Series: True Stories
Sergeant Ray T. Holmes was relaxing in a steaming hot bath when the siren sounded. It was the signal for every man on the airfield to get ready for action. The next instant he was pulling on the first clothes to hand as he rushed to the door. Holmes was a British fighter pilot, stationed at Hendon aerodrome. He knew that if his squadron had to ‘scramble’ – pilot slang for getting their planes off the ground – every moment wasted would be regretted later, up in the skies.
After months of aerial combat with the Luftwaffe, the pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) had learned a lot about survival. They knew how important it was to get into position and gain height on the raiders, and this all took precious minutes of flying time. Holmes was still dripping from his bath as he hauled himself into the back of a truck, joining a clutch of other pilots on the high-speed race across the airstrip towards their Hurricane fighter planes. The other men chuckled at his appearance. He was wearing a casual sports shirt instead of his RAF tunic or flight overalls. But Holmes smiled and shrugged his shoulders. It was no big deal. The pilots were flying so many combat missions they had little time for rules and regulations. Some pilots wore thick layers of clothes to fend off the cold at high altitude. And who was going to complain about their dress, as they criss-crossed the skies at 10,000 feet, fighting to save their country from invasion?
By the time the pilots reached the dispersal area where planes were parked, the airfield loudspeakers were calling SCRAMBLE. Sprinting over to a hut, Holmes yanked his locker open, pulled on some flying boots and his ‘Mae West’ lifejacket, then ran out into the sunshine. A team of technicians and mechanics surrounded his plane, making their final checks and preparations for take-off. Holmes climbed up to the cockpit and strapped himself in, fixed his helmet, oxygen supply and radio cable in place, then opened the throttle. His Hurricane’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine roared into life. Moments later, the plane was streaking into the air.
Holmes had four minutes to prepare himself for battle as he climbed with 11 other fighters to intercept the German raiders. A coastal radar station had detected the formation of 36 Dornier bombers - known as ‘flying pencils’ because of their long, thin fuselage. They were loaded with high explosives and heading straight for central London.
It was September 15, 1940, and for two months air war had been raging over southern England as the RAF and the Luftwaffe locked horns for control of the skies. The Battle of Britain, as it became known, had started on July 10 with Stuka raids on English ports and Channel shipping. The attacks quickly spread to airfields and other vital RAF targets. With a force of 2,600 bombers and fighters, the Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF’s 640 fighters by four to one. German officers naturally expected a rapid victory, using their Blitzkrieg tactics of surprise and overwhelming firepower. But the RAF had some unexpected advantages.
British scientists were pioneers in the development of radar, and the RAF had built a string of 51 bases along the south coast to give them advance warning of enemy planes crossing the Channel. This new technology was reinforced by more traditional methods: thousands of Observer Corps spotters, mostly volunteers, had been recruited to scan the skies, armed with binoculars and flasks of tea. They were efficient watchmen, usually giving the RAF at least a few minutes warning before every raid, which let them make the best use of their squadrons.
With the RAF pilots waiting for them, German bombers had to be escorted by fighter planes – Messerschmitt 109s – for protection. In Poland, where these fighter aircraft were never far from their airfield fuel supplies, nothing could match their technical performance. But, over England, their tanks ran dry after 20 minutes of flying, and they were up against worthy opponents: the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
The Battle of Britain was a brutal and ruthless business. Over 500 RAF and Allied pilots died in the fighting, out of around 3,000 who took part. Survival depended on the speed of the planes and the split second reactions of the pilots at their controls. The most dangerous tactic used by the formidable Messerschmitt 109 was a high-speed dive, using the glare of the sun to hide from its prey. A 109 appeared in a flash just behind the tail of an unsuspecting RAF flyer. Its nose cannons and machine guns flamed, then a second later it was rolling away, leaving a cloud of broken, burning debris in its slipstream.
The Spitfire, with a top speed of around 580kmh (360mph) could match the performance of a 109, but Holmes’ Hurricane would be outpaced and outflown by a German fighter. That didn’t mean the Hurricane was a sitting duck. It was still a fast plane – at 540kmh (335 mph) – and well armed. It carried eight Browning machine guns hidden in its wings. Sturdy and reliable, Hurricanes could take more of a beating than the other fighters in service, making it popular with the pilots who flew in them.
Leaving the agile Spitfires to tackle any 109 escorts, the Hurricanes concentrated on attacking the slower German bombers. It was an effective tactic. On September 7, after suffering terrible losses, the Luftwaffe turned their squadrons away from RAF targets. Instead they launched a massive bombing raid against London. This was the beginning of the Blitz.
In the early stages of the Battle of Britain, RAF fighter pilots had led a strange double life. During the daylight hours, they risked their lives in a series of vicious dogfights, which tested them to the limits. But, when the sun went down, they could stroll along to a friendly village pub and swap jokes with the locals. Did they find bridging these two worlds reassuring or unsettling? They witnessed bloodshed in the sky that must have troubled them but, in interviews, pilots say they rarely discussed their combat experiences. They were too busy trying to enjoy any time off duty.
But, when the Blitz started, the two worlds collided, as civilians were finally exposed to the full horrors of war.
On the night before his mission to stop the Dorniers, Holmes had taken the London Underground rail service into the city’s West End and seen crowds of people sleeping on the station platforms. They were hiding from the German bombs, their faces haunted and strained. Only a week earlier, London’s East End had erupted in flames as 300 German bombers attacked the capital. There had been raids every day since then. Even the King and Queen had nearly been hit. On September 13, six bombs landed on Buckingham Palace. The royal family was uninjured, but the raid had shocked many Londoners. How could they be protected, they wondered, if the palace itself was left open to the raiders? Holmes knew that everyone in the capital was relying on RAF fighter pilots to stop the bombers from getting through.
Holmes turned his head to glance through his Hurricane’s toughened glass canopy. He repeated this movement every few seconds, searching the sky for enemy fighters. The popular image of 1940s RAF pilots sporting dandy silk scarves is grounded in truth. Some airmen actually did wear them so their necks wouldn’t become chaffed with their constant twitching and craning. It was vital to keep watching behind and above. If you didn’t, you could find yourself joining the exclusive Caterpillar Club. The club’s name was a reference to the silkworm, which looks rather like a caterpillar. Parachutes were made from silk and if an airman used one to save his life he automatically joined the club. Bailing out of a burning plane was a nightmarish experience, but there were worse outcomes for unobservant pilots.
Holmes suddenly noticed some specks in the sky above him and at first, he thought it was a great flock of dark birds, flying ahead and to the right of his plane. He squinted until he saw the slender lines of the fuselage, the black crosses on each wing: it was the Dornier raiders, spread out across a perfect blue sky.
A compelling collection of true stories about The Blitz of 1940 for young readers who prefer real life to fiction. Recounts the fascinating stories of ordinary Londoners who experienced The Blitz, including fire fighters, fighter pilots and children evacuated away from their families. With internet links to carefully chosen websites where readers can find out more about life during the Second World War. Published in association with Imperial War Museums.
“Part of the Usborne True Stories series produced in association with the Imperial War Museum, these exciting tales tell the real stories of how people survived during the Blitz bombings. Each story evokes the courage and heroism of the people living through the Blitz.”
For links to specially selected websites with video clips and activities or a pronunciation guide for this book, visit the Usborne Quicklinks website.