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