Fighter Ace

Closeup of red poppies on a war memorial wreath.Tomorrow will be the 11th day of the 11th month and, at the 11th hour, Armistice Day will be commemorated in many countries around the world. Begun as a way to mark the end of the Great War and remember all those who didn’t come home, it now includes all who have died in subsequent wars. It is sometimes referred to as Remembrance Day, possibly because of the lines repeated at every war memorial service “…at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.” So here is one story to remember on Armistice Day.

In June 1940, with the advancing German army just days away from Paris, R.A.F. pilot Paul Richey decided to take a last look at the city.

“Paris as a whole retained its irresponsible gaiety – though one felt it was even rather too irresponsible. The couples still sipped their champagne and sang the choruses of romantic songs in the boulevard cafes. Albert still bowed one in with a portly gesture and a welcoming smile at Maxim’s. The Ritz Bar was still in full swing before lunch and again before dinner. The only thing changed was the almost total abscence of soldiers.

It was as I walked down the Champs Elysees towards the Concorde one afternoon that I came upon Cobber, of 73 Squadron, sitting at a pavement table with the 73 Squadron Doctor and a well-known journalist. Over a drink Cobber told me that the rest of the original 73 had gone back to England, and that they had been re-formed, like us. He had stayed behind to help get things going, but was off in a couple of days’ time. He was on a few hours’ leave now. He said they’d had some losses – about five killed, I think – and in answer to my question told me his own personal score of Huns was 17. I noticed, but without surprise in the circumstances, that he seemed nervous and pre-occupied, and kept breaking matches savagely in one hand while he glowered into the middle distance. Like the rest of us, he’d had enough for a bit.

HurricaneThe following day [7th] a Hurricane roared down and beat up 73’s aerodrome south-west of Paris. To finish up with it did a couple of flick-rolls in succession at 200 feet, and foolishly attempted a third with insufficient speed. Naturally it spun off. It straightened out promptly enough, but of course had no height and went in. The rescue squad was shocked to find an identity disc marked with Cobber’s name on the body. So died Cobber.”
‘Fighter Pilot’, 1941.

Cobber KainB

© IWM (C 1148)

Flying Officer Edgar “Cobber” Kain, DFC, from Hastings, New Zealand, was recognised as the R.A.F.’s first fighter ace of World War Two. He was 21 years old when he died on 7th June. He had become engaged to the English actress Joyce Phillips in April. The wedding was planned for July.

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The Battle of Denmark Strait

Denmark Strait, North Atlantic, 24 May 1941.

Hood

H.M.S. Hood

In [H.M.S.] Prince of Wales, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen only a handful of men saw Hood’s end with their own eyes: the vast majority were below decks and to them the incredible news came on inter-com and by telephone, second hand. Some simply did not believe it. Prinz Eugen’s executive officer, Commander Stoos, on duty in the lower command post, hearing his captain’s voice announcing the news, said quietly, ‘Some poor fellow up there has gone off his head.’ In Bismarck’s after transmitting station Leading Seaman Eich heard Commander Schneider’s joyous shout, ‘She’s blowing up,’ and would remember the long drawn out ‘uuup’ for the rest of his life. In the after director tower Mullenheim-Rechberg heard it too, and despite orders to stick to the two [British] cruisers, couldn’t resist swinging round to see for himself. The smoke was clearing to show Hood with a broken back, in two pieces, bow and stern pointing towards the sky. As he watched, he saw the two forward turrets of Hood suddenly spit out a final salvo: it was an accident, the circuits must have been closed at the moment she was struck, but to her enemies it seemed like a last defiant and courageous gesture.

Now Prince of Wales, turning to port to obey Holland’s orders, had to go hard a-starboard to avoid the wreckage ahead, and Jasper*, through Prinz Eugen’s main rangefinder, saw on the far side of Prince of Wales a weird thing – the whole forward section of Hood, rearing up from the water like the spire of a cathedral, towering above the upper deck of Prince of Wales, as she steamed by. Inside this foresection were several hundred men, trapped topsy-turvey in the darkness of shell-room and magazine. Then Prince of Wales passed, both parts of Hood slid quickly beneath the waves, taking with them more than 1,400 men, leaving only a wreath of smoke on the surface. ‘Poor devils, poor devils!’ said Jasper aloud, echoing the thoughts of those around him; for as sailors they had just proved what sailors do not care to prove, that no ship, not even Hood, is unsinkable, and that went for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen too.
‘Pursuit, the chase and sinking of the Bismarck’, Ludovic Kennedy. Wm. Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1974.

*Lieut-Commander Paulus Jasper, First Artillery Officer, Prinz Eugen

Somewhere in the Pacific

American troops in the Pacific during WWII. Location and photographer unknown.

World War Two. Location and photographer unknown.

This is a snapshot size image I bought in an auction with no clues to its origin. It looks genuine but could be a contemporary copy of a larger print by a press photographer. After all, who else would have the time or inclination to take a snapshot in a situation like this?

The soldier in silhouette profile at right lifts it above the average and the scene reminded me of the work of W. Eugene Smith – although it doesn’t come close to his print quality, of course.

Spitfire memories

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX.

For a pilot, every plane has its own personality, which always reflects that of its designers and colours the mentality of those who take it into action.
The Spitfire, for instance, is typically British. Temperate, a perfect compromise of all the qualities required of a fighter, ideally suited to its task of defence. An essentially reasonable piece of machinery, conceived by cool, precise brains and built by conscientious hands. The Spitfire left such an imprint on those who flew it that when they changed to other types they found it very hard to get acclimatized.
Pierre Clostermann. ‘Flames in the Sky’. Chatto & Windus, 1952.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX.

The day I flew a Spitfire for the first time was one to remember. To begin with the instructor walked me round the lean fighter plane, drab in its war coat of grey and green camouflage paint, and explained the flight-control system. Afterwards I climbed into the cockpit while he stood on the wing root and explained the functions of the various controls. I was oppressed by the narrow cockpit, for I am reasonably wide across the shoulders and when I sat on the parachute each forearm rubbed uncomfortably on the metal sides.
“Bit tight across the shoulders for me?” I enquired.
“You’ll soon get used to it,” he replied. “Surprising how small you can get when one of those yellow-nosed brutes* is on your tail. You’ll keep your head down then! And get a stiff neck from looking behind. Otherwise you won’t last long!” – and with this boost to my morale we pressed on with the lesson…..

Four days later I made a mess of the approach, but this time with disastrous results. I had been instructed to land at Sealand and deliver a small parcel of maps which were stuffed into my flying-boot. The circuit at Sealand was crowded with [Miles] Masters and I weaved amongst them for a favourable into-wind position. There was a stiff wind across the short, grass airfield and I aimed to be down close to the boundary fence so that I had the maximum distance for the landing run. I came over the fence too high and too slow and the fully stalled Spitfire dropped like a bomb. We hit the ground with a mighty crash and I had a little too much slack in the harness straps, for I was thrown violently forward and pulled up with a nasty wrench across the shoulders. For a few yards we tore a deep groove in the ground, then she slithered to a standstill in a ground loop which tore off one undercarriage leg and forced the other through the top of the port mainplane. I switched off the petrol cocks and the ignition switches and stepped out.
Johnnie Johnson, ‘Wing Leader’, Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1956.
*Messerschmitt Bf 109s

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX.

I can remember doing aerobatics in the Spitfire right from the start, perfect vertical rolls, straight as a die. It was a terrific thing. The Spitfire and Hurricane were austere inside. There weren’t many bits and pieces……

Someone showed us all the things you should do and shouldn’t do, and off we went. I can remember going off the ground, got the wheels up, came round parallel to the strip. I can remember doing a roll one way and a roll the other and it was just straight in. We’d never seen anything like them…..

[When a fuel supply problem called for an emergency landing] I was turning to go up the strip to land, and I could see I wasn’t going to make it. They’ve got the flying angle of a brick when you cut the motor back. I couldn’t land on the road. There were trucks and motorbikes, troops, all sorts of people were coming down the road. So I had to go to the side. There was a big row of trees and these bunkers for the rice. In the finish I just pushed it into the ground. I was doing about 140 mph, a wheels up landing and it went bump, bump, bump, then it stopped. Ruined the aeroplane, a bloody shame.
Vic Bargh quoted in ‘Ketchil’ by Neil Frances. Wairarapa Archive 2005.

The Spitfire Mk.IX was photographed at Wings Over Wairarapa airshow, New Zealand.

Battleship cats (and rats)

In August 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked on a top-secret mission aboard the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales to rendezvous with American President Frankin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The accord reached by the two men at that meeting became known as the Atlantic Charter. A few trusted (and sworn to secrecy) media representatives were included in the official party, of whom H. V. Morton was one. Three days into the five day journey Morton decided to explore the ship. His visit to the engine room, “in the temperature of Trinidad”, was brief…….

Ascending with relief to more temperate regions, I was in time to be present at one of those domestic interludes which enliven the existence of a battleship, even in war-time.

Three Marines were holding three cats. They held them not as animal lovers, but as soldiers, as if cats were part of their equipment, as if, indeed, they might be ordered to “for inspection, port cats!”; which is precisely what they were doing. An officer came along and, having scrutinised the cats, solemnly dismissed them.

I was told the explanation. When the Prince of Wales returned from the shipyard after a brief refitment following the Bismarck action, a peculiar smell was noticed on one of the decks. This smell, increasing in volume and pungency, inspired two schools of thought: one, that the shipwrights had used some unusually penetrating glue or other material, the other, that one of the ship’s three cats had chosen an inaccessible hiding-place in which to expire. It was therefore decided to muster the cats and solve at least one of the theories which, as I saw, was happily unfounded.

Churchill and Blackie_2

Winston Churchill discourages ‘Blackie’ from following him on to the American destroyer alongside H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

Until her visit to the shipyard, I was told, the Prince of Wales prided herself on her ratlessness. But when she returned to duty a few rats had come aboard and action was immediately taken. It was proclaimed that any sailor who caught a rat would earn half a day ashore, and this made the life of a rat in the Prince of Wales a brief and hazardous affair. The business was arranged with the usual naval precision. Rats having been caught, the trappers were required to parade with them. An inspecting officer cynically remained until he had seen the rats faithfully destroyed. Then the trappers were able to qualify for their reward. I asked if anyone had thought it worth while to import such desirable quarry but I was answered with a stony and disapproving stare.
‘Atlantic Meeting’, H. V. Morton, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1943.

Four months later, on 7th December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbour and America entered WWII. On 10th December H.M.S. Prince of Wales, along with H.M.S. Repulse, was sunk off Malaya by repeated Japanese aerial attacks. 327 men from Prince of Wales died, including Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach. The fate of the cats is not recorded.

Force W at Scapa Flow

From ‘Sailor At Sea’ by Vice Admiral Harold Hickling, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1965.

It was in September 1939 that Mr Churchill had been lunching in H.M.S. Southampton lying at Rosyth close to the Forth Bridge. After lunch the Captain took the First Lord onto the quarterdeck for a breath of fresh air. The sirens went and two minutes later a covey of Heinkels put down a pattern of bombs which fortunately near-missed the cruiser and the bridge though they struck a spark in Winston.

‘Decoys, that’s what we want, dummy ships!’ he exclaimed.

It was just the sort of thing that appealed to his quick, imaginative mind, indeed in the First World War he had had a dummy [H.M.S.] Queen Elizabeth built which performed off the Dardanelles and as far as is known achieved precisely nothing*.

On the face of it, it seemed a good idea. Enemy air raids on Rosyth, Scapa [Flow] and other ports were becoming more and more of a menace and our anti-aircraft defences were thin and not very effective; so, argued Winston, why not have decoys to draw the enemy bombs. Too simple. Possibly a bit too simple.

In the upshot three old New Zealand frozen-meat ships, each of about 8,000 tons gross were converted, Pakeha, Waimana and Mamari. They were taken out of mothballs in the Gareloch and sent over to Belfast, arriving at Harland and Wolff’s yard on 25th September, 1939.

Two of the ships were to represent ‘R’ class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Revenge; the third, the aircraft carrier Hermes. Mr. MacClogrie, a Naval Constructor, was in charge of the designs and a very good job he made of them. In addition to the camouflaged upperworks each ship was loaded with some 7,000 tons of stone as ballast, to keep them down as it were, and 17,000 forty-gallon drums for buoyancy, to keep them up. They had it both ways.

dummy-fleet_iwm-a-29655crop

The three ships of the decoy squadron are on the left. The real Home Fleet is in the background on the right. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29655.

The recently-promoted Commodore Hickling took command of this plywood and canvas squadron on 11th April 1940 and entered a slightly sureal world.

About 4 p.m. I clambered up a rope ladder – there were no fancy things like accommodation ladders, and as my feet touched the deck I noticed with approval my broad pendant break at the yardarm. I also noticed a sailor go up to a 15-inch gun turret, open a door in its 12-inch armour-plated side and take out a leg of mutton. The officers, all seven of them, for as Senior officer I had a staff of two, were introduced to me by the First Lieutenant; with one exception they were all Royal Naval Reserve.

My cabin was nothing more than a large rectangular wooden box. Its whitewashed walls reminded me of the waiting room in a French nunnery. There, alas, the resemblance stopped ……. Looking round it all seemed a bit strange, accustomed though I was to being pitchforked into every sort of odd job that no one else could be persuaded to take. I pressed the bell and when my steward entered with a tray of drinks I began to feel more at home.

A few days later he asked his First Lieutenant what their main armament consisted of – “Six .303 rifles, sir,” he replied. “With ammunition, of course.”

dummy-hermes_iwma-29653crop

The decoy aircraft carrier Hermes from above. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29653.

Hickling eventually persuaded his superiors that locking up three hundred officers and men in decoy ships didn’t make sense – “It’s doing them no good, nor the enemy any harm.” The squadron was left to swing around permanent moorings and the crews were dispersed to more useful duties. The ships were transferred to the Ministry of War Transport in 1941 and resumed their lives as cargo carriers.

*The real Queen Elizabeth was part of the Dardanelles campaign but, so far, I’ve found no record of a decoy taking her place. Can anyone help with this?

An aerial drag race

India 1944. New Zealand fighter pilot Vic ‘Ketchil’ Bargh is rested from the fight in Burma and sent on an air gunnery course for Allied pilots.

We went down to Amarda Road (south-west of Calcutta) where we were supposed to be taught air firing and that type of thing. When we were down at this place the Americans came along with a B-25. We were all sitting at a table and the two jokers from the B-25, they said “We’ve got the fastest aeroplane here”, in a loud voice. Nobody said anything. There was a Mosquito there; there was quite a few different varieties of aeroplanes. So the jokers with the Mosquito said they would tail the Americans.

A de Havilland Mosquito takes off at Wings Over Wairarapa 2013, New Zealand.

They went up and got alongside the American, eased him along until he was going flat tack, which was not very fast really. When they reckoned he was flat-out the Mosquito feathered one propeller altogether and poured the coal on the other one and went away on one engine. I don’t know what that Yank thought but they left him behind on one engine.

mosquito-pass

Text transcribed from an interview and printed in Ketchil. A New Zealand pilot’s war in Asia and the Pacific. Neil Francis. Wairarapa Archive, 2005.

Photographs taken at Wings Over Wairarapa airshow 2013.