Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Hun in the Sun

RAF Fighter Command 1940 The CO of No. 85 Squadron, Sqn Ldr Peter Townsend, jumps
down from Hurricane Mk I P3166 VY-Q while being refueled at Castle Camps, July 1940.

(Imperial War Museum)
Senior Aircraftman Willis O'Donnell gave the canopy of his Hurricane one more look, it was clear as elbow grease and patience could make it. Flying Officer Reginald Morley would not being seeing things in the sky which weren't there.

Just last week in another clash over the Channel, a pilot in their sister squadron had led his Vic¹ off chasing what he thought was an enemy formation, turned out it was a collection of dirty specks on his canopy.

Though O'Donnell had always given his full attention to making everything about his Hurricane spotless, not all of the ground crewmen were as attentive to their duties.

O'Donnell had been in the Royal Air Force since 1933, he was an old hand and an expert in keeping the Hurricane in tip top shape. If, as his Flight Sergeant often admonished him, he hadn't been so fond of strong drink, he no doubt would be a sergeant himself by now.

"Ah, it's content with me duties I am," O'Donnell muttered to himself as he looked to the skies once more. Was it his imagination or was the weather to the east starting to clear?

Oberleutnant Beppo Ehrhardt was keeping a keen eye on the skies around the formation of Ju-87s that his Schwarm of Bf-109s from JG-26 Schlageter² were escorting in another attack on British shipping off the east coast of England. When they had taken off the weather was clearing, the intelligence boys said that the clouds and rain would keep the Royal Air Force on the ground this day.

Ehrhardt didn't mind, though he had no fear of the RAF, he had shot down three Tommies over France, he also liked the idea of no opposition. These constant escort missions against what he felt were worthless targets, were starting to wear out the men. Most of whom had been flying constant sorties since the beginning of May. A few Routinefluge³ would not be unwelcome at this point.

As he continued to scan the sky for the enemy, he couldn't help but notice that the weather seemed to be much clearer than forecast.

"Leave it to the weather guessers to get it wrong." he muttered to himself, over the radio he announced, "Red Flight, Red One, eyes peeled the weather is clearer than predicted. The Tommies will no doubt be on their way."

O'Donnell wasn't surprised when the klaxon went off and the pilots came scrambling out of their dispersal hut. He was in the cockpit and had the engine on D for Dog purring in no time. As Flying Officer Reginald Morley climbed onto the wing, O'Donnell was climbing out of the cockpit.

Morley looked at O'Donnell, an unspoken question. O'Donnell gave him a thumbs up and yelled into Morley's ear, "She's right as rain, Sir! Good hunting!" as he strapped Morley into the aircraft.

Scrambling down, he joined the other ground crew as the aircraft trundled out to the field where each Vic took off in succession. The grass field had excellent drainage and O'Donnell preferred it to the newer airfields with their fancy tarmac. He considered himself "old school."

Morley followed his lead into the sky, he could hear their flight being vectored to yet another Jerry raid on a Channel convoy. He cinched his harness a bit tighter and got himself into a position in his seat which maximized his view outside the cockpit.

As they crossed the coast, Morley heard, "Yellow Flight, Yellow Two, bogies at my 12 o'clock. Look like Stukas!"

"Right lads, Yellow Flight, let's kill some Huns. Red Flight, watch the sun for us, won't you?"

Ehrhardt saw the enemy fighters before anyone else. What were the Tommies thinking, sending their aircraft aloft in dribs and drabs? He could see three Vics of Hurricanes, two going for the bombers, one flight remaining high, no doubt to keep the Bf-109s busy. But seriously, nine Hurricanes against twenty-seven Messerschmitts? What were they thinking?

He got on his radio, "Blue and Green Flights, this is Red Leader, engage the Hurricanes at nine o'clock, Red Flight with me, we'll go for the top cover!" Beppo waggled his wings and advanced his throttle. The top cover were motoring along as if they were putting on an air show.

Sergeant Geoffrey Wilkinson never saw the Messerschmitt which killed him. Sparks were coming from his engine cowling as machine gun rounds walked from the propeller back, his last thought was of Margaret, the girl he had just met the evening before.

His aircraft spun out of control towards the choppy waters below as the Schwarm of Bf-109s tore through the English formation. Wilkinson was not the only man who died in that first slashing attack, but his death was at least merciful. Pilot Officer William Farnsworth was trapped in his aircraft with a jammed canopy and screamed all the way down.

Flight Lieutenant Michael Bovington had come through the attack unscathed, he was puzzled at first that no one had answered over the radio. But then he was in a fight for his life, one Hurricane against four Messerschmitts.

Feldwebel Ernst Wolfram had no choice but to jettison his bombs, his gunner Flieger Hans Decker had screamed that there were two of those Tommy Hurricanes on their tail. He saw strikes on his left wing as he tried desperately to jink his aircraft, but the Stuka flew like a farm cart compared to those nimble fighters. He began to despair of ever seeing his family again.

Decker screamed, "Stirb du Schwein!⁴"

Looking over his right shoulder, Wolfram saw a Hurricane pulling off, smoke streaming from underneath the aircraft's engine. He heard Decker's gun continue to hammer, then he heard an exultant scream from Decker. He had managed to hit the pilot on the second craft which had been attacking them.

Pilot Officer Wilfred Shaw had seen Tommy Lloyd's aircraft pull away from the fight, he wondered who had hit him? He saw no other aircraft other than the lumbering Ju-87s. He had forgotten that the Stukas had rear gunners.

When he saw the winking of what could only be a gun from the rear section of the enemy cockpit, he was surprised. But he went in anyway, one gun against eight? He'd take those odds any day.

As he went to trigger his guns, the Stuka was nearly filling his windscreen, he felt a sudden silence and what felt like a punch in the belly which took all of the air out of him.

His hands seemed to refuse to do his bidding, but he was fully conscious of the fact that his engine had quit. The German gunner had hit the engine squarely, one round had gone high and into Shaw's cockpit, into Shaw as it turned out.

Shaw was staring at his windmilling propeller, it was so quiet without the roar of that beautiful Merlin engine. He felt a sense of panic when he realized that unless he could get control of himself, he would die.

Shaw's engine was indeed damaged badly, what Shaw couldn't know was that his aircraft was also on fire. That fire soon reached the auxiliary fuel tank, directly forward of the cockpit. Within seconds after being hit, which felt like an eternity to Shaw, his aircraft exploded.

Senior Aircraftman Willis O'Donnell and the other ground crew watched, and counted, as the aircraft returned. They had everything in readiness to rearm and refuel the planes as soon as they landed. Minor repairs would also be carried out.

As they waited, Bert Albertson shouted out, the lad had very good eyes, "There they are!"

Slowly the remnants of the squadron drew into view. Of twelve aircraft which had taken off, seven were returning, two of which were trailing smoke.

As O'Donnell climbed onto the wing of D for Dog, he said a silent prayer, thanking the Lord that his aircraft and his pilot had returned. In the same instant, he had a pang of guilt for those whose aircraft hadn't returned. One more had been lost when the pilot had tried to land without his badly-shot up gear deploying. The aircraft had flipped over when it came in nose low. The resultant crash had killed the pilot, Sergeant Jimmy Smythe.

Morley sat in the cockpit, making no move to switch off the engine, so O'Donnell reached in and did so. Staring at the pilot, O'Donnell placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Sir? Are you all right, Sir?"

As the engine wound down, Morley shook himself, "It was a slaughter Will, bloody Huns jumped us as we went in for the bombers. Thirty of 'em at least. Get her fueled up and rearm her, I need to urinate. Badly."

Decker was strangely quiet in the back of the aircraft. He had only grunted in response to calls over the intercom. As they regained the coast of France, he finally spoke.

"Herr Feldwebel, I killed a man. I could see him as my gun hit his aircraft. I saw his head jerk when my bullets touched him. I've killed before, why do I regret it now?" Decker sounded horrible.

Wolfram didn't know what to tell his gunner, other than, "It's war Junge, we kill them, or they kill us. It is the way of things."

"I know Ernst, I know. But today feels different."

"When we land, I shall buy you a beer, we can talk."

"All right, but I don't know what difference that will make." Decker answered again.

"Can it hurt?"

Decker was still wondering about that when the wheels of the Ju-87 touched down. If he lived through this war, he had much to answer for. For now, he could only try to survive.

¹ A formation consisting of three aircraft in a V. Obsolete in 1940, the British would soon learn to abandon that for the more free-flowing Schwarm of the Luftwaffe. What we would call a "finger four" formation now-a-days. (Hold your right hand out in front of you, fingers spread. The tip of middle finger is the flight lead, the index finger is his (or her, these days) wingman, the ring finger is the leader of the second element, the little finger is the second element leader's wingman.
² The wing was named after Albert Leo Schlageter, a World War I veteran and Freikorps member who became famous for acts of post-war sabotage against French occupation forces. Schlageter was arrested for sabotaging a section of railroad track and executed by the French military. The Nazis considered him a martyr, though Schlageter himself had never been a Nazi, but a German nationalist.
³ Milk runs (German, literally "routine flights")
⁴ Die you pig! (German)


  1. A fine post Sarge, didn't want to stop scrolling.....(heh heh). Who will run out of pilots first?

    1. That's pretty much the crux of it. Aircraft were plentiful, aircrew were not. Replacing dead or wounded men was one thing, keeping the exhausted going was another thing entirely.

    2. The Japanese found that out after Midway and the Marianas depleted their skilled pilot pool.

    3. Yup, quantity does not make up for quality.

    4. ...Also, the Brits were baling out or ditching on or close to their own soil and could return to fight. The Germans would be out of action as POWs...

    5. Many of the Brits who ditched in the Channel did not survive, the RAF didn't have an effective rescue system in place like the Germans did.

    6. I bought a book off of Kindle, about the RAF SAR launches. The man in charge of the program before the war, was Thomas E Lawrence, as in of Arabia.

      It was a very slow, very underfunded program. The RAF did not care for USAAF/USN Crash Boats, as they were too large, by their standards. Although I bet the crews liked the US twin fifties better than the RAF twin Vickers, when the Luftwaffe came calling.

    7. Don,
      Re: "...Also, the Brits were baling out or ditching on or close to their own soil and could return to fight. The Germans would be out of action as POWs..."

      Going through F-4 training as a new Lt, I learned a lot of lessons at the O' Club Bar. One of the most important ones was "Never bail out over a target you just bombed." I believe the speaker was a former POW.

    8. StB - No doubt the Brits didn't look at those boats until after the BoB. But yes, their program was vastly underfunded.

  2. Looking at the picture I realize I had forgotten that the early aircraft were made of cloth (painted with dope) over wood frames.

    1. The Hurricane had a lot of wood and cloth, the Spitfire was more modern.

    2. ...The Brits had other interesting aircraft. The Mosquito (as you are well aware of [and wrote about]) was wooden - built mainly of molded plywood (what we now would call composite material). A lot of the structural strength was in the aircraft skin itself rather than an internal skeleton, and less susceptible to battle damage (besides, it could be repaired with a plywood patch, clamps, and glue). The Wellington bomber was metal, but with a geodesic skeleton (adapted from airship design). Apparently successful, but it must have been a nightmare to produce...

    3. Very difficult to produce indeed!

    4. ...Like fitting together, a jigsaw puzzle....

    5. That geodesic skeleton would have been hard to produce, the Wellington itself was not a successful aircraft.

  3. Decker has his doubt about his “die swine” remark after the adrenaline has stopped pouring into his system.

    Good segment Sarge. Dirt on the canopy created a visual of possible enemy a/c. Those WWII pilots couldn’t dream benefits of a modern HUD. Onboard radar tracking and such. You have of course covered that before.


    1. Dirt on the canopy is still an issue. Crew chiefs (the good ones) spend time making sure the "glass" is spotless.

    2. We would fly through rain clouds whenever we found them to help line division with the plane washing.

    3. Fresh, soft water, at that! No minerals to leave spots.

  4. So it continues. Really appreciate the salty old hard-drinking Crew Chiefs perspective, Sarge.
    Yes, the Hurricane had a lot of wood and cloth; but it also had the Merlin and eight guns (even if .303). You could do much worse - the Boulton Paul Defiant comes to mind.
    Thanks to you and the Muse, Sarge! Keep up the good work.
    Boat Guy

    1. You know I had to get the ground crewmen in there, good luck flying without 'em. (DAMHIK)

      Ah yes, the Defiant. Truly a bad idea, poorly executed.

    2. And yet RAF crews went up in them. You "go to war with what and who you've got" to paraphrase SecDef Rumsfeld, himself an Aviator.

    3. They did, no lack of bravery in the Defiant crews.

  5. Minor quibble, Sarge.
    "Shaw's engine was indeed damaged badly, what Shaw couldn't know was that his aircraft was also on fire. That fire soon reached the auxiliary fuel tank, directly forward of the cockpit..
    He couldn't see a fire directly in front of him? Maybe a bit more info would help there.
    Clean canopies are must haves. Good Crew Chiefs are also.

    1. I'm trying to keep the technical stuff relatively generic. In this case the fire was on the underside of the engine and wasn't really a major fire. Of course, any fire on an aircraft is definitely not good, the fire went from the underside of the engine up to the aux fuel tank. Of course, Shaw was also very badly wounded, so he had many things on his mind. I'll try to be more descriptive in the future.

    2. No worries,.."Shaw's engine was indeed damaged badly with flames coming from underneath." might work.
      "Any Fire on an aircraft is definitely not good." No BS there. Fortunately I flew two engine airplanes which allowed me to shut one down when the fire warning light came on. I've read (very recently) they can get especially bad if they come in contact with petroleum products.
      I'll put away my wordsmithing tools now.

    3. That last was juvat. Wrong browser.

    4. juvat:
      With some trepidation, I'm going to put in my two cents.
      As soon as P.O. Shaw got "...a punch in the belly which took all of the air out of him." he was already dying. "Within seconds after being hit ..." I think, if he were really lucky, maybe two/three.
      I think the Sarge has conveyed quite well the instants of body death immediately prior to brain death.
      Don't mean to be disagreeable, but I think this was beautifully/perfectly written.

    5. Boron,
      That's valid. No worries.

    6. juvat any mouse - Yes, fire and petroleum products don't mix!

    7. juvat any mouse 2 - Ah yes, multiple browsers, I've "been there, done that."

    8. juvat - And he's back on his other browser ...

      Hard to keep track. 😉

    9. Since the round would have probably passed through the instrument panel, it could have been distorted, and tumbling, causing a ghastly wound. Poor Shaw, at least it was quick.

    10. It certainly would have had to pass through some part of the aircraft.

  6. Interesting photo at the top. Peter Townsend was the unlucky suitor of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister.

    1. Yes, I read a book about that. Sad in many ways.

  7. Peter Townsend wrote two books about his role in the RAF. Duel of Eagles is about the Battle of Britain. He also wrote Duel In The Dark about the early night fighting attempts in the Blitz using Hurricanes pointed black and with a simple shield fitted over the exhaust stacks so the flames wouldn't interfere with the pilot's night vision.
    Regarding keeping the windshield clean, I was taught to always use vertical strokes when cleaning the windshield as a horizontal scratch can be mistaken for the horizon in cloudy conditions.

    1. That's the one I read, Duel of Eagles. As to cleaning the windshield, good advice.


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