For our first campaign it was only fitting that the Tangmere Pilots should choose the Battle of France: the RAF’s first taste of aerial combat against the Luftwaffe in the Second World War.
With missions adapted from Paul Richey’s "Fighter Pilot" - his firsthand account of flying in France with No1 Squadron, Tangmere began with tense patrols in the quiet of the so-called 'Phoney War'.
The Luftwaffe dispelled the relative peace of the “Sitzkrieg” in an instant with the opening of the German Blitzkrieg through the low countries on May 10th, 1940. France fell within a matter of weeks, and the Tangmere Pilots flew missions to cover the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940.
This campaign was flown from forward operating fields without runways and required facilities to recreate the chaos that the Advanced Air Striking Force experienced during the battle. This made landings and takeoffs interesting to say the least. Always heavily outnumbered and often flying aircraft that were inferior to the German aircraft, the campaign was created in as much historical accuracy as was physically possible.
Shortly after Britain and France declared war on Germany, the British government resolved to dispatch an aerial force alongside the troops and armour of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), on the request of the French government. The RAF initially sent four fighter squadrons - No.1, No.73, No.85, and No.87 - as part of No.67 Wing to protect the light bombers (Fairey Battles and Bristol Blenheims) that comprised the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF). By October 1939, the RAF had deployed both its fighters and bombers around Reims in support of the French army occupying the defensive Maginot line.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, air officer in charge of Fighter Command, was reluctant to bleed away Britain’s air defence by sending reinforcements to France. While he made sure that no Spitfires would operate from continental airfields during the Battle of France, the persistence of the French government’s calls for reinforcement meant that the RAF dispatched No.607 and No.615 auxiliary squadrons to France in November 1939; both armed with the obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane.
The winter of 1939-40 was particularly harsh, with heavy snows covering the airstrips of northern France and preventing flying for weeks at a time. Spring arrived slowly, but by March 1940, the weather had improved sufficiently to allow the RAF fighter squadrons to return to an intensive schedule of defensive patrols.
On 10 May 1940, the great German offensive in the west (known as the blitzkrieg, or 'lightning war') began. Wehrmacht airborne troops landed in Holland and Belgium, as German tank columns and infantry crossed the frontiers into these neutral countries to go around the Maginot line. At once elements of the French northern armies and the BEF moved forward into Belgium to intercept these invasions. Meanwhile three hundred Dorniers and Heinkels launched a series of coordinated attacks on twenty-two Allied airfields in Holland, Belgium, and northeast France, catching many units on the ground. No615’s “A” Flight was busy exchanging their tired Gladiators for shiny new Hurricanes at La Touquet when Heinkels arrived for a dawn attack that damaged three of their new aircraft. The sudden German onslaught prompted the French government to appeal to Churchill for reinforcements. The RAF dispatched further fighter squadrons, including No3 and No79, despite Dowding’s disapproval.
On 14 May news reached allied commanders that German forces were streaming through the supposedly impassable Ardennes forest towards Sedan, threatening to flank the troops entrenched along the Maginot Line. French General Gaston-Henri Billotte ordered an air attack on the bridges spanning the River Meuse in a desperate effort to stem the German tide. The AASF, under the command of Air Vice-Marshal P. H. L. Playfair, committed its bombers to the attack with the understanding that the Battles and Blenheims would receive fighter escort from L’Armeé de L’Air. The attack proved a disaster for the allies, with the loss of twenty-one French fighters and forty-eight RAF bombers - almost half of the AASF’s strength. On May 14th alone, the allies lost ninety bombers.
Holland surrendered to the Germans the following day, and the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, telephoned Churchill to inform him “we have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” Churchill flew to Paris the next day, where he observed French government officials burning documents. On enquiring of General Gamelin where the strategic reserve that might be deployed to save Paris was stationed, to which the General replied: “there is none.” Churchill later described this as the single most shocking moment of his life. Back to Top
Despite General Weyland replacing the hapless Gamelin, British General Lord Cort ordered the withdrawal of the BEF from Arras towards Dunkirk on 25 May; the famous evacuation began two days later. Between May 27th and 4th June, the “little ships” helped evacuate 338,226 British, French, Belgian, and Dutch troops to south-east England. Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park’s 11 Group undertook air cover for the Dunkirk evacuation, which accounted for the loss of 106 fighters and 60 pilots. The RAF’s role was little appreciated by the troops nervously awaiting evacuation on the exposed beaches of Dunkirk. Cloud, which obscured the RAF fighters, but not the scream of the diving Stukas, and the tactic of trying to intercept Luftwaffe bombers away from the beaches, meant that many survivors of the BEF believed the RAF had left them at the mercy of German air attack.
German forces finally entered Paris on June 14th, and the French government capitulated on June 25th. The Battle of France was over. During the campaign, the pilots of the Luftwaffe virtually destroyed L’Armeé de L’Air, accounting for 1,274 French aircraft. Of the 452 fighters the RAF sent to France, only 66 returned safely to Britain. Enemy action accounted for 208 of the missing aircraft, with 178 being abandoned by ground crews as unserviceable. The Luftwaffe lost 1,428 aircraft, with a further 488 planes damaged. Back to Top
No.1 squadron flew to France under the command of the legendary Squadron Leader P. J. H. “Bull” Halahan, who led the Hurricanes in a “beat-up” display above Le Harve. By mid-October the squadron operated from an airfield near Vassincourt, with the pilots of No.1 being billeted in near by Neuville. With only modest amusements in Neuville, the pilots of No.1 chose to fly north to visit their colleagues in No.73 at Rouvres while off duty, or seek out the nightlife of Metz, Nancy or Bar-le-duc.
Pilot Officer Peter Mould scored the squadron’s first kill on the October 30th, when he downed a Dornier DO17 engaged in a high-level reconnaissance flight. The combat report indicated that the Dornier “appeared to have been taken by surprise as no evasive tactics were employed and no fire was encountered by PO Mould.” In the tradition of their forebearers of the Royal Flying Corps, the squadron took souvenirs from the crash site near Toul, and celebrated the victory in style. Mould, though, was sobered on seeing the wreckage, and confessed to Paul Richey that he was 'bloody sorry I went and looked at the wreck. What gets me down is thought that I did it.'
Enemy activity increased along the western front towards the end of November 1939. No.1 and No.73 squadron combined to claim five Dorniers, and one Heinkel. In addition, “Johnny” Walker, Bill Stratton, and “Taffy” Clowes of No.1 squadron downed the RAF’s first Me110 fighter on March 29th, 1940, on encountering a section of three twin-engined Messerschmitts. In the ensuing fight, all three Germans were shot down without loss. March 29th proved a banner day for No.1 squadron: Paul Richey account for the squadron’s first Me109 on the same day. By April 20th, the pilots of No.1 squadron claimed 23 kills for the loss of five Hurricanes, and one pilot killed.
No.1 was spared from the bombing that woke many RAF fighter pilots to the reality of blitzkrieg on the morning of May 10th. Nevertheless, the squadron was almost constantly active from 5am, beginning with an encounter with a group of Dorniers attacking a railhead at Longuyon. Later that night, the squadron redeployed further west to Berry-au-Bac, north-west of Reims. The squadron received a rude welcome from a lone Heinkel, which dropped fourteen bombs across the land field, but without injuring any pilots.
The squadron witnessed the bravery of the Fairey Battle pilots of the AASF firsthand on May 12th, when eight Hurricanes, under the command of the Bull, escorted five Battles of No.12 squadron on an attack on two bridges spanning the Albert Canal. No.1 ran into a swarm of 109s enroute, and from the ensuing dogfight they claimed four 109s and two Henschel spotters. All the Battles were lost to 109s or flak, without achieving their objective. Posthumous Victoria Crosses were awarded to Flying Officer Garland and Sergeant Gray for pushing home their attack, which managed to destroy a bridge span.
By May 13th, No.1 claimed forty victories for the loss of nine Hurricanes, and one pilot: P/O Billy Drake was wounded, but managed to bail out from his burning aircraft. Drake did not rejoin his squadron until their evacuation to England. The squadron lost Leslie Clisby and Lawrie Lorimer - both killed - the following day from an encounter with Me110s. Clisby died without knowing he had just been awarded a DFC for destroying nine German aircraft.
Orders arrived for No.1 to move from Berry-au-Bac to Condé-sur-Marne at dawn of May 17th. The squadron left just in time to witness the neighbouring village of Pontavert falling victim to a raid of German bombers. The squadron moved again the following day to Anglure, sixty miles to the south-east. The squadron continued flying sorties against the Luftwaffe, however, until 19th May when the core pilots left France for England. Paul Richey was not among them, having being severely wounded in the neck in an attack on some Heinkel bombers earlier in the day. Halahan and eight of the squadron’s senior pilots were assigned to Operational Training Units in England. In total, No.1 claimed 86 victories in the frantic fighting that took place between the 10th and 19th of May 1940, with the loss of seventeen Hurricanes and two pilots killed, and two seriously wounded.
The virtually reformed No.1 squadron, under the command of S/Ldr. David Pemberton, moved frequently during the first two weeks of June before arriving at Boos, on the Seine, on June 14th to cover evacuations from this port. Three days later it flew south into Brittany on similar duties before returning to England with the ground crew embarking on colliers at La Rochelle.
No.1 squadron claimed at least 125 victories during the Battle of France campaign, for the loss of twenty-two aircraft, three pilots killed, and two severely wounded. By the end of June 1940, ten Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs) had been awarded to officers of the squadron, and three Distinguished Flying Medals (DFMs) had been received by NCO pilots. Back to Top