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Authors: Gill Griffin

A Very Unusual Air War (11 page)

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12 July
: We flew close escort to three Short Stirling four-engined bombers; we saw plenty of flak but still no enemy engagement.

17 July
: We flew close escort to six Bristol Blenheim bombers for an attack on enemy shipping off Boulogne. Bombing was accurate despite plenty of flak but still no sign of the Luftwaffe.

20 July
: Actually two flights, when I landed to change passengers. The Magister was a tandem two-seat training aircraft with open cockpits. It was used as an alternative to the Tiger Moth at some EFTSs. Operational squadrons usually had, on strength, a two- or four-seat light plane for communication and passenger flying including flips, which were always appreciated by members of the ground staff.

21 July
: For deep penetration we usually flew to an advanced base nearer the coast. On the 21st the note in my logbook reads: ‘Flew as bomber escort cover, taking three Stirlings to Lille. When nearing the target we were attacked by five ME.109Fs but they were too eager and overshot as they opened fire. But unfortunately our Wing Leader, W/Co. John Peel was hit and forced to return to base. The bombing was completed with bursts near the target. Accurate ack-ack fire on the return journey. F/Lt Glyn Richie, our A flight commander was missing.’ It was later confirmed that he was killed, our first casualty in our first brush with the enemy. We were most upset by the loss of F/Lt Richie, our well liked ‘A’ flight commander. He was 602’s first casualty since the Battle of Britain.

On one of the occasions when we escorted Stirlings, we were operating at about 12,000 feet and the sight of those three big machines flying majestically in close VIC formation was a sight to see. Suddenly the situation changed dramatically. The leading machine received a direct hit by an anti-aircraft shell and in an instant it just disappeared; one moment it was there and the next just what looked like dust falling to the ground; the crew must have been killed immediately.

22 July
: We patrolled mid-channel to cover return of Blenheims. No engagement. The Spitfire carried only 90 gallons of fuel, enough, with care, for approximately 2 hours 15 minutes flying at maximum economical throttle settings. In combat, this time could be reduced to little more than an hour. It will be appreciated that, on operations like this, we were running it a bit close.

Having arrived at Kenley on July 10th we hardly had time to draw breath before being thrown in at the deep end. In the remaining 21 days of July we flew operations on 11 of them, as many as four flights on the 24th.

We patrolled near the French coast, north of St. Valery; saw no sign of the enemy. Kenley, like other Fighter airfields, suffered badly in the Battle of Britain, many of the permanent buildings were destroyed, including the living quarters of both the Officers’ and Sergeants’ messes. In the latter the kitchen, dining room, lounge and bar area, after extensive repairs, were the only parts usable. Most of the staff, cooks
and serving girls were members of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). These girls, most of them youngsters like ourselves, looked after us pilots with great care and, although warned to avoid close relationships with pilots who might well be shot down and killed, inevitably some friendships, perhaps short-lived, developed. I had a particular friend up to the time of my marriage in September. Elsie, I often wonder what happened to you.

The officers and NCOs of the Kenley squadrons were billeted in large private houses just outside the aerodrome boundaries, the former in Red House and the latter at ‘Hillhurst’. I slept in a large first-floor bedroom that I shared with four others.

When I joined 602 squadron, the commanding officer was S/Ldr Meagher; he was then in poor health and had to leave for treatment. He was replaced by newly promoted Alan (Al) Deere, a New Zealander, who had joined the RAF some time before the outbreak of war. He was a fine man, a first class sportsman and athlete, the pre-war middleweight boxing champion and a keen rugby player. He was one of the Battle of Britain aces, credited with 19 confirmed victories. On operations he was a great leader, brave but not foolhardy; he never led us into a situation where we would be at an obvious disadvantage.

One of the real heroes, we met many years later, after he retired from the RAF with the rank of Air Commodore. He was then living at Wendover, a few houses away from my company’s fellow director, Graham Luff. Knowing of my association with Al, Graham invited him to lunch with us in the boardroom at our group headquarters in Aylesbury. Although during my service with him I was still an NCO pilot, we remained friends until his death in 1990.

24 July
: Merston was one of the Tangmere satellites, right on the coast near Chichester used, in this instance, as a forward base.

We escorted 18 Bristol Blenheims from Merston to Cherbourg. Arriving off the French coast we watched a
gruppe
of ME 109s climbing up behind us, but they did not engage our squadron (they knew I was there). On the return I saw an aircraft plunge into the sea north of the objective; the pilot had baled out. I landed back at Kenley.

‘To Tangmere’. The Cherbourg, Normandy coastal area was almost due south of the point where we left England. If returning at low altitude, the sea seemed to go on for ever and on occasions I started to get a bit worried in case I had set course too far south and missed England.

27 July
:

I wonder where I went to show off my skill? Probably Slough.

Summary for: July 1941
1 Spitfire
18hrs 15mins
Unit: 602 Squadron
2 Magister
1hr. 55mins
Date: 1/8/41
 
 
Signature: H.L. Thorne
 
 
J.D.Williams
Flt Lt
A.C. Deere
S/Ldr
O/C. A Flight
O/C 602 Squadron

GRAND TOTAL TO DATE.

229 hours 00mins.

YEAR
1940
AIRCRAFT
Pilot or 1st Pilot
2nd Pilot, Pupil or Pass.
DUTY (Including Results and Remarks)
Flying Time
Passenger
MONTH
DATE
Type
No.
Dual
Solo
August
2nd
Spitfire
P8791
Self
 
Air test and cannon test at 34,000ft
 
1–10
 
 
 
Spitfire
P8791
Self
 
Cannon test
 
–40
 
 
 
Spitfire
P3638
Self
 
Air test and cannon test at 35,100ft
 
1–05
 
 
5th
Spitfire
P8423
Self
 
Bomber escort
 
1–25
 
 
7th
Spitfire
P8791
Self
 
Operational sweep
 
1–35
 
 
 
Spitfire
P8799
Self
 
Gun and air test
 
–35
 
 
 
Spitfire
P8799
Self
 
Gun test
 
–40
 
 
18th
Spitfire
P8787
Self
 
Bomber escort
 
1–20
 
 
19th
Spitfire
W3622
Self
 
Bomber escort
 
1–35
 
 
20th
Spitfire
W3407
Self
 
Gun and air test
 
–30
 
 
21st
Spitfire
W3622
Self
 
Bomber escort
 
1–25
 
 
 
Spitfire
W3622
Self
 
Bomber escort
 
1–05
 
 
24th
Magister
R1915
Self
 
To Merston
 
–30
 
 
 
Magister
R1915
Self
 
To White Waltham
 
–30
 
 
25th
Magister
R1915
Self
 
Return to base
 
–50
 
 
26th
Spitfire
W3756
Self
 
Cannon test
 
–40
 
 
 
Spitfire
W3622
Self
 
Operational sweep
 
–50
 
 
27th
Spitfire
W3622
Self
 
Bomber escort
 
1–15
 
 
Magister
R1915
Self
 
Flip
 
–10
 
 
 
Magister
R1915
Self
 
To White Waltham
 
–30
 
 
28th
Magister
R1915
Self
 
Return to base
 
–30
 
 
29th
Spitfire
W3622
Self
 
Operational sweep
 
1–40
 
 
30th
Spitfire
W3736
Self
 
‘Pansy’ squadron formation and aerobatics
 
1–35
 
 
31st
Spitfire
W3622
Self
 
Operational sweep
 
1–20
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
3–30
7–40
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
55–25
185–40
4–40

2 August
: The unbelievable thrill of making my first flight to over 30,000 feet, using oxygen from the ground upwards, taking a little over 10 minutes to reach that height. I could see the whole sweep of the south coast and most of London and fly over or through the fleecy white tops of billowing cumulus clouds, the best way to appreciate the aircraft’s speed.

When 20mm cannons were first installed in Spitfires, stoppages caused frequent problems. We carried out regular tests particularly at high altitudes.

7 August
: My first taste of real action. I flew as Red 4, otherwise known as tail end Charlie or more rudely as arse-end Charlie, in the central leading section. My function was to weave backwards and forwards across the rear of the other three Spitfires in the section to give them maximum cover against attacks from above and behind.

602 Sqdn were flying Bomber escort cover, slightly above and to starboard of six Blenheims. When we were about ten miles west of St. Omer, Red Section (that’s us) were attacked by four 109 Es. As they overtook us in their diving attack Wing Commander Johnnie Kent attacked the leading enemy fighter. He followed it down. I attacked the second 109, firing a short burst with guns and cannons, from dead astern and slightly below. The enemy aircraft turned on to its back and went down vertically leaving a thick trail of white smoke. I claimed it probably destroyed. Sergeant Jimmie Garden attacked the third ME 109 with a short burst and claimed it damaged. P/O Thornton failed to return but I have no memory as to whether he survived. He was flying as Red 2 and must have suffered severe damage in the initial burst of enemy fire, so his chances were not good. My victim was seen to crash and I was credited with 1 destroyed. My first kill.

Looking back, it is difficult to believe that my combat that day was only the seventh time I had fired my guns. The earlier times were mostly air to ground, just to hear and experience what it felt like. It was the first time I had actually shot at another aircraft and it felt great, although I did not really feel that I was firing with
the intention of killing the enemy pilot. At last I felt that I really was a fighter pilot, the culmination of all those months of training. The credit for my ‘kill’ should really go to Wingco. John Kent who put me in the right position; I only had to press the firing button.

On one of the early August operations Al Deere’s Spitfire was severely damaged when he was attacked by a pair of 109s. Quite a number of strikes were in the engine area but surprisingly the coolant system escaped damage. Al’s story is told in his biography
Nine Lives
and this operation certainly saw him use up one of them.

19 August
: We escorted six Blenheims to attack a target in the St. Omer area. I was attacked by a single, very determined enemy fighter, which dived on me as I was crossing the French coast. It was only by taking evasive action in a series of tight turns that I managed to shake him off so I escaped without damage.

I believe that this operation by six Blenheims to bomb an enemy-held airfield north-east of St. Omer, was when a new tin leg was dropped to replace the one damaged when Wing Commander (later Group Captain) Douglas Bader was shot down and captured. The Germans had offered free conduct but would have used it for propaganda purposes so the leg was dropped in the course of a normal operation. It was carefully packaged to avoid damage and was dropped by parachute from a fighter of Bader’s own 616 Squadron.

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