Battle of Britain Sunday

News Article / September 15, 2017

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By Chris Charland

"The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

 —British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill

September 15, 1940, was undoubtedly the decisive turning point in the Battle of Britain, as 56 Luftwaffe aircraft were shot down over the south of England. This one-day tally helped convince Germany’s Adolph Hitler that his air force could not gain aerial superiority over the English Channel. Control of the waters that separated England from France was vital for Hitler’s proposed invasion of England, known as Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion). Unfortunately for him, the British thumbed their noses at him and threw a monkey wrench into the cogs of the German war machine.

Now, as we celebrate Battle of Britain Sunday with a parade heralding the courage of those who flew off to face seemingly insurmountable odds dueling with the Luftwaffe, and to honour the memories of those who met their fate in the skies over England, and never returned.

Johnny Canuck joins the Royal Air Force

No. 242 Squadron, the RAF's ”All Canadian” unit that was originally a coastal reconnaissance unit in the First World War, was re-formed on October 30, 1939, at RAF Station Church Fenton, Yorkshire. It comprised Canadian aircrew serving in the RAF before the Second World War.

Initial training began in November with a complement of three Miles Magisters from No. 53 and No. 66 Squadrons; a single North American Harvard Mk 1, on loan from No. 609 Squadron; and a Fairey Battle Mk 1. from No. 235 Squadron. These were further complemented with the arrival of seven twin-engine Bristol Blenheim Mk 1Fs and three more single-engine Fairey Battle Mk 1s in December 1939.

No. 242 Squadron received the Hawker Hurricane Mk 1 in March 1940. On March 23, 1940, under the command of Squadron Leader Fowler Morgan Gobeil, of Ottawa, No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron was declared operational for daytime sorties. The unit's first operational sortie was flown on March 25, when 'A' Flight, comprising seven Hurricanes, flew a convoy patrol. It was cleared to fly night operations on May 11, 1940.

First loss

The first Canadian from No. 242 Squadron to die in action was Flight Lieutenant John Lewis Sullivan, of Smiths Falls, Ontario. On May 14, 1940, he was shot down in a Hurricane Mk 1, number P2621, by a Luftwaffe Henschel (Hs) 123 near Corroy-le-Château, while providing air cover for the evacuation of the beaches at Dunkirk, France.

Ten pilots of “A” Flight were sent to France on May 16, 1940, where they flew with No. 607 “County of Durham'” and No. 615 “County of Surrey” Squadrons.

By the time the Canadians returned from France, they had accounted for six enemy aircraft destroyed. In addition to the death of Flight Lieutenant Sullivan, Flying Officer Lorne Edward Chambers, of Vernon, British Columbia, was taken prisoner of war, while Pilot Officer Marvin Kitchener Brown, of Kincardine, Ontario, and Pilot Officer Russell Henry Wiens, of Jansen, Saskatchewan, were wounded.

An RCAF first

No. 242 Squadron reported to RAF Station Biggin Hill, Kent, on May 21, 1940. The following day, eight of the unit’s Hurricanes shot down a trio of Hs 126B-1 army co-operation aircraft near Arras, France. This was a great morale booster because, up to that point, the squadron had lost several members in combat without avenging those losses. The honour of the first victory by a member of the RCAF went to No. 242 Squadron’s commanding officer, Squadron Leader Gobeil. He shot down a twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110C “Zerstörer” on May 25.

French adventures

After numerous patrols, encounters and incidents, No. 242 Squadron, in its entirety, was sent back to France. They arrived at Le Mans on June 8, 1940, accompanied by the Royal Air Force's No. 17 (Fighter) Squadron.

The squadron was in the thick of things. They were on the doorstep of the advancing Germans. The situation was one of desperation; the Germans were literally steamrolling over the British and French forces. No. 242 Squadron provided a rearguard action to allow the British forces time to retreat, which would soon lead to the wholesale evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk.

While in France, they moved about from Châteaudun to Ancenis and finally, Nantes. With little hope of saving France, the Canadians continued to fly into the face of adversity. It was a lost cause, to say the least.

 On June 18, 1939, the last of the pilots flew back to an England that was recovering from the embarrassing shock of the loss of so many personnel and so much equipment. The remnants of the squadron were re-assembled at RAF Station Coltishall, Norfolk. It was not until July 9, 1940, that No. 242 Squadron was once again operational.

'Wooden-legged Wonder'

Douglas Bader
Douglas Bader was a “bigger than life” personality in the Royal Air Force. He was commissioned as an officer in the RAF in 1930 but 18 months later crashed his aircraft and lost both his legs. As a consequence, he was discharged. With the outbreak of the Second World War he rejoined the RAF after proving he could still fly effectively. He was shot down in August 1941 and spent the balance of the war as a prisoner.

Two days later, the new commanding officer of No. 242, the legendary “legless” pilot, Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, shot down two Luftwaffe Dornier (Do) 17Z-2s.

The squadron moved again, this time operating from the airfield at RAF Station Duxford, Cambridgeshire. There, the Canadian fliers got plenty of opportunities as part of the Duxford Wing to tangle with the Germans to the northeast of London. While operating as part of the Wing, No. 242 Squadron scored 11 victories on September 5. The unit would continue with great success during many of its heaviest engagements with the intruding Luftwaffe aircraft.

Changes

The engagements became more sporadic, to the point when, in October, the squadron unsuccessfully tried its hand at night fighting.

By the end of 1940, No. 242 Squadron lost much of its unique Canadian identity. An influx of Polish and Czech pilots who had managed to escape from their German-occupied homelands, as well as British, Australian and Free French, brought the ”Canadian content” to about 50 per cent. By the middle of the following year, the unit had a pronounced international flavour.

Prelude to war

Canada's one and only regular fighter squadron, No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron (based at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia), had been a permanent peacetime unit flying the Northrop Delta Mk 2 and Hawker Hurricane Mk 1 before being designated for duty overseas on May 22, 1940. The decision had been made to send an RCAF fighter squadron to England along with army co-operation air units in support of the 1st Canadian Division. The move overseas was to take place after the unit was amalgamated with Montreal's No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron (Auxiliary).

No. 115 Squadron, mobilized at the outbreak of war, possessed six aircraft, all of which could hardly be considered fighter material: three North American Harvard Mk 1s and three Fairey Battles. A number of personnel from units based in Nova Scotia—No. 8, No. 10 and No. 11 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadrons—filled in the remaining slots needed to bring No. 1 up to full squadron complement.

The squadron left Halifax on June 8, 1940 on board SS Duchess of Atholl and SS Duchess of Bedford. They arrived at Liverpool, England, on June 20, from where they proceeded to their new home of RAF Station Middle Wallop, Hampshire. The hostilities in France were over and the Battle of Britain was about to begin.

The squadron brought their Hawker Hurricanes with them, and the aircrafts’ Watts two-bladed wooden fixed-pitch propellers were not up to RAF specifications. The aircraft were traded back to the RAF for more modern airframes and the squadron carried out intensive training as the Battle of Britain was being waged all around them.

No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron, RCAF, relocated to Croydon, Surrey, on July 4, 1940. During this time, the squadron would remain classified as non-operational. All of that was about to change, as on August 17, 1940, the squadron was transferred to the Northolt Sector and declared fully operational. Led by Squadron Leader Ernie McNab, of Rosthern, Saskatchewan, the squadron was about to go to war.

Flying in earnest

A few days before No. 1 was declared operational, Squadron Leader McNab had been attached to the RAF's No. 111 (Fighter) Squadron at RAF Station Northolt, Middlesex, for operational experience. While there, he scored the first RCAF victory of the Battle of Britain when he shot down a Luftwaffe Dornier (Do) 17 Z-2 of 6 Staffel / Kampfgeschwader 3 'Blitz-Geschwader'.

During its second patrol on August 26, while temporarily operating from RAF Station North Weald, Essex, northeast of London, the squadron tangled with a formation of 25 to 30 Do 17 Z-2/3s. The squadron’s total for the day was three enemy aircraft destroyed and three damaged. The squadron lost Flying Officer Robert Lesley Edwards of Cobourg, Ontario, who was killed in action, while the commanding officer and Flying Officer Jean-Paul Joseph Desloges, of Ottawa, were forced to land their crippled aircraft. Both of their Hurricanes were subsequently written off due to the extensive damage.

The big day

Engagements were numerous and often ferocious, with the inevitable loss of men and machines. No.1 Squadron was actively involved on September 15, which has already been described as the turning point in the battle.

Flying Officer Ross Smither, of London, Ontario, was killed in combat while flying Hurricane Mk 1, number P3876, over Turnbridge. He was shot down by a Luftwaffe Me 109.

The Luftwaffe had also downed Flying Officer Arthur Deane Nesbitt, of Westmount, Quebec. Despite suffering a head injury, he successfully bailed out. Earlier that day, while flying Hurricane Mk 1, number P3080, Flying Officer Nesbitt shot down a Luftwaffe Me 109.

Flying Officer Arthur Yuille of Montreal, Québec, suffered a wound to the shoulder, but managed to bring his Hurricane back safely after exchanging gunfire with a Heinkel (He) 111 bomber over Turnbridge.

The end-of-day total for No.1 (Fighter) Squadron, RCAF, was one He 111 destroyed, one shared with another pilot, two as probable, a pair damaged, and one Me 109 probably destroyed.

On September 21, 1940, the RAF's Polish-manned No. 303 'Kusciusco' (Fighter) Squadron along with No. 229 (Fighter) Squadron and the RCAF’s No.1 Squadron, all based at RAF Station Northolt, began operations as a wing of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command. On the September 22, an invasion alert was sounded but nothing came of it.

Welcome reprieve

The routine continued with further victories and losses. The daily ordeal of battle was taxing on the badly mauled pilots and groundcrew. Fatigue plagued the squadron as they were almost continuously airborne.

On September 27, 1940, Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native Flying Officer Otto John “Pete” Peterson was killed after he and his squadron engaged a superior force of an estimated 30 Junkers (Ju) 88s and a large fighter escort of Me 109’s and Me 110’s. Peterson bailed out of his stricken Hawker Hurricane Mk 1, number P3647, near Hever, Kent, at 9:15 a.m., but was killed during his parachute descent.

Mercifully, on October 7, 1940, the squadron engaged the enemy for the last time during the Battle of Britain. They then headed north to Prestwick, Scotland, for rest and re-grouping. While there, the only operational unit activities were coastal patrols of the Clyde River approaches.

Just before No.1 (Fighter) Squadron, RCAF, had left Northolt, King George VI awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross to Squadron Leader McNab, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Roy McGregor and Flying Officer Blair Dalzell Russel.

“Kentski”

John Alexander “Johnny” Kent, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was a legendary pilot who had been a pre-war test pilot at Farnborough, Hampshire, England. He was an RAF flight commander with the Polish-manned No. 303 Squadron, flying Hawker Hurricanes. He single-handedly took on 40 Germans on October 1, 1940, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. No.303 Squadron was the highest-scoring unit of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain.

“Kentski” as his Polish friends called him, went on to become wing commander of three Polish-manned fighter squadrons. He is credited with 13 confirmed kills, two probable and three damaged. Kent stayed in the RAF until 1952, retiring as a group captain. He went on to become a renowned test pilot in the British aircraft industry. Group Captain Kent's decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, and the Polish Virtuti Militari.

Cowboy antics

When you're on the tail of an enemy aircraft in the heat of battle, and you find the guns are out of ammunition, what do you do?

That was the dilemma that faced Flight Lieutenant Howard Peter ”Cowboy” Blatchford, of Edmonton, Alberta, as he lined up his sights on an Italian Fiat CR.42 “Falco” bi-plane of the Corpo Aero Italiano. Benito Mussolini had convinced Adolf Hitler that the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) could help with the final victory for fascism in Europe, despite the express misgivings of the Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring.

On November 11, 1940, as a retaliatory measure for the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm’s attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, the Regia Aeronautica set out to bomb the English port of Harwich. A small number of Luftwaffe Bf-109s accompanied the formation. They were intercepted by Hurricanes of No. 17, No. 46 ”Uganda”, and No. 257 ”China-British” (Fighter) Squadrons. While “Cowboy” Blatchford, of No. 257 Squadron, was flying Hurricane number V6962, he discovered much to his shock that he was out of ammo. He instinctively rammed the CR.42 with his propeller, which subsequently chewed up the enemy's top wing, sending the fabric bi-plane tumbling earthwards.

For his daring escapades, Flight Lieutenant Blatchford was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross on December 6, 1940. Sadly, as with so many fine young men, Wing Commander Blatchford, DFC, MiD, and only 31 years old, was killed in action on May 3, 1943. By then, the Coltishall wing leader, he was taking part in a Ramrod 16 escort of Royal New Zealand Air Force Lockheed Ventura Mk 2 bombers to Ijmuiden, Netherlands. He was engaged by Luftwaffe Fw-190s and was forced to ditch his aircraft in the North Sea. His body was never recovered. His record was six destroyed, three probables and two damaged.

Chris Charland is senior associate air force historian.

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