Early in 1941, with fewer German day raids, even using fighter-bombers, RAF Fighter Command’s pilots were beginning to feel under-employed. There had been attempts during the winter to use Spitfires to augment the still limited number of radar-equipped Bristol Beaufighters as night fighters, but this had resulted in little success and at least one occasion when a twin-engined Beaufighter was mistaken for a Junkers Ju88, probably the best medium bomber that the Luftwaffe employed. The risk of being shot down by British anti-aircraft fire was another problem, while heavy smoke from the industrial installations of the day made flying at night even more dangerous for day fighters without radar.
There were other problems. The Spitfire was the livelier and more modern aircraft, overall with a better performance, but if one had to use a day fighter on a night patrol the Hurricane had a better view than the early Spitfires and a roomier cockpit, and a wider undercarriage as the narrow undercarriage of the Spitfire made it more difficult to land at night.
While improved marks of Spitfire were entering service and the squadrons south of the river Thames had priority for these, the Messerschmitt Bf109 was also improving with the arrival of the Bf109F, the first to have the cannon fitted into the propeller boss that gave improved accuracy as well as the benefit of the more lethal cannon shell.
At the time, Johnnie Johnson, later a group captain and one of Britain’s top-scoring fighter aces, was a young pilot officer with No. 616 Squadron, which had just been moved south to RAF Tangmere in West Sussex, where his wing was commanded by the legendary Douglas Bader. It was Bader who declared one day that `. . ‘if the Huns won’t come up, we’ll put on a show over St Omer!’ St Omer was one of the main Luftwaffe fighter bases in occupied France. He recalls one of the first.
Soon after Bader’s arrival we flew on a two-squadron sweep. We were to climb across the Channel, poke our noses over Boulogne, skirt down the Somme estuary and withdraw. Although the Luftwaffe had withdrawn some of its fighter units from northern France to Rumania, to support the campaign in the Balkans, a considerable number of fighters and bombers remained to oppose us. During these early spring days of 1941 both sides regarded the Channel as neutral territory and Spitfires and Messerschmitts often clashed in bitter air battles.
There had been no time for Bader to teach us his own theories of combat formations and tactics. For this show we could fly in the old, tight, line-astern style and he would lead our squadron.
Climbing and still holding a close formation, we curved across the Channel. I was in the number three position in Bader’s section and ahead of me were Cocky and the wing commander. Behind me, in the unenviable tail-end Charlie position, was an apprehensive Nip. Suddenly I spotted three lean 109s only a few hundred feet higher than our formation and travelling in the same direction. Obviously they hadn’t seen us and would make an ideal target for a section of 145 Squadron who were still higher than the 109s. I should have calmly reported the number, type and position of the 109s to our leader, but I was excited and shouted, `Look out, Dogsbody.’ [`Dogsbody’ – the call sign for the formation leader, derived from his initials.]
But the other pilots of the wing weren’t waiting for further advice from me. To them `look out’ was a warning of the utmost danger – of the dreaded bounce by a strong force of 109s. Now they took swift evasive action and half-rolled, dived, aileron-turned and swung out in all directions, like a wedge of fast-moving teal avoiding a wildfowler on the coast. In far less time than it takes to tell, a highly organised wing was reduced to a shambles and the scattered sections could never be reformed in time to continue the planned flight . . .
As Johnson suspected, on landing Bader was anxious to find the `clot’ who shouted `look out’. He was very unimpressed with Johnson’s explanation that there were three Bf109s above his formation, telling him that the two squadrons could have clobbered the lot. Bader then delivered a short, but clearly timely, lecture. In future, in extremis the pilot who identified a threat was to call out `break port’ or `break starboard’ using either the section’s name, such as blue section, or using the Christian name of the section leader, which Bader much preferred. The expression `look out’ was not to be used, to avoid mass panic. Otherwise, enemy aircraft were to be reported using the clock code, so it would be: `Dogsbody from red two. Three 109s at two o’clock high’, with the distance in yards.
Bader was not a man to hold a grudge or be angry for long. A few days later Johnson was sent to check the squadron’s Spitfires while most of the rest of the pilots were snatching a few hours in bed having been on night patrols. He was to check with the flight sergeant in charge of maintenance to see if any aircraft needed air tests. Bader appeared, and on hearing that a couple of aircraft required air tests, decided that he would take Johnson on a trip across the Channel to `see if we can bag a couple of Huns before lunch’.
They took off and climbed through the clouds and out into bright sunshine. Bader waved his hand across his face, signalling to Johnson that he was to take up a wide abreast position. The hand signal was meant to ensure that radio silence was maintained, but the radio crackled into life, challenging them as to their intentions. At first Bader ignored the request, but when told that the station commander wanted to know, Bader had to reply, telling the controller that two aircraft were on a `little snoop across the Channel’. Within a few moments the radio crackled into life again, ordering Bader and Johnson back to base. Nevertheless, never one to let an opportunity be lost, on the return flight along the Sussex coast Bader showed the younger pilot how to get onto the tail of a Bf109, with a steep climb and a tight turn.
After such a discouraging start, low-level fighter sweeps over France, codenamed `Rhubarb’, became very much the standard pattern of operations for the day fighters based at Tangmere. Days of low cloud or poor visibility were to provide the chance to drop below cloud level and look for `targets of opportunity’, such as aircraft on the ground, troops and staff cars, as well as transport targets such as railway rolling stock and locomotives. These aircraft were usually conducted by a section or pair of Spitfires hunting together.
Views on the usefulness of such operations varied. So pilots preferred the excitement and teamwork of dogfights, and some also believed that the gains from fighter sweeps did not justify the risk to aircraft or pilots. On the other hand, a fast-moving fighter, especially if fitted with the more lethal cannon, was more likely to succeed in an attack against aircraft on the ground or railway rolling stock than a bomber. A few cannon shells through the boiler of a steam locomotive was a very effective way of putting it out of action for some weeks, if not longer. Sadly, at the time the squadron’s Spitfires had machine guns and so their efforts were puny by comparison.
These operations were not a soft option and certainly not easy or without risk. While the poor weather helped to conceal the impending attack, often the cloud base was below 1,000 feet and, while most of the target area was low and level, there were small hills that could provide an unwelcome and sudden landing should they be waiting as the Spitfires dropped down through the cloud. The one safety precaution was that if the aircraft weren’t below cloud level at 500 feet, the operation was called off. This in itself was hardly a comforting precaution as the pressure altimeters in use needed local calibration for accuracy and this was hardly likely to be provided by the local Luftwaffe controllers!
Another pilot engaged in fighter sweeps was Captain Hamish Pelham-Burn, a Seaforth Highlander who had volunteered for a temporary transfer to the RAF after being evacuated from Cherbourg. He actually enjoyed the fighter sweeps, flying his Hurricane at close to treetop level to attack armed trains.
`Try to take out the gunner on the first pass,’ as he described his technique later. `Then pull up and have a go at the locomotive on the second time round. Ammunition finished, then streak for home.’
His brief career with the RAF was ended with a bout of sinusitis, after which he was transferred to special operations.
Flying in close formation so as not to lose one another in the cloud, the promises that most of the heavy AA fire would be concentrated on the coast soon proved to be false as Luftwaffe bases were, inevitably, always heavily defended and the gunners could hear the aircraft coming. Often decoy targets were placed, such as railway locomotives, drawing the attackers towards them and into a trap with surrounding heavy AA fire. The only way of having a chance of survival was to make one fast low-level attack and then climb away. Making a second run at a heavily defended target was suicidal.
While the Spitfire provided reasonably good armour protection for the pilot, its Achilles’ heel was the coolant, glycol, contained in a small tank just below the propeller spinner. If fractured by a lucky machine-gun bullet, this leaked and the aircraft engine seized up or caught fire within minutes.
Johnson was one of those who believed that the `Rhubarb’ operations were a dangerous and costly waste of time, but they continued until late 1943, during which time he believed that hundreds of pilots had been lost, when he had an appointment at 11 Group and was in a position to make his views known.
The problem was partly one of poor armament; the early attempts at fitting cannon to the Spitfire had, as mentioned earlier, been unsuccessful. There were steady improvements to the Spitfire, especially to the Merlin engines, and with later versions having the Griffin engine, the Spitfire, and its naval cousin, the Seafire, was produced in more marks than any other British aircraft. At the time of the fighter sweeps, Johnnie Johnson was flying Spitfire IIs, while other squadrons in 11 Group were flying Spitfire Vs, with a slightly more powerful engine. The Va had eight machine guns, but the Vb had two cannon and four machine-guns. The cannon was seen as being able to smash through the armour of enemy bombers, but would also have been even more effective at targets such as railway locomotives.
A big difference between the Spitfire II and the V was that the latter had metal ailerons rather than the fabric ailerons of the former, which made the aircraft much more manoeuvrable, requiring less stick pressure while the rate of roll at high speeds more than doubled. No. 616 Squadron approached the factory and had their fabric ailerons replaced with metal ones. All went well until a year later, when the authorities wanted to know who had authorised such a change. Nothing could be done, however, as by this time Bader was a prisoner of war and the squadron commander at the time of the change was on operations over the Western Desert.
The Luftwaffe soon began to ignore high-level fighter sweeps over France, intended to draw the enemy into battle, as they realised that fighters flying at high altitude could do little damage whilst flying over the Pas de Calais. The RAF changed its tactics to `Circus’ operations, in which a dozen or so Bristol Blenheim bombers would be escorted by fighters to short-range targets in France.
Despite its modern appearance, the Bristol Blenheim did not distinguish itself during the early years of the war. Its operations prior to the fall of France had resulted in heavy losses. Much of this was doubtless due to the relatively small numbers employed on any one operation during the early years, whereas larger numbers would have forced the enemy to divide their fire. Another problem was the relatively poor defensive armament of the Blenheim. Yet, despite this, there were even ambitious attempts to use the Blenheim as a night fighter before the Beaufighter came into service in greater numbers. In short, despite its modern appearance, this aircraft was inferior to the Handley Page Hampden and simply did not compare with the larger Vickers Wellington, which was initially described as a `heavy’ bomber until the arrival of the four-engined Short Stirling, Avro Lancaster and Handley Page saw it downgraded to `medium’.
The idea was that, faced with an attack on targets in the Pas de Calais, the Luftwaffe would not fail to respond. The force of twelve Blenheims was often accompanied by as many as twelve fighter squadrons, placed as close-escort, escort-cover, high-cover and top-cover wings. To avoid alerting the enemy’s radar until the last moment, often the fighters assembled with the bombers below 500 feet off the Sussex coast. This was no easy task, let alone safe, as often the assembly would be during the early morning with sometimes heavy mist off locations such as Beachy Head or Selsey Bill. As some squadrons would circle to port and others to starboard as they waited for the bombers, inevitably there came a moment when they met head on! The Polish fighter formations were the most difficult as they arrived in strict formation as if expecting everyone else to move out of their way. It was never a moment too soon when the bomber leader arrived and the fighters could get into position and set off for the French coast.
The Channel was often crossed at low level and the fighters did not begin their climb to their assigned positions until the bombers started to climb to their bombing height, just in time to face the deadly German 88mm anti-aircraft guns on the coast, one of the best AA weapons of the war. The `flak’ was extremely effective in forcing the close-escort fighter pilots to climb another 1,000 feet or so, realising that a direct hit would be enough to shoot such a small aircraft out of the sky. This manoeuvre was not welcomed by the Blenheim pilots who had to struggle on and maintain their assigned height.
Once clear of the coast a fresh problem arose, as the fighters had difficulty keeping pace with the much slower bombers and could not reduce their speed as this would make it difficult to fend off a Luftwaffe fighter defence. To overcome this, the fighters weaved and twisted around the Blenheims in twos and fours so that they could remain in position, with one wit describing the manoeuvre as the `beehive’. In addition to the escorts, other fighter squadrons carried out diversionary operations over enemy airfields, while some provided forward support and target support, and there was also cover for the withdrawal and even flank cover for the `beehive’.
There was no question that these operations were successful in drawing the Luftwaffe into action. For the Blenheim, targets such as Lille and Tournai in northern France were long penetrations, and the fighter pilots recalled the air-to-air combat as some of the most intense they experienced throughout the war. Fighter sweeps were preferable to fighter escort for the bombers, not least because of the difficulty in identifying friend or foe when large numbers of pairs or fours were flying in close protection for the bombers.
The large number of fighters comprising the `beehive’ could be seen from some distance by the Luftwaffe Bf109s, helped by the flak bursts as the bombers and fighters made their way across France.
The advantage of surprise usually lay with the enemy, with the morning sun behind them so that often the first the escort knew was when the Bf109s attacked at high speed from six o’clock high. The irony was that the escort then had to move quickly, but instead of intercepting the German fighters, they had to get out of the way of the Spitfires flying top-cover as they screamed down to attack the Bf109s. `It seemed to us that the risk of collision was far greater than the threat from a handful of Messerschmitts,’ recalled one RAF pilot.
Not every Luftwaffe pilot favoured the direct attack, and some, aided by the cloud, infiltrated the `beehive’ as if they were additional escorts. This required skill and courage, especially as often as many as four Bf109s in formation would join the Spitfires. The usual tactic was to wait until the defending Bf109s dived before striking at the bombers. Other Luftwaffe fighters would wait in the cloud and appear below the bombers when everyone’s attention was focussed on attack from above.