Big Wing

To Big Wing,or Not to Big Wing, Now an Answer

The weather throughout the remainder of 31 August 1940, which before the war would have been a Bank Holiday weekend with time to laze, remained mainly fair with haze in the Thames Estuary and the Straits of Dover, so there was still a chance of action. Finally, at around half past four, 242 Squadron were ordered off again. Wing Commander ‘Woody’ Woodhall, the Duxford Controller, ordered ‘242 Squadron scramble! Fly vector 190 degrees for North Weald. Angels 15’. North Weald is thirty miles south of Duxford and the usual way to have covered the airfield would be to patrol over the airfield and wait for the enemy to appear. The Hurricanes took off and took fifteen minutes to reach 15,000 feet but Bader ignored the request to ‘Vector one-nine-zero. Buster’. Instead he led the formation further west to get up-sun and climbed them to nearer 20,000 feet to gain full advantage of the attackers who he guessed correctly would approach from the west with the sun at their backs. The target for the Heinkel He 111H-2s of KG 53 escorted by Bf 110s of II./ZG 2, II./ZG 26 and II./ZG 76 was not North Weald as was thought, but the Vauxhall Motor Works at Luton. Just north of North Weald Bader received directions to vector 340 degrees. At about the same time he saw three unidentified aircraft below and to the right of the Squadron and ordered the three Hurricanes of Blue Section to investigate. At around 1700 hours Bader spotted a tight enemy formation stepped up from about 12,000 feet with their escort fighters at 15,000 to 20,000 feet, which he thought was fifty Dorniers escorted by a similar number of Bf 110s. Bader led his remaining Hurricanes down into the German formation west of the reservoirs at Enfield, heading for the Hatfield-North Weald area. He ordered Flying Officer George Patterson Christie, leading Green Section, to attack the top of the lower formation of Bf 110s. Christie, a twenty-three-year-old from Westmount, Quebec, who had joined the RAF in June 1937, was a former PRU pilot who had forced a Fiat BR 20 Cicogna (Stork) bomber down in the Mediterranean on 13 June despite his Spitfire being unarmed. He had joined 212 Squadron and was posted to 242 Squadron on 21 July. Christie made a head-on attack on a Bf 1103 of 5./ZG 2, which was being flown by Hauptmann Schuldt. The German pilot dived down off to starboard pursued by the Canadian from Calgary who kept on his tail and sprayed a burst from fifty yards astern. Oil began pouring from Schuldt’s starboard engine and the petrol tanks burst into flames. Doomed, the Bf 110 went into a vertical dive from 6,000 feet and hurtled straight down into Rochfords nursery garden at the rear of Nos 16 – 22 Durrants Road about 500 yards from the reservoir at Ponder’s End, killing the Hauptmann and his bordfunker, Unteroffizier Dyroff.

Red Section (Bader, McKnight and Crowley-Milling) and Yellow Section (Eric Ball, Dickie Cork and Sergeant Robert Henry Lonsdale) formed into line abreast to dive down through the middle of the bomber formation. Heavily outnumbered, Bader’s only aim was to try to break up the Heinkel formations and take the Bf 110s on individually in dogfights. It seemed to work because the tightly packed enemy formation immediately broke up fan-wise and they were badly mauled by the Hurricanes. 242 Squadron claimed eight Bf 110s destroyed, one probably destroyed and one damaged. The Squadron also claimed five Heinkels shot down.

As McKnight veered left Bader went right to attack two Bf 110s who made climbing turns to a nearly stalled position to try and get on the Hurricane leader’s tail. Bader reached the top of the zoom and pumped a short three-second burst at one of the Bf 110s at almost point blank range and the enemy fighter seemed to burst into flames. Bader then picked out another Bf 110 below and to his right just beginning its dive after a stalled turn. He turned in behind the Messerschmitt and fired a burst from about 150 yards’ range. The Bf 110 pilot tried to squirm out of it by pushing his stick violently backwards and forwards but the second time he tried it, Bader got in another burst, which knocked pieces off the starboard wing near the engine and then the whole of the starboard wing caught fire. The Bf 110 fell away to the right in a steep spiral dive. Bader was too busy looking around to notice if any of the crew got out and he noticed in his mirror another Bf 110 coming up from behind. He did a quick turn as six white streams of tracer poured from the fighter’s guns. Bader turned and the Bf 110 put its nose down. He tried to catch up but he could not so he did not fire any further bursts at it.

Pilot Officer Willie McKnight, the nose of whose Hurricane had a sharp-edged scythe dripping blood to symbolise death, the grim reaper, claimed three of the Messerschmitts. He recalled:

While patrolling with the squadron over North Weald, enemy were sighted on the left at about 1705 hours. The enemy aircraft were in a vic formation, stepped up from 12,000 to 18,000 feet. Attacked middle section of Me 110s and two enemy aircraft broke off to attack. Succeeded in getting behind one enemy and opened fire at approximately 100 yards. Enemy aircraft burst into flames and dived towards the ground. Next attacked He 111 formation and carried out a beam attack on nearest one, opening fire at approximately 150 to 20 yards. Port engine stopped and aircraft rolled over on back, finally starting to smoke, then burst into flames and crashed to earth. Lastly, was attacked by an Me 110 but succeeded in getting behind and followed him from 10,000 feet to 1,000 feet. Enemy aircraft used very steep turns for evasive action but finally straightened out. I opened fire from approximately thirty yards. Enemy’s starboard engine stopped and port engine burst into flame. Enemy crashed in flames alongside large reservoir. No return fire noticed from first two enemy but last machine used a large amount.

Crowley-Milling scored his first victory when he shot the belly out of a He 111H-2. He attacked the bomber alone and from astern, giving it a five-second burst. The rear gunner returned fire but he soon stopped as the doomed bomber went down. Crowley-Milling began following it but he had to break off to port when tracer bullets from a Bf 110 passed his starboard wing. Norrie Hart saw ‘Crow’s’ Heinkel go down. Hart attacked another Heinkel of 5./KG 1 piloted by Unteroffizier Burger and shot it down north of London. Burger and his four crew were all killed.

Yellow Section, led by Flight Lieutenant Eric Ball, also drew blood west of Enfield. Ball spotted a solitary Heinkel circling, diving and turning and he approached from behind out of the sun, closing to 100 yards and firing one-third of his ammunition. Both the Heinkel’s engines caught fire and the pilot crash-landed the bomber on an aerodrome full of cars near North Weald. With the sun still at his back Ball chased a straggling Bf 110 and knocked out one of the engines. The enemy fighter lost height rapidly and went down for his second victory. His No. 2, Dickie Cork, carried out a beam attack on a Bf 110 and set the port engine on fire. The enemy pilot frantically put the fighter into a stall turn but seconds later the Messerschmitt exploded on the ground. Sergeant Robert Lonsdale (‘Yellow 3’) got a lone Heinkel 111 with a ten-second burst from 300 to 50 yards range and it crashed in about the same area as Cork’s victim.

Green Section had gone for the Heinkels after the Bf 110s had quickly dispersed. Norrie Hart came across three He 111s in line about 1,000 feet below him and as he began his dive, he saw Eric Ball attacking the last one in the formation. Hart picked out the second Heinkel and a burst of fire from his guns sent it into a dive. Hart was about to follow the enemy down when he noticed that the first Heinkel was making a steep right-hand turn. He turned inside it and used all his remaining ammunition on the He 111 and it went down, crashing in a field with all the crew still aboard. Hart did not hang around because three Bf 110s began chasing him.

Noel Stansfield (‘Black 1’) saw a straggling He 111 and in the first of three attacks he silenced the rear gunner who had returned fire with cannon. The Heinkel’s port engine began smoking and the starboard motor stopped altogether. The Heinkel crashed on the same aerodrome near North Weald where Ball’s victim had come down. Three of the crew staggered out of the wrecked bomber. Meanwhile Sergeant George William Brimble (‘Black 2’), who was from Ward End, Birmingham, had followed Stansfield during the attack on the Heinkel and had fired at it from 250 yards. After watching Stansfield follow the Heinkel almost into the ground Brimble broke away and saw a Bf 110 making a gentle turn to port. He carried out a quarter-attack and it went down and soon crashed. As Brimble flew across to rejoin Stansfield a Bf 110 got him in his sights and opened fire. Brimble returned fire at 350 yards’ range and the enemy machine dived violently down but he lost sight of it when another Bf 110 got on his tail.

On the way home to Duxford Bader picked up Green Leader (George Christie) and Blue Section, who were highly disgruntled having missed the battle and not even firing a single round in anger. Six Heinkels were actually lost and two returned to base badly damaged while four Bf 110s were actually lost and three returned to base damaged. The Heinkels that did get through to their target badly hit the Vauxhall Works and fifty-three civilians were killed and sixty were injured. Bader felt that 242 Squadron had had a ‘successful’ first engagement with the Luftwaffe ‘under favourable circumstances’. ‘Although, as was usual in 1940, heavily outnumbered, we had the height, the sun, and controlled the fight. We felt that with more aeroplanes we would have been even more successful.’ Altogether, the day’s fighting cost the RAF twenty-six fighters shot down with fifteen pilots saved and the Luftwaffe had lost thirty-six.

Back at Coltishall the AOC 12 Group, AVM Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, telephoned his congratulations to Bader who replied that if he had had thirty-six fighters they could have shot down three times the number of German aircraft. In theory, a large fighter formation could be brought to bear on the enemy ‘Balbo’ thereby increasing the chances of ‘knocking down’ more aircraft than smaller formations were capable of doing. (On 21 June 85 Squadron had flown a wing practice with 66 Squadron, Duxford.) Trafford Leigh-Mallory had long held the belief that a ‘Wing’ could achieve greater killing potential than the squadron formations favoured by ACM Sir Hugh Dowding at Fighter Command and by AVM Keith Park at 11 Group, who had much less time to form up squadrons into Wings.

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