Recollections of the Battle of Britain

Old Bordenian Norman Wigg (BGS 1943 - 1948) has sent me a number of articles recalling stages of his life, including his experiences of the Battle of Britain whilst living in Teynham and his days at Borden Grammar School.  I will add these over the coming weeks, but will start with his recollections of the Battle of Britain.  Whilst Norman was too young to be at BGS at the time, I think this will be of interest to many visitors to this site.

Norman writes:

Prelude to, and memories of The Battle of Britain

I was born at Teynham, Kent, on June 8th 1932. Teynham is a rather undistinguished village, about mid way between Sittingbourne, and Faversham, on the A2 London Road. The main village, at that time was an untidy sprawl of mixed development along the London Road, with two roads going north, towards the main railway line. Station Road, went to Teynham Station, and Frognal Lane to Frognal, just to the north of the railway. The land generally falls northwards, and after the railway becomes marshy in character, eventually giving way to Conyer creek, an inlet of the Swale.

Between these, to the south. Lynsted Lane, winds its way towards the very pretty (at that time) village of Lynsted, which has a fine church and many beautiful old houses. Lynsted Lane is probably an ancient road, as the road, or at least the first section of it, is sunken between grass banks on each side.

I was born in a house on the north side of the main street, the second son of a father from Frognal, and my mother from the village of Lynsted. Their first son died in a few weeks, of pneumonia. I understand from my mother that the house was damp. This resulted in my parents moving, when I was probably only a year or two old, to a house in Lynsted Lane, about 200m up from the high street. This was No 6, where I spent the next 28 years or so.

The house was a semi, one of quite an elegant pair, with front bay windows, steps up the front door, and a flap through which the coalman delivered coal to the cellar. There was a straggle of mixed development, on the west side of the road, with back gardens to the houses, and orchards both to the front and rear.

At that time, this part of Kent was largely cherry orchards and hop gardens, I experienced working in both, with my mother, and her sisters in the hop gardens, and later, in my late teens, worked in the cherry orchards while an architectural student during the summer holidays.  My father was a gentle, very intelligent man, who, had he had the opportunities that I had, would have been able to make more of his life than the bus driver that he was, at that time.

It was a bad time, with millions out of work, and at least bus driving was a fairly “safe” job. During wartime, it was a “reserved” occupation, so he was not called up, (born in 1904 he would have been too old to be called up, anyway) but he did do service in “Dad’s Army” – the Home Guard. I think he quite enjoyed that. His only vice was smoking, which my mother tried in vain to persuade him to stop. It was the smoking, and the cold, unheated, draughty bus cabins, that caused his early death at about 62.

I can remember my mother sitting on the front steps, talking to neighbours, on the day war was declared.

During the Battle of Britain, it was usual for the German air fleets to form up over Calais, or Boulogne-Sur-Mer, and head across the channel towards London. The RAF squadrons often made initial interceptions over Canterbury, or Ashford, and from there the air battles developed into a running fight as the German squadrons headed towards London. At some stages in the Battle, the RAF squadrons climbed above the German hordes, then flew above them, deliberately waiting until the Germans were at about the range limit of their fighter escort, before attacking. So there was, on most days in that memorable summer / autumn, a lot of activity in the skies above Kent.

In 2006 I decided to write down my own memories of the Battle, and updated these memories fairly recently, when I became interested in reading accounts from the German side of what really happened in those memorable days. With the seventy fifth anniversary of the Battle coming up shortly, the number of eye witnesses must be getting fewer, year by year. I myself am now 83.

 In August and September of that year, the Battle of Britain reached its climax. My memories of those epic two months are still vivid today over sixty years later. Some consist of “snapshots” of memory – a single moment in the drama, when a particular image burned itself into my young brain. Others, consist of a short sequence of action.

Typical of the latter. I am in my back garden, at 6 Lynsted Lane, Teynham, my usual viewpoint of the battle. A formation of heavy German bombers is passing a few miles to the south, heading westwards, presumably towards London. A single RAF fighter comes up under the formation – I see the smoke trails from his guns as he fires. The result is dramatic. One of the bombers literally falls out of the sky, plunging straight down trailing black smoke. Some seconds after it has disappeared behind trees on the skyline, the faint sound of the gunfire that destroyed it reaches me.  The time that elapsed between the time the bomber crew realised they were under attack, and their deaths was probably less than ten seconds.

This time, the action is closer, only a mile or so away. A RAF fighter is hit – it is a Hurricane, and plunges down trailing smoke. But in this case, the pilot is still alive, and has some control of his stricken aircraft. The plane levels out, flies horizontally for a short distance, turning over on its back, then starts it final plunge to earth. I recognise the manoeuvre, this is the safest way for a pilot to bale out, opening his cockpit, undoing his safety harness, turning the aircraft on its back, then pushing the stick hard forward to send the aircraft into an upward trajectory. This has the effect of throwing him clear. I watch for the parachute. Almost immediately, it opens, a small white dot against the blue sky. I watch it get larger and larger, until I can clearly see he airman. He is going to land about half a mile to the north, and I grab my small bike to hasten to the spot. By the time I get there, he has been put into an ambulance, apparently slightly wounded, and army people are gathering up his parachute.

The chase is on! A Messersmitt 109 hurtles over my house going east at full throttle. Just behind him, a RAF Spitfire blazing away with his eight machine guns. The simply disappear over the roof top. By the time I get to the front door, they are out of sight. Probably by this time, the remains of the Messersmitt are blazing in a Kentish field. The Spitfire was slightly the faster of these two fine aircraft, and, unless the Spitfire ran out of ammunition, the Messersmitt stood practically no chance of getting back to France. These two fighter aircraft were closely matched. The Spitfire could turn faster – vital in air combat, and was, at least at some altitudes, slightly faster both on the level and in the climb. On the other hand, the Messersmitt’s had superior armament – a deadly cannon and heavy machine guns. Its engine was fuel injected, which meant it didn’t suffer from sudden fuel starvation when rapidly manoeuvring, as the Spitfire’s carburettor fed Merlin engine sometimes did, at that time. However, the main disadvantage of the Messersmitt was its limited range. It could only stay over England for 20 minutes or so, and much less if engaged in combat, when much more fuel is used. Thus, this German fighter plane often had to break off from a “dog fight” and run for home to avoid having to “ditch” in mid channel. Its other great disadvantage, as it was usually used as a fighter escort to the bomber squadrons, was that the fighter pilots’ radios couldn’t communicate with those of the bomber crews! This, and the lack of “drop tanks” (which would have given it much greater endurance) were surprising technical disadvantages, since both should have been easily solved by the inventive Germans.

Now, this time it is a Spitfire racing westwards, the exuberant pilot throwing his aircraft into successive “victory rolls”. This manoeuvre was eventually forbidden to RAF pilots, because of the possibility that the aircraft could go out of control if it had suffered battle damage.

High up against the blue sky, the vapour trails of battling aircraft form amazing patterns. The distant hum of high performance engines, and the crackle of gun fire. Now and then a trail of descending black smoke marks the death plunge of an aircraft – too far away today to see if the stricken plane is friend or foe.

About 40 heavy bombers in close formation, droning westwards (presumably) heading for London. They are passing a few miles to the north. Suddenly, the sky around them is filled with puffs of black smoke, a few seconds later comes the noise of the “Ack Ack” guns. The German squadron has made the mistake of flying into the field of fire of the battery on Chitney marshes. One is hit at once, and plunges down trailing smoke.

September 15th 1940. For once, the sky was clouded over. Suddenly, above the clouds, the sound of gunfire. Immediately, an aircraft (I recognised as a Hurricane) plunged vertically downwards. I saw the huge puff of smoke as it hit – probably (not sure after all this time) heard the sound of the explosion, only about a mile away. Not too long after, drawn by curiosity, and reverence for the dead pilot (since I had seen no parachute) I went to the crash site.

Never, in my young life, (or since) had I witnessed such a scene of utter destruction. The aircraft had crashed in a young orchard, about half a mile south of the A2 road, and the earth for about 100metres around the impact point was covered in grey ash, amongst this many small fragments of twisted metal, some spattered with bright spots of (I assume) molten aluminium. Nothing remotely recognisable as part of an aeroplane, nothing much larger than a plate. Small fires still burned or smouldered everywhere. One of two figures in military uniform were picking over the wreckage. I noticed in particular, the young trees, all lying blown over with their roots pointing in towards the impact point. As far as I could see there was no obvious crater. Somewhere, in the middle of that awful destruction, had been a living, breathing human. The dead pilot was F/O Roy Marchand, 27. A small memorial stands on the spot today – this is his only grave.

[Note added November 2013 - Understand that the crash site has been excavated, and the engine, much ammunition, and part of the pilot’s body found. I assume that the last has been re-buried in a cemetery with appropriate military honours?]

September 28th 1940. A Spitfire has crashed at Dadman’s, near Lynsted, the pilot, a young Canadian was F/O J Boyle. He is buried in the quiet cemetery at Lynsted. My mother, and other local people, “adopted” his simple grave, with its wooden cross, keeping it fresh with flowers. That cross is now replaced with a stone gravestone, recording his sacrifice. I understand that his brother came to visit the grave after the war, and was delighted to see it so well attended to. Just a day or two before his death, he had written to his parents in Canada, saying “I would not have missed this show for anything”.

A day or two after the crash, I cycled to the scene. The crash site was guarded by a policeman, who wouldn’t let people come too close. Some Army personal were apparently loading the wreckage onto a large military lorry. From what I could see, at some distance, it was completely burned out.

November 21st 1940. The Battle of Britain was officially over, and the RAF had triumphed against formidable odds. Not until many years after the war, did we learn how desperately close it had been. Nevertheless, air raids continued, albeit on a reduced scale. The massed air battles had given way to more isolated incidents. Then, one fine morning, suddenly, frighteningly, the war in the air, which had usually had a certain remoteness, came dangerously close.

There, to the west, and apparently coming straight towards me, at a very low altitude, a Heinkel 111 – other than a crashed aircraft near Conyer, I had never seen an enemy plane so close.

His altitude was not much more than 1000 feet, and, what’s more his bomb doors, under the fuselage, were opening. I stood rooted to the spot with fear. Right behind the bomber, closing very fast, three Spitfires, one leading the attack. The bomber started to swing to the left – (I didn’t understand that manoeuvre for another 20 odd years). Then – firing started. The noise of the Spitfire’s eight machine guns, pouring out some 200 bullets a second, and the even louder crack of the German aircraft’s rear gunner replying with his twin heavy machine guns, was deafening. I saw the smoke trails from Spitfires guns, and, curiously, what looked like a line of lights going from the bomber towards the Spitfire.

I watched open mouthed as the two aircraft came together, then collided in mid air, about a 1000 feet above me, and about a mile to the north east. One wing was torn off the bomber and fluttered like a piece of paper in the sky. The main wreckage fell at Buckland Farm, about two miles east of Teynham. Many smaller pieces of debris, some trailing smoke, followed.

The whole action was over in seconds. The two companion Spitfires circled low over the scene, before leaving – I suppose it was very usual for them at that time, to see a colleague die suddenly and violently. Two fireman from Faversham were killed, when bombs aboard the Heinkel exploded, as they tried to extinguish the fires consuming the two aircraft.

The German aircrew were buried in the churchyard at Teynham, and were exhumed after the war, and their bodies returned to Germany. The RAF pilot was 21-year-old Sgt R E Plant, of Coventry. He was serving with 603 squadron, stationed at Hornchurch*. He is buried at Stoke (St Michael) churchyard, Coventry. He had previously stated that “he would rather ram an enemy plane than let it escape”

I was told that the RAF pilot had been killed by the rear gunner of the German plane – ironically his deadly fire also directly killed himself and his companions, although in practice their end would not have been long delayed. Three Spitfires should have been able to “kill” the slower, lumbering bomber with little risk to themselves. I now believe that Sgt Plant actually saw from the cockpit of his Spitfire the bomb doors opening, as the German crew attempted to dump their deadly load, to gain speed to escape their pursuers. The fact that my village was dead ahead, and would have taken the full force of the bombs, was incidental. This, I believe, was why Sgt Plant made a direct, and risky attack, direct from astern, and in so doing exposed himself fatally to the German fire.

Later in life, I had an opportunity to fulfil a boyhood dream, and learned to fly. Part of my training was on the classic “Tiger Moth”. Nearly thirty years later, close to the anniversary of his death, I was flying a Robin light aircraft on a cross country trip and was heading south, back to Headcorn, approaching Sittingbourne from the north, at 3000 feet. I looked to my left, and saw the tall chimney, and lake of Tonge Mill, where my mother had worked in war time, making bread and cakes. Beyond that, Teynham street.  On impulse, I turned eastwards, trimming the aircraft to a slightly nose down attitude, losing height as I flew over Bapchild towards my old house in Teynham, which I could now just see coming up beyond the trees of the orchard.

This was just about exactly the course flown by Sgt Plant on that fateful day, many years ago. Of course, his Spitfire had been travelling more than four times as fast as my small aircraft, closing on the bomber at about 300 feet a second. In the Spitfire’s cockpit, Sgt Plant turned the button on his control column to “Fire”. At about 400 yards the bomber was filling the first ring of his gun sight. Now, he squeezed the firing button, and the fighter’s eight Browning machine guns flung a hail of bullets at the doomed bomber.

In my imagination, I saw the Heinkel ahead of me, nose down as it strived for speed, saw its bomb doors opening, then it swung away to the left.

Now, I understood why. To give the rear gunner a clear field of fire, clear of his own tail fin. This was the moment when Sgt Plant died, shot through the head by the heavy German bullets smashing through his windscreen. Only seconds later, the German crew died, too.

I was now crossing the old A2 road from south to north at a slight angle. The High Street of Teynham was passing below – an area that I had been my home for the first thirty years of my life. The old A2 road, which I am sure was the marker the German had been following, continued through Teynham towards the small Kent town of Faversham. Between the two settlements was, at that time, largely open countryside, although it has become spasmodically developed since.

Underneath, the staggered cross road of Buckland Cross, where minor roads cross the old A2. Just to the north of the road, the ruins of an ancient church in the middle of a field. It was in this area that the tangled wreckage of the two aircraft had fallen.

Like the Spitfires of 1940, I circled the area twice, at about 1,000 feet, before climbing away to resume my flight to Headcorn. It was an unconscious act of respect, for a young man, whose courage and sacrifice, may well have saved my village from terrible destruction.  I could see people on the ground, some pausing to wave to me. I wondered if any of them connected the presence of this little aeroplane to the dramatic events, of many years ago.

Norman Wigg

December 2006

Postscript added November 2013

I recently read two books by German pilots who took part in the battle. They have given me a completely different insight, and I am currently reading other material. It is clear that the German’s fought with great courage, and had considerable respect for their RAF foes, but were seriously handicapped by the poor quality of leadership, (in particular Hermann Goering’s orders to “stay very close to the bombers”, which severely handicapped the German fighter escorts,) Also by the vastly superior organisation of RAF fighter command, in particular their use of radar, to locate the German raids coming in from France, and guide the defending fighters into the best position to attack them.

Also noted that the early Spitfires didn’t have bullet proof windsceens – that might have saved Sgt Plant’s life.

Postscript added July 2014.

It occurred to me that there could be another reason why the Heinkel had turned to the left, just before the collision with Sgt Plant’s spitfire. Could it be that the German pilot deliberated swung left to avoid dumping his deadly load full on the village street? It could have been an instinctive action. On both sides there was courage and cowardice. There was chivalry and brutality. The German fighter ace, Adolf Galland, who survived the war with 104 victories, was notorious for speaking his mind – often to the discomfort of his superiors. When asked by Goering if he would fire on RAF pilots who had bailed out, he reply was “I would consider it murder and refuse to obey orders”. Nevertheless, there are recorded instances of RAF pilots being killed by German fighters while parachuting down.

Perhaps, in the heat of Battle, a German pilot saw a Spitfire, or Hurricane, send a Messerschmitt, of a close friend or colleague, down in flames, and then himself destroyed the RAF fighter that had killed him, but that pilot managed to bail out, rage and desire for vengeance, would overcome any finer feelings.

Later in the war, when the positions were reversed, and the Germans were fighting desperately to turn back the mass Daylight raids by American bombers, it is recorded that, a German fighter pilot, out of ammunition, deliberately rammed an American bomber, destroying it and bailing out himself. An act of great courage.

He recalls that one of the American fighter escort fired on him, miraculously missing him, and then returned to "finish him off", but the German played dead, and the American decided not to waste any more ammunition on him.

Norman Wigg