Exclusive from excerpt author Alex Kershaw – THE FEW AT THE HEIGHT OF THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

Their Finest Hour

“You catch him right smack in the middle of your sights and give him a complete burst. The Brownings go to work, and, brother, when they are working they’re not kidding! Eight guns, 1,400 rounds per minute. Figure it out for yourself.”
Eugene Tobin, 609 Squadron

Eugene Tobin was as usual weaving behind Johnny “Dogs” Dundas and his A Flight Leader, Frank Howell.

“Many, many bandits at four o’clock!” shouted Dundas.

Tobin looked up and saw more than fifty 109s from Hans-Karl Mayer’s JG 53, around four thousand feet above.

“Okay, Charlie, come on in,” Howell called to Tobin.

Tobin glanced over his shoulder. Three bandits were diving towards them.

“Danger, red section!” shouted Tobin. “Danger, danger, danger!”

Howell heard him and broke fast to the right.

Tobin began a 360-degree turn, immediately feeling the G-force. He lifted his feet to the G-stirrups and pressed down. The blood returned to his head as he spotted 609’s Pilot Officer Geoffrey Gaunt climbing to his left, followed by a furious Messerschmitt. Then Tobin was turning tighter and tighter, pulling the stick as far over as he dared without blacking out, holding the Spitfire in its life-saving arc. The cockpit controls shook with the strain and his face contorted as he struggled to stay conscious.

Tobin pulled his emergency boost. The engine howled and he was kicked back in his seat. A Messerschmitt flashed past at more than 400 mph. Then he was easing out of the turn, head spinning as he searched the sky for bandits. And there they were—more Me-109s. Tobin set out after one of them. A black cross was soon in his crosshairs. He fired. Smoke streamed from the German’s motor. But before he could fire again, the German disappeared in cloud cover. Tobin broke to his left and began to climb, opening the throttle, weaving back and forth violently behind Howell and Dundas at around 275 mph, not caring now

whether he or his Spitfire could take the strain. He had no time “for pretty tricks. The main thing was to get where you could shoot . . . and then get where [they] couldn’t shoot at you. A neat barrel roll looks nice from the ground and so does a wreath.”

Tobin suddenly saw a 609 Spitfire and felt sick: the plane was around two hundred yards away, out of control, cockpit ablaze. It began to spin down trailing black smoke. Then Tobin spotted Technical Sergeant Rolf Heitsch’s Dornier diving towards clouds. Again, he pushed his Spitfire to its limit. She responded beautifully, like a thoroughbred in peak form. He was still a long way off but decided to fire before he lost the ugly gray bandit to the clouds. His tracers streaked through the sky and, to his delight, struck the bomber’s left engine.

Heitsch looked out of his cockpit and saw his left propeller stop spinning. He knew the cloud cover would not last for long. Even if he could escape Tobin, could he then nurse the stricken bomber back across the dreaded Channel, or should he try to land? Now white smoke was billowing from his other engine. Tobin had hit the glycol tank or a radiator.

Then 609’s Johnny “Dogs” Dundas suddenly appeared as if from nowhere—he had climbed almost vertically below the bomber—and also let rip. More pieces flew off Heitsch’s plane. Then both Tobin and Dundas were “pressing the tit,” sending streams of bullets through the sky. Stephan Schmidt, manning the flamethrower, was hit badly in the chest. He dropped the flamethrower and slumped to floor.

Heitsch somehow flew on. He had trained as a doctor before the war and knew that to stand a chance of saving Schmidt from bleeding to death he would need to land as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Tobin was lining up for the kill. “I moved the ship over a bit so that his left wing was right in the bull’s eye and sawed off his aileron,” he recalled. “Part of the wing fluttered off and he disappeared into the cloud.” A few seconds later, he reappeared. Any moment now it would surely be all over, but seeing that Heitsch’s plane was critically damaged Tobin and Dundas chose not to press on with their attack. “[Heitsch] came down after a while,” recalled Tobin, “just from sheer weight of lead, but we didn’t knock him apart.”

Heitsch spotted a field near the village of Shoreham and told his surviving crew to brace themselves for a forced landing. With great skill, he brought the stricken bomber down, narrowly avoiding power lines. The Dornier crashed wheels up with an awful screech of metal and breaking propellers and skidded to a sudden halt, just missing several cows. Heitsch threw off his harness, stood up, and struggled furiously to open an escape hatch.

A few hundred feet above, Tobin circled the crash site. He opened his cockpit and slid back the hood. He could see Heitsch and another of his crew climbing out of the Dornier, carefully pulling the badly wounded Schmidt after them. Tobin waved his handkerchief, signaling to a growing group of hop pickers to stay back from the German plane. “A mile away, a Spitfire and a Hurricane were down in the same field,” he recalled. “But the white billowy folds of two parachutes nearby showed that their pilots were safe. Crashed planes were a dime a dozen. Wherever you looked between London and the coast, there were cracked-up airplanes.”

White tracer flashed past Tobin. He pulled his stick back and climbed. Then he realized that the tracer had been meant not for him but for another Spitfire, dueling with an Me-109 two thousand feet above him. “It was quite a show,” remembered Tobin. “Once in a while the German would loose off with the two cannons in his wings and they would blink like a couple of rabbit’s eyes. Cute as can be until one of the shells screams past your cowling. Then you move out of the way fast, just as I did. By the time I climbed above the two fighting planes, the Spitfire had sent the German down in a long sickening spin and the air was clear of enemy planes.”

Tobin was suddenly alone. He checked his fuel gauge—just seven gallons left. It was around 12:20 p.m. After refueling at Biggin Hill, he flew back towards Middle Wallop. The airfield soon appeared below and he began his approach, but then a truck suddenly emerged from behind a hangar into his landing path. It was too late to climb. Tobin heard one of his wheels skim the vehicle and jolt back into the fuselage. “Now I couldn’t even make a belly landing, which is the safest thing to do if your landing gear goes haywire. I circled the field a couple of times and then came in to land on the one wheel with the other wing up. It was a pretty tricky business, but my luck held. As the wheel touched the ground, the ship wobbled for an instant and then I felt the other wheel flop down from the impact. I eased the stick and she settled down nicely.”

Elated, Tobin taxied towards the dispersal hut. A few minutes later he was jumping down to the oil-stained grass and heading towards an animated group of his fellow pilots. But then one of his ground crew came over with bad news: his plane needed to be serviced and there was no other available, which meant he was effectively grounded for the rest of the day. Bitterly frustrated, Tobin joined his fellow pilots for lunch. They were particularly pleased that fighter command had scrambled them early enough and had then sent them high enough to avoid being bounced.

Back in Shoreham, Kent, the local Home Guard was soon on the scene and arresting the crew of Tobin’s downed Dornier. Technical Sergeant Sauter had been badly wounded in the ankle and was taken to Maidstone Hospital. Technical Sergeants Rolf Heitsch and Pfeiffer, the bomber’s observer, were escorted to the nearest pub. Someone bought the two trembling German airmen a couple of brandies to calm their nerves. Then they were driven to Seven Oaks Police Station. Their other comrade, Technical Sergeant Stephan Schmidt, did not go with them. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Seven Oaks Hospital, his chest torn apart. According to one subsequent news report, the hospital also admitted a hop picker with a bullet wound in the leg. Allegedly, one of two circling Spitfires—either Dundas or Tobin—had opened fire on the grounded bomber and hit the man in the leg.

Meanwhile, Heitsch’s fellow KG 76 pilots struggled back across the unforgiving Channel. Just fifteen of Alois Lindmayr’s Dorniers were still in formation. Ten were missing. It was a pitiful sight: the “flying pencils” limping across the dark waters, full of dead and wounded, cockpits holed and smeared with blood, engines coughing, props flailing, gashed fuselages letting in gushes of freezing salty air, white glycol smoke trailing several as if they were signaling surrender.

Many of the surviving pilots were resentful and angry. Had Göring not claimed that the RAF had just fifty Spitfires left, that it would take just a few days in early September to finish the Lords off? The chilling truth was that the Lords were stronger than ever and better organized, attacking from higher than before, out of the sun. The change of targets from airfields to London had been a disastrous mistake, allowing them time to recover. They had been out for the count. Now they were surely ahead on points. Alois Lindmayr had only to glance out his cockpit to see how they had won this round.

Very soon, another round would begin. Kesselring had gathered another massive force for an afternoon attack on the capital: one hundred fifty bombers escorted by three times as many fighters. Once again, the bombers would simply be bait to draw up Park’s squadrons so that the Luftwaffe could then tear them apart, thereby dealing Fighter Command the death blow, or so Göring hoped. Among the flocks of Messerschmitts would be two of the most lethal Jagdwaffe units, JG 54 and JG 26, led by an increasingly ill-tempered Adolf Galland.

Just a few days ago, Galland had been forced to stand between his two main rivals, Mölders and Helmut Wick, and listen as Göring had yet again upbraided him over his Jagdwaffe’s lack of aggression. “The bombers are more important than a fighter pilot’s record of kills,” Göring had complained. “Your job is to protect them and each time you fall down on it.” Galland had defended his men but Göring had dismissively ignored him. Then Göring had asked what the Group commanders needed. Werner Mölders had said he would like as many Me-109E-4/N planes as possible. Their new engines would allow JG 51 to outperform the Spitfire. Göring had begun to walk away when he had suddenly turned around and looked at Galland. “And you?” Galland had looked straight into Göring’s bright blue eyes. “I’d like some Spitfires.” Göring had sighed, his cheeks reddening with anger, and walked off.

It was now early afternoon on September 15 as Galland made his way towards his Messerschmitt at Caffiers, black Havana clenched between his lips, wrapping a yellow scarf around his neck. Yet again, he was suffering from “throat-ache.” He knew that Werner Mölders would also be flying later this afternoon, also looking to add another stripe to the thirtyseven carefully painted onto his tail fin. Galland was now just five kills behind. But at the rate Mölders was taking down planes, it wouldn’t take long for him to hit forty and then he, not Galland, would be off to have tea with the Führer at the Chancellery, his beaming, bony face splashed across the front pages, the Oak Leaves—added to his Knight’s Cross— clear for everyone to see.

At 1:45 p.m., back in the bunker in Uxbridge, a young WAAF placed a marker on the plotting table. Several more soon followed. From the gallery, Winston Churchill again watched intently as Park once more marshaled his forces, scrambling several squadrons. Gambling that the Germans were all headed towards London, just as on September 7, Park decided not to intercept until Kesselring’s armada had reached its most vulnerable position: the big turn over London. By then, the German pilots would be getting nervous, glancing at their fuel gauges, able to fight for only a few minutes at the limit of the Me-109’s range.

Luck was on Park’s side. The German bombers were forced to circle over Maidstone because they missed their rendezvous with their escorts. From Maidstone, it was sixty miles to London: a heart-pounding journey now dubbed the racecourse by many a rattled German pilot. That afternoon, it took the bombers and their escorts thirty very long minutes, more than enough time for Park to direct his forces towards them. It was 2:15 p.m. when the first two squadrons intercepted.

“Mitor and Gannic squadrons, tally-ho, tally-ho!”

Twenty-seven British fighters dived out of the sun into Kesselring’s armada of four hundred fifty planes.

“Achtung, Spitfeuer!”

Churchill’s few had the sun and height on their side, and some had learned how to fight like Galland’s hunting packs—a screaming dive, with the target in sights and guns blazing, and then break away in a flash. Minute by minute, more RAF squadrons followed. Soon, the bright blue sky was scarred by tracer bursts and the oily smoke of burning planes.

At Middle Wallop, the telephone rang. Eugene Tobin watched in frustration as Shorty grabbed his two cushions and then sprinted with Andy Mamedoff and the rest of 609 towards Spitfires waiting close by, their engines warm.

Meanwhile, Göring’s bombers lumbered on. But not for long: over the East End, thirteen more RAF squadrons pounced on them, ripping several to shreds in seconds as pilots literally lined up to wait their turn to open fire. The formations finally broke up and the German pilots then turned tail, dropped their loads over leafy suburbs, and began the desperate journey back to France. One in four would not make it home.

High over London, meanwhile, JG 26’s Adolf Galland was on the hunt once again. He had only a few minutes of fuel left before he would have to turn back for France. Suddenly, he spotted 310 Hurricane Squadron, tightly bunched below, cockpits glinting in the sun.

“I dove from about [2,500 feet] above them, approached at high speed,” recalled Galland, “and fired at the far left aircraft in the rear flight, continuing fire until point-blank range. Finally, large pieces of metal flew off the Hurricane. As I shot past this aircraft, I found myself in the middle of the enemy squadron, which was flying in stepped formation. I immediately attacked the right-hand aircraft of the leading flight of three. Again, metal panels broke off; the aircraft nosed over and dove earthward, ablaze. The remaining English pilots were so startled that none as much as attempted to get on my tail; rather, the entire formation scattered and dove away. Two parachutes appeared about [1,600 feet] below our formation.”

In just ten seconds, Adolf Galland had added another two stripes to his tail fin. Now, if Mölders had not scored, he was only three behind. At this rate, with a little luck, he could make up the difference in just a few days. Never one to linger after a kill, Galland then dived away from the mêlée, ordering his squadron to follow him back to Caffiers before their red lights started to flicker. There was no need to remind them of what might happen if they dawdled for even a minute. Not long back, JG 26 had lost twelve planes on one sortie alone when their fuel ran out. It was now 2:35 p.m. in the bunker in Uxbridge. Winston Churchill noticed that Park was standing stock still, unusually tense. The reason became clear when Churchill looked at the wall of bulbs. Every one was glowing red, indicating that all of Fighter Command was now engaged.

“What other reserves have we?” Churchill asked.

Park turned around.

“We have none.”

Churchill looked grave, and for good reason. “The odds were great,” he recalled, “our margins small; the stakes infinite.”

But for 609, at least, the odds were for once very much on their side. To intercept the fleeing bombers, Squadron Leader Darley had led both A and B Flights away from London to the southeast. Suddenly, as 609 neared the coast, two battered formations of Dorniers were spotted. The bombers were a long way off and diving at maximum speed, their pilots trying to get as low as possible and then skim unnoticed across the choppy waves back to France.

Andy Mamedoff scoured the skies. Only a few German fighters were flying escort. Then he heard Darley order 609 to give chase. Throttles open, the West Riding Squadron gladly obliged, soon fixing onto two stragglers.

Shorty was seated on his two pillows, flying as wingman to Green Section’s leader, Pilot Officer Michael Appleby.

“Green Section, No. 1 Attack, go!” shouted Appleby.

Shorty latched onto one of the stragglers, a Dornier from KG 2. “I followed Green 1 [Appleby] into attack on [the Dornier],” he reported, “and attacked from quarter and then astern.” Satisfied that the bomber was done for, he broke away and dived through the clouds. Emerging from them, he could not find Green Section and decided to return to Middle Wallop. The Dornier pilot somehow kept his plane in the air and turned back for England, where he crash-landed ten minutes later in a field at Eighteen Pounder Farm, near the historic town of Hastings, at 3:15 p.m. Hastings had been the scene of Britain’s last defeat at the hands of an invader, almost a thousand years before, in 1066.

Meanwhile, Andy Mamedoff and several other 609 pilots tore chunks out of the other straggler like a pack of ravenous wolves. “Everybody in B Flight was absolutely determined to have a squirt at the Hun,” recalled 609’s David Crook, “and as a result there was a mad scramble in which people cut across in front of each other and fired wildly . . . regardless of the fact that the air was full of Spitfires.” Mamedoff’s flight leader, Frank Howell, saw two German crew members throw packets of marker dye into the Channel and then bail out. Mamedoff and another pilot had finished off the plane “with the concentrated fire of their sixteen machine guns. They actually sawed one of the Dornier’s wings off before she crashed. Andy was particularly pleased about this because it meant that for a change he was giving something instead of taking it. His back was still sore from the cannon shell.”

The Canadian Keith Ogilvie had earlier that day shot a Heinkel in half, the tail end landing near a pub in Pimlico in London “to the great comfort and joy of the patrons.” Now he watched one of the Dornier’s crew drift down in his parachute to the waters below. The German splashed down and “waved wildly,” Ogilvie later reported, “figuring I was going to machine-gun him.”

Ogilvie did not. Instead, Johnny “Dogs” Dundas and Frank Howell “took different bearings [with their compasses] to enable the German to be rescued.”

It was now 3:25 p.m. in Park’s bunker at Uxbridge. The bulbs on the wall facing Churchill began to change. Some now indicated that squadrons had landed and were refueling. One bulb showed that 213 at Tangmere, Billy Fiske’s old base, was ready to be scrambled again. There was a reserve once more. The crisis had passed. Park and Churchill were visibly relieved.

“I am very glad, sir, you have seen this,” Park told Churchill, “Of course, during the last twenty minutes we were so choked with informa- tion that we couldn’t handle it. This shows you the limitation of our present resources. They have been strained far beyond their limits today.”

Churchill and his party thanked Park and left the bunker, bound for Chequers, where Churchill was soon taking an afternoon nap. But it was not over yet. At Middle Wallop, 609 was scrambled yet again at around 5:40 p.m. It was Shorty’s fourth sprint to his Spitfire that day. 609 joined six other squadrons above Southampton, but neither Fighter Command nor the Luftwaffe had any luck. Thirteen Me-110s, skimming above the Channel, missed their target, and Shorty and 609 were sent too high to intercept.

Finally, September 15, 1940, drew to a close. At Middle Wallop, the shadows cast by 609’s Spitfires stretched long across the grass. Dusk settled and then, darkness: the cue for the pilots to be released at last and head to the officers’ mess for a bite to eat. At Chequers, Churchill woke from his nap. John Martin, his private secretary, had allowed him to sleep through the afternoon, knowing how emotionally drained he had been by the bunker experience. Now Martin quickly brought Churchill up-to-date on the day’s developments. “This had gone wrong here,” recalled Churchill, “that had been delayed there, an unsatisfactory answer had been received from so-and-so; there had been bad sinkings in the Atlantic.” Martin paused. “However,” he then said, “all is redeemed by the air. We have shot down 183 for the loss of under 40.”

It was the best news Churchill had received all year.

Across the Channel, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring picked up the telephone in his headquarters and put a call through to the Reich Marshal aboard the sumptuous Asia. Göring was not in the mood for bad news, having been served sedatives by his nurse Christa Gormanns. “We cannot keep it up like this,” said Kesselring, “we are falling below the standard of safety.”

The Luftwaffe was in fact bleeding to death, having now lost so many bombers that if Göring kept throwing them at Fighter Command in daylight attacks there would soon be none left. Kesselring’s two attacks that day had failed spectacularly. Fighter Command had not been wiped out. Instead it had decimated the best of the Luftwaffe’s bomber force. As the sirens began to wail in London, signaling the onset of yet another night of air-raids, the presses on Fleet Street began to roll. Within twenty-four hours, the RAF’s thrilling success on September 15, would be front-page news throughout the free world. In America, newspapers and radio would repeat the RAF’s inflated claim of 183 downed German planes, prompting an outpouring of support and sympathy across the nation for the plucky British. A full-page advertisement in the New York Times would even call for immediate union with Britain: the first round in the propaganda campaign aimed at drawing America into the war had been won.

For 609 Squadron, the night was still young. There was time to sink several pints before closing time in the officers’ mess or at a nearby pub. “The squadron had shot down seven confirmed and five probables, which isn’t bad for a couple of hours’ work,” recalled Tobin. “My friend Jeff [Gaunt] was the only one not there to share in the victory.”

On the surface, Tobin was his old Red self no doubt, joking about taking down “yellow-nosed boys” and tapping his wings with a grin and then saying ruefully “I guess these are a one-way ticket pal,” but inside he was full of concern. Gaunt was not at the brass rail with him, not asking about the film stars he knew, not creasing up at his wisecracks, not singing along to Bing Crosby records. Then Tobin started to feel better: “Hell, Tobin. Why don’t you quit your beefing? You’ll live through it.” David Crook was also deeply troubled by Gaunt’s disappearance. “We had known each other all our lives and been at school together for about twelve years,” he recalled. “Only a week or two before, I had said to him one evening that if anything were to happen to him, I should feel rather responsible because he was an only son, and I had persuaded him to join the RAF with me.”

Late that night, Tobin opened his diary. “Today was the toughest day—we were in a terrific battle over London,” he jotted. “Geoffrey Gaunt, one of my best friends, is missing. I saw a Spitfire during the fight spinning down on fire. I sure hope it wasn’t Jeff. If it was—well, from now on he’ll be flying in clearer skies.”

The following day, Göring raged at a conference of his senior commanders about the Jagdwaffe’s abysmal failure yet again to protect his bombers.

“The fighters have failed!”

This time, Göring’s rant fell on deaf ears. The Jagdwaffe’s many brave pilots, prime among them JG 26’s Adolf Galland, now deeply resented his insinuation that they lacked guts. Göring was delusional, basing his assertions on hopelessly inaccurate intelligence. For the first time, there were mumblings on some airfields about the impossibility of winning not just the battle but the war.

On September 17, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder recorded in the official German War Diary: “The enemy air force is by no means defeated. On the contrary, it shows increasing activity.” And then the all-important words: “The Führer therefore decides to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.” Britain would not be invaded. Instead she would be brought to her knees through terror bombing at night and slow starvation by day. What was left of the Luftwaffe’s bomber fleet and the Atlantic U-boat packs would sooner or later surely see to that. Besides, Hitler now nursed a greater design than the humiliation of Winston Churchill—the conquest of Soviet Russia. “I want colonies I can walk to without getting my feet wet,” he would soon tell one of his confidantes.

Churchill’s fighter boys did not yet know that they had fought off the greatest threat to Britain’s survival in a millennium, and that they had done so by the narrowest of margins. Only with the passage of time would it become clear that on September 15, 1940—“the hardest day”— they had made possible a far greater victory. As an official RAF historian would write: “When the details of the fighting grow dim, and the names of its heroes are forgotten, men will still remember that civilisation was saved by a thousand British boys.”

And a few Americans.

Many thanks to Alex Kershaw for sharing this with War History Online and you can follow Alex on his Facebook page

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