Commemorating the 80th anniversary of Britain’s finest hour

Words: Dominic Kirby

Late in the afternoon on Sunday 18th August 1940, Sergeant Francis ‘Frank’ Walker-Smith was flying in a Hawker Hurricane at 10,000 feet above the English Channel. Flying near him was his commanding officer, Squadron Leader Peter Townsend (better known for his later relationship with Princess Margaret) and 11 other fighter pilots from No. 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

The Flying Foxes, as the squadron was known, had that same day become part of No. 11 Group, a large formation of RAF, British Empire and Allied fighter squadrons tasked with defending London and south east England from the Luftwaffe.

Bogeys over Kent

Pilots and ground crew posted to any fighter squadron in 11 Group in the spring or summer of 1940 knew they were in for a long and hard fight against Hitler’s air force.

85 Squadron didn’t have long to wait for their baptism of fire. They were scrambled at 17:24 that afternoon from their base at RAF Debden in Essex to intercept and attack a large formation of incoming German bombers heading for Kent. They had only been in the air for nine minutes when they spotted three massive black waves of aircraft in the sky above them.

The 13 Hurricanes had intercepted a formidable force of approximately 200 German bombers and their fighter escorts. At 10,000 feet were Junkers JU 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers. Above the Stukas at 12,000 feet were Heinkel He 111s.

Above the Heinkels were a mixed bag of Junkers JU 88 and Messerschmitt Bf 110s. Guarding all of these bombers were dozens of yellow-nosed Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. It was 13 against 200. Such were the long odds facing RAF, British Empire and Allied fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain.

Walker-Smith now found himself in the very thick of the individual dogfights that followed. He later recalled what happened: “At 17:30 hours I was ordered up with my squadron to intercept bogeys. Enemy were spotted at 15,000 feet east of Thames estuary. The squadron was given tally-ho.

“I picked out an Me 110. After about one and a half minutes of steep turning, I delivered a frontal attack on it from a height of 2,000 feet above it, opening fire at 100-150 yards above it. It was a burst of about four seconds. I saw smoke coming from both its engines as it glided down from 8,000 feet to strike the sea about 40 miles out.

“After giving various other EA short bursts I delivered another frontal attack on another Me 110, which broke up at about 3,000 feet. The rear gunner or pilot bailed out. This attack took place at 5,000 feet, about 60 miles due east of Margate. Only one person bailed out. The aircraft broke up making a series of splashes in the sea. Enemy casualties: two Me 110s destroyed.”

Both of Walker-Smith’s ‘kills’ were later confirmed. He had done well.

The Hardest Day

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the first major and arguably the most important aerial battle of the Second World War. Day after day for three and a half months, from 10th July to 31st October 1940, young pilots like Frank flew sortie after sortie against Hitler’s numerically-superior Luftwaffe, which was hell bent on destroying the RAF – a vital prelude to Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), Nazi Germany’s planned invasion of mainland Britain.

Although ‘Battle of Britain Day’ is commemorated on the 15th September every year, Walker-Smith shot down his two Me 110s on 18th August – ‘the Hardest Day’. As the name suggests, this was a day of reckoning during the battle, when both sides suffered the greatest number of casualties in terms of men killed or wounded and aircraft destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

The RAF had 10 pilots killed and 19 wounded to the Luftwaffe’s 94 killed, 25 wounded and 40 captured. Two days later Churchill made his famous ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’ speech in the House of Commons.

Although the battle raged on until late autumn, the Hardest Day began to tip the balance of the battle slowly but surely in the RAF’s favour.

How and why did the RAF win the Battle of Britain?

There are multiple reasons – operational, psychological and technological – why the RAF won and the Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain in 1940. When I teach this topic to my Key Stage 3 classes, I narrow these reasons down to 10 key factors:

RAF successes:

  1. The courage, resilience and skill of RAF, British Empire and Allied pilots and ground crews. It’s right to point out that Nazi German and Italian (there were a few) pilots and aircrew were no less brave than our own.
  2. The superiority of British fighter aircraft – notably the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane – over German ones. Not only were these two aircraft superior in the air, being generally faster and more manoeuvrable than the Me 109, they were also both cheaper and quicker to manufacture, maintain and repair. By mid-September the RAF were shooting down German aircraft faster than they were being made.
  3. Geography. Most of the battle was fought in or near British air space. This gave the RAF two significant advantages. Firstly, it meant the German fighters were limited to the amount of time they could spend engaging in dogfights before they had to return to France to rearm and refuel. This left the German bombers vulnerable. Secondly, it meant if RAF pilots were shot down they could be retrieved and returned to their squadrons or to hospital. There are accounts of pilots who were shot down in the morning, but were back in the air in the afternoon. Whereas if German aircrew were shot down, if they weren’t killed outright, they were captured and were out of the fight.
  4. The RAF’s complex but highly effective Dowding command and control system. This gave RAF Fighter Command the ability to identify, track and intercept multiple waves of German bombers, often before they reached their targets.  
  5. Britain’s timely invention and effective use of radar. This brand-new technology was at the heart of the Dowding system. Although the Germans had a vague idea of what it was, they greatly underestimated its operational importance and value.
  6. Strong leadership at all levels. At the top, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (head of RAF Fighter Command) and Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park (head of 11 Group) led their men calmly and consistently under great pressure. Even at the very height of the battle Park, a charismatic and popular New Zealander, would fly from airfield to airfield, encouraging and supporting his men.
  7. The moral and ethical righteousness of the British and Allied cause. It is perhaps all too easy to dismiss this factor as outdated Victorian disingenuousness, but I think most people who fought the Nazis believed they were fighting for good against evil.

Luftwaffe failures:

  • No clear and consistent aim. The Luftwaffe’s sweeping aim was to destroy the RAF and Britain’s air defences, but it couldn’t decide how best to do this. No sooner had targets – be they shipping, the RAF’s airfields or London – been chosen, than they were changed. This meant only limited and localised damage was suffered.
  • Arrogance, overconfidence and lack of leadership at all levels. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (head of the Luftwaffe) boasted that his pilots could destroy the RAF in only a few weeks. Indeed, the overconfidence and interference of many senior German commanders constantly hampered the Wehrmacht (the Nazi German armed forces) throughout the whole course of the war.  
  • Loss of morale and fighting spirit among Luftwaffe pilots and aircrew, because of exhaustion and very high casualty rates. In other words, the Germans blinked first. By the end of the battle, over 1,000 more German pilots and aircrew had been killed than RAF, British Empire and Allied ones combined. Nearly 1,000 more had been shot down and captured. These heavy losses were simply not sustainable for the Luftwaffe in the long-term.  

All of these factors – and others – gave the RAF significant advantages over the Luftwaffe and ground down Hitler’s demoralised and exhausted pilots and aircrew, until, with the onset of winter, the Führer was forced to postpone and then finally abandon Unternehmen Seelöwe in the late autumn of 1940. The RAF had saved mainland Britain from almost certain Nazi German invasion.

Dropping in for a drink

As for Frank Walker-Smith, he survived the Hardest Day. He was shot down over Kent later that summer but bailed out with no more than an injured foot. Commissioned as an officer in March 1941, Frank was tragically killed in a flying accident a few days later, along with two other pilots from 85 Squadron. He was just 24 years old.

All three pilots are buried near to where they crashed in Saffron Walden in Essex. Frank never got to meet Margo, his baby daughter who was born eight months later. Such is the human cost of war.

Yet this brave young pilot left a lasting impression on his CO. Many years later in 1985, Peter Townsend wrote to one of Frank’s relations: “Your uncle Francis Walker-Smith first came into my life when, on 23rd May 1940, I took command of 85 Squadron. I have a clear and sympathetic memory of him. He was nice-looking with a smile on his lips and a subtle sense of humour.

“He was an excellent pilot too — which did not prevent his being shot down on August 30th 1940, near Hawkhurst, Kent. Back with the squadron that evening, he told us with, as usual, that smile: ‘If you have to be shot down, see that it happens over Hawkhurst. The people there are wonderfully friendly.’

“Next day I myself was drifting down in my parachute over Hawkhurst only to find out, after several beers at the Royal Oak, that what he had said was true.”

Frank was posthumously mentioned in despatches for the “gallant work he performed during the Battle of Britain.” This characteristically British understatement may be said of all the brave men and women who lost their lives in the Battle of Britain 80 years ago.

Lest we forget.

Credit: some of this article is based on information recorded by Mr Bill Slater in the BBC’s ‘WW2 People’s War’ archive.

A few of the Few. Pilots of No. 85 Squadron, RAF in September 1940. Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, the Commanding Officer, is in the middle of the photograph holding a walking stick. Townsend had been wounded in his left foot, hence the walking stick. (Credit: The Mirror)

A Hawker Hurricane Mk. I, as operated by No. 85 Squadron, RAF in 1940 (Credit: Warbird Digest)

A Messerschmitt Bf 110 flying over the White Cliffs of Dover. Frank Walker-Smith shot down two of these on the 18th August 1940. (Credit: Historynet)

Pilot Officer Francis ‘Frank’ Walker-Smith’s grave in Saffron Walden, Essex. He was killed on 13th March 1941, aged just 24. Lest we forget. (Credit: the Battle of Britain London Monument)

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