Of all the written accounts by the fighter pilots of the RAF during 1941, two stand out, in my opinion. Both were by pilots who flew Spitfire Mk Vs with 610 Squadron, which by summer 1941 was one of the squadrons under Wing Commander Douglas Bader. “Circuses” were usually composed of six bombers, escorted by many squadrons of fighters, typically Spitfire Mk Vs; the formation was called a “Beehive.”
At this time, RAF Fighter Command, headed by Air Marshall William Sholto Douglas, was carrying out its new policy, “Lean towards France.” The policy was suggested by retired Air Marshall Hugh Trenchard, who had commanded the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Unfortunately, Trenchard failed to absorb the lessons of the Battle of Britain, which had finished in victory for the RAF in 1940: principally, that the German Luftwaffe had suffered from tying their Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighters too close to their bombers to be effective against the attacking Hurricanes and Spitfires.
This new policy resulted in RAF Fighter Command losing aircraft and pilots over France at the rate of four to one during 1941 and 1942. Any pilots who survived being shot down were captured.
Sholto Douglas had been initially skeptical of Trenchard’s suggested policy, but on reflection and after writing a paper about it, he changed his mind. His reasoning is difficult to understand, as the fighters that were shot down over France would have been far better used in either the Western Desert campaign or in the defense of Malta or Singapore.
In a hot sweat of fear, I keep turning and turning …
In his book, “Wing Leader,” James “Johnnie” Edgar Johnson of 610 Squadron described a typical Circus mission to Lille, France in July, 1941:
Fighter controller A.B. “Woody” Woodhall gave us our course to steer for home on the way out: “Course for Dover—310 degrees.” Woodhall fades out, for he has done his utmost to paint a broad picture of the air situation. Now it is up to our leader, Wing Commander Douglas Bader, callsign “Dogsbody.”
“Dogsbody, from Blue one. Beehive at twelve o’ clock below. About seven miles.”
“OK, I see them.” And the wing leader eases his force to starboard and a better sun-up position. The high-flying Messerschmitts have seen our wing and are stabbing at Robert “Stan” Stanford Tuck’s top-cover 145 Squadron with savage attacks from either flank.
“Break port, Ken.” (From a pilot of 610 Squadron.)
“Tell me when to stop turning.”
“Keep turning. There’s four behind!”
“Get in, Red section.”
Stan quietly says, “We’re stuck into some 109s behind you, Douglas.”
“OK. Stan. Bailing out.”
Stan, urgently: “Try and make it, Mac. Not far to the coast.”
“No use. Temperature’s off the clock. She’ll burn any time. Look after my dog.” [Jim “Mac” McCairns crash-landed near the Gravelines-Dunkirk beach and was taken prisoner; he later escaped and continued to fly for the RAF.]
“Keep turning, Yellow section.”
So far the fight has remained well above us. We catch fleeting glimpses of high vapor trails and ducking, twisting fighters. Two-thirds of the wing are behind us, holding off the 109s, and we forge on to the target area to carry out our assigned task. We can never reform into a wing again, and the pilots of 145 and 610 will make their way home in twos and fours. We head towards the distant Beehive, well aware that there is now no covering force of Spitfires above us.
The Stirlings have dropped their heavy loads of bombs and begin their return journey. We curve slowly over the outskirts of Lille to make sure the Beehive is not harried from the rear. I look down at a pall of debris and black smoke rising from the target five miles below, and absurdly my memory flashes back to contrast the scene with those other schoolboy Sunday afternoons.
“Dogsbody from [Alan] Smith. 109s above. Six o’clock. About twenty-five to thirty.”
“Well done. Watch ’em and tell me when to break.”
I can see them. High in the sun, and their presence only betrayed by the reflected sparkle from highly polished windscreens and cockpit covers.
“They’re coming down, Dogsbody. Break left.” And round to port we go, with Smith sliding below Bader and Hugh “Cocky” Dundas and me above so that we cover each other in this steep turn. We curve around and catch a glimpse of four baffled 109s climbing back to join their companions, for they can’t stay with us in a turn. The keen eyes of Smith saved us from a nasty smack that time.
Cocky reports, “Keep turning, Dogsbody. More coming down.”
“OK. We might get a squirt this time,” rejoins Bader. What a man, I think, what a man!
The turn tightens, and in my extreme position on the starboard side I’m driving my Spitfire through a greater radius of curve than the others and falling behind. I kick on hard bottom rudder and skid inward, down and behind the leader. More 109s hurtle down from above, and a section of four angle in from the starboard flank. I look round for other Spitfires but there are none in sight. The four of us are alone over Lille.
Bader urges, “Keep turning. Keep turning. They can’t stay with us.” And we keep turning, hot and frightened and a long way from home. We can’t keep turning all bloody day, I think bitterly.
Cocky has not re-formed after the last break and I take his place next to Bader and the three of us watch the Messerschmitts, time their dives, and call the break into their attacks. The odds are heavily against us.
We turn across the sun and I am on the inside. The blinding light seems only two feet above Bader’s cockpit, and if I drop further below I shall lose him. Already his Spitfire has lost its color and is swallowed up by the sun’s fierce light. I come out of the turn and find myself alone in the Lille sky.
The Messerschmitts come in close for the kill. At this range their camouflage looks dirty and oil-stained, and one brute has a startling black and white spinner. In a hot sweat of fear, I keep turning and turning, and the fear is mingled with an abject humiliation that these bastards should single me out and chop me up at their leisure. The radio is silent, or probably I don’t hear it in the stress of trying to stay alive. I can’t spend the whole day turning; Le Touquet is 70 hostile miles away. Far better to fight back and take one with me.
Four Messerschmitts roar down from 6 o’clock. I see them in time and curve the shuddering, protesting Spitfire to meet them, for she’s on the brink of a high-speed stall. They are so certain of my destruction that they are flying badly and I fasten on to tail-end Charlie and give him a long burst of fire. He is at the maximum range, and although my shooting has no apparent effect, some of my despair and fear on this fateful afternoon seems to evaporate at the faint sound of chattering machine guns. But perhaps my attack has its just reward, for Smith’s voice comes loud and clear over the radio. “One Spit behind, Dogsbody. Thousand yards. Looks like he’s in trouble.” Then I see the aircraft with the lovely curving wings that can only belong to Spitfires. I take a long breath and in a deliberately calm voice, say, “It’s me, Dogsbody, Johnnie.”
“Okay Johnnie. We’ll orbit here for you. Drop in on my starboard. We’ll get a couple of these!”
There is no longer any question of not getting home now that I am with Bader again. He will bring us safely back to Tangmere and I know he’s enjoying this, for he sounds full of confidence over the radio.
A dozen Messerschmitts still shadow our small formation. They are well up-sun and waiting to strike. Smith and I fly with our necks twisted round, like the resting Mallard ducks one sees in the London parks, and all our concentration focused on the glinting shoals of 109s.
I report, “Two coming down from 5 o’clock, Dogsbody. Break right.” And this time, mine is the smallest turn so that I am the first to meet the attack. A 109 is very close and climbing away to port. Here is a chance. Time for a quick shot and no danger of losing the other two Spitfires if I don’t get involved in a long tail chase. I line up my Spitfire behind the 109, clench the spade grip of the stick with both hands, and send short bursts into his belly at less than a hundred yards. The 109 bursts apart and the explosion looks exactly the same as a near burst of heavy flak—a vicious flower with a poisonous glowing center and black swirling edges.
I re-form and the Messerschmitts come in again, as this time Bader calls the break. It’s well-judged, and the wing leader fastens on to the last 109 and I cover his Spitfire as it appears to stand on its tail with wisps of smoke plummeting from the gun ports. The enemy aircraft starts to pour white smoke from its belly and thick black smoke from the engine. They merge together and look like a long, dirty banner against the faded blue of some high cirrus cloud.
“Bloody good shooting, sir,” I comment. Bader responds, “We’ll get some more.”
Unbelievably, the Messerschmitts that have tailed us for so long vanish, and we are alone in the high spaces.
We pick up the English coast near Dover and turn to port for Sussex and Tangmere. We circle our airfield and land without any fuss or aerobatics, for we never know until we are on the ground whether or not a stray bullet has partially severed a control cable.
I see the specks and glints which are Stan’s planes break up into the fight, a quick impression of machines diving, climbing, gyrating. Stan, Ian, Tony, Derek, and the rest of them are fighting for their lives up there.
Usual bloody Huns climbing round the usual bloody way …
Hugh “Cocky” Dundas was a Spitfire pilot of 610 Squadron in the summer of 1941. In his book, “Flying Start,” he wrote his impressions of a typical Circus operation over France that July (D.B. refers to Douglas Bader):
Up the line, D.B.’s motor starts. [Squadron] 610 have formed up and are beginning to move off across the airfield as we taxi out: D.B., myself, Alan “Smithie” Smith, Whaley “Nip” Heppell, then two composite sections from both flights.
Straggle over the grandstand at Goodwood in a right hand turn and set course east in a steady climb, Ken’s twelve a little above and behind to the left, Stan’s out to the right. Ten thousand feet over Shoreham. The old familiar, nostalgic taste in the mouth. Brighton—Maxim’s last Saturday night; dancing with Diana in the Norfolk. Beachy Head, once a soft summer playground, now a gaunt buttress sticking his chin bluntly out towards our enemies. Spread out now into wide semi-independent fours. Glint of Perspex way out and above to the south shows Stan and his boys nicely placed between us and the sun. Dungeness slides slowly past to port and we still climb steadily, straight on, way out in front.
“Twenty-five thousand. Levelling out.” Puffs of black ten thousand feet below show where the bombers are crossing between Boulogne and Le Touquet. Six big cigars with tiers of protective fighters milling above them.
“Hello Douglas, Woody calling. There are fifty plus gaining height to the east.”
Stan: “Put your corks in, boys.” Over the coast at Harlow, we nose ahead without altering course.
“D.B., there’s some stuff at three o’clock, climbing round to the south west.”
“OK, I see. Stan, you deal with them if necessary.”
“OK, OK, don’t get excited.” Usual remarks. Usual shouts of warning. Usual bad language. Usual bloody Huns climbing round the usual bloody way.
St. Omer on the left. We fly on, straight and steady in force, towards Lille.
Stan’s voice, “They’re behind us, Walker squadron. Stand by to break.”
Then, “Look out, Walker. Breaking starboard.”
Looking over my shoulder to the right and above, I see the specks and glints which are Stan’s planes break up into the fight, a quick impression of machines diving, climbing, gyrating. Stan, Ian, Tony, Derek, and the rest of them are fighting for their lives up there.
Close to the target now. More black puffs below show where the bombers are running in through the flak. “Billy here, D.B. There’s a lot of stuff coming round at three o’clock, slightly above.” Quick look to the right. Where the hell? Christ yes! There they are, the sods. A typical long, fast-climbing straggle of 109s.
“More below, D.B., to port.”
“OK, going down. Ken, watch those buggers behind.”
“Come on, Cocky.”
“Down after D.B. The Huns are climbing fast to the south. Have to get in quick before those sods up above get at us. Turn right, open up slightly. We are diving to two or three hundred feet below their level. D.B. goes for the one on the left. Nip is on my right. Johnnie slides across beyond him. Getting in range now.
Wait for it, wait for D.B., and open up altogether. 250 yards … 200 … wish to Christ I felt safer behind … 150. D.B. opens up. I pull my nose up slightly to put the dot ahead of his orange spinner. Hold it and squeeze, cannon and machine guns together … correct slightly … you’re hitting the bastard … wisp of smoke.
“BREAK, Rusty squadron, for Christ’s sake, break!” Stick hard over and back into tummy, peak revs and haul her round. Tracers curl past … Orange nose impression not forty yards off … slacken turn for a second … Hell of a melee … better keep turning, keep turning, keep turning.”
There’s a chance, now. Ease off, nose up, give her two lengths lead and fire. Now break, don’t hang around, break! Tracers again … a huge orange spinner and three little tongues of flame spitting at me for a second in a semi head-on attack. Round, round, so that she nearly spins. Then they’re all gone, gone as usual as suddenly as they came.
“Cocky, where the hell are you? Are you with me, Cocky?” There he is, I think. Lucky to find him after that shambles.
“OK, D.B., coming up on your starboard now.”
“Right behind you, Cocky. That’s Johnnie calling.”
“OK, Johnnie, I see you now.” Good show; the old firm’s still together.
It is possible that both accounts refer to the same Circus operation that took place between July 3 and 31.
Dundas went on to relate, “The losses were grievous during those weeks of maximum efforts. In a few weeks between June 20 and August 10, the squadron lost 12 pilots—more than half of its full establishment. In the same period, we claimed 21 enemy planes definitely destroyed, 12 probably destroyed, and 21 damaged. Morale was sky-high, despite the sadness of constant losses.”
Flying for what purpose?
During this same period, the RAF lost 136 fighters, mainly Spitfires, and JG26 “Schlageter,” commanded by the redoubtable Adolf Galland, one of just two Jagdgeschwaders defending the French Channel coast, lost just 29 Messerschmitt Bf 109Fs.
During August, Wing Commander “Johnny” Kent, a Canadian, who had been one of the pre-war test pilots for the RAF, attended a conference being held at Northolt, presided over by Air Officer Commanding Trafford Leigh-Mallory and including the other fighter and bomber wing-leaders of the RAF. This conference was being held to discuss the various problems that were arising during the staging of the Circuses.
After the conference was over, Kent disturbed Air Officer Commanding Leigh-Mallory by asking exactly what the purpose of the sweeps was. If, he said, it was for actually destroying the industrial potential of the various targets, then many more bombers would be needed. If it was “merely” to bring up the German fighters to fight, then the targets needed to be closer to Britain, as most of his pilots had to fight with one eye on their fuel gauges in order to get home.
Leigh-Mallory looked rather taken aback at this question and asked Group Captain Victor Beamish, himself a very experienced fighter pilot and leader, for his opinion. Beamish agreed with Kent. So Leigh-Mallory, obviously seeking the answer that he wanted, asked one of his staff officers, who had been a pilot in the First World War, about this. That worthy sir replied: “My answer is, we’ve done it!” Kent grew angry and argued with the staff officer, but Leigh-Mallory was unmoved. As a consequence, as Kent recorded: “We continued to fly to Lille and lose good men, all to little purpose.”
Author’s note: This is excerpted from my book, “The RAF’s Cross-Channel Offensive, 1941-42,” published by Pen and Sword Publications. I should like to thank Random House publications for allowing me to quote from the book “Wing Leader” by Johnnie Johnson, originally published by Ballantyne Books in 1956. I would also like to thank Stanley Paul & Co., Ltd., for allowing me to quote from Hugh “Cocky” Dundas’s book, “Flying Start,” published in 1989.
By John Starkey