RAF Hawkinge, 15 September 1940
‘It’s a squadron scramble, sir!’
‘Don’t be daft, Jones! We’ve only just got back down and the erks haven’t had time to finish arming and re-fuelling them yet.’ snapped Squadron Leader Dennis Long.
‘But Group’s insisting that we get everything up right away, even the training aircraft, sir.’ replied the young corporal sitting behind his desk.
‘Here, give me the phone.’
As the corporal reached up with the telephone handset, a loud crack made them both dive for the floor as the office window exploded into shards of razor sharp glass. A cannon shell whistled across the office and thumped into the wall opposite, bringing down a clock hanging on it with a crash to the floor.
‘Bloody hell!’ cursed the squadron leader, picking himself up and wiping away blood running into his eye from a cut on his forehead. A loud explosion boomed outside. Looking out of the broken remains of the window, he saw a Hurricane fighter on its disposal burning fiercely, sending a mushrooming cloud of orange flame and oily black smoke into the sky after enemy tracer had bullets found its fuel tank.
Squadron Leader Long grabbed his flying helmet hanging from the back of the chair and ran from his office into the crew room, where he saw through the outer door the other pilots already outside running hell for leather across the grass towards their parked fighters. In his haste to join them, he collided with two young pilot officers still in the room who had only arrived on the station that morning.
‘How many hours on Hurricanes?’ he shouted.
‘Seven, sir.’ replied the taller of the two officers.
‘Me sir, er, five.’
‘Christ, is that all?’ he retorted, wondering what the training squadrons were playing at.
‘Don’t just stand there gawping, get outside and get one up, and stick to me like glue!’
‘Yes, sir.’ they replied, colliding with each other in their haste to get out of the door.
Dennis Long pushed them through the door and ran towards his Hurricane, as a pair of Messerschmitt 109 fighters rocketed low overhead firing their guns, creating havoc in their wake.
‘Oh strewth, we’ve been well and truly caught with our pants down!’ Long muttered to himself as he approached his fighter.
‘What the devil?’ he spluttered, as he saw a pilot already seated inside.
In a Nissan hut nearby, a young pilot picked himself up after being attacked from behind and knocked to the floor. He saw his assailant, the Czech pilot he had befriended in France during the Dunkirk evacuation, run out of the door clutching a briefcase. He realised now why the Czech had been asking too many questions. While searching the foreigner’s room earlier he had found a briefcase under the bunk bed, inside a change of clothes and toiletries, a map of southern England and a miniature camera. The map had notes written in German but most damning of all, had been the operating manual of the secret radar fitted only to the squadron leader’s Hurricane.
Furious that treachery had repaid his friendship, he realised now the Czech was a spy and that he could fly to enemy occupied France just twenty miles away across the Channel. He must do all in his power to stop him. Rushing outside, he looked up in surprise at the German aircraft attacking the airfield and then saw the spy sitting in the cockpit of the squadron leader’s fighter. As he ran towards it, the engine burst into life and it taxied away. Dodging bullets from the German fighters and flying shrapnel from the airfield defences, he ran towards his own Hurricane parked close by. He knew it was the only sensible course of action, for if he stopped to raise the alarm in the mayhem and confusion caused by the attack, the spy would be long gone. He shouted to a corporal sheltering under a three-ton truck parked close by.
‘Plug the bloody starter trolley in!’
‘Yes sir!’ replied the man who rolled out and ran to the portable starter battery by the fighter.
Leaping up on the wing and climbing into the cockpit, the pilot reached forward and grabbed his flying helmet hanging from the rear-view mirror. A flight sergeant climbed up on the wing, helped him to strap in and shouted above the din going on around them.
‘Make sure you get one of those bastards, sir, they’ve just shot up the NAFFI canteen van with Mollie still inside!’
As the flight sergeant jumped down a row of bullets stitched across the ground in front of him, kicking up fragments of grass and earth. The pilot officer flicked on the magneto switches and with two fingers stabbed the start and boost buttons on the instrument panel. The engine barked into life and he waved at the corporal to pull the parking chocks away from the main wheels, as his quarry in the other Hurricane bumped across the field on his take-off run. Opening the throttle lever with the control stick held back and using the rudder pedals to weave from side to side through the wreckage of burning aircraft and vehicles, he saw the other Hurricane climb into the air, its undercarriage slowly retracting into the wings.
Just as his own Hurricane reached flying speed, another one taxied across right in front on a collision course. He pushed the throttle to the firewall, pulled the stick back and staggered into the air, the undercarriage wheels narrowly missing the pilot’s head in the aircraft’s cockpit below. Raising the gear with the fighter shuddering on the verge of a stall, he kept the throttle lever thrust forward, the engine screaming under emergency boost power. The large Dowty-Rotol propeller bit the air and with a sigh of relief from its pilot, the Hurricane climbed up over the boundary fence of the airfield. Suddenly, a stream of cannon shells flew over the Hurricane’s port wing and a quick look in the rear-view mirror confirmed a yellow-nosed Messerschmitt 109 close behind, a deadly reminder of the hostile skies around him. Thrusting the control stick hard over and stamping on the rudder pedal putting in opposite rudder, he slide-slipped the Hurricane and the surprised German pilot rocketed past. In the distance, he spotted the other Hurricane climbing away towards the coast in the direction of Hythe. The young pilot knew he risked blowing the engine up under the increased strain of the emergency boost, but he must catch the other Hurricane and stop him crossing the Channel. Scanning the sky around and behind he found it clear of enemy fighters, but in the blind spot below his tail, the pilot of a third Hurricane was manoeuvring into a firing position.
In a sandbagged observation post nestling on the cliff tops above Hythe, two elderly civil defence volunteers looked up as the trio of Hurricane fighters climbed in line above them.
‘Reckon they be 79 Squadron boys out of Hawkinge, Bert and judging by all the smoke that’s rising over there, it looks like Jerries’ giving the airfield a right old pasting again!′
‘I reckon you be right, Jack. They’re probably gaining height to catch the buggers on their way back home. It’s been a while since Jerry attacked the airfield, though. I thought they were leaving the airfields alone now and concentrating on attacking London.’ replied Bert.
‘It’s all a bit worrying, I hope it’s not the start of the invasion.’ said Jack, casting a wary eye out over the Channel toward France.
The rat-tat-tat of Browning machine guns sounded above as one of the Hurricanes opened fire on the one in front, which immediately broke left into a tight evasive turn.
‘Christ, they’re started shooting at each other!’ exclaimed Bert in surprise, turning to the other.
‘What the devil’s all that about then?’
The two observers looked back up as the Hurricanes wheeled and turned, trying to get on each other’s tail.
’Silly buggers, they’re supposed to be shooting the enemy down, not their bloody selves!
In the skies above, the Czech pilot had just banked his fighter into a tighter, wing-wrenching turn, expecting to see a Messerschmitt in the mirror. Instead, he saw a Hurricane with guns blazing close behind, trying to get inside his turn.
‘Scheisse!’ he cursed in German and realised the game was up, but he would get the fighter to his comrades in France or die in the attempt. With the radar equipment and the secret documents in the briefcase stashed under the seat, he knew it could make all the difference to the battle. Both Hurricanes twisted and turned as they jostled to get into a better firing position on the other’s tail as the third Hurricane joined the fight. The outcome would rely on the skill of the best pilot, as the three aircraft were equally matched in performance and manoeuvrability.