Read Dogfight Online

Authors: Adam Claasen

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BOOK: Dogfight

Table of Contents

Title Page


Dogfight the Battle of Britain


Raf Ranks


Chapter 1: Beginnings

Chapter 2: The Prelude

Chapter 3: Channel Battles

Chapter 4: Life and Death

Chapter 5: Eagle Attack

Chapter 6: Shot Down

Chapter 7: Sector Airfields

Chapter 8: Hard Pressed

Chapter 9: London Burning

Chapter 10: Last Gasps

Chapter 11: Conclusions

Appendix: New Zealand and Australian Airmen in the Battle of Britain


Back Cover Material

‘Claasen has a unique ability to put the reader in the cockpit of a Spitfire or Hurricane in order to understand the experience of 1940 fighter combat. He does a superb job in following the story of the Anzac pilots from recruitment to training to the harsh conditions of one of history's most decisive battles.
is an important addition to the literature on the World War Two air war.'
James Corum, author of
The Luftwaffe's Way of War
is a fresh look at the Battle of Britain from an Antipodean perspective. As well as being remarkably lucid and insightful, it's packed with drama, incident and great characters. Adam Claasen has done Second World War history a real service by telling brilliantly the story of the Anzacs' enormous contribution to the greatest air battle ever fought.'
Patrick Bishop, author of
Fighter Boys
Series Editor: Glyn Harper
The Anzac Battles Series is a collection of books describing the great military battles fought by Australian and New Zealand soldiers during the wars of the twentieth century. Each title in the series focuses on one battle, describing the background to the action, the combat itself, the strategy employed and the outcome. The story is told through the actions of the main protagonists and the individuals who distinguished themselves in the battle. The authors are all respected military historians with specialist knowledge of the battles described.
To Sandra

This book is the result of an invitation from my colleague, Glyn Harper, to contribute to Exisle's Anzac Battles Series. I immediately saw the potential for a Battle of Britain volume, and Glyn, along with Ian Watt, Exisle's New Zealand publisher, were very supportive and patient during the course of the project. In the latter stages, Ian, in particular, provided valuable advice and guidance that resulted in
going to press in its completed form.

Writing this book was only possible with sustained support from my academic institution, Massey University. Two Heads of School, Peter Lineham and Kerry Taylor, directed funds my way for research, conferences and a period of long leave, which nurtured and greatly aided the project. Massey University's library staff were tireless in scouring the libraries of the world to meet book requests and purchases, while general staff at the Albany and Palmerston North campuses – Leanne Menzies, Tracy Sanderson, Dot Cavanagh, Sharon Cox and Mary-Lou Dickson – helped me in administrative matters, transcribing interviews and generally making the world a better place.

Over the course of the research and writing I made considerable use of archival materials. Staff at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, London (especially Peter Devitt), the National Archives, Kew, London, and the RNZAF Air Force Museum, Wigram, Christchurch, were very helpful and lightened the load considerably when I was in search of vital documents. At the latter institution I was greatly aided by Matthew O'Sullivan, Keeper of Photographs.

Intellectually, a book is often written on foundations laid by others. In this case,
has four significant forerunners to whom I owe some debt. The first of these, Aucklander Kenneth Wynn, was extremely generous in his advice, and his publications cataloguing the Battle of Britain pilots were indispensable in getting my work off the ground. On the other side of the Tasman, Dennis Newton has written a collection of books that chronicle the Australian experience. These were invaluable in acquainting myself with the Aussie side of the story. Additional questions arising from my examination of the Australian cohort were ably answered by Dennis. In the shaken, but unbowed, city of Christchurch, Errol Martyn, whose own prodigious work on the New Zealanders in the RAF is an immensely important tool for researchers, critiqued and made helpful comments with regards to the manuscript. It is doubtful that anyone knows more about the New Zealanders who have served with the RAF than Errol. Finally, my mentor of years gone by, Vincent Orange, gave me good counsel on the project and still serves as a great source of inspiration.

My wife Sandra is a very able research assistant and made it possible for me to gather a large amount of archival materials in London in 2009. Moreover, she generally helped me stay on track when other interests threatened to divert me from finishing the manuscript. She also proof-read the text as the chapters were written and her efforts here, alongside those of my son Josiah and good friend Andrew Toulson, have made the final product a much better piece of work. Others who deserve a notable mention are Larry Hill, Megan Wishart, Diana McRae, Jim Dillon, Max Lambert, Richard Carstens, Dave Homewood and cartographer Fran Whild. I am grateful also to Crécy Publishing (
) for granting me permission to publish extracts from their Alan Deere and Bob Spurdle autobiographies. Many thanks to all those who aided in the completion of this book. Of course, any errors, omissions or misinterpretations are the sole property of the author

The last acknowledgement must go to the airmen. When I started
there were only four surviving Anzacs, all New Zealanders, and I was fortunate to be able to interview three of them. Invariably they were generous with their time and, though advancing in age, remarkably sharp in their recollection of the events of so many years ago. It was a privilege to speak with these men and weave their experiences into
We own them and their departed Battle of Britain colleagues a great debt of gratitude.

Adam Claasen
Massey University
May 2012

During the course of the narrative I will introduce numerous airmen, the greater part of whom held the rank of pilot officer or flying officer. This being the case, and for ease of reading, I have chosen to include an officer's rank only where it deviates from this. Therefore the reader should assume that when a new individual enters the narrative without his rank being explicitly noted, he was either a pilot officer or flying officer. Almost all non-commissioned airmen in
were sergeants.

These are the commissioned ranks of the RAF:

Marshal of the Royal Air Force
Air Chief Marshal
Air Marshal
Air Vice Marshal
Air Commodore
Group Captain
Wing Commander
Squadron Leader
Flight Lieutenant
Flying Officer
Pilot Officer
Acting Pilot Officer
Officer Cadet

British Air Defence, 1940

The Main Battle Area


When I first embarked on this project I was asked: ‘Do we need another book on the Battle of Britain?' A fair question given the fact that over the decades since aerial dogfights dominated the skies above Britain in the summer of 1940, Battle of Britain monographs, memoirs, biographies and even coffee-table books—capturing the airmen and their machines in artistic and dramatic black-and-white photographs—have proliferated. While every year the number of surviving airmen who fought in the campaign diminishes at an alarming rate, this is not reflected in the publishing output on the subject. Publishing follows demand. The general populace and students at colleges around the globe have a voracious appetite for the subject at hand and with good reason.

First, the Battle of Britain was part of a much larger and fascinating conflict: the Second World War. As historians have noted, the drama of this war sits in stark contrast to the mundane and less perilous issues of most people across the modern Western world. Though the threat of secondhand smoke, high cholesterol or texting while driving are major concerns in the popular mind, they pale into insignificance compared with the daily possibility of death at the hands of a ruthless enemy. People are captivated by the drama when looking at the past, and imaginatively consider how they might have fared under such circumstances.

Second, the conflict offers a clear morality tale of which we, as citizens of nations that fought on the Allied side, can justifiably feel proud. Few wars have been so clearly necessary as the Second World War. Germany was the aggressor and its pernicious racism and fascist ethic was widely seen as destructive to the freedom of Europe's peoples. Left unchecked, Germany would have dragged the Continent into an abyss characterised by eugenics, euthanasia and genocide. In this sense then, the Battle of Britain offers a window into the lives of people living in ‘interesting' times and engaged in a classic good-versus-evil struggle.

Moreover, within the Second World War the Battle of Britain holds a special place. It represented the high-tide mark of German advances in the west. Having defeated Poland, Denmark, Norway and France, Adolf Hitler was keen to ‘bolt the back door' before embarking on his grand assault on Bolshevik Russia in the east. And if Britain was going to remain uncooperative, then perhaps an invasion, or the threat of an invasion, would force Whitehall's leaders to the negotiating table. By German reckoning, an amphibious assault would require the establishment of aerial superiority to allow the invaders to fend off the Royal Navy as they secured a foothold in south-east England. The ensuing air-power arm wrestle ran from 10 July until 31 October 1940. The German failure to subjugate Britain was a major turning point in the war, with long-term consequences for the course of the conflict and the character of post-war Europe.

Finally, the flavour of the Battle of Britain itself has been a significant factor in its enduring popular appeal in the decades that followed. It was the first time that a contest of arms had been decided solely between two aerial combatants. Two air forces faced off in the clear skies of an English summer, airman against airman, suggestive of Roman gladiatorial combat or a deadly medieval joust. While not wholly accurate, the imagery was part of the contemporary propaganda and remains as potent today as it was at the time. Then there were the machines. The Hurricane, with its muscular frame and meteorological moniker, was the doughty workhorse of the battle, while the Spitfire, elegant and sleek, was the death-delivering thoroughbred. The enemy—aggressive, skilful and cunning—possessed a no less impressive array of mechanised wizardry in the form of their snubnosed and clip-winged fighters, their screaming dive-bombers, and their bulbous medium-bombers burdened with large packets of death. And of course there were ‘The Few'. The ‘Brylcreem Boys', the fresh-faced youth gathered from all parts of Britain, the Commonwealth and the Continent who, for, the first time, checked the power of Hitler's Germany and saved Britain from invasion. Who could not be fascinated by such a tale in its numerous retellings?

I guess the real question I was being asked was not, ‘Do we need another book on the Battle of Battle of Britain?' but rather, ‘What will you be offering that's new—what is unique or significant in this version of the story?' The most obvious answer is that it tells the tale of the Anzacs. Though a handful of works on either side of the Tasman delves into either the New Zealand or Australian effort, there is none that explores the combined contribution. During the Battle of Britain 134 Kiwis and 37 Aussies were part of Fighter Command's nearly 3000 airmen who were set the task of fending off the Luftwaffe. The Anzacs were the second largest foreign contingent in Fighter Command after the Poles. What became evident in researching their stories is that although they were part of a much larger effort, they more than held up their end of the fighting. In this book, these pilots and gunners for the first time rub shoulders as they did in their sixteen-week co-operative effort of 1940. It should be noted that this current work does not explore the significant (and costly) part played by the Anzac airmen of Bomber Command and Coastal Command during the fighting.

In addition to introducing a collection of inspiring Anzacs to the reader, I have also attempted to avoid merely presenting a day-by-day combat narrative, or alternatively presenting them as a series of disparate biographical entries or vignettes. Books that do this, are, of course, extremely useful for understanding what happened in any given twenty-four hour period or tracking down important details about an airman's combat record, promotions or fate. But in
I cast the Anzacs in the broader sweep of the Second World War and, at the same time, discover some of the texture of their intimate world. To this end I tell the story of the Kiwis and Aussies within the ebbs and flows of the broader battle, while at the same time rummaging around in the pilots' personal world of airfields, cockpits, messes, cars, pubs and romantic liaisons.

The first two chapters look at how young Anzacs became interested in flying and their attempts to scale the Olympian heights to become gods-of-the-air themselves. Young men from all walks of life were caught up in the flying craze of the 1920s, but there existed little opportunity to pursue their dreams in the South Pacific Dominions of the British Commonwealth. Both Australia and New Zealand had small, ill-equipped air forces that could in no way meet the aspirations of all comers. Only the threat of war and the British rush to bolster the number of pilots within the Royal Air Force (RAF) would give substance to their dreams. The journey to Britain, the air-training and testing of their mettle against the confident and eager German airmen in the defence of France are discussed here, as well as how the ‘colonials' responded to class-bound attitudes widespread in the RAF. The eight chapters that follow cover the four phases of the campaign proper, during which—in spite of the German propensity to change targets during the battle—a general pattern emerged: Luftwaffe targets moved inward in ever-decreasing concentric circles with London at their epicentre.

With this in mind, Chapters Three and Four discuss the Channel Battle running from 10 July until 11 August. The leadership on both sides of the Channel comes under scrutiny, but particular emphasis is placed on the importance of New Zealander Air Vice Marshal Keith Park as the principal operational commander in the most heavily committed sector of the Battle of Britain: 11 Group, south-east England. This month-long tussle involved defending Allied convoys moving through the coastal waters from increasingly stiff Luftwaffe assaults. This early round in the campaign might not have been as intense as those that followed, but it was one of the most perilous for pilots as it was conducted over the waters of the Channel. Pilots feared ditching in the Channel for good reason: losses due to hypothermia and drowning were high. The early Anzac deaths are discussed and in particular the problems faced by New Zealanders in the ill-fated two-man Boulton Paul Defiant. A number of close calls for Anzac pilots also demonstrate how great a role good fortune played in surviving enemy attacks and accidents. Anzac attitudes to the enemy and killing are explored, as well as how the airmen coped with the loss of colleagues, friends and, on occasion, family members. As casualty lists grew longer and operational demands increased to breaking point, pilots sought either to relax and forget the horrors of the battle or, alternatively, let off a little steam. This section closes with an examination of the more popular means of doing this at local country pubs or in the crowded bars of London.

When the Germans felt their preparations were sufficiently advanced, they launched their main thrust against the RAF. Over a twelve-day period, 12 to 23 August, the full weight of the German air units was unleashed on coastal airfields. What they were unprepared for was a well-organised air defence system that had been long in the planning. Chapters Five and Six outline its design and workings, and the role Fighter Command's Anzacs would play in its effective operation. One of the most important days of the campaign was 13 August, and I go into some depth charting the experience of Anzac flyers over its duration. I close the discussion of the second phase with a look at some of the Kiwi and Aussie Caterpillar Club members and the capture and imprisonment of one Anzac at the infamous Colditz Castle.

The two weeks that followed, 24 August to 6 September, marked the height of the Battle. It stretched the pilots and gunners to their operational limits as the enemy closed in on the all-important sector stations. This phase was characterised by heavy assaults on 11 Group's airfields protecting London. It was Keith Park's finest hour as he marshalled his meagre resources to good effect, though not without criticism from RAF rivals over how the enemy should be engaged. The so-called ‘Big Wing' controversy forced Park to fight a rearguard action within Fighter Command as well as combating the Luftwaffe. As the Germans appeared to close in on their goal of destroying Fighter Command in the most intense combat period, airmen began employing dangerous tactics including head-on attacks. In addition, as the numbers of pilots dwindled, untested greenhorns, including a number of Anzacs, were dropped into the fighting with unsurprisingly terminal results. High loss rates and fatigue tested the reserves of even the best airmen and, increasingly, some pilots were charged with a ‘lack of moral fibre'.

But at the same time as some airmen were understandably wilting in the face of unrelenting attacks, a handful exceeded expectations, including two men who become the highest scoring Anzac pilots of the battle. One of these men was subsequently killed in battle soon after his marriage, an event that leads into an exploration of the world of girlfriends and wives during the campaign.

The final phase saw a dramatic change. The Germans, in their last attempt to break the back of Fighter Command, launched an all-out assault on London. The 7 September attack marked a decisive change in the battle that was immediately appreciated by Park. The first day's operations caught 11 Group by surprise, but in the ensuing period the campaign started tipping in the RAF's favour as the sector stations were able to recover and Park was able to focus on intercepting the London raids. Anzacs were at the forefront of the defence by day, and by night as the Luftwaffe also inaugurated what became known as the Blitz: night-time strategic bombing raids designed to damage the war economy and weaken British morale. Lacking on-board radar, pilots found intercepting these nocturnal attacks a hit-and-miss affair, although one New Zealander was unusually skilled at finding and destroying the raiders. Other Anzacs were less successful, and suffered the terrifying fate of being severely burnt when their machines caught fire during combat. I talk about two of these men and their experiences as members of the Guinea Pig Club at the hands of the most famous plastic surgeon of the war, who just happened to be an Anzac himself.

During September and October, Park was forced to continue his rearguard action against the Big Wings and contend with a further change in German tactics when they replaced the daylight raids by bombers with high-altitude fighter sweeps. The latter initiative was particularly hard to counter and led to a number of casualties among the Anzacs as the Battle of Britain wound down to 31 October. I conclude the story with an analytical summary of the Anzac contribution to the Battle of Britain.

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