School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain by Alastair Goodrum
My latest book, School of Aces (Amberley; 2019), tells the story of how RAF Fighter Command prepared for battle. It takes an in-depth view of the creation and development of its premier fighter pilot and air gunnery school, located at RAF Sutton Bridge. This station is where, for example, the RAF prepared for the air Battles of France and Britain, a decade before they were actually fought. The story that unfolds throughout my book is nothing, of course, without the pilots themselves. Who were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them? These are a few of the questions the book addresses. It is interesting to discover, too, that by the time the Second World War was into its stride, RAF Sutton Bridge was training pilots of every nationality that served in the RAF. This first blog post uses the story of nineteen-year old Plt Off Denis Wissler, from Greenwich, England, to illustrate just what these young men – fresh from No.6 Operational Training Unit at RAF Sutton Bridge – were asked to do.
Together with sixteen companions, Denis learned to fly the Hawker Hurricane on the first course run at RAF Sutton Bridge. That course lasted six weeks but the deteriorating situation in France cut subsequent courses to a mere three weeks duration. Denis was posted to 85 Squadron on Lille-Seclin airfield in France on 27 April 1940 but, recognising his lack of experience, his CO, Sqn Ldr John Oliver, ordered him to fly only to get himself accustomed to the local area. The CO considered there was no pressing need at the moment for Wissler to go on operational patrols and he would be much better occupied putting in some more hours on the Hurricane; familiarising himself with squadron routine and generally making himself useful on the ground.
When the Germans rolled into France on the morning of 10 May 1940, Seclin was bombed, causing many casualties on the ground but fortunately most of the pilots were already in the air on patrol. Left behind, Denis Wissler literally had to run for his life for a slit trench when the bombing started and soon found out what war looked like when he helped to rescue the casualties afterwards. With mounting pilot casualties, too, his CO had no option but to commit Plt Off Wissler to combat operations and Denis took his place alongside his comrades in the air – and managed to survive. During his first patrol on 12 May, Denis became separated from his flight and got lost. Landing on what – fortunately – turned out to be a French Air Force aerodrome he had to ask for directions back to his own base. No sooner had he returned than he was airborne again for another patrol. That night Denis wrote in his diary: ‘I now have had just six hours sleep in the last forty-eight hours and have not washed for over thirty-six hours. My God, I’m so tired, and I am up again at 3 am tomorrow.’ Next day, 13th, he was indeed up at the crack of dawn for a patrol from which he returned safely. His second sortie of the day was part of a flight led by Sqn Ldr Oliver. They were jumped by enemy Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and John Oliver was shot down. Denis Wissler made a bee-line for the cover of clouds and emerging cautiously, found himself alone and unsure of his whereabouts – again. Landing on another French airfield, this time Cambrai, it was pointed out to him that his Hurricane was leaking oil badly. For once, he was able to sleep soundly in the French officers’ mess while RAF ground-crew were sent to fix his aeroplane. Just four days had elapsed in which Denis had to try to learn to do all the things needed to simply get himself airborne from a bombed airfield; fly his Hurricane in combat; avoid being shot down and – as if that wasn't enough – then find home when he had spent most of his time pulling such tight turns that he hardly knew which way was up. Tired he was – weren’t they all? – but he survived until the squadron was withdrawn to England (RAF Debden) on 22 May. But Denis was not quite done with France yet. At Debden he was posted to 17 Squadron on 8 June and it was still operating in France, covering the British withdrawal while flying from Le Mans airfield. He flew out to join the squadron on 9 June and survived the final days of the RAF campaign in France, finally withdrawing via Dinard and Jersey once more to Debden airfield on 19 June.
Denis Wissler remained with 17 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, scoring his first success on 29 July when he shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111 bomber. By September he was now considered an experienced fighter pilot but, in combat with Bf 109s over the Thames estuary on 24 September, after shooting at one ’109, he went for a gaggle of four more and in the ensuing scrap, his Hurricane took a cannon shell hit in the port wing. The explosion damaged the flaps on that side and a shell fragment wounded him in the left arm. Denis dived hard to escape the fight and flew back to Debden where he made a flap-less landing. His Hurricane ran into a pile of rubble which added to his woes by causing cuts and bruises to his face. After a couple of weeks in Saffron Walden hospital he returned to flying duties on 10 October. It was in the closing stage of the Battle of Britain, when 17 Squadron moved to RAF Martlesham Heath, that Fate finally caught up with Denis. On 11 November 1940, while leading a section of his squadron into action, he was shot down and posted as missing in action during an engagement off the Essex coast near Burnham-on-Crouch.
Alastair Goodrum's new book School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain is available for purchase now.