Saturday, 17 August, was a day of sullen overcast. On both sides of the Channel, Fighter Command and Air Fleet Two reported only reconnaissance flights. At the airfields the pilots, after nine days of frenetic activity, caught up with domestic chores. In a farmhouse at St Inglevert, near Boulogne, Oberleutnant Hans-Otto Lessing, aged twenty-three, of the 51st Fighter Group, was one of several writing home for the first time since the Battle began.
“My dear parents,” he wrote, “…At last I have some time to write to you … Of course, we have a lot to do every day … sometimes two to three sorties … usually we are in the vicinity of London—if you look at the map, you’ll see the distance between the French coast and Dover. With a flying time of 1? hours and air battles as well—and a fuel shortage—you can imagine how difficult it is to get back.”
For all that, Hans-Otto had one triumph to record. ‘Yesterday I shot down my fifth enemy plane … not very much if you think of the many opportunities we get, but unfortunately not every plane we shoot at falls from the sky … Another time I had very bad luck having got to a good position I found I had no ammo left, but one gets experience even in running away … my enemy plane was the hundredth of the group.
“The English pilots seem to get less these last few days, but those few are fighting very well. The Spitfires sometimes give us the most astonishing aerial aerobatic display. I watched with great interest how one tore about among thirty Mes without getting hurt himself. These are exceptional ones.”
Pilots of RAF Fighter Command in 1940
Regretfully, Hans-Otto Lessing brought his letter to a close: “Well, this is a short report—one would have to write a book in order to give the whole picture.” But this too had to be said: “For me this is the most exciting time of my life—I wouldn’t wish to change places with a king. Peacetime will seem very dull after this.”
Predictably, few pilots took time from the wheeling chaos of the combat to set down their thoughts like Oberleutnant Lessing. The way they felt was more often expressed in a casual aside, a verbal shorthand shared only by initiates. Those with few doubts shared the ebullience of Pilot Officer George Bennions of No. 41 Squadron at Hornchurch: “My God, life wouldn’t seem right if you didn’t go up to have one scrap in the morning and another in the afternoon. “The more introspective felt the same misgivings as Flight Lieutenant Tom Hubbard, of 601 Squadron, Tangmere:” We all knew it was like a game of roulette, backing black all the time. Our luck wouldn’t come up forever”
The few who kept diaries revealed little of the true emotions, in entries as terse as telegrams: “Had a scramble today but they went home,” noted Pilot Officer Eugene Tobin on 30 August. “Did some practice flying and we were lousy. Went to Andover and drank. Then home.” Pilot Officer Patrick Barthropp of No. 602 Squadron, faced on 15 September with a German armada stretching beyond the horizon, noted succinctly: “Thousands of them.” Following the afternoon sortie, he noted again: “Still thousands of them.”
Both sides were anxious to prove themselves, but the RAF were at first more conscious of their limitations. Flying Officer Dudley Williams of 152 Squadron recalled that before his first combat he had twice been allowed to fire his eight Browning machine-guns into the sea for practice—and barely ten per cent of Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s pilots had undergone more stringent training. Most, unaccustomed to sighting their guns, opened fire at 600 yards, then at 200 yards, a surer range, broke from combat. All had been schooled to fly in rigid air display formation, and to home in on bombers in one of four standard Fighter Command attacks. “No one had told us that was the most stupid thing on earth to do!” said Bob Doe, then a Pilot Officer with 234 Squadron at Middle Wallop. “… The change of tactics came purely by knowing that the one laid down was wrong … I learned that I had to fly an aeroplane through the gunsight; you do what’s needed to keep the gunsight where you want it.”
As Doe recalled it, his first victory, against an ME 110 over Swanage, Dorset, bore that lesson out. It was the first time he had ever peered through his reflector gunsight or even touched the red-painted firing button at the apex of the control column. It was then that the only advice his flight commander the Australian Pat Hughes, had ever offered him came abruptly back to him—“Get as close as you can and you can’t miss”—and in this moment he barely gave a thought to his adversary, the rear-gunner; hosing back fire until he baled out, only a thousand feet above the water And it was then that Doe felt ‘suddenly invincible’—although as a survivor he “retained the knowledge that you could be shot down very easily, and you’re always shot down by the one you don’t see.”
Another Spitfire pilot, John Burgess, recaptured the psychology of the moments succeeding the two-and-a-half minutes that it took 222 Squadron to scramble from Rochford: “You got that horrible feeling down in the pit of your stomach … and when you were climbing you still had that sort of peculiar tummy feeling. But once action started you were too busy and all you were interested in was avoiding getting killed or trying to shoot down the other aircraft. It was rather like a dare to some degree. You wanted to see how far you could go.”
An operations board of No. 609 Squadron during the Battle of Britain.
Flight Lieutenant James B. Nicholson.
Sergeant Pilot John H.B. Burgess, summer 1940.
without coming to any harm.”
A relative late-comerto the Battle, Burgess still developed by degrees a veteran’s psychology. “If you got caught and shot at and had to do a forced landing, you lived to fight another day … I think that the spirit of the successful fighter pilot was to ‘look everywhere’ and to never be intimidated by the number of enemy aircraft that were around because you didn’t realise at the time that they were more frightened than you were … they were mile from home, deep into enemy territory …if they were caught alone, they were finished.”
Every Luftwaffe fighting man would have echoed those sentiments. In the Pas de Calais, it seemed at times that the pressure was stepping up almost hourly. At Audembert, the new commander of the 26th Fighter Group, Major Adolf Galland, told his younger brother, Wilhelm, a trainee artillery officer, “Things can’t go on much longer like this. You can count on your fingers when your time will come.” Oberst Carl Viek, Chief of Staff to the regional commander for Air Fleet Two, remembered that no rest-days were permitted, no rotation of front-line units. The watchword always was ‘The last man shall go again!’
Other Air Fleet Two pilots testified to that sense of strain. Towards August’s end, few worried as they would have done earlier if combat was not joined; that anxious eye on the fuel gauge made things all too fraught. Oberleutnant Hans-Ekkehard Bob, 54th Fighter Group: “Blessed are they who leave space behind them, for they will see the Fatherland again.” Leutnant Erich Hohagen saw it more starkly: “The Channel’s a blood-pump—all the time draining away our strength.” Hauptmann Walter Kienzle, of Galland’s staff, remembered a growing air of unreality with each successive sortie: “You were only thirty minutes away from your base. You saw the planes on the ground, the bend in the Thames, the puffs of flak … and you flet ‘I don’t belong here’ “And Lieutnant Johannes Steinhoff, of the 52nd Fighter Group, a future Inspector-General of the postwar Luftwaffe, thought more than once: “The RAF seem so hesitant—perhaps they never realise how scared to death we are.”
The flimsy green combat reports flooding in to Fighter Command’s headquarters showed the punishment the pilots and planes routinely took. At one airfield alone, North Weald, three pilots of 56 Squadron had astonishing escapes. Pilot Officer ‘Scruffy’ Joubert, who was blown clean through the side of his Hurricane when his radiator exploded, mercifully pulled his ripcord just in time. Flight Sergeant ‘Taffy’ Higginson skid-landed at 100 miles an hour near Whitstable, Kent, and vacated his burning plane so fast he fell face down in a cowpat and broke his nose. Flight Lieutenant ‘Jumbo’ Gracie, joked for days that his neck must be broken, since he could no longer crane round in the cockpit, then returned from the X-Ray department white and shaken: “My God, it is broken.”
But all such encounters were the small change of battle, stories to be capped, in time, by any long-term survivor. For the chosen few there were apocalyptic moments, encounters which even the participants, in retrospect remembered with awe. Some called for a resourcefulness few men had realised they possessed. Flying Officer Jimmie Coward, of No. 19 Squadron, was airborne from Fowlmere in one of the RAF’s few cannon-equipped Spitfires, heading for a flight of Dorniers. Abruptly two things happened: his cannons jammed and his Spitfire shuddered all over Briefly he felt a dull pain ‘like a kick on the shin in a Rugger scrum’, then he saw his bare left foot lying on the cockpit floor severed from the damaged leg by all but a few ligaments.
To bale out proved no problem, but the agony of his foot spinning crazily by its ligaments spurred him into action. Floating to earth from 20,000 feet, he could see blood jetting from his tibial artery, vanishing in thin swirls below. Unable to reach the first aid kit in his breast pocket, since the slipstream had sucked away his gloves from his icy hands, Coward somehow contrived a tourniquet from the radio lead in his flying helmet—raising his left leg almost to his chin and binding the lead tightly round his thigh.
Within an hour of drifting across Duxford airfield, he was in Addenbrooks Hospital, Cambridge, where a doctor amputated his leg below the knee.
A few men unwittingly qualified for membership of the Caterpillar Club: those who had somehow made it to earth by unorthodox use of a parachute. One such pilot, David Bell-Salter; of No. 253 Squadron, was jumped by a formation of ME 109s, over the Sussex coast; struggling from a Hurricane he could no longer control, he was 1,800 feet above the whirling kaleidescope of fields before he braced both legs against the cockpit floor and pitched clear into the buffeting airflow. Before he had even pulled the ripcord of his parachute he had lost consciousness.
A Junkers Ju 88 downed in England during the Battle.
A captured German airman who has just arrived by parachute from his crippled aircraft.
A hundred feet above the ground, he came to, albeit groggily, to find himself upside down, hanging by one leg suspended by a single rigging line caught behind his knee. Above him the parachute was flapping wildly, and dimly he could see a long rent across its canopy—yet the speed of his fall, 175 feet a second, had stripped the harness from his body. Now the ground rose up very fast to meet him, and before he could twist himself into a better position, he struck the Sussex farmland so violently that he crushed several vertebrae, dislocating both shoulders and one knee, and smashed his right heel.
But how had his parachute opened at all? The ripcord ring was still in its pocket when he was found unconscious by two railway workers and hastened to hospital. Had the pack been ripped open by his aerial mast or by the tail of his Hurricane as he was swept away from the cockpit? Years later, Bell-Salter, a successful Manhattan import agent, had no answers to those questions: he only knew that he lived to tell the story.
A still from the 1956 Rank Organisation film Reach For The Sky starring Kennth More.
Other pilots owed their lives to the vigilance of others, among them Flying Officer Paul Le Rougetel, a daring, dynamic Channel Islander, nicknamed ‘Blackbird’. A Blenheim nightfighter pilot of 600 Squadron, at Hornchurch, Le Rougetel and his radar operator, Sergeant James Smith, were hit at night and forced to ditch over St Margaret’s Bay, Kent. Now their fates were in the lap of the gods, for while the Luftwaffe maintained a force of some thirty Heinkel 59 aeroplanes for rescue work, the RAF had only eighteen high-speed rescue launches to cover the entire coastline of Britain.
Although Sergeant Smith had baled out within wading distance of the beach, Le Rougetel had landed fully one and a half miles out in the bay. A strong swimmer, he could have easily made the shore, but on the pitch-dark night of 9 August, all unknowing, he was swimming out to sea. By degrees, a slow chill invaded his loins and he lost consciousness. Only by sheer chance did the tiny luminous dial of his wristwatch catch the keen eye of the Margate Lifeboat’s coxswain, Dennis Price, and as Le Rougetel came to, the crew were hauling him aboard, remarking “These RAF boys are tough. This one must have been in the drink for at least two hours.” For medical reasons, they next dosed him with naval rum, and Le Rougetel, for happier reasons, lost consciousness all over again.
Back at Hornchurch, the cold had so penetrated his body that the medical orderlies kept him packed for hours with twenty-four hot water bottles to counteract the paroxysms of shivering, but two days later he was completely fit again. Many years later he said: “Ever since then I’ve tried to get the most out of life because I still feel I’ve cheated and am living on borrowed time.”
Two men at least, on the afternoon of 15 September, took risks that later turned them cold to think about. Above Maidstone, Pilot Officer Mike Cooper-Slipper of 605 Squadron, felt something jar the undercarriage of his Hurricane and realised that the plane had caught fire. At the same moment, dead ahead, he saw three Dorniers closing in and came to a sudden decision. “I’ll ram them.”
A still from the 1952 Associated British Pictures film Angels One Five.
As he recalled the incident, his main preoccupation was to ram the middle plane; all thoughts of death and pain had completely passed him by. When the impact came, Cooper-Slipper remembering a former automobile accident, thought judiciously, “It’s quite different. It’s not a big bump at all. It’s just a swishing and a swooshing.” He was just conscious of his Hurricane’s port wing, catapulting away into space, but smoke had enveloped the centre-most Dornier and that, too, was falling steeply away. At 20,000 feet, ripping three fingernails from his right hand, Cooper-Slipper baled out—at almost the same moment that Pilot Officer Paddy Stephenson of 607 Squadron was reaching the same decision over Appledore, Kent. He, too, had seen two Dorniers approaching, too fast for the copy-book gunsight tactics approved by Bob Doe. “Well, I knew I couldn’t take aim at them and that in that case they would probably get me, so I decided to charge them.
In that unrepeatable moment, Stephenson became perhaps the only Battle of Britain pilot to bring down two German aircraft without firing a shot; rocked by the impact from the left and right wings of his Hurricane, he saw both Dorniers burst into flame as they spiralled into space. Then, with the realisation that both his port and starboard wings were severed at the roots, Stephenson, like Cooper-Slipper, baled out at 20,000 feet, to land with a force that concussed him against the high brick wall of the local lunatic asylum.
When a pilot’s oxygen feed jammed, it was tacitly acknowledged that he broke for home base. To climb to 25,000 feet without oxygen was to court disaster. But on 25 August, above the four-mile channel of the Solent connecting Portsmouth with the Isle of Wight, Eugene ‘Red’ Tobin, finding his oxygen supply blocked, still flew on in support of 609 Squadron. Thus, he too joined the select complany of those who had faced death as though in a mirror.
German Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering.
An aircraft identification guide for German airmen.
On that day he had broken all the rules, streaking in pursuit of one ME 110 he had already riddled with tracer—“Don’t follow them down,” veterans counselled. “Your own tail will be wide open”—and as he banked steeply at 370 miles an hour. 18,000 feet above the water, he blacked out.
In that moment the thrust of G was forcing him deep against the aluminium bucket seat, bending his backbone like a bow, forcing his chin downward into his chest. An inexorable centrifugal force was driving the blood from his head towards his feet, turning it to the weight of molten lead. For a second his brain was no longer working; his jaw sagged like a cretin’s and a yellow-grey curtain swam before his eyes. Then, drowsily, he found his head clearing, and he was flying absolutely level only 1,000 feet above the water, to return hastily to Warmwell and excuse himself, “I blacked out colder than a clam.”
In the warm smoky twilight of the pubs they frequented—The White Hart, at Brasted for Biggin Hill pilots, The Thatched House at Ingatestone for North Weald, the Black Swan at Monxton, otherwise “The Mucky Duck,” for Middle Wallop men—such stories were common currency. Expertise was freely traded because the lives of others depended on it. Never take off in wet boots—even at 35,000 feet your feet could freeze to the rudder pedal. A sliced potato rubbed over the bullet-proof windscreen was a sure way to stop it icing up, avowed ‘Sandy’ Johnstone and the pilots of 602.
An RAF Hawker Hurricane fighter of No. 145 Squadron at Westhampnett in the Battle.
Use your mirror to watch your rear like a canny motorist. They were not yet incorporated in fighter planes, but wise men fitted their own. Always see that the last fifty rounds in your guns were glinting tracer the sure way not to run short. In the mess at Hornchurch, newcomers listened in reverent silence to the dead-shot of 41 Squadron, Pilot Officer George Bennions: “You want to be slightly above them or just under their bellies, lad—dead astern, at two hundred yards range, and you just can’t miss.”
But, of course, you could miss, and in their heart of hearts all of them knew it: the ‘certainties’ were no more than whistling in the dark. To live through your first three sorties was to achieve some tenuous hold on immortality, but as Red Tobin always said, tapping the wings on his tunic: “I reckon those are a one-way ticket, pal.”
That was the way it was with Hans-Otto Lessing, marked ‘gefallen’ in the 51st Fighter Group’s record book, one day after his first letter home.
Fame is the perfume of heroic deeds.—Socrates
Ten of My Rules for Air Fighting
By Sailor Malan
1 Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of 1 to 2 seconds and only when your sights are definitely ‘ON.’
2 Whilst shooting think of nothing else; brace the whole of the body, have both hands on the stick, concentrate on your ring sight.
3 Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out!”
4 Height gives You the initiative.
5 Always turn and face the attack.
6 Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
7 Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.
8 When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as top guard.
9 INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.
10 Go in quickly—Punch Hard—Get out!
Little is the luck I’ve had / And oh, ‘tis comfort small / To think that many another lad / Has had no luck at all.
—from Last Poems by A.E. Housman
The gentlemen got up betimes to shoot / Or hunt: the young, because they liked the sport—The first thing boys like after play and fruit; / The middle-aged, to make the day more short; For ennui is a growth of English root, / Though nameless in our language: —we retort / The fact for words, and let the French translate / That awful yawn which sleep cannot abate.
—from Don Juan, Canto XIII by George Gordon, Lord Byron
Alone in the silence of the hour before dawn / I speak my sorrow. For now of the living None is left, none to learn, / To know of things hidden in my soul’s heart.
—from The Wanderer, anon.
It was no picnic despite what anyone might say later … Most of us were pretty scared all the bloody time; you only felt happy when the battle was over and you were on your way home, then you were safe … for a bit anyway.
—Colin Gray, Battle of Britain fighter pilot, 54 Squadron
His life was gentle, and the elements / So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up, / And say to all the world “This was a man!”
—from Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
An RAF Fighter Command air combat report from 15 September 1940.