Squadron Leader Frank Beswick gasped as the Teleprinter spat out the latest radar results from Central Command: “500 PLUS ENEMY PLANES HEADED TO LONDON AND POINTS NORTH. LAUNCH ALL SQUADRONS IN GROUPS 11, 12 and 13.”
“Jeez,” he muttered. “Goering must have committed his entire Luftwaffe to this one mission.“ Hitler had, in fact, ordered Goering to destroy the RAF bases and aircraft and take out the radar stations around Britain’s coast, in preparation for the planned invasion of Britain known as Operation Sea Lion. That had to be accomplished in less than a month, before the autumn weather made the Channel too rough. So the Battle of Britain had just begun with a big bang.
Beswick figured he’d better soften the news slightly to make the situation seem daunting but not hopeless for his pilots. He sounded the alarm and, in the most commanding voice he could muster, he spoke through the loudspeakers and radios:
“This is a big one, fellows. The Jerries are sending over 250 planes and we have to stop them before they wipe out all our airfields and radar stations. Climb to 20,000 feet and use an inline astern formation. This time we attack them head-on. Let’s go for it!”
The usual strategy against German bombers was to climb above them and attack them from behind–preferably with the Sun behind our fighters. This time, however, there were so many planes that most of the bombers would have done their damage before we started to attack from behind. A frontal attack was probably more effective against the bombers, anyway, because it destroyed the morale of the bomber pilots. For the fighter planes, however, it was a different story. If a Spitfire pilot suddenly found himself face-to-face with a Messerschmitt 109, anything could happen.
Because he was handicapped, Doug Bader was allowed to park his Spitfire right outside the dispersal hut where he slept along with the other pilots in his section. He liked to remove his two false legs before retiring. The three camp beds for Doug, Bill Perring and Roy York, the members of the Red section of the 12-man squadron, were all close to the door of the hut. When the alarm sounded, Bill and Roy helped attach the legs to Doug’s stumps. Then two mechanics in the ground crew rushed in and carried Doug out to his plane, while Bill and Roy ran to their planes parked nearby. Lifted by the mechanics onto the rear of the wing, Doug grabbed the sides of the cockpit and levered himself into his seat.
As de facto squadron leader, Doug decided that he and Bill would attack the first two bombers, while Roy would cover their tails and chase off any Me 109’s that got too close. The German bombers at the front were Junkers 88s flying at 18,000 feet, while Me 109s were circling about 500 feet above them. To the surprise of the Red section, the Me 109s didn’t see them when they first arrived. So Doug caught the first bomber by surprise and shot it down. Meanwhile, Bill damaged the second Ju 88 and one engine was smoking. The plane started dumping its bombs and getting ready to turn back to France. Roy figured he would help Bill by attacking the second bomber.
That was a mistake, because the crippled Ju 88 had finally attracted the attention of the Me 109s. The next thing he knew, Roy was face-to face with a Me 109. Both pilots pressed their gun buttons at the same time. Then the two planes collided, with Roy hitting underneath the bandit. Roy’s engine seized straight away, the cockpit filled with smoke, and flames licked around the engine. He reached to open the hood so he could bale out. But his propeller had struck the front of the windscreen, and the whole fixture was so twisted he couldn’t move the hood.
He felt like a trapped animal—with a slim chance of survival. After his Spitfire slammed into the German fighter, he had no engine and no radio. The cockpit was filling with smoke and there were flames around the engine. He was surprised to find he still had oxygen. But though that prevented him being choked by the acrid smoke, he could still be burned alive, with oxygen as an accelerant. He prayed that the flames were merely an oil fire and that the fuel tank has not been ruptured by the collision. The broken propeller had jammed the canopy, so he couldn’t bail out. He would just have to go along for the ride.
Roy figured he was heading inland, with an air speed of about 100 mph. Suddenly there was a terrific jerk, and Roy was tossed left, then right, and finally pitched hard forward on his straps, which fortunately held fast. He’d hit the ground in an open field where anti-invasion posts had been installed to destroy enemy gliders. The plane ploughed through those and finally came to a halt. The remains of his ammunition was going off in a series of pops, and the flames were getting very near the cockpit. Impact with the posts would have ripped open his fuel tank, so he prayed it had stayed behind with the broken wings. Roy hurriedly turned off his oxygen and ripped off his mask. Fortunately, the impact with the posts had loosened his canopy slightly. He could slide it back enough to let smoke out of the cockpit, but not enough to let him climb out. A fierce stabbing pain in his left thigh, and blood streaming out of a gash on his forehead appeared to be his only injuries. He brushed the blood out of his eyes with the sleeve of his flying jacket. After unhitching his chute, he managed to find the plane’s emergency kit. Inside he found a small adjustable wrench with which he was able to jimmy open the canopy and break open the windshield. He also found some first aid supplies, so he brought the kit along as he climbed out of the cockpit.
Roy ran from the plane wreck as fast as he could, though his injured leg slowed him down. When he looked back he saw that the Spitfire was blazing furiously in the middle of a corn field and had left a trail of broken posts and pieces of wing and tail. A woman came out of a nearby house and asked if he’d like a cup of tea. Roy asked if she had anything stronger. She phoned the local police and they called the nearest RAF base. Soon an ambulance arrived to take him to a hospital near the base.
While Roy was having his solo adventure, Bill finished shooting down the damaged Ju 88. Out of ammunition, he returned to Northolt, with Doug as his wing man, only to find that a German bomb had left a large crater in the middle of the main runway. Forced to land on one of several neighboring grass airstrips, they were unable to refuel, rearm and rejoin the fray.
The temporary loss of Roy reminded Frank Beswick he urgently needed more trained pilots. So he assigned Doug to finish training three rookie pilots. Doug gave the kids a short lecture and planned to take them aloft after the runway had been repaired.
A kid named Billy Cook was the first trainee to fly with Doug in a second Spitfire. Bader wanted to show him some tactical maneuvers. But soon after they took off, their radios sputtered the message: ”German bomber approaching, escorted by two fighters.” Almost immediately, they saw one of the Me 109’s, with a Dornier 17 behind it. Billy fired the guns when he had the German fighter in his sights. Streams of tracer bullets hit the plane, which immediately went into a spiraling dive. “I got my first kill,” Billy shouted into his radio. “Very good,” said Doug. “Let’s go back to base now.”
As Billy walked away from his plane after landing, the armaments sergeant shouted: “Hey, you got lucky Billy. Did you know your plane was unarmed?”