Battle begins


The great offensive

The fateful month of May 1940 gave the Luftwaffe its greatest success of the war and strained R.A.F. Fighter Command almost to the limit.

When the German assault opened on May 10th, the result was a foregone conclusion although neither the British nor French Governments would admit it. The B.E.F. lacked guns and tanks and the French Army was decayed with the obsolescence of many years.

In the first eight months of war Britain could obtain no satisfaction from the French commander-in-chief. General Gamelin, regarding the yawning gap that lay between the Maginot Line and the Belgian frontier. The French Army had mainly low-grade troops in the area and no real fortifications. The British General Staff wanted to stand firm on the Belgian frontier behind the pill boxes and emplacements which the B.E.F. was building but Gamelin insisted on ‘Plan D’ This entailed leaving the prepared lines and marching to the aid of the Belgian Army if that country were attacked.

The whole problem of land and air defence for this sector was never sorted out with the French Government realistically. In The Second World War, Volume II, Winston Churchill records: “Looking back, we can see that Mr. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet, in which I served, and for whose acts or neglects I take my full share of responsibility, ought not to have been deterred from thrashing the matter out with the French in the autumn and winter of 1939.’

While the situation on the ground was bad enough, in the air it was pitiful. The R.A.F. in France had a maximum strength of 400 aircraft in twenty-five squadrons. Of these no less than eight were equipped with the slow and highly vulnerable Battle light bomber. Six squadrons of Hurricanes made up the fighter protection and the remaining units had Blenheim light bombers and Lysander army-co-operation aircraft. The only advantages that the R.A.F. in France possessed were high courage and good training.

Widely publicised and spoken of as one of the world’s major air arms, the French Air Force was a hollow shell which shattered into a thousand pieces at the first blow. It was commanded by men who were completely out of date in their thinking and who succeeded through the years in preventing the promotion of those officers who showed courage and initiative.

The French Air Ministry organisation changed eleven times in ten years and the process of ‘friends’ influencing contracts reached such a pitch that a furniture maker obtained a contract for an all-metal aircraft and a dope manufacture was awarded one for parachutes.

In a book entitled Les Erreurs Fatales du Ministre de l’Air (Fatal Errors of the Air Ministry), published in occupied Paris in 1941, Major Jean Jalbert described how the Ministry officials were so scared of war that they started hiding secret documents at the time of the Munich crisis. One such lorry-load of papers was cached in the wind tunnel at Issy les Moulineaux. Due to an oversight the staff were not informed. The wind tunnel was started and the material was ‘scattered over an entire Paris, suburb at a speed of 200 m.p.h.… and this was the first breath of fresh air that ever blew through the French Air Ministry’.

In September 1939 the Air Force had only 260 first-line bombers and 442 fighters. These were built between 1931 and 1939. From January 1st, 1939, to March 20th, 1940, some 3,300 aircraft were built. Of these it was stated during the Riom Trial in Vichy France, March 1942, that ‘20 per cent were found to be useless, it is true, but the High Command of the Air Force had been unable to make use of the remaining suitable equipment because the training of air crews lagged behind deliveries’.

In May 1940 the French had thirty-five modern heavy bombers (LeO 45) available. Most of the remaining production LeO 45s were never tested and when required were found to be corroded and lacking vital pieces of equipment. Only after the complete collapse of the French Army and the issuing of an order for withdrawal to North Africa did squadrons begin to get LeO 45s in place of their antiquated Amiot 143s.

France had one good modern fighter, the Dewoitine 520, but this was consistently held back from the flying units by the quantity production office which was comfortably ensconced in the George V Hotel in Paris. After May 14th, when it was too late, 100 520s were suddenly delivered, only to be swallowed up in the holocaust.

The root cause of the complete lack of equipment, apart from the inadequacy of the French Air Force General Staff, was the nationalisation of the aircraft industry by the Communist Air Minister, Pierre Cot, under Léon Blum’s government in 1936. All the well-established private firms were swept away and complete chaos ensued up to the time of defeat.

Cot’s successor, Guy La Chambre, endeavoured in 1938 to work out a system whereby the French Air Force would have 4,700 new first-line aircraft. This was known as ‘Plan 5’. Some of the aircraft never left the production line and the rest did not reach operational units.


The Luftwaffe moved forward from airfield to airfield keeping pace with the advancing troops in France. The squadrons relied for their supplies largely on transport aircraft. Here bombs are being loaded on board a tri-motor Ju 52

When May 1940 came the Air Force in Europe had the same number of first-line types as at the outbreak of war, about 700, out of a total of 1,450 machines of all types.

Under General Vuillemin the French air command was divided into three air war zones: northern air zone from the Saar to the sea, eastern zone from Saar to Switzerland and air zone of the Alps. The latter was to counteract any Italian intervention.

Thus at the moment of the German attack air support for the critical part of the front in General Augereau’s northern air zone consisted of 275 day fighters, 25 ‘night fighters’, 80 reconnaissance aircraft, 15 day bombers and 55 night bombers. This was a total of 450 machines, of which only a moderate proportion were modern. Added to the 400 aircraft of the R.A.F. these gave a maximum of only 850 planes of all types to meet the Luftwaffe’s force of 3,824 modern combat aircraft. Of the French force not one fighter group was equipped with the up-to-date Dewoitine 520.

The Dutch Air Force possessed several good types of aircraft but it was numerically too small to cope with the sudden onslaught and the warning system was inadequate. Despite having only 132 aircraft available, a strong fight was put up and German losses, from fighters and flak, were heavy.

The Belgian Air Force was largely composed of obsolescent aircraft and it was tied to an army role of reconnaissance. Dispersal of aircraft was not practised and anti-aircraft protection was limited.

Belgium possessed three ‘Regiment d’Aeronautique’ with a total operationally available force on May 10th of 82 Fairey Fox, 21 Renard R.31, 15 Gladiator and 23 Fiat CR.42 biplanes. The only monoplane force consisted of 11 Hurricanes and 14 Battles. On order were 80 Hurricanes, 40 Buffalos and 56 Italian bomber and reconnaissance aircraft.

German attacks on Belgian airfields on May 10/11 destroyed 110 aircraft. Despite this there were many heroic sorties with the remaining machines, some of them being virtually suicide missions.

Air problems were further aggravated by the French system of communications and supply. Apart from the five British mobile radar sets under 80 Wing, which were never fully operational, the aircraft reporting and raid warning layout in France was badly organised and inefficient. Most telephone lines were routed through public exchanges. After three or four days the reporting organisation broke down completely. The Armée de l’Air possessed no radar but spent a good deal of time and money on equipment known as Détection Electromagnétique (D.E.M.). This, however, was useless and played no part in the battle.

The equipment supply and storage units functioned poorly in peacetime and when the storm broke they came almost to a standstill. Many of the replacement aircraft were found to be defective and vital items were often missing, as on the LeO 45. Ammunition, fuel and oil which were supposed to be brought by the army supply columns became completely disorganised as the retreat began.

German objectives in ‘Operation Yellow’ were to drive westwards through France to the Channel coast at the Somme mouth, while also occupying Belgium and Holland to protect the right flank.

The Luftwaffe was allocated the following tasks based on experience in Poland and Norway:

1 The destruction of the enemy forces and their sources of supply.

2 Indirect and direct support of the army.

3 Attacks on enemy harbours and shipping.

From dawn on May 10th the full weight of Luftflotten 2 and 3 was thrown into hammering the airfields and maintenance depots of the air forces in Belgium, Holland and northern France. The Belgian and Dutch squadrons were largely destroyed on the ground at the outset although a few pilots were able to take off and fought bravely. While German bomber and fighter bomber units smashed the airfields, paratroops and airborne infantry took and held main roads, bridges and fortresses, such as Fort Eban Emael, Belgium, in preparation for the arrival of armoured forces and mobile infantry.


Hopefully designated a fighter-bomber-reconnaissance aircraft, the Potez 54 twin Hispano-Suiza engined monoplane was typical of the obsolete equipment put into battle in 1940 by the Armee de l’Air. This example was flown to Britain after the French collapse and is shown here at an R.A.F. airfield. In the background is an Avro Anson


Many Dutch air force pilots were trapped when German troops overran Holland in May. Some, however, got away and were absorbed into the Royal Air ForceOne complete unit of Fokker T.8-W seaplanes joined R.A.F, Coastal Command in 1940


The aeroplane which should have been the R.A.F.’s standard light/dive bomber, the Hawker Henley, which had excellent performance and bomb-load and wings interchangeable with the Hurricane fighter. Instead of Henleys the R.A.F. continued with cumbersone Fairey Battle bombers which were shot down like flies in 1940. The Henley, as shown here, was relegated to towing targets for budding fighter pilots



Every type of British operational aircraft was used during the summer months of 1940. The slow but tough and reliable Fairey Swordfish ‘Stringbag’ naval biplane was used for reconnaissance, bombing, flare dropping and many other roles. Above A squadron of Swordfish flies over the Hampshire coast on July 26th. Below One of the aircraft of this unit upside down in a field in France after a night sortie over Dunkirk

The R.A.F Hurricane squadrons (Nos. 1, 73, 85, 87, 607 and 615) were in action all day on the 10th They had considerable success, but were vastly outnumbered. On the 11th they were joined by three more Hurricane squadrons from England (3, 79 and 504).

Meanwhile the Battles and Blenheims of the Advanced Air Striking Force chafed at the bit waiting for permission from the French General Staff to attack the advancing grey columns. By midday on the 10th no word had come. Genetals Gamelin and Vuillemin, living in a dream world, still hoped to avoid an all-out bomber struggle which had in fact already started. Air Vice-Marshal Playfair in command of A.A.S.F., acting on his own initiative, despatched Battles to bomb a German column in Luxembourg. Thirty-two Battles drawn from Nos. 12, 103, 105, 142, 150, 218 and 226 squadrons with Hurricanes as top cover delivered their attack from 250 feet. No less than thirteen Battles were shot down by flak and most of the remainder were damaged. More Battles were lost later in the afternoon and on the nth only one aircraft returned from a sortie by eight from Nos. 88 and 218 squadrons.

On May 12th the Belgian Army appealed for help to destroy the bridges over the Albert Canal which were thick with flak batteries. Accordingly five aircraft of No. 12 Squadron performing one of the most gallant flights of the war earned the unit two posthumous V.C.s. None of the Battles returned. By nightfall on the 12th only 206 R.A.F. aircraft in France were serviceable out of 474.

Like the Battles, the Blenheims had been suffering heavy losses on the ground and in the air. In two days’ fighting the 135 serviceable A.A.S.F. bombers dwindled to seventy-two and on May 14th the assault forces of the command were wrecked. The whole of A.A.S.F.’s Battle and Blenheim striking force was sent to support the French operations against German bridgeheads over the River Meuse at Dinant and Sedan. Of the seventy-one aircraft forty were destroyed. This was a death-blow to British air efforts in France.


Fokker D.XXI of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. This type was standard in Holland at the time of the German invasion


Mainstay of Armée de l’Air fighter forces in 1940 was the Morane 406 with a maximum speed of 302 m.p.h. and an armament of one 20 mm. cannon and two machine guns. These machines belonged to a Polish Escadrille. Many of the pilots eventually found their way to Britain to fight with the R.A.F.

Such stark tragedy should never have been enacted. The Battle in 1939 showed itself to be a ‘flying coffin’. It merited no place in the first-line strength of the R.A.F. If the two-seat Hawker Henley dive-bomber, with a speed of over 280 m.p.h., had been ordered and the Battle relegated to training, the story might have been different. As it was, dozens of first-class pilots were lost who, with their experience of a Merlin-powered retractable undercarriage monoplane, would have swelled the thinning ranks of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain.

The Armée de l’Air could give no cover to the British bombers because it had been systematically destroyed on the ground and in the air by the Luftwaffe. Extraordinary contrasts were revealed. While some French pilots fought to the death, others retired safely to the estaminet while German bombs rained down on their machines lined up round the airfields.

The rot set in to such an extent that General Augereau, commanding the northern air zone, arrived at the Corap army group on May 16th and announced: ‘I have nothing left.’ While this was going on, Senator Laurent Eynac, first and last Air Minister of the Third Republic, was holding up the tattered façade of French aerial might in a broadcast to the French people. He stated: ‘I have just returned from the front, where I inspected the fighter, bomber and reconnaissance formations. … I return with a feeling of absolute confidence in the striking power of our air force.’

The Germans gained air superiority in about two days. The Luftwaffe’s effort was then switched almost entirely to the support of the Army, which proceeded to force its way through France with alarming speed. Day-and-night reconnaissance by 300 long-range and 340 short-range aircraft provided a minutely detailed picture of the advance. Fliegerkorps VIII with 380 Stukas was contantly on call in the role of mobile artillery to flatten pockets of resistance.


R.A.F. Fairey Battles of No. 88 Squadron, based in France, in formation with escorting French Air Force Curtiss Hawks of GCI/5. The Battles were slaughtered during the German drive into Belgium and France in May


The only modern monoplane fighters in the Belgian Air Force, a single squadron of Hawker Hurricanes. This unit (2e escadrille, 1e Groupe, 2e. Regiment d’aeronautiqueat Schaffen, was largely destroyed on the ground on May 10th, 1940

Flying units were continually on the move, the advance accelerating at a rate which amazed even the German General Staff. The special Luftgauen strove to maintain supplies using masses of Ju 52s, but the haste meant that some forward units had to be rationed for petrol and ammunition.

Ten R.A.F. Hurricane squadrons were operating in France by May 12th. On the 13th the equivalent of two more squadrons were sent out from England. The French Prime Minister Reynaud requested that ten more squadrons be sent on the 14th, but by this time French air forces in the battle area were almost nonexistent. The loss of these ten squadrons would have crippled Fighter Command. In addition, R.A.F. fighter squadrons were operating from England in support of the fighting in Belgium and were suffering casualties.

By May 24th the German spearheads had passed Arras, captured Boulogne and arrived at the gates of Calais. The B.E.F. was now cut off from the main French army. The R.A.F. in France had been on the retreat for nearly a fortnight and conditions were becoming intolerable.

All that Air Marshal Dowding dreaded had come to pass. There was a pitched battle over France and Belgium and the R.A.F. were outnumbered and without an adequate warning system. Continual reinforcement would have meant the wrecking of Fighter Command and the ultimate destruction of the British economy by the Luftwaffe.

Since the creation of Fighter Command in 1936 Dowding had fought to maintain adequate fighter strength in Britain. He constantly battled with the Air Council for the creation of new interceptor units and the limitation of fighter units in France beyond a certain figure. He estimated that to meet an all-out Luftwaffe unescorted assault on England he would need at least forty-six squadrons, but changing circumstances raised this to fifty-two squadrons — a figure which was agreed by the Air Council.

No decision could be taken immediately on M. Reynaud’s request for ten squadrons, but the Air Staff ordered that units should be mobile in readiness to go to France.


The Belgian Air Force was largely equipped with obsolete types of aircraft in 1940. When the Luftwaffe attacked on May 10th, tremendous damage was done to units on the ground including the only squadron of Hawker Hurricanes. Pictured here on the left are Fairey Foxes of the 7e escadrille, IIIe Groupe, 1e Regiment, from Gossoncourt. The photograph on the right shows what happened to Foxes of 1 Groupe, 3e Regiment after the Luftwaffe had hit them at Neerhespen on the 10th


Fearing the worst, Dowding hastened to the Air Ministry determined to stop the flow of lifeblood from his command. He was adamant. Any further weakening of the fighter defences at home would be fatal. He requested the opportunity to place his problem before the War Cabinet and on the following day did so with considerable force. He took with him a piece of graph paper showing that if the current rate of losses in France were to continue Fighter Command would cease to exist at the end of July.

The War Cabinet were temporarily won over and the ten squadrons did not leave Britain. On the next day Dowding wrote an historic letter to the Undersecretary of State at the Air Ministry expressing with exceptional clarity and brevity how grave the situation was:

Headquarters Fighter Command,

Royal Air Force,

Bentley Priory,


Middlesex. 16th May, 1940.


I have the honour to refer to the very serious calls which have recently been made upon the Home Defence Fighter Units in an attempt to stem the German invasion on the Continent.

2. I hope and believe that our Armies may yet be victorious in France and Belgium, but we have to face the possibility that they may be defeated.

3. In this case I presume that there is no one who will deny that England should fight on, even though the remainder of the Continent of Europe is dominated by the Germans.

4. For this purpose it is necessary to retain some minimum fighter strength in this country and I must request that the Air Council will inform me what they consider this minimum strength to be, in order that I may make my dispositions accordingly.

5. I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country was fifty-two squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the equivalent of thirty-six squadrons.

6. Once a decision has been reached as to the limit on which the Air Council and the Cabinet are prepared to stake the existence of the country, it should be made clear to the Allied commanders on the Continent that not a single aeroplane from Fighter Command beyond the limit will be sent across the Channel, no matter how desperate the situation may become.

7. It will, of course, be remembered that the estimate of fifty-two squadrons was based on the assumption that the attack would come from the eastwards except in so far as the defences might be outflanked in flight. We have now to face the possibility that attacks may come from Spain or even from the north coast of France. The result is that our line is very much extended at the same time as our resources are reduced.

8. I must point out that within the last few days the equivalent of ten squadrons have been sent to France, that the Hurricane Squadrons remaining in this country are seriously depleted, and that the more squadrons which are sent to France the higher will be the wastage and the more insistent the demands for reinforcements.

9. I must therefore request that as a matter of paramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defences of this country, and will assure me that when this level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.

10. I believe that if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organised to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.

I have the honour to be


Your obedient Servant,

(signed) H. C. T. Dowding,

Air Chief Marshal,

Air Officer ‘Commanding-in-Chief

Fighter Command, Royal Air Force.

The Under-Secretary of State,

Air Ministry,

London, W.C.2.


Long lines of British troops stand in the water at Bray near Dunkirk waiting for some form of boat to take them to England. During the evacuation both the Luftwaffe and Fighter Command made all out efforts, the one to destroy and the other to defend. Despite heavy air and naval losses the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force safely crossed the Channel. The Luftwaffe found for the first time that it was up against determined and effective opposition and its casualties rose accordingly


Forlorn remnants at Dunkirk when ‘Operation Dynamo’ had been completed. In the foreground the wrecks of two British motor cars and in the distance a wrecked French destroyer


While the United States had no modern combat aircraft in production in 1940, certain types for reconnaissance and training proved invaluable. Here a Lockheed Hudson of No. 206 Squadron is on patrol off the Dutch coast. The Hudson was used by the R.A.F. in every theatre of war


A fighter scramble at an alert during the ‘Phoney War’. Pilots of No. 87 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at Lille in the winter of 1939. One Hurricane is an early variant with a two-blade propeller

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A Fiesler-built Me 109E-3, R.A.F. serialled AE479, which was forced down at Amiens, France, on May 2nd, 1940. It was taken over by No. 1 Squadron of the Advanced Air Striking Force and was subsequently shipped to England for comparative trials at the Aircraft and Armaments Experimental Establishment, Boscombe Down, and later at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. Later still this machine was delivered to the United States for tests. Left hand photograph shows the aircraft at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, with French fin stripes, R.A.F. underwing roundels and the German unit badge (II./JG54) under the cockpit. On the right the machine is seen airborne with full R.A.F. camouflage and markings

The Cabinet decision of May 15th gave Dowding only twenty-four hours’ respite from worry. On the following morning, when details of the break-through at Sedan began to filter into Whitehall, Churchill sanctioned the transfer of four fresh squadrons from Britain to France. In the afternoon Churchill sat in a room on the Quai d’Orsay in Paris listening in stunned amazement to the pronouncements of General Gamelin. The Germans had penetrated on a front of about sixty miles, he said, and were deep in France. The French Army was shattered. There was no strategic reserve whatsoever.

The French pleaded for more and yet more British fighters because the Armée de l’Air hardly existed over the main battle front. The bubble was pricked at last, and the fantastic lack of knowledge by the British of their ally’s military machine and morale was revealed with all its inevitable consequences. Churchill described himself as ‘dumbfounded’. It is ironical that France’s enemy should have assessed the position so well while her ally was blind.

Nevertheless, ever faithful to old friends, and with a touch of the quixotic, Churchill left the Quai d’Orsay and its bonfires of official documents to telephone London from the British Embassy. In addition to the four squadrons allocated in the morning, he asked sanction of the War Cabinet for a further six. This would leave Britain with only twenty-five fighter squadrons for home defence.

In The Second World War, Volume II, Churchill refers to a conversation with Dowding before the Battle of France in which the latter is claimed to have said that he could defend the islands against the Luftwaffe with twenty-five squadrons. In fact, as documentary evidence shows, Dowding always demanded forty-six to fifty-two squadrons, not twenty-five. Churchill appears to have misunderstood. He describes the orders for the ten extra squadrons as cutting ‘to the bone’. Had they been sent it would have been more aptly described as a beheading. The Battle of Britain would have been lost before it began.

Late on the night of the 16th the War Cabinet again met although Churchill was still in Paris. Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, Chief of the Air Staff, was now thoroughly alarmed over the fighter situation. Dowding’s letter of the 16th convinced him that no more squadrons should be frittered away in the continental debacle. He learned from Air Marshal Barratt of the British Air Forces in France that the British airfields in northern France could take only three more squadrons and that bases could not be found for ten.

Newall suggested as an alternative that three squadrons should fly to France each morning and another three should act as relief in the afternoon. These six squadrons were the only Hurricane units left in the whole of Fighter Command which had not been drawn upon for pilots and aircraft for the French campaign. In this way he hoped that the units might not be lost in the general mêlée, although they would undoubtedly suffer casualties which would reduce their efficiency. The offer was accepted and on the 17th six squadrons of Hurricanes based on southern England were rotating through France. On May 19th Churchill decided finally against the commitment of any more fighters to French bases, although as late as May 18th the A.O.C. of No. 12 Group, Leigh-Mallory, had warned No. 19 Squadron at Duxford that it would be moving to France with its Spitfires.

It became clear that the R.A.F. Component of the B.E.F. could no longer operate from French Airfields. Accordingly, on May 19th, the remaining units retired to continue the fight from southern England, the withdrawal being completed by the 21st. Behind them were left stores, equipment and masses of unserviceable aircraft which could not be flown out. The A.A.S.F. meanwhile retreated westward with the remaining three Hurricane squadrons.

The balance sheet for eleven days of the Battle of France was grim and the total of fighters lost was some 25 per cent of the R.A.F.’s interceptor strength.

While the remains of B.A.A.F. extricated themselves as best they could, the situation on land had taken its final turn. Slowly but surely the B.E.F. and the French 1st Army were pressed back towards Dunkirk and the sea. On May 28th King Leopold of the Belgians, on his own initiative and without prior consultation with the Allies, surrendered his army to the Germans. The whole of the B.E.F.’s left flank was wide open. The only solution lay in rapid withdrawal to the coast.

Lord Gort, commanding the B.E.F., had already discussed the possibility of evacuation on May 19th, when fighter reinforcements were finally stopped. From May 20th the assembly of shipping and small craft was pressed forward under Admiral Ramsay. On May 30th H.Q. in France signalled that all possible British divisions were within the bridgehead area.

Throughout the period from the evacuation of the R.A.F. on the 21st to the 28th strong air cover was provided for the B.E.F. by No. 11 Group in England, and bombers continued to operate mainly by night.

After the withdrawal of all but three squadrons from France, fighter Command could muster about 600 modern single-engined fighters (Hurricane, Spitfire and Defiant) with 230 aircraft in immediate reserve. Outwardly these figures are impressive but they take no account of the disorganised state of many squadrons returned from the Continent nor the need for rest and replenishment where men and machines were in constant battle for eleven days.

Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation, began on the evening of May 26th. The whole weight of air defence over the area fell on Fighter Command. On the 27th sixteen Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons made 287 sorties over north-east France, destroying ten enemy aircraft and losing fourteen. It was impossible, outside the normal operational range of the radar and H.F./D.F. system, to direct the aircraft into battle from the ground. Patrols were the only solution, but these often met superior enemy fighter formations while on their way to intercept the bombers. For the first time Dowding threw in his Spitfires. These had the highest performance of any type he possessed. He had carefully husbanded them while the numerically greater Hurricanes bore the brunt of the continental fighting.

Göring promised to prevent the Dunkirk evacuation by air assault rather than let the B.E.F. be crushed by an all-out tank attack which Hitler feared would be bogged down in marshy ground. Fliegerkorps I, II, IV and VIII were accordingly hurled into the assault using 300 medium and dive-bombers with escorts provided from the 550 Me 109 and Me 110 fighters in the area.

On May 28th the weather deteriorated and much of Dunkirk was obscured by dense black smoke from burning oil tanks. Nevertheless, maximum effort was made by R.A.F. Fighter, Bomber and Coastal commands. Fighters from No. 11 Group flew 321 sorties against large German formations although the attacks petered out as the weather grew worse in the afternoon.

From May 29th, Park, at No. 11 Group, was able to obtain sanction from the Air Ministry to operate up to four squadrons at a time over Dunkirk although with only sixteen squadrons available this entailed periods when fighter cover over the beaches was lacking. Three out of five very large Luftwaffe raids in the afternoon were intercepted but two got through and caused considerable damage. Estimates of the casualties caused by these larger formations of fighter squadrons were exaggerated and it now seems that the principle of using pairs of squadrons, as in the Battle of Britain, would have yielded better results while ensuring continuity of the patrols.

On May 30th bad weather continued and Luftwaffe operations were curtailed. On the 31st, the day when most troops were brought back (68,014), it was fine and clear and in the afternoon the battle was renewed with full fury but only one ship was sunk. The situation worsened on the first day of June when desperate efforts were made by the Luftwaffe to smash shipping. Severe air fighting ensued. More air battles took place on June 2nd, but by evening the British rearguard had been taken off. For the following day the R.A.F. provided cover for the remainder of the. French troops to be withdrawn, until at 2.23 a.m. on the 4th the Admiralty reported that Dynamo had been completed.

One R.A.F. pilot, Flight Lieutenant F. J. Howell* of 609 squadron wrote several remarkably frank and humorous letters to his brother in the Army during 19540. The following are extracts from a letter written at Northolt on June 6th which gives a full pilot’s picture of the Dunkirk period:-

The next day, [May 31] we went to North Weald, and with another Squadron, flew over to Dunkirk about 2.30 p.m. The place was still burning furiously, a great pall of black smoke stretching 7000 ft. in the sky over Belgium. We again went to 20,000, with two squadrons below us at 10,000 ft. We never saw a single aeroplane within range, and we learnt to our horror that 8 blokes had been killed in a battle below us! So the next patrol we decided to do at about 15,000 ft. It was at 7.45 p.m. that we arrived over there, and I shall never in my life forget the sight. Thousands and thousands of A/A shells were bursting over the town, and we all thought ‘here they come’. And here they bloody did cornel right over our heads—Wave after wave of 3 bombers escorted by 5 109’s. How we all prayed for that extra 5,000 ft. we had decided to do without. My heart gave a terrific thump I can tell you, and we all went full throttle to get above them to 21,000 where there was a thin layer of cloud.

Then below, I saw a Ju 88 twisting and turning—all three of us dived to attack—I put in about 6 seconds fire, and evidently silenced the gunner, for the streams of tracer bullets whistling past me stopped—The next bloke got an engine, and I believe it went down in flames. We all screamed up again as fast as we could go, and saw a terrific dogfight going on a few miles away. I was just about to join in, when tooling along about 3,000 ft. below was one solitary Heinkel, going like a streak of shit for Holland. John was behind me, and when I said I was going to attack, he shouted ‘O.K.—I’ll guard your tail’. So down I went. Then started the A/A fire and it was so intense that it was just suicide to go into it, After about half a minute, the gunners evidently saw us and it stopped. So down I pissed, and let it have all I had got. Lots of tracer stuff again which again stopped before my ammo ran out. John came down after me, and I think between us, we managed to down it, because before we left, one engine was burning, and it did not look any too happy.

Seeing ’as ’ow we had nearly reached Ostend, we turned tail, and went like a bomb for home.

I landed at Hawkinge, and had a quick pint with Russell, who had got back just before me. From that little do, two of our blokes were missing and had not yet returned.

The next day, we went to Manston, and did a couple of patrols from there—the first was nothing of note, except that Russell mysteriously disappeared after diving at a Heinkel 111. I think a Messerschmitt 110 got him, for another one of our blokes saw one on his tail before he managed to get it. He has since got the D.F.C.

In the afternoon, the weather got very mucky and we only went to 5,000 ft. i.e. two squadrons. I was leading Yellow Section as usual, and we were arse end Charlie. To my everlasting surprise, I looked down to see salvo after salvo of bombs bursting with terrific splashes in the water near some shipping, and there was a Heinkel, only 500 ft. below going in the opposite direction—The other chaps heard ‘Crimey, there’s a Heinkel’, so I did a half roll, and came up its arse, giving it a pretty 2 seconds fire. Y2 came down and put all he had into it, but with no immediate result.

As I pulled out of the dive, there, right above me were three Heinkels 111 in close formation. Another surprise! So I gave one a blip of 2 seconds, which made one engine catch fire. Then the middle one let off a signal of three white puffs, and I thought ‘Er, er, where are they?’—looked up, and there were 3 fighters sitting prettily above. I did not wait for them I can can tell you, so put the nose down, and disappeared into some cloud like a knife.

Having lost everyone else, and being all on my own—(a most unpleasant position to be in, I thought), I whistled around at 0 feet for a bit about 15 miles off Dunkirk. I thought I saw a boat, just a speck on the water, so went to have a look. There were 8 or 10 Tommies and a sailor rowing for dear life in a ships lifeboat for England about 70 miles away!

The way they were rowing, they would miss England altogether, so I flew three times in the direction. They all stood up and waved and cheered poor devils. I only hope they were picked up all right, as I reported their position as soon as I landed. On the way back I thought I had run into something, as I saw a bomber on the skyline diving at some shipping, but unfortunately, or fortunately for the ship, it was a Hudson. All the way back to England I flew full throttle at about 15 feet above the water and the shipping between England and Dunkirk was a sight worth seeing. Never again shall I see so many ships of different sizes and shapes over such a stretch of water. Paddle boats, destroyers, sloops, tugs towing anything up to four motorless fishing trawlers, river launches—15 ft. motor boats—fire boats, cross-Channel boats, tankers, coal barges, and anything with a motor towing anything without one.

Dover and Ramsgate, Folkestone and all piers round Kent were crowded to overflowing, disembarking the troops and setting off again on the suicide journey. Naturally there were some pretty terrible sights as well, ships on their sides burning furiously, ships sinking and beached, and I even saw a salvo of bombs land smack in the middle of one huge boat—it burst into flames, slowly turned over and sank in about 2 minutes.

Well, the amazing thing about that last patrol was that every one of the other blokes—about 20 in all, never saw a single enemy plane! I just could not understand it.

As you know, it’s all over now and I am indeed lucky to have got away scot free. Dizzy was killed and 5 other chaps are missing. We all have hope that they may turn up sometime but as the show is over now, I think there is very little hope left.

One was my Flight Commander so I am now I/C ‘A’ Flight, and will get another stripe, and it’s a rotten way to get it.

We shall be here for a little while I think, and any time off seems hopeless, for we have only twelve pilots now and have to keep twelve machines ready to take off at the longest time of 30 minutes.

So we are on at 4 a.m. until 10.20 p.m.—a long day! If it was not for the truly glorious weather—ceaseless sunshine all day, it would be miserable.…

For Fighter Command Dunkirk was the culmination of nearly a month’s attrition. British fighter defences on June 4th were at the lowest point in the whole of 1940, the Battle of Britain notwithstanding. Dunkirk had seen the loss of over 100 R.A.F. fighters and eighty pilots. Every squadron of the command except three in Scotland had been in action over the Continent, and on June 3rd twelve squadrons were in the line for the second time.

During the continental battle 320 British pilots were killed, reported missing or died of injuries while 115 more were taken prisoners of war or interned. Altogether 915 air crew members of all categories were lost. When some sorting-out had been accomplished by the 15th, Dowding found he had 1,094 pilots, a deficit of 362 against his alloted establishment.

In the period May 10th to June 20th 944 R.A.F. aircraft operating from Britain and France were lost. Of these 386 were Hurricanes and sixty-seven Spitfires.

On the morning of June 5th Fighter Command could muster only 466 serviceable aircraft of which 331 were Hurricanes and Spitfires. There were thirty-six of these machines in immediate reserve.

It was not until the final evacuation of the A.A.S.F. squadrons on June 18th that the last British fighters in France, from No. 73 Squadron, took off from Nantes and headed for Tangmere in Sussex. Dowding’s remaining ‘chicks’ were home to count. He could begin desperately to rebuild and reorganise with the hope that there might be a momentary respite. As events turned out he had a heaven-sent month in which the whole picture was changed.

* Flight Lt. Howell later commanded 118 squadron at Ibsley and 243 squadron in Malaya. After years in a Japanese prison camp he returned to Britain and in 1948 was killed in an accident while commanding 54 squadron

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