The Falcon & the Viper

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Chapter 43

Outside, Charlie got into his old Jaguar XK 150, started it up and with a throaty roar from the engine drove out of the car park behind Dave in his pickup. They headed out of Dover on the A20 towards Folkestone and before long took the turning for the village of Hawkinge. Following the narrow road, they drove past brown tourist attraction signs showing the way to the Battle of Britain museum, along the appropriately named Spitfire Way. Charlie saw some large green hangars and they turned in through the entrance and parked in the car park outside the museum. Climbing out of the car, Charlie noted with interest three Hurricane fighters, resplendent in their camouflage paint standing outside one of the hangars. He followed Dave through the door into the museum shop and found himself inside a veritable Aladdin’s cave of model aircraft kits, books, posters and memorabilia on the Battle of Britain. Hearing the tinkling of the doorbell, one of the museums volunteers came out of a small office and greeted Dave.

‘Hi Dave.’

‘All right Graham, everything OK?’ asked Dave

‘Yep, everything’s good, we’ve had a busy morning.’ replied Graham Greene, a volunteer at the museum for many years.

‘This is Charlie Britton, a reporter on the Mercury.’

‘Hi Charlie, welcome to the museum.’

‘Hello Graham, good to meet you.’

‘Let’s go up to my office, Charlie. Afterwards, I can take you for a tour of the museum, if you like?’

‘Thanks Dave sounds good to me.’

They walked out of the rear door of the shop past the period wartime café, across some freshly mown grass with its invigorating aroma heavy in the air and climbed the stairs to the airfield’s old control tower.

Entering the office, Charlie stepped over boxes and piles of stuff spread all over the floor.

‘Flipping heck, Dave, you’ve got a lot of junk in here.’

‘Less of the junk, if you don’t mind.’ retorted Dave with a smile.

‘I’ll have you know that these are all valuable historic artefacts!’

‘Looks like a bloody aircraft crashed in here.’ quipped Charlie.

Dave laughed and pulled a couple of chairs around a small table.

‘Sit down and I’ll put the kettle on.’

Charlie sat down.

‘Tea or coffee?’ shouted Dave from the small kitchen next to the office.

‘Tea, a dash of milk and three sugars, please.’

Seated around the table with large mugs of steaming tea, Dave opened the buff envelope and took out the photographic prints developed from the film in the camera.

‘These have come out well.’ said Dave, flicking through the photos.

‘Hang on, what have we got here, then? Look at this.’ and handed one over to Charlie.

Charlie studied the photo. ‘It looks to me like a national grid electricity pylon.’

‘Not a bad guess.’ replied Dave. ’It’s a shot of one of the early-warning radar masts built for the RAF in the late thirties along the coastline of southern England. They were known as the Chain Home radar stations and detected and tracked incoming enemy raids from Europe. The system gave the RAF advance warning to scramble its fighter squadrons in time to gain height and meet the attacks.

‘I’ve heard of them. Didn’t they get attacked during the fighting?’ asked Charlie.

’They were bombed sporadically during the Battle, but fortunately the Luftwaffe didn’t recognise the importance of them at the time. Some historians reckoned later the reason they weren’t attacked more was that the Germans had heard about the Battle of Barking Creek.

‘The what? Sounds like a raid by the bloody Vikings!’ chuckled Charlie.

Yes, it does, doesn’t it?′ laughed Dave, warming to the wit of his newfound friend.

‘In fact, I agree with the views of those historians. If it hadn’t have been for the Battle of Barking Creek and the Germans had realised the importance of the radar stations, we would have lost the Battle of Britain and been wide open to invasion.’

‘Really? Wow, that’s pretty heavy stuff.’ exclaimed Charlie. ‘Tell me about it.’

‘It was an early case of what we now call friendly fire. The radar system was still very much in its infancy and experienced a technical fault. Hang on a sec.’ said Dave, got up, and went over to a large bookcase. Rummaging through the shelves, he located a book, checked the index inside, and finding the relevant page handed it to Charlie.

‘Here, have a read of this.’

Charlie took the book and started to read as Dave studied the other photos.

“On the 6 September 1939, three days after Great Britain declared war following Germany’s invasion of Poland, six Hurricane pilots based at RAF North Weald in Essex scrambled to meet a reported enemy raid approaching from the North Sea. Unbeknown to the pilots, two other pilot officers took up a pair of reserve aircraft and followed at a distance.

Within a few minutes, three squadrons of Spitfires from RAF Hornchurch further to the south were also scrambled by controllers using the radar plot information from the Chain Radar stations, vectoring the fighters to a position in the skies over north east of Essex. The pilots expected to see enemy aircraft when there was none and in the confusion, some Spitfires shot down the two reserve Hurricanes by mistake by and killed one pilot who became the first casualty of the war. A subsequent court martial deemed the verdict an accident bought about by faulty, spurious reflections from the early radar equipment and poor communications and identification from those concerned.

Charlie closed the book and looked at Dave.

‘So the Germans thought the radar system was inadequate and didn’t bother hitting them hard.’

‘That’s right.’ agreed Dave, looking up from the photos. ‘But what’s a photo of a radar aerial doing on a film in a German camera recovered from the crash site of a RAF Hurricane? Here, look at this one. I reckon they’re shots of pages of operating and maintenance radar manuals.’

Charlie took them and studied them as Dave went over to a desk and came back with a sheet of paper.

‘This is a classified RAF map.’ said Dave, spreading it out over the table top.

‘It was very damp from being underground for so long in the briefcase we found in the crashed Hurricane, but I’ve dried it out. Look at these small crosses someone’s marked on it.’

‘What’s special about them?’ asked Charlie.

‘Last night I checked each one out. Every cross is a grid reference of the Chain radar masts located round the coastline of southern England in 1939. That’s not significant in itself as anyone could see the tall aerial masts, but what is important is this mark here.’ said Dave, pointing with his figure to a red circle on the map.

‘What’s so significant about that?’ queried Charlie, leaning over to study it.

‘It’s the operations centre at Biggin Hill during the war, where the information on the radar plots sent from each Chain station was collated before being forwarded to 11 Group at RAF Uxbridge. The controllers there, based on the information received gave orders to scramble the squadrons nearest to the attacks. If the Germans had known the location of the centre, and taken it out, the RAF would have been blind to the incoming raids!’

‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking!’ grunted Charlie.

‘Yes, I am, but hang on a sec, the best is yet to come. The writing’s faded but check out the small handwritten notes by the side of the marks.’

Charlie leaned over the map again and peered at them. ‘Bloody hell!’ he exclaimed, ‘They’re in German!’

‘Precisely’, confirmed Dave.

‘Christ, if the enemy had got hold of this at the time, the consequences would have been horrendous. Like you said, it could have changed the whole course of the war.’ whistled Charlie.

‘You’re not kidding! Someone was trying to warn the Germans of their mistake in not attacking the operations centre and the radar stations, but whoever it was, they obviously didn’t manage it!’

‘I’d like to use this in the story I’m writing, Dave, if that’s OK?’

‘I don’t see why not. It will be good publicity for the museum and the Riga camera, photos and map will make a very interesting exhibit.’

‘Thanks. I wanted a new angle for the story I’m doing on the Battle of Britain and this will be ideal!’

‘Now, what do you want to know about this pilot?’ asked Dave.

‘Well, you met Samantha, my assistant earlier.’

‘How could I forget.’ chuckled Dave.

‘Quite.’ agreed Charlie, surprised at the slight pang of jealously he felt in Dave’s comment.

‘Samantha found an old diary of her grandmother’s which mentions her great uncle, John Faulkner, who was an RAF fighter pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain. As I told you on the phone last night, he was with 79 Squadron. The diary mentions he was court martialed in 1940 and shortly after that was killed.’

‘Ah, you know about the court martial, then.’ stated Dave.

‘Yes. I was hoping you could give me some gen on it?’

‘It was held by Fighter Command in camera, classified as secret and the documents were sent to the War Office in London. Later, under the Public Records Act, the minutes were transferred to the Public Records Office at Kew for long-term storage and preservation, which as you probably know is now called the National Archives. When I checked there a while ago, I was surprised to find they were still classified as secret. It’s a shame as I’ve built up comprehensive records on all the pilots that took part in the Battle, except this chap.’

‘I might know a way to get through the red tape.’ stated Charlie.

‘If you can, that would be great. By the way, it might just be a coincidence, but the Hurricane we just dug out of the ground with those secrets on board was on the strength of 79 Squadron. I’ll have to do some digging, pardon the pun, and find out who was flying it. Come on, let’s show you around the museum before it gets too late.’

They went out the door and down the steps. Dave paused.

‘Come to think of it, when I checked the court martial findings, they were going to be released after a period of seventy five years. That’s about now, isn’t it?’

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