Spring 1940. The German Army had taken Poland in September 1939, precipitating a declaration of war from Great Britain, and had then advanced into Denmark and Norway. Czechoslovakia had fallen. By early 1940, German forces held much of Europe.
The German Army launched its assault on the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. Operation Fall Gelb saw German armoured units sweep into Belgium and Holland, then into France itself; supporting them from the air were more than 4,000 Luftwaffe combat aircraft, including medium bombers, dive bombers, fighters, transports and gliders, outnumbering the c. 1,500 French Air Force aircraft, 680 RAF fighters and 392 RAF bombers tasked to stem the German advance.
Ten squadrons of Fairey Battles and Bristol Blenheims, numbering some 160 aircraft, were dispatched to mainland Europe to form the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) which would support the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in stemming Germany’s advance across northern Europe. Other units operated from the UK, whilst Lysanders were pressed into service as light bombers.
Bomber Command’s vulnerable light bomber fleet was soon thrust into the conflict, daylight bombing putting them up against a grinder of flak and fighters. The 10th saw 13 of 32 Battles and five Blenheims downed. The following day, all of No. 114 Squadron’s Blenheims were destroyed on the ground as the Germans broke through the Belgian lines.
On 12 May, No. 12 Squadron’s volunteer aircrews launched five Battles against a German supply route when they rallied to attack the heavily defended bridges over the Albert Canal, near Maastricht. All five of the Battles were lost, their crews flying with moving selflessness against a withering “inferno of anti-aircraft flak”. Two Victoria Crosses were posthumously awarded for their action. Days later, 42 of 76 aircraft launched on raids were downed.
17 May saw just one Blenheim of twelve No. 82 Squadron aircraft survive when harassed by fifteen Bf109s whilst en route to bomb advancing troops in Belgium. “It was a suicide mission”, Wilfred Davies reflected in the years following the war. The bombing results were marginal, and did little to slow the Germans. “We were told… we would be escorted by French fighters. This did not happen. We were escorted by fighters, but they were Messerschmitts.”
The memories of that day paint a stark picture of a bomber force completely outmatched by the Luftwaffe. “My own personal experience was we were hit by flak, burst into flames and we nosed the machine down to fly westwards, hopefully to crash the British side of the lines”, continues Davies. “We were attacked again by Messerschmitts whilst we were on fire. It was rather difficult for them to line us up for attack because we were flying low over the trees; all of their tracers were going over my head.
“Whilst I was hose-piping them with my gun, taking no particular aim because we were so close range, we crashed through a lot of trees into a bog. I was unconscious; when I came to, I had a ring of Germans around me and I was about two or three feet in the ground. They hauled me out with severe bruising all over the body, and surprisingly only a broken finger. The other two were killed; there was hardly any evidence of any bodies. They took the full impact.”
Ronald Rotherham was another Blenheim airman on the ill-fated raids of 12 May 1940, flying with No. 107 Squadron. After crash landing in Belgium, he worked his way back to the British lines:
We thought we were going to have a nice long break [after Norway]… and we were in action from almost the very beginning. On the 12th, we attacked the bridges at Maastricht. We were flying in two boxes of six and as we approached Maastricht at about 6,000ft, we saw heavy anti-aircraft fire ahead of us, which was [directed at] the squadron attacking ahead of us, and as soon as we got within range we started being hit repeatedly. I could hear the crashing of anti-aircraft fire, which always meant it was close enough to do you damage. The port engine was hit and started to malfunction, the starboard engine didn’t sound very happy, the windscreen was cracked and my observer was wounded.
As we turned away, I started to drop out of the formation. A cloud of Me 109s [sic] came down on top of us. I saw that I was going to be picked off… so I stuck the nose down. As the fighters were closing in, I went into some light cloud and as soon as I got in I did a 180 degree turn and resumed as soon as I could the direction I wanted to go. Shortly after that the port engine gave a loud bang and the propeller reduction gear flew off ahead of me, and then the starboard engine started to pack up so I had to prepare to force land. Fortunately, I stopped about 20 yards from a row of trees.
I was back on the 22nd and I did two trips. 23rd, one trip. 24th, two trips. 25th, one trip. 26th another trip, 28th, 29th, 30th, twice on the 31st. It was fairly hard going.
“We lost four out of twelve aircraft, which was still not an acceptable percentage”, reflects Leonard Fearnley, another No. 107 Squadron airman on the 12 May Maastricht raid. “We all received flak damage on that raid, and the fighters came in. One saw one’s personal friends receive direct hits. I remember one observer, one of the tall ones who found it uncomfortable in the Blenheim… receive a direct hit. They went straight down and straight in.”
By May 1940, the equivalent of 16 fighter squadrons had deployed to France to support the AASF, another four providing support from the mainland UK. The Hawker Hurricanes of Fighter Command paid dearly during the Battle of France – between 8 May and 18 May alone, 250 Hurricanes were destroyed in combat against the Luftwaffe; an average of 25 per day. By the time France had been overrun and the British forces evacuated, just 331 RAF fighters remained operational. It was an exceptional loss rate which left the UK weakened to a point where air superiority over the island itself could not be guaranteed.
24 year old Air Chief Marshal Frederick Rosier GCB CBE DSO led No. 229 Squadron’s Hurricanes to France on 17 May 1940, where they found themselves enduring a constantly deteriorating situation:
That afternoon, we flew to Manston where we met up with a flight of No. 56 Squadron. Led by a Blenheim, we flew off to Vitry en Artois, an airfield not far from Arras. As soon as we landed, a Wing Commander rushed up to me and said, ‘Do you have any fuel left?’ and I said ‘yes’. He said, ‘For god’s sake, keep your engines running, there are 40 plus bandits coming this way!’ So we kept our engines running for a time. [There were] no further instructions… nothing on the radio at all.
After a time spent sat idle on the deck he ordered the Hurricanes to shut down their engines, and the airmen wandered into the local village:
I was pretty angry as you could well imagine. The Wing Commander was in this Mess. I asked [him] what had happened. He said he was frightfully sorry, but the events of the last few days had been so tremendously hectic and they’d been so busy, they were tired out and they’d forgotten all about us. I then enquired about billets for the night, to be told that we had to find our own. I deputed to my chaps to go off and find accommodation for us. They returned a short while later and said that it had been impossible, the local people refused to accommodate us. I then told them to go out again and if necessary, brandish their revolvers. We got our billets.
After less than four hours’ sleep, Rosier and his men were up and manning their Hurricanes:
It wasn’t long before we were scrambled. Then started a day of tremendous activity. I suppose I must’ve done five sorties that day. One in particular I remember. We were doing a patrol on the line Antwerp to Brussels when we met a tremendous number of 109s. There were six of us and there must’ve been, without any exaggeration, 40 to 50 109s. The sky seemed to be full of them. It really was the most awful battle. I have no idea what victories I had, but I got some bullets which went through the side of the cockpit and into the instrument panel and I landed at an airfield near Lille. [It was] chaos. I must’ve lost two or three chaps.
I landed… to find the French were there with brand new American fighters [Curtiss Hawk 75s – Ed.], and they were not flying. They were quite friendly, but I was livid with rage that they were not participating in the battle at all. I think their morale was at rock bottom. In one way, one didn’t blame them. The very sight of the roads, they were frightful with all the refugees pouring along them, carrying their bundles and pulling little hand carts and so on. The whole thing was a pretty good shambles.
The following day, 18 May 1940, Rosier and his men were tasked with escorting a flight of No. 82 Squadron Blenheims en route to attack the advancing German forces in central Belgium. Messerschmitt Bf 109s bounced the Hurricanes before they could get off the ground at Vitry en Artois:
At the appointed time we were taking off when 109s appeared over us and then again, a big battle ensued. I managed to survive and to climb up and I suppose must’ve got up to a couple of thousand feet and was on the tail of a 109 when I myself was hit. My machine caught fire; I couldn’t leave the aeroplane because the hood was jammed and I remember sinking back and thinking that was that. The next thing, I was falling. I suppose instinctively pulled the rip chord. I was extremely lucky. I saw that my trousers were all on fire. I remember the skin leaving my hands as I tried to put the fire out. I then came to in a hospital, some time later.
The young squadron commander returned to No. 229 Squadron in October 1940 and flew during the concluding 12 days of the Battle of Britain, prior to a posting to North Africa. Air Chief Marshal Frederick Rosier died on 10 September 1988.
More than a dozen Luftwaffe fighters, meanwhile, mauled the Blenheims of No. 82 Squadron. Of twelve aircraft dispatched from RAF Watton, Norfolk, only one survived and the squadron was on the brink of being stood down. The same day, nine Fairey Battles fell to enemy guns as they strove to stem the German advance. So the casualties continued, and the AASF suffered dearly at the hands of a German Air Force that enjoyed numerical superiority.
No. 21 Squadron Blenheim pilot Peter Sarll reflected postwar:
I don’t remember how many we lost then; the awful moments I do remember were going back into the village of Watton [in Norfolk] where the young wives were waiting for their husbands who had not returned, and never would.
I do not think that anyone who did not experience what we were called upon to perform this day [14 May, when 42 of 76 AASF bombers were lost in 24 hours] could ever visualise the tremendous courage of our people, so many of whom died. We were three to a crew, twelve crews to a squadron, and our lives depended upon one another. We reached out to one another for strength and support: when one was low, we tried to boost him up. I remember seeing many of them vomiting before getting into the aircraft – a sure sign of physical and mental exhaustion. There was, too, the toll of the stand-bys, at 30-minute readiness in the aircraft, taxying to take-off, and then being recalled because the square that was chalked on the observer’s map was the position of our own troops; and so back to dispersal, switch-off, and then that awful waiting again. Having a second tour on Lancasters and experiencing the smoothness of the higher organisation and its tremendous efficiency, I used to look back on the old Blenheim days and wonder how any of us survived.
In less than a month of fighting, the French Army and the BEF had been pushed back to the Channel coast and the decision was made to withdraw the forces from Dunkirk in an operation named DYNAMO. Hundreds of military and civilian ships sailed to the port of Dunkirk, and whilst the evacuation of over 300,000 troops was broadly a success, the BEF left much of its arms and armour on the French beaches. Covering the evacuation were fighter squadrons from the UK, amongst them, seeing combat over France for the first time, the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfires.
“I had succeeded generally in keeping the Spitfire squadrons out of the continental fighting”, wrote Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding in 1941. “The reason for this… was that the supply situation was so bad that they could not have maintained their existence in face of the aircraft casualty rate experienced in France. When the Dunkerque fighting began, however, I could no longer maintain this policy, and the Spitfires had to take their share in the fighting”.
21-year old Auckland native Al Deere was amongst the first men to fly the Spitfire in combat against Bf 109s over France when he engaged the Luftwaffe during the Dunkirk invasion:
When the British army started retreating and Dunkirk was going to be the point of evacuation, we fighter squadrons in East Anglia were sent out on patrol to cover the beachhead, the evacuation there up and down that coast. We did two or three trips a day. It was the first time we as fighter pilots had crossed the Channel to make combat and then come back. Because the endurance factor on a Spitfire was fairly critical, you couldn’t stay that long. We patrolled the coast from Boulogne to Dunkirk and up as far as Antwerp trying to support the evacuation from the air. Dunkirk itself was on fire; I think there must have been an oil storage tank. It was just completely overcast by black smoke that mingled with lowish cloud. So from miles away you knew where Dunkirk was. Of course, we got in combat with the Germans, who by that time had moved some of their bases forward. They were able to get their fighters as far as the bridgehead.
I have some very specific memories about that because I think it’s recorded history that I was the first Spitfire pilot to have combat with a 109. That was over Dunkirk. Some 109s appeared. There were two of us at the time and we got into combat with them. I got on the tail of a 109 and managed to shoot him down. He went down into the sea on the coastline. He tried to shake me off and I put in a report to the effect that, except initially in the dive, the Spitfire was superior. That was pooh-poohed at the time, I don’t mind telling you, by those at the top. They said: ‘All our records show that the 109’s better than a Spitfire’. And I said: ‘Not in close combat, it isn’t.’ Eventually, I was proved right.
Later, I shot down a Dornier and a Heinkel and then, I regret to say, I was myself shot down by the rear gunner of a Dornier which eventually came down itself. This Dornier appeared out of a fairly cloudy sky over the bridgehead. We chased him. I got on to his tail and was firing a burst at him. I could see return fire from the rear gunner and suddenly I felt a juddering. I think it was probably fairly lucky. A bullet from the rear gunner went into my glycol tank. That’s my coolant system, gone. That meant I was hors de combat. I crash-landed on the beach between Dunkirk and Ostend and the Dornier came down over the top of me, smoking, and glided away inland. I wasn’t injured until I landed. I hit my head on the front of the cockpit and it knocked me out cold. I landed wheels up, right on the edge of the water. The tide happened to be coming in.
When I came to, I scrambled out and got my parachute and walked up the beach… towards a café. I had a badly cut eye. In the café a woman stuck my eye together with plaster and put bandages around it. I then set off to get to Dunkirk. I met a couple of British army tommies inland a bit. I said: ‘Where are you going?’ They said: ‘You tell us.’ I said: ‘You’re evacuating, aren’t you?’ They said: ‘We don’t know. We’re just what’s left of our thing.’ So we headed for Dunkirk and it was an absolute shambles, a lot of strafing and bombing. When I got back I went straight to my squadron. We’d started with 17 pilots, I think, and finished with eight. Some were shot down and didn’t come back. Some were badly injured. In fact, our casualties for the amount of flying we did and the time spent were greater at Dunkirk than in the Battle of Britain. We were operating so far from home. I was shot down but I managed to get back. So many others didn’t.
With the BEF routed from Dunkirk, the German forces launched a second operation, codename Fall Rot, on 5 June 1940. They pushed through the French defences, outflanking the Maginot Line and striking into central France, taking Paris on the 14th. A week later, France and Germany signed an armistice which gave Germany control of north and west France, whilst the new Vichy government held the south. With its forces fully withdrawn by mid-June via the western ports, the UK braced itself for Germany’s next move. The German forces had suffered significant casualties – the Luftwaffe alone had lost several thousand men. Asides from the BEF, which suffered around 66,000 casualties in all, more than 100,000 French military personnel were killed or wounded, whilst Belgian, Dutch and Polish forces were each dealt heavy blows.
“The unthinkable had happened,” wrote historian Dilip Sarkar, “the gravity of this catastrophe being perhaps difficult to now comprehend”.