Dogfight to the death: 80 years on, how The Few saved Britain

Dogfight to the death: 100 planes locked in mortal combat over the Channel, British pilots desperately firing flares at the Nazis, and Hitler’s dream to crush the RAF in a month dashed by selfless heroism… 80 years on, how The Few saved Britain

In July 1940, fears that Nazi Germany would invade Britain were very real. On July 2 Hitler ordered his military chiefs to draw up plans for an invasion. 

He knew Germany’s superiority in the air would be crucial, and intelligence officers told him that RAF Fighter Command could be destroyed in a month.

The RAF were heavily outnumbered, with just 504 fully operational Spitfires and Hurricanes against the Luftwaffe’s 1,200 fighters.

The Battle of Britain — where men with an average age of just 20 risked their lives — lasted 114 days. 

Here, JONATHAN MAYO gives a fascinating minute-by-minute account of the first days of the battle over the skies of Britain.

Wednesday, July 10, 1940

7am: At RAF Middle Wallop near Salisbury, Wiltshire, Pilot Officer David Crook is waking up. Yesterday, his friend Peter Drummond-Hay was shot down and killed by a Messerschmitt off the coast of Dorset.

Because Crook couldn’t bear to sleep in their shared room with everything just as Peter had left it, he slept next door.

The Battle of Britain — where men with an average age of just 20 risked their lives — lasted 114 days

‘I could not get out of my head the thought of Peter, with whom we had been talking and laughing that day, now lying in the cockpit of his wrecked Spitfire at the bottom of the English Channel.’

Today, he and Peter had planned to drive up to London on a day’s leave and meet up with their wives.

7.35am: The Luftwaffe are beginning the first of their almost daily ‘nuisance raids’ over the South-West of England, looking for weak spots in Britain’s defences.

A Junkers bomber drops ten 50kg bombs on Plymouth docks, setting fire to a jetty and warehouses. 

One frustrated RAF pilot described their defensive role as like being in ‘a tennis match in which you never got to serve. You were always playing back what the other man was doing to you’.

10.10am: A large British convoy codenamed Bread, made up of 25 merchant ships escorted by Royal Navy destroyers, is sailing south along the Kent coast. The ships are spotted by a German Dornier reconnaissance aircraft and its radio operator sends an urgent message back to base — this is the perfect target for their bombers.

The RAF were heavily outnumbered, with just 504 fully operational Spitfires and Hurricanes against the Luftwaffe’s 1,200 fighters. RAF pilots are seen scrambling to their planes during an air raid

The Luftwaffe are engaged in what they call Kanalkampf or Channel Battle — a strategy to close the waterway to British shipping, thus cutting off food and essential supplies to Britain.

10.15am: On the cliffs at Cap Gris-Nez, the closest part of France to England, a telephone rings in a converted bus that is the temporary headquarters of the man in charge of the Kanalkampf strategy, Oberst Johannes Fink. He is informed about the convoy and immediately orders an attack.

10.20am: A Junkers bomber is approaching Swansea docks on another nuisance raid. It drops four high-explosive bombs, killing 12 workers outright and injuring 26. 

Twenty miles away, 44-year-old Ira ‘Taffy’ Jones, the head of the RAF training airfield Stormy Down, is watching the attack through binoculars.

An RAF crewman is pictured on a friend’s shoulders at an airfield

He was a flying ace in World War I with 40 kills to his name, and is desperate to take on the bomber —but Stormy Down has no fighters.

In desperation, Jones jumps in a Hawker Henley, designed to tow targets for gunnery practice, and heads for the Junkers bomber.

‘When I got near enough to see the black crosses on the Hun’s wings and rudder, I felt the old joy of action coursing through my body,’ he said.

The only weapon he has with him is a flare gun but, undaunted, when only 100 yards away, he fires it. The startled German pilot veers off course towards the sea and Jones follows ‘just to have the fun of seeing him run away’.

11.40am: Four bombers suddenly appear over Cardiff and drop bombs on ships in the docks and near the main gates of the nearby Royal Ordnance factory, killing ten people.

The death toll would have been higher if the raid had been an hour later when workers take their lunch break in the open air.

Noon: At RAF Middle Wallop, David Crook is having lunch with his Flight Commander Pip Barran when Barran is called to the phone. After a few minutes Crook finds him standing by the phone looking distressed.

Peter Drummond-Hay’s wife had called; the telegram informing her of his death yesterday had not yet reached her and she wanted to know why she hadn’t heard from him. Barran had to break the news that her husband is dead. The following day Flight Commander Barran is killed in action.

1.15pm: Twenty-six German Dornier bombers are crossing the Channel in a series of V-formations — the biggest number of bombers yet seen approaching. Mid-Channel, they rendezvous with 50 Messerschmitt fighters, and head for their target, the large Bread convoy.

1.25pm: The convoy’s escort ships open fire from below while six Hurricanes do their best against the massive force of fighters and bombers. The first wave of Dorniers drop their bombs over the convoy then dive to sea level for the return home. Fighters from Manston, Biggin Hill, Croydon, Hornchurch and Kenley arrive.

‘Suddenly, the sky was full of British fighters’ said Luftwaffe pilot Hannes Trautloft. ‘Today, we were going to be in for a tough time.’

1.30pm: Nine Hurricanes launch an intimidating head-on attack at the Dorniers. The British pilots can see German crews panicking, faced with a hail of bullets.

Twenty-three-year-old Flight Officer Tom Higgs targets the lead bomber but he misjudges his manoeuvre and clips it, losing a wing. Higgs bales out at 6,000 ft but is drowned.

His body is washed ashore in Holland a few weeks later.

Henry Ferris is just 50ft over the sea chasing a Messerschmitt fighter (above) at 400mph. The cockpit of his Hurricane is full of the smell of high-octane petrol, hot metal and cordite. Ferris fires his machine guns and the Messerschmitt dips towards the sea and crashes

1.35pm: More than 100 aircraft are now involved in the battle. From the cockpit of his Hurricane, 22-year-old Flight Officer Henry Ferris watches the bombs fall from the German planes.

‘The sea down below spouted up to a height of 50 ft or more in two lines alongside the convoy,’ he recalled. An eyewitness watching from the shore described the planes over the ships being ‘like bees round a honeypot. Now and then you would see a machine come away, go down in a steep dive and crash into the sea thousands of feet below.

‘Hundreds of bombs must have been dropped. The noise was deafening.’

1.40pm: Henry Ferris is just 50ft over the sea chasing a Messerschmitt fighter at 400mph. The cockpit of his Hurricane is full of the smell of high-octane petrol, hot metal and cordite. Ferris fires his machine guns and the Messerschmitt dips towards the sea and crashes. It is his eighth kill.

But then, suddenly, it is Ferris who is being hunted. Three Messerschmitts are on his tail and he feels a pain in his leg and knows he has been hit.

Every time he senses he is in range of their guns, Ferris makes a series of sharp right turns. Eventually, the Germans give up the chase, and Ferris points the nose of his Hurricane for Croydon aerodrome 20 miles away.

2pm: The battle over the Bread convoy is over, a victory for the RAF. The Luftwaffe sank just one ship and all its crew have been rescued. Two Dorniers and ten escort fighters were shot down. Flight Officer Tom Higgs was the only RAF fatality.

2.15pm: Henry Ferris lands at Croydon in his damaged Hurricane, runs over to an operational Hurricane and takes off on another patrol. Five weeks later, he will be killed in a head-on collision with a Dornier.

2.25pm: Across the Channel, six Blenheims from Bomber Command are approaching a Luftwaffe airfield on the outskirts of Amiens in northern France. The German anti-aircraft gunners manage to hit several of them and the formation disintegrates.

Messerschmitt fighters pounce on the remaining bombers and Flight Lieutenant Harold ‘Flash’ Pleasance, a Canadian leading the mission, dives and weaves to escape them.

‘The compass was going round in circles and I really did not know which way I was heading,’ he said. Luckily, Pleasance finds the coast and dives over the cliffs to sea level ‘frightening myself and the crew fartless!’. Two Messerschmitts follow him, then, in an extraordinary gesture, Pleasance sees the Germans wave him farewell before flying away. Pleasance’s bomber is the only survivor of the disastrous six-plane raid.

5pm: At BBC Broadcasting House the head of the Women’s Voluntary Service, Lady Reading, is recording a script prepared for her by Lord Beaverbrook, who is in charge of aircraft production. He wants the nation’s housewives to contribute to the war effort.

Lady Reading reads: ‘Everyone who has pots and pans, kettles, vacuum cleaners, hat pegs, coat hangers, shoe trees, bathroom fittings and household ornaments, cigarette boxes, or any other articles made wholly or in part from aluminium, should hand them over at once.

‘We will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons.’

One Staffordshire housewife wrote a ditty in response to the appeal: ‘Now when I hear on the wireless, of Hurricanes showing their mettle, I see, in a vision before me, a Dornier being chased by my kettle.’

Thursday, July 11

5am: At 85 Squadron’s base at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk the ground crews are surrounded by an early morning mist as they warm up the aircraft’s engines.

Twenty-six-year-old Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, future boyfriend of Princess Margaret, is dozing in his tent on the edge of the airfield when the telephone rings: ‘One aircraft only, scramble and call controller when airborne!’

A lone target has been spotted by radar heading for the East coast.

6.15am: At a height of 8,000 ft Townsend can just make out through his rain-covered windscreen a Dornier appear out of a cloud above him. It has just bombed Lowestoft harbour and its rear gunner, Werner Borner, is singing with the rest of its relieved crew when he spots the Hurricane and opens fire; Townsend responds.

Werner said ‘pieces of metal and other fragments were flying everywhere’ and he is badly injured but he keeps firing at Townsend — their tracer bullets are crisscrossing each other in the dark sky.

Townsend’s engine explodes and as the Hurricane plunges towards the sea, he slides back the hood and dives out head first. He said: ‘I was falling on my back in total silence when I pulled the ripcord.’

6.30am: A fishing boat from Hull has spotted Townsend’s parachute and is sending a rowing boat to rescue him.

A fisherman brandishing a boat-hook shouts: ‘Blimey, if he ain’t a f*****g Hun!’ Townsend shouts back ‘I’m not! I’m a f*****g Englishman!’ They haul Townsend into the boat with a more friendly greeting: ‘Come on lad, we’ve got you.’

11.45am: Peter Townsend comes ashore at Harwich, Essex, a little worse for wear after several tots of the fishermen’s rum. He is lucky — he is the first pilot shot down over the North Sea during the Battle of Britain to be rescued.

4pm: Prime Minister Winston Churchill is in Dover looking eagerly out to sea. He was thrilled by the accounts of yesterday’s dogfights and has come to the coast to see one for himself at first hand. But Churchill will be disappointed, as the Luftwaffe have moved off to concentrate their efforts elsewhere.

6pm: Despite being shot down this morning, a now sober Peter Townsend is once more at the controls of a Hurricane and patrolling the skies over the North Sea.

His brush with death has changed him. ‘Flying had been for me but a youthful dream. Now it had become a stern reality.’

Friday, July 12

12.45pm: The Germans control the coastline of Europe from France to Norway, which means that Scotland is now in range of their bombers. Six Heinkels, based in Stavanger in Norway, are approaching Aberdeen.

No air-raid sirens sound, so the workers at the Hall Russell shipyards in Aberdeen are taken completely by surprise when high-explosive bombs start to fall. Young apprentices playing football in the yard and men queuing for their lunch are killed.

One shipyard worker, George Robertson, said: ‘There were bodies everywhere, some minus arms and even heads. It was not a sight for any young man to see.’

12.50pm: The Neptune Bar by the docks is full of shipyard workers and receives a direct hit. The upper floor collapses on to the bar below, killing 40 people. A piece of shrapnel severs the landlord’s cat’s tail but it survives.

1.10pm: Three Spitfires roar in to defend the city. They target a single Heinkel that has got separated from the rest and thousands of people watch the dogfight from the ground.

Finally, the Heinkel is hit and residents in tenement flats see the faces of the crew seconds before it smashes into a newly built ice rink.

The crew of four are killed instantly. A woman’s shoe is found in the wreckage, a memento of a wife or sweetheart. The raid becomes known in Aberdeen as Black Friday.

At a height of 8,000 ft Townsend can just make out through his rain-covered windscreen a Dornier appear out of a cloud above him. It has just bombed Lowestoft harbour (pictured above in the 1930s) and its rear gunner, Werner Borner, is singing with the rest of its relieved crew when he spots the Hurricane and opens fire; Townsend responds

Saturday, July 13

5.50pm: A huge flight of 31 Stuka dive-bombers and Messerschmitt fighters are attacking a large convoy outside Dover harbour in Kent, the latest mission in the Luftwaffe’s Kanalkampf. Spitfires and Hurricanes have scrambled to intercept them.

For Pilot Officer Geoffrey Page, this is his first aerial combat. When he sees the number of German fighters, his mouth goes dry but soon he is diving into the Messerschmitts, machine guns blazing.

‘For a moment I was having the time of my life,’ he said. Then the Luftwaffe gunners return fire and Geoffrey instinctively ducks.

Soon he finds himself alone in the sky, except for a single Messerschmitt in the distance heading straight for him. ‘I was feeling a little bit stubborn that morning so I didn’t budge,’ Page said.

The German fires too low and misses the Hurricane but Page hits the Messerschmitt and part of one wing falls off. The German pilot manages to glide towards France, landing near Boulogne.

6.30pm: Geoffrey Page has been flying low over the Channel trying to locate an RAF pilot he saw parachute into the sea. A motor boat is on its way from Ramsgate, Kent, to assist the search when Page sees two enemy bombers above him.

He is out of ammunition so he is helpless to defend the motor boat and he urgently needs to warn them. 

‘The next few minutes would have done credit to Houdini,’ he said. He manages to write a message on a cigarette packet and then to remove a sock to act as a container. 

Page slides back the cockpit canopy and drops the sock close to the boat below. The crew retrieve it from the water, read the message and wave their thanks. Page waggles the Hurricane’s wings in reply.

8pm: The head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, is dining at Chequers with the Prime Minister. ‘The last four days,’ Churchill tells him, ‘have been the most glorious in the history of the Royal Air Force.

‘The enemy have come and have lost five to one. We can now be confident of our superiority.’

But Dowding knows that the battle is far from over.

Sunday, July 14

3.30pm: On top of the white cliffs of Dover, BBC reporter Charles Gardner can make out a convoy making its way along the Channel. He has visited a number of South-coast towns hoping to report on a dogfight but so far with no success.

Gardner’s recording equipment is behind him in a parked car that has a mattress tied to the roof as basic protection from bomb debris. Suddenly, he spots 20 German dive-bombers escorted by an equal number of fighters heading straight for the convoy.

His colleague, BBC sound engineer Leonard Lewis, runs to the car to start the recording. Gardner soon discards his prepared script as he gets caught up in the drama. His commentary is punctuated by gunfire and the sound of bombs.

‘There are three Spitfires chasing three Messerschmitts now. Oh boy, look at them going! Oh, that really is grand, there’s a Spitfire just behind the first two — he’ll get them! Oh yes — oh boy — I’ve never seen anything so good as this, the RAF fighters have really got these boys taped!’

As soon as the dogfights are over, the BBC team head for London.

6pm: Winston Churchill is broadcasting to the nation from the Cabinet Office, his fourth address of the war. The Prime Minister has a message of defiance for Adolf Hitler: ‘Should the invader come to Britain there will be no placid lying down of the people in submission before him, as we have seen, alas, in other countries. We shall defend every village, every town, and every city.’

9pm: The recording of Charles Gardner’s excited commentary is played on the BBC and it immediately causes a storm.

Although popular with many listeners, a Labour MP complains in the House of Commons: ‘Public taste should not be offended by broadcasts of war operations in the manner of a sporting commentary.’ The BBC never reported on the Battle of Britain in the same way again.

Monday, July 15

8.30pm: There has been low cloud and heavy rain over most of Britain all day, so the Luftwaffe has mostly restricted its operations to reconnaissance. However, the weather has resulted in a number of RAF losses caused by accidents.

Flight Lieutenant Robert Stanford Tuck is forced to crash-land his Spitfire near Liskeard, Cornwall, in a storm after losing his bearings but he survives. Tuck’s fighter is one of eight damaged or written-off today.

Tuesday, July 16

2pm: Hitler had assumed the threat of invasion would be enough to bring Churchill to the negotiating table. According to his aides, he is ‘greatly puzzled by England’s persisting unwillingness to make peace’.

In response, the Fuhrer issues a directive for preparations to be made for an invasion that is codenamed Sealion.

His directive begins: ‘Since England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, shows no signs of being ready to come to an understanding, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England and, if necessary, to carry it out.

‘The aim of this operation will be to eliminate the English homeland as a base for the prosecution of the war against Germany and, if necessary, to occupy it completely.’

10pm: Luftwaffe attacks have become a part of everyday life. In Worthing, Sussex, housewife Joan Strange updates her diary with an entry that is becoming typical of the wartime ‘business as usual’ spirit: ‘Our Air Raid Precautions sector had a fire-fighting practice tonight. We lent our garage for the fire and we all had to crawl round the garage to get used to the smoke. I bought 100 lovely leek plants for 2/6d and planted them.’

The young men of Fighter Command would endure another 107 days of relentless Luftwaffe attacks during the Battle of Britain, often under tremendous strain.

One pilot said: ‘If I wasn’t flying, I was plastered.’ The fatality rate was so high, Dowding’s ‘fighter boys’ learned not to strike up close friendships with their comrades.

By October 1940, the threat of German invasion had receded but victory had come at a cost: of the 2,917 RAF pilots who took on the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940, 544 were killed. Also killed were 312 ground crew, including forces from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

The Few had inflicted the first major victory against the German war machine and shown the British people — and the world — that Nazi invincibility was a sham.

Jonathan Mayo’s D-Day Minute By Minute is published by Short Books at £8.99.

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