The year-long ‘Phoney War’ gave way to the real thing for the pilots of No. 65 Squadron at Hornchurch in May 1940 as the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force trudged onto the beaches at Dunkirk and awaited evacuation to England. A strange fleet of barges, coasters, ferries, lighters and small private vessels was assembled by the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay for Operation Dynamo, the rescue of more than 338,000 British and French troops. The British Admiralty had required all private owners of self-propelled pleasure craft of between 30 and 100 feet to register them. In the actual evacuation, many of the owners of these craft were allowed to skipper them and become a part of history.
The cloud conditions did not favour the Spitfire pilots of No. 65, who had been ordered into the Dunkirk area at an altitude of 30,000 feet, well above several layers of intermittent cloud, and 15,000 feet above the operating level of the Hurricanes that first day of the evacuation.
There were other British aircraft in the skies over Dunkirk that day, notably a squadron of Boulton Paul Defiants, a single-engined aircraft that resembled the Hurricane but was operated by a crew of two and mounted an unusual four-gun turret behind the pilot. It had no forward-firing guns and could not defend itself against head-on attacks. As the evacuation began the Defiants were bounced by a squadron of Messerschmitt Me 109s. The German pilots mistook the Defiants for Hurricanes and attacked them from above and behind. Many of the German fighters were shot out of the sky and the Luftwaffe quickly learned how to attack the Defiant. Later that day more Messerschmitts rose to engage the Defiants and this time things were different. The enemy fighters attacked from below and behind. In the action, the Defiants were defenceless and their entire squadron was wiped out. By August the Boulton Paul machines had been withdrawn from operational duty.
The stark reality of air fighting was made clear to the inexperienced Hugh Dundas on 28 May 1940 high over those same Dunkirk beaches. Flying a Spitfire with No. 616 Squadron from Rochford, near Southend, Essex, he witnessed a pair of Fleet Air Arm Blackburn Skua fighter/dive-bombers under savage attack by Messerschmitt Me 109s. The Skua is an all but forgotten type, distinguished for having been the first Fleet Air Arm aircraft to shoot down a German plane (a Dornier Do flying boat on 26 September 1939). It later became the first FAA aircraft type to sink a German warship in wartime when Skuas attacked the cruiser Königsberg in Bergen harbour (Norway, on 10 April 1940).
Dundas watched for five seconds as the little party of friendly and enemy aircraft fell away and behind him. The scene was instantly erased as his own section leader suddenly broke into a hard, climbing turn in the midst of garbled and confusing voices over the radio. Rushing into Dundas’ view was a yellow-nosed Me 109 curving toward him. It occurred to him that he was about to be shot at for the first time. Someone he didn’t know and who didn’t know him was about to try to kill him. Following his leader, he was fascinated by the sight of the rapidly closing enemy fighter:
… I saw the ripples of grey smoke breaking away from it and the lights were winking and flashing from the propeller hub and engine cowling. Red blobs arced lazily through the air between us, accelerating dramatically as they approached and streaked close by, across my wing. With sudden, sickening, stupid fear I realized that I was being fired on and I pulled my Spitfire round hard, so that the blood was forced down from my head. The thick curtain of blackout blinded me for a moment and I felt the aircraft juddering on the brink of a stall. Straightening out, the curtain lifted and I saw a confusion of planes, diving and twisting. My eyes focused on two more Messerschmitts, flying in quite close formation, curving down towards me. Again I saw the ripple of smoke and the wink of lights; again I went into a blackout turn and again the bullets streaked harmlessly by.
At some stage in the next few seconds the silhouette of a Messerschmitt passed across my windscreen and I fired my guns in battle for the first time — a full deflection shot which, I believe, was quite ineffectual.
I was close to panic in the bewilderment and hot fear of that first dog-fight. Fortunately instinct drove me to keep turning, twisting my neck all the time to look for the enemy behind. Certainly the consideration which was uppermost in my mind was the desire to stay alive.
… there was no thought of right or wrong, courage or cowardice, in my mind as I sweated and swore my way through that first fight over Dunkirk. When, at last, I felt it safe to straighten out I was amazed to find that the sky which only a few moments before had been full of whirling, firing fighters was now quite empty. It was my first experience of this curious phenomenon, which continually amazed all fighter pilots. At one moment it was all you could do to avoid collision; the sky around you was streaked with tracer and the thin grey smoke-trails of firing machine-guns and cannons. The next moment you were on your own. The mêlée had broken up as if by magic. The sky was empty except for a few distant specks. It was then that panic took hold of me for the second time that day. Finding myself alone over the sea, a few miles north of Dunkirk, my training as well as my nerve deserted me. Instead of calmly thinking out the course which I should fly to reach the Thames estuary, I blindly set out in what I conceived to be roughly the right direction. After several minutes I could see nothing at all but the empty wastes of the North Sea — not a ship, nor a boat. At last I saw two destroyers steaming at full speed in line ahead, and beyond them in the haze I could see the flat coastline of France. The sight of the two ships restored me to some measure of sanity and self-control. I forced myself to work out the simple problem of navigation which sheer panic had prevented me from facing. After a couple of orbits I set course to the west and soon the cliffs of North Foreland came up to meet me.
Soaked in sweat, I flew low across the estuary towards Southend pier. By the time I came in to land at Rochford, the little grass field behind Southend where the squadron had arrived the night before to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation, a sense of jubilation had replaced the cravenness of a few minutes earlier. I was transformed, Walter Mitty-like: now a debonair young fighter pilot, rising twenty, proud and delighted that he had fired his guns in a real dog-fight, even though he had not hit anything, sat in the cockpit which had so recently been occupied by a frightened child and taxied in to the dispersal point, where excited ground crew waited to hear the news of the battle.