Friday, 28 June 2013

The Fighting Cocks, Black Saturday and Dickie Reynell

Flt Lt RC Reynell RAF (Shoreham Museum)
Earlier today, I was lucky enough to attend the unveiling and dedication of a memorial stone to Flight Lieutenant Richard Carew Reynell RAF, who died on the first day of the Blitz, Saturday 7th September 1940, when the Hurricane he was flying was brought down whilst in combat with Bf109s over Blackheath, southeast London. A fuller account of Dickie Reynell's life and his last hours appeared in February 2012 edition of this blog, so whilst a full repetition of the story would be pointless, today's ceremony did once again bring home the incredible heroism of the fighter pilots of RAF Fighter Command, who fought selflessly against huge odds to defend this country. 

The 2,927 pilots of Fighter Command were memorably dubbed 'The Few' by Winston Churchill and whilst most of this gallant band hailed from these islands, a significant number came from overseas. The British Empire and Commonwealth countries contributed many men to the battle. The largest single contingent came from New Zealand, who sent 127, closely followed by Canada with 97. Dickie Reynell was an Australian, which country contributed 27 pilots. Neither should the countries of occupied Europe be forgotten; the Poles made the largest single foreign contribution to the Battle of Britain with 146 pilots, who were rightfully recognised as particularly fearsome combatants, as were the Czechs with 87. 

The raid on London of 7th September 1940 was what RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force would later call a 'Maximum Effort' raid. Goering deployed 348 bombers escorted by 617 Bf109 and Bf110 fighters. They were basically in one massive formation heading towards London at between 14,000 and 23,000 feet. It was no exaggeration to say that this huge force filled the skies and they must have presented an awe-inspiring sight to the defending Spitfire and Hurricane pilots of 11 Group, Fighter Command sent up to meet them. It was no wonder that Londoners were to dub this day 'Black Saturday' such was the intensity of the assault upon the capital.

43 Squadron Crest - Gloria Finis
The first two squadrons to intercept the attackers were the auxiliaries from 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron and the 'regular' 43 Squadron, known as 'The Fighting Cocks' from their squadron badge. Three of 43's Hurricanes went in against the fighters, whilst the other six, led by the Squadron commander, the Rhodesian Caesar Hull, along with Dickie Reynell and Pilot Officer Alan Deller, took on the bombers. The engagements lasted all the way from the Sussex coast and even after they had exhausted their ammunition continued to harass the bombers as best as they could by making mock attacks. Hull shot down two Dorniers but was eventually shot down by an escorting fighter and crashed in the grounds of Purley Grammar School in Surrey, whilst Dickie's Hurricane exploded over Blackheath and he fell to earth without his parachute having deployed. Deller too was shot down but managed to bale out out of his blazing Hurricane and lived to fight another day. When John Kilmartin, leader of the rear section that had attacked the fighters landed, he could only mutter the words "My God!"

Although the RAF quickly recovered it's equilibrium, Black Saturday was arguably the closest that Fighter Command came to being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Air Vice Marshal Park of 11 Group had called upon the neighbouring 12 Group for assistance as per the well tried system within Fighter Command but as often happened, the 'Big Wing' took far too long to formate and to compound this delay, the leader of the Duxford Wing, Douglas Bader ignored the instructions of his controller and took his wing to patrol at 15,000 feet over North Weald instead of at 10,000 and whilst engaging a formation of bombers were 'bounced' by the escorting fighters which shot down or damaged six Hurricanes. The 'Big Wing' concept was unwieldy and on this day, was also hindered by communications breakdowns that slowed it's deployment still further. Despite all of this, pro and anti 'Big Wing' attitudes in the RAF would harden in the coming months.

The unveiled memorial stone
At the end of the day's fighting, the Germans had lost only fourteen bombers, or 4% of the attacking force but had lost twenty three of the escorting fighters, which had sacrificed themselves in protecting the bomber force. It had been a bad day for Fighter Command, losing twenty six fighters and more importantly six of their pilots. Despite this attrition, the odds still favoured the RAF; their pilots that survived being shot down were over friendly territory and were usually quickly returned to the fray, whilst the Luftwaffe pilots were either killed or taken prisoner. Furthermore, by switching their attention to London, the Luftwaffe were no longer attacking the RAF's airfields.

London had already suffered grievously and with the Luftwaffe returning under cover of darkness to re-stoke the fires, the coming of the dawn would see 412 Londoners dead, with a further 747 seriously injured. To add to the confusion, somebody had issued an invasion alert - the codeword Cromwell had been issued and the church bells in some areas had been rung. Fortunately, this was a false alarm and the fuss soon died down. From now onwards though, London would be the Luftwaffe's main target and would suffer by night. There would be one more attempt to mount a major daylight raid - this would come just over a week later and would result in a vastly different outcome, although this is another story.

As a result of their mauling on 7th September and earlier losses during the Battle of Britain, 43 Squadron was withdrawn from the action and sent to recuperate at RAF Usworth, near Sunderland in 13 Group, Fighter Command. The squadron had been decimated and could only muster thirteen pilots, of whom six were recent postings from the Operational Training Units. Of the survivors, only John Kilmartin had any significant experience, so although the withdrawal was a painful blow for this proud squadron to bear, it was undoubtedly the correct decision. 43 Squadron's time would come again, in November 1942 as part of the Desert Air Force and in liberated France in 1944, where they became known to the local French populace as Les Coqs Anglais. Moving into the jet age, the squadron operated Meteors and Hunters in the 1950s, Phantoms in the 70s and 80s, before receiving Tornados in 1989. The squadron saw service in both Gulf Wars before standing down in 2009 as part of one of the seemingly endless rounds of defence cutbacks. The squadron is earmarked to reform as a Eurofighter Typhoon squadron at some point in the near future but whether this actually ever happens remains to be seen.

The memorial stone before unveiling

Moving ahead to the present day, today's ceremony for Dickie Reynell was a simple but moving affair organised by the Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, as part of their ongoing project to place a memorial at or near the site of every Battle of Britain pilot lost within a ten mile radius of the museum. The service was attended by the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Cllr Angela Cornforth as well as many members of the Reynell family, representatives from the Australian Embassy, RAAF and the RAF and of course many volunteers from the Shoreham Aircraft Museum as well as a decent turn out of members of the local Blackheath and Greenwich public who braved the rain and who wished to honour this brave man who died helping to defend the city that we all love and the freedom that we enjoy today. 

Andrew Rennie tells us about Dickie's final mission

Also present was Andrew Rennie, an Australian historian and friend of the Reynell family who is close to completing a biography of Richard, which should make fascinating reading. Andrew gave a moving account of Richard's last sortie and of the events of the afternoon of September 7th. The memorial stone was then unveiled by Monsignor Nicholas Rothon of St Mary's Church Blackheath, Wing Commander Tony O'Leary of the RAAF and by David Caillard RAF (retired), who is a great nephew of Dickie Reynell. Following the unveiling ceremony, David gave a moving and insightful speech about Dickie Reynell and of his family's continuing pride in his achievements, not only during the Battle of Britain but in his pre-war service with the RAF and also as a test pilot for Hawker's, in which he did much valuable work in perfecting the RAF's first monoplane fighter and which was the real workhorse of the Battle of Britain, along with it's more glamorous half-sister, the Spitfire.

Members of the Reynell family by the memorial

From all accounts, Richard Reynell was not only a brave man, he was fine pilot and a decent person too, who had a kind word of encouragement for all and who was widely liked by not only his family but by his extended family within the RAF, in Hawkers and in the aircraft industry. It was a sad twist of fate that he had been recalled by Hawkers on 7th September 1940 but had chosen to see out the day's operations before returning to his normal work as a test pilot.

The City that Richard Reynell died whilst defending

When reflecting on Dickie Reynell and his contemporaries within the RAF during the Battle of Britain, one can only echo the words of Winston Churchill - "Never was so much owed by so many, to so few."

Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster. Tri-Service Press 1990

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