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The Battle Of Britain: Air Force, Part 17

The Battle of Britain looms large in the history of World War II. It also represented the first commitment of the Royal Canadian Air Force to combat in that war, although the Canadian role was small compared to future operations.



A German aircraft over London, England, in 1940.

The official dates of the Battle of Britain–July 10 to Oct. 31, 1940–were established well after the fact in 1943 when a Battle of Britain clasp for the 1939-1943 Star (later 1939-1945 Star) was being proposed. Postwar studies show that the significant battle was actually much shorter. Following the Dunkirk evacuation and the capitulation of France in 1940, Hitler expected Britain to face facts and sue for peace. He thus squandered weeks waiting for diplomatic advances that never came. Only on July 16, 1940, did he issue Directive No. 16, which itself was couched in hesitant terms. “I have decided to begin to prepare for–and if necessary–to carry out the invasion of England,” he wrote, still hoping it would be unnecessary to execute any plan conceived.

Having at last set preparations in motion for an all-out invasion–code named Sealion–the Germans scheduled the opening rounds of the aerial campaign to begin on Aug. 10, 1940. Weather delayed this to the 13th–a full month after what British authorities later designated as the “official” start of the Battle of Britain.

The terminal date of the battle was also much earlier than the “official” one. The German army was confident it would prevail if a landing could be made and reinforced. The German navy, bloodied in Norway between April and June, was pessimistic to the point of despair that this could be done, and then only if Germany had air superiority over the invasion area. Hermann Göring was certain his Luftwaffe could break the Royal Air Force, but when he failed in this the invasion was postponed from day to day. Meanwhile, RAF bombers were nightly attacking the motorized barges in French and Belgian ports–barges intended to carry German troops in their cross-Channel enterprise.

Hitler was loath to admit failure, but he allowed partial dispersal of his “invasion fleet” on Sept. 17, and on Oct. 12 formally advised his service chiefs that Operation Sealion had been put off to the spring of 1941. In fact, he had already turned his thoughts and energies eastwards–towards Russia–and would never return to Sealion. German air attacks before July 16 and after Oct. 12 were thus separate from any comprehensive invasion plan.

It would be misleading to say that RAF Fighter Command “defeated” the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. As of late October 1940 both sides actually had more aircraft and pilots than they had possessed in early August. Yet it was an RAF victory in that the enemy was denied his objective–obliteration of British air defences, rendering impossible any air attacks on invasion forces. By frustrating the German intentions, Fighter Command preserved the threat that haunted German admirals, worried German generals, and ultimately robbed Hitler of his resolve.

Yet, like the Battle of Waterloo, the Battle of Britain was “a near-run thing.” The Luftwaffe did not have to destroy the entire RAF, but for Operation Sealion to go forward it did have to gain air superiority over Kent and Essex–the intended invasion areas. By early September 1940 it had come dangerously close to achieving that goal. That the enemy failed was due in large measure to their overestimation of the damage they were causing and frequent changes in plans. They began with fierce attacks on British radar installations–then discontinued the attacks before destroying all these vital defensive tools. They then switched to attacks on Fighter Command stations and control centres. Again, they discontinued these operations just as the system was beginning to crack.

Finally, on Sept. 7, the Luftwaffe began bombing London, a very important political target but irrelevant to the matter of landing and supplying an army in southeastern England. It was against this backdrop that the RCAF was first blooded by battle in WW II.

A few members of the RCAF had been in action previous to the Battle of Britain. Squadron Leader William I. Clements, attached to No. 53 Squadron, had flown a reconnaissance sortie over Germany on the night of Sept. 29-30, 1939. Another RCAF officer attached to the RAF, Sqdn. Ldr. Fowler M. Gobeil, commanded No. 242 (Fighter) Sqdn. from October 1939 to June 1940, and was credited with the first aerial victory by a member of the RCAF–a Messerschmitt 110 shot down on May 25, 1940. However, the first purely RCAF unit into battle was No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn.

In February 1940 the RCAF had dispatched No. 110 (Army Co-operation) Sqdn. overseas, complete with Lysander aircraft, intended to support the First Canadian Division in action. A second Army Co-operation squadron (No. 112) followed in June 1940, accompanied by No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. The course of events–and the obsolescence of the Lysanders–quickly sidelined the two army co-operation squadrons, but the half-trained No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. was taught the rudiments of Fighter Command procedures before commitment to the defence of the United Kingdom.

No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. was a composite unit, its pilots drawn in almost equal measure from a regular force unit and an RCAF auxiliary unit, No. 115 Sqdn. No. 1 had begun receiving Hawker Hurricanes from Britain in the spring of 1939 and when they sailed for England about half their fighters were completing a “round trip” back to Britain. The pilots themselves were a cross-section of the nation and included a former Mountie, Paul Desloges, and one pilot of American birth, E. de P. Brown, who later transferred to the United States Army Air Force.

The unit retained its cumbersome title–No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn.–to distinguish it from a British squadron with the same number. In February 1941, No. 1 (Canadian) would be redesignated No. 401 Sqdn. No. 110 and No. 112 squadrons would respectively become numbers 400 and 402 squadrons. Throughout the Battle of Britain it was commanded by 34-year-old Sqdn. Ldr. Ernest A. “Ernie” McNab.

A member of the RCAF since 1926, McNab had flown Siskin fighters as a member of an aerobatic team. From 1937 to early 1939 he was on exchange duties in Britain, flying Gloster Gauntlet and Gladiator biplane fighters with No. 46 Sqdn. until that unit acquired Hawker Hurricanes. With that experience, McNab was not only a natural choice to command the RCAF’s first modern fighter squadron, but to fly comparative trials of the American XP-40 and a Spitfire in Ottawa shortly before returning to Britain with No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn.

The popular image of a fighter pilot includes youth and a care-free lifestyle. A legacy of the long peace was that No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. had several pilots that might be considered downright elderly. Hartland de Molson was 33; Arthur D. Nesbitt was 30; Vaughan Corbett was 29. The oldest pilot was Gordon McGregor, who had caught the flying bug at a Montreal air show in 1911 and was 39 when he went into action. At the other end of the scale, Beverly E. Christmas was 22 while John D. Pattison was only 21.

A total of 28 RCAF fighter pilots served with No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. at one time or another during the Battle of Britain. Two further RCAF officers attached to RAF units also took part. They were outnumbered by roughly 80-odd Canadian fighter pilots who had joined the RAF before the war. Nevertheless, these CAN/RAF personnel represented a body of men whose numbers would dwindle through losses and transfers as the war progressed; the men of No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. were the vanguard of thousands more to come.

Three men of this unit also led the lists of the RCAF’s battle casualties. These were Flying Officer Robert L. Edwards, killed in action on Aug. 26, 1940, FO Ross Smither, who died on Sept. 15, and FO Otto J. Peterson who died Sept. 27. Eight others were wounded in the course of the Battle of Britain, five of them seriously. Of the 25 pilots from the unit who survived the Battle of Britain, eight died in subsequent wartime operations. By 1944, Blair D. Russel, Arthur Nesbitt and Gordon McGregor commanded RCAF fighter wings in Europe; McGregor later became President of Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada). One survivor, Hartland de Molson, became a Canadian Senator while another, Edwin Reyno, became a lieutenant-general in the integrated Canadian Forces.

The casualties sustained by No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. created the RCAF’s first overseas manning crisis. With no Operational Training Units in Canada and the flow of Canadian trainees barely underway, there were no RCAF fighter pilots abroad to replace the dead or wounded. Fortunately, Nos. 110 and 112 Sqdns. had been virtually unemployed since their arrival and restless pilots volunteered for transfer to No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn.

At least six former RCAF Army Co-operation pilots were sent to RAF Operational Training Units and then posted to No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. during the course of the campaign. This prevented the “Canadian content” from being diluted by British reinforcements, such as happened with No. 242 Sqdn., nominally a CAN/RAF unit that lost its Canadian flavour in the latter half of 1940 as Canadian losses were made up largely through British replacements.

Just before No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. was declared operational, its commanding officer was attached to No. 111 Sqdn. for combat experience, and on Aug. 15 McNab was credited with the destruction of a Dornier 215 bomber–the first RCAF victory of the campaign. He was leading No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. on Aug. 24 when it flew its inaugural interception, an unhappy event when the squadron mistook British bombers for Germans and shot down two.

Despite this inauspicious baptism of fire, the unit put in a solid performance from Aug. 26–when its pilots claimed the destruction of three German bombers–until Oct. 9, 1940, when it was withdrawn from battle for a rest. In that period its men claimed 30 enemy aircraft destroyed, eight “probably destroyed” and 32 damaged. The word “claim” is advisable, for during the Battle of Britain the number of enemy aircraft reported as “destroyed” repeatedly exceeded the actual numbers shot down. Thus, although Fighter Command initially claimed 183 enemy aircraft destroyed on Aug. 15, 1940, the actual number destroyed was 76; on Sept. 15, Fighter Command reported 185 enemy aircraft destroyed; but in reality the enemy had lost 56.

Given these facts, the number of victories by No. 1 (Canadian) was probably about half the figures just cited. The degree to which individual scores should be adjusted, such as the two destroyed that were credited to FO Christmas or the three credited to FO Blair D. Russel, is simply impossible to calculate. Some may have been 100 per cent accurate; others may not. However, all claims were put forward in good faith.

Errors, excessive optimism and overlapping claims in the heat of battle were understandable. RAF intelligence officers knew within days of any major engagement roughly what casualties the enemy was suffering–all they had to do was count wrecks in the English countryside, allow for a few more down in the Channel, and adjust the results. Nevertheless, the corrected figures were not released to the press until after hostilities, much to the consternation of those unfamiliar with the concept of the “fog of war.”

Meanwhile, German intelligence, unable to check results on the ground, accepted the excessive claims of Luftwaffe aircrews and daily expected Fighter Command to disappear, which, inexplicably, it refused to do!

Mistakes as to numbers of enemy aircraft shot down were accompanied by errors in aircraft recognition. The Dornier 215 bombers claimed by many pilots were more likely Dornier 17Z aircraft, which closely resembled the less numerous Do.215. Pilots engaging Messerschmitt 109 fighters sometimes reported Heinkel 113s–a type that never entered Luftwaffe service.

Three members of No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn. received the Distinguished Flying Cross for services during the Battle of Britain. They were Sqdn. Ldr. McNab, Flt.-Lt. McGregor and FO Russel. The announcement of these awards took RCAF authorities by surprise, and initiated the first discussions between British and Canadian authorities to ensure that Canadian newspapers did not have to learn about such honours from their British counterparts. Similar problems arose and were resolved when American decorations were bestowed upon RCAF pilots operating in Alaska without consultation or liaison with Canadian officials.

The groundcrews who serviced No. 1 (Canadian) Sqdn.’s Hurricanes, sometimes under fire and routinely under pressure, received belated recognition in June 1942, when Flight Sergeant John R. Burdes was awarded a British Empire Medal and Flt. Sgt. Cecil M. Gale was mentioned in dispatches. They had been, respectively, servicing chiefs of B and A Flights, and had been recommended for awards on Oct. 28, 1940. Questions about RCAF decorations policies had delayed these honours for 17 months. The citation to Gale’s award read, in part: “Working under trying conditions, he has maintained the squadron aircraft in a capable manner. Owing to the intense operational activity during the latter part of August and September, the flight maintenance crew was called upon to work to the limit. Flt. Sgt. Gale carried out his duties, often working from very early morning until late into the night, with a result that sufficient aircraft for flight use were available at all times.”

The RAF and Commonwealth air forces annually observe Battle of Britain Sunday–the Sabbath closest to Sept. 15. For many years it was widely attended by the public, but increasingly it is a service tradition only. History nevertheless records the Battle of Britain as a significant victory–if avoidance of defeat can be so termed–and Battle of Britain Sunday will continue to be marked in the same manner as Trafalgar Day, even if the latter represents the total destruction of an enemy, rather than simply his retreat.


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