During July, August and September 1940 the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over southern England and the English Channel. It was a battle between the fighters of the Royal Air Force and the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). The main aircraft involved were the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane of the RAF and the Messerschmidt 109 and Messerschmidt 110 of the German Air Force. The young pilots flying these aircraft (on both sides) were mainly 19-25 years of age. My cousin, Tony Gough, has written a most interesting personal reflection of the days of that critical battle. With his permission I am happy to share it, in its entirety, with you. Thanks cuz.
Seventy Years On: A war-time memory
by Tony Gough
Our lives are made up of strings of days, periods of twenty-four hours most of them forgotten in the mists of time. Yet certain days (red letter days?) stand out and remain in our memories for the rest of our lives – like the day we got married, or our first child was born.
The standard test (for those of us over 60) might be ‘Do you remember where you were when you heard of President Kennedy’s assassination?’ Those of us who were alive on that fateful day, Friday, 22nd November, 1963, will always recall very precisely where we were and how the news came to us. For me, I was living in Southsea when my seven-year old daughter, Sue, came into my study to tell me that she had heard on TV that someone had shot the President. This unlikely story was met with some scepticism; but, alas, Sue was right.
Another more recent memorable day was when Princess Diana died in Paris on 31st August, 1997? Most of will remember where we were and how we heard this awful news. Perhaps it is the significance of certain events that burns itself into our memory.
Seventy years on, I, too, have a very special reason for remembering Sunday, 15th September, 1940, seventy years on. I was then a small boy living in Brixton, South London, and I had just celebrated my 9th birthday. The war was just over a year old.
The year 2010 celebrates the 70th anniversary of a (perhaps, the) turning point of Britain’s fate during the Second World War. Most historians agree that it was on this date that the outcome of the war was decided.
The German Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, and his armies had reached the coast of France after its collapse in May, 1940. Indeed, he could look across the English Channel and see the white cliffs of Dover and contemplate that his army would easily cross that tiny distance of twenty odd miles and so conquer Britain. I wonder if he hummed:
There’ll be Wehrmacht over
The White Cliffs of Dover;
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
Hitler even drew up detailed plans for the invasion of Britain, which he called Operation Sea Lion. The success of his invasion depended upon the defeat of the Royal Air Force, the responsibility for which Hitler gave to his head of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Herman Goering.
In his epic history, The Second World War, the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, quotes from the German sources:
The Fuehrer has decided that under certain conditions – the most important of which is achieving air superiority – a landing in England may take place.
On July 16th, 1940, Hitler issued his famous directive:
Since England in spite of her militarily hopeless position shows no sign of coming to terms, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England, and if necessary to carry it out….The preparations for the entire operation must be completed by mid-August.
[The Second World War, Vol.II, p.250.]
Not for the first time, Hitler was far too optimistic concerning the capability of his forces to accomplish his plans, and far too ignorant of the resilience of the British character and people.
As Churchill noted,
As the days passed, doubts and delays appeared and multiplied. Hitler’s order of July 16 had laid down that all preparations were to be completed by the middle of August. All three services saw that this was impossible. And at the end of July Hitler accepted September 15 as the earliest D-Day, reserving his decision for action until the results of the projected intensified air battle could be known. [ibid. p.254]
It is worth remembering that had Hitler been successful in his Operation Sea-Lion we in Britain would now be remembering September 15th as the day we lost the war – the Germans would have written that date into our revised history books. It is no exaggeration to say that the Battle of Britain determined the outcome of World War Two. And this battle depended to a great extent upon the performance of the airmen and women of our Royal Air Force.
July 10th, 1940, is usually taken as the commencement of Hitler’s invasion plans as Goering concentrated his Luftwaffe on bombing English airfields and their facilities, especially RAF bases in the South of England. For Hitler to succeed, he had to render the RAF incapable of repelling his planned invasion.
I remember during that hot summer of 1940 watching what were called ‘dog-fights’ between the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes and the German Messerschmitt fighters, usually known as ME-109’s and -110’s. Their white vapour trails left huge patterns in the sky, criss-crossing as the aircraft pursued one another high above us.
I used to stand in Morat Street with my friends watching this aerial ballet – not knowing, of course, the historical significance of what I was witnessing. Day after day, the battle would take place over the skies of London, now and then seeing a plane descending with smoke billowing from its fuselage and engine. Of course, we all cheered believing that every plane shot down must be a German ME-109! – such was our confidence in the ability of the RAF to see off the Luftwaffe.
I remember going round to our local corner sweetshop, Coles’s, run by Reg Cole, who kindly put the battle ‘score’ up at regular intervals in the newspaper stand:
Luftwaffe shot down: 120. RAF losses, 18.
It was all propaganda, of course, as the losses on both sides were very significant, but it did our morale no end of good. [The true figures are given in Churchill’s book and show that “we got two to one of the German assailants, instead of three to one, as we believed and declared”; see ibid. p.278.]
One day we heard that a German Messerschmitt had been shot down, and was being brought into a local garage on the Clapham Road. We all ran round to have a look. There was the fuselage on the back of large lorry, and it was our first close-up look at the ‘enemy’. I recall the overwhelming smell of cellulose with which the fuselage had been coated, and putting my hands on the large cross on the side of the plane. There was quite a scramble among us boys to climb up onto the plane, but the driver of the lorry invited me into the cockpit.
As I climbed up, I had fantasies worthy of those later portrayed in the 1947 Danny Kaye film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I was the infamous Red Baron or, more likely, Wing Commander ‘Johnnie’ Johnson the top-scoring RAF fighter pilot, my war-time hero and RAF pin-up boy. Of course, all the equipment in the Messerschmitt had been removed by the special air authorities for examination, but I recall the thrill of pretending that I was flying the plane. Meanwhile back on the ground, it showed us that the ME-109’s were really being shot down and this was the living proof.
Winston Churchill boosted the morale of the nation through his famous war-time speeches, and none was more realistic and chilling than that of September 11th 1940:
Therefore, we must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than those brave old days. [ibid. p.271]
Churchill says that September 15th was the ‘culminating date’. It was a Sunday, and we had been in the street, as usual, watching the various dog-fights taking place in the skies above us. Suddenly, a German Dornier bomber started to come down and we saw the pilot bale out from his plane. I watched as he descended and we all noticed that something was wrong – he was coming down too quickly, not floating but falling. It was then that I noticed that his parachute was ‘flapping’ and it seemed as if there must have been a tear in it that accounted for his swift descent. Many of the local women in our street started to cheer, and almost at once we realised that if his descent continued he would be landing close by, somewhere near Kennington Park, only about a mile up the Brixton Road.
The women started to run first, holding rolling pins and carving knives, and then we kids joined in the chase. It was like a scene from the film, The Lavender Hill Mob, when ordinary, kind, decent people were suddenly transformed into a baying lynch mob. People in other streets saw all this, and joined us in the rush. We knew that we were intent on killing that German b*****d if we could get our hands on him.
We must remember what had been happening in London during those days – we just felt so helpless against the bombing and the incessant air raids that drove us into the shelters night by night. Many in our street, I among them, remembered the evacuation of our dads from Dunkirk and other ports, like Brest, from where my dad was rescued. Right before our eyes was a real life German we could focus on, who moments before had been intent on killing us, and a combination of rage and the need for revenge must have fuelled our onward rush to Kennington Park.
By the time I reached the park, it was all over. Huge crowds had gathered mostly from nearby houses around the Oval tube station that had seen the pilot descend. Air raid wardens, police and soldiers were there, but the pilot was gone. He had already been taken away in an army truck, across the famous Oval cricket ground to the Vauxhall entrance and to a military hospital in Millbank across the Thames. Some said he was only wounded, others that he had been killed by the marauding women. He actually died in hospital the next day but the War Office to this day has never released the details. My guess is that he died on or soon after impact as his descent was so fast; but it is possible that he was only badly injured but finished off by the attention of the local housewives – later German propaganda told the same story. (Many myths have arisen over this incident and if you are interested you can follow some of them via Google.)
One other detail of that day stands out in my memory. By the time we had reached the park, the local spivs had been at work in a typically South London entrepreneurial manner. A stall had been erected and a large notice was put up that said:
Pieces of parachute: 6d. Pieces with blood on: 1 shilling.
I think that this must rank with another famous ancient sign, put up in London in the 18th century outside some local drinking houses:
Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for twopence. Free straw .
[Years later, I discovered that the German Pilot was Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe, aged 27, and that he had landed in front of Alverstone House in Harleyford Place. It was later said that the pilot had landed on some telegraph wires and had to be pulled down by the crowd of women anxious to get hold of his precious nylon parachute! He was later buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery.]
That same day 950 German bombers attacked London, and during the Blitz that began on 7th September there were fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing during which 30,000 Londoners were killed and over 50,000 injured. There was an average of 200 German bombers attacking London every night.
The victory on that day was largely as a result of the determination and dedication of the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force, and Churchill’s memorable words are without exaggeration:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Later, a film was made (“The Battle of Britain”) which is still worth watching.
I remember another significant night, Tuesday, 15th October, 1940, when a 50lb bomb dropped onto a shelter in Kennington Park killing over 104 people. [Those of you who watched Tony Robinson’s recent TV programmes, Blitz Street, will know of the damage that even this medium-sized bomb can do.] Only 48 bodies were recovered and identified, the rest still lie in pieces under the ruins of the shelter.
The reason I recall that night was that we had sheltered in the crypt of St. Mark’s Church, opposite the Oval tube station, the previous night and although it was airless it was deemed as safe as anywhere else. On our way to the church that evening, the air-raid siren sounded as we reached the end of Morat Street. It was a quarter to five in the evening. “Jerry” (as the enemy was usually known) seemed early as the siren used to sound at five o’clock on the dot. We already had our blanket and carrier bag with food and drink with us, but we decided to go back home. My mother said, “We may as well die in our beds as in the church!”
Later that night the Kennington Park shelter received a direct hit – it was just a few yards from the north wall of the church we would have been in. The reverberations from the bomb made our flat in Morat Street shake.
On another night raid, our flat really did shake and I thought that we would all be killed. We could hear a bomb screaming down towards us, the scream getting louder and louder as it descended. We crouched down by the chimney breast (usually the safest place in a flat) listening to the bomb getting closer and closer. The screaming reached such a pitch that we thought that it could get no louder and yet still it came down towards us. Suddenly there was an almighty explosion – the windows of the flat shattered in pieces, glass flying everywhere. The walls shook, the lights went out, and we were left in the silent darkness. We were still alive, but we knew that the bomb had dropped close by. We dare not go out to investigate for fear of being hit by shrapnel. The air-raid continued. Another sleepless night.
The next day, we went out to see where the bomb had landed. Apparently, it had just missed our roof and the roofs of the next street but landed in Hillyard Street just round the corner, opposite Reg Coles’s shop. There was an enormous crater with deep water at the bottom from the broken water mains, but no sign of where the local taxi firm used to be. Night by night our familiar landscape was changed beyond recognition. It was a totally frightening experience.
I think it was as a result of these narrow escapes that my mother decided to join the many people who wished to evacuate from the capital.
Later that month, we were evacuated from London and arrived in Wootton Basset (today associated with the arrival of our dead military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan). Eventually, we all ended up at The Bell Inn, Purton Stoke, near Swindon in Wiltshire. The irony (that was not lost on my brother Peter and myself), was that we were only a few miles from the Swindon Railyard, a regular target of the Luftwaffe! We could still hear the air-raid siren coming across the fields, but thankfully we were relieved from the nightly need to seek shelter from the bombing. We only stayed there for only a few months as it seemed impossible to obtain any financial contribution from our father to enable us to stay.
We returned to our flat in London in early 1941 to find our grandmother ill, all the windows in the flat blown out and without any means of heating. The cosy fire in the Snug Bar at The Bell Inn seemed a million miles away. We stayed in the flat for the remainder of the war.
Years later, when I was conscripted into the Royal Air Force at the age of 18 in 1949, I certainly wore my uniform with pride. But I never forgot that German airman or the importance of this day in our nation’s history.
Copyright: Dr. Tony Gough; 15 September, 2010.
It is said that towards the end, when the battle was going badly against the Luftwaffe, Adolf Hitler angrily said to Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, “What must I give you to win this battle?” Göring is reputed to have replied, “A squadron of Spitfires.”