France – 1940 – airwar – Sitzkrieg


Cockpit check-thumbs up-switches on-press the starter button. A few turns of the two-bladed airscrew, blue-grey smoke puffs from the exhausts and the Merlin roars into life … At take-off power the Hurricane needs a fair bit of right rudder, then, almost unexpectedly, she leaps eagerly off the grass and flies. Unconsciously moving the stick when reaching for the undercarriage lever, I immediately have to pick up the nose and port wing-God! but these controls are sensitive. But what a beautiful aeroplane-instant obedience to the controls, superb view, and what power. So much in fact that one’s leg aches holding her in a prolonged climb.- Graham Leggett, No 46 Squadron, 1940

British Fighters

The Fighters Only two British fighter types saw action in the first phase. These were the Gloster Gladiator, the last biplane fighter in the RAF, and the Hawker Hurricane, the first of the eight-gun monoplanes. The Gladiator, totally outclassed by the German Messerschmitts, achieved little, although one shot-down German bomber pilot, having fallen victim to a Gladiator of the Auxiliary Air Force (the ‘week-end flyers’), expressed himself forcibly in fluent English when apprised of the circumstances: ‘I don’t believe it. Shot down by a bloody biplane flown by a bloody barrister!’ This notwithstanding, the main burden of the air fighting over France fell upon the squadrons equipped with Hurricanes.

In terms of sheer performance, the Hurricane was slightly better than the Messerschmitt Bf 109D, of which a small number were in service, but it was outclassed by the Bf 109E, although the difference was less marked at lower altitudes. Speed for speed, it could generally out-turn the German single-seater at normal combat altitudes. In most areas it was superior to the twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer (Destroyer) heavy fighter, although problems were posed by the powerful forward armament of the latter, which made head-on attacks rather less than advisable; and by the rear gunner, who not only defended against attacks from astern, but made the Bf 110 much more difficult to take by surprise.

Whatever the Hurricane lacked in performance, it made up for by virtues of its own. Although a bit ‘lazy’ on the ailerons, which made it slow in the rolling plane, it could comfortably out-turn both German fighters. It could absorb a considerable amount of battle damage- indeed, Ginger Lacey of No 501 Squadron once described it as ‘a collection of non-essential parts’; it was easy to fly, and forgiving of a ham-fisted pilot; very much so compared with its Bf 109 opponent; and its wide-track main gear was well-suited to rough temporary airfields. Finally, it was an exceptionally stable gun platform, which made for accurate shooting, while the nose sloped down from the windshield, allowing a reasonable degree of deflection to be taken when aiming at manoeuvring targets.

By orthodox single-seater standards, the Hurricane was large, it was heavy, and drag was high, with the result that the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine gave it a lower performance than the similarly-powered Spitfire. This notwithstanding, the Hurricane was at that time an entirely suitable vehicle with which to pursue the King’s enemies.

The Opposition

The Luftwaffe single-seater fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, was smaller than the Hurricane, making it more difficult to see at a distance and providing a smaller target. It was faster, with a higher ceiling, a higher rate of climb, and better acceleration than the Hurricane. Its armament included two 20mm Oerlikon cannon, which gave it greater hitting power than the British fighter. Its other great advantage was a fuel-injected engine, which at times of need enabled it to stuff its nose straight down without the engine cutting under the influence of negative-g. By contrast, the conventionally-aspirated British fighters of the period were forced to roll inverted before pulling through into a vertical dive, losing valuable seconds before they could follow a Messerschmitt down.

However, the advantages were not all on the German side. The heavy framing of the side-opening cockpit canopy gave a poor view ‘out of the window’, and did not permit of being opened in flight to improve the view, such as was often done in the Hurricane. The Bf 109 was tricky to handle, and unforgiving of pilot error; take-off and landing on the flimsy narrow-track main gear posed particular problems, and resulted in many accidents. Wing loading was on the high side, making for an inferior turn radius and rate vis-a-vis its RAF opponent; while leading edge slots, which deployed automatically as the aircraft neared the stall, had a habit of opening asymmetrically during high-g manoeuvring, ruining the pilot’s aim.

The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was indubitably the best of the generation of heavy fighters that had arisen in the 1930s. As in other fields, fashion had held sway, and fashion had dictated the need for a long-range fighter. The degree to which this fad had taken hold is illustrated by the fact that Zerstörer units were regarded as an elite by the Luftwaffe. The Bf 110C was a large and heavy twin-engined two-seater. Its performance was decidedly inferior to that of the Bf 109; its dogfighting capability was poor, yet it was expected to be the spearhead of the Jagdwaffe. Although far more docile than its single-seater stable-mate, and described by one British pilot who flew a captured example as a ‘twin-engined Tiger Moth’, it proved to be extremely vulnerable when pitted against the Hurricane, even though it was rather faster and more heavily armed.

In terms of armament, the German fighters held an advantage. The Bf 109E had two 20mm Oerlikon MGFF cannon mounted in the wings, and two 7.9mm machine-guns above the engine. One hit from a cannon shell was, of course, far more destructive than several hits from rifle calibre machine-guns. On the other hand, the rate of fire of the MGFF was a mere 350 rounds per minute, making it less likely to score hits on an evading target, while muzzle velocity was low, reducing effective range. The engine-mounted machine-guns were of comparable performance to the Colt-Brownings of the Hurricane, with greater accuracy conferred by their solid location, although the need for interrupter gear reduced the rate of fire somewhat. The accuracy of wing-mounted guns was degraded a little under combat conditions by wing flexing during hard manoeuvring. This was more evident in the thin-winged Spitfire than the sturdy Hurricane, although as most shooting was carried out while flying more or less in a straight line, this was no great problem.

The main armament of the Bf 110C was all nose-mounted: two 20mm cannon and four MG 17s, giving a weight of fire more than half as great again as that of the Hurricane. This made it unwise to stand toe-to-toe with it in a head-on pass, although this could not always be avoided. Rear defence was provided by a single swivel-mounted MG17.

Gunsights for both British and German fighters were remarkably similar; the British Barr & Stroud GM2 and the German Revi were both reflector sights, comprising a small glass screen on which was reflected a circle, adjustable ranging bars, and an aiming dot, all focused at infinity. Much has been made of the secrets of the GM2 being revealed to visiting German Generals Milch and Udet at Hornchurch before the war, by a high-ranking RAF officer. He probably knew something the troops didn’t. With British companies unable to cope with the flood of orders, a production contract for the GM2 had been placed with C. P. Goerz of Vienna. In a notable contribution to British rearmament, the Austrian company delivered 700 excellent reflector sights to the RAF prior to the outbreak of war.

Into Action

The training and tactics of RAF Fighter Command were unimaginative and inflexible in the extreme. But while many squadron commanders played it ‘by the book’, others refused to be hidebound by rules and regulations. One such, who used his initiative to outstanding effect, was ‘Bull’ Halahan, commanding No 1 Squadron. He started by scrapping the standard harmonisation bullet pattern, which was calculated to give a few hits at long range, and ordered all his squadron’s Hurricanes to have their guns point-harmonised at 750ft (229m). In theory, this meant that all bullets from all eight guns would go through the same hole which, if the initial aim was true, and the much closer range demanded would assist this, would concentrate the damage caused enormously. Even before the squadron left England, the effectiveness of point harmonisation had been demonstrated against towed drogue targets.

Other innovations were wider spacing in the Vic formation, which allowed all pilots to search the sky rather than having to concentrate on holding station, and the introduction of back armour. When the latter was first requested, Hawker Aircraft refused to comply, on the grounds that the extra weight would alter the centre of gravity and lead to handling problems. Taking an empirical approach, Halahan scrounged the pilot’s back armour from a written-off Battle bomber, and had it fitted to a Hurricane which was then flight-tested. No problems were found; the machine was then checked out at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, with the same result. Consequently all Hurricanes thereafter were provided with back-armour, which saved many lives.

Nor was Halahan averse to learning from other nations. l’Armée de l’Air fighter units used ‘weavers’ to guard their tails: the main body of the formation flew a straight course, with two aircraft above and astern weaving continually, looking over their shoulders to cover the blind spot behind them. Shortly after its move to Eastern France, Halahan’s squadron adopted the same system, vulgarly known as ‘Arse-End Charlies’. Sources state that No 1 Squadron generally flew with two Charlies, and was never taken by surprise during the French campaign. Later, of course, the system was proved fallible and fell into abeyance, as we shall see, but in France it certainly seems to have contributed to the unit’s success.

The other remarkable thing about No 1 Squadron was the results achieved by its personnel. Not only did it wrack up the highest score of any RAF squadron in France for relatively few casualties; it had an exceptionally high proportion of aces. The normal ratio of fighter aces to ordinary pilots was rather less than 20:1. Of the 14 pilots who flew to France under Halahan’s leadership, no less than nine qualified as aces, with a combined score of 83 confirmed individual victories, not counting shared scores. Five of them reached double figures, although not all with this squadron, and certainly not all in France. In effect, the usual proportion of aces, which was slightly less than five percent, exceeded 60 percent in this one squadron.

Battle of Britain squadron scores varied according to opportunity, but typically just two pilots accounted for nearly half the totals; a far cry from No 1 Squadron in France, in which about 40 percent of the pilots were high scorers.

While many RAF fighter pilots opened their accounts during the Sitzkrieg, only two achieved the ‘magic five’ victories before the air war started in earnest. New Zealander ‘Cobber’ Kain, identified by the press in spite of the service’s desire for anonymity, was the first RAF fighter ace of the war, followed shortly after by ‘Fanny’ Orton. Both flew with No 73 Squadron. Their exploits were not without their tribulations; it appears that both fell victim to Luftwaffe Experte Werner Mölders at different times.

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