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The Battle of Britain – In Bader’s Words

Photo: Bader and his men, including five of the Canadians mentioned during the BBC broadcast: Fg Off Tamblyn (2nd left) P/O Turner (3rd left) P/O Campbell (4th left) P/O McKnight (behind Campbell and Bader) and P/O Brown (far right) (IWM)

 

During the Second World War, RAF personnel regularly described their activities on the radio for listeners of the BBC. These broadcasts described their experiences in their own words and in effect provided the human stories behind the official communiqués. Each month we present one of these narratives, from over 280 broadcasts. At the time, each was given anonymously. One of those men was the legendary Battle of Britain pilot, Wing Commander Douglas Bader.

Bader (later Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader CBE DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, FRAeS DL) remains, in the words of the RAF Museum at Hendon, “one of the Royal Air Force’s most famous pilots”.  Throughout the Battle of Britain Bader commanded 242 Squadron, to which he was posted at the end of June 1940.

 Douglas Bader poses by the cockpit of his Hurricane in the summer of 1940 whilst leading 242 Squadron from RAF Coltishall. (IWM)

It was his time with 242 Squadron that formed the basis of an account Bader recorded for the BBC late in 1940 or early in 1941. Reformed at RAF Church Fenton on 30 October 1939, the squadron initially had a large number of Canadian personnel on its strength, as Bader pointed out:

“I’d like to tell you something about the boys in my squadron. They’re grand lads, every one of them. About 75% are Canadians and many of them came over to this country a year or two before the war to join the RAF. Several worked their way across, at least two of them on cattle-boats, and they all came here to do what they’d wanted to do since they were youngsters – to fly.

‘OK, OK,’ he said with obvious relish, and away he streaked to deal with that vastly superior number of enemy fighters.

“Since the war started they’ve shown that they can fight as well as they fly, and between them they’ve already won six of the nine DFCs which have been awarded to the squadron. One holder of the DFC is from Victoria, British Columbia. Another, who has won a bar to his DFC, comes from Calgary, Alberta. Others come from Toronto, Vancouver and Saskatoon. There’s never been a happier or more determined crowd of fighter pilots, and, as an Englishman, I’m very proud to have the honour of leading them.

Soldiers make sure the grapes in the smashed greenhouses at Rochford’s Nurseries, Ponders End, don’t go to waste! (G Pearson)

“I shan’t soon forget the first time the squadron was in action under my leadership. It was on 30 August, and I detailed the pilot from Calgary to take his section of three Hurricanes up to keep 30 Me 110s busy. “OK, OK,” he said with obvious relish, and away he streaked to deal with that vastly superior number of enemy fighters. When I saw him afterwards, his most vivid impression was of one German aircraft which he had sent crashing into a greenhouse.

“But perhaps I’d better start at the beginning of that particular day’s battle.

“Thirteen of the squadron were on patrol near London. We were looking for the Germans whom we knew were about in large formations.

“Soon we spotted one large formation, and it was rather an awe-inspiring sight – particularly to anyone who hadn’t previously been in action. I counted 14 blocks of six aircraft – all bombers – with 30 Me 110 fighters behind and above. So, altogether, there were more than 100 enemy aircraft to deal with.

“Four of the boys had gone off to check up on some unidentified aircraft which had appeared shortly before we sighted the big formation, and they weren’t back in time to join in the fun. That left nine of us to tackle the big enemy formation. I sent three Hurricanes up to keep the 110s busy, while the remaining six of us tackled the bombers. They were flying at 15,000 feet with the middle of the formation roughly over Enfield, heading east.

With the sun at our backs and the advantage of greater height, conditions were ideal for a surprise attack

“When we first sighted them they looked just like a vast swarm of bees. With the sun at our backs and the advantage of greater height, conditions were ideal for a surprise attack and as soon as we were all in position we went straight down on to them.

“We didn’t adopt any set rule in attacking them – we just worked on the axiom that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I led the attack and went for what I think was the third block of six from the back. And did those Huns break up!

In his broadcast, Bader spoke about one enemy aircraft crashing into greenhouses and another into what he thought was a reservoir on 30 August 1940. This was the Me 110 of 5./ZG 2 that hit the greenhouses, killing both crew.

“In a few seconds there was utter confusion. They broke up all over the sky. As I went through, the section I aimed at fanned out. I can’t give you an exact sequence of events, but I know that the Canadian pilot who followed immediately behind took the one that broke away to the left, while I took the one that broke away to the right. The third man in our line went straight through and gave the rear gunner of a Hun in one of the middle blocks an awful shock. Then the other boys followed on and things really began to get moving.

“Now there’s one curious thing about this air fighting. One minute you see hundreds of aeroplanes in the sky, and the next minute there’s nothing. All you can do is to look through your sights at your particular target – and look in your mirror too, if you are sensible, for any Messerschmitts which might be trying to get on to your tail.

All you can do is to look through your sights at your particular target – and look in your mirror too, if you are sensible…

“Well, that particular battle lasted about five or ten minutes, and then, quite suddenly, the sky was clear of aircraft. We hadn’t shot them all down, of course; they hadn’t waited for that, but had made off home in all directions at high speed.

“When we got down we totted up the score. We had destroyed 12 enemy aircraft with our nine Hurricanes. And when we examined our aircraft there wasn’t a single bullet-hole in any of them!

“One pilot had sent a Hun bomber crashing into a greenhouse. Another bomber had gone headlong into a field filled with derelict motor-cars. It hit one of the cars, turned over and caught fire. Another of our chaps had seen a twin-engine job of sorts go into a reservoir near Enfield. Yet another pilot saw his victim go down with his engine flat out. The ’plane dived into a field and disintegrated into little pieces. Incidentally, that particular pilot brought down three Huns that day.

Another of the 242 Squadron Canadian contingent was Plt Off Jack Benzie, pictured here with his Hurricane. (G Pearson)

“Apart from our bag of 12, there were a number of others which were badly shot up and probably never got home, like one which went staggering out over Southend with one engine out of action.

“Another day we like to remember – what fighter squadron who was in the show doesn’t! – was Sunday, 15 September, when 185 enemy aircraft were destroyed. Our squadron led a wing of four or five squadrons in two sorties that day, and we emerged with 52 victims for the Wing, twelve of them falling to our squadron.

“On the first show that day we were at 20,000 feet, and ran into a large block of Ju 88s and Do 17s – about 40 in all and without a single fighter to escort them. This time, for a change, we outnumbered the Hun, and believe me, no more than eight got home from that party. At one time you could see ’planes going down on fire all over the place, and the sky seemed full of parachutes. It was sudden death that morning, for our fighters shot them to blazes.

I’ve always thought it was a pretty stout effort on the part of those two Huns who refused to leave their pal fastened to the doomed aircraft.

“One unfortunate German rear-gunner baled-out of the Dornier 17 I attacked, but his parachute caught on the tail. There he was, swinging helplessly, with the aircraft swooping and diving and staggering all over the sky, being pulled about by the man hanging by his parachute from the tail. That bomber went crashing into the Thames Estuary, with the swinging gunner still there.

“Just about the same time one of my boys saw a similar thing in another Dornier, though this time the gunner who tried to bale out had his parachute caught before it opened. It caught in the hood, and our pilot saw the other two members of the crew crawl up and struggle to set him free. He was swinging from his packed parachute until they pushed him clear. Then they jumped off after him, and their ’plane went into the water with a terrific smack. I’ve always thought it was a pretty stout effort on the part of those two Huns who refused to leave their pal fastened to the doomed aircraft.

“The other day I led two of the latest recruits to the squadron on a search for a Ju 88 off the East Coast. We found it 50 or 60 miles out to sea, and I led an attack from below. Suddenly the raider jettisoned his bombs and two of us had to duck out of the way. We know some of’ the German tricks to try to get rid of our fighters, and at first I thought he was throwing out some new kind of secret weapon to bump us off. Then I realised he’d let them go to help his speed.

Bader, with F/Lt Ball and P/O McKnight DFC, study an emblem painted on a Hurricane of 242 Squadron, October 1940. Taken by Fg. Off. S A Devon. (IWM)

“I kept with him and told the other two boys to go in and have a crack. Their shooting was amazingly accurate, and for the first time I saw bullets other than my own going into the fuselage of an enemy bomber. You know how the lights flash on a penny-in-the-slot bagatelle table? As the little ball goes through the various pins different lights flash. Well, that’s how the bullets from one of these Hurricanes went in.

“I watched them cracking in. The bomber pilot tried to get away and made for a cloud about the size of a man’s hand. He went in, while one of my boys cruised around on top and the other waited underneath. Either the pilot of that Ju 88 was a damned fool or he just couldn’t help it, but he came flying nicely out of the cloud at the other end on a straight course.

“The boy on top nipped down on him like a greyhound after a hare. The boy below went up – it was almost like watching an event at a coursing meeting. When they had finished their ammunition those two Canadians left the bomber in a pretty bad state, and all I had to do was to finish him off.”

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