A Spitfire Pilot's Story - Pat Hughes by Dennis Newton
THEY CALLED IT A ‘STUFFY SPREAD’
Air Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding not only commanded RAF Fighter Command, he was its chief architect from the very beginning when it was created in 1936. He built it into the formidable weapon it became just in time for its ‘finest hour’ saving Britain in the violent, dark days of crisis in 1940. He set down the rules, chose the aircraft, built up the squadrons and developed their techniques, looking into every detail – but he wasn’t always right.
Before WW2, he ordered that the guns of all RAF fighters were to be harmonised to create a widely spaced pattern of bullets at a range of 400 yards. This spread of bullets was intended specifically to combat bombers as it seemed most likely that any air attack on Britain from Germany would be by unescorted bombers. Because of the distances involved Luftwaffe fighters simply would not be able to take part. Because of ‘Stuffy’ Dowding’s nickname, this widely spaced pattern became unofficially known as the ‘Stuffy Spread’.
While the method gave an average pilot a greater chance of scoring some hits on his target, early engagements revealed it was unlikely to cause enough damage to bring an enemy plane down! Experience during the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939/40 and the Battle for France and the Low Countries in 1940 showed a concentrated, accurate burst of fire achieved far better results.
Although Dowding’s order to spread the field of fire was still regarded as standard procedure, squadrons with combat experience were harmonising their guns on a single point 250 yards in front of their aircraft.
Going in close seemed to be another way of preventing the ‘Stuffy Spread’ from scattering too many bullets far and wide. Obviously, the closer a fighter could be positioned behind its target, the closer together the pattern would be and the more certainty there was of making a kill. Effective though it might be, it was obviously dangerous - but wasn’t war dangerous anyway?
Before the Battle of Britain intensified, one nervous new pilot reportedly asked his flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Paterson Clarence Hughes, ‘What do I do if I miss?’
‘What do you do if you miss?’ Pat Hughes’ deliberate reply came back, ‘Listen mate… you get as close as you can and you can’t miss!’
No.234 Squadron RAF claimed its first victories during July 1940, three Ju88s destroyed in three weeks and Pat Hughes led all three attacks.
He had gone in close. For him, that was definitely the answer.
One of his wingmen, Sergeant George Bailey, would recall years later, ‘...Amongst some of his [Pat’s] efforts towards the war effort – frowned upon and stopped by higher authority – painting of the spinners of our Spitfires bright colours in competition to the yellow nosed 109’s. Use of incendiary bullets in all guns and bringing the concentration of fire power from the eight guns down to the minimum distance that could be obtained from the mountings... about 50 yards less than that recommended by the A.M. (Air Ministry)’
In his three attacks, return fire had struck Pat’s Spitfire on two separate occasions – one bullet each time. Pat would go in close again and again...
What followed was dramatic by any measure. During just over three weeks of spectacular action, Pat’s tally of enemy aircraft destroyed climbed to more than 14 victories.
Then came 7 September 1940 and the first huge daylight attack on London. At first caught by surprise by the change in German tactics, Dowding’s fighters pounced after the withdrawing Luftwaffe bombers like angry hornets. They had to make them pay.
South-east of Folkestone, 234 Squadron ran into an estimated sixty German aircraft consisting of Dornier Do 17s and escorting Messerschmitt 109s. Initially instructed to patrol over the airfields at Kenley and Biggin Hill at ‘Angels Ten’, Squadron Leader ‘Spike’ O’Brien had taken his twelve Spitfires up to twice that height until they were above hoards of bandits all heading south on their way home. They were being harried as they went by furious, stinging Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Pat Hughes in Spitfire X4009 as usual was leading the three Spitfires of Blue Section. O’Brien told Pat to go after the bombers while his flight covered the 109s. Ordering his wingmen to follow suit, Pat plunged after the bombers. He was well ahead of the others as he closed in on a straggling Dornier.
Blue Two, Pilot Officer Keith Lawrence, followed the Australian down and saw him make a quarter attack on the German machine. Large pieces flew off the enemy plane, then a wing crumpled and it went down spinning. Lawrence glanced away for a target but when he looked back an instant later, he saw a Spitfire spinning down with about a third of its wing broken off... a collision?
It was late in the afternoon a few miles from Andover when Kay Hughes, Pat’s bride of just six weeks, stopped her car and phoned 234 Squadron’s Mess at Middle Wallop. She asked for Pat. Instead, F/O E. C. ‘Bish’ Owens, the fatherly squadron Adjutant, came to the phone. ‘Come right over’, he said, ‘I’ll meet you at the gate.’
For a second she wondered why? Then, instinctively she knew. She clutched the gold charm bracelet Pat had given her. She knew...
True to his word, ‘Bish’ and some of Pat’s boys met her at the gate. They told her that Pat was missing - there was some hope but the chances were not good. Then they took her to the White Hart where a room had been booked. ‘I’ve got your double,’ the landlord said greeting her with a wide smile. That was before he realised something was wrong...
‘Bish’ took him to one side and told him.
Paterson Clarence Hughes had become the highest-scoring Australian pilot of the Battle of Britain - a ‘Top Gun’. His full story is told in Dennis Newton’s A Spitfire Pilot’s Story published by Amberley.
Dennis Newton's new book A Spitfire Pilot's Story - Pat Hughes, Battle of Britain Top Gun is available for purchase now.