The Spitfire is one of the most iconic images of British success in the skies during the Second World War. Dilip Sarkar tells the remarkable story of those caught in the heart of the action.
A devastating German advance
Without warning, on 10 May 1940, the German Blitzkrieg smashed into Holland, Belgium, France and Luxembourg. Disaster consumed the Allies, the unprecedented German advance to the Channel coast slicing the Allied armies in two and threatening the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with envelopment.
German fighters ruled the air, enabling the Stuka dive-bombers and panzers to roam at will. On 24 May 1940, Hitler halted at the Aa Canal, confident that the Luftwaffe could pulverise the BEF, concentrated in a pocket, the base of which rested upon the port of Dunkirk, into submission or annihilation.
Two days later, Lord Gort received permission from London to execute the unthinkable: evacuate his BEF from the port and beaches around Dunkirk.
The problem, from an air perspective, was that Dunkirk lay fifty miles across the sea from 11 Group’s closest airfields, and contact would be over the French coastline. The inherent dangers were obvious and hardly conducive to preserving Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s precious Spitfire force.
Providing continuous fighter patrols from dawn to dusk using what were actually short-range defensive fighters was impossible, and would have required every single one of Dowding’s fighters – leaving Britain itself vulnerable to attack.
A fight against the odds
Another hugely significant factor in the fighting over Dunkirk would be that the British fighters were unassisted by radar. The System of Fighter Control only provided a radar network for the defence of Britain, its stations incapable of gathering data from as far away as Dunkirk and beyond.
Dowding knew how exhausting the battle ahead would be for his pilots: as they could not predict or have early warning of an enemy attack it would be necessary to fly as many standing patrols as possible.
Even so, Dowding also knew that given the size of the force he was able to make available – 16 squadrons – there would be times, howsoever brief, that cover would be unavailable.
Indeed, given that these fighters were actually intended to be short-range interceptors, with limited range, the RAF fighters would only have fuel for a maximum of 40 minutes patrolling.
The man entrusted with coordinating and controlling Fighter Command’s contribution was 11 Group’s commander: Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park – and what he was about to do was unprecedented.
Having preserved the smaller, precious, Spitfire force for home defence, only committing the inferior Hurricane to the battle already lost in France, on 25 May 1940, Dowding’s Spitfire units began concentrating at 11 Group airfields close to the French coast.
Action at last
On that day, Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson led his 19 Squadron – the RAF’s first to be Spitfire-equipped – from Duxford to Hornchurch.
The next morning, the Squadron’s ground crews completed Daily Inspections of aircraft in the dark, and for pilots selected to fly that day, this was their big moment: the real chance of action at last, over the French coast.
Amongst them was Pilot Officer Michael Lyne:
‘On 26 May we were called upon to patrol over the beaches as a single squadron. I will always remember heading off to the east and seeing the columns of black smoke from the Dunkirk oil storage tanks. We patrolled for some time without seeing any aircraft.
We received no information from British radar. We had received excellent VHF radios shortly before, but they were only of use between ourselves, we could not communicate with other squadrons should the need arise.
Suddenly we saw ahead, going towards Calais where the Rifle Brigade was holding out, about 40 German aircraft. We were 12. Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson aligned us for an attack in sections of three on the formations of Ju 87s.
As a former Central Flying School A1 Flying Instructor he was a precise flier and obedient to the book, which stipulated an overtaking speed of 30 mph. What the book never foresaw was that we would attack Ju 87s at just 130 mph.
The CO led his Section, Pilot Officer Watson No 2 and me No. 3, straight up behind the Stukas which looked very relaxed. They thought we were their fighter escort, but the leader had been very clever and had pulled his formation away towards England, so that when they turned in towards Calais he would protect their rear.
Alas for him we were coming, by sheer chance, from Dunkirk rather than Ramsgate.
Meanwhile Stephenson realised that we were closing far too fast. I remember his call “Number 19 Squadron! Prepare to attack!” then to us “Red Section, throttling back, throttling back.”
We were virtually formating on the last section of Ju 87s – at an incredibly dangerous speed in the presence of enemy fighters – and behind us the rest of 19 Squadron staggered along at a similar speed. Of course, the Ju 87s could not imagine that we were a threat.’
Then Stephenson told us to take a target each and fire. As far as I know we got the last three, we could hardly have done otherwise, then we broke away and saw nothing of the work by the rest of the Squadron – but it must have been dodgy as the 109s started to come around.
As I was looking round for friends after the break I came under fire from the rear for the first time – and did not at first know it. The first signs were mysterious little corkscrews of smoke passing my starboard wing. Then I heard a slow “thump, thump”, and realised that I was being attacked by a 109 firing machine-guns with tracer and its cannon banging away. I broke away sharpish – and lost him.
‘I made a wide sweep and came back to the Calais area to find about five Stukas going around in a tight defensive circle. The German fighters had disappeared so I flew to take the circle at the head-on position and gave it a long squirt. It must have been at this stage that I was hit by return fire, for when I got back to Hornchurch I found bullet holes in the wings which had punctured a tyre.
‘Alas my friend Watson was never seen again. Stephenson forced-landed on the beach and was taken prisoner.’
Back at Hornchurch, there was great excitement, as the Spitfires returned and ground crews clamoured around their pilots demanding news of the fight. Two Spitfires were missing: Squadron Leader Stephenson’s N3200 and Pilot Officer Watson’s N3237.
Flight Lieutenant Lane had seen a pilot clad in black overalls bale out over the sea , so it was agreed that this was ‘Watty’ and not the CO, who was wearing white overalls. In his combat report, Pilot Officer Michael Lyne described having seen ‘… one Spitfire hit by a cannon shell near the cockpit, on the port side…’ .
This was undoubtedly Michael’s friend, Peter Watson, who although seen to bale out, did not survive, his body later being washed up on the French coast.
Given that the German 20mm round hit ‘Watty’s’ Spitfire close to the cockpit, there is every possibility, of course, that the 21-year old pilot was wounded and unable to survive immersion in the cold sea.
Pilot Officer Lyne also saw ‘… another Spitfire going gently down with glycol vapour pouring from the starboard side of the engine’. This would have been Squadron Leader Stephenson, who forced-landed on the beach at Sandgatte before beginning a whole new adventure – which would end in captivity and ultimately incarceration at the infamous Colditz Castle with his friend Douglas Bader.
Against these losses, 19 Squadron claimed the following victories in this, their first full-formation combat of the Second World War:
- Squadron Leader Stephenson: one Ju 87 certain (confirmed by Pilot Officer Lyne ).
- Pilot Officer Lyne: one Ju 87 certain.
- Flight Lieutenant Lane: one Ju 87 and one Me 109 (probable).
- Flying Officer Brinsden: one Ju 87 certain.
- Sergeant Potter: one Me 109 certain.
- Flight Lieutenant Clouston: two Ju 87 certain.
- Flight Sergeant Steere: one Ju 87 certain.
- Flying Officer Ball: one Me 109 (certain).
- Flying Officer Sinclair: one Me 109 certain.
The Me 109s which ‘bounced’ 19 Squadron that day, were elements of JG1 and JG2, both of which claimed Spitfires destroyed over Calais; 1/JG2 and 1/JG2 both lost 109s in that morning’s engagement. The Stukas were from 3/StG76, which, according to German records, lost four Ju 87s destroyed.
A miraculous recovery
Having lost their CO, it fell to Flight Lieutenant Brian Lane to lead 19 Squadron on the afternoon’s patrol, as Pilot Officer Lyne recalled:
‘In the afternoon Brian Lane led us on our second patrol over the evacuation beaches. Suddenly we were attacked by a squadron of 109s. As before we were flying in the inflexible and outdated formation of “Vics of three”.
Later the basic unit became the pair, or two pairs in what became known as the “Finger Four”. Such a formation, as the Germans were already using, could turn very quickly, with each aircraft turning on its own, but the formation automatically re-formed in full contact at the end of the manoeuvre.
‘Because of our formation we quickly lost contact with each other after the 109s attacked. I found myself alone, but with a pair of 109s circling above me left-handed whilst I was going right-handed. The leader dropped his nose as I pulled up mine and fired. He hit me in the engine, knee, radio and rear fuselage.
I was in a spin and was streaming glycol. He must have thought I was gone for good. So did I. But for a short time the engine kept going as I straightened out and dived into cloud, setting compass course shortly before the cockpit filled with white smoke which blotted out everything.
In a few seconds the engine seized and I became an efficient glider. On breaking cloud I saw Deal some way off, but remembered the advice to hold an efficient speed. So with 200 feet to spare, I crossed the surf and crash-landed on the beach. That adventure ended my flying until 19 February 1941.’
From evidence available, it appears that 19 Squadron had been attacked by the Me 109s of I/JG2, four pilots of which claimed to have destroyed Spitfires over Calais (given the nature of air combat, especially the speed and disorientation, claims were frequently greater than actual losses).
Flight Sergeant George Unwin, also of 19 Squadron, later commented that:
‘The tacticians who wrote the book really believed that in the event of war it would be fighter versus bomber only. Our tight formations were all very well for the Hendon Air Pageant but useless in combat. Geoffrey Stephenson was a prime example: without modern combat experience he flew exactly by the book – and was in effect shot down by it’.
The following day, the Dunkirk evacuation – Operation DYNAMO – began in earnest. For Fighter Command’s squadrons, the pressure was relentless. 19 Squadron would continue to be heavily engaged throughout.
At 2330 hrs on 2 June 1940, the Senior Naval Officer Dunkirk, Captain Tennant, reported that the BEF had been successfully evacuated. Although over the next two nights a further 28,000 men were brought home, essentially Operation DYNAMO was over.
Initially, it had been hoped to save 45,000 men – the actual number rescued was closer to 338,226. The combined efforts of the Royal Navy, RAF and civilian ‘Little Ships’ had famously snatched a victory from the jaws of a catastrophic defeat – creating a legend, the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’.
The BEF had, however, left behind 68,000 men, 40,000 of whom were prisoners of war, and 200 ships had been sunk.
Essential to the evacuation’s success was the contribution made by Air Vice-Marshal Park and his fighter squadrons – but the RAF effort was much criticised at the time. Admiral Ramsay, Flag Officer Dover in overall charge of the naval side, complained that efforts to provide air cover were ‘puny’.
Clearly there was no appreciation of the Fighter Command strength available for the operation, or the limitations due to aircraft performance.
Whilst German bombers had got through to the beaches, without Fighter Command’s presence many more would actually have been able to wreak havoc upon the virtually defenceless troops below.
Indeed, more than half of Dowding’s fighters had been lost fighting over France. Upon conclusion of DYNAMO, his squadrons were exhausted – with only 331 Spitfires and Hurricanes left. The RAF had lost 106 precious fighters and eighty even more valuable pilots over Dunkirk.
DYNAMO had, though, provided Spitfire pilots with their first taste of aerial combat against the Me 109, and Air Vice-Marshal Park decided that it was better to spoil the aim of many enemy aircraft than just destroy a few – which became the basis for how he would soon defend Britain.
Any criticism of the RAF contribution to DYNAMO is, therefore, unfounded – and the experience gained over the bloody beaches would soon prove significant tactically, technically and strategically.
Adapted from Spitfire! The Full Story of a Unique Battle of Britain Fighter Squadron, by Dilip Sarkar MBE, published by Pen & Sword.
Featured Image Credit: 19 Squadron in action on 26 May 1940, painted by and courtesy of Barry Weekly.