Link to Home page  



May 1940

During the campaign in France Air Chief Marshall, Dowding deliberately held the Spitfire equipped squadrons, including those at Hornchurch in reserve. Britain still had a limited reserve of combat ready planes and pilots compared to the German war machine and Dowding argued strongly for and won his desire to maintain a strong reserve in case it would be needed for home defence. In the skies over France it was, therefore, Hurricane equipped squadrons that were the first to take on the Luftwaffe in significant numbers.

At Dunkirk the British Expeditionary Force faced utter extinction and in its death would have been the death of Britain's ability to continue the war. To save Britain's only army was to require determination, courage, belts and braces improvisation and a very a big dose of luck. It would also require the Hornchurch Spitfires.

Dynamo was the operation to lift the shattered remains of the British army from the beaches of Dunkirk. Even as Dynamo swung into action, the German army inexplicably paused in its relentless hounding of the trapped British army. Possibly it's commanders were also stunned by the speed and magnitude of their own success and required time to consolidate. The Luftwaffe, however, never let up and launched endless attacks on the queues of troops on the beaches and the warships, small ships and other craft which were gathered to perform the miracle of Dunkirk

The Hornchurch Squadrons missed most of the air fighting over France but as the catastrophe developed they were finally released to undertake patrols over the French coast. So it was that on the 17th May 1940 65 Squadron opened its score card with the shooting down of a Junkers JU 88 by FO Welford off Flushing and on May 21st 54 Squadron also opened its score with a JU 88 downed by PO Jonny Allen off Dunkirk. Further victories were soon being claimed

On May 23rd 1940 occurred one of those events that seem to have come straight from a “Boys Own” story. On the morning of the 23rd Squadron Leader White of 74 Squadron was forced down due to battle damage near Calais. His position was duly reported to Group Captain Bouchier at Hornchurch and a rescue mission was organised. The rescue involved Flight Lieutenant Leatheart in a two seat trainer and an escort of two Spitfires piloted by Pilot Officers Jonny Allen and Al Deere, all flew with 54 Squadron. The rescue was of course duly hair raising and pulled of in full view of a column of German troops and briefly whilst under German air attack. A hectic dog fight commenced between the two covering Spitfires and up to twelve Mescherscmitts. During this combat Al Deere shot down two Messcherscmitt 109’s and so became the first Spitfire pilot to down a 109. Leatheart and White finally made their escape. All in all it was a good mornings work. An attempt was also made later in the day to recover White’s damaged Spitfire.

As operation Dynamo intensified so too did the air fighting. Little of this air fighting was seen by the beleaguered troops or sailors at Dunkirk who seemed to be under constant air attack, something that caused no little acrimony at the time. However, many German bombers never reached Dunkirk due to the perseverance of the RAF flying from bases in England, including Hornchurch. During the Dunkirk evacuation Hornchurch was temporarily packed with visiting squadrons to give relief to those trapped on the beaches. These visitors included Nos 19, 41, 92, 222 and 616 Squadrons. With 222 Squadron was a flight commander called Douglas Bader, the legendary pilot who refused to give up flying despite losing both his legs in a pre war flying accident. Bader claimed his first victory while flying out of Hornchurch, one of the many he would account for before being shot down himself, captured and incarcerated in Colditz Castle.

The air fighting over Dunkirk taught important lessons to those engaged that would be developed further during the Battle of Britain. By the time the Dunkirk fighting was over many British pilots were having strong reservations about the standard RAF doctrine of flying in tight V formations that left them vulnerable to being “bounced” by enemy fighters, many even started to abandon these V’s for the looser German Finger Four formation. Some thought was also given to fighting in larger multi-squadron wings.

In the skies over Dunkirk the Hornchurch squadrons were first tested and although sorely tried came through bloodied but more experienced. A lasting legacy of Dunkirk were the critical leadership skills and tactical acumen developed by airmen such as Stanford Tuck, Sailor Malan and Al Deere.

Dunkirk was truly a miracle. Over 300,000 British and allied troops were lifted from under the German guns to fight another day. Operation Dynamo began in earnest on 26th May 1940 and concluded on 4th June. In those ten days of intensive air fighting the RAF claimed over 300 German aircraft shot down with the loss of only 80 of their own. Many Hornchurch pilots including Al Deere had lucky escapes during the Dunkirk fighting. 23 other Hornchurch pilots were not so lucky and were either killed or captured..

The fighting in France was over.

On June 18th Winston Churchill stood up in the House of Commons and stated:

"What general Weygand called the Battle for France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin."


Fun stuff Gallery Maps Local Memories Aircraft and Airmen History home