Billy Drake was one the RAF’s finest fighter aces, serving through the Battle of France, North Africa and Northwest Europe.

Cunningham was the founder of the desert air force. He didn’t really know what he was building up. Once again, and this is the important bit in my way of thinking. As a result of being involved in writing and talking to historians, I know we did in fact do the job of work with our minds. I am now talking about the leaders; your squadron commanders, because the Royal Air Force, and again I don’t make an awful lot of it but we youngsters, we were 20 years old, we gradually took over the running of fighter command; the running of the desert air force, the running of the tactical air force as youngsters we were promoted way above our due, because we were able to lead and to do what we said we’d do. Our leaders treated us like older sons.

You did have a terrific amount of responsibility.
And a lot of respect from our leaders and vice versa. I have been made aware of this by historians and by others. We should stop being so modest. We did a job of work. We’ve now realised that we fucking nearly lost the Battle of Britain; not through our inability, but through Hitler’s stupidity that he switched at a crucial moment from his main aim of destroying the air fields, radar and us, and switched onto London for 10 days.

..The invasion threat was very, very real. My research has led me to  believe that it was an extremely real proposition and that in 1940 you guys were saving our backsides.
Yes there was a real threat but cockeyed as far as the Germans were concerned. Hitler understood army manoeuvres and capabilities but not really the sea capabilities of both sides.

But he did realise you needed to have air superiority for an invasion. If he hadn’t beaten 5 command, he wasn’t going to be able to do it.
I mean we won the Battle of Britain, but only just.

Do you think the tactics were right in the B of B?
Oh yes. Keith Parkes was right in that he realised that the maximum number of aeroplanes he could get into the right position at the right time was a squadron and forget the big wings which Lee Mallory and Bader thought out. They were tactically completely wrong. So Parkes and Dowding had the right approach.

Keith Park was also brilliant over Malta. He showed his amazing tactical flexibility over Malta, what he did in 10 days put Hugh Lloyd to shame. Do you think it made sense to continue with the rhubarbs over France and all that?
I think it is a very pertinent point. In one way it was correct to keep at the Germans, but not at that price. We were losing the leaders and not the tail enders. And the boys were getting demoralised, particularly when they were asked not only to become interceptor fighters but to go in for ground attacks which they were not geared up to do. We were with the Typhoons because we were just going for these easy targets, but to just wander around.I was wandering around Holland and saw all these barges and because I’d been advised, I went for them, because they were carrying munitions. But I felt very shifty, blowing up the Dutch. There are so many factors coming out and there’s only a handful of us who can say boo, but they are all dying.

You are in an interesting position because you fought the battle of France, B of B and even by 42 you were pretty high up.
That’s right and involved in big decisions.

One of the things I am really interested in is the debate about why it took so long to get Spitfires out to Africa and the Med in general, and the Far East.
I don’t think we wanted Spitfires out there. They weren’t necessary.

You don’t think so?
The Kittyhawk was as good an aeroplane for the job. At the time we were not designed as an interceptor force, having to intercept at a given altitude, we chose our own altitude which was 10,000 feet and that was adequate. Also they had 6.5’s, very good guns. The Kitty Hawk, in an emergency, could outstrip anybody and get away with it.

Pretty solid gun platform as well.
Exactly. I don’t think the Spitfire was all that.good aeroplane, but they had to fly with the hood open.

In Malta the Hurricanes were really struggling against the 109’s and they were screaming for Spitfires and it took such a long time to get them there and once they’d got them there, they became a very obvious..they didn’t have Kitty Hawks or Tomahawks on Malta.
The Hurricane was fine for the B of B, because it was many versus many, but Malta was a few against a lot.

In the desert it must have been a nightmare of a job keeping the engines going with all that sand, but to a certain degree it is up to the person flying it rather than the plane that is going to make the real difference isn’t it?
That is a point that should always be remembered. I am asked time and time again, which plane did you prefer? I say I couldn’t have cared less. I was the man who made the aeroplane work, operationally. If I was asked which one I like to fly, that is a totally different kettle of fish. Also, very few people apart form the technicians realised that Vosper prong bearings couldn’t take the sand, and they were the ones in the Allison engines that were packing in. The Arabs didn’t mind a bit of sand! They had the MU’s.

Engine failure must have been so frustrating wasn’t it?
It was frustrating but

Did you just accept it as a fact of life?
Yes, well, you could land practically anywhere. It was just a question of could you get out. You had the Fred Rosey of this world who landed, through his parachute round, picked up the pilot and pulled him out. (This doesn’t sound quite right, but you’ve heard the story I gather!!) That happened about 3 times. You appear to be on the right lines and Shaw is writing a book on this subject.

By the time of the Torch Landings you see in the Western Desert that the RAF is really getting its head together. It had worked out its role; how it could help. Whereas in Algiers and Tunisia they are back at square one again, and it’s not til the following February when Connigham (?) comes in and Alexander takes over that they catch up. What’s interesting to me is that the American air force leaders are terribly receptive to British advice. The integration of the American fighter pilots is done so brilliantly in the Western Desert, and so logically and everyone gets on well; Connigham gets on well with Cuter and Dolittle, and gets on terribly well with Spats. They are all best of chums in no time and yet you don’t see the same with the ground forces; there’s Monty rubbing Patten up the wrong way; they can’t stand each other and raging Anglophobia from the Americans and vice versa, but you don’t see it in the air force.
I think that is a very, very, very important factor.

I am not 100% sure why.
It was respect. Americans of our own age group, our own background..as you know, they couldn’t give me the American wing.it was against.so they put 112 into the American group and the respect they had for us and our ability to fight and to fly their aeroplanes, the War Hawk or Kitty Hawk, they accepted leadership from me. I don’t want to talk about me but I did lead practically all the major operations for the first month.

I was in the States talking to a fighter pilot and asked him how he felt suddenly being told what to do by an RAF guy. He thought it was obvious, made sense, you’d been out there and done it and were experienced. It is obvious but it is funny how that didn’t cut across any of the other services.
One has got to understand the fighting element of any air force is something like 5% of the total. The others were bloody good chaps, but they weren’t fighting. Whereas in your army or navy, 100% were fighting. In the navy it’s 100% including the admiral, all in the same boat.

I know the 8th army was a pretty polyglot force but the RAF right from the word go was an international force. In the B of B there were Czech’s and Poles and Americans, New Zealanders and so on.
We didn’t make the mistake of making them into national.

There was that integration right from the word go so I wonder whether that fostered a more internationalist approach in culture.
Very much so. Until we nationalised fighter command into ethnic squadrons, there was a hell of a lot of rivalry within flights, within squadrons. You then got the integration of your Scots, you Irish and your English, personalities who didn’t shout the odds, but proud buggers, who thought ‘we’ll show them!’ I think the RAF’s fighting ability was far higher than when they were disintegrated. That’s my opinion.

I just wondered having this internationalist cultureyou’re more used to dealing with people from all walks of life and all nationalities and I wonder whether that made it easier for Americans coming in, messing together or whatever. Subconsciously you’d know how to get on with them in a way you wouldn’t if you were all public school boys in a cavalry regiment.
I think that is a point you’d have to be extremely careful with.you see the air force in 1939 was a public school organisation; you didn’t have the grammar school kids that eventually you had a year later with the RNVR. All the RNVR sergeant pilots were all from the working class strata whereas all the short service and your Cranwell trained pilots were all of the public school strata which was the class structure of the time. Which has since disappeared completely. You were brought up on the game of cricket on the playing field – what was right and what was wrong. It’s a very delicate subject.

Interesting – at the end of 1940 there were sergeant pilots leading the flight and leading an officer and being promoted.
They were successful. The reason they were sergeant pilots was that was the only way they could get into the air force at that time.

You have a squadron in the Western Desert and in it you might have a few Brits, a Scot, a Canadian etc etc, So when the Americans turn up, you know how to deal with people from all walks of life, from all over the place, so you automatically know how to deal with them.
Don’t forget as well that we were the first to have an integrated pilots mess.

Yes, that’s so interesting.
All your fighting people were together day and night in the desert.

By 1942
Whereas at home you still had separate

None of that in the Western Desert?
No. I’m sure it made a lot of difference.don’t forget that 50% of the Americans were West Point trained before they started to fly so they also had a background of elitism and a man management background.

Absolutely. I think one of the problems for the ground force commanders was that a British general would meet an American general for the first time and the Brit would subconsciously be thinking you have no battle field command experience. I have been in the North West Frontier, I have been in skirmishes, have fought on the Western Front.without even trying to, he’s going to have a superior attitude, that’s going to rub the American up the wrong way. You just don’t have that in the mingling of the air forces.
I ended up the war on Eisenhower’s staff and I saw a lot of this. The dislike of the Patten’s of this world to the Montgomery’s, because let’s face it, Patten was a cunt, but he was a brilliant tactician. One of my jobs was to keep the daily battle line going and I’d say “Patten.air forceChrist, give him another 70 miles because I’ve no fucking idea where he is. (Not totally sure if that’s exactly what he’s saying there.) The air force had its own outlook on life, all the air forces, so one cannot compare the air forces with the army and navy traditions which went back centuries; we were only 25 years old. We, I am talking about the squadron commanders, the wing leaders, we felt we’d won the fucking air force, (?? Doesn’t sound quite right??) not administratively, but from a fighting point of view and we were able to prove to our superiors that we knew what we were talking about, and that we were prepared to take the consequences if we were wrong. For example, Basil Embury, who was a great leader, said to me, and a whole bunch of us, “I probably had 20 major decisions to make in WW2 and I was probably right 3 times.

That’s very interesting. When you’re looking at this from a historical point of view, it’s very easy to say – ‘Oh that was a bad decision.’ But when you’re there in the thick of it, surrounded by sand and flies.you’ve got to put yourself in the position of the person who was there at the time.
I’ll tell you a little corollary of that. I was on one of the first staff college courses right after the war and there were about 10 of us who’d been demoted from group captains down to squadron leaders, and we had the so called directing staff who were running all the exercises and one exercise they ran was Cherbourg, and we did this joint solution to this and it was covered in red fucking paint and we turned round to the instructors, not the directing staff, and said “What the fucking hell are you doing? Do you realise that 3 of us were involved in this exercise for real and it was a great success and you have rubbished it and we are going straight to the Commandant. He was actually away, but the deputy Commandant saw us in the briefing room and told us he’d look into it. He was sacked in fact, and 3 of the directing staff were sacked on the spot. Oh, sorry, I’ve missed the point, most of the directing staff at that college were all ex-staff officers who had never been in an operation in their lives. Not their fault, but although they could write and spell far better than we could, their lack of tact was incredible. My brain was inactive for about 25 years because I had my own work to do. Firstly in the RAF and  when I left the RAF, I had to make a living, went abroad and so on, was divorced from RAF mates and it wasn’t until 7 years ago when I came back that I started to think about it all again. And for 5 years I thought, no I won’t write a book, because it was all far too personal, and to make it interesting, one has to make a novel of it. Although my book isn’t a novel, it is just a succession of very quick little essays put together by someone who could read and write, who was Shaw. I said to him, “You’ve got to get this out of me, pull it out, because my memory has gone completely, unless someone who knows what they’re talking about pulls it out. You’ve done your research.

Do you find you think about the war a lot?
I do, if I am triggered.

But you wouldn’t just sit there of an evening, staring into space, thinking about it?
No, I’ve got a few years left of my life. 50% of these fellows downstairs, all they can think of is what happened to them in the desert, old boy, what, what. And that’s sad. They ask you a question and it’s only because they want to talk about themselves. I talk with mates sometimes usually about people we knew. ‘Do you remember so and so?’ But on the other hand I am more than happy to get the brain cells working when I am asked intelligent questions, which is the whole point of this exercise.

Talking to these American pilots I’d say ‘Clearly you were bloody good pilots, but I never hear anything about sitting down and working out what the Germans were doing, or the Japanese. Were you aware, did you have lectures about Fokker Wolfs and Messerschmitts and stuff?’ They answered “Do, you know what? Never! It occurred to me only recently, why? You’d think it would be a jolly good exercise.
That applied to the Royal Air Force too. Until the various schools were opened like the gunnery school, the day fighter leader school, where people were lectured. I was taken off ops just before D Day having flown Typhoons against the noble target (??) etc and was sent to day fighter leader school which taught all the squadron commanders, all the wing leaders how to deliver bombs and rockets in Spitfires or Typhoons.

You must have had a pretty good knowledge of that by that stage.
Yes. By talking to the people, because they were the squadron commanders, over a drink or whatever, we’d give them our views on this, that and the other, but there was nothing formal.

You were Typhoons by February 44?
Yes.

I’ve got it in mind to do a book on Big Week. I’ve always really liked the Typhoons.
Great aeroplanes.

It’s so sad there are none left flying today.
They had a design fault which was a bit startling in that the spindle that operated the petrol and oil pumps was so small that it used to snap. Christ! It happened to me over Bromley with 24 Typhoons at 0 feet. Mind you, I was going fucking fast. I was able to pull up to about 8,000 feet and there was Biggin Hill. I had 2 heavy bombs underneath and in my own mind had a pre-operational drill of my own. I armed everything so I wouldn’t forget and there I was, no engine, 2 bombs and I had to make Biggin Hill, otherwise..and I had 2 bombs. Were they live, or were they not live? All the way down , and I had to land with the wheels up, and I was thinking this is going to be the biggest this is going to be the biggest fucking bang they’ve ever heard! I was all dressed to see Eisenhower that day. He was going to brief us on D Day. The MO appeared and said “Where’s the pilot? and I said “I am the pilot. They thought I was a visitor. Back to the desert anyway.

You must have had to learn pretty quickly when you got out there. It must have been totally different to the B of B days. You no doubt had to adjust quite quickly.
It was a question of adjusting because I had been brought up in the interceptor world, where height is everything, radar control, being spoken to by a controller, not in France but in ah.then the first we saw was a Kitty Hawk with fucking bombs on it! They had started using the Kitty Hawks as a ground attach plane, so one’s mind and upbringing for the last 8 years on by planes and Hurricanes etc was all interceptor work. Then here we were told to fight with bombs..

And srtafe, and hit other planes.
And occasionally be involved in air to air work.

But it was air to ground work first and foremost.
From the very beginning.

Did anyone ever say to you, “Right Drake, the situation is a little bit different out here; forget your interceptor stuff; the ground is the most important thing. Or was it just a case of – there are bombs on the plane; this is what we’ve got to do.
I was not given a squadron straight away; I was a supernumerary squadron commander to Mungo.

Was that when you were 128?
No, 128 was West (?) Africa. It was 260 squadron. We had a touch of indoctrination but Mungo didn’t know much more than I did, so we were taught the rudiments of how to aim a Kitty Hawk with a bomb on board

The basic principle being.?
To get as low as possible and the fact it had a big stick like this on the nose so it blew shrapnel all over the bloody place instead of making big holes in the ground. That and strafing.

Any practice at all?
No. The whole of my air force career in WW2 was learning on the job. Even Spitfires. It was  – there’s a Spitfire. This is the petrol system. Get into it! The same with the Kitty Hawk – the first time I met one was at Tacaridi (?).

A great way to familiarise yourself with the aircraft – to fly across Africa.
Christ knows how many miles. We invariably went out on flight strength or squadron strength.

Between 6 and a dozen?
Yes, and eventually 2 squadrons together only an element of that force was on anto German aeroplane duties.

Which was where the German fighters lost the plot a bit because they were still looking for other fighters and there was Marseilles and so on amassing these huge scores which was all very well and good but it wasn’t going to win them air superiority was it?
I’ve got a little bit of news for you – Marseilles shot me down twice.

Really?
According to this Vogel (??). But what he didn’t know was that I and all the 112 squadron were pissed in Beirut – we’d been given a week’s leave. He shot down, according to the German press, the leader of the Shark squadron!! But he didn’t! That was our involvement fighter versus fighter was to be prepared we were bounced (??) and we perfected this manoeuvre called ‘break, break, break’ – whoever saw the enemy first told the leader, if he hadn’t seen it, and we had 6 o’clock at 12,000 feet said “OK, I’ve got him and I’d say “Right, prepare to break. If I was squadron strength I would say to Red leader, the top one, 4 aeroplanes, “Look after these people. If it was a bigger formation than that, I’d say “Right, drop your bombs, drop your tanks, be prepared to take these on
So sometime enemy fighters approaching would interrupt your bombing mission, and you’d have to abort that and concentrate on getting home?
Yes and you had to work out whether you’d got everything or just send half the squadron.

So if you’re working in 4’s, presumably there’s only 3 flights per squadron.
That’s right – 3 4’s.

So, blue, green and white or whatever they might be.
And so, on the spot, you made up your mind what you were going to do, just lose 4 aeroplanes from the main task or forget the whole job and look after yourself against the.

Presumably the idea of a ground attack is to do pretty much the same role as a Stuka but you were faster, more effective and you had machine guns so you could drop your bombs and then go round and do it again.
And strafe, and look after yourself.

It seems very clear to me that by 42 you had the better of the Stukas, and they seemed pretty impotent really. There was that business on the last day of the Alam Halfa battle where they sent 15 Stukas and they were all absolutely trashed – too slow and too easy.
That’s right – I had about 3 goes at Stuka formations when I dropped everything and went at them.

The Luftwaffe had no sense of ground attack at all did they? They strafed but.
The strafed vaguely but

It was still the interceptor role wasn’t it?
They never did build up a tactical air force as we understood it, other than the Stukas. The Stukas were used all the way from Poland through to the Battle of France, their battle of France.

What does tactical air force mean to you?
Ground attack and to protect the ground forces and the ideal battle to see how effective a tactical air force could be was the Battle of the Bulge. For over a week the German army in the Bulge could do whatever they liked. We couldn’t operate. The weather was so filthy and then one day, the skies opened up; the Germans were suddenly dealt with by all the tactical air forces, the Americans, ourselves.and they were decimated, and Hitler had to give in because this had been a failure.

One of the times I think it worked brilliantly for the first time was the retreat from Gazzana, back to the Alamein Line. The work of the desert air force in that period, safeguarding the desert army

Billy Drake 28 July 04

People talk about the huge amount of sand & dust that was whipped up when you took off..
Oh you certainly got that. We had to avoid it.

How did you avoid it? By taking off in a line?
That’s right. The airfields in those days were just one big square mile.

I guess the one problem you don’t have is space.
That’s right. We used to take off 12 aeroplanes in a line abreast.

Presumably, the dust is behind you rather than in front.
That’s right all behind & if there’s any cross wind it could go into either the left hand side or the right hand side. It was no problem

Apart from the normal problem of having a whopping great engine cowling in front of you, it was perfectly straight forward taking off & landing?
Yes.

Presumably sometimes you were scrambled & sometimes it was a planned operation.?
Usually we knew what we were about to do. As we had no early warning, there was no question of standing by & being scrambled off so at the beginning of the day, roughly speaking we knew what we were going to do.

Would you still have to get up at first light?
Oh yes. Whatever the situation was we were detailed as to how many aeroplanes should be available at dawn.

So you’d be told that the night before?
Yes. We invariably knew what we were up to.

And as squadron commander, you presumably had a little briefing with the other 2 squadrons in the wing the night before?
That’s right. What happened was, we’d find out what was cooking & then depending on how many units were required, each unit had its own boss so as you suggest, I as squadron commander, would say ‘OK Smith, you’ll be available at such & such a time in the morning.’

And it was entirely up to you as CO to decide who goes when?
That’s right. I knew who my leaders were & I’d just detail them. No problem at all there.

Presumably when you’re being briefed on what needs to be done the following day, you were given an indication of the numbers required were you?
Oh most definitely yes.

Flight strength, or squadron strength or section strength or whatever.
That’s right, yes.

And that time you famously dropped your bomb on the pep talk near Beer Hakim, can you actually remember that?
Not really no! All we knew was the Germans were out flanking Beer Hakim.

You could see them massing on the ground could you?
As a result, after about 3 days we were able to protect the Free French for about 3 days before they had to quit anyway because they had by that time been surrounded & realised that Beer Hakim wasn’t the safest place to be & buggared off.

Having now written up most of the Gazala battles, the desert is a huge place, but from 8,000 feet & lower, presumably you have a pretty clear view of the battle field & I wondered if you can remember seeing the battle unfolding down below & concentration of vehicles & things.
Oh yes. We had a very good idea because as you can imagine any movement of transport one was immediately made aware of because of plumes of dust. You could see movements. You could see the goings on of dug in tanks for example & army units etc.

Could you ever see flashes of gun muzzles?
Oh Christ yes. Particularly if they were firing at you!

It seems amazing the British had the Panzer Army in the Cauldron & sat back for 4 days.
Well of course ground attack or ground support was in its infancy at that time & we didn’t have all those number of aeroplanes.

I’ve just been looking at the squadron book that was written & the amount of losses you suffered in June & July, aircraft particularly but also the number of chaps you lost.
It was something that was never really highlighted, the danger of ground attack.

Absolutely lethal.
It was a bit & it was becoming more & more apparent that not only did the Germans dislike us intensely for what we were doing to them, but we didn’t like the German too much for what they were doing to us. You had no bloody idea of what your chances were. Whether you were going to take on a well protected target with light ack ack & of course we were vulnerable for most of the time we were in the air because we never went above 8,000 or 10,000 feet & were therefore sitting ducks to any form of ack ack.

Let alone the 109’s above you.
There were those who went from air defence mode to ground attack..of course the desert Air Force were the first to go in for ground support in a methodical, professional way.

I think this marks an extraordinary tactical advantage over the Luftwaffe. You really see it, this formation of the tactical Air Force. For the first time, you got the upper hand; you outsmarted them. Especially with that leapfrogging of going from landing ground to landing ground. You had it down to a fine art.
You never stopped fighting.

There was a phenomenal amount of sorties you were doing in one day. That was more than the Battle of Britain levels.
And you didn’t have London to relax in.

Or pubs to go to in the evening.
Once again, we were all young & we had no bloody idea what was going on. We had a fair idea of how far we could go on & all of us from the top down to the bottom, including the medical officers, were well aware of the stress – the word was never used in those days – just worn out.

As a CO were you conscious of pilots who looked particularly knackered or washed out?
Oh yes & the MO.

And you’d try & protect them?
Very much so because we depended on them as much as they depended on us.

So you’d give them a day off?
Or if we found that Mr Smith for example hadn’t got the same threshold that Mr Jones had, we might say, he’s a bit dodgy, give him a day’s rest, & get rid of the buggar & if he couldn’t take it, then get rid of him.

Did you have that where you had to sack people?
As youngsters & squadron commanders, we had the power to say ‘this chap’s a bloody nuisance.’

Can you remember that happening?
Oh yes. About 3 times. It was what was called moral fibre.

And this was in the desert?
Anywhere but particularly in the desert because we relied on each other so much that we couldn’t afford to have a weak link.

So during that summer of 44 you can remember specific times when you had to send someone packing can you?
Absolutely & I had no compunction about it whatsoever. I said to one buggar ‘Twice you’ve turned in to me when you were told to turn away & I’m not altogether sure of you & I am afraid I’ll have to sack you.’ I took on the responsibility of telling them.

And that happened a few times?
About 4 times. Two of them actually turned round & said ‘Thank Christ for that!’

Presumably lack of cloud was a huge advantage?
It was an intense blue sky the whole time.

You can improve your odds in a dog fight but getting hit by flack is chance isn’t it?
That’s right. And that is why the golden rule on any ground attack, was you only attack once.

Straight in, straight out.
That’s right, or dropping a bomb. Having to drop a bomb meant you had meant you had to come in low.

Did you have a specific technique? Did you come in low & flat or did you come in at quite a steep angle when you’re dropping a bomb?
You came in at an angle of about 60 degrees & that was the thing, as the leader you had to judge what 60 degrees was. It doesn’t sound very steep but until you got used to it, it seemed to be a vertical..like the Stukas. The Stukas had the same problem.

And what height would you be releasing? You’ve got to pull out of your dive haven’t you?
Yes. You’d start off at 8,000 feet & pull out at 1,500. You get in as close as you possibly could without hitting the ground yourself.

The other thing I’m amazed about it the multi-tasking you had to do; bombing, strafing, tactical, reconnaissance, escorts..
It was second nature.

And you were doubling up quite a lot presumably – if you dropped a bomb, you might as well strafe on the way back.
Oh yes. Once again, it would depend entirely on what the target was. You didn’t waltz around all the time anywhere in their flack; that was just asking for it. It depended –
one had to make up one’s mind in a matter of minutes or seconds as to what you would do once you got rid of the bomb.

You developed a technique for dealing with attacks by other fighters, 109’s or whatever. As I understood it, it depended on how many were coming down & how large your own formation was but if someone spotted an enemy aircraft, you’d then let everyone else in the flight section, squadron, or whatever know. Whoever was leading the formation would then make the call as to when to break. Is that right?
That’s right. What happened was we had a primary role which was to bomb a target & the secondary role was to become an air defence organisation because they had seen a formation of German aircraft attacking a position & we were told to go & intercept & shoot the buggars down. You then got rid of all your unnecessary equipment like bombs & tanks if you had any & be prepared to take on a German formation which usually consisted of Stukas or Heinkels which were always supported by Messerschmidts, so you reverted to air defence mode which was old fashioned to us.

Even so, on air defence you’re going to have a disadvantage because you wouldn’t have height.
That didn’t worry us because we flew & fought at the level that the aircraft was most suited to & that was any altitude below 10,000 feet, so the 109’s always had the drop on us & our method of combating that – we were hoping that someone would see the fighter escorts in time for the leader to see the fighters & then make up his mind what he was going to do, depending on the number of 109’s that had been sighted; One’s own guess of the number that might be available apart from those that had been seen etc. Therefore our primary aim then was to get at the Stukas first. The leader would either detail a portion of his force to take on the fighters to allow the rest of the boys to take on the bombers.

So if they’re coming down towards you from a height, what’s the best defensive movement?
The whole object of the new formation, i.e. the finger 4, was that everyone had a bloody good sight of what was happening & whoever saw the enemy first, the fighters, would inform the leader, & he’d say ‘Thanks chum – I have seen them’ & he then made up his mind that priority one was to take on the bombers. If necessary he had to make up his mind that he had to detail a part of his force to look after the ones going in for the bombers or to decide himself that the threat was substantial & needed to be met & the tactic that we perfected there was provided that the leader had seen the threat was to tell everybody – let’s say it was 12 aeroplanes – going to look after the fighters & forget all about the bombers ‘OK I have seen them; they’re coming in & be prepared to break,’ & break was to just haul on everything either to the right or left & this was where the leader had to be absolutely specific & not with the words starboard or port. Some of the pilots might not have recognised what those words meant in a hurry & therefore I always used right or left.

And the trick was to leave it til the last minute?
That’s right. As the leader, I saw them coming in & I had to judge the right moment to get all 12 aeroplanes pulling as hard as they could, right or left, so that the 109’s would overshoot us.

Then do a tight turn & you’d be on their tails.
That’s right. It was then that each sub unit would take on a target & do whatever they could do.

Instead of having blue, red, green sections, you were now operating in sections of 4?
Yes, but as a squadron I still had 3 main sections which would be red, blue & green

But effectively there would be 4
So I could talk to each unit of 4 aeroplanes.

So instead of 4 of 3 it was 3 of 4?
Yes.

As CO your day is pretty busy but when you’re not flying what are the tasks you have to do? Did you have any time to relax?
In the main battles, you’re flying, having a meal, taking a little nap – I didn’t bother myself too much on the administration of the unit that was left to the squadron adjutant & he might at the end of the day bring me up to date with what was happening & the same with the engineering officer. My main job was to lead the aeroplanes & be responsible for what they were up to.

And new chaps coming in, would you take them up for a quick half hour on your own?
Yes. A new pilot would appear, not usually in the middle of a battle. If they did come in in the middle of a retreat, we’d try & fit them into a training programme but they were probably told to sit back & enjoy your tea. But normally speaking they’d come in after & then we’d go through a complete training programme with them over the next few weeks. But we wouldn’t expect them to fit into a battle formation & when I say we, I’m talking about the flight commanders. The senior sub leaders they’d all have the responsibility of flood the new boys as they came in. A lot of ground information. What to do & what not to do. What to be aware of. It wasn’t as bad as BoB time when we had youngsters coming in & we used to then say if they got through the first 5 sorties, they might get through the whole thing. We did our best. Even in the middle of battle, we were stood down.
26.23
the pilots might not have recognised what those words meant in a hurry & therefore I always used right or left.

And the trick was to leave it til the last minute?
That’s right. As the leader, I saw them coming in & I had to judge the right moment to get all 12 aeroplanes pulling as hard as they could, right or left, so that the 109’s would overshoot us.

Then do a tight turn & you’d be on their tails.
That’s right. It was then that each sub unit would take on a target & do whatever they could do.

Instead of having blue, red, green sections, you were now operating in sections of 4?
Yes, but as a squadron I still had 3 main sections which would be red, blue & green

But effectively there would be 4
So I could talk to each unit of 4 aeroplanes.

So instead of 4 of 3 it was 3 of 4?
Yes.

As CO your day is pretty busy but when you’re not flying what are the tasks you have to do? Did you have any time to relax?
In the main battles, you’re flying, having a meal, taking a little nap – I didn’t bother myself too much on the administration of the unit that was left to the squadron adjutant & he might at the end of the day bring me up to date with what was happening & the same with the engineering officer. My main job was to lead the aeroplanes & be responsible for what they were up to.

And new chaps coming in, would you take them up for a quick half hour on your own?
Yes. A new pilot would appear, not usually in the middle of a battle. If they did come in in the middle of a retreat, we’d try & fit them into a training programme but they were probably told to sit back & enjoy your tea. But normally speaking they’d come in after & then we’d go through a complete training programme with them over the next few weeks. But we wouldn’t expect them to fit into a battle formation & when I say we, I’m talking about the flight commanders. The senior sub leaders they’d all have the responsibility of flood the new boys as they came in. A lot of ground information. What to do & what not to do. What to be aware of. It wasn’t as bad as Battle of Britain time when we had youngsters coming in & we used to then say if they got through the first 5 sorties, they might get through the whole thing. We did our best. Even in the middle of battle, we were stood down. Our stress factor was x & was couldn’t be expected to do any more. As a squadron leader of course, I wasn’t so lucky because I then had all the administrative problems of either retreating or advancing

Did you have much to do with Mary Cunningham?
Oh yes, not so much with him, but with Fred Rosevere (?) who was his SASO & 1 or 2 of the other chaps.

Do you remember a chap called Tommy Elmhurst?
He was an air chief marshall but he wasn’t in the desert to the best of my knowledge. Cheddar (?) came across once or twice to see what was going on.

Cunningham seems.there was an amazing sense of morale & teamwork & spirit – that appears to be the case. Would you go along with that?
Oh yes, as I’ve expressed in my book & the talks I’ve done. The family (?) feeling between senior officers & junior officers was bang on & there was respect on both sides, or disrespect. I know of at least 2 senior officers who I couldn’t get on with & they didn’t like me either. On the other hand, Mary Cunningham I got on well with.

He seems to have been a good, strong, someone who led from the front, sensible.
The air force was won (run??) by us juniors because the senior boys were incapable in fact of leading or flying flat in an operational setting & they left it to us. As from the Battle of Britain onwards, it was we youngsters, & when I say youngsters I mean squadron commanders who were 21, 22, 23; we were the ones who formulated any doctrines & broadcast them upwards, downwards & sideways to everybody & really the Air Force was a large family, very much like cavalry units & we were respected, they were respected, we were got rid of if we didn’t see eye to eye with our seniors & vice versa. We got rid of one or 2 senior officers, but they had to be really bad.

Well thanks very much.