularly the fighter pilots, had acquired battle experience and confidence which were to prove of the greatest value in the violent air battles soon to take place over England.