TAKING THE ‘BATTLE’ INTO BATTLE
Squadron Leader Rupert Parkhouse – RP renews memories of 1940 and the Fairey Battle.
Born in 1921, the only son of an RFC pilot, Rupert Parkhouse was posted from Cranwell for operational training on Fairey Battles in March1940, eventually joining 12 (B) Squadron AASF only to be shot down byME109s on 13 June 1940 when attacking German armour on his second sortie. After five years as a PoW in Germany and Poland, he experienced difficulty in learning to fly again and spent nearly a year as a staff pilot on Ansons. After further training on twin- and four-engined aircraft, he was promoted squadron leader in 1947 and attached as a supernumerary to230 (FB) Squadron in 1948 for flying duties on the Berlin Air Lift. He took command of No 201 Sqn in 1949, but six months later a near fatal collision with a flare-path buoy taking-off in a cross wind at night in a Sunderland led him to re-assess his flying career, which resulted in a voluntary transfer to the Secretarial Branch. After various subsequent postings he retired prematurely from MOD (Air) in 1973 to administer the IndustrialArchitects Division of G Wimpey, retiring finally in 1984.
Today, the Fairey Battle has a reputation of near total inadequacy as an operational aircraft. So it is well to recall that the magazine Flight greeted its service debut in 1937 with the words, ‘Now, at last the RAF has got areal aeroplane.’This sentiment was surely endorsed by the air and ground crew of the No1 Bomber Group squadrons who were doubtless delighted to see theirHawker ‘Hind’ biplanes replaced by this sleek all metal monoplane during1937/38.Not for them, the grave doubts expressed by their C-in-C as to the war readiness of his Command to which the previous speaker so cogently referred.In September 1939, No 1 Group was deployed to ‘scratch’ airfields in N France becoming the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF), its HQ atReims code named ‘Panther’, hinting aptly its threatening posture.The HQ staff were appropriately housed in the Chateau Polignac, a prominent building, only second in size to the local cathedral. As the chateau was the home of Pomerey Champagne, one must not of course assume that the HQ staff enjoyed a champagne life style. It is only fair to emphasise that the building possessed vast cellars for use as air raid shelters. A Times obituary in 1994 on a senior officer who was serving at‘Panther’ in 1939/40 describes the Battle force as follows:-‘Ten Squadrons of Fairey ‘Battles’ were the nucleus of AASF, with forward operating bases in NE France to enable this short range aircraft to reach targets in Germany’s industrial heartlands.In the event no such operations ever took place, since theChamberlain Government under French pressure decreed that no bombs should be dropped on enemy territory.From September 1939 to May 1940 the ‘Battles’ dropped only leaflets. When the Germans attacked in May 1940 the role of theAASF became a tactical one and the Battle, a wretchedly obsolete design, slow, ungainly, packing a risible bomb load and a negligible defensive armament was shot down in droves in vain attempts to stop the German Panzers.’The hurried withdrawal of the Battle squadrons from France in mid-June1940 has left the impression that this seemingly inadequate aircraft ceased operations forthwith. This is not the case.
18In July 1940, No 1 Group Bomber Command reformed with four RAFBattle squadrons linking up with four Polish Battle squadrons to carry out sustained night attacks on French and Dutch ports beginning in late July and ending, with minimal losses, in October 1940.Thereafter with the 1 Group Battle squadrons converting to Vickers Wellingtons, the last Battle to leave UK squadron service was flown to Llandow on 16 December 1940 where it sadly crashed on landing with no recorded casualties.It is now time to describe our operational training but before I do so, itwill be helpful to review briefly the basic flying training already undertaken by the three air crew categories about to enter OCU. Pilots would have had about 150-200 hours dual and solo. I had 143 hours on Tutors and ‘Hart variants over ten months.Our navigators, mostly young keen VR sergeants (I don’t recall any commissioned observers) would have undergone at least three month’s navigation training followed by six weeks bombing and gunnery.The WOp/AGs were given a nine-month course in signals theory and practice, during which, incredibly, they were expected to send/receive semaphore at 12 words per minute. Ten week’s gunnery training followed, firing live in some cases from the open cockpits of Handley Page Heyfords.I come now to the Battle OCU at Benson, formed from No’s 52 and 63Squadrons pulled out of the front line as ‘poor’ or training squadrons inSeptember 1939. I joined 63 Squadron on the 8th March 1940. I found theBattle exciting to fly with its full IF panel, variable pitch airscrew, retractable undercarriage and landing flaps.I felt sorry for our flying instructors seated a long way back with a very restricted forward view in a rudimentary cockpit with basic controls and instrumentation.Thereafter, I completed some 40 hours general flying, with various crews. The air crew categories had separate crew rooms and we discovered our crews from the Authorisation Book. No bonding here!Our routine training flights were mostly triangular cross countries, starting from a point west of Exeter, where we let down to 250 feet into the low flying area of west Devon and Cornwall.In contrast to the pilot, the forward view from the navigator’s station was virtually non-existent. Seated on his chest type chute he would plot ahead on his little map board, correcting as each new fix appeared to port or starboard. If we got lost, we could always ‘Do a Bradshaw’ along the pre-
19Dr Beeching GWR to one of the 200 local stations in the area. Sometimes the aircraft intercom would fail and the pilot and navigator would confer bypassing cryptic notes to each other in a little metal tray attached to an endless belt revolving round small hand wheels at each crew position.Practical IF training was carried out in a Battle with a blacked out front canopy, the final test being a two-hour dual cross country under the hood.Benson was one of the pre-war grandiose ‘Lutyens’ stations, and we did our ground school in the Education Section in SHQ. The one lecture I most recall was the Simulated Bombing Sortie. A charming rather elderly VR flight lieutenant with a flying ‘O’, MC and WW I medals would set up his epidiascope, issue maps with tracks to Ruhr targets thereon, and then illustrate the various kinds of targets from his library of photographs. He would describe with gusto how we would fly in close Vics of three or five aircraft at 250 feet at 200 mph with four 250 lb bombs set at 11 seconds delay. Enemy fighters would be seen off by our air gunners with their single K guns under the direction of an Air Gunnery leader in the lead ship!Our little flight lieutenant never mentioned tactical support for the BEFin France. He may have talked rubbish but he certainly strengthened our morale as this was our first insight into any concept of war operations. One wonders now why there were no fighter affiliation exercises and, more importantly, no formation practices in the training plan.Our night flying phase had just begun when the German Blitz on France opened on 10th May 1940. I left Benson with some 43 hours day flying and3 hours night solo.On 12th May 1940, about fifty ex-Benson aircrew, myself included, emplaned at Hendon for Coulommiers near Paris in an Armstrong Whitworth Ensign, replacements for the thirtyBattle crews lost in the first two days of the Blitz.As we crossed the south coast I went forward to the cockpit and was amazed to discover that the sergeant captain with WW I Medals in the lefthand seat had flown 10,000 hours as a captain with Imperial Airways.On reaching Nantes by train we joined No 98 (Pool) Squadron atChateau Bougon airfield. Here we lived under canvas in unbroken sunshine on the edge of the airfield with no attempt at concealment.We carried out a series of triangular cross country flights in the Loire valley flying very low in totally unrestricted air space. We did high and low level practice bombing on the range at Pornic, and dive bombed targets from 10,000 to 3,000 ft. Lack of dive brakes made it difficult to hold the
20nose on the target and the pull out at 340 mph was somewhat hairy, involving gentle use of tail trim.The 16th May saw the first reinforcement air crew draft leave for ‘TheFront’, only to return three days later, thwarted by the complete chaos on the French Railways. Two days later, a party of twenty VR Air GunnerOfficers, commissioned directly from civilian life, arrived, having undergone 10 hours of A/G training in three weeks. Their average age was40, most had WW I medals and it was soon obvious from their boisterous behaviour that they relished their freedom from domestic life, even in a tented mess bar.Dunkirk being finished, we gathered a new line was forming south ofParis and we obviously had no inkling of Churchill’s uplifting message to Reynaud and Weygand to the effect that:- ‘The RAF will make a further increased effort to render assistance to your valiant hard pressed troops from 13th June onwards.’Having completed a further 30 hours flying with 98 Squadron, onSaturday 8th June I joined No 12 Squadron based at Souge, a grass airfield some 26km west of Vendome. We were billeted among the villagers who were none too friendly. On Sunday, we were stood down from operations, passing a quiet afternoon by the riverside eating bread and tinned pilchards in tomato sauce.On Monday 10th June, having been seen by the CO and SquadronLeader Flying, I went down to the airfield and reported to my FlightCommander, a trim figure in white flying overalls and bright blue tie. As I left him a flight sergeant with WW I medals, plus pilots wings, emerged from the adjoining tent and grabbed me for an air test. To my surprise, he followed me out to dispersal as I saw for the first time an operationalBattle, its bomb racks lowered to reveal four 250 lbs bombs. I took off, for the first time with a full war load, climbed to 5,000ft, and carried out a genteel wing-over during which the aircraft flipped over so violently, that ,as I learned on landing, the ammunition pan detached itself from the rear Kgun to connect neatly with my gallant passenger’s head.Returning to the airfield, I undershot badly, screaming over the hedge in fine pitch with ¾ throttle. Surprisingly, I made quite a smooth landing.Passing the flight sergeant’s tent later, I couldn’t help overhearing my gallant, bruised ex-passenger announcing to his eager audience of airmen that he was never going to fly with ‘Bloody bastard Pilot Officer Parkhouse again.’ I didn’t blame him and, in the event, he never did.
That evening, as Flare Path Officer, I pre-dated Brian Hanrahan by counting six out, and to the immense relief of the flare path party and myself, counting six back in, 90 minutes later.The next day, Tuesday 11th June, we stood edgily by until called down to the Operations Barn at 17.30 hours to be briefed to attack German transport going southwards down the coast road into Le Havre from Fécamp. No fighter escorts were envisaged.Six aircraft took off in cloudless evening sunlight and thirty minutes later at 8,000ft, were passing over burning fuel tanks in the port area.Further north, the road was completely deserted. Having no alternative target I flew home, in a shallow dive in the evening sunshine over what seemed a blissfully peaceful countryside. About five minutes from base, I suddenly wondered if I would be the only one to return with a full bombload. My mind’s eye conjured up a H M Bateman cartoon, me, cowering in a mess chair, surrounded by glowering faces – the caption – ‘The only pilot who brought his bombs back.’ So it was with intense relief on landing that I saw the other five aircraft at dispersal lowering loaded bomb racks. I vividly recall the radiant smiles of our groundcrew as they welcomed us at dispersal.My first op was over; my relief was needless to say profound.Wednesday 12th June was another day of waiting for the op order which never came. The next day, standby crews were called to the Ops Barn at17.45hrs and briefed to attack enemy armour concealed in the Forêt de Gault, some 26km East of Vendôme. There was no mention of fighter escorts.I took off, with a crew I had never met before, climbed to 8,000ft, with my cockpit hood open, thinking that, if closed, it would be difficult to open in an emergency. As we neared the target my navigator, Sgt Arthur Morris,a veteran of eight sorties, asked me to close the hood as the inrush of hot air and oil from the radiator through his open aiming panel was preventing theuse of his bombsight. Incidentally this fault had been identified byFarnborough test pilots in 1937.We dropped our bombs amid some inaccurate flak. Turning for base the WOp/AG, just 18½ years old Duncan MacDonald, came up on the intercom as ever Scottish, despite impedance, ‘Enemy fighters astern, Soor!’ These words heralded a frightful banging noise of crunching metal. I thought at first the engine was exploding. Turning sharply to port, and momentarily glancing to starboard, I saw flames belching from that wing.
Levelling the aircraft, I ordered the crew to bale out. No answer came, so for some twenty panic stricken seconds, I struggled in vain to open the hood. Realising that my earlier fear of being trapped was now reality, to my surprise, in retrospect, I became reasonably calm. I throttled right back, went into fine pitch, put down ½ flap and drove the flaming aircraft down into the largest field to appear ahead.Despite a slightly buckled fuselage, I wrenched the hood open, hopped out and, running from the aircraft, performed a kind of mad dance, waving ‘Biggles like’ to the twelve Me 109s as they roared past in line astern at about 50 feet, a spectacle to remember forever.Suddenly recalling my map in the front cockpit, I rushed to get it when the front gun ammunition started to explode alarmingly, while at the same time I glimpsed the Me 109s coming round for a second pass. Fearing they might shoot me up, I retreated hurriedly to the nearest ditch. By the time the last aircraft had climbed away, the front cockpit was burning merrily.I never got my map. Thus my short operational career ended. No 12Squadron lost two more aircraft the next day, the base at Souge was bombed the same evening, and all serviceable aircraft were flown to Nanteson 15th June, leaving for UK bases on the 18th.In all, 137 Battles were lost in action in France, which according to WgCdr John MacBean and Major Arthur Hogben in their excellent book,Bombs Gone, formed the greatest losses in percentage terms suffered by theRAF in WWII.These authors also give a memorably balanced view of aircrew morale in what has been described as the British ‘Kamikaze’. ‘Few of those involved survived the war to see both their aircraft and bombs deemed in effectual. The members of the nine Battle squadrons in action considered they were doing their very best with what was available and paid scant attention if any to the rights and wrongs of aircraft design and bomb development. In any case, few had ever seen a live bomb till a few months earlier, much less dropped one’.So what of the relevance of our pre-operational training. After the first five days of the Blitz, low level attacks were abandoned. Sorties thereafter took place at medium level or at night. There were no tight formations fighting their way to industrial targets. Fighter escorts were not expected, and few were provided. Our pre-op briefings were hurried and perfunctory, meeting our crews for the first time. By early June there were virtually no old hands left to get advice from.