The Falcon & the Viper

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Chapter 20

The battle intensified as the RAF pilots fought desperately in the skies over southern England, suffering heavy losses repelling the many attacks being made by the Luftwaffe in their attempt to gain supremacy. Those on the ground below looked up at the raging battles and contrails crisscrossing the sky overhead. They heard the rattle of machine guns and roaring engines, saw the fiery plunges of stricken aircraft hurtling towards the ground and wondered if the RAF could win the battle.

The heavy attacks by the Luftwaffe continued throughout July. On 2 August, Goering, frustrated that the battle was taking far too long, issued a directive ordering the Luftwaffe to focus its attacks on the airfields of RAF Fighter Command in southern England. The Luftwaffe launched its first major attack on the airfields on 13 August, which would become known as Eagle Day. However, on that morning, the weather was bad and Goering ordered his air fleet commanders to postpone the raids. The cancellation order did not get through to the bombers of KG 2 who took off from their airfield in France for their target, an RAF Coastal Command airfield at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey. They found the target and bombed aircraft and buildings but lost five Dornier bombers shot down by Hurricanes who damaged a further six, losing two of their own. The German raid was not a success but as the weather cleared, more bomber groups took off heading for the airfields of RAF 11 Group. With the chain radar stations informing 11 Group of the build-up of Luftwaffe bomber fleets over France, the RAF had the advantage and was ready for the impending attacks. The German bombers and fighters suffered a high number of casualties and the Luftwaffe high command considered the operation a failure.

Hugh Dowding, the commanding officer of RAF Fighter Command, called the day’s outcome a ‘miracle.’ Newspaper billboards in cities and towns across Britain displayed the tallies of enemy and RAF aircraft shot down, akin to cricket scores. The figures, supplied by the Air Ministry, exaggerated the German losses for good propaganda reasons. The Germans were finding it hard to break the RAF’s strong resistance. Over the next two weeks, the outnumbered pilots continued to hold firm against the Luftwaffe assaults, although the overworked pilots were growing weary and the ground crews were struggling to repair planes in time to defend the next attack. The RAF’s reserves of pilots and aircraft were being reduced to dangerously low levels, but its stubborn resilience continued to frustrate the German leadership, who had not expected the British to last this long.

In Sea View, the Faulkner family home in Westcliffe high on the cliffs above Dover, Hugh and Janet Faulkner were enjoying lunch with their daughter, Catherine and the newlyweds Johnny and Miranda. The family were being optimistic and enjoying their short time together. After the meal, the girls cleared the table and the family settled down in the living room to listen to the six o’clock news. Hugh Faulkner turned the radio on and the serious voice of the BBC broadcaster filled the room, repeating the speech Winston Churchill had used earlier in the day in the House of Commons to praise the RAF pilots who were fighting for the very survival of the country, against such overwhelming odds. As Churchill had done in parliament, the broadcaster emphasised the final words of his latest speech,

“Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.” A sentence destined to become famous in the annals of British history for all time.

It was not lost on the family that they were sitting next to one of “The Few”. They all gave Johnny a resounding cheer and patted him on his back, much to his acute embarrassment.

Later, Johnny said goodbye to his family and outside kissed Miranda, wiping away the tears streaming down her cheeks with the thumbs of his hands.

‘Don’t worry, darling. I’ll be careful and anyway, Barnaby will take good care of me. I always take him in the Hurricane with me.’ said Johnny, referring to the small bear that Miranda had given him after their engagement. He kick-started the engine of his Triumph motorcycle and with a wave and a backward glance, roared off on his way to Biggin Hill. Miranda saw the red glimmer of the motorbike’s tail light fade into the distance and prayed that God would look after him.

The following day the early morning sun climbed in the sky sending shafts of sunlight streaming over the dark, occupied landscape of northern France, but was a false prelude to a pitched battle that would end in the deaths of many fine young men.

The German pilots were up early enjoying their breakfast of spicy sausage and bread rolls in the aerodrome’s canteen at St Omer in the Pas de Calais district of France. Talking among themselves and tired from the exertions of the many sorties they had made over England, they tried to joke and laugh as they wolfed down their food. JG26, an experienced fighter squadron that had been in the thick of the fighting had still suffered heavy losses, a fact reflected by the empty seats around the dining tables. At one of them sat Kapitän Max Schiller, who before the war had won a gold medal in the 200 metres race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was in a heated conversation with another pilot, Hans Mueller. Both were now high scoring fighter aces and they were finding it difficult to abide by or understand the recent orders being issued by the Luftwaffe High Command.

‘This latest order is nothing short of suicide!’ muttered Hans Mueller.

‘It makes a mockery of the experience we’ve gained in combat as fighter pilots.’

‘I agree with you Hans, but orders are orders!’ exclaimed Max Schiller.

‘But Max, to be told to maintain close escort next to our bombers is crazy! Any half-decent fighter pilot knows that height has the advantage. Sticking close to our bombers will tie us to their apron strings. It defeats the whole object of the fighter pilot doctrine.’

‘High Command have told me that too many of our bombers are being shot down and want our bomber crews to see us flying alongside, protecting them. Instead of being out of sight high overhead where we are in a better position to shoot the enemy down.’ replied Max.

‘Scheisse, we’ll be sitting targets. If I get an opportunity to leave the bombers and score a kill, I’ll take it.’ protested Hans.

‘No you won’t! Don’t forget you’re my wingman and supposed to be protecting my back. Do nothing stupid, Hans.’ reprimanded Max.

‘I’ll try not to.’ said Hans with a wry smile.

‘Make sure you don’t. I’m your staffle commander and you will obey my orders!’

‘Come, let’s finish our breakfast.’ Max said and looked out of the window at his Messerschmitt parked nearby, resplendent in its livery of the five Olympic rings on the fuselage sides that he had had painted on all his fighters since winning the gold medal. He contemplated what the day held in store.

Across the Channel, two other fighter pilots were tucking into thick rashers of bacon and eggs in the mess at RAF Biggin Hill in Kent. Johnny Faulkner looked across at his friend, Anthony Barker.

‘I hear the squadron leader had a go at you last night, Anthony?’

‘Yes, the bastard gave me a reprimand for not shooting anything down.’ swore Anthony Barker.

‘You’ve just been unlucky, although you’ve had quite a lot of technical problems that made you return to base. Anthony, the last thing you want is being taken off flying duties. The squadron leader is a good sort and I’m sure he only wants to help you.’

‘What the hell are you talking about? I thought you were my friend?’ growled Barker’.

‘Of course I am. If I can help in . . .’

‘Enough, Johnny. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.’

Johnny realised it was time to change the subject as he saw Sadoskwi, the Czech pilot he had brought back from Dunkirk enter the mess.

‘Now that’s a dark horse if ever I saw one.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with Paul!’ snapped Anthony Barker who shoved his chair back, got up and stormed out of the mess.

‘Strewth! What a way to start the day.’ Johnny finished his cup of tea and went outside. Walking across the lawn he regretted the arguing with his friend and did not notice Barnaby, the small bear given to him by Miranda, slip out of his pocket as he walked away.

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