…When you go to Duxford the airfield, basically, ignoring any modern buildings is exactly the same as it was in those days. I was based there in 1942. In fact I joined 609 which I eventually commanded at Duxford. But all those aircraft you see lined up on the tarmac, which was grass in those days, it wasn’t tarmac — there’s one significant difference: not one of those aeroplanes is representative of what we had because they’re painted so beautifully. They all look like scaled up model aeroplanes. Beautifully finished. One’s not decrying that they’re lovely to watch but in our days they were matt paint, not glossy paint, no glossy paint anywhere and of-course weathered, battle-worn. They looked well used. At Duxford they are presented marvellously, their engineering is sound and there’s a few main outfits there particularly the Fighter Collection run their flying to a very high standard. They have very high quality pilots. The flying is very good. When you see them — one of the features of the Duxford Shows — is that they do tail chases with 3 or 4 Spitfires or possibly a Spitfire and a Hurricane, but tail chases involving zoom climbs, pulling the wings down tight, careening down across in front of the crowds and yanking in line to another climbing turn — that’s very typical of the sort of flying that happened when these aeroplanes were used in ground attacks. You are seeing something that’s fairly relevant.
…There is a tremendous amount of emphasis driven by enthusiasts and also hyped up by the media that the Spitfire was the thing. Whoever heard of a Hurricane? The Spitfire won the Battle of Britain it won every battle it ever fought. Well that’s a load of old rubbish. It really is the most awful rubbish. It’s standing history on its head. And you don’t really have to research very deeply to find that Hurricanes shot down more enemy aeroplanes in the Battle of Britain than Spitfires. There was a definite difference in performance if you compare a Hurricane with a Spitfire. Spitfire was about 30 miles an hour faster. That’s all it was. The diving capability was about the same. They both of them became difficult to control laterally in roll about 400mph. These days historians always go by the word of retired personnel who always claim that Spitfires are capable of 450mph in a dive. That’s what its design speed was, but its actual capability was limited to 400 because the airframe went solid at 400. It wasn’t practical to try and make it go faster. Hurricanes would do the same thing. From deck level to 20,000 feet, a Hurricane could out-turn the Spitfire with ease. It was superior in combat manoeuvrability. It was only above 20,000 feet or 30,000 feet where the Spitfire was superior to a Hurricane. So on balance there was little to choose between the two and if you selected the right area of combat for each of them you got the best out of them. Fighter Command with intelligence saw that the Spitfire was superior above 20,000 feet and could probably be superior to the 109 at altitude and the Spits were operated at that height. The Hurricane because of their extremely good capability at lower heights were concentrated on bomber streams and their main activity throughout the Battle was probably from 20 to 10,000 feet attacking the bombers and then tangling with the 109s which came in to try and defend the bombers. For that reason the records show that Hurricanes destroyed far more bombers than Spitfires. Spitfires destroyed far more 109s than Hurricanes. That’s because they were used intelligently in the right way. Nothing to do with superiority of the Spitfire over the Hurricane because overall it wasn’t superior.
J: Hurricanes could take a lot more damage?
They could yes. And they could shoot back much more easily. Because the rear fuselage from the cockpit right through to the tail end was fabric, ordinary machine gun bullets would just go through the fabric, knock a hole in it and then on the ground it was quick and easy to put on a patch of fabric and repair that particular bit of damage in ten minutes. If it happened in a Spitfire you’ve got to get your full metal repair outfits going, and put tin patches on and it was a slow process.
J: A lot more Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain?
Yes, I think it was at least 2 to 1. Twice as many Hurricanes.
J: Did you fly in a Spitfire?
Some people ask me this question in the same context and they seem quite surprised when I tell them that there were 22 marks of Spitfires in service between 1940 and 1945 and I flew every one of them. Most of them untested. And I know that the Hurricane was as good a combat fighter as the Spitfire in 1940 and that from 1941 onwards it became outclassed. The Spitfire performance was upgraded with more powerful Merlin engines which you couldn’t do in a Hurricane for structural reasons. Hurricane was at the end of its development in 1940. The Spitfire was at the beginning of its development.
J: Cockpit so small. How did you fit your wife in?
It’s the sort of thing looking back, one thinks how did it happen, but when you’re in your early 20s, and as I was at that time, you’d been doing 2 years of solid active flying against a very active enemy, and you’ve survived, you become very, very confident in your capabilities at that particular task. It never occurred to me that it would be difficult. For two reasons: on that particular day I was invited to go to a station dance at Pembury which was about 20 miles away from where I was stationed and came the day, I had forgotten it of course and the telephone went in my dispersal. I was the Flight Commander and it was Shirley’s voice and she said, â€˜How are we going to Pembury tonight?’ And I said. â€˜What?’ She said, â€˜You haven’t forgotten have you?’ I said, â€˜No of-course not.’ â€˜Well how are we going?’ And I said, â€˜Well, actually my car is not very serviceable at the moment. In fact it’s only got three wheels.’ There was a silence at the end of the phone. I thought, â€˜Now think quickly Beaumont.’ I said, â€˜Not to worry, you come over here with your night kit in a small bag please at 4 o’clock,’ — she was in the WAF, she was on the station – â€˜and we’ll go over there. I’ll tell you how we’re going when you get here.’ And then I got my Flight Sergeant in and I said I’ll want my aeroplane around about 4 o’clock, I’m going to nip over to Pembury. And he went out and took care of all that. So when Shirley came over she said well what are we going in. I said, â€˜That,’ pointing out the Spitfire. She said, â€˜Good God!’ I told the flight sergeant to have the parachute taken out and the seat because the point was you couldn’t put Shirley in and parachute and me on top of that because my head would be sticking right out of the aeroplane. So I said we’ll take the parachute out. All the airmen were having convulsions about this and I told them to shut up rather abruptly in a stern sort of Flight Commanders voice and I popped Shirley into the cockpit and she said â€œwhere are you going to sit? I said, â€˜On you!’ And I said, â€˜You have to get right down in the seat there, sit well back. It’s no good strapping yourself in because if we have to get out in a hurry you’d probably find it a bit difficult and anyway I shall be in front of you. Any problems?’ And she said, â€˜Well where are you going to sit?’ I said, â€˜On your knees.’ And we sorted that out. And to cut a long story short, this wasn’t the first time. About a month or two previously I’d flown the station catering officer over to another base in West Wales: Pembury for an official visit. He was going over to do the catering. And I’d done that because I’d learnt through the bush telegraph that this had been done in the western desert where a chap had been shot down in a Hurricane and one of his mates landed on the flat desert alongside him, picked him up, threw the parachute out and shoved him in the cockpit and flew him back to base. And I though well if they can do it I can do it. So I’d done it on that occasion and hadn’t got into any trouble. I wouldn’t have got into any trouble on this occasion with Shirley. But it was one of those occasions when fate turns against you because I got her over to Pembury. It was quite breezy and of-course you couldn’t discuss anything with each other because she wasn’t wearing a helmet. I had to have a helmet to keep in touch with the radio but she was all right. She wasn’t going to fall out of the aeroplane because I was sitting on her. And she had a great thrill. And I landed at Pembury, taxied in, got out with the engine still running, helped her out of the cockpit down onto the floor and said see you tonight, I’ll be back about 6 and off she went, and I taxied out. By then sitting on the floor of the seat with no parachute in it so I had the seat right up to its fullest adjustment in order to be able to see. It wasn’t terribly easy but I had strapped myself in loosely because with all the suction of the wind all the way round, you were liable to get pulled out when you opened the cockpit. But as I was able to sit low down I was able to close the cockpit canopy and then I made my next mistake. While she was still in sight somewhere near the air traffic building I pulled the Hurricane round in a tight turn and did a diving pass across the front of the air traffic building just to wave her goodbye and apparently the Station Administrative Officer was visiting air traffic and he witnessed it and that started a chain of official investigations which ended up on the desk of the CinC of training: violations of rules by a pilot from Fighter Command. The CinC of training command pushed this stuff over to the CinC of Fighter Command and he was extremely embarrassed. Very angry and I ended up under open arrest and I was subsequently court-martialled. Quote properly. But in the meantime I got posted to Cornwall for a period, I think they called them a rest period, to go to do test flying and soon after I arrived this summons to appear before court martial turned up so I went to my chief test pilot and said, â€˜Look, I’m afraid I’m going to have to be away for a couple of days, sorry about this’, and showed him this. And he said, â€˜What the hell have you been up to?’ So I told him what I’d been up to. He said, â€˜Oh well, it’s been done before, you’ll get away with that all right. Well I didn’t get away with it but that was how that story developed.
J: Didn’t seem to hold you up for too long.
Oh no, its the way things happen in wartime. Nobody took life so seriously. After 50 years of peace, every possible thing that happens in this country is investigated, over-exaggerated, hyped up, people sued for everything. In those days it was an incredibly casual life, and this business of flying a girl in a Hurricane was one of the biggest laughs of the century. Everybody enjoyed it. They even enjoyed my court martial. We had a great party. And while this was going on I received acting promotion and when I left I was promoted to Squadron Leader to command the squadron so it didn’t hurt my career in any way. There again, that’s another subtle thing. When this whole thing arose and started to reach official investigation proportions, I, as a young Flight Lieutenant, felt â€˜Oh my giddy aunt, here am I in a responsible position. Now I’m going to be court martialled. That’s the end of any future in the airforce for me.’ And then I thought, â€˜Well to hell with that. None of us has got any future in the airforce. We’re not going to last more than a month or a year at the most.’ It didn’t matter.
[break in tape followed by discussion of collection of model aircraft]
…I’m just publishing a new book and I listed at the end of it in the appendices all the test flights and type variants that I’ve flown and the first flights, so on, and it came to five major prototypes and 16 type variants, so 21 first flights.
J: in Hurricane pulling canopy back and forth, running on little runners. Difficult if trying to get out at speed.
That would have been a canopy that hadn’t been properly adjusted. Let’s face it, its now 50, 60 years on and the chaps who are handling these things have got no background of experience of the sort of snags, and that level would probably be a canopy that’s been bent at some stage or been mishandled when it was being assembled, got a strain in it somewhere and it hasn’t been corrected. We never had any problems. I never had a canopy jam on me in 800 hours of Hurricane flying. About half of that in the Royal Air Force and the other half at the factory.
J: France. You got out there winter 1939?
J: what were living conditions in Lille?
Living quarters? Appalling. Absolutely appalling. This was one of the most extraordinary things. There we were at the beginnings of what was going to be a chaotic war. We were the only 4 Hurricane squadrons sent out to France to help our allies the French and the French offloaded us in accommodation that they wouldn’t live in. That was the way it was. We were in an extremely rudimentary airfield. All grass for a start but mud by the time I got there. It was in the winter. And it became such a quagmire that eventually we had to fly our aeroplanes/Hurricanes out of it down the only road on the airfield because the field itself was such a mud-bath and go down to Le Touquet where there was a dry airfield. But the living accommodations were wooden huts which had probably been built in WWI. Whether they’d been occupied since then I don’t know, but they were extremely damp, holes in the roof, the wind came through from outside and went straight through and extremely cold and that was an excessively cold winter. We suffered from the weather conditions. We were never warm. You couldn’t get dry when you got wet. The first half of that winter was slush, continuous wet snow and slushy mud on the ground. Then it turned a very hard freezing and became like concrete and we started — after 2 or 3 months of this — we started to go down with infections. We got to a point where half of our pilots were off sick and I went down and I got, I don’t know what it was — in those days the medic didn’t tell you what was wrong with you — I was sent down to base hospital in Dieppe in an ambulance train. I can’t remember whether it was pleurisy or not but we all suffered from those sort of illnesses. But then when we were sent down to Le Touquet life was very different because we lived in a nice little hotel and we soon got to know the local people and we had a great active social life. Le Touquet was a very pretty coastal resort then, probably is today, and PG Woodehouse, the famous novelist, had an enormous — to us it looked enormous — chateau in wooded ground between our airfield and Le Touquet and he made his number with us or vice versa and we became regular guests at his place. And he was a very understanding sort of character. Rather softly spoken. Fatherly character to us. He seemed to think that the young pilots needed all sorts of entertainment and entertainment especially one particular sort and he invited these beautiful girls and we had a fine time. We didn’t do much flying but I had my first combat. Our main job at Le Touquet was to try to intercept the daily weather reconnaissance Luftwaffe flight. It used to come down the channel obviously reconnoitring the channel ports. They always flew high and we were there to try and intercept them and I was lucky enough to be on the first operation that was successful and we went off on a very wet morning. Went straight up into cloud which was quite an exciting exercise because we didn’t have proper radar, it was two-way radio conversation, and we had a few steerers from our ground control to tell us which direction to go in and after we’d been flying flat out for about 5 or 6 minutes I suddenly saw something leaving wisps of smoke trail, condensation trail against the blue sky. And as we closed towards it, it turned out to be the elliptical wing of a Heinkel going north as fast as it could and I think we got within firing range at about 18,000 feet by which time the Heinkel rear gunner was firing tracers at us, so this was my first experience of combat with lines of feathery smoke coming down towards us. It was interesting. It didn’t look particularly frightening. I suddenly realised that actually these were bullets and they were supposed to be aimed at me but they were going past me overhead. And then my section leader, an Australian, opened fire on the Heinkel, which immediately pushed its nose down which dived trailing black smoke and I never got a shot at him. My section leader had done that. And he dived into cloud and we didn’t see him again it was claimed as a probable. So that was an exciting morning. So that was a good cause for starting the evening’s party at around about 12 o’clock that morning.
J: Lot of drinking?
A lot of partying. Never excessive drinking. We were at an age that as far as I was concerned, a pint and a half of beer and I was well away. So that it didn’t have to be excessive. There was quite a lot of partying. It was controlled by the CO who took a very eagle eye for anybody who didn’t appear to be fit for flying the following morning and the chaps would always protest if they’d got a hangover: â€œI’m perfectly fit, no problems at all. But our CO had been around. He was an experienced chap. He said â€œwell you’re not flying today and don’t do it again. And so we were controlled in that sense. Then we were moved down to near the Maginot line, a place called [S?] in May, beginning of May, and we started to do operational sorties along the frontier with Germany and that was exciting because we always had to be in the air. No. 1 squadron, which was the other squadron down there, had been in action. We never actually saw any but we had a couple of exciting tussles with Morane fighters of the L’Armee de L’Air who were totally convinced we were the enemy as we were of them. But nobody got hurt. And we were under canvas in a wood. At the side of a very soggy airfield. But it was quite exciting being there because you felt you were very near the enemy and there were distractions. We found after we’d been there a couple of nights, there were rather extraordinary noises going on, we found that our tented site in the middle of this wood was already occupied by wild boar. So we used to go out looking for wild boar with service Lee Enfield Rifles and we did an occasional patrol. But then on May 10th I remember very vividly I was in my tent about five o’clock in the morning. I wasn’t on dawn — there were another pair of chaps up in the airfield sitting in their cockpits — and about five o’clock in the morning there was a series of enormous explosions, noises going on, and we were under attack by low flying Dorniers. And that’s when the big battle started. And our chaps were successful that morning. But I wasn’t because I wasn’t flying. I’d gone down with stomach bug. I think living under canvas in conditions like that — I don’t suppose our cooks had had any training in hygiene, preparing food and French water’s dodgy anyway — and we all started going down with stomach bugs. So I missed the first few days but my squadron had a number of combats on the first day and also on the second day. And I went up to see the squadron medical officer in a car up from the area around Metz along the frontier with Luxembourg until we reached Valenciennes which was under attack by Stukas. That was the first time I’d seen warfare really. Enormous amount of rubble and smoke and stuff. The attack had gone by. And we negotiated ourselves all right and went back to our airfield which was at Lille and we found that two other squadrons from Lille — we had actually been posted to a place called Lille Marc, a grass airfield between Lille and [?] — and when I got there I found the squadron was already there. Very excited. They believed they had shot down quite a large number of aeroplanes in the first two days of the war: probably something like a dozen. We’d lost one or two of our chaps and I started my activity the following day…
J: Do you remember what you were thinking?
All I could think about at that time was the awful frustration and even shame of being stuck on the ground with sickness when what we had all been waiting for, the opening of the fighting battle, had started. There was a war going on, and my friends and colleagues were flying every day, coming back, or not coming back from fierce combat, and there was I on the couch with sickness and expressly forbidden to fly. I think that’s the only thought, feelings and emotions I had at that time was I’ve got to get it, I’ve got to get through this somehow. I must get back into it and join the guys in the operations, and in fact I did that as soon as I could. Tremendous pressure, a real fighting war was on and we were billeted, pilots were billeted in a commandeered villa. It was a nice place actually, it would make a nice holiday home for someone. And we got out the folding camp beds which we all had which were pretty good to sleep on and at that age you can sleep on anything and after my first night there all the chaps had gone down and I’d been told to report to the MO who was quartered in another house and I began to sense that the situation wasn’t under close regular control and so I hitched a lift in transport, a three ton truck I think, that was outside our mess and went down to where the squadron was: our dispersal was in a ditch alongside of this grass airfield and our communications was a field telephone that you made contact with by winding a handle and all the guys were sitting on the edge of this ditch wondering what was going to happen next.
J: So there was no cover?
No cover at all. It was just the aeroplanes were lined up and pilots and ground crews were sitting on the ground or in the ditch. And I arrived and my Flight Commander said, â€˜I thought you were on sickness.’ â€˜Oh yes that’s over,’ — which it wasn’t – and he looked at me and he said, â€˜Well you’d better go and fly that one.’ That was LKL – and an hour or two later we got the scramble order and in fact, I think the target area was Brussels or somewhere close to Brussels. I remember now what we were going to do: we were alerted by our operations that there was an expected attack on the bridges as Maastricht and we were to go and try and interfere with that. And so I went off to find No.2 crew, my Flight Commander on my flight wing, very conscious of the fact that it probably hadn’t been very wise of me to go down to the flights that morning because I was feeling distinctly unwell and of course with a stomach complaint your vision tends to be…I was having quite a difficulty judging my distance, my level, and when you’re flying in formation in a Hurricanes or anything else, you’re flying at X number of 100 miles an hour with your wing tips only 3 or 4 feet from the wing tips of the other chap and poor vision doesn’t help. So I was conscious of this. And then I started to think, â€˜My God, if we get into action, how on earth am I going to be able to cope, feeling as I do?’ And then I’d forgotten that because right across in front of us from left to right I suddenly saw a string of aircraft and they were a different colour from any aeroplanes in the RAF. They were mainly a grey white and then I saw twin fins and I though it must be Dorniers, D 215s. And then my Flight Commander called â€œtarget ahead, come on you chaps or something, no tactics at all, he just continued on the line we were flying because these bombers were actually crossing us from left to right at our level and all we had to do was continue on our track until we joined in. And then my section leader started opening fire. At that time I was conscious that all these multi-aeroplanes would probably cross us all. I thought to myself â€œwe’re in combat and I managed to remember to turn my gun button to fire, got my gun sight set up with the right sort of range and as my Flight Commander started to fire I automatically concentrated on manoeuvring my Hurricane onto a line which would allow me to open fire without hitting him in front of me. There were so many Dorniers. I don’t know, there were probably about 20 of them. So there was no difficulty finding a target and I ruddered my gun sight onto one of these Dorniers coming in from about, I suppose three from the stern on the rear quarter, coming in and so I opened fire on this thing and that was the first time I’d seen tracers pumping forward out of my own machine, so that was exciting. And even more exciting when these wavy lines of smoke started to converge on this big aeroplane ahead and then instantly you can’t pursue this because you’re going to hit the damn thing and you’ve got to now take avoiding action and then the thought was if you take avoiding action left there’s another Dornier there, right there’s another Dornier there, where the hell do you go? And anyway this was all over in seconds. Being as I was then, a novice, I didn’t chalk it up properly so I don’t know what happened to the Dornier. I didn’t stay with it after firing my first burst at it. I selected the only space between this Dornier and the next one to dive through and away and then pulled up and looked back to see what was going on. Because I realised it was then my duty to get back into the combat. And the problem was sorted out really because one of these Dorniers, probably from the back of the formation came slanting across my front. I hadn’t seen him. He came across my front, only about 200, 300 yards away. He looked very big. I thought that’s the way. And I rolled my Hurricane back after him and started to attack him directly from stern and up to that point, again being a complete novice, I’d never thought of looking behind although I’d always been told that you should always be aware of what’s going on behind, and I suddenly became alerted to something I hadn’t seen before and I didn’t know what it was, because there was a feathery line of grey going on between me, my cockpit and the roundel on my starboard wing. And I thought where the hell has that come from and that was an ME 110 twin-engine fighter up my backside busily pumping all he had at me and missing. And when I saw him, I skidded my Hurricane, looked back over my right shoulder. There was this 110 with his guns actually flashing, firing at me and missing. And that put me off my stroke with this Dornier and I rolled away from the 110 behind me and dived for 1,000 feet or so, pulled back up and I turned to the right again. I’d lost the 110, but in front of me I could see, quite a long way away, I could see a twin engine, twin-finned aeroplane, streaming smoke, what looked like smoke, it might have been fuel. It might have been the Dornier I’d been shooting at, I’ve no idea, anyway it was another one. And he was diving away to the north-east. He was on his way home in a hurry. And I thought, â€˜Right, well, I’ll do something about this,’ and I hurried in and settled down to chase him and I was catching him because I think one of the Dornier’s engine was hit and he was slowing and I started to catch him and probably too far away because I was filled with excitement I started to fire at him, allowing quite a lot of vertical deflection. I was probably 400 yards away or more. It was too far really. And I went on firing till my ammunition ran out and he was going down steeply, and I didn’t see what happened to him because there was a layer of cloud. And by that time I realised I had no ammunition in what was a very hostile sky over France and I thought, self-preservation. I turned roughly onto south-westerly and started to lose height. And then I thought now this area’s very hostile, I know there’ve been Messershmitts in the area. When I’m around about 10,000 feet and descending and an obvious target to anyone, I thought I’ll go right down to the deck and then I’ll peter off home. I went down to low level. I thought right there must be something near Brussels. My brain was beginning to work about that time, I started to work on a course that would take me back to my base in Lille. Again, a second time in this flight, feathery lines started to appear between my cockpit and the right wing and then I was horrified to see an enemy plane or something very close behind me making some very good shooting. But at that moment he hadn’t hit me. And I jammed the aeroplane to its full throttle, large amount of rudder, slid my canopy back for a good look, turned round and there behind me, very close, much too close, there was a whacking great Dornier. One of these cheeky German bastards decided he was going to chase a Hurricane with his Dornier! And he was shooting, pumping tracer at me at really very close proximity. This was an indication, I think, of the very high morale, and the capability of the Luftwaffe at that time. Many of whom were experienced in air warfare, which we weren’t. So there was this Dornier after me, flat out, pumping away with his front gun. And I thought, â€˜What the hell can I do about this?’ Then I thought, â€˜Hold on, a Hurricane can out-turn a Dornier – or it should be able to,’ so I yanked the Hurricane into a very tight turn, as tight as I could fly it — this is all done around 2 or 300 feet just above the fields — and I pulled it round very, very tight, and I pulled the tit. We had an emergency override on the Merlin engines which allowed you to increase the boost by about 2 and a half pounds for short limited periods and get more power from the engine and we used to call it pulling the tit. I pulled the tit and felt the Hurricane jump and after about half a full turn I started to see this Dornier in its rear quarter. I turned inside him. And I continued to turn right inside him until I was in position to line up and shoot at him. But then I thought, â€˜Well, I haven’t got any ammunition.’ And while I was thinking about this I was getting closer now to him and his rear gun started to open fire on me. Two of us: bloody great Dornier in a vertical bank, Hurricane in a vertical bank behind him with no ammunition and the Dornier with an unspecified amount of ammunition and at least 3 guns. So I thought, â€˜This is not a healthy situation,’ and I decided to benefit from my training at that point. Because I thought, â€˜Right, I’ve out-turned this aeroplane. He knows I can out-turn it. Now if I choose the right moment, and reverse the turn, whack the Hurricane over into a right turn away from the circle before he can come back, and he’s slower than I am, so he’ll never come back and that’s what I did. And this sounds like a story from newspapers, but when I’d broken the circle and I was flying away from him and I thought well I’d better have a look back to make sure he’s not come after me and as I looked back he was banking away from his own circle to start to level out to go home, and as he did so he waggled his wings. He was saluting. Absolutely fantastic. With a guy who actually knew much more about what he was doing than I was and had the decency to make a sort of friendly signal when he had to break off the combat… that was my first combat.
J: did you look at the Germans/pilots as evil Nazis or other pilots?
No, exactly. Never, never thought of them as evil Nazis at all. That occurred later. Because we eventually found that for all their self-acclaimed propaganda the Luftwaffe was just as much imbued with Nazism as anywhere else. There were quite a lot of pilots who weren’t Nazis but there were a hell of a lot of them who were. But no, at that time we thought of the Luftwaffe as capable, skilled, military pilots with experience, which we hadn’t got. So we were — not apprehensive — but we were conscious that we were up against a high quality enemy, well equipped, with good aeroplanes. I think that as we started to gain confidence ourselves in the weeks and months ahead, we then started to replace that respect with typical British — you know — â€œwe’ll deal with that lot, no problem at all. But at the beginning I don’t think there was all that much …there was no over-confidence, but when I say there was none, there was some, some of our leaders, some of our best chaps, people like Dicky Lee…
J: He was a tremendous pilot
Oh absolutely. He was my role model. He got shot down behind enemy lines and managed to get back. He was a wonderful pilot, and before all this lot started we used to have practice gunnery on our own airfield. No regulation. You didn’t have to book a range and sign-in books, things like that. If you were going to do gunnery, your flight commander would send you off at a certain time of the day to fire your guns and the airmen would put out a pile of four gallon petrol tins out on the airfield, pile them up as a pyramid and that was your target. And you’d go and attack them. And if you caught them on fire there’d be a loud cheer and somebody would put some more tins out for the next chap. But Dicky Lee was the guy who used to be able to knock these petrol tins off with his first burst of about one or two seconds, every time. He never had to go round again. He was absolutely amazing. He was a brilliant aerobatic pilot and there was another chap called Michael Robinson who was my predecessor as CO 609. He was another brilliant pilot. He’s now dead. Johnny Dewar… We had some absolutely ace chaps and these guys certainly had no fear of the Germans. I don’t say they didn’t have any fear at all. They had only professional respect for the Germans, no more. Whereas we who were absolutely new, didn’t know what we were doing, and were spending most of our time looking after ourselves and trying to survive. I’ll tell you an example of this. Later on in the war, not much later, when the Battle of Britain started, the same squadron had regrouped under Johnny Dewar down at Exeter. We started to have big battles over Cornwall. And after one of them we had a chap called [?] in the squadron who was a marvellous fellow and after one of these battles we landed back in ones and twos at Exeter, on a brilliant sunny afternoon, and we were all standing round the intelligence officer. The regulations at the time were that each pilot made a combat report on the form provided and it was scrutinised by the station intelligence officer who asked searching questions to try to establish the veracity of the forms. It was always an extraordinary light-hearted mood. People were very excited. Pilots were waving their arms about all over the place telling each other how they’d done, how they’d shot such and such down and eventually at the end of our discussions, there was one chap who hadn’t made a report you see and the intelligence officer turned to this chap and said, â€˜OK, how did you get on?’ The Belgians who had only just recently come across only had scattered English and said: â€œWhat do you mean how I get on? So the intelligence officer said â€œwell come on then, how many did you get and he said: â€œme, I get nothings. I defenced myself. That sums up what a lot of us felt at the time. But those battles over Cornwall were quite something.
J: I guess you must have been flying always alongside 609?
Yes, 609 were in Cornwall. That’s right. Well, we were over in Exeter. In fact the day that our then CO was killed — his name escapes me at the moment — he was trying to do a forced landing after being shot up and he crashed just short of the airfield and was killed and we were over the top. That was our area. Our main area was Portland and Weymouth Docks, Southampton Harbour and Portsmouth. And just occasionally down to Plymouth, but Plymouth battles didn’t develop till night and we were put on the night defence of Plymouth later in early â€˜41 in dark nights when all you could see was the fires, bombs going off and that was completely frustrating.
J: To go back to France. Can you remember what was the routine of the day, what were you eating?
Well, you imagine a long sort of half-timbered villa. The French always had a very sort of civilised way of looking after you. So this wasn’t a luxury to them. It was just a very nice villa in the country with grass that had been a lawn, and trees and inside it had a long room with trestle tables — because there wasn’t any furniture — and boxes, tea chests or something to sit on. Food, rations. Very difficult to remember it. I think we used to get some Cornflakes for breakfast or something like that and there was bread always, French bread, yards of it. And butter. We were never very short of that sort of thing. I think the sort of food that our mess cooks cooked up were basically stews and they would get some meat and some vegetables which were still very good and they’d cook stews and they were really talented at putting things together. French coffee which none of us liked, largely because our cooks didn’t know how to make French coffee, and awful, awful, awful thin French beer in bottles with those glass stoppers, and wire tops which we called bath in a bottle. But we used to drink quite a lot of beer. There was nothing to do at night. We were all, even after a few days of this lot, we were all dog-tired after supper and we’d go up and hit the sack in these folding beds in otherwise bare rooms. But at least there was water in the taps…
J: were you sleeping in a room separate to the Mess?
Oh yes, separate, they were separate rooms and probably two of us to each of the bedrooms upstairs or probably more. And you know we all knew each other and were friends. We’d all been together for six months. That’s the thing that could come out here. The fighter squadrons who’d been together, the atmosphere was like a good rugby football side. There was a maximum of amusement and fun extracted under every situation. We were 19 to 21 year olds, so there wasn’t any lack of energy or enthusiasm for getting up to something. And as the days went by that sort of dusky enthusiasm started to be tempered — not lowered, but tempered — by the fact that some of our friends weren’t appearing at the end of the day. And if you’d been in the battle you knew what was going on. And, you know, in three days we realised we were up against a hard fighting war with a hard-fighting and capable enemy who did appear to be massively outnumbering us. The only concern we had was that every time we met the enemy there were going to be more of them than us, and that’s of-course the way it was. The Germans had something like 2,000 aeroplanes lined up against us, and at that particular time in France we had 50 Hurricanes. So every time you flew, there was never a shortage of targets, always an overwhelming superiority of numbers on the other side.
J: Did everyone feel demoralised by this?
No. This is the extraordinary thing. The British in adversity — I had always heard this before from my reading of WWI and things like that — the British in adversity get absolutely belligerent. They say bugger you for a start. The more overpowering the odds seem to be, the more aggressive become the Brits. In my squadron, each individual — with only very few exceptions — appeared to be full of excited enthusiasm for the day: â€˜What’s happening today? We’ll get them today chaps!’ That sort of thing. No demoralisation at all. Absolutely the opposite. The atmosphere was confident aggression, albeit with an enormous amount of humour. I mean our conversation was always full of making — not cynical so much as laughing — comments at the enemy. We had no reason to feel that we could dismiss the enemy in those sort of terms but that was the atmosphere. So we were looking at great odds with enormous confidence in ourselves and in our leaders. It’s all just what we were talking about. They set the standard with total, total unflappability. For example, we might have lost three planes, then we learnt on the telephone that two chaps were in hospital burnt, and apart from just making the odd sort of comment about what needed to be said to the wives and dependants in the adjutant’s letters, the atmosphere was one of, â€˜Well that was a good one today but we’ll do better tomorrow.’ They spread an atmosphere of enjoyment. It was as if we were engaged in a magnificent cause and we were doing better than anybody else at it. Which we weren’t doing. We were doing rather badly actually. But that didn’t get across.
J: did you have any idea of bigger picture?
No. We didn’t know about that, but with intelligence you could tell that when you met a member of another squadron perhaps in the evening at Lille, and he’d tell you about the losses that they’d suffered, and then somebody would come in recounting what had happened to him, or you’d hear that 12 Fairey Battles had gone out and only three had come back. You could add it up. You could see that as a week went by there were enormous losses going on. We were making big claims that we were doing very well. But the balance was all the other way. I mean the Germans were undoubtedly doing much better than us. And then streams of refugees started to come back down the roads so that our roads were blocked to get into our own airfield.
J: Did you see refugees?
A bit. Because the army were pulling back as far as they could. They were bringing their stuff back. Every day we went out to the airfield the roads were chock full: three tonners and one and a half tonne trucks with Bren guns and not too happy looking soldiers all going in the wrong direction. They weren’t going up to the front. They were all coming back from it. So something had to be happening. And Lille was being bombed at night so there was constant atmosphere of warfare going on. We then became conscious that our own airfield was likely to be under attack and there was absolute proof one day when I was in dispersal. Actually, no I wasn’t – I just came down to the Mess for breakfast, late. It was about 8 o’clock in the morning. And my flight commander said, â€˜OK Bee, go on off and hit the sack.’ And there was an auberge across the fields and we used to go there and lie down. They would look after us very well.
J: It was in a nearby village?
It seemed to be on its own, but it was a farm. It probably supplied the local farming community. Just a little auberge with rooms upstairs with a family and a bar and tables downstairs and I went in there and I had an omelette and the inevitable glass of beer and I suddenly heard roaring noises and I went outside and right in front of my eyes across the field, half a mile away were four Messerschmit 109s flying in line astern, they were circling round the airfield and just immediately below them were two Lysanders, and the Lysanders I knew were on that airfield were doing circuits above it. They were training new pilots. And so I watched the first of these 109s half roll down onto the tail of the Lysander who didn’t do anything about it and boom, boom, boom, they got it from 50 yards, and it went over like that, straight down, vertically down into a wood and I thought, â€˜My God, there’ll be a mushroom of smoke,’ although it didn’t actually. Somehow it miraculously disintegrated, killed the crew but it didn’t burn. And then the other 109s came down and did the same thing to the other one. By which time there was a roar as our readiness section started their engines. We’d not been warned, of course. These 109s had come over our airfield without any warning at all. And I pounded across the field, arrived absolutely out of breath as the last of my flight got off, facing these 109s and that was a busy morning because the 109s hadn’t left us. They’d made the mistake of flying across 85 Squadron’s airfield at Lille where we had been at the beginning of the war and they intercepted these 109s, struck them up, and our chaps arrived just at the end of the battle. I don’t know how many 109s were lost but it was a dreadful occasion. And that was the sort of thing that happened. So our days, if you were on dawn readiness, you were taken down in an old truck to bump across the airfield to our dispersal ditch and then wait for however long it took to get the first call for off of the day.
J: what time going down there?
5 o’clock in the morning. And your Mess people would bring a haybox meal or something or other down around about mid-morning which, if you weren’t flying, you could have, but if you were flying you’d find it had been eaten by the rest of them by the time you got back and as happened to me that morning. So I was sent off. And then we’d stay either flying or standing by till about 1 o’clock and then we’d be relieved by the other flight who’d been off duty until then and we’d go back and have a kip for the rest of the day and go out on the town in Lille when darkness came for an hour or two but you wouldn’t be late because you knew you were going to be up at dawn the next morning. So, you know, you’d just go in and have a few beers or something and a bit to eat and be back in our own mess by around about midnight. Then as the fighting got more severe and as we started to lose more pilots then half-day standby was increased to full day. If you came on in the morning you’d be still there by dark. That was at the end of the first week we were then on duty all day. But in all this — I would emphasise this — towards the end of the period (it all started on May 10th), by May the 17th, the chaos on the roads had become such that it was almost making travelling impossible. One day I was at dispersal and a dispatch rider came up and he said he’d been the third despatch rider of the day to try to get through from headquarters with the following message for 87 squadron. I said, â€˜OK,’ and I sat on the back of his motorcycle which wasn’t designed for it and bumped across the airfield to our squadron headquarters which was in a farmyard where CO Johnny Dewar was and I handed him the message, and he opened it and he said, â€˜My God, this was timed 0600 hours this morning.’ By this time it was about midday. He said, â€˜What’s happened?’ So the despatch rider said he was the third one who’d been despatched that day with it to our place. And he said, â€˜This is a movement order. We are moving with immediate effect back to M[?]’. And for the rest of the day we were packing up and getting the aeroplanes going and the rest of it and by that time we were down to far less aeroplanes than we’d got pilots because we got new pilots had been coming in the previous few days to train up. They were straight out of training school with no experience at all. Our most experienced pilots took the fit aeroplanes back to England in the afternoon and I was excluded out of that lot because I wasn’t experienced, and so I went down with the ground force and it took us from 3 O’clock that afternoon till 10 in the evening to cover 20 miles using every possible ingenuity, going round back roads, across fields, because there was tremendous jamming up of the refugee traffic and military traffic all going westwards. Our soldiers, Bren carriers, [?] mixed up with cartloads of refugees, people pushing prams: absolute chaos. And of-course the French refugees didn’t take at all kindly to seeing all the Brits in uniform all moving back. They said you should be going the other way. It was an atmosphere which as a 19 year old I found extraordinary. I’d never imagined anything like this. Here was I in uniform and appeared to be hated because I was in a uniform. You weren’t expecting it. You didn’t have any experience of hatred at 19. Anyway this went on until I got back to [?] and met the rest of the guys there. And I was told that there was no billeting arrangements, that I could knock on the doors of houses, some of which were empty because the in habitants of [?] were evacuating: the Panzers were said to be only 25 miles east of us coming through from Arras and [?] and places like that and we were right in front of the main band of [?] which was down towards the Somme and we were likely to be evacuated that very day. I banged on a door of a house which seemed to be [?] and I went upstairs and found a bedroom and went and slept and I went to sleep. I was probably very tired. As one does at that age and I didn’t have anybody to wake me up. Nobody knew where I was. There was no control and so I woke up when nature allowed me to wake up and I realised that I’d missed the full-on readiness. And I started to have a tremendous guilt feeling about this because there were all my colleagues and my friends up at the airfield off doing the first sortie of the day and there was I in bed sleeping. Well I wasn’t the only one. I grabbed my jacket and hat, found some transport, army transport to get back out to the airfield. Found where my squadron was and sure enough the first sortie was off. There were only two Hurricanes on the airfield and they were unserviceable: one of them had stalled [?]. I thought well I can’t do anything now, I’ll have to wait until something happens. Then we were attacked by a very high flying Heinkel. You could hear the bombs coming down but couldn’t see any aeroplanes. Dropped these bombs on the far side of the aerodrome. Then our Hurricanes started to come in ones and twos and the guys had had a very busy morning and they’d shot down some Heinkels and they’d also done a ground [?] on a Panzer column on the way back. I remember one of the guys saying [?] using these pea shooters firing machine guns against a mark 4 Panzer. That’s what they’d being doing: attacking a Panzer column with [?]. And we’d lost some that morning. Two more I think. And while all this was going on — I was standing with the group of pilots — my CO Johnny Dewar who’d been in the battle with this lot, said â€œWell old Bee, feeling like a rest? So I said â€œNo Sir, I’m all right. He said there aren’t enough Hurricanes for all of us. There are four going back. We’re flying back to Hendon, to Devon, PM. Johnny — that’s an Australian — and you won’t have aeroplanes. You can spin a coin. One of you can take the unserviceable Hurricane: it’s flyable but it hasn’t got this that and the other on it, and the other one can go back in a transport which is coming in at midday. Out of this chaos: it never occurred to me that we were going to be sent back or evacuated. I thought we were going to be there forever. And then Johnny Dewar spun the coin. Johnny [?] I’v forgotten his name, he lost the toss. I won it and I wondered what’s going to happen now, because I thought that if I won it would mean that I would have to fly this Hurricane and Johnny Dewar the CO said â€œNo you’ve won your seat on the transport. [?] can take the Hurricane back. I said well that doesn’t seem to be fair [?]. Johnny said â€œNo that’s the way its going to be and I think he probably had in his mind that [?] was very experienced pilot. I was the young inexperienced one. The other fellow was more likely to get a partly unservicable Hurricane [?]. Anyway, that’s all it was. Johnny flew this duff aeroplane back. The others flew back in the afternoon. 12 o’clock prompt a [/] turned up. It was a DC2 KLM (Dutch airline) resplendent with brilliant polished silver, beautiful blue leather upholstery inside. I mean none of us had ever been in anything as luxurious as that. And it was loaded up with a bunch of most extraordinary looking aircrew. They were all fighter pilots, nearly all of them, all of them injured, some of them very badly burnt. All of them very cheerful, carrying on as if nothing had happened. And I was beginning to become aware in my youthful ignorance at that time: I thought this bright silver aircraft full of injured aircrew flying across France on a brilliant sunny day, crewed by airline pilots who don’t know their backside from a hole in the ground or something like that. It’s going to be a right-off for all of us. The place is full of Germans. They’re going to nail us. And so I thought right, I’m going to get the seat nearest to the back because that’s where you’d survive. And I did. And I sat in the back and sure enough we took off and these airline pilots in their beautiful uniforms thought they were on an ordinary airline trip. They climbed to 2,000 feet and levelled off. And headed off to [?] which was to be the crossing [?], and I mean at 2,000 feet!. The only way they could done this operation safely was to stay right down on the deck and hedgehog all the way across the channel. But no, very calmly at 2,000 feet cruising around, everything serene. And about five minutes after we left [?] I was looking out of my window [?] and there it was. And I thought we’d absolutely had it. Because over the top was a formation aeroplanes with twin-fins and I thought: ME110s, they can’t miss this bright silver airliner, they’re going to nail us as of now. And I was almost sort of getting ready for it. When amazingly [?] they weren’t deviating, they disappeared away ahead of us until they were out of sight. And I realised that I hadn’t been looking ME110s I had been looking at [?] French twin-engine twin-fin reconnaissance aircraft. And so we got back to England. And I’ll tell you what happened then. On the way back we met this incredible chaos, this tumultuous [?] Not with our tail between our legs because each one of us had this strong feeling and I remember to this day, we said OK we’ve been kicked out of France but we’ll be back. And there was an extraordinary feeling that we weren’t defeated. It would work. In practical terms we were defeated, and we were flying home with our tail between our legs. But our tail was not between our legs, because we were absolutely, there was no question about it. We weren’t even considering the question of when we could get the squadron together, get new aeroplanes and get back and fight the bastards and this was.. where it came from I don’t know but I’ll always remember the feeling. It was there. This was all part of our training, and it worked. And the contrast going back. We flew in serenity and extraordinary comfort in this airline back across a sunlit channel, crossed in over Dorset and it was a Sunday and [?] every village green from Dorchester to the outskirts of London had village cricket going on. Whites. That’s the spirit you see: fighting for the death 100 miles away in France but it don’t make any difference back home. Life goes on as normal back home. And I landed at Hendon and I went straight to the telephone to ring my family, father and mother. My mother was at Chichester. My father was in France, busily trying to evacuate his army group which he commanded. Which he did successfully, got them all out. And I went to the mess to use the telephone and up came a chap who said you can’t come in here like this. â€œLike this was because I was wearing a black [?] and my uniform jacket and all my kit was still in France. And he barred me from using the telephone. And I was ordered to go up and wait for transport. And transport when it turned up was an open Crossley truck, no luxury, no comfort for us returning officers. And we were trucked across London and dumped at railway stations: mine was Victoria. And by that time I was feeling a bit pooped. I was with a colleague who’d had a similar experience, from another squadron, and we looked at our times and we thought right… in those days trains went on time, you could rely on them like a watch and we each found our train times and then we said come on lets go up to the restaurant and have a bite to eat and we went upstairs [?] and up came a — I suppose he was a restraunt manager or something — he said you can’t come in here dressed like that. And we explained what we were and he as much as said â€œa likely story….
…failed to get a meal at this end of our evacuation from France. A grateful country wasn’t treating us terribly well at that point, and I eventually found my train to go down to Chichester and I was very short of sleep. I was feeling very fatigued, and I found a compartment and sat down and hadn’t taken anything in other than finding a seat to sleep on in an empty compartment. And I probably dozed off. The train started and I dozed off, and I was woken up with a start by somebody rapping very loudly on the glass partition by the side of where I was sitting. And then a voice came round the door and said â€œCan’t you read the notice?. And the notice was a no smoking sign. And I had an empty pipe clamped between my teeth. That was my return from France.
I didn’t know what to think by then. I thought what an extraordinary country this is! I remember writing that sort of thing in the book. Because it hasn’t improved. I mean we are a very peculiar race. We are capable of the most extraordinary feats when we’re really up against it. But the further away you are from the action the less admirable the country becomes. I find.
…my experience stems from being in the RAF which was a small, tightly organised and brilliantly regulated outfit. I mean it was the finest flying club in the world. It’s ethos was of a club with friendly relations between all ranks but the stern hard core of duty was always there and nobody was ever in any doubt where his duty lay and you’d better bloody well get on with it and we were able to resolve impossible situations. All through my service I was a amazed at how my superiors would deal with something which was cropping up which seemed to be totally unsolvable and they found a solution to it, but these days…
…those times during the war.. at every stage we were under enormous threat. The country was in enormous peril. Our big cities got the hell bombed out of them in the biggest possible way — until we started to do the same to the Germans — but the cities were bombed, the services were disrupted, the telephone lines came down, the water supplies were interfered with, but they were all reconnected the same day. Nothing ever lasted more than a day. Everybody had enough to eat — it was very limited sort of food — but the nation got fed very well and they were healthy throughout the whole of the 5 years of that war. And what’s more with very very few short interruptions, the trains throughout the length and breadth of the country ran on time right the way through the war… we did have a better ability to control our affairs in those days than we have now…
J: Living conditions during Battle of Britain and tactics?
Before we go into tactics I’ll tell you when we came back to England, refurbished the squadron, got new pilots in, started training, we went down to Exeter where we went straight under canvas. First five weeks of the Battle of Britain in bell tents on the edge of Dartmoor which was quite interesting. We were expected to be able to cope with that, but when it was wet which it very often was in Devon, you spent all your time up to the knees in mud and very very muddy, and then they got us out of that and put up some wooden huts and wooden dispersal and overnight we were established in the [?] Hotel in Exeter to keep us away from potential bombing. That was a good policy: always move the pilots. Whatever the rest of the people had to do, move the pilots off the base. And we were established not in the classy hotel which is the [?] but in the Rougemont[?] Hotel which was the station hotel. It’s still there, just the same. And that could be best described in the words of my old friend Johnny Cobb[?]: one day he and I were walking up, we were coming out of the lift going down to get transport to get back down to the airfield in the early hours of the morning and Johnny Cobb made the slight habit of having a girl on his arm, and the concierge got up and he said â€œYou’re making a knock shop out of this hotel. â€œToo late says Johnny. â€œIt was one before we came.
That almost sets the scene doesn’t it. We had a good nightlife at Exeter and we fought the battle with increasing intensity, mostly over Portland and Weymouth and the Dorset coast from then on until the end of September when the Battle seemed to be not waning but we didn’t seem to be losing as often as we had done in the past, by which time we’d built up what we thought was an enormous score. We believed by September 1940 that we’d shot down over 100 enemy aeroplanes in the period between May and September. It probably wasn’t as many of that because of the business of getting confirmations. Nobody bothered very much you know. You reported on what you saw in the battle and if you saw an aeroplane going down with smoke and flames coming out of it, diving into the cloud at that sort of angle, you claimed it to the intelligence officer as destroyed. Well maybe he was able to pull up, put out the fire on one engine and limp home on the other. These claims were not confirmed, and nobody bothered. These days there’s an immense — when you read the aviation historians banging on all the time about so and so’s score was mounting by the day and he had this that and the other and then so and so had this score and … but we didn’t talk about it. We weren’t interested in scores. What you were doing was knocking up a record for the squadron. We were a team.
J: Difference between Luftwaffe and RAF: Luftwaffe in which individual fighters were heroes, whereas RAF were a team
It was. But also very very significant feature here which people don’t actually realise. The German’s policy was to keep their fighters on the front line throughout the war or until they died and the JG2 and JG26, the fighter groups, were on the French coast from May 1940 through till the Battle of Normandy when we started to kick them out. Some of the pilots actually lasted that long. Their expertise, top scorers, stayed in action all the time. They were specifically protected by their No.2s who often were instructed not to fire but all they had to do was to all the time stay with their individual leader while he shot them down. But the most important issue was — and this is not well known or as well known as it should be — that the Luftwaffe had a system whereby a leader of a â€˜rotter’[?] which was two or shwa[?] which was four, was the guy who was going to carry out the destruction of enemy aircraft and his followers were there in support and if they opened fire on anything the leader had led them to, had they shot anything else down, it was the leader’s score. So he scored everything that his section scored as well as himself. When an individual member of the section started to do better, then he was put up to leader and became the next person. So the chap in the lead counted the ones he shot down himself and the ones his chaps shot down. And then when you add to that the business that most of these experts were given tours in between their tour on the English channel, they were given tours on the Russian front where they would go into skies that were full hundreds of uncoordinated, unskilled Russians in inferior aeroplanes, and they could shoot them down like they were pheasants. And that’s how they got these huge scores. Otherwise it’s totally unimaginable that somebody like Heinz [?] could shoot down 330 or something like that. But you’re quite right the Luftwaffe had a system of building up these enormous aces for national morale.
One other fundamental thing: as the Germans with their expertise were in the field in France all the way through the war, they always had a surplus, a multiplicity of [?] who’d been built up from 41 right on through till the massive daylight escorted raids of the Americans with hundreds of targets all of the time. Every day, the Luftwaffe had targets to shoot at. In the years between 41and 44 you’d very seldom see enemy aeroplanes because they wouldn’t come up for small formations. They’d only come up for big formations. I did a tour on Typhoons from 1942 to 43 in the middle of the war. The emphasis on that tour was all overseas. It was all ground attack. And we thought… I was determined when I started all this, they said you know you going to run into considerable losses against fighters if you’re always at low level over northern France and I said well we’ll suck it and see. We never saw anyone. I must have done more than 100 low level sorties in Typhoons form [?] starting in November 42 and finishing in May 43 and I never saw any enemy aeroplane over France. And that was the experience of most of the pilots. Johnny Johnson was given special treatment, like the Luftwaffe, and when he was being wing there was always something to attract the enemy up. They would come to bomber formations, not just for fighters, but Johnny was always able to pick his place in relation to a penetration by [?] and [?] in daylight raids. And the Germans would react to that and Johnny was above it and he had a chance of picking something off. The Gsermans did that all the time, but as you quite rightly said, that was the way they did it but we didn’t have that facility. When 1944 arrived and we started stirring them up over Normandy, we met 109s two days after D-day and shot down three of them. We were back in action and seeing the enemy. They were reacting because they could see we were on the way to Germany. But until then they weren’t.
J: Very different to summer 1940?
That’s right. It was reversed then. There were small numbers of aeroplanes within this country against huge numbers of targets. You never got sent off for less than 100 plus: 8 Hurricanes.
J: Tactics. Was it sensible to fly in close fixed formations at that stage?
No it wasn’t. Not in the Battle of Britain. That’s how we flew in France and it was most inflexible and…
J: It was inflexible from above? You had no choice in that?
Yes. Well I had a perfect example of that. On my second major sortie from Lille Marc in May 1940 — we hadn’t started to be decimated by then[?] — and wing headquarters decided that we were going to have a show of strength. And the Germans were pulverising Valenciene. The Panzers had come through Luxembourg and they were across the French border and they were attacking Valenciene and they were covering their attacks with Stukas covered [?] by 109s. And my outfit was at Lille Marc and a squadron had come in — 103 additional squadrons — had come in from England. One of the chaps in it was Bertie Wilson. And instead of being sent off in dribs and drabs or in single squadrons we got an order one afternoon — it would have been about May 15th I should think — to form a two squadron wing and patrol Valenciene at 15,000 feet. And we all scrambled off from Lille Marc in a chaotic take-off, because two squadrons were dispersed in a round airfield. We were dispersed on opposite sides and nobody had thought this one out. And when somebody fired a green [?] light, the signal to scramble because we didn’t have direct radio controls, we all started up from each side of the airfield and charged at each other and I’ll always remember Hurricanes going by on either side as I was taking off and nobody hit anybody. Then we formed up, my squadron leading. Johnny Dewar leading the squadron and my flight was the right flight. Flying in vics, vic 3s and then the other squadron was in the box down below flying in three vics of three: nine aircraft in a squadron. So you had 18 aircraft which we felt was rather pushing it. My first experience in group formation anywhere. And showing how inexperienced we were we started climbing up over Lille out towards Valenciene. And under high cloud cover — I suppose we were round about 12,000 feet — I should think about 15,000 or more there was an area of high cloud. And I was looking over towards the formation like that and asked my section leader to see out [?] I saw four aeroplanes appear out of the clouds in the opposite direction above us. I thought there’s a Spitfire. How can they be Spitfires? And as I watched them they went down the left hand side of the formation. Nobody said anything. And I thought well I’m going to say something and I called up. I said unidentifieds 9 o’clock high. And while I was saying this the leader of these things, probably about 1,000 yards from me, rolled over vertically and started to come down, and one by one his gang came after him down onto the tail of the formation, and then I saw a puff, puff, puff of smoke and he was firing cannons. They were 109s. They came straight down on the last section of the last squadron and two Hurricanes broke away streaming smoke, and another one rolled on its back and went straight down and the 109s came through that part of the formation with excess speed, pulled straight up one after the other and climbed into cloud. We didn’t do a thing. Johnny Dewar couldn’t move a complete squadron round, two squadron [?] and this was a perfect example of the impact of vic formations.
J: Do you remember thinking we’d be better off changing to different formation?
No I didn’t think that. What I did think was that this is a cumbersome thing to do, patrolling enemy skies with big formations. I then thought immediately what am I doing here thinking about this. I ought to disobey the rules, pull straight up and dive across the formation to try and nail one of the 109s, but then it had all happened and it was too late. Only when I got back home did I start thinking with my immature mind you know this isn’t the way to be fighting this war, we should be fighting in no bigger formations than squadrons, but preferably in flights. And at that time I was thinking of a flight of six aircraft in threes. I hadn’t got beyond the vic three argument. I thought we ought to be fighting the war in separate flights rather than vic formations, and I followed that up all the way through the war until I ended up myself a wing. Only on set piece occasions did I ever lead large formations. When I was given targets on the ground to attack I used to attack with separate fours. Never more than a four.
J: Still using vics throughout the Battle of Britain?
Yes. We went on using vics right through the battle. We never varied. Some squadrons up east did I think — [?] may have started to introduce fours but it didn’t occur to us.
J: And did you suss out early on that you needed to get in quite close to make machine guns effective re: Dowling’s dictum re: distance?
J: Can you remember ever talking shop and discussing this sort of thing off duty?
Quite often discussion, but there was never an incisive lead about what to do about it. I think people were concerned that our inflexible formations were just that, that we ought to be doing something different. In fact when I come to think of it, it wasn’t really until I got command of my own squadron that I disregarded the basic rules and started to play it my own way. But so were other people at that time. But we never saw a command or group order instructing squadrons to take up particular formations or use particular tactics. We were still supposed to be flying the war in accordance with Fighter Command Rules of Engagement which was Fighter Command Attack No.1, No.2, No.3 and No.4, and these were set piece attacks of how you should fly up behind a target at a specified height above it and displace. You should then roll in, dive down towards the target, pull up under its tail and then start firing. This was in the Fighter Command Rules of Engagement of-course and they never altered. Nobody thought about it. I think the general feeling was we should adapt as the war goes on which is what we did.
J: When you’re in battle you’re not thinking of attack No.4
Well that’s where it was in error because we went into the war with just that in mind. The last thing we were taught at our Operations Conversion Unit (OCU) was that you did make your attack according to No.1, No.2 or No.3 whatever the circumstances. But we dropped that, and the guiding principle of-course, was always: when sighted close the enemy, in other words you’re searching an empty sky, you start to see things, you identify them as enemy and while you’re identifying them as enemy you’re turning towards them, whatever the situation, you’re turning towards them: always close the enemy. Because you’re not going to have much time to actually get into a firing position. You start off instantly by closing them. And then when you’ve got close enough to see which way its going, then you can possibly vary your attack by getting up sun of him or diving underneath and coming up underneath him or if he’s behind you there’s only one thing you can do is rapidly reverse the position and try to get round him. So, the tactics were not planned tactics, they were developing certain essential tactics.
J: Did you ever during Battle of Britain build up concept of a wing man?
No. This was a thing I’ve always been puzzled by. We used to in the Battle of Britain when we were flying vic 3s in squadron formation, two [?] were appointed, the outer wing men were appointed as weavers and their job was to move out to three or four spans and then fly — at increased power of-course — in a continuous weaving movement so they could scan the sky on either side and protect the others. The net result of this was that you were increasing the chances of the weavers being shot down by about 50%. Whether they protected the formations or not I don’t know. What supplanted that was opening out a search formation. We were still in vics. By 1942 when we were doing squadron wing shows when you were 100 miles from the enemy coast you opened out a search formation and you were no longer tied in to close formation and the needs of only looking at your next door neighbour. You could search the sky as well.
J: Not by Battle of Britain
Oh no. We went into the Battle of Britain in tight vic. Fantastic. I remember going with 8 Hurricanes out of 87 squadron into what we call a beehive. You had this great clear blue sky with nothing in it, and the controller banging on about â€œ110 plus, now 120 plus, brace up chaps! This was the sort of thing that was said. And then all of a sudden glinting lights ahead and the glinting lights would turn out to be the sun flashing on hundreds of canopies and they would develop into a big formation of aeroplanes and then you would see stepped up from left down there to right up there, tier upon tier of Stukas with on either side of them ME110s or possibly 109s. You would find yourself going into what was in fact something that reminded you of bees swarming, or an enormous circus. Masses, masses of aeroplanes in your way. Collision became a thought. You were hurtling towards them and they towards you, with a combined speed of what 450 or 500 miles an hour maybe, and something was going to happen damn quick and you stop thinking about attacking the enemy but how best to avoid colliding with them. And then in the last few minutes your CO (I’ve got a picture in my mind of this operation) your CO who hadn’t been saying anything up till then, who’d done nothing tactically at all, just gone pouring straight on towards the centre of this lot, would come up on the radio and say in a very very calm voice â€œTarget ahead chaps. Let’s surround them!. 8 Hurricanes! 120 plus! That was the ethos at the time and you know these days it sounds like Hollywood but it actually happened.
J: can you remember roughly how much time you got off.
Very little. My CO was very very determined that he would balance all this stuff with regular time off and he would try to get each pilot to have 48 hours leave (â€œ48ers they were called) as often as possible. You probably got one about every five weeks. Other than that you were on duty all the time. Well, I mean you were fazed: if you had a morning off duty you’d come on at one, stay on till dark. The following day you’d be on dawn readiness and stay on till one, until we started to suffer massive casualties and then we stayed on all the time. When that happened your Flight Commander would be authorised to send a chap for a day off whenever he could see a chance of doing it. But your Flight Commander would have about ten pilots or eight or so depending on heavy losses, and it wasn’t often he could do that. But he had the flexibility of letting a chap have a day off when he could but we’d get a 48 hours leave which was long enough to go off to see our family or something about once every four to five weeks.
J: At beginning of the Battle when you were on duty say at 1 o’clock. That morning you could do what you wanted could you?
No, you had to be with.. at thirty minutes readiness. You could stay in the hotel or you could go into the mess on the airfield but you had to be on call. You were always on call when you weren’t on duty, unless you’d been given a day off. Readiness was on site. Cockpit readiness was just that: you were in the cockpit and you were required to be airborne in 2 minutes from the word go. And not at readiness was 30 minutes standby.
J: In evening once flying had finished?
Down to the pub.
J: Could you have driven off somewhere if transport? visit friend?
Oh yes. The very great restriction: very few people had cars. I had one and Wattie Watson had one, and [?] Gree, the Flight Commander. Three cars in the squadron. And we were regarded as toffs… but then having had cars we couldn’t afford to go out to the pubs so we used to come to a compromise because having transport meant that you had spare seats. Many’s the time my four seater MG has carried five chaps down to the local pub, or more, probably six, and on that basis they could get wheels and they could contribute to my petrol. I remember doing it. That was the idea. Yes you could go off within reason, within a reasonable radius. But if you had a day off you were expected to be instantly recallable. Where you went to had to be on the telephone, and you had to leave a contact point with the squadron where you were on your day off. I once drove to Bath where my family was, and as soon as I arrived the telephone went and I was recalled to Exeter. It was quite a long way for a small battered MG.
J: Most nights down the pub?
Yes. We had some very very nice, genuine sort of old-fashioned pubs in that area there. There was a certain amount of difficulty, when we first went there, it was a fracas. That was the time after Dunkirk and the army got into this extraordinary fixation about where was the airforce at Dunkirk. Well we were mostly getting shot down over Brussels trying to protect Dunkirk but you know…. they didn’t see it that way. We never realised how fiercely they felt about it. When we got down to Exeter which was only about two weeks after Dunkirk, one of the first things that happened was that there was two or three of our chaps led by Ronnie Raynor who was a very suave type of English gent, very fierce fighter pilot. They went into a pub at lunchtime and as they opened the door they found the bar was lined up with brown uniform, soldiers, army officers turned round. And there was a silence as our chaps walked into the room. and nobody moved. And eventually old Ronnie said â€œExcuse me, tapped one on the shoulder, and said â€œExcuse me, I’d like to get to the bar. The chap turned round, he didn’t tap him, he prodded him on the chest. He said â€œAh, I see you haven’t got your DFC (he was a soldier) so Ronnie was out without a moments pause for thought said â€œAh, I see you haven’t got your roller-skates. And there was a certain amount of animosity after that. And it was sorted out officially. The soldiers and the airmen very quickly got into fights at pubs during that time. All because of this resentment at the airforce by the army. Totally based on it. And so the authorities got together and they allotted certain pubs to airmen, certain pubs to soldiers, certain pubs to army officers and certain pubs to airforce officers. Sounds ridiculous. Thereafter peace reigned. And we formed an enormous liaison during that period with the marines at Topsham [?] just south of Exeter because we found we’d got very much in common with the marines. They were a great lot of chaps and they didn’t share this resentment of the airforce of the army. So we used to go on drinking and partying together and whenever we needed to do some practice flying we’d beat the hell out of the marine barracks at Topsham. And they’d say, come on do it again!
J: Can you remember dispersal, what did you do? Try and sleep, read a book?
As that battle went on, total [?] became the theme. I mean, there was a lot of tension in sitting around in dispersal waiting for the telephone to go. You jumped a foot when the telephone went and it would probably only be the adjutant asking for some information. It was tension making. With the fighting was tiring and fatiguing. It was all cumulative as the weeks went by, and the pressure never stopped and the loss of your colleagues, all the same [?] all built up a sort of level of general fatigue, and people slept. I mean people would go into dispersal and sleep. There was a physical reason for this. If you’d been fighting during the day and you’d gone off down to the pub with the lads at night and had a little bit more than you should have had, by 4 o’clock in the morning when you were woken up and brought for readiness, you probably had a bit of a hangover and as soon as you got in dispersal you’d find — we had beds there and rough army blankets — you’d find a bed and lie down and go to sleep till somebody woke you up. And that happened a lot. Reading? You occasionally saw people reading a paperback. I never did. I always had other interests. I was interested in flying so I was always out there watching other peoples’ antics in aeroplanes, the other squadron, the other side of the airfield, always used to fascinate us. We thought they were an incompetent lot of plods and couldn’t handle their aeroplanes properly. I used to watch the sky because quite often there was a chance of seeing an enemy aeroplane slip through on reconnaissance and report it. I happened quite often. I was counting, I was always a fascinated birdwatcher and have been all my life and there are a lot of birds to be watched on airfields or around airfields. So I wasn’t a reader, but some people would be seen reading. I think probably what you’re getting round to is were there any signs of nervousness displayed in dispersal. And the answer is at that time there were none at all and I was amazed at the cheerful demeanour of the people who were under incredible stress and strain. And then as I got more experienced later on in the war, and got into positions of junior command, I began to see things I hadn’t seen before and you could recognise the signs of individuals showing nerves or showing nerve strain. When those got advanced it was your job to make sure that they didn’t affect other people. That was most important. And that they weren’t allowed to deteriorate to the point that they affected the individual, so you’d have them posted. Forget all this business of lack of moral fibre. That’s been hyped by the media. That was a term used by the management if you like, the authorities, to describe a pilot who was getting to the point where he couldn’t handle it. It was socially an unkind term and should never have been thought. It gave the wrong impression to what was happening. We had people who couldn’t handle it after a time. Virtually every man I ever met in a fighter squadron had got there because he was determined to do it. Some of them, when they were faced with it, gradually began to lose the ability to cope. Human nature is what it is. If some people give way under stress quicker than others they shouldn’t be blamed for it, they should be safeguarded against it and so should their colleagues. And in my squadron that’s what happened. If the CO was advised by his Flight Commanders that there was a chap was showing signs of wanting a rest, that’s what it was called, and arrangements were made for him to be posted to training command or something like that, which in effect would be a rest from what he was doing. There was none of this talk of LMF and cowardice in the face of the enemy. That’s been hyped up by the media to an enormous extent since and by these so-called historians. We did have one bad case at [?]. And that was a CO. We lost two Cos in very rapid order: they were shot down and killed. And their replacement came with a good record, and I won’t go into the details because it would take too long, but within a week he had not been able to disguise from his squadron the fact that he was unable to cope, and the Flight Commanders saw that this was having an immediate effect on the rest of the chaps who were fighting every day and we went to our old CO who was by then a Wing Commander, Dewar. The Flight Commanders went to him and said look the chaps are getting very very upset by this man. He’s not very happy with himself. Arrangements were made for him to be quietly posted somewhere else. Very quickly. And a new man, who was actually one of our Flight Commanders brought in who was a fire-eating fireball type of pilot, and he took over and put the squadron back where it needed to be. You know the names. This was [?]. This other fellow was — couldn’t be excused. If he ever had any nerve, he’d lost it completely, and he couldn’t control himself. He ran.
J: How did you cope with deaths in squadron? Did you just not dwell on it and get on with things?
That’s exactly right. I’ve often wondered about this looking back how that sort of situation was withstood, because it was happening all the time. But what was actually occurring at any level whether you were a junior flight commander, squadron commander, however junior you were in fighting command, you became, you acquired, you developed, a protective shell. You didn’t know you were doing this. The first time you lost a close friend, a chap you had shared a room with or a chap you flew on a wing of, the first time you did that you felt a sort of awful loss that you expect to feel. The second time it was probably a little less. By the time you’ve got half a dozen it was a very sad thing and then you got on with the next job. I think the human spirit has a limit to the amount it can give itself up to despair or trauma or those sort of words. I think you gradually, progressively develop a shell. And I know because by the time I was getting to command a squadron and particularly later when I was commanding a wing, and I went on having heavy losses all the time, I was having from time to time, I was thinking to myself look I must pay more attention to this. I can’t be separated from this loss. Just get on with the rest of it as if it hadn’t happened. Because that’s how I started to deal with it, and I had to discipline myself about it and as a busy Squadron Commander, taking losses and fighting battles, there are duties that you have to do. When somebody doesn’t come back who is known to have been killed or is thought to have become a prisoner of war, there is the paramount duty of writing to next of kin. Well in my outfit, in RAF Fighter Command, there was a situation where under the greatest of pressure we were pressurised — not instructed, never instructed — but we were pressurised by our superiors to pass that duty onto the Adjutant. That’s what he’s there for. Don’t get preoccupied with next of kin letters. Do the job you’re here for. The Adjutant will deal with the next of kin, and I started to worry about that and I used to think I just can’t… it’s so easy to offload a ghastly task, I can’t do it. From time to time I would try to get into that and then I’d be overcome by events and you can’t write next of kin letters when you’re leading a wing of Tempests over the Urals. But you see what I’m saying. As you develop at any level in combat you tend to develop an internal protective shield against the horror, the nasty side, and concentrate on the side that you’re professional at, good at, and perhaps take refuge in the fact that you’ve got other people to deal with the nasty side. Having said that you never have the loss of one of your chaps without it hurting and if its a personal friend it hurts very much.
An extraordinary thing, it is something which you could expand on, but I had an operation in September 1944 where I led a squadron of Tempests up over Holland to an area on the left hand side of the, north side of the [?] the north of Amsterdam looking for a B2, you know big rockets launching site, we’d got intelligence, map co-ordinates. And I found something that might well match the co-ordinates and I took the chaps in to attack, and my attack produced a flash of fire and I pulled away to the left — you always do the standard break left after doing a ground attack so that the blokes behind could fire and not fire at you and secondly [?] and I looked over my shoulder to see the rest of these guys come through. There was a god-awful explosion, great flash of ball of fire went up and then a voice came on the radio: â€œthat was my CO, he went in right ahead of me. And that was Wiggey Wigglesworth , the CO of one of the squadrons. And he [?] ground fire. But 30 years later I picked up a book on [?] and I [?] this book and in it there was a totally — at first I didn’t recognize it — a totally grotesque description of this operation in which this chap said he was leading the squadron and his great friend Wigglesworth went straight into the target, blew up — it was at that point a blow by blow description of the same thing –he got the date which was in my book: it was my operation, I was leading it. But this chap said he’d been leading it, didn’t mention there was another leader there, and then he went on to say â€œIt wasn’t till afterwards that it occurred d to me that he went in knowing that was a B2 site and would be heavily defended. He should have been recommended for a VC and I should have recommended him for it. This guy was actually one of the pilots back at the end of the formation.
J: Why did he do that?
He was one of those sort of chaps. He had a loss of memory. He was associating himself with what he saw as the glory of being a squadron commander, which he wasn’t. There are people like that. You come across extraordinary facets of human nature. I remember that so well. He was a great friend of mine. I felt that very much. There was nothing I could have done about it. We had to go in and attack that, and he might have been actually brought down by the explosion of the B2 rocket or it might have been ground fire.
The remarkable thing about stiff upper lip is that it always disguises something that people these days probably wish they have but they don’t have. It disguises a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon: it’s not just Brits or toffs or anything like that but its the ability to take on extreme circumstances without appearing to move a hair. Calmness. Calmness in the face of incredibly stressful circumstances and then the apparently natural smiling reaction after it. It’s incredibly morale-raising stuff when you see your Flight Commanders or your Squadron Commanders acting with this sort of — its a cross between panache and unconcern. The nonchalance with which those chaps could do those things, appeared to be enjoying it. And the calm, quiet way with which they would slap down anybody who started to be negative.