RAF Aces of the French Campaign

Only rarely can all the victory claims of the aces of any nation, and in any theatre, be verified from surviving records of both sides. The debacle in France resulted in the loss of many squadron records and diaries, and in some cases the pilot’s logbooks. Consequently actual scores are in some cases debatable.

EDGAR JAMES ‘COBBER’ KAIN

A New Zealander, Cobber Kain was the first RAF fighter ace of the war. Posted to the Gladiator equipped No 73 Squadron, he was selected to give an aerobatic exhibition at the Empire Air Day at Hendon in 1938. Having converted to Hurricanes, No 73 Squadron arrived in France in September 1939.

At first there was little doing, but on 8 November, Kain stalked a high-flying reconnaissance Dornier Do 17P of 1(F)/123. Hit, the German aircraft fell into a near-vertical dive, with Cobber in hot pursuit. He only just pulled out in time as the Dornier went straight into the ground near Metz, for his-and the squadron’s-first victory. Just over a fortnight later, he shot down another Dornier.

Over the next three months there was little air activity, and Cobber had to wait until 2 March 1940 for his next success. Patrolling at 20,000ft with one other Hurricane, he spotted seven Heinkel He Ills high over Thionville and climbed to engage. While hotly pursuing the bombers, he was bounced from above and astern by Bf 109s of III/JG53. Hit by cannon fire, he broke hard to the right, and then, as his assailant overshot, he turned back and opened fire. Almost immediately he was hit by a second 109, which also overshot him. Pulling in behind it, he fired three bursts, and was rewarded by seeing it go down pouring black smoke. But again he had neglected his rear, and he was hit for the third time; his cockpit filled with smoke, and his engine cut out. His assailant was probably Luftwaffe Experte Werner Mölders, one of the most successful of the German fighter pilots. Engine-less, he was left over Germany with a burning aircraft. Somehow he coaxed his stricken bird back across the frontier, and fortunately the flames subsided, allowing him to make a good landing on a French airfield.

Cobber had an even narrower escape on 26 March, when, leading a section of three Hurricanes, he once more encountered III/JG53. Undeterred by superior numbers, he immediately attacked and claimed two 109s in quick succession, which made him the first RAF ace of the war. Paddy (all his aircraft were called Paddy) was then hit on the cock pit canopy, the engine caught fire, and he was wounded in one leg. This time there was no alternative to baling out, which he just managed before losing consciousness. He came down in no man’s land, and managed to limp painfully to the French lines.

The 17 days following the opening of the Blitzkrieg on 10 May saw Kain claim 11 more victories. He has been described as a type-hunter who spent hours searching for a Henschel Hs 126 observation aircraft to add to his collection, but this seems highly unlikely. Like all other pilots of the period, he engaged whatever turned up, in his case mainly Dorniers and 109s. His final total included two Hs 126s, but not one Ju 87 or He 111; types that were hardly in short supply at the time.

Impetuous by nature, Cobber Kain showed little finesse in his fighting. Whatever he saw he attacked, regardless of position or odds. Operationally very tired, he was ordered back to England on 6 June. Taking off from his base at Echemines, he attempted a final low-level beat-up. For once his judgement failed him; his aircraft hit the ground and he was killed, his final score standing at 16.

FRANK CAREY

The press acclaimed Carey as ‘the Cockney Ace’, but as it is highly unlikely that the sound of Bow Bells ever carried the five miles to Brixton, this is a misnomer. A sergeant pilot with No 43 Squadron from September 1936, in the pre-war period he was, with Peter Townsend (9 victories), and Caesar Hull (4 victories), part of a strictly unofficial aerobatic team, in which Townsend generously admitted that Carey flew the most difficult position.

In the first three months of 1940 he shared in three interceptions of Heinkel He 111s off the north-east coast of Britain. On the third occasion, Carey was one of four pilots of No 43 Squadron which attacked a Heinkel and set it on fire. When it turned back and tried to make the Scottish coast, they escorted it. Carey later commented that he was extremely anxious that the helpless German crew should survive.

In April 1940, Carey was commissioned and posted to No 3 Squadron, also with Hurricanes, which was sent to France at the onset of the Blitzkrieg. Once there, he rapidly became a bomber specialist, destroying 12 bombers and a solitary fighter, with another four bombers unconfirmed, in the space of five days. It was not planned; it was just that he encountered far more bombers than fighters during this period. It is now one of the enduring myths of the early war years that bombers were easy to shoot down. This was not the case. As slow and unmanoeuvring targets they were relatively easy to hit, providing that one managed to run the gauntlet of return fire from their gunners. Doing sufficient damage with .303 calibre machine-guns was a different matter, which makes Carey’s feat the more remarkable. But sometimes, unusual aid was forthcoming:

I got behind this Ju 88 and pressed the button, and to my utter amazement bits flew off and the damage was astonishing! Our .303 guns weren’t heavy enough to do so much damage. Then I saw fire over my head. There was a 109 trying to hit me but shooting high, and we were both knocking the hell out of this poor old Ju 88! It went down.

There was a price to be paid. On 14 May, Carey attacked a Dornier Do 17, which did a snap half-roll and dived vertically. Not realising that it was finished and worried that it might escape, he followed close behind, only to be hit and wounded in the leg by its rear gunner. Force-landing in Belgium, he was evacuated to England, only to find that he had been posted missing.

Frank Carey returned to No 43 Squadron in time for the Battle of Britain. Several more victories followed, but on 18 August, shortly after shooting down a Ju 87 in a confused melee off the South Coast, he was hit in the knee by a spent bullet, and force-landed once more. This was his last victory in Europe.

Posted to Mingaladon in Burma in 1942, still flying Hurricanes, he accounted for seven Japanese aircraft during February 1942, five of them supremely agile but under-gunned Nakajima Ki 27 fighters. Most activity from this point on was air-to-ground. Carey’s final air combat took place at Chittagong on 25 October, when he was attacked during take-off by a number of Ki 43 Oscar fighters. A desperate battle ensued at zero feet, ending when one of the Oscars appeared to fly into a hill. It was claimed only as a ‘possible’. Frank Carey scored hits on a total of 44 German and Japanese aircraft, of which 18 German and seven Japanese were confirmed destroyed.

BOB STANFORD TUCK

A short-service officer, Bob Tuck joined No 65 Squadron in 1936 to fly Gladiators. Having converted to Spitfires before the war, he was posted to No 92 Squadron on 1 May 1940 as a Flight Commander, just in time to take part in operations over Dunkirk. The first patrol over the French port on 23 May nearly ended in disaster as No 92 Squadron droned up and down in the regulation tight Vic formations. With too much attention paid to holding position, it was sheer luck that the 109s were spotted as they came snarling in behind the port beam. A Spitfire burst into flame, then the sky was full of turning, twisting fighters all jockeying for position.

Bob Tuck latched onto the German leader, who zoom-climbed through cloud, then levelled off and set course for home. Using emergency power, the Spitfire gradually closed the distance, keeping slightly low, shielded from view by the tailplane of the Messerschmitt. Seconds passed; the range shortened. The red aiming dot of the reflector sight was centred on the canopy; 1,500ft range- fire! Tuck’s guns were loaded with a high proportion of De Wilde ammunition, which flashed as it hit. The wings and canopy of the 109 sparkled under the hits; its nose rose gently, and an aileron came fluttering back. Then the entire starboard wing broke away, and the doomed German fighter spiralled down. But with no witnesses, this first victory was not confirmed.

That afternoon, No 92 Squadron returned to Dunkirk. This time they encountered a Gruppe of Bf 110s. The Zerstörer pilots had not yet learned that they were no match for British single-seaters, and dived to the attack. Once again, the neat formations dissolved into a whirling confused mass. At first Bob Tuck could not settle on a target, but then a 110 rose from the depths just ahead. Bullets from its rear gunner hit the engine cowling and windshield of the Spitfire, but then the fire of its eight Brownings tore into the German fighter. Flames burst from its port engine and it yawed, rolled over and went down vertically.

There was no time to think-already the Spitfire was taking more hits; another 110 was charging at it head-on. Tuck held on, firing back, then just as it seemed that the two aircraft must collide, he ducked. He never knew whether it passed above or below him, but screwing round, he saw it heading inland, and set off in hot pursuit. A minute or two later, he was within range, about 1,500ft (457m), and once more opened fire. The rear-gunner replied, while the German pilot took his aircraft down to just above the ground, jinking violently to throw off his attacker’s aim. It was too late; the damage had been done and the 110 belly-landed in a field for Tuck’s third victory of the day. But his own aircraft had been badly shot up, and he barely managed to stagger back to base.

The squadron commander had been shot down during this action, and for the next few days Tuck was given command. On May 24 he was back over Dunkirk at the head of eight Spitfires, all that could be made serviceable. Now he made his first tactical experiment, ordering his pilots to open the formation wide for greater flexibility. They encountered a formation of Do 17s, and attacked from astern. Tuck again did the unorthodox; to obtain a longer firing pass, he throttled back and lowered his flaps to match his speed to that of the bombers, then opened fire at 1,200ft range, hitting the port engine of his chosen target. The Dornier slowed, the range closed to 300ft (90m); then two more bursts set it alight. Bob Tuck then shot down a second Dornier, for his fifth victory in two days after three sorties.

By now he had realised that the three-ship section contained one too many aircraft. From this moment on, No 92 Squadron flew in loose pairs. Tuck’s usual wingman was Bob Holland (5 victories), with whom he developed a close understanding.

Bob Stanford Tuck scored seven confirmed victories over Dunkirk, plus a one-third share in a Dornier and the unconfirmed 109. He was unusual in that he was a long-range marksman, often scoring from distances which other pilots could not match. He fought in the Battle of Britain, and over France in 1941, flying a Hurricane. In an epic solo engagement with three 109s near the Dutch coast on 21 June 1941, he accounted for two and damaged the third before baling out over the sea. He was finally shot down by ground fire over the Pas-de-Calais in January 1942 and became a prisoner of war. His final confirmed score was 27, but may well have been higher.

 

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