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Episodes & Studies Volume 2



IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY there is a chapel dedicated to the memory of the men of the Royal Air Force killed in the Battle of Britain. The principal part of this memorial—the stained-glass window—specially commemorates the men who flew with Fighter Command. North of the chapel, a Roll of Honour containing the names of 1495 pilots and aircrew killed during the battle rests on a wrought-iron lectern. On the Roll are the names of 47 New Zealanders, 25 of whom were serving with Bomber Command at the time of their deaths. The Roll of Honour was placed in Westminster Abbey in recognition of the part played by the men of all commands in the RAF in preventing an invasion of England.

After the fall of France the Germans recognised that before any invasion of England could be attempted they must attain supremacy in the air. Without it they would be unable to escort an invasion fleet across the Channel. They knew, too, that the RAF could play a vital part both in repelling a landing and in any land battles fought.

To the men of Fighter Command must go the credit for preventing the Luftwaffe from achieving air supremacy over the Channel and the British Isles. It was they, in the great air battles page 30 fought during the summer of 1940, who convinced Hitler that the invasion of England should be postponed indefinitely.

But Bomber Command also played some part in forcing Hitler to that decision. From the time the battle was first joined, British bombers helped to reduce the weight of the air attack on England, both by raids on enemy airfields in occupied territories and by attacking the German aircraft industry. When RAF bombers visited Germany they often dropped their bombs on airfields if they could not find their targets; even if they had already dropped their bombs, they were sometimes able to destroy enemy aircraft. One night towards the end of August, Flight Lieutenant J. Adams was returning from the Ruhr when he noticed aircraft activity at the Nivelles airfield. He watched two aircraft land on the flare path and then, descending to 1300 feet, manoeuvred into position for his front gunner to fire at a third. After a few bursts from the twin Brownings in the nose of the Wellington, the enemy dived straight into the ground and burst into flames.

Early in September the movement of large numbers of self-propelled barges and small ships into Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, and Le Havre suggested that invasion was imminent. Practically the whole of the bomber force was diverted during September to attack these invasion ports. That much damage was caused to Hitler's invasion fleet there can be no doubt. Coastal targets are not difficult to find except when the weather is very unfavourable.

On 17 September Hitler decided to postpone the invasion of England indefinitely. There were many factors that influenced his decision. The principal one was undoubtedly the failure of the Luftwaffe to attain air supremacy: the great air battles of 15 September in which 56 enemy aircraft were shot down proved that Fighter Command was still far from impotent. Bomber Command had caused extensive damage to the invasion fleet and on the night of 15 September—which date now seems in retrospect to have been the turning point of the Battle of Britain—had attacked in strength shipping in ports from Boulogne to Antwerp.

Most New Zealanders operating over the invasion ports at this time flew RAF Wellington bombers, some of them from No. 75 (NZ) Squadron. On one occasion two aircraft from the New Zealand Bomber Squadron were required to drop flares on Ostend to assist naval vessels begin a half-hour bombardment of that port. The flares were dropped exactly on time and gave the Navy an accurate point at which to aim. Congratulations and thanks for the useful co-operation were received from the Admiralty the next day, and Flying Officer D. J. Harkness was later awarded the DFC for his part in this operation.

One of the most determined attacks made on an invasion port was carried out by Pilot Officer F. H. Denton,32 of Greymouth. The following is an abridged version of the citation accompanying the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross to this officer:

He broke cloud at 1000 feet and manoeuvred until he was in a position to attack this target (the docks and shipping at Flushing) which he knew was heavily defended. Pilot Officer Denton dived through a devastating curtain of light flak and machine-gun fire in a most determined and courageous manner, releasing his bombs at an altitude so low that the force of the explosions rocketed his aircraft several hundred feet in the air. Nevertheless, he was able to see large fires and explosions amongst the shipping and docks. He eventually, with great difficulty, brought his aircraft, with gaping holes through each wing, safely back to its base….