During the first four days of war being declared, the authorities evacuated nearly three million people from towns and cities in the south east of England, to safer places in the countryside to the west. Most of these were schoolchildren, although many teachers and sometimes a parent accompanied them. In scenes repeated all over the south, children marched as a school to the train stations wearing identity labels, carrying their gasmasks and some personal possessions. On arrival in the evacuation area, a host family selected them and they moved into their new homes.
Anti-aircraft guns and searchlights appeared in open spaces around London and other major cities. Large, silver barrage balloons flew in the skies overhead. There were many false alarms and air raid sirens went off, making people rush for the safety of the shelters, where they waited for the first bombs that failed to arrive.
The British Expeditionary Force, formed in readiness for war after Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and sent to France following the German invasion of Poland, assembled along the Belgian-French border. On the third day of war being declared, the first RAF Hurricane was shot down and its pilot killed. By Spitfires based at RAF North Wield, in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity by ground controllers misreading the early inadequacies of the new RAF radar and identification systems.
It was the start of what became to be known as the Phoney War, the period from September 1939 following Germany’s blitzkrieg on Poland, when seemingly nothing happened. In fact, many of the children who had been evacuated at the start of the war returned to their families in the towns and cities. To the population of Britain, war had been declared by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, but nothing was actually happening.
One clear morning in November with puffs of white cumulous cloud high in the sky, Johnny Faulkner and Anthony Barker flew down with the rest of the squadron from Biggin Hill to the satellite airfield at Hawkinge. They would be closer and could quickly scramble if any German raiders attacked shipping in the Channel. Skylarks wheeled overhead as they lounged half asleep in deck chairs outside the readiness hut at Hawkinge reading newspapers, playing cards or a game of chess. Most of the pilots thought it another waste of time, as the skies had been clear of raiders since the start of the war, let alone any attacks on shipping.
‘Yellow section scramble, patrol Folkestone at Angels 5!’ shouted a corporal from the open window of the hut, his voice shattering the tranquil silence.
‘Oh no, here we go again, another pointless patrol.’ muttered Johnny.
‘I second that.’ said Anthony from under the shade of a newspaper over his head.
‘Come on you two shake a leg, this could be your lucky day!’ ordered Dennis Long, their flight commander, who grabbed his helmet and ran towards his Hurricane parked nearby at its dispersal.
‘Coming, Skipper.’ shouted Johnny who ran for his Hurricane with Anthony trailing behind.
With roaring engines, the three Hurricanes bumped across the grass and climbed up into the sky in a tight Vic formation.
Dennis Long led the formation over the coast with Johnny Faulkner flying as Yellow 2 behind on his port side and Anthony Barker as Yellow three on the starboard. The pilots scanned the sky for any sign of bandits when the voice of the controller at Biggin Hill crackled in their headsets.
‘Yellow leader. This is SAPPER calling. Over.’
‘SAPPER, this is Yellow leader.’ answered Long’
‘I have a hostile plot five miles northeast of your position heading southwest. Vector 080 at Angels five for intercept.’
‘Keep a good lookout for a possible bogey ahead Yellow section.’
Johnny searched the sky in front and around, remembering to look behind as well for any enemy fighters. He shielded his eyes with a hand and looked at the sun, as in training it had been drummed into him to be aware of any attack from that direction. Many a British pilot had failed to return in the last war after not seeing “the Hun in the sun.” Continually scanning the sky, he spotted an aircraft to his left ahead at a slightly lower altitude and called over his radio.
‘Yellow leader, bandit at 10 o’clock. Looks like a Dornier 17, skipper.’
‘OK Yellow two. I can see him now. Follow me and keep your eyes peeled for any fighter escort.’
Johnny noted the German bomber was flying straight and level, ambling along as if on a pleasure flight.
‘Arrogant bastard’, he muttered to himself, ‘I’ll teach him not to keep a good lookout when he’s in our neck of the woods.’ For luck, he patted the top of Barnaby’s head beside the instrument panel, the small bear that Miranda had given him as his talisman.
‘TOPHAT, Yellow section attacking now.’ called Dennis Long over his radio, ‘Tally- ho, chaps.’
The Hurricanes, with the benefit of a slight height advantage, entered a shallow dive towards the enemy aircraft. Adrenalin coursed through Johnny’s veins as he concentrated on keeping close formation with his leader as the target loomed larger in his windscreen. He thumbed the gun button switch on the control head from safety to fire, reassured that when pressed it would unleash a hail of bullets from the eight Browning machine guns mounted in the wings
Their flight commander had set them up in an ideal attack position as they were approaching the target from dead astern and could aim straight at the Dornier. Johnny realised he had yet to master the intricacies of deflection shooting, the art of calculating the speed and angle of an enemy aircraft flying across a fighter’s path. He knew it was essential to channel a cone of fire at a pre-judged point ahead of the target, so it flew straight into the attacking fighter’s bullets.
The Dornier now filled Johnny’s gun sight, still flying along in a straight line without a care in the world. Both he and Dennis Long opened fire, their guns hammering, sending hundreds of bullets towards the bomber as smoke and spent cartridge cases poured back from the Hurricanes wings. Johnny watched his bullets strike home on the port engine and by easing in a little right rudder, saw the strikes walk across the wing root and shatter the Perspex windows of the cockpit.
A line of tracer bullets flew back from the rear gun of the Dornier as the rear gunner woke up to the attacking fighters. There was a deafening rat-tat tat outside the cockpit of Johnny’s Hurricane and looking out he saw bullet holes stitch a pattern across the surface of his starboard wing. As he took evasive action, the bomber reared up and stalled. The Hurricanes went into a tight turn to port and out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw Anthony Barker break away to starboard. Looking down he saw the bomber turn over on to its back as it entered an inverted spin, with oily black smoke pouring from the burning engine.
‘Well done chaps, let’s head for home.’ spoke Dennis Long over the intercom.
In the distance, Johnny spotted the hamlet of Westcliffe nestling on the cliffs and flew towards it. Getting closer to his home he spotted someone in the garden and lowering the nose of his Hurricane, he powered up the engine and performed a perfect victory roll over the rooftop.
Back at Hawkinge, the other pilots in the squadron gathered around Johnny as he clambered out of his Hurricane. The slipstream whistling over the blackened gun ports in the wings of his Hurricane as it came in to land had alerted them that the canvas patches protecting the barrels were blown off by the guns firing. Following months of the Phoney War and unproductive patrols, the pilots now realised that something might just have happened.
‘Spill the beans, old chap. What have you been firing at?’ chirped Tom Beckett.
‘Well, I don’t want you chaps thinking I’m shooting you a line, but the flight commander and I got a dirty big Dornier over the Channel. It went down splat into the sea with a great splash!’ said Johnny, hitting the wing with the palm of his outstretched hand for effect.
A rousing cheer went up from the pilots and ground crew alike and they started to haul Johnny up on their shoulders to parade him off to the mess when a commanding voice cut the air.
‘Faulkner, I want to see you in my office, now.’ ordered Dennis Long, the flight commander who had just landed, eying the bullet holes on the wing of Johnny’s Hurricane.
‘Yes, sir.’ replied Johnny in surprise and followed him across the disposal to the readiness hut to the bemused looks of the other pilots.
In the office, Dennis Long pulled up a chair and sat down behind his desk leaving Johnny standing in front of him.
‘It takes a lot of hours to train good pilots like you, Faulkner. What would have happened if that rear gunner in the Dornier had damaged your controls?’ admonished Long, leaning back in his chair and looking at Johnny with an angry glare.
Johnny gave his flight commander a quizzical look, thinking to himself congratulations would have been more in order for helping to shoot the German down.
‘You would be spread all over the ground like so much strawberry jam after that bloody idiotic victory roll of yours over the coast. We can’t afford to lose pilots and aircraft in that way. Never again, understand.’
‘Where the hell did Barker go?’
‘I saw his aircraft over by the hangar when I landed.’
‘All right lad, you can go.’
Johnny saluted and turned to go, disappointed Long had made no mention of his possible kill.
‘Just a moment, Johnny that was some fine shooting of yours. Let’s see what our gun camera films show when they’re developed.’
‘Yes, sir!’ said Johnny turning back towards his flight commander and walked out of the office with a smile on his face.
However, the shooting down of the Dornier was an isolated one and the Phoney War continued over the winter of 1939 and into the New Year with no further incidents. Johnny Faulkner was credited with his first kill as the gun camera film confirmed that he had shot down the bomber and not his squadron commander.