Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Tag Archives: Pilots

  • 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.

    Plt Off Denis Wissler Hurricane 1940. (School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

     

     

     

    Plt Pff Denis Wissler, 17 Sqn, 1970. (Courtesy B. B. M. London, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    Hurricane Is of 111 Squadron up from Northolt, in July 1938. (Courtesy ww2images.com, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

  • Boulton Paul Defiant by Alec Brew

    The Myths of the Boulton Paul Defiant

    The aircraft most associated with Wolverhampton’s Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd, and the Black Country’s highest profile contribution to the Second World War, was the Defiant turret fighter. It fought over the beaches of Dunkirk, two squadrons fought in the Battle of Britain, and then, during the dark nights of the Blitz, it was our most effective night fighter, seven Defiant squadrons operating against the German raiders using its unusual characteristics.

    A rare photograph of the Defiant prototype, K8310, in the air, fitted with the turret and other modifications, including a tailwheel and ejector exhausts, but as yet without guns. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The Defiant was built to an official requirement for a fighter with all its guns concentrated in a power-operated turret. In the belief that bomber formations could only be broken up by fighters attacking in squadron strength, with pilots maintaining formation and gunners aiming the guns in their power operated turret. This theory had been around since the First World War, but finally came to fruition in the form of an official requirement in the mid Thirties, as bombers were becoming all metal, and much faster.

    The Defiant was born in Norwich, where the Aircraft Department of the firm of Boulton & Paul Ltd had existed since 1915. It had recently been sold off and was having a new factory built alongside Wolverhampton’s new Municipal Airport at Pendeford. The prototype was started at Norwich but its first flight was at Pendeford in August 1937, and a total of 1062 were to be built there.

    The first squadron of Defiants, No.264, went to War over Holland as the Germans invaded but it was over the beaches of Dunkirk that it had its greatest day. In two sorties over the Channel No.264 claimed 37 German aircraft shot down, for no loss of their own. The first of the myths surrounding the Defiant was created that day. It was said that the Germans mistook them for Hurricanes, attacked from the rear and were shot from the sky by the concentrated fire of 12 four-gun turrets. This hardly stands up to a second’s scrutiny, the majority of the German aircraft claimed were bombers, it was the Defiants doing the attacking. When they were attacked by Messerschmidts No.264 they adopted their practiced tactic of a defensive circle or spiral, and it didn’t matter from which direction the Germans attacked, they were met with defensive fire. These were tactics they successfully used on several other occasions over the Channel.

    A flight led by No. 264's CO, Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, which undertook the first patrol over the Netherlands together with six Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron. Between them they shot down a Junkers Ju.88. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The CO of No.264 was careful to explain these tactics to the second Defiant Squadron, No.141, which joined the fight over the Channel on 19th July 1940. A patrol of nine Defiants was attacked by superior numbers of Messerschmidts and was decimated, six of them shot down, another written off and ten aircrew killed. The myth arose that the Defiant was a sitting duck against single seat fighters. The truth is that No.141 did not adopt No.264’s successful tactics, but continued to fly straight and level, and the Germans, who recognised the Defiants, took advantage. Even so the heavily outnumbered Defiants claimed four of the 109s in return.

    Nevertheless the panic button was hit at Fighter Command, and No.264 Squadron who were actually in the air at the time, were ordered back to the ground. No.141 was taken out of the Battle to lick its wounds and re-equip. No.264 eventually re-joined the fight, and had many more successful days of daylight fighting. I have interviewed many Defiant aircrew from No.264, and to many they believed they could hold their own in daytime battles and did not have a bad word to say about the aircraft. It is apparently true that whenever members of the two squadrons met in bars there was trouble, because No.264 blamed No.141 for the Defiants soiled reputation.

    The next myth now arose, that because the Defiants were failures during the day, they were relegated to night fighting. The truth is that, as the nights lengthened during the Autumn of 1940, the Germans increasingly attacked at night in what has been termed the Blitz, the front line was now at night, and the Defiants which had been designed as day or night fighters from the beginning, were the best available. They were faster than the clumsy twin-engined Blenheims, and in the days before radar they had the advantage over single-seaters of two pairs of eyes. In addition their very configuration enabled them to attack unsuspecting German bombers from below, silhouetted against the stars, and their gunners were often able to carefully aim for one engine or the other from very short range.

    Early production Defiants with 'L' serial numbers, that on the right being L7009, which was to be shot down on No. 141 Squadron's sole daylight operation. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    Seven squadrons of Defiants fought through the Winter of 1940/41, and then through the second Winter of the War, by which time twin engined heavier-armed, radar equipped fighters, like the Beaufighter and Mosquito, were becoming available. At the Wolverhampton factory, Boulton Paul workers would pin newspaper articles about Defiant successes on the noticeboard, with the words ‘Our Work’ scrawled across them.

    Even when they were withdrawn from night fighting the Defiants found new frontline roles. They equipped five air sea rescue squadrons looking for downed airmen all around the coast, and often having to defend themselves over the contested waters of the Channel and the North Sea. One unit of Defiants also equipped the World’s first electronic countermeasures squadron, No.515, jamming and spoofing German radar.

    When even these roles were taken by newer aircraft, the Defiant still had an important role to play as a target tug, towing targets for ground and air gunners in theatres right across the World, from India to the West Indies. The Defiant served right through the War and is rightly revered by the people who built them, men and women.

    At Wolverhampton’s Tettenhall Transport Heritage Centre, which has a display about the Defiant, including a restored cockpit, volunteers still have to defend the aircraft when visitors repeat the myths that beset it. They can now point to Amberley’s illustrated history of the aircraft to back them up.

    Alec Brew's new book Boulton Paul Defiant is available for purchase now.

2 Item(s)