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The experience of war 1939 - 1945
Eyewitness RAF: The Experience of War, 1939–1945 is a new (2020) collection of first hand accounts that covers all aspects of service in the RAF during the war. Each Command of the RAF is considered as well as chapters devoted to training, accidents, being taken prisoner through to demobilisation. A wide range of sources have been used to produce a comprehensive picture of service through the war. Probably the best single volume overview of the RAF available, for those looking for personal accounts of the experiences of the men and women involved. The author does not seek to address the big strategic or technical issues that conventional studies might - although much of the history of the RAF through the war does emerge.
The following passage describes the rapid evolution of tactics as Fighter Command pilots experienced the Battle of Britain:
Initially [it was thought that] 'dog fighting' was thing of the past and rigid air fighting tactics were introduced which, by a series of complicated and time wasting-manoeuvres, aimed at bringing the greatest number of guns to bear against the bombers.
This was understandable given that during the interwar period, strategic thinking had centred on how the British could thwart the expected ‘knock-out blow’ that would be delivered by German bombers.
The attacks against bombers were enshrined in a series of Fighter Area Attacks. In FAA Number One, for example, a section of fighters were expected to attack a lone enemy bomber, by moving into line astern of it, then each successively attacking from the rear. Contrastingly, in FAA Number Two, a fighter unit would approach bombers from below, the aircraft would then climb up and take turns to fire, so that when one fighter’s ammunition was expended it would break off, enabling another to engage.
Theoretically, the neatly choreographed FAAs made sense, but in practice they took no account of developments in aerial warfare by 1940, namely that German bombers would be escorted by nimble fighters, and that combat conditions for pilots flying the latest high performance monoplanes were liable to be frenetic and confusing.
Actions during the Battle of Britain in August 1940 demonstrated this. A young Polish pilot [Henryk Boleslaw, later Squadron Leader] recorded completing his first sortie in a Spitfire, intended to familiarise him with the terrain over which he’d be operating.
After about an hour I started to return to Hornchurch. Suddenly there was an explosion on the ground and I looked up and there was a formation of German bombers dropping bombs. They were at about 12 to 14,000 feet. I was about 5 to 6,000 feet by that time ... so I started chasing them with my full throttle, and I was slowly getting up to them but we were both going in the same direction so it was taking a little bit longer, longer than I hoped. They were bombing the airfield. Eventually I came close or thought I was close, but was about 1,000 feet behind and 400 feet below them, but I was ready to get even closer because it’s no use wasting ammunition.
Then I took a look at my instruments and I was getting out of petrol because I flew for about an hour on the recce flight, then took a full throttle to keep up with the German bombers and I am practically on zero. I thought ‘God I can’t get them,’ so I decided to press the button and if I hit or not it doesn’t matter, provided I am not too slow on speed so it doesn’t get into a spin.
And I had to stop and come down. Coming down to the airfield at 2,000 feet I see that there were lots of craters [from the Germans’ bombing] and I have no petrol to go around. So I had to land straight on ... but I landed between the craters and when I touched the ground and got on three points of landing I undid my seat belt and I stood up to see which way to go ... and I came back to the dispersal point.
During that same month, a Hurricane pilot [James Sanders, later Wing Commander] with 615 Squadron vividly recounted combat with German bombers, near RAF Kenley.
I was about 6-7,000 feet up slightly to the west of the aerodrome where we were being attacked. Now, it was cloudy, poor visibility. A string of bombs had just missed us and I looked up and could just sec through the haze the Dorniers and they were just on their bombing run to Kenley. So I put my nose straight up, the override on, and opened fire on the leader. And I went on and kept on firing at it. Then I fired at the next fellow, then fell out of the sky and saw some tracers so obviously they’d spotted me. ... And I chased one of the Dorniers, which by this time had gone towards Biggin Hill. ...
Then a Ju88 appeared at an angle and I didn’t know if he was going for me, but thought he might be. I was in an ideal position and I gave it a burst, as much as I possibly could, and I obviously killed the pilot and I thought that’s the only way to get rid of a German, kill the pilot then he’d have no option. And it went straight into the ground and blew up and still had his bombs on it.
On another occasion, he launched a lead or head-on attack against a formation of German bombers.
There was a large group of Dorniers coming up from Brighton heading north. I was sent up and attacked them ... so we had practised head-on attacks in 111 Squadron [his former unit] so I thought the only way to get at the Germans was to stop the leaders. If you could get the leader they wouldn’t know where to drop their bombs and therefore that was the answer. So I decided I would go head-on. Two other Hurricanes attacked from the other side i.e. the rear ... I went through onto the leader onto the next one and just kept my guns firing all the way through, through the formation.
They were coming up towards Brooklands ... I think 11 German aircraft came down. We were the only people attacking them. Keith and Tony [the other pilots] each claimed one from the back. Now that was proof that a head-on attack onto the leader would’ve been the answer because their bombing went nowhere.
An alternative was to attack German bombers from behind, not necessarily a bad idea as most types were not as well protected from the rear. Roald Dahl had success with this form of attack against a Junkers 88 that had twin tail guns. He shot it down while flying a Hurricane in Greece, which for an inexperienced pilot was quite an achievement. The Ju 88 sent ‘a stream of orange-red bullets’ towards him as he manoeuvred to attack. Then:
by jiggling my plane this way and that I managed to get the starboard engine of the bomber into my reflector sight. I aimed a bit ahead of the engine and pressed the button ... the eight Brownings in the wings all opened up together ... a second later I saw a huge piece of his metal engine engine-cowling the size of a dinner tray go flying up into the air.
This excerpt appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author. The above images do not feature in the book.