The Sir William Hillary slid down the slipway of the lifeboat station in Dover, entering the water with a splash and sailed out of the harbour into the Channel. A distress call had just come in and she was on her way to assist a minesweeper bombed by enemy aircraft and sinking in mid-channel.
At the same time in the operations room of 11 Group RAF in Uxbridge to the west of London, WAAFs stood around a large table placing markers representing incoming German raids on the plotting map. Their headphones crackled with information sent by operators from the secret headquarters at Biggin Hill, where reports from the Chain radar stations sited along the coast had been collated and passed on. The group controller studied the plots on the table and brought to readiness all the squadrons under his control, despatching orders to the ones nearest the raids to scramble, and 79 Squadron from Biggin were the first away. He raised an eyebrow as the plots continued to grow and realised it would not be a normal day. He quickly ordered other squadrons further away into the air to meet the growing threat until everything was up and there was nothing left in reserve on the ground.
Across the Channel, the German fighter escorts joined the waves of bombers crossing the French coast and flew on together towards England. Among the fighters were the yellow-nosed Messerschmitts of JG 26 led by fighter ace Adolf Galland, which had taken off from St Omer. This day would become the fiercest in the Battle to date and many of the fighter pilots of both sides and the German bomber crews would never return to their airfields, or see their loved ones again.
Tom Verrier, coxswain of The Sir Richard Hillary, cast his eye over the surface of the sea looking for any signs of the demise of the minesweeper.
‘I reckon we’re in the right spot, Rob, she must have gone down.’
‘Aye, there’s no sign of her.’ agreed the engineer, scanning the horizon around them.
‘We’ll have a quick search for survivors, but looking at all these aircraft coming our way, it’ll be wise to beat a hasty retreat.’ said Verrier, looking up into the clear blue skies at the fleets of enemy aircraft approaching from the French coast.
‘There’s hordes of the bastards!’ cursed Rob Gainsford. ‘Looks like it will be a busy day ahead for our fighter boys.’
‘Strewth.’ uttered Johnny Falkner under his breath as he looked down on the streams of German bombers closely escorted by fighters flying low over the Channel ahead. Turning his head from side to side in the cockpit, he cast an experienced eye around the sky above for enemy fighters and saw none. The other pilots of 79 Squadron were doing the same, cautious that the easy targets below were a decoy to trap them. However, to their surprise, nothing could be seen.
Max Schiller, the leader of the Seventh Staffle of JG26, looked up through the canopy of his Messerschmitt 109 at the RAF fighters high above, where he would be if not ordered to play mother hens to the bombers. He cursed to himself. Keying the transmit button Max called over the radio,
‘Achtung, bandits coming down, climb to meet their attack, but don’t stray too far from our bombers.’
Hans Mueller was already climbing his 109 on full power, a scowl across his face.
‘Fuck the bombers.’ he growled.
‘Yellow leader, echelon starboard, Tally Ho.’ called squadron leader Dennis Long over the radio and the Hurricanes peeled off one by one and dived on the enemy aircraft below.
‘This must be our lucky day, chaps, there’s no top cover fighter escort. But keep a good look out behind.’
The other pilots clicked their transmit buttons in acknowledgement.
The German fighters found themselves helpless as the Hurricanes rained down on them from above. Johnny Faulkner picked out a Messerschmitt and switched his gun button to fire. The 109 loomed large in his sights and he opened fire in short bursts, and saw tracer rounds striking the enemy aircraft’s engine cowlings. It rolled over onto its back, flames pouring from the motor as Johnny pulled into a hard climbing turn, almost blacking out from the blood being drained from his head. Coming out of the turn, below he saw the bomber stream breaking apart in chaos as more Hurricanes and Spitfires dived through it, their guns firing.
The sky was filled with scattered, individual dogfights and plumes of smoke marked the fate of Dornier and Junkers bombers falling towards the Channel below.
‘Bloody hell, it’s like shooting rats in a barrel,’ shouted one of the RAF pilots over the radio.
‘Shut up!’ shouted Long.
‘Keep the radio clear and concentrate on shooting the bastards down.’
The fighting continued, a melee of spiralling, turning aircraft taking evasive action or manoeuvring in for the kill. Johnny Faulkner, with Anthony Barker covering his tail, attacked a Junkers 88 and then went after the escorting Messerschmitts, by now scattered all over the sky. An icy cold feeling came over Johnny as he noticed Barnaby the bear was not in his regular place beside the instrument panel, and looked down at the cockpit floor searching for him. Glancing up, a 109 filled the screen in front and a split second later the Hurricane’s spinning propeller disintegrated in front of his eyes as it chewed the tail off the Messerschmitt like a buzz saw. The 109 turned on its side and Johnny did a double take as he saw the five Olympic rings painted on its fuselage, before it entered a vertical dive towards the sea minus its tail.
As the Hurricane’s engine screamed like a banshee without its propeller, Johnny closed the throttle of the over-speeding Merlin, just as a stream of canon shells ripped through the Perspex canopy into the instrument panel. The glass lenses of the instruments splintered and thick black smoke began to pour back from the shuddering engine as the Hurricane lost height.
The crew of The Sir William Hillary looked up at the two stricken aircraft plunging towards them. They could see the black German crosses on one and the bright RAF roundels on the other. As they watched, the canopy flew off the Messerschmitt and the pilot bailed out.
‘He’s too low!’ shouted Rob Gainsford, the Hillary’s engineer.
‘Tough! That’s his problem, he’s only a bloody Kraut’ swore Ted Sinclair, a deckhand who had recently joined the lifeboat’s crew.
‘But he’s still a human being like ourselves.’ corrected Tom Verrier, the cox.
In the cockpit of the damaged Hurricane, Johnny Faulkner kept the battered fighter flying with one hand on the stick, while using the other to try opening the damaged canopy jammed closed from the attack. In a desperate race against time, he kept struggling but it refused to open. On hitting the water, the aircraft would sink trapping him in a watery grave. Beginning to panic he pulled on the release catch with all his strength, when to his relief it yielded, and he flung the hood back. The slipstream whistling past the open cockpit cleared away the acrid black smoke from inside, although the draught now fanned the orange tongues of flames flickering under the fuel tank and began licking around his flying boots. Johnny realised he was now too low to bail and had to get down fast, before the Hurricane turned into a flaming torch with him still inside. He reversed the flight controls, side-slipped and lost height. Nearby, the German pilot plunged towards the sea below his partially opened parachute.
In the distance, Johnny saw a small boat heading towards him and breathed a sigh of relief. He lined the burning Hurricane up with the swell of the surface of the sea, instead of ditching into the breaking waves that would tip the aircraft end over end.
‘Look, he’s going to ditch.’ shouted Tom Verrier in the Hillary. The lifeboat crew looked on anxiously as the Hurricane closed with the sea.
Coming in low over the waves, Johnny held the control stick back until the Hurricane was shuddering on the edge of a stall, its nose pointing high into the sky. He knew that when the aircraft hit the surface, the large radiator scoop under the fuselage would drag the Hurricane under. As the aircraft touched the sea, he booted in full rudder turning the Hurricane sideways, sending up a shower of spray and ripping the radiator fairing away. The fighter stopped, the weight of the engine dragging the nose down under the sea and water began to pour in over the sides of the open cockpit. Clouds of steam filled the cockpit as the seawater cooled the hot metal. Punching the Sutton harness release, Johnny flung the shoulder and parachute straps off, and leapt out of the sinking aircraft, his head striking the framework of the bent canopy rail as he went.
The Hurricane slipped beneath the waves leaving the unconscious pilot bobbing up and down in his lifejacket. The Sir William Hillary, doing the job she was designed for, raced toward the pilot in the sea, her sharp bows slicing through the waves. A short distance away the German pilot, Max Schiller plummeted into the sea with a large, bone-shattering splash. The lifeboat hove to and using boathooks, two of the crew fished Johnny out of the sea, gripping him under his arms and laid him carefully on the deck.
‘Let’s get all the water out of him.’ shouted Rob Gainsford, who turned the pilot on his side as seawater dribbled from his mouth.
‘Better get the other one.’ shouted the coxswain out of the wheelhouse window.
‘Why bother?’ muttered Ted Sinclair, ‘Let the bastard drown, that’s what I say.’
‘Well it ain’t for you to say, is it?’ snarled Tom Verrier. While I’m in charge of this boat If we can save a life we’ll do it, irrespective of race, creed or denomination. We’re a lifeboat, for heaven’s sakes!′
Turning to face the coxswain, Sinclair snarled, ‘I lost my best mate because of these bastards. He went down with HMS Glorious, the aircraft carrier sunk during the Norwegian campaign.’
‘Enough! While you’re on my boat, you’ll obey orders.’ snapped the coxswain, realising now that the lad wasn’t cut out for this work.
With a roar from the engines, the coxswain steered the lifeboat over to the German pilot. The crew lifted the limp body of the pilot aboard, a task made harder by the drag of the parachute still attached in the water until one of the crew cut the harness with a sharp knife.
‘This one’s in a bad way, cox.’ said Rob, turning him over onto his side. The small group stared down at the young Luftwaffe with the Iron Cross pinned to the breast pocket of his uniform jacket.
‘He’s still breathing though.’
On the way back to Dover with some aircraft still fighting in the skies overhead, Johnny Faulkner regained consciousness to find himself wrapped up in warm blankets on a bunk in the small sick bay below decks.
‘Are you all right?’ enquired Rob Gainsford.
Johnny shook his head to clear it.
‘Where am I?’
‘You came down in the drink and you’re on a lifeboat. Hang on a minute, I know you.’ said Rob looking more closely. Didn’t we fish you out of the drink at Dunkirk?′
‘That’s right, you did. My father was on board.’
‘Of course, you’re Johnny Faulkner. Soon as we’re back we’ll get you to hospital in Dover and let him know.’ said Rob and glancing out of the small porthole saw the white cliffs coming into view.
‘We’re nearly there.’
Johnny suddenly had a thought.
‘The rings!’ he shouted
‘What?’ queried Gainsford, wondering if the RAF pilot had lost his senses?
‘The Olympic rings painted on the side of the 109 I collided with. It’s Max Schiller.’
‘A German pilot I’ve met.’ he replied, remembering Max telling him during his visit of the rings painted on the fighter he’d flown during the Spanish Civil War after winning his Olympic medal.
‘The German pilot I collided with. He had the Olympic rings painted on his Messerschmitt.’
‘Who, him over there? We fished him out of the sea after you.’ said Rob, pointing to the blanket shrouded body lying in the bunk opposite.
Johnny threw his blankets off, leapt out of bed and went over to the other bunk. Johnny gasped as he saw the German pilot’s pale face.
‘It is Max!’ How is he?′
‘He’s not good. Come on, you better get back to bed.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m OK.’ said Johnny, gently shaking the German’s shoulder.
‘Max.’ he whispered, ‘Max.’
The other man’s eyelids fluttered open at the sound of his name, looked up, and focused on the face peering down at him.
‘Johnny, is that you?’ he whispered.
‘It’s me, Max. How do you feel?’ Johnny asked, clutching the other man’s hand.
‘Not so good, my English friend’ he replied, coughing up some blood which dribbled down his chin.
’Hang in there, Max. We’ll be in Dover soon and get you patched up in the hospital.
Max murmured something and Johnny leant closer to him.
‘How…how is Catherine?’