Originally formed in July 1918, 139 Squadron was a fighter squadron towards the end of the First World War but was disbanded in March 1919 and reformed in 1936 as a bomber squadron, initially with Hawker Hinds and Blenheim I’s. 139 Squadron saw continuous service in one theatre or another throughout the war, and carried out the most bombing raids of any squadron in No. 2 Group.
“We Destroy at Will”
139 Squadron entered World War 2 equipped with the Blenheim and holds the honour of flying the first RAF sortie of the war, from Wyton in Huntingdonshire, across into German airspace just as Neville Chamberlain was broadcasting to the nation. It was an armed reconnaissance mission into German airspace, made on 3rd September 1939 and was already on its way as Chamberlain stood up to make his speech. The purpose of the mission was to take photographs of the German Fleet at Heligoland Bight (Schilling Roads) near Wilhelmshaven. The aircraft was flown by Flying Officer A Macpherson in a Blenheim (N6215) Mk IV.
The following day, the first defensive sortie of the war was mounted by 15 Blenheim’s of 2 Group Bomber Command, of these, 5 failed to locate the target, German shipping in Schilling Roads, due to poor weather and of the 10 that found the target, 5 were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The bombs did little damage to the target and this proved quite typical of the bravely executed but largely ineffective and very costly Blenheim bombing raids that were to follow. In this action, Sergeant George Booth, an observer with No.107 Squadron became the first British Prisoner of World War 2 when his Bristol Blenheim was shot down over the German coast on 4th September 1939.
After Norway and Denmark were occupied, the main assault against France began in earnest on 10th May 1940 and the AASF (Advanced Air Striking Force) under the command of BAFF (British Air Forces in France) found themselves up against an much larger adversary with 1,486 bombers and 1,264 fighter aircraft. AASF had at the time 8 Squadrons of Fairey Battles, 2 Squadrons of Blenheim bombers (including 139 Squadron) and 2 Squadrons of Hurricanes, which was quickly increased to 6 Squadrons at the request of BAFF in response to the German advance.
The Bristol Blenheim was the front line light bomber right from the beginning of the war and at this time, 139 Squadron was a day bomber squadron equipped with Blenheim Mark I’s, when it took its aircraft to France in December 1939.
139 squadron distinguished itself during the German advance into France when on May 12th 1940, nine Blenheim’s of 139 Squadron made a desperate attack on the Maastricht bridges in Belgium in an attempt to halt the German advance, resulting in 7 out of the 9 aircraft being shot down and the squadron was quickly overrun during these early days of the German advance in May 1940.The Fairey Battles fared no better with 4 out of 5 being destroyed in their first encounter and the 5th crashing on its return to its airfield. 114 Squadron, the other Blenheim Squadron, was destroyed on the ground meaning that within just a few days the AASF was down to 25% strength.
A quick change in tactics resulted from the dreadful loses suffered in France and the early days after Dunkirk and the bomber squadrons moved to a policy of night bombing only, changing at that time the loses of one aircraft in ever two sorties to one aircraft in every 200 sorties but the Blenheim squadrons were required to continue flying during the day, thereby continuing the dire loses. To maintain morale with the general public, these losses were not publicised or made known. This continued after Dunkirk and into the Battle of Britain as Bomber Command took the war back to the Germans as the fighter squadrons defended London, and Britain, from the German Luftwaffe.
Having lost most of its aircraft in France, the Squadron was in dire need of reequipping and was the subject of a campaign called ‘The Bombers for Britain Fund’. The Squadron name is derived from the resulting fund-raising campaign in the early years of the war led by the Jamaican newspaper, ‘The Gleaner’, with enough donations via the newspaper and Jamaica itself to buy 12 Blenheim’s by 1941.
139 Squadron was to suffer a similar fate to their experiences in France in 1942 when in February, equipped with Hudson aircraft, it would reach Burma, just in time to be caught up in the Japanese advance whilst they were based at Akyab and Chittagong. Again, badly mauled, the surviving aircraft and crew would be absorbed into 62 Squadron. The Squadron was reformed, returning to Horsham St. Faith on 8th June 1942 and was initially equipped with Blenheim’s before quickly being re-equipped again, this time with Mosquito’s, becoming a pathfinder force in July 1943.
139 Squadron in 1941 was re-equipped with Bristol Blenheim Mark IV’s, developed from a high-speed light passenger aircraft that was initially designed in 1933, capable of carrying up to 8 passengers within an all metal cantilever stressed skin fuselage, which was first displayed at the 1935 Salon Internationale de L’Aeronautique in Paris.
The new design had been put forward originally to be powered by two 500 hp Bristol Aquila I engines, which were then under development. The original design, the Type 135, had an anticipated top speed of 180 mph (290 km/h) but lacked the range to meet current day requirements of its intended customers. Changes were proposed that included reducing the fuselage cross section to reduce drag and replacing the 500 hp Bristol Aquila engines with two 640 hp Bristol Mercury VI radial engines, driving fixed pitch four blade propellers. Design work started on the now designated Bristol Type 142 with Lord Rothermere as its principle source of funding.
Bristol had learned however that the government planned to expand the RAF and with the anticipation of possible future contracts decided to fund a parallel design called the Bristol Type 143 as a private venture. The Type 143 featured a longer nose and longer undercarriage doors.
The type 142 was first flown at Filton on 12 April 1935 and was to spark off a great deal of excitement when during its initial trials it was found to be some 30 mph (48 km/h) faster than the prototype of Britain’s most-recently procured new biplane fighter, the Gloster Gauntlet. The aircraft was named ‘Britain First’, and was presented to the nation by Lord Rothermere after the Air Ministry had requested that they might retain it for a period of testing to evaluate its potential as a light bomber. It was the subject of a number changes and was then moved to Martlesham Heath for RAF trials. It proved so successful that in 1935 the Air Ministry issued Specification B.28/35 for a military version with similar performance. This formed the birth of the Bristol Blenheim which was to prove an important interim weapon at the beginning of World War II.
The “Bristol” Type 142 “Britain First”
Bristol were aware of Air Ministry interest in the Type 142 so they busied themselves in evolving a military version (Type 142M) of this aircraft, and in the summer of 1935 the Air Ministry decided to accept the company’s proposal, placing a first order for 150 aircraft to Specification B.28/35 that September. The new aircraft was very similar to the Type 142, but there had of course been some changes to make it suitable for the military role, including amendments to accommodate a bomb aimer’s position, a bomb bay and a dorsal gun turret.
Following the first flight of the prototype, on 25 June 1936, it was moved to Boscombe Down on 27 October 1936 for the start of official trials, with initial deliveries to RAF squadrons beginning in March 1937. In July 1937, the Air Ministry placed a follow-on order for 434 additional Blenheim Mk Is, as the type had by then been named. Export versions of the Blenheim Mk I were sold before the war to Finland, Turkey and Yugoslavia and were also built under licence by these first two nations. In addition, a small number had been supplied to Romania as a diplomatic bribe in 1939, but this proved to be unsuccessful. The result, of course, was that Blenheim Mk Is fought for and against the Allies.
The Bristol Blenheim aircraft, first saw service in March 1937 and was considered at that time to be an outstanding aircraft when compared to the older biplanes that most of the pilots and crew had just moved over from. It was the first all metal stressed skinned monoplane (single winged) that the RAF had ever ordered, and was ordered in large numbers, with a top speed of 307 mph, some 50 to 60 mph faster than the RAF’s frontline fighters of the time. At this time and at the start of the war the aircrew were very happy to be flying the Blenheim compared to all the ancient bombers that were still in service.
Bristol Blenheim Mark 1.
On the outbreak of World War 2 there were very few Blenheim Mk I’s remaining in service with home-based bomber squadrons, having been superseded by the Blenheim Mk IV, but their usefulness was by no means over and many continued to serve as conversion trainers and as crew trainers in OTU’s.
With so many squadrons operating the type, it was inevitable that Blenheim’s should notch up many wartime ‘firsts’ for the RAF, including the first sortie of the war as described above, however, from the beginning of the war, until it was replaced by Douglas Boston’s and de Havilland Mosquitoes in 1942, Blenheim Mk IVs were used extensively in the European theatre. Although vulnerable to fighter attack, they were frequently used for unescorted daylight operations and undoubtedly the skill of their crews and the aircraft’s ability to absorb a great deal of punishment were the primary reasons for their survival, because high speed and heavy firepower was certainly not their strong points.
Bristol Blenheim Mark IV.
Bristol Blenheim Mark IV.
Last of the direct developments of the Blenheim design was Bristo1’s Type 160, known briefly as the Bisley, which was to enter service in the summer of 1942 as the Blenheim Mk V. Envisaged originally as a low-altitude close-support bomber, it was in fact to be built for deployment as a high-altitude bomber, powered by Mercury XV or XXV engines. Except for a changed nose, some alterations in detail and updated equipment, these aircraft were basically the same as their predecessors. Some 942 were built, all produced by Rootes at their Speke (South Liverpool) and Blythe Bridge (Stoke-on-Trent) factories, and the first unit to receive Blenheim Mk Vs was No.18 Squadron. The type was to equip six squadrons in the Middle East and four in the Far East, where they were used without distinction. This resulted from an increase in gross weight of over 17 per cent which, without the introduction of more powerful engines, had brought about a serious fall of performance. It was only when the Blenheim Mk Vs were deployed in the Italian campaign, contending with the advanced fighters in service with the Luftwaffe, that losses rose to quite unacceptable proportions, and the Blenheim Mk Vs withdrawn from service.
The Bristol type 160 was developed in Canada as the Bolingbroke. Operational use of which, was limited to the Royal Canadian Air Force at their home in Canada and the Aleutian Islands. No 8 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron was the first RCAF unit to convert to the Bolingbroke, followed by one other squadron. Bolingbroke’s were used primarily to fly anti-submarine coastal patrols over both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Two RCAF squadrons were assigned to the combined American-Canadian defence campaign to protect the Aleutian Islands and west coast of Alaska from Japanese attack.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Blenheim was also used as a night fighter, the first aircraft in the world to carry radar and the first aircraft to carry out successful interception of the enemy both by day and at night. An invaluable tool to the conclusion of the Battle of Britain at night.
All that said, upon the outbreak of World War 2, Germany had developed its Air Force considerably and whilst the Blenheim was considered an outstanding aircraft in 1936, by 1939, with the imminent danger of war, the development of much more advanced, faster, more manoeuvrable and better armed fighter aircraft was already underway and it was totally outclassed by the German fighter aircraft against which it was to be put up against time and time again and equally, it carried an inadequate bomb load when compared with the German Bomber Squadrons.
The Blenheim IV’s had a maximum speed 266 mph at 11,800 ft or a cruising speed of 198 mph and a ceiling of 27,260 ft on a return flight or 22,000 ft fully loaded. A climb rate of 1,480 ft/min. On the outbreak of war, the Blenheim was already outdated when compared to its main adversaries, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and 110, which were much faster than the Blenheim at that time. In comparison, early war Bf109E-1 (Bf109E-3 figures follow in brackets) had a performance of 289 mph ( 293 mph ) at sea level, 342 mph (348 mph) at 13,120 feet (14,560 feet), 334 mph (336 mph) at 19,685 feet and Bf109F-2 of 1941 performance was even better at 321 mph at sea level, 358 mph at 9,840 feet, 373 at 19,685 feet. 139 Squadrons adversaries were generally the Bf109f, well over 100mph faster than their own aircraft. Equally, early war Bf110C-1 were no better adversary with a performance of 295 mph at sea level, 326 mph at 13,120 feet, 336 mph at 19,685 feet.
Defensive Armament comprised a total of three 0.303in machine-guns. The Browning machine-guns were belt feed while the Vickers machine-guns, which was more normal, used 50 round circular ammunition pans. One of these guns was either a fixed forward firing Browning machine-gun in the port wing or, more rarely, a Vickers “K” machine-gun in a gimbal nose gun mount. The rear firing defence consisted of two 0.303in Vickers “K” trainable machine-guns in a power-operated Bristol B.Mk IIIA dorsal turret, or in a power-operated Bristol B.Mk IV dorsal turret. The turret could be wound up or down to assist take-off and cruising speed, but in this position, its use was very limited in both elevation and rotation.
Whichever way you look at it, the defensive capability of the Blenheim upon the outbreak of war was totally inadequate when compared to its main adversaries, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and 110. The German fighters were armed with 20mm cannon with an effective range of 1,000 yards compared with the Blenheim’s 0.303 inch calibre machine guns with an overall range of 300 yards at the most. This meant that they could bring their guns to bear a few seconds before the Blenheim could respond, being able to turn away before the defending Blenheim’s guns were in range. The effective ‘killing’ capability of the 20mm cannon compared to the 0.303 inch calibre bullets does not need explanation.
On the offensive side, the Blenheim had a range of 1,460 miles with a 1,000 lbs bomb load internally and up to 320 lbs of bombs externally on two underwing racks, which were rarely used as it was at great expense to performance. Typical bomb loads included 4 250 lbs bombs or 2 500 lbs bombs or 3 300 lbs depth charges carried internally, plus, on occasions, 4 80 lbs bombs or 2 160 lbs bombs on underwing racks. This meant a 1000LB bomb load compared to the Do17Z-2 with a 2205 lbs bomb load, the He111P-4 with a 2204 lb load internally plus 2204 lbs externally, leaving the Blenheim to compare with the 1110LB internal capacity of the Ju88A-4, but they could carry a further 2210 or 4420 lbs externally. No real comparison.
The Blenheim was therefore used for three types of raids, 1) Circus’s (used, in conjunction with a fighter escort now on the offensive, where the Blenheim’s were targeting a strategic target but were also used as a lure to encourage the German fighters into the air), 2) hiding in the cloud and quick raids on near coastal targets or 3) shipping sweeps within range of the French or Dutch coast.
Photo of 139 (Jamaica) Squadron taken prior to June 1941.
On 25th June 1941, after a very short bedding in period, Sgt. Fenton and his crew took off at 08.45 Hours in Bristol Blenheim ‘F’ V5826, together with 3 other Blenheim’s who following at 30 minute intervals including S/Ldr. Thompson DFC and crew. They carried out practice bombing with 8 No. 11 ½ LB practice bombs and were detailed to drop ‘programme behind markers hut’. Attacks were to be carried out between 10,000 and 12,000 feet on individual runs. All crews were to adhere strictly to times on programme. All aircraft were to keep watch on Station Operational frequency, for emergency recall, typically being required to return to Squadron for an invasion alert or an anticipated attack by enemy aircraft. Sydney Smith and crew together with 3 other crews acted as fighter affiliation, pretending to attack the aircraft as they carried out their bombing runs. It was noted that Sgt. Fenton and crew were over the target at 09.30 Hours and were required to be off target at 10.00 Hours. This was one of two practice runs and one training flight carried out by this crew prior to entering operational service but was not necessarily unusual. Eric Sydney-Smith, a pre-war journalist who wrote under the name of ‘Sydney Smith’, had recently been posted to No 139 (Jamaica) squadron, then at Oulton, Norfolk, after returning from a tour of duty in Malta, where he had earned a DFC for attacks on enemy shipping.
Then again on 26th June, Sgt. Fenton and crew in Blenheim ‘Y’ – R3704 undertook a practice high level bombing run at 6,000 feet or cloud base, which ever was the lower, with 8 No. 11 ½ Lb. Practice bombs over Grimston Warren range. 6 Other crews carried out a formation flying practice. Detail 1, Sgt. Fenton and crew, were to drop programme behind marker’s hut. Again, all crews to keep a watch on Station Operational frequency, for emergency.
Meanwhile, on the 28th June 1941, Sgt. Derrick Nabarro, second pilot on board a 10 Squadron Whitley, was shot down by flak over Kiel on the return journey following a raid on Bremen and ditched in Kiel Bay, although Nabarro states in his Escape and Evasion report that they all bailed out. His crew all survived, with the exception of P/O A K Watson, and were taken prisoner by the German’s. They were picked up by a German coaster and Nabarro, who had been injured by flak prior to ditching, was taken to hospital, where he met up with W W Hall. P/O Alexander Knox Watson, air gunner, excited the aircraft earlier by parachute over the sea. His body was recovered and he is buried in Kiel War Cemetery. The husband of Elizabeth M. Watson, of Glasgow.
Unlike the Fighter Command crews, Bomber Command crews were constantly at the mercy of the weather and mechanical failure, neither of which now seemed to plague Ken Fenton and his crew, a stark comparison to his training days.
Then on 29th June 1941, with visibility at 12 miles and 10/10ths Cloud at 2,000ft, no operations were planned, with both 139 Squadron and 18 Squadron resorting to training. Therefore, 7 aircraft carried out a simulation bombing run, whilst Sgt. Fenton in Q – L9208 and two other crews carried out a ‘Local formation within one hour call of base.’
No.11 Group Operation Order No.30 dated 28th June 1941 instructed and provided details associated with Circus 27, Raid I A J 440, to be carried out on the evening of Monday, 30th June 1941 against target No.Z303, the Power Station at Pont-à-Vendin, 3½ miles North North East of Lens, in the French Department of the Pas-de-Calais.
The raid was to comprise 18 Blenheim Bombers from No. 2 Group Bomber Command, including 8 aircraft from 139 Squadron based at Horsham St. Faith and 10 aircraft from 18 Squadron based at Oulton and was to be supported by 19 Squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes, this being 2 Squadrons more than were to be able to intercept the bombers over London on Battle of Britain Day, 15th September 1940. 212 aircraft in total, 59 Hurricanes and 153 spitfires, as a covering fighter escort, whose duties would have been as the following:-
Escort Wing; comprising Nos. 303, 306 308 Squadrons, out of Northolt and 242 Squadron from North Weald airfield.
Target Support Wings; comprising Nos. 54, 603 and 611 Squadrons from Hornchurch and Nos. 74, 92 and 609 Squadrons from Biggin Hill, 74 Squadron being sent there from Gravesend earlier that day.
Diversion and Rear Support Wings; comprising Nos. 1, 258 and 312 Squadrons from Kenley, Nos. 145, 610 and 616 Squadrons out of Tangmere and Nos. 65, 266 and 485 Squadrons from 12 Group Fighter Command, allocated for this operation to airfields in the South, namely West Malling and Wittering. All the other Squadrons formed part of No 11 Group Fighter Command.
Being a Circus, there was to be a great deal of fighter escort, the intention being to draw up the German fighters to enable the fighter squadrons to inflict damage on their number. On this occasion, the fighter escort was to include the Tangmere Wing, led by Wing Commander Douglas Bader with eleven other aircraft, including that of Sgt. James McCairns.
Both James Atterby (Mac) McCairns and Robert Alexander (Butch) Morton of 616 Squadron, together with Norman John (Mushroom) Smith of 611 Squadron were involved in this Circus operation as cover fighters and would soon be joining Ken Fenton and his crew, suffering the same fate.
This part of the story, like the rest, is taken from accounts written at the time so l have used the annotation of ME 109 as it appears in the reports whilst the correct wording should be Bf, for Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, literally Bavarian aircraft factory/workshop, where Willy Messerschmitt was the chief designer. He took over the company, which then became Messerschmitt Ag., but the designs started under the previous “ownership” remained Bf-, until the last of these in the form of the Bf-162 after which, and the changeover to Me started with the Me-163, the rocket fighter known as the Komet. Also of note is that in German accounts, the designation always has the first letter as a capital and the second a small letter, i.e. Me, Bf or He. Contemporary British records did not follow this rule and l have tried to stick to what was written at the time.
Back at Horsham St. Faith on 30th June 1941, with so much planning to be done and weather conditions indicating cloud 10/10ths at 1500ft. and visibility of 4 miles, Sgt. Fenton and crew in L for Leather, V6258, were briefed on their intended operations and the Squadron was instructed to take-off at 17.30 hrs. with 8 machines from 139 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader Thompson, DFC on Circus 27, together with a further 10 aircraft from 18 Squadron out of Oulton. They were instructed to rendezvous, over Clacton, with their Fighter Escort on a bombing raid on Pont-A-Vendin Thermic Power Station.
At 11 Group Fighter Command, they reported, weather fair, slight ground haze, thin cloud above 20,000ft. By day enemy effort followed the customary lack of activity experienced during the past ten days so it was decided to go and look for the enemy, therefore Circus XXVII was to take place. The same day, Hornchurch reported ‘An early morning mist and high cloud soon gave place to another day of blazing sunshine. Defensive patrols of the usual type kept the squadrons fairly busy most of the day and it was not till after tea that we decided to go and look for the enemy. This would form the basis of Circus 27. The sectors role was to supply the target support wing, which flew over 18 bombers while they made what looked to be a very successful attack on a Power Station near Lens – almost our deepest penetration to date’.
For the operation, the 139 Squadron crews were selected to comprise:-
S/LDR. Thompson DFC, Sgt. Hepworth, Sgt. Turner. (This Crew had just returned from operations in Malta, when they were involved in the loss of Blenheim V5460 (XD-G) of 139 Squadron which took off on 3rd June 1941 from Luqa, Malta at 13.00 hrs. on an anti-shipping patrol and was lost during an attack on an 8,000 tonne vessel, when the aircraft was hit by debris whilst attacking the ship and crashed in the sea, significantly, with this crew surviving to fight another day).
Sgt. King, F/O. Loffatt, Sgt. King
Sgt. Norman Baron DFM, Sgt. Kenneth William Hopkinson, Sgt. Robert Walter Ullmer DFM (20th July 1941, this crew took off at 13.24 hrs. in Z7499 from Oulton, together with 2 other aircraft, on an attack on a 8,000 tonne tanker off Le Touquet, at 50 feet, a terrific explosion was seen to the stern of the vessel, followed by a huge column of black smoke. The aircraft report being attacked by M.E. 109’s but it is reported that Baron’s aircraft was shot down by flak and crashed into the sea off Le Touquet, all crew killed. The bodies were eventually washed ashore. Sgt Baron is buried in Blankenburg Communal Cemetery, Belgium and the graves of his crew are in the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery).
Whilst on secondment to Malta from 139 Squadron, having just returned to Horsham St. Faith on 11th June 1941, both Baron and Ullmer were awarded the DFM on 22nd June 1941, which was gazetted on 8th July 1941, in that, in May, 1941, Sergeant Norman Baron (758054) and Sergeant Robert Walter Ullmer (759266) as pilot and wireless operator air gunner respectively, took part in an attack against a 6,000 ton enemy merchant vessel. Three direct hits were obtained and it was subsequently learned that the ship had been abandoned. A few days later, following a report that drifters were taking off the cargo, they again bombed the ship obtaining hits which caused smoke to be emitted.
Later, in June, 1941, Sergeants Baron and Ullmer participated in an attack on a large and strongly escorted convoy: The particular section attacked consisted of six merchant vessels and six destroyers. Bombs from one of the leading aircraft struck two of the ships one of which was an ammunition ship which blew up with terrific force and the aircraft in which Sergeant Baron and Sergeant Ullmer were flying was severely damaged by the blast. Despite the wrecking of his turret, Sergeant Ullmer secured excellent photographs of the damage caused to the convoy and Sergeant Baron succeeded in flying the damaged aircraft back to base.
Both airmen have consistently displayed great keenness, courage and determination. There was no mention of their Observer.
S/Ldr. Eric Sydney-Smith DFC, Sgt. Ryan, Sgt. Handley (16th July 1941 took off at 16.00 Hrs in K 7632 and shot down on a raid on Rotterdam Docks by flak ship and crash landed in Waalhaven District, all the crew became POW’s, however, by this time Sydney Smith was flying with a different crew. Sgt. Ryan was replaced by PO R A White and Sgt. Hadley had been replaced by F/Sgt. Caban (DFM)
Sgt. Kirk, Sgt. Regis, Sgt. Holmes
PO Roy Stewart Wilson, Sgt. Richard Thomas Stephens, P/O Frank Wilfred Turner (14th July 1941, this crew took off at 06.25 hrs. in R3704 from Oulton and was shot down by fighters off Le Havre, where they were attacking ships in the harbour and the harbour installations themselves. The crew are buried in Ste. Marie Cemetery, Le Havre, Seine-Maritime, France). PO Wilson (64904) RAFVR, died aged 19, the son of James Henry and Eileen Gabrielle Wilson of Ealing. Middlesex). This crew had trained at 13 OTU with Ken and his crew and were posted to 139 Squadron on 19th June 1941, 2 days after Ken.
Sgt. James Archer Cormack RAAF, Sgt. Archibald Murdock Smith, Sgt. James Alexandra Gordon Forsyth (On 3rd July 1941, this crew took off in V6452 at 10.22 hrs. from Horsham St. Faith to bomb a target at Hazebroek and was never heard from again, the reason for the loss has not been established. All buried at St. Omer in the Longuenesse Souvenir Cemetery).
Sgts. Ken Fenton, Alan Fuller and Robert McDonald
From this you will see that of the 8 crews that took part in Circus 27 from 139 Squadron, at the end of the month of July, 3 crews would remain operational with 2 becoming prisoners of war, whilst the remaining three crews were to become casualties. Not a promising future for a fledgling Blenheim crew.
The 10 No. 18 Squadron crews from Oulton comprised:-
W/C Graham, P/O Brown and F/O Sherring.
F/L W Hughes, Sgt. M Wilding and Sgt. J Hunter. (20th July 1941, this crew took off at 15.30 hrs. from Horsham St. Faith and during its attack, the aircraft clipped the mast of the ship that they were attacking and crashed into the sea off Le Touquet. Their bodies were never recovered. All are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. F/L W Hughes at this point had been promoted to Acting squadron Leader, indicating the loss rate within these Blenheim Squadrons).
Sgt. Scott, Sgt. Scully and Sgt. Mansard.
S/L Roe, Sgt. Stephenson and Sgt. Jones, R.
Sgt. Jefferson, Sgt. Millns and Sgt. Scotney.
P/O A F H Mills, P/O W A Staniland and Sgt. L C Mitchell. (On 12th August 1941, this crew took off at 09.25 hrs. from Horsham St. Faith and ditched in the North Sea, after clearing the Dutch Coast, homebound. The aircraft was claimed by Oblt. Baron Freiherr Hubertus von Holtey Stab/JG26 – South of Vlissingen at 13:28 (wings to Victory 124). The crew became POW’s. S/L Mills RCAF POW 3706 in camps 10c and SL3, F/O Staniland POW 3736 in camps 10c and SL3 and Sgt. Mitchell POW 147 (or poss. 745) in camps 3E and 357.
S/L Monroe, Sgt. Harbord and P/O Applebee. Frank Harbord Joined the RAF to train as navigator in 1938. By 05/1940 he was part of the Battle of Britain flying from Watton, bombing German invasion barges at low level & often attacked by Me Bf 109s both over the target and on their return. Posted to 13 Operational Training unit in October 1940 for a period of rest he would have come across Ken Fenton and his crew, covered earlier. In May 1941, he was posted to 18 Squadron at Oulton, billeted in Blickling Hall, where he formed up with Monroe and Applebee and took part in this raid. In the late 1990’s Frank wrote his memories of the RAF in ‘Familiar Voices’, published by Able Publishing in 1998, in which more details are recorded, but he does not record his time with 18 Squadron or this specific raid, but records the casualty rate as being very high as the squadron was engaged in low level shipping strikes (altitude of fifty feet or less), interspersed with high level raids (altitude of ten thousand feet) over Northern France known as ‘rhubarbs’ and or ‘circus’s’.
Frank Harbord wrote in his book ‘Familiar Voices’ :-
‘Now on these high level raids twenty-four Blenheim’s would have an escort of over two hundred fighters, a close escort of twenty-four Hurricanes, and Spitfires and Hurricanes stepped up from five thousand to twenty thousand feet.’
‘Life was difficult for the pilots of the ME 109’s. Usually the RAF claimed about twenty German aircraft shot down. Our losses were light, the Blenheim’s usually returned unscathed. The pilots of the ME 109’s had to content themselves with headlong dives through the Blenheim formation. It was a little disconcerting to see a ME 109, painted yellow from the spinner to the wing leading edge, standing on its nose about ten feet in front of your windscreen even although it was gone in a flash.’
In June 1941, Air Vice Marshall DF Stevenson (2 Group Bomber Command) sent 18 Squadron congratulations on raid on large power station in France led by Sq/Ldr SJ Monroe DFC with Sgt Frank Harbord (Obs) & P/O Eric Applebee DFM (Wop/AG).
Sgt. Wood, Sgt. Johnson and Sgt. Allan.
Sgt. Milson, Sgt. Millar and Sgt. Moore.
F/L Tudge, Sgt. Penn and Sgt. William Douglas Barker. (10th July 1941, this crew took off at 10.40 hrs. from Watton in Blenheim V6398 YH-A with 21 Squadron to bomb the Cherbourg Docks and were not heard from again. This operation was the crews first and last with 21Squadron, having recently been transferred over from 139 Squadron, John Tudge had been promoted from F/O to S/L in three weeks due to the losses that had been sustained. Having left Watton and rendezvoused with the fighters at Portland Bill , they proceeded to Cherbourg at very low level, a typical survival trick of the Blenheim crews, where they lifted up to attack a moored ship and the aircraft clipped the mast top, smashing the camera. The Observer was heard to shout as the camera had been wrecked and he thought he had some great photographs. The pilot continued to pull the stick back to get over the harbour wall, the air gunner thinking because of all the shouting that they were on fire, they cleared the harbour wall but were too low to get over the buildings in the harbour area. The pilot, seeing an oil pumping station, dropped his remaining bomb setting it on fire and set off home. The aircraft had been damaged by flak and about 10 miles off the French coast they had no option but to ditch the aircraft and were picked up and became POW’s. The crew became POW’s. S/L H. J. C. (John) Tudge in Camps 7C/L3, POW No.1621, Sgt C. G. Penn reports being captured on 11th July 1941, whilst with 21 Squadron and in Camps 9C/L3/L6/357, POW No.39256 (possibly 39258) with Sgt W. D. Barker, POW No.39292.
Official British Photograph – How the RAF gets it’s pictures. After a flight over German territory. The pilot asks the observer if all went well. The observer replies with “Thumbs up”
Official British Photograph – How the RAF gets it’s pictures. Film exposed over Germany is taken at the double from a Royal Air Force aircraft (Blenheim) to a waiting car.
Following the final clearance and with all aircraft at the ready, 139 Squadron took off at 17.32 hrs from Horsham St. Faith and 18 Squadron at 17.11 hrs from Oulton, the 18 bombers made rendezvous with the Escort Wing over Clacton at 7,000 to 8,000ft at 18.00 hrs. One aircraft of 139 Squadron, piloted by Sgt Kirk quickly notified the tower and abandoned the operation over Martlesham due to excessive over heating of the port engine, not an uncommon fault, and returned to Horsham St. Faith, leaving 17 Blenheim Bombers for the raid.
Escort Wing Close Support was provided by 242 Squadron, North Weald, who took off with their Hurricanes at 17.45 hrs and rendezvoused with bombers and the 3 Squadrons providing the Escort Cover Wing, which comprised three Squadrons of Spitfires, 303, 306 and 308 Squadrons out of Northolt/Martlesham. 303 leaving Northolt at 17.50, 306 at 17.45 and 308 leaving at 18.00.
The Target Support Wing, Spitfire Squadron Nos. 54 (low Cover), 603 (Top Cover) and 611 (Middle cover) left Hornchurch at 17.52 hours, led by 54 Squadron’s 12 Spitfires VA’s including that of Group Captain Broadhurst DSO DFC AFC in a Spitfire VB. On receipt of information that the bombers were 4 minutes late, the wing circled off North Foreland and picked up the bombers 10 miles East of North Foreland at 18.13 hrs at 15/18,000ft to escort them to Gravelines. 603 Squadron had been involved in a Barrow Deep patrol at various times earlier that morning, patrolling off Southend-on-Sea.
The Biggin Hill Wing, comprised Spitfires of Nos. 74, 92 and 609 Squadrons, also made rendezvous with the Bombers and Escort Wings at the same time and crossed the French Coast at 23/28,000ft. 74 Squadron was normally based at Gravesend but was moved to Biggin Hill that morning for this operation.
On arriving at a position 5 miles inland, 603 Squadron (Top Cover) at 18,000ft. were attacked by 3 pairs of ME109’s from 4,000ft., above and behind in line astern and became detached from the wing, the wing braking up and diving to evade. One section dived on a box of 4 ME109’s with another ME109 behind, and destroyed one of them. The Squadron report seeing more enemy aircraft than on previous offensive operations, all in small formations of not more than six aircraft and mostly having height advantage. The Squadron later reported having one pilot missing and heavy Flak being experienced at Gravelines.
54 Squadron also reported that on the way in, North of St Omer, 6 ME109’s dived from West to East across the front of the Wing, travelling very fast as though attempting to make the Wing split up.
Elsewhere, the three Diversion and Rear Support Wings made ready, rendezvoused over Hastings and crossed the French Coast at Le Touquet, proceeding towards St. Omer.
145 Squadron reported a quiet morning with formation flying and weather tests in the morning. Later that afternoon, 12 Spitfire Mk 2B’s took off from Merston at 17.40 hrs. and made rendezvous with the other two squadrons of Spitfires over the base and proceeded to Hastings, where they met the other two Wing forming the Diversion and Rear Support Wing, namely the Kenley Squadrons Hurricanes and the Spitfire Squadrons from 12 Group Fighter Command. Together they then crossed the coast at 20,000ft, passing over the French Coast at Le Touquet at 28,500ft, with 11 aircraft from 145 Squadron.
610 Squadron left Westhampnett with 12 Spitfires MkIIB’s at 17.45 hrs., with 616 and 145 Squadrons. 616 Squadron leading and below, 610 in the middle and 145 above, all in Squadron formation (3 sections, 4 A/C) leaving the coast at Hastings at 20,000ft., making landfall at Le Touquet at 27,000ft. and proceeded towards St. Omer.
616 Squadron, also out of Westhampnett, reported local flying practice in the morning and F/Lt Montgomery doing some air to sea firing. Again, later that afternoon they were to join 610 Squadron, with an additional 12 aircraft including W/Cdr Bader and Sgt. James McCairns, also departing at 17.45 hrs. F/O Casson was promoted to acting F/Lt to take command of ‘A’ Flight.
In support of the Diversion and Rear Support Wings required for the operation, No 12 Group formed a Wing with 65, 266 and 485 Squadrons to act with the other two Wings, as an Offensive Diversionary Patrol and Rear Support Wings, forming 9 Squadrons in 3 Wings in total, a total of a further 98 aircraft.
65 Squadron departed Kirton-in-Lyndsey and 485 Squadron lead by S/Ldr. Knight from Leconfield earlier that day and had already assembled at West Malling, whilst 266 Squadron was already operational from Wittering. 65 Squadron had sent 7 aircraft to West Malling for this operation but one aircraft crashed on landing, this pilot, F/O Lyons, ‘commandeering’ an aircraft from Sgt Nelson and re-joined the sweep, which with one other aircraft being sent to Kirton-in-Lyndsey, left 5 aircraft for the sweep. Reporting the weather to be very warm with some Haze, the aircraft departed West Malling at 17.35 hrs. and Wittering at 17.55 hrs. and as a Wing swept over Northern France in the Le Touquet – St. Omer – Boulogne – Gravelines area at 15/18,000ft.
266 Squadron was to give high cover to 65 Squadron and to patrol St. Omer-Hardelot-Gravelines and they reported that the Patrol was successfully carried out.
The Kenley Wing, Nos.1, 258 and 312 Squadrons, left Kenley at 17.40 hrs. and having joined the other two Wings patrolled aerodromes and landing grounds in the St. Omer – Guines – St. Inglevert – Marquise area at 4/6,000ft.
The main Bomber Force and fighter escort made progress, crossing into France and from this point and during the operation, 242 Squadron, as Escort Wing Close Support reported that they saw no enemy aircraft but that heavy Flak was experienced at Gravelines, during which 1 hurricane was slightly damaged by shrapnel. They also reported that there was no lane of fire as experienced previously between Hardelot and Lille.
Flight of Blenheim’s.
The rest of the escort, 54 Squadron flying at 15,000ft with 611 Squadron above, flew on with the bombers to Merville, having lost contact with 603 Squadron. The additional Target Support, in the form of the Biggin Hill Wing, Squadrons 74, 92 and 609 (Top Cover) moved to 20,000ft., to support the Group.
Prior to Merville and just North of St. Omer, 6 ME109’s dived from West to East across the front of the Hornchurch Wing, travelling very fast but as this was thought to be an attempt to split the Wing, G/C Broadhurst refused to allow 611 to attack.
Arriving at Merville, the Hornchurch Wing circled once over the Blenheim Bombers, and then flew ahead to arrive over the target at 18.36 hrs, 2 minutes ahead of the bombers. The Wing then split into sections of 4 aircraft, remaining in contact with each other and the bombers and continued to circle the target for 10 minutes and watched the bombers successfully bomb the target, Heavy Flak being experienced over the target area. 242 Squadron reported concentrated fire from a four gun battery in the target area and previously from a six gun battery, situated in the sand dunes near Dunkirk.
As the Bombers pressed home their attack, heavy flak was also reported by Sgt. Hepworth of 139 Squadron over the target area but direct hits were still obtained by 11 aircraft on the Power Station, Turbine House and Engineering Works by 4 aircraft of 18 Squadron and the 7 aircraft (one had turned back) from 139 Squadron including Sgt. Fenton’s aircraft. The roof of the Turbine House was seen to collapse, causing clouds of red dust and smoke to rise up, white smoke was also seen on the East side of the Power House after the bombing and flames and dense clouds of smoke covered the area. 18 Squadron confirmed that the 4 aircraft piloted by Monroe, Wood, Milson and Tudge of this Squadron located and successfully bombed the target. Bursts followed by flames and considerable smoke from the Engineering works adjacent to and West of the Power Station and on the Turbine House itself. Dense smoke covered whole target area – and photographs confirmed accuracy of attack, although 18 Squadron thought that only 2 aircraft from 139 Squadron successfully bombed the target. Sgt. Fenton and crew took off with 4 No. 250 lb general purpose bombs with no time delay and 4 No. 40 lb bombs on the flare racks.
The Bristol Blenheim Mark IV high speed fighter-bomber is an all stressed skin midwing cantilevered monoplane. It has two Bristol Mercury supercharged engines and variable pitch airscrews. The aircraft has a range of 1900 miles at 15,000 feet. The initial climb is 1,500 feet per minute and its service ceiling is 27,000 feet. A Flight of Bristol Blenheims.
The other 6 aircraft of 18 Squadron were unable to locate the primary target until after they had bombed a large factory with two chimneys at Haisnes, 3½ miles North West of primary target at 5030N 0248E from 6,800ft, with 24/250lb G.P. N.D.T. and 23/40lb, scoring 2 direct hits on the North East edge of this factory, other bombers undershot and much white smoke resulted, coming from the area of the factory. It was reported that 1 40lb bomb remained in the racks, hung up and photographs showed however that most bombs fell in surrounding fields. Later, it was shown that the factory bombed proved to be at La Bassée and was mistaken for Z303.
Following the raid, the Escort then returned to Gravelines with the Bombers. 54 Squadron confirmed they returned to Gravelines in the wake of the Bombers, gradually loosing height and passing over St. Omer at 8,000ft., with the bombers, and arrived at Gravelines at 18.55 hrs.
On route to Gravelines and when passing over St. Omer at 8,000ft, 4 ME109F’s in pairs abreast, aircraft in line astern, dived past 54 Squadron, flying very fast in the opposite direction. G/C Broadhurst once again refused to allow the Squadron to follow, as he considered that this manoeuvre was designed by the enemy to attract our fighters back into France.
A more detailed account of No. 242 Squadron particularly noted that no enemy aircraft were on the ground at the aerodrome at Lille or Béthune.
No 303 Squadron reported ‘another circus, but this time, nothing special to report, except that the ME109’s were weaving!’ Their more detailed report stated that on the way back 4 -7 ME109’s were seen weaving 1,000ft above them but owing to the slow speed of the Squadron they were unable to pull their noses up and attack. One pilot fired at one of these which made an individual attack but no results were observed and the enemy aircraft zoomed away.
No 306 Squadron report that two pilots had combat with 2 or 4 ME109’s which tried to attack the bombers near the French coast on the way back. One pilot could not observe results owing to looking up sun, but the other saw his bullets strike the cockpit of the enemy aircraft and claims it damaged, It was later confirmed that P/O Langhamer damaged 1 ME109, which he attacked on the return journey.
No 308 Squadron only saw 4 ME109’s well above them near the French coast on the way back.
54 Squadron arrived at Gravelines at 18.55 hrs., where 2 ME109’s were seen cruising up and down the coast at 2,000ft. A similar pair had been seen on previous sweeps, and may either be a patrol to pick up isolated aircraft returning low, or a decoy. On this occasion the later may have been the case for as Red Section was about to attack them, 9 ME109e’s appeared about 1,000ft above. The Squadron manoeuvring to attack, one of them did, in fact, dive towards Red Section, but passed underneath, followed by Blue 1, F/O Charles. F/O Charles made after one that came too close and shot it down. He delivered his first attack from below, firing a 3 second burst at 200yds range, full deflection, then he drew up into an astern position, and delivered a second astern attack as the enemy aircraft banked in a turn. The enemy aircraft then went in a steep dive, followed by Blue 1, who fired a further 3 second burst, at a range of 150yds to 80 yds. Strikes were seen in all these attacks, Blue 1 who was travelling at 400m.p.h. I.A.S. (Indicated Air Speed) pulled out with difficulty at 5,000ft. The enemy aircraft was last seen diving straight towards the ground and is claimed as probable. 2232 rounds were fired. One stoppage in P.2. owing to a weak charge. Standard reflector sight was set at 40ft. 250yds, cine film exposed.
The remainder of 54 Squadron seeing the 8 enemy aircraft preparing to attack, turned towards them whereupon the enemy employed their usual tactics on these occasions and flew back to France.
As noted earlier, 603 Squadron were attacked before reaching their objective. F/O Harry Prowse destroyed 1 ME109E. Sgt. Pilot L. E. S. Salt did not return from this operation and is reported missing. He was last seen over the coast North of Gravelines. 12 aircraft were due for this operation but one aircraft failed to take off.
611 Squadron records ‘Guns were fixed although Heinie was seen in the distance’. Very accurate FLAK was experienced and F/O Williams came back with a punctured tyre. It is believed the bombing of the power station was very effective. S/Ldr Thomas flew with the Squadron for the first time. 12 aircraft were involved.
The diversion staged in the Le Touquet – St. Omer area by nine squadrons appears to have fulfilled its purpose in drawing off opposition, but in spite of this more enemy aircraft than usual were seen by the Hornchurch Squadrons. However, very few actual encounters resulted, and the total score was one ME109 destroyed by F/O Prowse (603) and one probably destroyed by F/O Charles (54) for the loss of Sgt. Salt (Lionel Eric Sydney Salt, 603 Squadron, aged 20, Service No 902909) who is missing in Spitfire R7270 XT-?. Sgt Salt was later confirmed as dead and is buried in Pihen-lès-Guînes Communal Cemetery, Calais. The Wing was rested in the evening and activity was confined to a base patrol and a dusk patrol by 601 Squadron
On the return journey at St Omer 4 ME109’s, in pairs, line astern, at 8,000ft dived past No 54 Squadron of the Target Support Wing. As this was thought to be an attempt to induce our aircraft to turn back into France no attack was made by the Squadrons. Over Gravelines at 18.55hrs 2 ME109’s were seen cruising in line astern along the coast at 2,000ft. No 54 Squadron were about to attack when 9 ME109’s were seen above and to Port, one of these which dived towards a section was attacked and damaged while the others turned away into France, when the Squadron moved to attack. Red marker Flak, accurate for height was seen off Gravelines. It is thought that this flak could have been giving the German Fighters some indication as to where the British aircraft could be found.
The Biggin Hill Wing, reported that although many small formations of ME109’s (mostly E’s) were seen from St. Omer onwards and also on the return journey, 74 and 92 Squadrons saw nothing near enough to engage.
609 Squadron however reported ‘that the last day of the month saw a full 12 aircraft (At Last) take off, experience no cannon stoppages, and shoot down 3 ME109’ with a probable and a damaged in addition. Perhaps 40 enemy aircraft in small formations of ME109’s, mostly E’s, menaced them from target area onwards, many of them in position above our aircraft suggesting that they had received warning of our approach. They were reported as having used ‘nibbling’ tactics, menacing rather than attacking our aircraft. One formation of about 10 remained up in the sun without attacking at all and whenever they did, our aircraft used their superior manoeuvrability to assume an attacking position themselves and individual combats, of which the following is a summary, went in our favour.’
‘Red 1 (S/Ldr Robinson DFC) attacked 2 from below which came over to attack 74 Squadron ahead, chasing them down to 5,000 feet over Merville aerodrome, got behind five which were stalking Blue Section from above and behind, and caused E/A to make-off, but not before he had fired at the last one and caused it to exude glycol and brown smoke. It was probably the same lot with which Blue 4 (Sgt. Hughe-Rees) became involved, and one of which he managed to shoot down from below during a vertical climb, in which encounter after evading an attack by 2 of them, one of which broke upward, the other down, he was again attacked by one. He made steep climbing turn and E/A overtook him, whereupon he went into a vertical climb and fired from astern and below. E/A took no evasive action and emitting black smoke from engine, dived gradually down and crashed.’
‘Over the Foret de Nieppe the squadron was following Wing Commander Malan down to investigate some enemy aircraft below, when Yellow Section saw 4 ME109E’s on their port quarter, quartering to get line astern., Yellow Section pulled up and Yellow 1 and Yellow 2 each selected a victim. Yellow 2 (P/O Ortmans – Belgian) followed his, firing as it climbed and dived and skidded away, with quarter, astern and deflection attacks After the last attack, pieces came off the fuselage and enemy aircraft. Yellow 1 (F/Lt Richey DFC) got astern of his, firing a number of bursts as it made violent left and right turns. He saw flames on port side of engine, which caused it to flatten out, slow down and go down in a spiral, covered with oil and flaming from its engine. Yellow 3 (P/O Malengreau – Belgian) followed it in a steep dive down to 9,000 feet, as it tried to flatten out again, also firing and finally losing sight of it as its dive exceeded the vertical.’
‘Meanwhile ‘F/Lt Richey, formed up with some other Spitfires, at 16,000 feet, saw 6 ME109E’s diving in formation from above and behind. He had an ineffective engagement with one of them, then, finding himself alone again, he dived for a patch of cloud at 800 feet near Foret de Clairmarais. At ground level he saw 2 ME109E’s diving on his tail with a third opening fire from his starboard quarter. A violent climbing turn and side-loop brought him on the latter’s tail, and after two lengthish bursts enemy aircraft dived at full speed from 1,000 feet. After eluding the other 2, also accurate light Flak from St. Omer, F/l Richey flew home, at times below tree-top level, taking a look at France. He reports no cars on the roads, no cows or sheep in the fields, but only horses and horse-carts.’
The Tangmere Wing in their role as Diversionary and Rear Support Wing report that in the St. Omer area 616 Squadron at 24,000ft broke up into “Pairs” and “Fours” as there were 12/14 enemy aircraft in the vicinity. Only one pilot fired but no claim is made. One of our pilots was attacked from behind and below. Sgt McCairns was shot at, explosive bullets entering his cockpit, but he managed to return and land safely and uninjured at base.
610 Squadron made landfall at Le Touquet at 27,000ft. when 50 plus enemy aircraft were reported as having left ground to the East of them. The Squadrons orbited and saw the enemy aircraft a long way below them at a point about 20 miles East of Le Touquet, flying East in pairs in loose formation and numbering about 16 to 20 ME109’s. Several odd pairs of enemy aircraft below them made no attempt to climb up and engage, keeping well out of range. The St. Omer area was covered for about 30 minutes, prior to going out over Gravelines. Small amount of Flak was encountered slightly below and behind at 22,000ft. Enemy aircraft were seen well below when leaving the French Coast and 2 enemy aircraft at the same height as the Squadron in mid-channel dived away towards France before they could be attacked. Landfall made at Dover. Weather Good. 3/10ths cloud at 5,000ft.
145 Squadron crossed the coast at Le Touquet at 28,500ft, with 11 aircraft, where six ME109’s were seen coming up from behind at the same height. The Squadron turned to attack and Blue section (F/Lt Arthur and F/O St. Pierre) engaged the enemy. There was a melee and both pilots fired short bursts from 250 yards. F/Lt Arthur firing a 2/3 second burst with machine guns and cannon, then closing in to about 100 yards from which range a further 1 second burst was fired. F/O St. Pierre was slightly behind his leader and fired a 2 second burst and two 1 second bursts, the last burst being at a second ME109 astern of the victim. Both pilots claimed hits on the ME109, which did a slow role on its back and went spinning down. This aircraft was completely out of control but was not actually seen to crash as the pilots were taking evasive action. These two pilots sharing in the destruction of one ME109. Sgt Robillard (Canadian) came down to sea level and machined gunned a flak gun position about ½ a mile inland from Boulogne, not Le Touquet as previously stated and witnessed his bullets hit the gun. Several members of the gun crew were seen to fall. F/O Forde fired at a ME109 without observing any results. The Squadron then split up and patrolled Pas de Calais area without further incident, prior to returning individually to base at 20.00hrs.
Squadrons 65, 266 and 485 of 12 Group, having carried out their main patrol recrossed the French Coast North of Boulogne, where extremely accurate flak was experienced. 6 ME109’s were seen, 3 to 4,000ft over them but they did not attack. Half way across the channel two pairs of ME109’s were seen flying in an Easterly direction. These enemy aircraft turned South towards France and a pilot of No 65 Squadron attacked and damaged the rearmost aircraft. P/O Mitchell of 65 Squadron claimed 1 ME109 as damaged.
65 Squadron did not succeed in making contact with the enemy before this engagement by P/O/Sgt Mitchell but the squadron also had no casualties and returned safely to West Malling. Nothing of interest was observed during this operation except that severe anti-aircraft fire was met with over the French Coast. One Spitfire of 65 Squadron was slightly damaged by flak but landed safely.
266 Squadron gave high cover as part of the Wing and to patrol St. Omer-Hardelot-Gravelines area and reported that the Patrol was successfully carried out with no enemy aircraft near enough to engage, only enemy aircraft seen in the distance, too far away to intercept before returning to Wittering.
485 Squadron reported that Sgt Thomas was shot at but landed safely at Hawkinge, the aircraft being Cat. AC, but was repaired by the next day.
The Kenley Wing, having patrolled aerodromes and landing grounds in the area of St. Omer – Guînes – St. Inglevert – Marquise at 4/6,000ft and recrossed the French Coast at Ambleteuse and carried out a patrol over the East Godwins in formation of “Fours” at 4/7,000ft until the Bombers and Escort had safely passed over the English Coast. All three Squadrons report very little enemy activity.
71 Squadron, out of Martlesham Heath/North Weald, was not involved in the Circus operation but carried out a Barrow Deep Patrol that day, off the coast of Southend-on-Sea.
139 Squadron, including Ken Fenton and crew returned to Horsham St. Faith at 19.37 hrs., with all aircraft having carried out the bombing raid from 7,500 ft with a total of 20/250lb G.F. N.D.T. and 20/40lb bombs dropped.
242 Squadron, the Escort Wing Close Support, having safely escorted the bombers back without further incident, returned to North Weald at 19.30 hrs.
Close Escort or Escort Cover Wing, including 303, 306 and 308 Squadrons out of Northolt, returned between 19.35 and 19.55 hrs.
Target Support Wing of 54, 603 and 611 Squadrons returned to Hornchurch between 19.20 and 19.30 hrs, with the odd aircraft returning earlier at 18.45 hrs whilst the other Target Support Wing of 74, 92 and 609 Squadrons returned to Biggin Hill between 19.10 and 19.30 hrs. 54 Squadron recorded ‘The end of a successful and adventurous month.’ The following day F/O Prowse of 603 Squadron proceeded on 7 days sick leave. 609 Squadron reported one of their A/C was slightly hit by Flak over Dunkirk and many of the flight landed at Hawkinge, Maidstone and Manston, through shortage of fuel, returning to Biggin Hill later that evening.
Of the Diversion and Rear Support Wings 1, 258 and 312 Squadrons returned between 19.25 and 20.00 hrs, with some aircraft needing to refuel elsewhere, whilst 12 Group, Squadrons 65, 266 and 485 returned between 19.30 and 19.40 hrs. 145, 610 and 616 Squadrons returned between 19.23 and 20.16, again some having refuelled at other bases.
A summary of the operation and conclusion was included in the Circus report.
Summary of Operations.
Enemy – 6 ME109’s destroyed, 2 ME109’s probably destroyed and 3 ME109’s damaged
Own: Bombers – Nil and Fighters – 1 Pilot missing
1). A very successful operation in which the bombers appear to have hit the target with great accuracy, and all returned safely to their base. In addition, our fighters destroyed 6 enemy fighters and damaged a number of others in spite of the fact that height advantage invariably rested with the enemy.
2). The impression formed in the last few Circus operations that the enemy fighters are disinclined to press home their attacks on the Bombers and their immediate escorting fighters was confirmed in this operation.
3). At the moment German fighters appear to be studiously avoiding any major engagement with our fighter forces, but on the other hand they appear anxious to draw-off small numbers of our fighters in pursuit of “decoys” with the object of pouncing upon them in superior numbers, or, by shadowing tactics and maintaining a height advantage, they hope by tip and run attacks to pick-off stragglers should such targets be presented to them.
Only a few days later, on 6th July, 1941 11 Spitfires of No 616 Squadron were again part of Target Support Wing B for Circus 35, a raid of some Stirling bombers to Lille, France from 13.30-15.20 hrs.
It was on this occasion that Sgt McCairns would become a POW when his Spitfire P8500 crash landed on the beach near Dunkirk.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on 30th June 1941, orders were issued under instruction B.692 from 2 Group, bomber Command to both Watton and Horsham, regarding Ops. 675, two raids for 139 squadron as well as both 18 and 21 Squadrons for 1st July 1941. These raids were to be synchronised to happen at the same time.
Instruction B.692 clarified the situation and stated:-
‘Ops. 675 30/6
Orders for 1st July’ (1941).
‘Three a/c, 21 Squadron, and three a/c, 139 squadron, and two a/c of 18 squadron, to carry out low level attack on shipping in Kiel Canal. Squadron Commanders of 139 and 21 to arrange rendezvous of a/c taking part in this operation. If no shipping seen a/c to attack any town or village in the vicinity. Aiming point being the centre of the town or village. All strong points and heavily defended areas to be avoided. Bomb loads 4 (250) SAP 11 sec delay and 4 (25) incendiaries.’
‘Five a/c, 139 Squadron, to carry out a low level attack on G.O.1097. Aiming point centre of town. If a/c unable to reach G.O.1097 alternative target to be any town or village. All strong points and heavily defended areas to be avoided. Bomb loads 4 (250) GP 11 secs delay and 4 (25) incendiaries.’
This was to be Ken’s mission. The other aircraft from 139 Squadron, together with both 18 and 21 Squadrons, were to target shipping.
The instruction continued:-
‘In all the above attacks the approach to the target to be under 2.G.O.O.27. The attack is to be carried out only if conditions as laid down under 2.G.O.O.24 exist. Time as early as possible, but the attack should not be carried out later than 1200 hrs as best cloud conditions are expected before this time.’
‘T.O.O. 1830 (sgd) J. R. Cree. Wing Commander’
These instructions were further confirmed under instruction B.693:-
‘Ref. my Ops. 675 of 30/6, the intention is that approach to enemy coast shall be carried out under 2.G.O.O.27 and then tactics as indicated in 2.G.O.O.24 should be used for final approach. All attacks to be synchronised’
‘T.O.O. 1830 (Sgn) J. R. Cree. Wing Commander.’
2 Group Operational Order No. 24 (2.G.O.O.24) issued on 4th April 1941 states:-
- ‘As regards cloud flying operations, Great Britain is favorably placed for the attack of Germany and occupied territories. In general, the great depressions which originate in the Atlantic and towards Greenland pass over this country on their way to the Continent. Indeed, from our aerodromes in this Country we can watch the approach and passing of the warm front. First, the cirrus may be seen followed by the alto-stratus cloud layers, the heavy rain of the alto-stratus – nimbo-stratus cloud of the warm front, and behind that the cloud flecked sky and sun of the warm sector before the cold front follows.
- This phenomenon is explained in diagram 4 of C.D.97.
- Since the warm front then progresses in general towards the occupied territories, and since it has passed over this country, we have a close knowledge of its length, its breadth and its speed of movement over the ground. We are, therefore able to make full use of its strategical and tactical advantages. Moreover, once the warm front has passed over our aerodromes we are able to say, with fair accuracy, during the following four or five hours, where the warm front will be.
- This is favourable for cloud flying operations since, for example, it would be possible to launch an attack on the enemy in France when the warm front is proceeding in a south Easterly direction, and the back of the warm front had reached the county of Kent. Our bases would be in sunshine and France in heavy rain. Entering the warm front at this point, our aircraft could, for instance, fly into the alto-stratus cloud and attack an enemy objective with security from enemy fighter attack, returning before the back of the warm front has reached Calais.
- Hence, provided the objective is not too deep in occupied territory, cloud flying operations carried out in this way would enable the comparatively heavy scale of attach of a bomber formation, if it proves practicable to fly in formation, to be delivered on an enemy strong point or objective with maximum security from the enemy air defence system, and, moreover, with the knowledge of the crews taking part that were they to ‘bump-off’ in the cloud, instrument flying for say ten minutes on the reciprocal course would bring the aircraft out of the clouds into sunshine and under the security of our fighter force. If it is not possible to fly in formation, a heavy weight of attack may still be delivered by single aircraft, on a single objective concentrated in time.
- As regards the other two operational cloud layers, the strato-cumulus and stratus cloud, the characteristics of these two operational cloud layers and the method of workingsingle aircraft or a formation of aircraft in these clouds is fully described in C.D.97 (Parafgraphs 75-77 with their appropriate diagrams should therefore be closely studied. The method of working a formation in the above kinds of cloud is described in paragraphs 59-70).
- The strato-cumulus cloud layer is considered one of the most satisfactory cloud layers for the operation of bomber formations. It is an anti-cyclonic phenomenon. On a number of days – say ten days over a period of two months – our meteorological organisation can forecast, with reasonable certainty, its existence continuously over a large area, including these Islands, the Channel and the occupied territory as far as the RUHR, and along the Littoral of the North Sea up through WILHELSHAVEN to Denmark. Cloud flying operations with a depth of penetration in the enemy territory in this cloud layer would only be undertaken when there was a certainty that the cloud conditions would not change during a period longer than the period of flight.
- To use
(a) Alto-stratus cloud layer of the warm front,
(b) Anti-cyclonic cloud layer of the strato-cumulus or stratus cloud layers
to provide security for bomber attack on selected objectives. The objectives may be anywhere between BREST and the SKAW and the choice of the objective will have regard to the likely proximity of the warm front to the objective on the day chosen for the attack, or the existence of a strong strato-cumulus cloud layer over a wide area of Western EUROPE.
- See Appendix ‘A’.
Squadrons to be employed.
- Nos. 18, 21, 82 and 139 Squadrons are detailed to attack targets under this order. Watton and Horsham are to operate two squadrons each, every alternative day, either under this order or Operation Orders 20 and 22. Each Station will stand down one day in eight as detailed by this Headquarters.
- When suitable warm front weather conditions are likely to exist, attacks may be ordered by this Headquarters.
- When strato-cumulus cloud is predicted, with reasonable certainty over a wide area, attack using this cloud layer may be ordered the proceeding day.
- The time over the target, however, will be left to the discretion of the Station Commanders in consultation with the Squadron Commander concerned, who is to time the attack in such a way that it takes place under conditions of ample cloud cover for security of our crews.
- Security will depend on the use of these operational planning, timing and a well considered tactical approach.
- When striking at a target some distance inland, aircraft or formations should drop below cloud at a predetermined time, and make a landfall to see a preselected and major landfall to check the track. The ‘landfall’ system is explained in CD.97.
- If it is found practical to fly in formation, only seasoned formation and instrument flying pilots should be used to fly in formation at the commencement of operations. As crews become more accustomed to attacking in warm front and strato-cumulus cloud conditions, the size of formation should be increased. It is unlikely that our formations would be intercepted by enemy fighters even over the PAS-DE-CALAIS in alto-stratus cloud. Should this take place, Captains of single aircraft or formation leaders have full authority and freedom of action to break off the raid, avoid combat, and return to base.
- During Strato-cumulus cloud raids, single aircraft or formations would normally sit inside the rough top of the strato-cumulus cloud layer. If intercepted and attacked by fighters, Captains of single aircraft or leaders have full authority to enter cloud layer, alter course, and emerge from the cloud layer, so continuing shaken off thereby; or alternatively, to enter the cloud layer (If in formation- break up the formation) and return to base, using the cloud layer as security from fighter attack until such time as they are safe.
- It is suggested, if later found practicable, that attacks should be carried out in sections of three aircraft. This may be built up to bigger formations when more experience has been obtained.
- In making a landfall in strato-cumulus conditions, a formation leader may either take his formation through the cloud layer to do this, or alternatively, leave his formation, carry out the landfall himself and rejoin the formation above the cloud layer as described in CD.97.
- It is intended to use warm front raid for the attack of strong points which do not require deep penetration. For example, the shipping in the roads at FLUSHING, shipping at HELIGOLAND, Aerodromes and other important enemy objectives which are particularly vulnerable to this form of attack. The enemy has not had the foresight nor the ingenuity to provide adequate balloon protection – the only form of absolute security from the warm front bomber attack. Hence, it will not normally be necessary to make a landfall in the alto-stratus raid.
Type of Attack.
- On emerging from the cloud layer, a low level or dive attack, it is suggested, should be carried out. For the attack by formation, however, this must rest with the Commander on the spot and he has full discretion as regards the type of attack.
- Normally the bomb lift would comprise such bombs as 250 lb. G.P. bombs fusing 11 secs. delay, and 40 lb. Bombs. Incendiary bombs may also be required for certain occasions.
- If fighter cover in the warm sector on return is desired, arrangements are to be made either with the Local fighter sector, or station, or through this Headquarters, with No. 11 or 12 Fighter Group.
- W/T or R/T is NOT to be used either on the ground before taking off or in the air, until the aircraft is within 30 miles of its base on the return journey. The only exception to this is when an aircraft is in distress. Pilots are to ensure that the send/receive switch in the TR9D set is not moved in error to the ‘send’ position while over the sea. This error might well jeopardise the security of other crews taking part in the operation since, thus, the enemy may intercept the message.
- A listening watch is to be maintained on the Group Medium Power Frequency, to enable instructions to be passed to aircraft in case of emergency.
Senior Air Staff Officer,
2G/S.479/5/Ops. No. 2 Group.
2 Group Operational Order No. 27 (2.G.O.O.27) issued on 30th May 1941, replacing orders issued on 12th April 1941 states:-
ATTACKS AGAINST ENEMY SHIPPING AND MILITARY OBJECTIVES NEAR ENEMY OCCUPIED COAST.
- The enemy has made a considerable reduction in his Fighter Force in North West Europe for his operations in the Middle East. ?????????? As regards major strategy, the situation in the latter areas makes it necessary to attempt to force the enemy to fly back his fighters to North West Europe. It is considered that this can best be done by increasing the number of daylight bombing attacks, particularly in Germany. A Directif to this effect has been issued by the Commander-in-Chief.
- As regards suitable targets: the enemy is carrying iron ore by sea from Norway to Hamburg and the Ems. Enemy convoys are also moving continually between Germany, Holland, and France, and oil is being shipped from Spain, past Ushant on to ports in French occupied territory and Germany. All the traffic is normally routes close to the coast.
- There are additionally important military targets within a few miles of the enemy coast and the coast of all enemy occupied territory. Attack of these targets, especially those in Germany, should cause widespread alarm, embarrass the enemy air defence system, and so force him to withdraw aircraft from the Middle East for their defence.
- Since the beginning of the attacks on shipping by this Group, 74 ships totalling 195,000 tons have been destroyed, and a further 18 ships, totalling 41,000 tons hit and probably destroyed. This represents a probable total loss to the enemy of nearly 200,000 tons of shipping.
- It is early to draw definite conclusions from our operations, but standing patrols have been seen between Western France and Holland, off the Frisian Islands, and some off the Coast of Denmark, which indicates a spreading of the enemy Fighter Force, and our ability to force him to undertake standing patrols. The activities of his fishing fleets have also been much reduced and the economic effect of this may be of some importance. There is also a reduction in the number of enemy merchant ships seen, and in the number of convoys. We have, therefore, already restricted the enemy’s ability to sail freely, and eventually we may deny the passage of merchant vessels, (in what have always been our waters) except as an operation of war, entailing considerable effort.
- Our active operations against enemy shipping may force him to move ships under cover of darkness, and this may call for further counter action on our part. Recent operations have shown that attack of shipping by night, at any rate in moonlight conditions, can be successfully carried out, and, moreover, the conditions provide almost complete immunity from interception by enemy fighters, or damage by enemy flak fire.
- We have attacked land objectives over a wide front. This has already forced his Fighter Force to standing patrols, and probably to dispersion and re-deployment. It may, therefore, be anticipated that an increase of pressure by our day Bomber Force against these objectives, (probably ill defended) over a front from Bordeaux to Norway, will force his hand, make him conform to our will, and, it is hoped increase his scale of air defence at the expense of his air forces in the Middle East.
- This order deals with the attack of shipping and Fringe targets in clear or relatively clear weather conditions both by day and by night. The attack of more distant enemy objectives with greater penetration by the use of clouds is dealt with in Operation Order No. 24.
- To destroy enemy shipping by day and by night in the North Sea, the Channel and the Bay of Biscay, and to destroy objectives within a few miles of the enemy coast and the coast of enemy occupied territory.
METHOD OF EXECUTION.
- The coast-line of enemy occupied and enemy territory is divided into Beats. Beats for daylight attacks are numbered 1 – 19, and are shown in Appendix ‘A’ attached. Beats and Anchorages for night attacks are numbered 1 – 5 and A to N respectively, and are shown in Appendix ‘B’ attached. (This order was amended on 6th June 1941 to include Beats numbered 1 – 20)
ATTACK OF SHIPPING BY DAY.
- The Start Line for the attack of shipping on each Beat is to be 30 miles from the Coast on a line parallel to that shown for the Beat in Appendix ‘A’. On arrival on the Line, aircraft are to fly pre-arranged air courses towards the Coast at right angles to the Start Line. When 3 miles from Coast, aircraft are to turn 90 degrees to port, and fly on a straight course for 3 minutes parallel to the Coast, and then return direct to base.
- Aircraft are to arrive on the Start Line of their Beat at the same time, and at even intervals of distance, depending on the allotment of aircraft to the particular Beat.
- Additional orders for the following Beats are:-
(a) Beats 1-3, Sweeps are to be continued into Fjords where shipping may be found.
(b) Beats 4, 13 and 16, The line on the map (Appendix ‘A’) is the limit of penetration, unless special instructions are issued.
(c) Beats 11 – 16, The turn to port is not to be made. When they reach a point 3 miles from the Coast, aircraft are to about turn, and return to base.
Allotment of Aircraft to Beats.
- The allotment of aircraft to Beats will be made by this Headquarters when orders are passed to Stations each day. The allotment will depend on whether warm or cold front conditions exist.
- In warm front conditions, where the visibility is limited, the aircraft detailed are to be evenly distributed over the Beat in order to reconnoitre it effectively.
- For cold front conditions, each Beat will be divided into three, X, Y, Z, (reading from the left from the direction of approach). The number of aircraft to be allotted to each will be given by this Headquarters when the operation is ordered. For example, Beat 3, X3, Y2, Z2, would mean 3 aircraft for X and 2 each for Y and Z, of Beat 3. The number of aircraft stated are to fly in formation. The formations are to be spread over the Beat to ensure it being duly reconnoitred. (Page 4???????????)
Standby Striking Force.
- Certain units may be detailed as a striking force on the ETR of aircraft which have undertaken a Beat.
- If enemy ships are found and attacked in blue sky conditions, the likelihood is that if a striking force were sent out thereafter, they would meet a close escort of enemy fighters over the objective. In consequence, it would not be possible to press home an attack. Should, however, the cloud conditions and visibility over the objective be such that they would provide a striking force with good security from fighter attack, the attack in force should be continued.
- The decision to launch the striking force will rest with the Station Commander in consultation with the Squadron Commander concerned. It should not be launched unless the cloud conditions at the objective, and in its vicinity are likely to provide adequate security from fighter attack. The information available in making this decision will be the weather reports of the aircraft that have returned, and the advice of the Meteorological Officer concerned. Once a decision is made to continue the attack, a plan should be made, the estimated position of the enemy ships plotted, the method of search decided upon, and crews briefed quickly. Additionally, this Headquarters should be informed immediately. Crews that have taken part in a Beat should, therefore, lose no time in reporting an objective which has been seen and/or attacked. Reports by W/T should not normally be made since surprise would thus be relinquished.
- Any ship seen is to be determinedly attacked with the object of sinking her. When merchant vessels are convoyed by Flak ships and/or escort vessels, bombing attacks should be concentrated on merchant vessels of 1,000 tons or over. Flak ships and naval escort vessels are not to be attacked. This action is to be taken whether or not a sighting is made before reaching the Start Line.
- As a general rule, fishing boats are not to be attacked. If, however, a fishing boat or some other small vessel is passed by a formation en route to a land target it is probable that this ship will send out a W/T warning and so preclude the possibility of surprise. In these circumstances, it is for the Formation Leader to decide whether to carry on to his objective and detach two or more aircraft to deal with the small ship, or to attack it with his whole force.
- If a formation is detailed to carry out a Fringe Beat, or to attack a specific land target and en route, sights a large ship or convoy, then this must be attacked, and the primary task abandoned.
ATTACK OF SHIPPING BY NIGHT.
- Night attacks on shipping may be ordered by this Headquarters during moonlight period, Allotment of aircraft to Beats and Anchorages will be made by this Headquarters when orders are passed to Stations. Aircraft will fly individually, bunched, or spaced out in time at Station Commanders discretion.
- The actual time that the operation will take place will be left to the discretion of Station Commanders, who will take into consideration the limiting factors of the times of sunset, sunrise, moonset, moonrise, and the position of the moon relative to the aircraft bearing.
- All enemy shipping provided it is in the Free Bombing Area is to be attacked with determination from a low level. The first ship seen is to be attacked unless it is of less than 500 tons, in which case efforts should be made to find and sink a bigger target.
- Ships cannot be sighted and low attacks made except on a ‘light’ night. If weather is such that the moonlight is unable to penetrate clouds, and ‘black’ conditions without natural horizon exist, the operation will be cancelled.
- Aircraft on arriving at the first end of the Beat are to fly at approximately 1,000 feet, three miles from and parallel to the Coast.
- When merchant shipping is convoyed, attacks should be concentrated on the largest ship in convoy. Flak ships and ships of war are not to be attacked.
- Crews should be encouraged, having made their attack, to stand off from the target and making fullest use of the moon, observe what effect their attack has had. Whenever possible, bombs should be dropped singly. As the time taken over the target does not jeopardise the safety of the aircraft. it is essential that attacks should be carefully thought out and made with the greatest deliberation.
Anchorages and Inland Waterways.
- Anchorages should be searched in the same manner as the Beats. Over inland waterways, aircraft may have to fly at varying heights, according to local ground defences. These heights will be at Station Commander’s discretion.
- As on night Beats, ships in anchorage or in inland waterways, if over 500 tons, are to be attacked with determination from a low level. Docks, as such, are not to be attacked. If a ship in dock can be seen, an attack against that individual ship may be made.
- On occasion, anchorages and inland waterways may be added to night Beats when orders are passed to Stations.
- If no shipping is seen, bombs are to be brought back. Last resort targets are not to be attacked except when expressly ordered.
ATTACK OF FRINGE TARGETS BY NIGHT.
- Night provides cover against interception by fighters and generally against an enemy air defence system such as that in Germany – similar to the security provided by clouds. In consequence, our fringe attacks can be extended to greater depths of penetration by using the cover of night.
- Moreover, provided aircraft fly during the full moon period with good night viability, it is considered that effective widespread night flying operations – likely to be most damaging to the enemy morale – can be carried out to considerable depths of penetration. Detailed instructions regarding the attack of fringe targets by night will be issued in a separate order.
ATTACK OF MILITARY TARGETS.
- The start line, spacing of aircraft to the Beat, and approach to the coast is to be the same as in paragraph 11.
- The miles of penetration in respect of each Beat will be given when orders are issued by this Headquarters. Aircraft operating on Beat 1 are, however, to penetrate the coast line to a depth of 10 miles at places where this distance incorporates shipping lanes. Aircraft are not to approach within a 15 mile radius or Bergen. Aircraft are to fly from the Coast to the distance specified, turn to port for one or two minutes and then return direct to base. If good security can be obtained from cloud conditions, the penetration may be extended at the discretion of the captain of the aircraft. Where strongly defended points are included in Beats, as example, Cherbourg, Havre and Boulogne, Station Commanders are to instruct crews to avoid these points except in conditions of poor visibility. The attack of such strong points is dealt with in Operation Order No. 24.
- Specific targets may be detailed by the Headquarters when orders are issued. When no specific targets are given, the following are to be attacked on sight:-
(a) Military transport columns and motor vehicles stationary or moving.
(b) All troops, wherever seen, on the roads or in villages and towns.
(c) Any camps, or hutments, away from villages and towns, which appear military in character.
(d) Searchlight or A.A. gun emplacements.
(e) Goods trains and rolling stock in sidings.
- Passenger trains are not to be attacked. Aerodromes and Ports should not be included in the above, as the attack of these targets is being dealt with in a separate Operation Order. Strong points, such as these should, therefore, be avoided unless complete surprise is attained.
- In respect of Beats 6 and 7, where they include German territory, there is no restriction as to targets: any target may be attacked on sight. The centre of German villages, towns and cities should be attacked with determination with the object of destroying morale and raising immediate calls for close fighter protection.
- If shipping is seen when an attack has been ordered on military targets, it is to be attacked in preference to the military target. (See paragraphs 20, 21 and 22.).
Security and Weather Conditions.
- If the weather is fine, with little or no cloud, security will rest on the ability to outwit the enemy warning system by very low flying (50 feet above see level) or other appropriate tactical approach. If the weather is cloudy, security will depend upon the proper use of clouds coupled with a good tactical approach. If the weather is unsatisfactory, the operation will be cancelled in consultation with this Headquarters.
- The success of low altitude attacks and the security of crews taking part depends on all aircraft arriving at the same time at the start line. The enemy warning system is such that enemy fighter aircraft have insufficient time to take off and attack our aircraft before they are well out to sea returning to base.
(On 6th June 1941 a new clause 43A was added, but further withdrawn and amended on 8th June 1941:- “In order to safeguard aircraft against interception during their return from attacks, aircraft are to take the following action; On Beat 6 after attack, aircraft before returning to Base must fly to a point not less than 70 miles North of Terschelling. On Beat 7 after attack, aircraft to fly through a point 54 degs 40 mins North 06 degs 00 mins East before returning to base. On Beat 8 after attack, aircraft to fly out on a course 010 degs for not less than 70 miles before returning to base” and later in amendment No. 3 “On Beat 7A, after attack, aircraft are to fly on homeward journey, not South of 54 Deg 40 mins North 06 degs 00 mins East and 54 degs 00mins N 03 degs 00mins East”)
- It must be realised that if any one aircraft arrives on the start line before the time ordered, it may well jeopardise the success of the operation. Careful timing and planning is, therefore, most important.
- When operations against Beats 10 to 12 are ordered, the Officer Commanding the Station is to get full information from the Controller, Headquarters Fighter Command respecting enemy fighter activity. The operation is to be launched at a time chosen best to avoid enemy standing Fighter patrols which may be active near these areas, unless either warm front or Strata Cumulus cloud conditions exist over the Beat in question.
- If enemy fighters are seen at any time during an operation, leaders of formations or, if aircrafts are flying singly, captains of aircraft, have full authority to avoid combat and return to base.
- If fighter cover on the return from an area under attack is desired, arrangements are to be made, through this Headquarters, with No. 11 or 12 Fighter Groups. In this event our fighter would proceed to sea a distance of some 40 miles from our coast to give protection to bombers which may be engaged or threatened by enemy fighters.
Type of Attack.
- At the discretion of Station Commanders. Low level at 50 feet has provided the best results – with 11 secs. delay.
- Aircraft carrying out shipping or Fringe Beats may, if a good layer of 10/10 clouds exists, at their discretion, extend their Beats or penetrate further inland in search of better targets by climbing up and flying in cloud.
- (i) Against shipping. 4 (250) S.A.P. 11 secs delay.
(ii) At military targets. 4 (250) G.P. 11 Secs delay.
25 lbs. incendiaries are to be carried on flare racks at Station Commanders discretion.
Allocation of Squadrons.
- Stations will be required to operate as far as possible on alternative days. Each Station will stand down on every8th day and will not be expected to operate before 10.00 hours on the day following a stand down.
- In the event of there being one or two aircraft in Squadrons surplus, after the allotment to Beats has been made on a Squadron basis, those aircraft may be detailed to fly to another aerodrome, and, with the surplus from that aerodrome, make up the requisite number, for an additional Beat or standby (see paragraph 17). Orders to those aircraft will be given by the Stations nominated by this Headquarters.
- The executive for this order will be given at 1700 hours the day before which the operations is to take place.
- When an executive is given, the day and the number of the Beat will be given. The time of the operation will be left to the discretion of the Station Commander.
- In daylight W/T or R/T is not to be used either on the ground before taking off, or in the air, until the aircraft is within 30 miles of its base (amended in amendment No. 4 to read “30 miles of the English coast on the return journey”) on the return journey. The only exception to this is when an aircraft is in distress. Pilots are to ensure that the send/receive switch in the TR9D set is not moved in error to “send” position when over the sea. This error might well jeopardise the security of the other crews taking part in the operation since thus the enemy may intercept the message.
- A listening watch is to be maintained on the Group Medium Power Frequency to enable instructions to be passed to aircraft in case of emergency.
Senior Air Staff Officer,
2G/S.479/10/Ops. Headquarters, No. 2 Group.
1st July 1941, North Africa; the German advance under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is halted at El Alemein. The intended consequences of the attacks by these Blenheim’s on shipping and German coastal targets was to force German High Command to relocate fighter aircraft from the Middle East back to defend Germany, thereby giving the Middle East Allied Forces an advantage in terms of aircraft available to speed and assist the Middle East campaign.
The next day, on 1st July 1941, two stick’s of bombers from 139 Squadron left Horsham St. Faith, the first on a bombing raid on shipping at Keil and the second stick of five machines, lead by Squadron Leader Sidney Smith, including Kenneth Fenton and crew, left at 08.48 Hours on a daylight raid to Oldenburg Power Station.
Bristol Blenheim IV XD-‘L’ for Leather, V6258 Piloted by 20 year old Sergeant Kenneth Fenton (Service No. 1053472) of 139 (Jamaica) Squadron, 2 Group, Bomber Command, left from Horsham St. Faith, Norfolk at 08.48 hours, with a 20 year old Observer Sergeant Alan Andrew Fuller and a 26 year old Wireless operator/Air Gunner, Sergeant Robert William McDonald, on course to bomb Oldenburg, Germany together with four other Blenheim’s of the same squadron. Each aircraft was loaded with 4 No. 250 LB General purpose bombs with 11 second delays and 4 No. 25 Lb incendiary bombs. Bristol Blenheim V6258 was supplied to 33 MU on 21st March 1941 and transferred to 139 Squadron on 13th June 1941.
139 Squadron Blenheim.
Other crew members consisted of:-
S/Ldr Sydney Smith, DFC Sgt. Ryan, Sgt. Handley in ‘V’ – V7350.
P/O Wilson, Sgt. Stevens, P/O Turner in ‘K’ – V6084.
Sgt. Baron, DFM, Sgt. Hopkinson, Sgt. Ullmer, DFM in ‘A’ – V6452
Sgt. Cormack, Sgt. Smith, Sgt. Forsyth in ‘L’ – V6258.
From the records above you will see what a fateful period lay ahead for these airmen, with three crews being killed and 2 becoming POW’s by the 20th day of the same month, although S/Ldr. Sydney Smith was flying with a different crew the day he was shot down and captured. Promotion prospects were excellent if you could stay alive and not be shot down. In fact, there are records of P/O becoming Wing Commanders or even Squadron Leaders within a month.
Ken Fenton’s crew consisted off:-
Observer: Sgt. Alan Andrew Fuller, (Meteorologist, home address ‘Toowong’, Church Road, Lingfield, Surrey. Service No. 948385, joined Cardington. DOB 21st November 1920
Wireless operator/Air gunner: Sgt. Robert (Robbie) William McDonald, (Heavy Transport Haulage (Office), home address 58 Lennard Road, Dunton Green, Kent. Service No. 1250068, joined Uxbridge, Gloucester or Penarth. DOB 24th November 1914. He died Bury St Edmund 19th February 1980.
With Weather reporting cloud at 5/10ths low and 10/10ths total and visibility of 2 miles, the targets set for that raid on Oldenburg, were the local central railway station and its marshalling yards, the power station and the barges in the canal. All aircraft appear to have bombed the target and returned between 12.48 Hours and 13.21 Hours.
1 Aircraft bombed target with 4x250lb from 1000ft. 2 Fell towards railway station which was clearly seen. Also dropped bombs on centre of town of Verel. Results unobserved due (to) regaining cloud cover.
1 Aircraft bombed marshalling yards 3 miles south of target which was hit from 450ft with 4/250lb and 4/25lb I.B.s. Results were not observed but crew confidant bombs fell on yards.
1 Aircraft bombed (1) village 4 miles south-south-east of target, (2) south-east corner of target (3) machine gunned barges and houses along canal south of target and (4) machine gunned driver of excavator digging ditches in Zwisghenahn area, from (1) 800ft, 4/25lb bombs (2) 1000ft, 4/250lb bombs (3) 50ft and (4) 50ft.! and 2 not observed but certain of hits.
1 Aircraft bombed marshalling yards south of target from 1000ft with 4/250lb and 4/25lb. Smoke seen to rise for 200yards, 150ft high in yards, and on track near sheds.
All aircraft appear to have bombed the target and returned between 12.48 Hours and 13.21 Hours. Sgt. Fenton and crew on raid J D O 420 were listed as ‘Failed to return’, results of their bombing therefore unknown.
Low-level oblique aerial photograph taken during a major daylight raid on the docks at Rotterdam, Holland, by Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 2 Group. The Commanding Officer of No. 18 Squadron RAF, Wing Commander T Partridge, in Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, V6267 ‘WV-M’, leads the second wave of the attack in at low level toward the docks, seen on the skyline. Moments later he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and killed with his crew, Segreant G Dvorjetz and Flight Sergeant J Smith.
British Blenheim Bombers here sweep over the flat Dutch fields low enough to wave to the enslaved Dutch farmers. While most of the German Luftwaffe is busy in the U.S.S.R., they may be said to have relative air superiority. But they are not flying low just to be chummy with the Dutch. Against low-flying planes, the German fighters cannot dive for fear of running into the ground, ground spotters get minimum warning; anti-aircraft guns cannot take aim. The date of this sweep was July 16.
Rotterdam appears after the run across the Hook of Holland. Bombs dropped from such a dangerously low level as to shake the British bombers have fallen in the great new harbour works on south side of the New Maas River, an outlet of the Rhine. There seem to be hits on the Katendrecht docks. The plane is about to pass over the heart of the city. Beyond Het Park at upper right, the Pilgrim Father’s sailed July 22 1620. In foreground and left is desolation left by brutal German bombing May 12 1940.
Other operations that day included a raid on shipping at Kiel by 5 aircraft of 139 Squadron and Circus 28, 6 aircraft of 18 Squadron attacking a power station and chemical works at Chocques, near Bethune, but they all abandoned task due to insufficient cloud and the fighter escort being late, no bombs were released. It was the policy at the time to fly as much as possible in cloud to avoid detection until over the target and it was the Squadron Leaders decision as to whether there was insufficient cloud cover to protect the attacking bombers and if so, they were to return to base.
According to the Officer Commanding 139 Squadron, at 11.45 hours, ‘L’ for Leather was on a bearing of 063 (1st Class) from Horsham St. Faith, which must have been on the outbound leg. The aircraft were due over the target about 11.00 hours.
The next bearing given by V6258 was 060 (1st Class) from Horsham St. Faith which was passed at 12.06 hours. After the second bearing was given, nothing more was heard of the aircraft.
At about 12.00 hours on 1st July 1941 Bristol Blenheim ‘L’ for Leather V6258 reported in that they had been damaged over Oldenburg near Bremen and were going to ditch in the North Sea, North-West of Terschelling Island. The aircraft had indented twice, but nothing further was heard or seen.
At 12.26 Hours, the already damaged Blenheim, ‘L’ for Leather, was attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 109F piloted by Fw (Feldwebel or Sgt) Fredriech-Karl ‘Frika’ Bachmann of 3/JG 52 based at Leeuwarden, Holland and Sgt. Kenneth Fenton successfully managed to ditch the Blenheim at 12.48 hours, 60 Kms, North-West of Vlieland in the Dutch Frisian Islands in the North Sea at position 4435 and deploy the dinghy. Reported by Theo Boiten as being ‘among one of a very few crews to survive a Blenheim crash in 1941’. They were to become members of the Goldfish Club, having ditched and used their dinghy to affect a rescue.
Picture of Bristol Blenheim IV XD-‘L’ for Leather, V6258 as drawn by Kenneth Fenton. Taken from his YMCA Prisoner of War log book. (Note two attacking airplanes), together with a cartoon adaptation of the incident also from the log book.
Another view of the demise of Bristol Blenheim ‘L’ for Leather, as drawn by Kenneth Fenton. Taken from his YMCA Prisoner of War log book.
Her name was Grace – She was one of the best,
And there came the night when l gave her the test;
I looked at her with joy and delight,
For she was mine for the whole of the night,
She looked so pretty, so sweet, so slim,
The night was dark and the lights were dim,
I was so thrilled my heart missed a beat,
For l knew that that night l was in for a treat;
I’d seen her stripped, I’d seen her bare,
I’d felt all around her, I’d felt her everywhere,
But this was the night l liked her best
For this was the night, I’d give her the test.
We started off, she screamed for joy,
For this was her very first night with a boy;
I got as high as quick as l could,
I handled her well, her response was good.
I turned her over right on her side,
Then on her back, all ways l tried,
It was one great thrill, she’s the best in the land
that beautiful ‘Blenheim’ of Bomber Command.
Poem of the Blenheim taken from my Father’s POW Log Book, repeated for a lot of different aircraft.
It is unlikely that the Wireless Operator, Robert McDonald would have been able to send out a further distress signal as he would have been busy defending the aircraft from the fighter attack. To operate the wireless, it was necessary for the operator to swivel the gun turret to access the wireless area behind the gun turret, impossible whilst they were responsible for defending the aircraft.
Picture of Fw. Bachmann of 3./JG52 taken in 1941 on the Isle of Wangerooge. (3./JG52 was based there between 7th July and 31st August 1941). Bachmann’s was subsequently killed in action with the rank of Lt. on 4th September 1942, an ace with 31 victories to his name.
Ken Fenton’s Goldfish Club Membership card and cloth badge, also showing the reverse side of the membership badge below.
The following is taken from the Goldfish clubs official web site.
The Goldfish Club was formed in November 1942 by Mr C A Robertson who was at that time Chief Draughtsman to Messrs PB Cow & Co., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of Air-Sea Rescue equipment. After hearing of the experiences of some of the airmen who had survived, ‘Robbie’ conceived the idea of forming an exclusive club for airmen who owed their lives to their life jacket, dinghy, etc.
With the company’s backing, the club was named The Goldfish Club- gold for the value of the life and fish for the sea- and each member was presented with a heat-sealed waterproof (!) membership card and an embroidered badge. With wartime restrictions no materials were available for the badges until some redundant dinner suits were contributed in response to an appeal by columnist William Hickey in the Daily Express.
News of the new Club spread rapidly and in January 1943, the BBC broadcast an interview by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, with Robbie and two members who had qualified on their first operational flight.
By the end of the war the Club had 9000 members from all branches of the Allied Forces and it had been intended that the granting of further memberships should cease but applications continued to arrive. When Robbie left PB Cow in 1947 to start business on his own account he retained the Club records in order to continue administration at his own expense.
An article in the RAFA Journal ‘Airmail’ in January 1951 renewed interest and a reunion dinner was held. This was a great success and the Club was reorganized and a formal subscription basis in March 1953. The reunion events have been held annually ever since at various venues with many distinguished guests- in response to a message of greetings Miss Mae West made it clear that she was well aware of and took great pride in the fact that members of the RAF had adopted her name for their life-jackets!
Among the ranks have been a number of airmen who qualified in World War I, more than twenty years before the Club’s foundation. Inevitably many of the older members have passed on yet new members still arrive. Many of those who joined in the Service days rejoin on learning of the Club’s continued existence- one chap nominated as a ‘special member’ the Italian airman who offered him a seat in his dinghy when they met in the Mediterranean in 1942. The only German Goldfish qualified when he ejected from his F104G, part of the NATO forces in 1971. Helicopter crews predominate these days; ditchings are rare among combat aircraft, for most aircrew ‘bang out’ with their ejection seats but still qualify if they come down ‘in the drink.’ A couple of years ago Richard Branson escaped from his trans-Atlantic balloon and became the first ‘lighter-than-air’ Goldfish. Last year, Gloria Pullen ditched a Bleriot monoplane of 1911 vintage and is the only lady Goldfish- though not the first.
The five hundred-plus members around the world keep in touch with a regular Newsletter and the Club looks forward to celebrating its Golden Jubilee in a couple of years’ time. July 1992 saw the 50th Anniversary celebrated in fine style. In July 1993 they went back to the same venue, the Falcon Hotel in Stratford-on-Avon, and enjoyed the 51st in like style. Update 2000: The Club has continued having its anniversary celebration in the same venue in Stratford-on-Avon up to 2000.
Page from AP1530B, the pilot’s notes from the Mk IV Blenheim showing the exit routes for the pilot and navigator or observer in the event of a ditching at sea, but more importantly, the tortuous route the Wireless operator would have needed to have taken through the small hole just forward of the gun turret.
The Blenheim was an awkward aircraft to get into as you had to climb onto the wing and then lower yourself into the cockpit, in your full flying suit including Irving Jacket and flying boots, together with your parachute strapped on. Inside the cockpit there were a lot of sharp edges, leavers and knobs to catch on to. After take-off, the pilot had to reach behind himself to change the pitch of the propellers with his left hand, but right next to these knobs were two identical levers which cut off the fuel to the engines, an easy mistake to make with dire consequences.
Blenheim cockpit through which, in the event of ditching or a crash landing, all three crew members may need to exit, in Roberts case, one of them injured.
The exit from the Blenheim following a ditching was either through the top escape hatch above the main cockpit which was more convenient for both the Pilot and Observer, whilst the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, would exit through a more restricted hatch just forward of the gun turret. It is thought that Sgt. R McDonald was injured at this time and it is not clear how he managed to exit the aircraft. What is clear however is that Sgt. McDonald was not a small man and the gun turret of a Blenheim is very compact, making any manoeuvre out of this position, injured or not, very difficult.
Picture taken looking back at the Air –Gunner’s position, over the Observers seat. The wireless set was located in front of the Air-Gunner’s seat, further back in the fuselage.
It is therefore likely that Sgt. McDonald was assisted out of his turret and the aircraft through either his escape hatch or the front escape hatch by Sgts. Fuller and maybe Fenton, taking the lift raft valise with them, again, quite a bulky item as can be seen from this photo. It is likely that Sgt. Fuller, helped McDonald down from his turret prior to ditching, time and defence of the aircraft permitting, so that he could crouch and brace himself within the well of the fuselage behind the rear spar behind the pilot, being the strongest part of the aircraft, always assuming they had the time. The time between deciding to ditch and actual ditching is unknown but not thought to be very long so whilst defending the aircraft, there would not be much time to consider one’s own circumstances.
‘RAF Bombing crew practise channel landings somewhere in England – Continuing it’s all-out raids over Germany and occupied territories, the R.A.F. admits in correspondingly larger losses of aircraft. Every effort is made, however, to enable airmen shot down over the Channel to make their way back to England. This photo shows the crew of the Blenheim Bomber practicing for that emergency. They are tossing over the side a rubber dingy, compressed into the size and shape of a suitcase. Fully inflated the boat will support the entire crew, and carries paddles, flares and food. Issued 8th March 1941.’
The life raft, a type ‘M’ dinghy, was stowed in a valise behind the pilots seat, and in normal circumstances had to be brought though the escape hatch with the Air Gunner/Wireless Operator prior to being inflated.
The ‘M’ type dinghy was circular in shape, sufficient for emergency use only, with seating capacity for three. The dinghy had three water pockets for stability and a single knotted cord for hauling and to assist with boarding. A safety topping up valve was fitted to the upper surface of the buoyancy tube and the dinghy included leak stoppers, bellows, rescue line and a knife, together with very basic rations and some water.
As soon as the aircraft had come to rest, the valise would be thrown out of the top hatch of the rear or air gunners/wireless operator’s compartment of the Blenheim by a member of the crew. In the case of ‘L’ for Leather, McDonald was injured so the crew had to pull both McDonald, who was not a small man, and the dinghy valise out through the constrained hatch just forward of the air gunners compartment and get him out of the aircraft before leaving themselves. The dinghy was then attached to the aircraft by means of a 20 feet length of operating cord stowed on the valise to stop it either being blown or floating away before the aircrew could get themselves in. The other end was attached to the operating head of a CO2 cartridge fitted to the dinghy.
Once the cord was tight, the tension on the cord activated the operating head and the dinghy would start to inflate, breaking the lacing cord holding the dinghy in the valise carrying case and allowing the dinghy to break free. At this point the dinghy becomes fully inflated and the crew climbed through the escape hatch and lowered themselves onto the floating wings, awash with sea water and climbed into the dinghy which is still attached to the aircraft. Checking that they have all the crew and everything they need, the cord is cut using the floating knife provided and they leave their stricken aircraft to its fate, to await rescue and in the case of the three crew members of ‘L’ for Leather, to watch the story unfold.
Picture of an ‘M’ type dinghy as found on the Blenheim.
So Ken, Alan and Robert found themselves bobbing around in the North Sea, the coast of occupied Germany still very much in sight, open to the elements but lucky that this was in daylight in mid-summer. They had been taught that the first few hours after being shot down offered the best chance of escape, what to do in these circumstances, but the crew could do nothing about that, they just needed to survive and await rescue. Little did they know what would unfold before their eyes or what was being done to get them home.
Elsewhere, on the same day, 1st July 1941, Sgt James McCairns was flying his 616 Squadron spitfire on a target support mission for the 12 Blenheim’s of 2 Group on the early evening raid on the power station at Choques, N. France, part of Circus 28. The Northolt, Hornchurch, Tangmere and Kenley wings were all involved in escort duties for these Blenheim’s.
‘Three loud explosions and a cock-pit seemingly filled with bursting shells heralded the beginning of the end to my career as a fighter pilot. Apparently the remainder of my formation had permitted a M.E.109 to creep up on my tail, believing, as those “Famous last words” so aptly put it, that “he was a friendly”.’
‘So sitting about 200 yards on my tail the jerry had ample opportunity to rake the Spitfire from nose to tail.’
‘Fortunately, violent evasive action put me out of the line of fire before my body, also, in turn, became the recipient of a Hun bullet, and rather like a dog with its tail between it legs, homeward l sped, to make, after what seemed an eternity, a successful pancake at my home station – Tangmere. Out of the kite l jumped, only to be greeted by a very sorry sight. For there was my old spit – D for Donald – reliable and trustworthy friend to the very end – looking humbly pathetic with the back all ripped open by the Jerry explosive shells. Never again would that kite be fit to take into the air again – just like parting with an old friend l had to bid farewell and hand over to the salvage mongers – good old “D” who had never caused me a moment’s anxiety.’
‘That day was Sunday, July 1st 1941 – “D” ( for Donald) and l had then been together for something like 10 months – spent in the happy company of the famous fighter unit 616 Squadron leadership of that legless hero Wing Commander Bader. For the last three weeks – right from the beginning of the “non-stop offensive” of the Summer of ‘41’ – We had daily been sweeping the Huns from the Skies of France and that was the first mishap we had ever experienced.’
‘How we managed to pull through that day still remains a mystery. I remember us leaving the plane and going into the crew-room. Station Commander “Woodie” – Group Captain Woodall – said that a pint of beer would probably relieve the pent up emotion and l gladly acknowledged such advice, only wanting to remove a flying boot for the purpose of taking out some slight impediment. Imagine everyone’s amazement when, as l up-turned the boot, out came rolling a perfectly good German armour-piercing bullet – doubtless fallen into the top of the boot after ricocheting round and round the cockpit.’
‘That night, ensconced once again in our little mess room, reviewing the day’s activities, l became more and more aware that l had lost more than my plane. I had a most horrible foreboding that, shorn of “D” my future could never be so rosy again. That, coupled with a warning from my Adjutant only two days before, started filling me with apprehension. In those days l belonged to that company of the Air Force, popularly known as the backbone of the R.A.F. – in other words l was a good old Sergeant Pilot. Just a few days before, when our Adge had asked me if l was willing to accept a commission l gladly retorted “Yes”. Whereupon he revealed one of the many superstitions of the Air Force. Because of the incredible number of non-commissioned officers in the very early days who, on accepting a proffered commission, either do not live long enough to don their ordered uniform or else survive only long enough to wear it for one or two weeks at the most, the operational members of both Bomber and Fighter Command claim to the acceptance of a commission as a proposal to sign the Death Warrant – an offer from the devil himself.’
‘Perhaps one forgets just how many times this has been contradicted, how some of the most high in the land have climbed the ladder, rung by rung – nevertheless the occasions one hears the old phrase – “oh, so-and-so has just gone for a Burton – damned shame – just been commissioned too! gives sufficient evidence for this well-rooted R.A.F. superstition.’ And provides the source of the famous saying, ‘Gone for a Burton.’
Flight Sergeant James Atterby McCairns, (Service number 154718) Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, the son of an English engineer, was born 21 September 1919 at Niagara Falls, USA. Of British nationality, he came to England when he was 12 years old and completed his education at King Edward VI Grammar School, Retford. He enlisted 6 months before the start of the war and by 1940 he was a sergeant pilot in Wing Commander Douglas Bader’s famous 616 Squadron.
The Bristol Blenheim was a remarkable aircraft, flown by a remarkable bunch of servicemen, being told that you should expect to survive 6 missions but they carried on. At the start of World War 2, the RAF had more Blenheim’s than any other aircraft. It was the only true multi role combat aircraft to serve in every RAF command, serving in all the theatres of war throughout the Second World War, being used as a daylight and night bomber, a long range fighter, night intruder and fighter, photo reconnaissance, finally being used for the operational and advanced training of pilots before they went on to their front line Squadrons. The last operational sorties were in August 1943 in the Far East in Burma operating from India. A great aircraft but not a war machine at any time during World War 2 but what was the option?
Whilst the Blenheim was loved by its crews and the Air Ministry, being the aircraft that outnumbered all other aircraft types in operation with the RAF it was destined to bear the brunt of much of the early operations against the enemy but it was totally outgunned by the German fighters and Blenheim losses in the first two years of the war were simply appalling. Often sent on operations that were unsuited to the aircraft, Blenheim crews suffered one of the highest casualty rates of all RAF crews in a service that suffered the highest casualty rates of any allied force in World War 2.
The aircraft created fierce crew loyalty even with these loses and their bravery was unmatched, carrying out raid after raid, which were virtually suicidal, highlighted by the fact that more Victoria Crosses were awarded to Blenheim Pilots than to Spitfire and Hurricane pilots put together.
During the Battle of Britain and afterwards, the Spitfires and Hurricanes defended the shores of Britain from the constant attack from the enemy but it was the bombers of RAF Bomber Command that continually carried out attacks on the airfields from where the attacking force departed and on the impending invasion fleet in the heavily defended French coast ports and harbours, round the clock, by night and day, these crew members of both Bomber Command and Coastal Command were losing considerably more aircrew through that period than that of Fighter Command. They played a vital role in destroying the German invasion barge fleet during the Battle of Britain, being amassed on the French coast and harassing enemy shipping in the Channel. It also can be seen that a large number of German fighter aircraft were to remain at home bases on standby, to repel the British Bombers as they were attacking their airfields during the Battle of Britain, denying them from being available to defend the attacking Bombers. Equally, The Blenheim also formed a large part of the night fighter squadrons at this time.
There is no doubt that the fighter aircraft of Fighter Command had a major impact on the Battle of Britain, in retaining air superiority over the British Isles but throughout the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command took the battle back to the Germans, in not only bombing the invasion barges collecting across the channel but, as can be seen by the diaries and records of the fighter squadrons of the German Luftwaffe, many German fighter aircraft were to remain on their airfields on strategic alert to fight off the bombers that were repeatedly sent to render their airfields and factories useless throughout the Battle of Britain.
Churchill in his speech referred to the few, which is directed at the fighter pilots but his speech needs to be read in total and in context, when you will see the true extent of his appreciation as it is aimed at the daylight bombers of RAF Bomber Command, something that was not appreciated at war end.
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
“All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.”
“On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers, who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.”
What cannot be disputed is that the Battle of Britain, together with Stalingrad, were two of the main turning points in the Second World War when Germany’s push to take over Europe was stopped, giving the allies a chance to start to fight back.
In the early years of the war, however, most of the operations were done without fighter escort at very low level, 50 feet, to avoid detection and the devastating effects of the German anti-aircraft guns, whether attacking land targets or shipping. This also presented less of a target for the ever present German fighter force. Clear sky, whilst obviously assisting the crews to find the target was also one of the Blenheim crews biggest nightmares, as this meant that the Blenheim’s could be seen and targeted by both the anti-aircraft guns and the fighters. Generally the view was that if there was no cloud cover over the target then it would make for a very difficult assault, as the Blenheim’s would be looking to drop out of cloud cover over the target, deliver their ordinance and them seek to hide back in the cloud cover quickly afterwards as they head for home.
Despite these tactics, the Blenheim’s proved very vulnerable to the German fighter aircraft and the losses were devastating, including many of the Countries pre-war most valuable, highly trained and experienced professional RAF crews. During the battle for France 200 Blenheim’s were lost alone in a matter of a few weeks, leading to a statement in May 1940 by the Senior Officer Commanding Bomber Command, Charles Portal, which said “I am convinced that the proposed use of these Blenheim units is fundamentally unsound and that if it is persisted in it is likely to have disastrous consequences on the future of the war in the air”
By April 1941 the effective ability of Bomber Command to hit targets had been raised to 1,000 yards, leading to blitz attacks.
But realistically, there was no alternative and the Blenheim had to be pushed to the forefront of the daylight bombing campaign, as the Wellington, Hampden and Whitley quickly proved too vulnerable to be used other than at night, losing more aircrew per aircraft than the Blenheim’s. This produced a great deal of respect for the Blenheim crews within the RAF, who’s service was known to be so hazardous that their bravery earned them the highest respect from their peers in the RAF to whom they became known as the Blenheim Boys. Did they really realise that the losses were as high as they were?
The first deep penetration daylight bombing raid into Germany of the war was carried out by a force of 54 Blenheim’s on Cologne’s two power stations on 12th August 1941, with losses of 12 aircraft. The fighter escort could not support the bombers, having to leave them at the Dutch coast making them very vulnerable to attack by fighter aircraft.
Blenheim crews suffered the highest proportionate losses of any bomber crews during the war but delivered many success stories which were badly needed by the British propaganda machine in the early years, even though the true losses were glossed over by the Government.
We hear a lot about the Lancaster, most documentaries about Bomber Command last 5 minutes before they turn to the Lancaster or the American Squadrons but in 1940/41 there was no alternative. The Blenheim’s, Wellington’s, Whitley’s, etc. were all we had. Where would we have been without them? Flown by ordinary men, Sergeants and Officers alike, desperate to defend their country.
Despite these losses, the Blenheim crews remained resilient and determined in their duty, bravely carrying on. Taking to the skies daily in their effectively obsolete aircraft, that were outclassed and out gunned by their adversaries but they never faltered.
In the Summer of 1941, there was a number of voices against increased bombing raids on German cities, together with the resulting increase in German civilian casualties, but in July 1941, in a public speech at County Hall London, Winston Churchill declared:-
“If tonight the people of London were asked to cast their vote whether a convention should be entered into to stop the bombing of all cities…the people of London with one voice would say to Hitler: “You have committed every crime under the sun. Where you have been the least resisted there you have been the most brutal…. We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst—and we will do our best. Perhaps it may be our turn soon; perhaps it may be our turn now”
The bombing offensive continued but it was not aimed at civilians, but against the industrial might of Germany and the railway centres. But losses continued at an alarming rate. In a daylight raid on German shipping in Rotterdam in August 1941 seven out of the seventeen bombers were lost. This loss was reflected in a letter from Churchill to the Chief of the Air Staff, when he voiced his concern.
Churchill further recognised the bravery of these pilots when he wrote:-
“The devotion and gallantry of these attacks on Rotterdam…are beyond all praise. The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava is eclipsed in brightness by these almost daily deeds of fame.”
This very famous Battle of Britain poster depicting ‘Fighter Pilots’ scanning the skies, actually shows a bomber crew, waiting for the return of their fellow crews