R.A.F. Triumphs Daily Over Hordes of Nazi Airmen
In one week-end, May 31-June 2, according to the Air Ministry, British fighter pilots destroyed or severely damaged 169 German 'planes over Dunkirk. Though they came over in clouds "like gnats on a summer day", the R.A.F. never hesitated to attack whatever the odds. Here are some episodes displaying their invincible spirit.
Almost incredible heights of valour and self-sacrifice are disclosed by reports now available about the deeds of our airmen in the Low Countries and in France during the last week of May. The destruction of the Maastricht bridges (see photograph in page 581) is an example. All the bridges but one over the Meuse near Maastricht had been destroyed to stop their use by the enemy, but over that one were pouring the armoured units of the Nazis. It was heavily defended, and although eight attacks had been made by the R.A.F. no direct hit had been scored. At the squadron H.Q. the C.O. called for volunteers to finish the job, and all the pilots stepped forward. Lots were drawn and four crews chosen. Fighter escorts accompanied them and they set off. Diving low amid a hurricane of fire they bombed and destroyed the bridge and closed the path to the invaders. Out of the four crews one man came back.
While the B.E.F. in Flanders was fighting its desperate rearguard actions with the enclosing Nazi forces it received magnificent aid from the Royal Air Force. By day our medium bombers attacked the enemy's line of communications, destroying roads, bridges, and dumps. When night fell the R.A.F. heavy bombers continued the task.
Twelve Defiants Shot Down 37 Nazis
More spectacular, perhaps, was the work of the fighters. A squadron of 12 British Defiants was on patrol duty in the region of Dunkirk on May 29. In the morning they met more enemy fighters and dive-bombers than they could count; they shot down 17 fighters and one bomber. In the afternoon they brought down at least 19 and possibly 21 enemy bombers. All the British machines returned safely. In three days this Defiant squadron destroyed 50 enemy aircraft.
Here is a summery of a fighter pilot's experiences during one day (May 29) near that same storm-centre of Dunkirk. With eight other fighters he was on patrol when they encountered a like number of Me 109's and a dog-fight followed. He attacked and set on fire one enemy aircraft; he then tackled another and fired one burst form astern, causing the enemy's port wing to fold up. As he levelled out a Junkers bomber flew across his path and he did a quarter attack; the enemy's starboard engine emitted black some and the German half rolled into the sea. Then our pilot was hit underneath by a cannon shell, but he did a beam attack on a Me 110 that flew past; the Messerschmitt turned on its back and fell into the sea. The British pilot then saw about 80 enemy machines proceeding in the direction of Dover, and some of then turned on him. He headed for home, but his Hurricane was hit a number of times and he could not evade the enemy. His engine stopped, and fire broke out at the wing roots. He got out over the port side and "took a header off the main plane". His lifebelt kept him up until he was picked up by a paddle steamer that took him to Margate.
So the task went on through those days when the whole Empire waited in tense expectancy for news of the evacuation of our men, subjected to an ordeal that day by day increased in severity. When towards the end of the week the Nazis were closing in and Dunkirk was under heavy artillery fire, our bombers and fighters saved countless lives by the aid given to troops fighting rearguard actions. Provisions and supplies were dropped to our men from the air. Over the Dunkirk area a ceaseless patrol went on.
"On Saturday, June 1, 78 enemy bombers and fighters were destroyed or severely damaged over the beaches between dawn and 7 p.m. Squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires flew above the French fens all day, guarding the convoys that were bringing home the B.E.F. rearguard. Huge formations of German bombers, escorted by fighters, came out and attempted to sink the ships. They did not lack targets, for the sea was thick with craft of all kinds. But when they attempted to bomb, our fighters attacked and drove them off. Most of the bombs fell into the sea. Many Junkers, Heinkels, Dorniers and Messerschmitts soon crashed into the sea after their bombs; 32 fighters were certainly destroyed."
Three Hudson aircraft of the Coastal Command attacked 40 enemy bombers. Three of the enemy were shot down, two dived away out of control, and two others were damaged. The Hudsons were unharmed and continued their patrol.
Thus it was that the Premier was able to announce on June 4 that the Dunkirk evacuation was a great trial of strength between the British and German Air Force. The Germans tried hard and they were frustrated. All our types and all our pilots were vindicated – Hurricane, Spitfire, the new Defiant – as superior to what they had to face. An independent American tribute may be quoted:
"The withdrawal was accomplished primarily because of British local superiority in the air. This may sound astonishing to those who overestimated the strength of the German air force, and I do not underestimate its quantitative importance. But it remains true that British fighters like Spitfires, Hurricanes and Defiants are masters of any German chasers, and actually achieved mastery in the air over the Channel."
Magnificent was the heroism and endurance of pilots and crews alike.