This item is also filed under MyAiglon.com.
It appears here because
a) it draws attention to the type of person John Corlette worked with
b) it is a wonderful piece of history.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
( Being an introduction to the film of the
Battle of Britain shown at Chesieres - Villars,
Switzerland before an audience of the general
public and students of Aiglon College - 1966)
In June 1940, I was flying some sort of antediluvian flying boat called a Walrus from an airfield on the south coast of England; this, in spite of having been trained as a fighter pilot. It had been a lovely spring: the early summer days had been calm and peaceful, the skies cloudless, whilst the green waters of the English Channel washed the beaches lazily, though the beaches, themselves, were strung with barbed wire and other man - traps. England had been at war, with Germany since September 1939, Prime Minister Chamberlain's peace overtures to Hitler having been scorned. The “phoney war” it was called until the reality of Germany’s blitzkreig showed otherwise.
The Germans had out-flanked the “impregnable” Maginot line, built by France at astronomical cost, by pushing their panzer columns through neutral Belgium. The French had been defeated. The British had withdrawn to the coast. Churchill had replaced Chamberlain, who in a rowdy House of Commons was told “For god’s sake go”. Churchill had flown to France to remind the French Government of their promise not to make a separate peace, but to continue the struggle from North Africa. He offered them unity with Britain. He received the chilling reply that “ in two weeks Britain would have it’s neck wrung like a chicken” to which response he was later to quip , “some chicken … some neck”.
The miracle, I believe it such, of Dunkirk had occurred, during which operation 225,000 English and 110,000 French had been taken off open shallow beaches, in mill pond conditions, by the Royal Navy and a flotilla of little boats, manned by amateur civilian sailors which had been hastily assembled at south coast ports, following a nation wide call over the BBC. The RAF provided only sparse air cover, and were not very popular. The country, of course, in typical fashion, viewed this major defeat and the skin of the teeth escape from the victorious Germans, as a victory. Whereas, in respect to her ability to fight a land battle, England was now virtually defenseless. In spite of the deliverance of Dunkirk, the army had to be re-grouped and re-armed, for many weapons had been left in France. Nevertheless, it was joy to be about in England at this time. Uncertainties had been dispelled. The spirit of companionship and resolve was tangible, and in Churchill the country had found a leader to match the need. To crystallize, to embody the nations aspiration and to inspire. It was at this time that Churchill made his speech; “we will fight on the hills. We will fight on the landing grounds. We will fight on the beaches. We shall never surrender” Thus said Churchill, for after all the country was not quite defenseless; there was the Home Guard who, after their day’s work, drilled with pitchforks and shotguns, and I well remember being heartened by one such individual, who assured me that “he would teach them blighters a thing or two”. However before the confident enemy could set about crossing the Channel, they had to achieve local air supremacy. They did not expect too much difficulty. They had massive air power; their crews were battle trained and cock-a-hoop after an easily won victory. Europe was their play thing. World mastery seemed to be within their grasp. You will see in the film Air Marshall Goering chuckling at the thought of the victory ahead, for the RAF had not yet been put to the test.
What was I doing at this time messing about in Flying Boats, when I had been trained as a fighter pilot? As the film emphasis’s, the crucial problem was shortage of aircraft. There were not too many Hurricanes and only a few Spitfires. Thus in the middle of June, as the troops, welcomed at the ports with cups of tea, were returning somewhat bemused from Dunkirk, I was sent off for three weeks operational training to convert to Hurricanes, and then posted to a Hurricane squadron, which moved about for a while in Northern England and Scotland.
Meanwhile the German’s success had astonished even them. On 10th May their invasion of France began. By the 14th June, France had surrendered and Hitler was enjoying the delights of Paris. But, having come so far so fast, they, too, had to re-group to mount operation “Sea Lion”; the planed invasion of the Kentish coast, and before they could set off in their barges across the narrow straits of Dover, the RAF had to be eliminated as a fighting force. Calmly the country waited on events. After all England had faced invasion before. Did not Napoleon, the master of Europe, muster his barges across the channel, only to fail, at the battle of Trafalgar, to achieve supremacy of the seas? Were the German’s to be more successful? With confidence bred in history, England waited.
The opposing forces were comprised: RAF 600 fighter aircraft, of which only 300 were deployed in the South. The German’s had a 1000 fighters and 1300 bombers. It was not until the middle of August that the attacks began. First, on shipping in the channel, followed by sporadic attacks on radar sites. These latter, as the film shows, were successful. Unaccountably, the attacks were not pressed home. Radar had been discovered by Watson-Watt in the thirties in what proved to be in the nick of time, and radar sites had been grouped along the English coast line. Without radar, we should have had to maintain constant standing patrols, which would have been beyond our ability. With radar, pilots were able to rest by their aircraft until the call came. Without radar the Battle for Britain would probably have been lost. Inconceivably, however, at this juncture, the German’s switched their bombardment from radar installations to airfields. One marvels how they could have made such a tactical error. It is true that coastal airfields had to be abandoned, but this was not so serious as it may sound for the defensive fighters had to climb to height to engage and this they could do equally well from inland airfields. Nevertheless, the airfields defending London were badly hit. You will see one such attack in the film, and it was at this stage, during the last week of August, that my squadron was ordered South to an airfield ten miles from London.
A more personal note now intrudes. Two days previously a new man had arrived to take over the squadron, much to the umbrage of our present Commanding Officer, who refused to be jettisoned; so we flew south with two Commanding Officers! We landed in tight line astern, and, we taxied into our pens, the tannoy sounded “attack alarm” “attack alarm” and the local sirens wailed. What does this mean we asked? “the airfield is about to be attacked. All aircraft in the air”.
Our enthusiastic Squadron Leader, eager to begin the fray, took off without waiting for anyone else, and the squadron chased off after him, to form a long straggly snake of aircraft marked out against the pale evening sky. Each pilot, desperately trying to close up, but our leader had the bit between his teeth and his throttle wide open. At the tail of the snake was me . My aircraft had gone unserviceable on landing, so I, not very experienced and not knowing what else to do, had jumped in an aircraft of another Squadron. For this I was not very popular. As I gained height, a Hurricane twisting in a slow steepening spin, fell past me to the ground, where it burst into flame, the gold and black flame of destruction. Such was our introduction. We all landed again at dusk, fortunately for us in our disarray, not having encountered those deadly “Messerschmitt 109’s”, who were to prove our bane.
My father had just died at a local nursing home and I was given the following day off to attend his funeral. The morning after when I returned, I was told that I, a fairly junior member of the squadron, had been promoted Flight Commander. The day previous about half of the squadron had been killed or disabled, including both the Commanding Officers. The first who had more courage than tactical sense, had been shot down. The tale goes how he showed more concern for the sheets of those who gave him succor than his own pitiable burns, which were to leave him badly scared. He had lead the squadron, into a flock of German fighters. Our second Commanding Officer had been found dead with one bullet in his heart; he had been shot whilst dangling on his parachute; hardly the rules of the Marquees of Queensberry! The remainder of the squadron, you may imagine, were not in particularly good heart, but new blood revived, and we continued the struggle.
What was an operational sortie like? You will see such a one in the film. A few young men lounging in the sun by their machines; the telephone rings, but it was only a message for the cook. It rings again and the orderly shouts “Viceroy squadron scramble, scramble. Angles 15 over Dover, scramble”. A rush to the aircraft, jockeying down the perimeter track for take off, climb to height in battle formation and all the while, eyes searching the skies with necks to find the enemy n the sun. The starched collars and ties of our uniforms, which we had worn in the first days, and which caused painful welts around the neck, had been discarded in favour silk scarves. It was several days, too, before we discarded the “v” formation, which looks pretty enough, but demands concentration on the leader, and adopted, instead, the loose “finger five formation”, in which pairs of aircraft operated semi-independently under control of the leader. So, in “finger five formation” searching the skies, someone calls “Tally ho five o’clock above” the squadron of twelve aircraft, a highly maneuverable formation, wheels to face the threat; a closely packed formation of JU 88 bombers, escorted by a cloud of fighters. The problem is to get into the bombers, while escaping the fighters, but it is clear that someone is going to be hurt. “Gun sights on”. The sight shows up on the windscreen. “Guns set to fire” the eight machine guns of the Hurricanes are opposed to the longer ranging cannon of the Messerschmidts. You attempt to maintain a steady course on a bomber, the sky is crowded with wheeling aircraft, tracer bullets flash, aircraft dive and twist and zoom, swastikas glance a masked face registers momentarily; your aircraft kicks as the guns fire and then… emptiness; a blue sky, patchy cumulus clouds. You are alone and there is not an aircraft in sight. Maybe, a couple of billowing parachutes and, far below, the oil fires of crashed aircraft. Then, home, alone, to refuel, to discover who is missing, to await another “scramble”, or, perhaps, to have tea in the comfort of the mess.
Air Marshall Goering was beginning to show signs of desperation. His primary task was to destroy Fighter Command’s power to resist; to bring into action our fighter aircraft and destroy them so that Operation Sea Lion could begin. As a move to this end, he now protected his bomber fleets with massive fighter cover, and the constant cry was heard over the air “109’s above”. But Lord Dowding, Commander in Chief, remained steadfast. His policy, to some extent dictated by events, was to defend with small highly maneuverable sections of a dozen aircraft. The sun shone, day followed bright day, two more of our squadron commanders had been lost. One, reported “missing” and never found; the other crashed and was “slightly” burned. Thus, it came that for a while I found myself leading the squadron. Despite appearances, however, German strength was being whittled away, whereas Fighter Commands operational strength was actually increasing. Goering, just at the time when his airfield bombardment may have produced results, switched his attacks to London, and many will have seen that startling picture of St. Pauls silhouetted against the flames and smoke of the burning city.
On September 7th, 300 bombers were given an escort of 600 fighters. You will see this raid in the film; it is very authentic. The scene of the German air fleets flying up the Thames estuary to London is as I saw it; a scene that is etched in my mind. Some damage was done to London, but the Germans lost 41 aircraft (though at the time the total was thought to be higher), the RAF, 44 but only 17 pilots. It was on this day that for the second or third time, I was shot down myself. I say second or third for I am slightly hazy about the matter; events were so crowded and moved so fast. Once, certainly was over Cobham in Surrey, my aircraft hit, I was half way out of the cockpit before I recollected myself, found that the controls appeared normal, climbed back in, and made a wheels up landing in a pleasant green field. Vision obscured, I landed looking right and it was only when the aircraft came to a stop, its nose in a small wood, that I found that I had landed parallel to and had just missed a line of stout poles placed there to prevent such an occurrence! Just luck?
On the day of the London raids. I repeated this performance. Caught by “a hun in the sun” south of Sevenoaks, I performed another wheels up in a field close to Ashford adjacent to the home of a longstanding friend. I called on him for tea, and so back to the airfield for the morrows events, with just a trace of shrapnel in my shoulder, but otherwise undamaged. Just Luck?
Hitler gave September 17th as the deadline for operation Sea Lion. Goering mounted and all out effort on September 15th. In two major attacks a substantial load of bombs fell on London. Sixty Seven German aircraft were claimed destroyed, though this figure was later conceded as an over estimate. Be that as it may, Hitler concluded that air supremacy had not been achieved. The invasion began to disperse and the “Battle of Britain” was over, though, of course, we did not realize it at the time. During the four weeks, the Germans had lost 1389 aircraft and the RAF 792.
Said Churchill:- “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”
How far was this true? As a killing ground the battle was insignificant compared with “Stalingrad”, where in appalling conditions millions of lives were lost. I suppose it can be said that the “Battle of Britain” saved Europe from a lengthy bondage but not Poland or Czechoslovakia, whose enslavement had provoked the war, and it gave America more time to prepare, before being hustled into the war by the Japanese.
Should we have made peace with Hitler in 1940? He would have granted us reasonable terms and Russia would certainly have fallen. As it was, the war left Britain economically exhausted. America’s “Lend Lease” only came into operation, when we had little more to give, and had been reduced to bartering overseas bases for 60 over age destroyers. In the final count the war’s outcome made a mockery of Churchill’s boast - “I did not become His Majesty’s First Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire”. Which is just what he did. Although honour was satisfied. “Perfidious Albion’ as the French curiously call us, had once more, as Pitt had said in the time of Napolean, “Had saved Europe by her exertions”.
Who fought “the Battle of Britain”? A number of nationalities played their part. Mostly of course British from the homeland, but strongly supported by RAF trained pilots from New Zealand (the best of all?) Australia, Canada, South Africa; a handful of Americans, who had enlisted in the RAF before the war and a few Poles and Czech’s, who had escaped from their own countries. You will see in the film the first Czech. Squadron becoming operational.
The film you are about to see is surprisingly authentic, but I do not recognize the rather hard-bitten faces portrayed; the average age of the pilots in my squadron could not have been much more than twenty four . . . . .
ON WITH THE SHOW!
Squadron : 253 ( Hydrabad)
(Revised in part at Sevenoaks & Nassau during March, 1993.)
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