It Starts

Probably no one in the world knew more about the operation of an air force fighter command than Hugh Dowding. Air defence and all the other aspects of the Fighter Command, including operations, training, research and development, and the myriad problems associated with RAF Fighter Command, had been his area of expertise for nine years when he moved to its new headquarters north of London at Bentley Priory, Stanmore in July 1936. By then he had championed and powerfully supported the case for and development of radar and the eight-gunned fighter. Dowding was an air defence expert. He had long disagreed with the widely held air force philosophy that ‘attack is better than defence’ and the primary emphasis of the RAF should always be on the bomber force, as advocated by Marshal of the Royal Air Force, and one of the original organizers of that institution, Hugh ‘Boom’ Trenchard. Dowding: “Trenchard seemed to have forgotten that ‘security of the base’ is an essential prerequisite. Since I was a child, I have never accepted ideas purely because they were orthodox, and consequently I frequently found myself in opposition to generally accepted views.”

Dowding was a perfect choice to run Fighter Command. He immediately got to grips with the staffing and equipment requirements, and the various other needs to get the operation up and running. Of the many deficiencies he found when he took charge: “The most crying need was for Operations Rooms at all Commands and Stations, with tables on which courses of all aircraft, hostile and friendly could be tracked …there was absolutely no establishment for the manning of any Operations room. In the silly exercises which were sometimes held in the long evenings of summer the [Unit] Commander himself acted as Controller and his staff had to man the Operations Room … these duties would have to be carried out twenty-four hours a day.

“There had not been any attempt… to represent our own bombers leaving and returning to the country. Everything on the table was assumed to be hostile.” Other problems included the vital Observer Corps, which was comprised of volunteers who were trained in the evenings after their workday and for whom there was no specific mobilization scheme and no authorization for pay. Another factor was the frequent refusal by the Air Staff to provide ‘friendly bombers’ for the training exercises. Among Dowding’s greatest needs was that of all-weather runways. He knew that one of his key airfields, Kenley, part of the Kenley-Croydon-Biggin Hill sector which would have primary responsibility for the protection of London in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz period, would be out of use for three months during the coming winter. Again, he faced a recalcitrant Air Staff which had brought in a specialist army officer who devised an airfield camouflage scheme for Kenley. The Air Staff objected to the request for permanent all-weather runways on the basis that they would spoil the camouflage.

Dowding was constantly guided by his unwavering determination to make ‘the base’—Britain—safe and secure. Better than anyone, he knew the scope of the threat facing the country in the form of the German air force, and all that had to be done to meet that threat, and how time was running against him. His needs were measured in men and aircraft, buildings and station facilities, and telecommunications equipment including the new, largely unproven radar. By the autumn of 1937, test results and RAF exercises had been encouraging for the continuing development of British radar, but work on the system down in Suffolk, Essex, and Kent, which was now known as CH, Chain Home, while well under way, was a long way from completion and real operation. To function properly the system would require twenty-one stations and about two years’ work to finish. Dr Watson-Watt was having to endure the same sort of governmental red tape and delays that Dowding had been experiencing. Desperately concerned and frustrated, Watson-Watt went to see Winston Churchill about the problem. A few days later the log-jam was broken and the twenty-one station project approved and fully funded by the Treasury. At last the urgency behind the project seemed to have been realized and accepted at the various levels of authority and the work on Chain Home went forward at a far more serious pace.

above: Luftwaffe Dornier Do 17 bombers leaving French airspace on their way to their target in England in the summer of 1940; below: Citizens of Portsmouth, England, who have volunteered to fill sandbags at Southsea Beach in 1939 to protect buildings in their town from the effects of enemy bombing.

When General Erhard Milch was invited to visit RAF Croydon in October 1937, he met several of the British air force figures of the time, but was especially impressed by the ordinary squadron pilots and cadets he encountered during his brief visit. “I could find no difference between your boys and ours—the same quality, the same spirit. Both the German and British fighter pilots had that same lightheartedness and bantering talk. They were really brothers by nature.” But another thought came to him in that visit. “England had the training resources of her Empire and I wondered what would happen if war came. In the Luftwaffe we had no experienced leaders.”

above: Three members of a Heinkel bomber crew during a mission to bomb a Royal Air Force Fighter Command airfield in England in the summer of 1940; below: A German bomb aimer at his work station.

above: RAF fighter pilots trying to relax on their airfield while awaiting the call to ‘scramble’ and intercept enemy aircraft on an incoming raid.

Milch’s concern was increased when, on his return to Germany to report to the Luftwaffe chief, Goering showed little interest. Goering had for some time been resentful of the growing prestige and enhanced reputation of Milch, who was becoming ever more linked with himself as the guiding forces of the new German air force. Months passed with Goering unwilling to meet with Milch. In that period Goering shifted control of the Air Staff, personnel, and the technical departments from Milch and engineered a series of key personnel changes designed to hamstring his number two, after which Milch informed Goering “It’s time I went. Apparently I have not done my job properly and I should like to go back to Lufthansa,” to which Goering replied, “On the contrary, you have done your job too well. Everyone thinks you are the head of the Luftwaffe. I’ll not let you resign, and don’t go and pretend you are sick. If you want to commit suicide, go ahead. Otherwise you’ll stay where you are.” Hitler then called and asked Milch to come see him and tell him about his trip to England.

In August 1938, Goering hosted a visit to Berlin by General Joseph Vuillemin, Chief of Staff of the French Armée de l’Air. The general was shown the base facilities that his host wanted him to see, and spent a day with the Luftwaffe’s elite Jagdgeschwader Richthofen squadron, Goering’s old unit in the First World War. Vuillemin was duly impressed by what he saw and the personnel he met. He then visited the Augsburg and Leipzig Messerschmitt factories to look at the assembly lines of the Me 109 and Me 110 front-line fighters and made a depressing mental comparison of what he was seeing, with the current French air force. He was treated to an air display at Barth where the latest Luftwaffe bombers and dive-bombers performed with remarkable skill and precision. The visit left the French air chief glum and wholly convinced that if war broke out between Germany and France, the Germans would defeat the French air force in no more than two weeks.

By late August, it was clear to those in Luftwaffe headquarters that the air force would be severely stretched in support of the army when it moved against Czechoslovakia, as the Nazi master plan intended. The prevailing view was that, should the British intervene, the Luftwaffe would be incapable of establishing an effective blockade and might well also be required to attack France then. There was concern that the Luftwaffe bombers, operating from bases in Germany, lacked both range and bombload capacity to effectively attack targets in England. The prime targets, they believed, were the key warships of the Royal Navy which, they expected, would be moved well out of reach of the German bombers. Thus, the most worthwhile targets left to the Luftwaffe bombers would likely be the fighter airfields of the Royal Air Force and the aircraft factories in the London area. It was a sobering realization for the Luftwaffe planners that they were, in fact, not really capable of the sort of strategic bombing attacks on England that might be required of them. The actual limit of their capability then seemed to be the tactical support of the German army.

Based largely on General Vuillemin’s report on his Luftwaffe tour, the French now were genuinely alarmed about their prospects should they have to face the full might and fury of the German air force. Across the Channel, the British Air Minister Kingsley Wood minced no words when he described the inadequacy of Britain’s air defences to that point. He told government ministers and the opposition that the German bomber force was truly threatening and, if an attack came, the British should expect to suffer upwards of 500,000 casualties in the first three weeks. Wood and the government officials were actually misinformed about the relative strength of the German air force at that moment. While Prime Minister Chamberlain believed—or may have actually known—that Wood’s information was exaggerated, he did not say so to his nervous Cabinet when they met to authorize him to negotiate with Hitler and, in the process, sacrifice Czechoslovakia. Regardless of the true bomber strength of the German air force, its intimidation value, especially in light of the far weaker French and British air forces then, was enormous and it greatly influenced the positions taken by both France and Britain in the September Munich Conference. With that infamous appeasement agreement on 30 September, Neville Chamberlain returned to Heston aerodrome, London, that afternoon, where he waved the paper with Hitler’s signature, and proclaimed “peace in our time.” There were palpable sighs of relief on fighter stations around southern England among the young RAF pilots who knew full well that, had they been called upon to go up against the Luftwaffe, they had only ninety modern Hurricanes out of the 750 Fighter Command aircraft then available for action. All the rest were obsolescent biplanes.

above: A German guard in front of the former RAF headquarters building in the occupied Channel islands in summer 1940; below: Refuelling a Dornier Do 17 bomber on a French airfield during the Battle of Britain.

The flaming wreckage of a Heinkel He 111 bomber shot down over England in 1940; below: a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter after a successful belly-landing in the surf on the Channel coast of France during the Battle of Britain.

Spurred by the military planning mistakes, misjudgements, and ultra-conservative attitudes of the British government of recent years, the Air Minister and his staff went to work immediately after the Munich Conference, to re-equip RAF Fighter Command on a highest-priority basis. Group Captain Peter Townsend: “By mid-December we [43 Squadron at Tangmere] had our full initial equipment of sixteen aircraft. The Fury had been a delightful plaything; the Hurricane was a thoroughly warlike machine, rock solid as a platform for its eight Browning machine guns, highly manoeuverable despite its large proportions, and with an excellent view from the cockpit. The Hurricane lacked the speed and glamour of the Spitfire and was slower than the Me 109, whose pilots were to develop contempt for it and a snobbish preference for being shot down by Spitfires. But figures were to prove that during the Battle of Britain, machine for machine, the Hurricane would acquit itself every bit as well as the Spitfire and in the aggregate (there were more than three Hurricanes to two Spitfires) do greater execution among the Luftwaffe.”

The Germans reoccupied the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland in March 1936. Two years later they annexed Austria and, in September 1938, they annexed the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, followed in March 1939 when they took the remainder of Czechoslovakia. On 1 September they invaded Poland, which action caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany on the 3rd.

Before the war began, the British Chief of the Air Staff, Cyril Newall, and his team had estimated the minimum requirement for Fighter Command was forty-six squadrons for general defence and an additional six squadrons to protect coastal convoys and the Scapa Flow naval anchorage in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. But on 3 September Fighter Command had just thirty-five squadrons, of which four had flown their Hurricanes to France, with a further six squadrons on stand-by for deployment to that war front. Now Dowding was faced with just twenty-five squadrons—less than half the number he required for the defence of Britain. He was desperate for the units he lacked and, when he requested an additional twelve squadrons as soon as possible, and the request was not granted, he was amazed when, in a meeting of 17 October, the Air Staff chief told the group that eight new squadrons would be ready for Fighter Command within the next two weeks and, incredibly, within the following two weeks a further ten squadrons would be formed. It was through his action that day that a narrow victory was ensured for the RAF in the Battle of Britain the following summer.

top: Members of the Observer Corps in their coast site in Kent; above: Junkers Ju 87 divebombers over southern England,

By November 1939, Hitler laid out his intentions. “My decision is unchangeable. I shall attack England at the most favorable and quickest moment. Breach of the neutrality of Belgium and France is meaningless…Victory or defeat! The question is… who is going to dominate Europe in the future … I have led the German people to a great height, even if the world does hate us now. I am setting this work on a gamble … I shall shrink from nothing and shall destroy everyone who is opposed to me …” A new Hitler directive of 29 November stated “In our fight against the Western Powers, England has shown herself to be the animator of the fighting spirit of the enemy and the leading power The defeat of England is essential to victory.” To achieve that aim it would be essential for the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force.

In January 1940, Peter Townsend’s 43 Squadron had relocated from Tangmere on the Sussex coast, to Acklington in Northumberland. Lacking the luxury of a resident snowplow, it fell to the squadron’s Hurricane pilots to improvise a way to clear a runway so they could fly. They pulled a door off a dispersal hut and had six men dressed in thick woolies and Balaclavas sit on the door while they towed the whole rig behind a tractor up and down the runway until the thick layer of snow had been thoroughly flattened into a hard surface.

No 43 Squadron had been sent north to Acklington on 1 8 November to fly patrols over the British merchant coastal convoys, frequently in the most foul weather Never had they been more conscious of that Rolls-Royce Merlin engine ticking over in their Hurricanes as they flew above the icy sea. If that great engine should quit they would be down in the freezing water floating in a Mae West life jacket, but without a dinghy, for they had not yet been provided. Their chance of survival was practically nil.

The crew of a Heinkel He 111 bomber of 2nd Gruppe, KG26 had been sent from their Westerland base on the Isle of Sylt to Schleswig in northern Germany near the Danish border, following a report of a southbound British convoy out of Sweden on 2 February. At Schleswig they were told to be ready to take off at first light on the 3rd.

above: Messerschmitt Bf 110 day\night fighters over England in 1941; below: Crew members of a Heinkel bomberwith ground crewmen on their French base prior to a mission over England.

The Lion Geschwader crew was made up of Fw Hermann Wilms, pilot; Uffz Karl Missy, wireless operator/dorsal gunner; Uffz Peter Leushake, observer; and Uffz Johann Meyer, mechanic/ventral gunner. When they were awakened at two a.m. on the 3rd, a big German snowplow and more than 100 soldiers were already clearing the three feet of accumulated snow on the Schleswig runway. The Heinkel crew soon turned out to help in the clearance. The latest report on the British convoy showed it to be heading south off the northeast English coast. The mission that day was to proceed to the convoy, intercept and attack it, and then shadow it to report its position and condition. It was a planned five-hour flight.

At Acklington, Townsend and the pilots of B Flight catnapped in their dispersal hut on the airfield. At dawn the Hurricanes were at readiness. A first radar plot was registering on a cathode-ray tube at Danby Beacon Radar Station. It was 9:03 a.m. The indication was some sixty+ unidentified aircraft approaching the English coast at a height of 1,000 feet. The plots were being read to Fighter Command headquarters and were relayed from there to 13 Group and then Acklington Sector station. Then the phone rang in the 43 Squadron dispersal hut. “Sector Ops here. Blue Section. Forty-three. Scramble base. Angels one.” In three minutes Townsend, F/O Tiger Folkes, and Sgt Jim Hallowes were climbing from the Acklington runway when their radios squawked “Vector one-eight-zero. Bandit attacking ship off Whitby. Buster.” Racing at full throttle, the three Hurricanes roared over the wave-tops in spread-search formation with Hallowes to the left of Townsend and Folkes to his right. Townsend was the first to spot the Heinkel, above and to the right under cloud. He banked hard right in a climbing turn. “Then I was firing. It never occurred to me at the time that I was killing men. I saw only a big Heinkel with black crosses on it. But in that Heinkel Peter Leushake was already dead, and Johann Meyer, his stomach punctured by bullets, mortally wounded. Closing in fast on the Heinkel, I passed it as it entered cloud—a vague black shadow uncomfortably close above. Then Folkes, the Heinkel and I tumbled out of the cloud almost on top of one another. And the German turned shoreward with a trail of smoke behind him.” Karl Missy had been shot in the legs and back. He continued firing his gun as Wilms fought to keep the damaged bomber in the air. He brought it over the high cliffs at Whitby, roaring low over the houses.

Karl Missy watched as the snow-covered ground, houses and trees grew larger, as did the many people watching the Heinkel ripping through telegraph wires, and then they hit and the big plane slithered across the snow heading straight for a barn. Townsend: “I too watched them from where I was circling a few hundred feet above. I could see snow and mud flying up behind the Heinkel as it careered across the ground toward a line of trees. Its right wing hit one, snapping it in half. Then it slewed around and came to rest a few yards from Bannial Flat Farm.”

As local police constable Arthur Barratt arrived at the crash site, he saw Wilms kneeling in the cockpit area, burning the aircraft’s papers. Some farm workers came up to the wreck and Barratt told them to look after Wilms while he and the others brought out the other crewmen. Wilms then managed to set fire to the plane. The small crowd that had gathered soon put out the blaze with fire extinguishers and shovels of snow.

When Karl Missy tried to get off his swivel seat under the gun, he realized how badly he had been wounded. His legs were shattered and he had to use his arms alone to lower himself to the floor of the plane, near where Johann Meyer lay in agony with several stomach wounds. Missy tried to help his friend, but instead collapsed on top of him. He was losing a lot of blood, but remained conscious and yelled to Wilms to come and help him with Johann. He managed to drag himself out onto the wing where he was able to slide down to the ground. Wilms dragged the body of Leushake out of the plane.

A Mrs Smales and a Miss Sanderson emerged from the onlookers and helped Wilms carry Meyers and Karl Missy into the nearest house. There they wrapped the German crewmen in blankets with hot water bottles and gave them tea and cigarettes. Soon a local doctor arrived and administered morphine to Meyer. Then he cut off Missy’s flying boots and put splints on the German’s badly wounded legs. An ambulance arrived to take Missy and Meyer to a hospital where that night Karl’s right leg was amputated.

The nurse that tended him in the hospital spoke no German and he no English, but he was grateful for the care and kindness she showed him. Then she brought him a visitor. The nursing sister told Peter Townsend that Karl Missy was very ill and she couldn’t tell yet whether he would live. Then she held open the door to the ward for Townsend. “I entered and, walking straight up to his bed, held out my hand. Turning to me, he clasped it with both of his until it hurt. But it was the way he looked at me that I can never forget. We had no common tongue so could only communicate as the animals do, by touch, by expression, and by invisible means. As he took my hand Missy had in his eyes the look of a dying animal. If he had died I would have been his killer. He said nothing and only looked at me with a pitiful, frightened, and infinitely sad expression in which I thought I could recognize a glimmer of human gratitude. Indeed Missy felt no bitterness. He sank back on the pillows and I held out the bag of oranges and the tin of fifty Players I had brought for him. They seemed poor compensation.

“Then I left Karl Missy and went back to Acklington and the war. Peter Leushake and Johann Meyer were buried with full military honors at Catterick. A wreath was placed on their coffins. It read, ‘From 43 Squadron with sympathy.’”

above: 104-victory German fighter ace Adolf Galland in northern France, 1940; below: Galland in 1967.

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