“…the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization….”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons.
18 June 1940
One of the most haunting images from the Battle of Britain is that of Squadron Leader Brian Lane DFC (above middle) taken immediately after he landed from a combat sortie in September of 1940. (photo courtesy of IWM).
The strain and exhaustion on his face belie his young age (23) and make this one of the best-known and most powerful photographs to come from the era. (photo courtesy of IWM).This was taken during the Battle of Britain at Fowlmere, Duxford’s satellite station.
“Sitting nearest to the Spitfire’s engine on the wing is Brian Lane, who had joined the RAF after escaping a dead-end job as a factory supervisor. He was appointed temporary commanding officer of 19 Squadron, part of the Duxford Wing, in September following the shooting down of its CO. In one logbook entry, he describes an encounter with the enemy in suitably Boys’ Ownish terms. “Party over London. Sighted big bunch of Huns south of the river and got in lovely head-on attack into leading He 111s. Broke them up and picked up a small batch of six with two Me 110s as escort. Found myself entirely alone with these lads so proceeded to have a bit of sport. Got one of Me 110s on fire whereupon the other left his charge and ran for home. Played with the He 111s for a bit and finally got one in both engines. Never had so much fun before!” Lane was awarded a DFC for his bravery and survived the battle, but his luck was not to last. During a sweep over Holland in December 1942 his Spitfire was jumped by Me109s. No one saw his aircraft go down but it was assumed to have dived into the North Sea. Lane was 25. The men sitting next to Lane on the wing with German Shepherd Flash and spaniel Rangy are George “Grumpy” Unwin and Francis Brinsden, both of whom survived the war. So did the two men standing to the left, Bernard Jennings and Colin McFie – the latter after being shot down and captured during a sweep over France in July 1941. Howard Burton, the man in the dark jumper, and Philip Leckrone, the man on the far right, were not so fortunate. Burton went on to serve in the Middle East but died when in June 1943 when the Hudson bomber bringing him back to Britain disappeared over the Bay of Biscay. He was 26.
Leckrone was an American who had chosen to fight for Britain. Known to the boys as Uncle Sam, he went on to join 71 Squadron, an American volunteer unit flying Hurricanes. On 5 January 1941 his aircraft collided with another in the squadron during training and he was killed. He was 28. John Boulton (pictured on the left with two fellow pilots and a spaniel leaning on the tail of a Hurricane) was 20 when the battle claimed him. He was flying next to Gordon Sinclair (the man on the right by the tail) over Croydon on September 9 when their aircraft collided. Sinclair survived but Boulton’s aircraft careered into a Me 110 and plunged to earth.
The man in the middle with the moustache is Jerrard Jefferies, who changed his surname to Latimer later in the war to carry on an old family name. He joined the RAF in 1936 and fought in the battle with 310 (Free Czech) Squadron, as did Boulton and Sinclair. After the battle he transferred to Bomber Command and died over France when his Lancaster bomber was shot down. The spaniel in the picture, thought to be called Rex, died when he accidentally jumped into the propeller of Jefferies’ Hurricane as he tried to greet his master.
One of the two pilots pictured seated by a Nissen hut is the only man in the photographs still living. Wallace “Jock” Cunningham is 93 now, but in poor health. The officer next to him is Arthur Blake, a Fleet Air Arm pilot attached to the RAF and known in the wing as Sailor. the Battle of Britain was in its last days when it claimed him. Blake was ‘weaving’ behind his squadron – acting as lookout – when he was surprised by an Me109 and shot down. He was 23 when he met his death.
2353 British and 574 overseas aircrew fought in the battle of britain. 544 were killed between July and October 1940. Another 791 died later in the war, in combat and as a result of accidents.
Brian Lane. The epitome of the gallant few who won the Battle of Britain. Lane was No. 19 Squadron’s fourth Commanding Officer in less than 12 months. Of his predecessors, one was posted away, one was shot down and made a prisoner of war, and one was killed. Lane was extremely well-liked by his men and was a very gifted fighter pilot. He wrote a book about his experiences in the battle, “Spitfire!” which was published in 1942.
Lane was killed in action 13 December 1942. He was 25 years old. (Imperial War Museum)
LEST WE FORGET
Brian John Edward Lane
Squadron Leader No. 19 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
born 18 June 1917–reported missing-in-action presumed dead– 13 December 1942, age 25.
uss wasp in mediterranean flying off urgently needed spitfires to malta.
RAF Spitfire launches from USS Wasp
USS Wasp Twice Resupplied Malta with Spifires
In the early 1930s the British government decided Malta would not be defended if war came. While a major naval base with huge warship repair years for the Royal Navy, no funds were allocated for building up the defenses of Malta. Those defenses which remained from World War One were left to decay.
As you will note from the map above, Malta was a key position if you wanted to control the Mediterranean. And when war came, the British desperately needed to either control the Med or deny its control to other belligerents like Italy or Germany. So the decision not to defend Malta was reversed.
April 1942. A heavily bomb-damaged street in Valletta, Malta. This street is Kingsway, the principle street in Valetta. Service personnel and civilians are present clearing up the debris. (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Unfortunately for the British, since Malta had few defense installations, actually defending the island required a far greater effort than ever envisioned the Royal Navy and RAF. Both services suffered heavy losses in ships of the former and planes of the latter.
USS Wichita (CA-45) at anchor in Scapa Flow in April 1942. USS Wasp (CV-7) is in the background. The Wichita sortied as part of the Allied escort of one of the PQ convoys to Russia while the Wasp sortied into the Med as described below.
(official US Navy photo)
As valuable as Malta was a naval base, it was even more valuable as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. The only problem was that German and Italian planes attacked the island constantly and kept shooting down all the RAF planes defending Malta.
In April and May of 1942, the British were desperate to send additional aircraft to defend Malta. But no British airfield was close enough so an aircraft carrier had to be loaded with planes and escorted to within about 400 miles of Malta (this being the range of fighter aircraft before running out of fuel) and then launch the aircraft which would fly to the island.
Because of the incredible danger from German and Italian air attacks on shipping, the aircraft carriers would not get closer and even coming within 400 miles was risky. The Med also was infested with numerous German and Italian U Boats.
The British did not have a carrier available so Churchill asked President Roosevelt if an American aircraft carrier could be sent to the Med to perform the urgent task of resupplying Malta with fighter aircraft.
Roosevelt agreed although Admiral King, CNO and C-in-C US Fleet (the only person ever to hold these two offices) no doubt was pissed off since he had an intense dislike of the British. USS Wasp was sent, first going to Great Britain to embark Spitfires. She subsequently entered the Mediterranean heavily escorted by units of the British Home Fleet including the battlecruiser HMS Renown. A very large number of Royal Navy destroyers and sloops formed the screen around the USS Wasp.
19 April 1942. U.S. Navy Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats from Fighting Squadron 71 (VF-71) and Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfires Mk.Vc of No. 603 Squadron RAF on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) on 19 April 1942.
(Official US Navy photograph)
On 19 April 1942, USS Wasp launched 47 Spitfires which flew to Malta (several did not make it). Incredibly, the British forces on the island had no prepared revetments or other safe locations for these precious Spitfires and most were destroyed on the ground by the Germans and Italians within 24 hours.
The military Governor of Malta, Lt. Gen. Dobbie, was sacked several weeks later and replaced by Lord Gort, promoted Field Marshal in 1943 because of his successful leadership of the defense of Malta.
Supermarine Spitfires Mk.VC spotted on the deck of the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) in 1942. HMS Eagle is visible in the background.
(official US Navy photograph)
On 9 May 1942, USS Wasp again entered the Med, again heavily escorted by the Royal Navy, and flew off 47 Spitfires. The British had finished refitting HMS Eagle, a World War One battleship converted to an aircraft carrier and she joined the Wasp.
However, HMS Eagle could not carry many Spitfires because they did not have folding wings and did not fit her old lifts. But she did manage to fly off 17 Spitfires which joined the others flown off by the USS Wasp.
This time the British ground forces had prepared protected areas for the Spitfires and each time one landed, it was immediately taken off the runway and parked in a protected revetment.
These aircraft helped save the island which was under continual bombing attacks day and night by German and Italian warplanes.
Sources: The Siege of Malta 1940-1943 by E. Bradford and author’s research
This was not a warning German pilots liked hearing over the headphones during air battles over England.
Flames roar from the exhaust of a Spitfire as it starts its engine. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images. August 2015. Courtesy of the Guardian.
spitfires to malta
Arrive in Malta at last. If the Spitfire pilots didn’t keep an eagle eye on their fuel mixture and fly in such a way as to conserve fuel they coulnd’t make it to Malta from their flying off point and over the years a number of them crashed into the Med never to be heard from again.
“My dear chap, you’re just the type. Which hunt do you follow?”
When Johnnie said he did not even ride a horse, he was promptly shown the door.
The RAF’s top-scoring fighter pilot, Wing Commander James ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, with his Spitfire and pet Labrador ‘Sally’ at Bazenville landing ground, Normandy, July 1944. (photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
“In 1937, “Johnnie” Johnson tried to join the Auxiliary Air Force (AAF). On hearing that he came from Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, the interviewing officer said, “My dear chap, you’re just the type. Which hunt do you follow?” When Johnnie said he did not even ride a horse, he was promptly shown the door. Little did that interviewing officer think he had just rejected the man who, in the second world war, would shoot down more of the enemy than any other pilot in the RAF – and without ever being shot down himself.”
From the obituary of Air Vice-Marshal James ‘Johnnie’ Johnson in the UK Guardian.
The insidious British class system often resulted in highly qualified men being rejected because they weren’t thought to be of the “better classes.”
Shot down by British fighters. A captured German bomber crewman drinks from a British soldier’s water bottle after baling out of his aircraft, 30 August 1940. (Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum).
Two airmen of the Polish Air Force Depot at RAF Blackpool receive instruction on the controls of an aircraft during ground training at Squires Gate aerodrome, 27 August 1940.(Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum).
Supermarine Spitfires (Mark I) of No. 610 Squadron RAF fly in formation, 24 July 1940.
(Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum).
British fighter doctrine at the time specified that fighters were to fly in groups of three which the RAF named a “vic”. Unfortunately, this made the system of having a wing-man watching your back difficult to emulate and it was only later in the war that the British adopted the successful “finger four” formation of the Luftwaffe.
Squadron Leader Peter Townsend chats with ground crew sitting on his Hawker Hurricane at Wick, Scotland.
(Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum).
Locals watch as troops and police inspect a German Messerschmitt Bf 109which crash-landed in a field near Lewes, Sussex. The pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.