Circus over France

Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation to Lille, 5 July 1941. The use of heavy bombers instead of the more usual Bristol Blenheims was a further attempt to encourage Luftwaffe fighters into the air.

The Mk Vb was the principal Spitfire variant in service during 1941 and 1942. This particular aircraft (serial R6923) was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Dover on 21 June 1941.

The Battle of Britain was over. Operation Sealion, Hitler’s projected invasion of England, had been postponed indefinitely. The Luftwaffe’s bombers now came at night, striking at Britain’s cities in the cold, interminable darkness of the war’s second winter.

It was time for Fighter Command to turn from defence to offence. On 20 December 1940, two Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron, flown by Flight Lieutenant G. P. Christie and Pilot Officer C. A. W. Brodie, took off from Biggin Hill and set course across the Channel under a low cloud base. Crossing the enemy coast at Dieppe, they swept down on Le Touquet airfield and shot up several installations. There was no opposition from either flak or fighters and both Spitfires returned safely to base.

During the next few days, Spitfires and Hurricanes from other squadrons, operating in twos and threes, made short dashes into enemy territory. Their pilots reported that the Luftwaffe was absent from the sky. Encouraged, Fighter Command decided to try something bigger. On 9 January 1941, in brilliant sunshine and perfect visibility, five fighter squadrons penetrated thirty miles into France. There was no sign of movement on the snow-covered airfields they flew over; not a single Messerschmitt took to the air to intercept them.

The following day, the RAF decided to stir up a hornet’s nest. That morning, six Blenheims of No. 114 Squadron, escorted by six squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires, attacked ammunition and stores dumps in the Foret de Guines. This time, the Luftwaffe took the bait, but only to a limited extent. There was some skirmishing, in the course of which one Hurricane was shot down. Two battle-damaged Spitfires crash-landed on return to base, one of the pilots being killed. It was an inauspicious end to the RAF’S first combined daylight bombing raid and fighter sweep, known as ‘Circus No. 1’.

Nevertheless, offensive sweeps were carried out whenever the weather permitted during the early weeks of 1941, and Luftwaffe opposition gradually increased. It was clear that the Germans, following the policy adopted by the RAF before the Battle of Britain, were reluctant to commit their fighter defences in strength. There was also another reason; in January 1941, several first-line Luftwaffe fighter units on the Channel coast had begun to re-equip with an improved model of the Messerschmitt, the 109F-1, but early in February three 190Fs were lost when the complete tail assembly broke away, and the remainder had to be withdrawn for structural modifications.

By March 1941, fighter sweeps over the continent were becoming organized affairs, with the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons operating in wing strength. A Fighter Command Wing consisted of three squadrons, each of twelve aircraft. There were Spitfire wings at Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Tangmere, mixed Spitfire and Hurricane wings at Duxford, Middle Wallop and Wittering, and Hurricane wings at Kenley, Northolt and North Weald.

The Biggin Hill Wing, in the spring and summer of 1941, comprised Nos. 72, 92 and 609 Squadrons, all of which had achieved impressive records during the Battle of Britain. It was led by Wing Commander Adolf Gysbert Malan, a redoubtable South African with eighteen confirmed victories to his credit, a DSO and two DFCs. Known to all and sundry as ‘Sailor’ because of his pre-war service in the Merchant Navy, he was one of the RAF’S foremost air combat tacticians, and his famous ‘Ten Rules of Air Fighting’ were displayed on crew-room walls throughout Fighter Command. Their message was brutally simple.

  1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of 1 or 2 seconds and only when your sights are definitely ‘ON’.
  2. Whilst shooting think of nothing else; brace the whole of your body; have both hands on the stick; concentrate on your ring sight.
  3. Always keep a sharp lookout. Keep your fingers out!
  4. Height gives you the initiative.
  5. Always turn and face the attack.
  6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
  7. Never fly straight and level for more than thirty seconds in the combat area.
  8. When diving to attack leave a proportion of your formation above to act as top guard.
  9. Initiative, aggression, air discipline and TEAMWORK are the words that mean something in air fighting.
  10. Go in quickly — punch hard — Get out!

Sailor Malan was not a talkative man. His business was killing the enemy, and the basic skills of his trade were hammered home hard to those who found themselves under his wing. During the Battle of Britain, when he first rose to fame, the popular Press did its best to surround him with an aura of glamour. War reporters found him uncommunicative, and on the few occasions when he did open up his forthright manner often shocked them. Once, he was asked how he went about shooting down a German bomber. ‘I try not to, now,’ was his reply. ‘I think it’s a bad thing. If you shoot them down they don’t get back, and no one over there knows what’s happening. So I reckon the right thing to do is to let them get back. With a dead rear gunner; a dead navigator, and the pilot coughing up his lungs as he lands. If you do that, it has a better effect on their morale. Of course, if you just mean to shoot them down — well, what I generally do is knock out both engines.’

The pilots of Malan’s Biggin Hill Wing were proud to belong to what was generally recognized as an elite formation. One of them was Sergeant Jim Rosser of 72 Squadron, who flew his first sweeps in the spring of 1941 and whose experiences were typical of many young pilots.

‘We would cross the Channel in sections, line astern, climbing all the time. We always climbed into the sun, which was absolute hell; your eyes felt as though they were burning down into your head and within a few minutes you were saturated in sweat. It might have been just coincidence, but on every sweep I flew we always seemed to head for Lille, which we hated. It was our deepest penetration at that time, and there was flak all the way.

‘I will never forget my first operation. Seventy-two Squadron was flying top cover; I was “Yellow Two”, in other words the number two aircraft in Yellow Section, and quite honestly I hadn’t a clue what was going on. We flew a sort of semi-circle over France, still in sections line astern, and then came out again. I never saw a single enemy aircraft; but we must have been attacked, because when we got home three of our Spits were missing…’

No. 72 Squadron’s commanding officer was an Australian, Desmond Sheen, who had begun his operational career with the squadron before the war. In April 1940 he had been posted to No. 212 Squadron and during the next few months had flown photo-reconnaissance sorties all over Europe in specially modified Spitfires, returning to 72 Squadron just in time to take part in the Battle of Britain. He was to lead the squadron on sweeps over occupied Europe for eight months, from March to November 1941.

Sheen’s opposite number with No. 92 Squadron was Jamie Rankin, a Scot from Portobello, Edinburgh, who had originally joined the Fleet Air Arm but later transferred to the RAF. When he was appointed to command No. 92 in March 1941 it was the top-scoring unit in Fighter Command, and its score increased steadily under Rankin’s dynamic leadership. Rankin himself opened his score with No. 92 by destroying a Heinkel He 59 floatplane and damaging a Bf 109 on 11 April. This was followed by another confirmed 109 on the twenty-fourth, and in June — a month of hectic fighting over France — he shot down seven more 109s, together with one probable.

It was Jamie Rankin who provided Jim Rosser with the latter’s first Messerschmitt 109. Rosser was now commissioned, with the rank of pilot officer.

‘We didn’t always fly operationally with our own squadrons. On this occasion Jamie Rankin was leading the wing and I was flying as his number two, which was a considerable privilege. The Luftwaffe was up in strength and there was an almighty free-for-all, during which the wing got split up. I clung to Jamie’s tail like grim death, and as we were heading for the Channel he suddenly called up over the R/T and said: “There’s a Hun at two o’clock below — have a go!” I looked down ahead and to the right and there, sure enough, was a 109, flying along quite sedately a few thousand feet lower down. I dived after him, levelled out astern and opened fire. He began to smoke almost at once and fell away in a kind of sideslip. A moment later, flames streamed from him.’

A lot of young pilots got their first break that way, while flying with Rankin. And most of them felt the same as Jim Rosser: with Jamie guarding your tail, you didn’t have much to worry about except shooting down the Hun in your sights.

Leadership of this kind emerged in more than one way during that spring and summer of 1941. ‘Once,’ Jim Rosser remembers, ‘we were on our way back home after a sweep, heading for Mansion as usual to refuel, when the weather clamped down. I knew Manston well by this time, and I just managed to scrape in, together with four or five other pilots. Many of the others, however, were relatively new boys and they were in trouble. Then one of our 72 Squadron flight commanders, Ken Campbell, came up over the radio and told everybody to get into a circle and stay put above the murk. One by one he guided them down, wingtip to wingtip, until they were safely on the ground. When he eventually landed, I don’t think he had enough fuel left to taxi in. More than one pilot owed his life to Ken that day.’

By May 1941, fifty-six squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers were regularly taking part in offensive sweeps over occupied Europe. Of these, twenty-nine still flew Hurricanes, but the earlier Mk. Is had now been almost completely replaced by improved Mk. IIAs and IIBs. Before the end of the year, however, the Hurricanes were to assume the role of fighter-bomber, the actual sweeps being undertaken exclusively by Spitfires. In June, the Spitfire II began to give way to the Mk. V, which was to become the most numerous of all Spitfire variants. The majority were armed with two 20mm cannon and four machine guns, affording a greater chance of success against armour plating. The Mk. V was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 engine, developing 1,415 hp at 19,000 feet against the 1,150 hp of the Merlin XII fitted in the Mk. II. Nevertheless, the Spitfire V was essentially a compromise aircraft, rushed into service to meet an urgent Air Staff requirement for a fighter with a performance superior to the latest model of Messerschmitt. The service debut of the Spitfire V came just in time, for in May 1941 the Luftwaffe fighter units on the Channel coast had begun to receive the Messerschmitt 109F, its technical problems now resolved. On 11 May, a group of bomb-carrying 109Fs attacked Lympne and Hawkinge, and one of them was shot down by a Spitfire of No. 91 Squadron.

The Spitfire V, however, failed to provide the overall superiority Fighter Command needed so badly. At high altitude, where many air combats took place, it was found to be inferior to the Bf 109F on most counts, and several squadrons equipped with the Mk. V took a severe mauling during that summer.

Several notable RAF pilots flew their last sorties in a Spitfire V. One of them was the near-legendary Douglas Bader, who flew with artificial legs as a result of a pre-war flying accident. In 1941 Bader commanded the Tangmere Wing, which comprised Nos. 145, 610 and 616 Squadrons, all flying Spitfires, and by the end of July his personal score stood at twenty-two enemy aircraft destroyed. Bader had an aversion to cannon armament, believing that it encouraged pilots to open fire at too great a range, so his personal aircraft was a Spitfire VA with an armament of eight machine-guns. The Germans always knew when the Tangmere Wing was involved in a sweep, for Bader’s callsign — ‘Dogsbody’, taken from his initials — was easily identifiable.

Bader came from Duxford to take command of the Tangmere Wing, and with him, as station commander and fighter controller, came Group Captain Woodhall, considered by many to be the finest controller produced by the RAF during the war. Together, they made a formidable team. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, who flew with the Tangmere Wing in 1941 and who later became the official top-scoring pilot in the RAF, wrote of Woodhall:

Over the radio Woodhall’s deep resonant voice seemed to fill our earphones with confidence and assurance. When we were far out over France and he spoke into his microphone it was as if the man was in the air with you, not issuing orders but giving encouragement and advice and always watching the precious minutes, and the headwind which would delay our withdrawal, and the low cloud creeping up from the west which might cover Tangmere when we returned, tired and short of petrol. Then he was always on the ground to meet us after the big shows, to compare notes with Bader and the other leaders. Always he had time for a cheerful word with the novices. And whenever a spontaneous party sprang up in the mess, after a stiff fight or someone collecting a gong or for no valid reason whatsoever, Woodhall was always in the centre of the crowd, leading the jousting with his expensive accordion, which he played with surprising skill, his monocle still held firmly in place. We were a very happy family at Tangmere in that spring and summer of 1941.

Handling the large fighter formations which were being pushed across the Channel that summer called for a high degree of skill on the part of men like Woodhall, whose vital role is all too often ignored, or rather eclipsed, in headier stories of air combat. And by July 1941 Circus operations were very large affairs indeed, with as many as eighteen squadrons of fighters covering a small force of bombers. Getting six wings of Spitfires airborne, to the rendezvous at the right time and place, and shepherding them into and out of enemy territory, was something of a nightmare for everyone concerned, and it began on the ground. Three squadrons of Spitfires — thirty-six aircraft — might make an impressive sight as they taxied round the perimeter of an airfield, but with propellers flicking over dangerously close to wingtips it was all too easy to make a mistake. A late starter would add to the problem as its pilot edged around the outside of the queue, trying to catch up with the rest of his squadron.

Making rendezvous with the bombers — usually over Manston in Kent — was another critical factor. A Spitfire’s tanks held only eighty-five gallons of petrol, and every minute spent in waiting for the Blenheims to turn up reduced a pilot’s chances of getting home safely if he found himself in trouble over France. And over enemy territory the Luftwaffe always seemed to have the advantage. No matter how high the Spitfires climbed, the 109s usually managed to climb higher, ready to dive on the ‘tail-end Charlies’ of the fighter formations and pick them off. There was no dogfighting in the original sense of the word; the Messerschmitts fought on the climb and dive, avoiding turning combat with the more manoeuvrable Spitfires wherever possible, and life or death were measured in no more than seconds.

One of the biggest fighter sweeps of 1941 — code-named Circus 62 — was carried out on 7 August, when eighteen squadrons of Spitfires and two of Hurricanes accompanied six Blenheim bombers in an attack on a power station at Lille (always Lille!). The whole force made rendezvous over Manston, with the North Weald Wing, comprising the Hurricanes of No. 71 (American Eagle) Squadron and the Spitfires of Nos. Ill and 222 Squadrons providing close escort for the bombers. Behind and above, as immediate top cover, came the three Spitfire squadrons of the Kenley Wing: Nos. 452 (Australia), 485 (New Zealand), and 602. High above this ‘beehive’ of nearly eighty fighters and bombers came the target support wings, flying at 27,000 feet. There was the Biggin Hill Wing, with Nos. 72, 92 and 609 Squadrons; the Hornchurch Wing, with Nos. 403 (Canadian), 603 and 611 Squadrons; and Douglas Bader’s Tangmere Wing, with Nos. 41 (the latter having replaced No. 145), 610 and 616. The target support force’s task was to assure air superiority over and around Lille while the attack was in progress.

On this occasion, however, the Luftwaffe stubbornly refused to be drawn into battle in large numbers. Six weeks earlier, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union, and many fighter groups had been transferred from the Channel area to the eastern front. Those that remained, seriously outnumbered in the face of Fighter Command’s growing strength, had been ordered to conserve their resources. The 109s stayed well above the Spitfire formations, shadowing them. From time to time, small numbers of Messerschmitts broke away and darted down to fire on the odd straggler, always disengaging when the rest of the Spitfires turned on them. Nevertheless, the 109s succeeded in shooting down one of 41 Squadron’s commanders.

The bombers, meanwhile, had found Lille obscured by cloud, so had turned back towards the Channel to attack a concentration of barges at Gravelines. A fierce air battle was already in progress over the coast, where two Polish squadrons of the Northolt Wing — Nos. 306 and 308 — had been waiting to cover the Blenheims during the first phase of their withdrawal. No. 308 Squadron was suddenly ‘bounced’ by about eighteen Messerschmitts, and in the ensuing mêlée two Spitfires were shot down. The Blenheims made their escape unmolested, but the rear support wing, comprising Nos. 19, 257 and 401 Squadrons, was also attacked and lost two Spitfires and a Hurricane. The RAF had therefore lost six aircraft; a result which, set against a claim of three 109s destroyed, could hardly be considered favourable, considering the far smaller numbers of enemy aircraft involved.

Another large operation — Circus 63 — was mounted two days later, on Saturday 9 August. This time, the Blenheims’ objective was a supply dump in the Bethune area. Once again, Bader’s Tangmere Wing formed part of the target support force, but things went wrong right from the start when No. 41 Squadron failed to rendezvous on time. The remainder, unable to wait, carried on across the Channel. For a while, all was peaceful; then, just a few miles short of the target, the 109s hit them hard. For the next few minutes, Bader’s pilots were hard put to it to hold their own, the wing becoming badly dislocated as the Messer-schmitts pressed home a series of determined attacks. Bader misjudged an attack on a 109 and suddenly found himself isolated. Six enemy fighters closed in on him and, by superb flying, he destroyed two. The end came soon afterwards, when a third 109 collided with him and severed his Spitfire’s fuselage just behind the cockpit. Bader managed to struggle clear of the plunging debris, leaving one of his artificial legs still trapped in the cockpit. His parachute opened, and he floated down to a painful landing and captivity.

On 12 August, three days after Bader was shot down, the medium bombers of the RAF’S NO. 2 Group made their deepest daylight penetration into enemy territory so far when 54 Blenheims bombed two power stations near Cologne. They were escorted by Westland Whirlwind fighters of No. 263 Squadron, the only fighter aircraft with sufficient range to carry out this task. The Whirlwind was highly manoeuvrable, faster than a Spitfire at low altitude, and its armament of four closely-grouped 20mm nose cannon made it a match for any Luftwaffe fighter of the day. As it was, the Whirlwind experienced a spate of troubles with its twin Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines, and only two squadrons were equipped with the type. Eventually, it was used in the fighter-bomber role with considerable success.

As August gave way to September, some senior Air Staff members began to have serious doubts about the value of Circus operations. Fighter Command losses were climbing steadily, and the results achieved hardly seemed to compensate for them. The only real justification for continuing the sweeps, apparently, was to ensure that Fighter Command remained in a state of combat readiness.

The morale of Fighter Command, however, was soon to take a serious blow. On 21 September 1941, Polish pilots of No. 315 Squadron, on their way home after Circus 101, reported being attacked by ‘an unknown enemy aircraft with a radial engine’. A few days later, Jim Rosser of 72 Squadron was on a sweep over Boulogne, flying No. 2 to Ken Campbell, when he too sighted one of the mysterious radial-engined machines and went down after it, opening fire at extreme range. The enemy aircraft dived into the Boulogne flak barrage and Campbell called Rosser back, but not before the latter had secured some good gun-camera shots.

All sorts of wild rumours circulated in Fighter Command, the favourite among them being that the strange aircraft were Curtiss Hawks, captured by the Germans and pressed into service. Then RAF Intelligence examined all the data and came up with the answer. The Focke-Wulf 190 had arrived in France.

The first Luftwaffe unit to receive Focke-Wulf 190s on the Channel coast was Jagdgeschwader 26, followed by JG 2, and by October 1941 the RAF was encountering the type in growing numbers. Within weeks, the FW 190 had established a definite measure of air superiority for the Germans. It completely outclassed the Spitfire VB at all altitudes, and Fighter Command losses rose steadily that autumn. Not until the advent of the Spitfire IX — resulting from the marriage of a Merlin 61 engine to a Mk. V airframe — was the balance restored; but the first Mk. IXs did not enter service with No. 64 Squadron until June 1942.

As far as Circus operations were concerned, the crunch came on 8 November 1941, when the Blenheims of No. 2 Group and their escorting fighters suffered unusually heavy losses. The whole ‘show’ went wrong from the start, with poor visibility making it difficult for the bombers and fighters to rendezvous as planned. Combined with a general lack of co-ordination, this meant that the attacking forces entered enemy territory piecemeal, and the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts were waiting for them. The Intelligence Summary of No. 118 (Spitfire) Squadron gives a typical account:

It was decided in the afternoon to carry out a most ill-conceived scheme, designated Rodeo 5, in which the Middle Wallop

Wing rendezvoused with the Whirlwinds of 263 Squadron over Warm well and carried out a sweep of the Channel Islands area. The whole sortie seems to have been one long muddle. The Whirlwinds led the Spits much too far south and then returned right over the flak area. 501 Squadron were sent out to deal with a few Huns that put in an appearance when we were on the way back. 118 went back to help, but 501 were not located. The net result was at least three planes damaged by flak and enemy aircraft, and one shot down, and all we could claim was one enemy aircraft damaged…

It was the end. Winston Churchill himself decreed that there should be no more large-scale sweeps over the Continent in 1941; it was now the duty of Fighter Command to gather its strength for the following spring.

By that time, although no one yet dreamed it, Britain would no longer stand alone. On the other side of the world, events were moving to a climax that would soon make Pearl Harbor a household name, and bring the unparalleled resources of the United States into the battle.

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