Past Talks : June 2019

“Naval Fighter Pilots in the Battle of Britain (Forgotten Few)” by Paul Beaver

If there is one very simple fact that I have learned in life, it is that nothing in life is simple – and this absorbing talk clearly demonstrated the fact. You have probably heard of Paul Beaver already and attended his earlier talk to SOFFAAM on the subject of ‘Winkle’ Brown. Paul is an established aviation historian, writer and broadcaster, specialising in the 1930s and 1940s, and he tells us, a Group Captain in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Generally, when we think of the Battle of Britain we think of the RAF fighter pilots doggedly standing up against German invasion and domination. In truth it was won by the nation, not just by Fighter Command. We must also thank Bomber Command, Coastal Command, the Fleet Air Arm, the GPO (General Post Office) who provided and maintained invaluable land-line communications, farmers, butchers, bakers and grocers who fed everyone, and so it goes on. However, those who were recognised for their part in the Battle of Britain have been a cause of controversy ever since – perhaps more accurately, I should say those not given recognition.

We have been brought up to believe that the RAF was at the forefront of everything that happened in British air defence. However, according to Paul, the first accredited British air ‘Ace’ in WW2 was not an RAF fighter pilot in his inevitable Spitfire, but a naval pilot, Lt. Bill Lucy, in a Blackburn Skua of all things. Do you know the Skua? Throughout the talk Paul declared that the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was its own worst enemy. It was a clear indication that the Royal Navy still looked down upon its own air arm as the poor relative to the gunnery officers and their mighty battleships and cruisers. It is not too apparent that they have made up for it since either and we are indebted to people like Paul Beaver for making known what the FAA really achieved in its past.

For a great part of its early history, aircraft of the Royal Navy were flown and maintained by the RAF. On the 24th May 1939, under the terms of the “Inskip Award” that control was at last relinquished and handed back to the Admiralty. (Inskip was the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence.) On the 3rd September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. So, three months after gaining its independence the FAA was at war It was a straightforward instance of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’. It seems to be the British way, doesn’t it? Muddle through somehow. The most remarkable thing is that we so often got away with it. In May 1940, France and the Low Countries were overrun by the Germans and shortly after, the Royal Navy lost its second aircraft carrier, HMS GloriousHMS Courageous having already been sunk. Meanwhile, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was awaiting evacuation from the Dunkirk beaches, which Paul remarked seemed to be a traditional role for the Royal Navy to be evacuating our soldiers from a beach somewhere. The vast fleets of modern German bombers and fighters were simply overwhelming RAF Fighter Command, despite our people having judiciously invested in outstanding early warning systems including the High and Low Chain radar networks, Observer Corps and of course the security of land-line communication. Hitler was on a roll – heseemed to be planning the invasion of Britain (subject to the world’s largest and most powerful naval fleet, the RN, not getting in the way).

Our prospects were daunting. What fighters could we put up in the air against the Germans? The RAF had Blenheim light bombers and its fighters were Hurricanes, Spitfires and Defiants. The Royal Navy could offer the Sea Gladiator, Skuas, Rocs and the Fulmar – each of which, apart from the Gladiator was a two-seater. How good were they and how effective would these naval aircraft be against the German air force? The Sea Gladiator was lovely to fly, but already an obsolete bi-plane with two .303 machine guns. The Blackburn Skua was designed primarily as a two-seat dive-bomber, but pilots were to discover that they were also regarded as fighters. Its speed was not a great deal better than that of the Gladiator. Meanwhile, the Blackburn Roc was of the same family as the Skua, but instead of a navigator/wireless operator/gunner in the rear seat, it had a four machine gun turret making it a bomber-destroyer, rather like the Defiant. Oh dear, what a failure. It could not even keep up with enemy bombers, let alone overtake them to shoot them down. The Fairey Fulmar was another two seat fighter, this time equipped with a Merlin engine, which gave it a potential 30 knot speed advantage over enemy bombers. Finally, in October 1940 following the submission of France to German invasion, the FAA took over the now redundant French order for Grumman Martlets. The first aircraft to be delivered still had their metric instruments, no shoulder straps, non-folding wings and some controls operating in the opposite direction to normal – but they did have much more powerful 0.5” cal machine guns.

No-one had given serious thought to defending the Home Fleet and its location was still not even decided. Wisely Scapa Flow was chosen rather than an established dockyard, because the first German operations against Britain were in search of the Home Fleet and the first German bomb landed on Hoy, Scotland. As a result 804 and 808 squadrons were established in Scotland at RNAS Hatston and RNAS Castletown respectively. In parallel, the RAF did not have enough pilots to man their fighter aircraft, which were in relatively good supply. Winston Churchill made it known that all trained fighter pilots were to be made available to fill the gap. The RAF was delighted to take on 57 RN pilots, all volunteers, of which 23 went straight into Fighter Command squadrons. It did not stop there. Succeeding in putting more aircraft in the air to fight also meant that these aircraft had to be maintained. So, naval riggers and fitters in their dark blue uniforms also joined RAF squadrons to work alongside their opposite numbers wearing light blue. By all accounts they worked together well and in complete harmony. An aside, apparently as recently as 2005, the RAF has been in denial that sailors served as ground crew in RAF squadrons, despite a photograph showing them clearly scrambling, along with their pilots to RAF marked aircraft. Likewise, it is known that at some point, RAF ground crews worked on board aircraft carriers due to shortages of experienced manpower.

I would love to list all, or many of the RN pilots who participated in the Battle of Britain, but space does not allow. If you want to see that, buy Paul Beaver’s book ‘Forgotten Few’ for £10. In it he lists the pilots and gives as much background on each as is possible, plus the squadrons they flew with and the aircraft. However, one or two are worthy of mention here. Douglas Bader a prominent RAF fighter leader and ace was known not only because of his two artificial legs, but also as a man hard to please. A little known fact is that at 242 Squadron at RAF Coltishall, he chose as his wingmen two RN pilots, one of whom was Sub-Lt Richard (Dickie) Cork, who Bader described and endorsed in Cork’s logbook as ‘Exceptional, Courageous, Leadership’. That is saying something, particularly coming from Douglas Bader. The other particularly outstanding pilot was Ronald (Ronnie) Hay, who, unusually, was a Royal Marine and consequently able to claim to be the only Royal Marine fighter ace. His first victory was in Norway, when he was flying the Blackburn Roc. Following this, he was posted to RAF Detling, flying the Blackburn Skua on photo-reconnaissance sorties, until his evident skills ensured that he was one of the 57 RN pilots loaned to the RAF for the Battle of Britain. In all he fought in the air all the way from the Norwegian campaign right through to the end of the war in Japan.

At the end of World War 2, an Air Ministry Order (AMO) dated 24 May 1945 announced the military award of a 1939-1945 Star with Battle of Britain Clasp to “those people who undertook at least one authorised operational flight with an accredited unit controlled by RAF Fighter Command between 10 July and 31 October 1940”. This is further defined as “having flown that sortie in a fighter aircraft, in skies over the United Kingdom and its coastal waters, with the intention of providing defence against the enemy….” No ambiguity there then. So, if you flew in a Blenheim for example, it had to be the fighter version and not the bomber version. Clear cut? Sadly the answer is ‘No’. It was not until 1960 that 804 and 808 Naval Air Squadrons were included in the approved list. On top of that, some pilots shot down German aircraft between the magic dates of July to October, but did not belong to one of the accredited units listed. Almost 80 years have passed since the Battle of Britain and in 2020 it is intended that these anomalies will be rectified finally.

Thank you Paul Beaver for a most entertaining evening.