Friday 19 October 2012

The Aces

Edward 'Cobber' Kain DFC
The term 'Ace' in it's aerial context first came into usage during the earliest days of air combat, during the First World War when the French pilot Adolphe Pegaud was given the term 'l'as' (French for Ace) by the French press after he had shot down five German aircraft. Since then, the term has remained in use for any pilot who has achieved five or more victories. During the Great War, every side had it's Aces - Baron von Richthofen being the highest scoring with eighty victories, and arguably becoming the most well known fighter Ace of all time in the process before he was shot down and killed in 1918. On the Allied side, aces such as Frenchman Rene Fonck, the Canadian Billy Bishop and the British Ace Mick Mannock all became household names.

By the time of the Second World War, attitudes in the RAF towards Aces had changed somewhat. Whilst the Luftwaffe deliberately set out to create warrior-heroes in accordance with the knightly ethos encouraged by Dr Goebbels and his Nazi cronies, the RAF despite it's class consciousness then prevalent throughout the British armed forces, refused to officially recognise aces. Eventually, during the Battle of Britain, the RAF was reluctantly forced to co-operate with the media interest generated by the new generation of Aces amongst 'The Few.'

In this short piece, we shall concentrate on the RAF aces if for no other reason than one of space and even here we can only scratch the surface. The first RAF pilot in the Second World War to achieve five 'kills' was actually a New Zealander, Edward James Kain, known as 'Cobber' who scored his first victory as early as the 8th November 1939 over France and by March 1940 had acheived his fifth victory. During the Battle for France in May 1940, Kain achieved a further five victories and by 5th June 1940, he was the RAF's highest scoring fighter pilot with sixteen confirmed kills. The next day, he was informed that his squadron would be returning to England and on the 7th June, he left the airfield at Echemines to fly to Le Mans to collect personal belongings prior to flying across the Channel. As Kain took off, he undertook some low-level aerobatics to bid farewell to his squadron colleagues, misjudged a flick roll and ploughed his Hurricane into the ground. So it was that the RAF's first Ace met his end, not at the hands of the enemy but due to a flying accident.

Josef Frantisek DFM*

The Battle of Britain produced a glut of Aces, all of whom were seized upon by the British press. Some like Tuck, Malan (studied here in October 2010, Bader and Lacey quickly became household names and are still remembered to this day. Once again though, the first RAF pilot to achieve Ace status during the Battle of Britain was not British but on this occasion was a Czech flying as part of the Polish contingent of the RAF, Josef Frantisek. Frantisek had escaped to Poland during the German invasion of his homeland in 1938. When Poland was in turn attacked, Frantisek's squadron had been ordered to Romania and internment and extracating himself from the camp in which he was being held, Frantisek managed to reach France via North Africa in October 1939. Once in France, he elected to remain with the Poles and consumed by a fierce and understandable hatred for the Nazis, began what was in effect a private war against the Third Reich. 

Upon the fall of France, Frantisek reached England and became part of 303 (Polish) Squadron flying Hurricanes based at RAF Northolt. It has to be said that Frantisek was an extremely ill-disciplined pilot and the British squadron commander of 303 began to make arrangements to transfer him to a Czech squadron. Frantisek preferred to stay with his Polish colleagues and because of the desperate shortage of pilots, it was agreed to accommodate him as a 'guest' pilot flying a spare Hurricane. Once 303 Squadron took off, Frantisek would break formation and act alone pouncing on any unsuspecting Luftwaffe aircraft. Using these tactics, by early October 1940 Frantisek had accounted for seventeen German aircraft, in addition to those he shot down whilst attached to the French Armee de l'Air, which he claimed as a further eleven. However, like Kain, Frantisek's demise would come not at the hands of the Luftwaffe but as a result of a flying accident. On 8th October 1940, Frantisek's Hurricane crashed in Ewell, Surrey whilst on approach to land in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Some accounts state that he misjudged an aerobatic maneouvre whilst trying to impress his girlfriend, whilst others state that he simply made a critical error as a result of fatigue following what for him, had already been a long war.

Another New Zealand Ace was Brian Carbury and in common with one other pilot, the Pole Anton Glowacki, he became an Ace in one day, shooting down five German aircraft on 31st August 1940 on his way to a final score of fifteen and a half kills by the end of the year. Carbury was to survive the war but was to be dismissed from the RAF in disgrace in October 1941, having been found guilty at a Court-Marshal of having passed a large number of false cheques, at that time an offence punishable by prison sentence. So ended the career of another ace, albeit in bizarre circumstances.

Bob Stanford-Tuck DSO DFC**
Just to prove that some of the RAF's Aces were British, let us take a look at two of Fighter Command's home-grown talents. Robert Stanford-Tuck was born in 1916 of Jewish parents in Catford, southeast London and after a brief career as an Officer Cadet in the Merchant Navy, joined the RAF in 1935. After completing his flying training, in which he was graded 'above average', Tuck was posted to 65 Squadron at Tangmere, at first flying Gloster Gladiator biplanes but a squadron which was lucky enough to be one of the first to convert to Spitfires in December 1938. Tuck was chosen from his squadron to go to RAF Duxford and receive one-on-one tuition from Jeffrey Quill, senior Test Pilot of Vickers (Supermarine) in order that he could acquaint his squadron colleagues with the then revolutionary new fighter. As one of the RAF's first fighter pilots to fly the Spitfire, he was posted in May 1940 to 92 Squadron at Croydon, later moving to Hornchurch, again flying Spitifires and flying his first combat patrol on 23rd May over Dunkirk, Tuck shot down three Bf109s and the following day became an Ace, when he downed two German bombers. In the ensuing combat during the Battle for France, his score rapidly mounted and he was awarded the DFC on 11th June. During the Battle of Britain, Tuck like all of his colleagues in Fighter Command, was in the thick of the action and it was during this period that "Tuck's Luck" - he had survived an early 'prang' whilst training - came to the fore once again. He was forced to bail out of his Spitfire on 18th August over Tunbridge Wells but survived this safely and a few days later, on the 25th had to nurse his crippled Spitfire back to Hornchurch following return fire from a Dornier Do17 bomber. On another occasion, he personally had been hit and upon removing the bullet in his thigh, the Squadron MO told tuck "A few inches higher and they'd have had to transfer you to the WAAFs!" Tuck's luck would never really desert him. 

In September 1940, Tuck was promoted to command 257 Sqaudron, then flying Hurricanes based at Martlesham Heath. At this time, 257 was a 'hard luck' squadron, formed only a short time previously and suffering from an influx of inexperienced pilots and frankly, not having been previously well led. Tuck turned this squadron around, weeded out one or two individuals who were not up to the task and by September 15th 1940, 257 formed part of the fighter force that routed the German daylight raiders and on that day incidentally, Tuck's two victories brought his own personal score to sixteen. In July 1941, Tuck was further promoted and given command of the Duxford Wing. By this time, Fighter Command was taking part in large fighter sweeps across occupied France known as "Rhubarbs" as part of the new policy instigated by the new head of the Command, Sholto Douglas known as "Leaning towards the Enemy." 

During this period, many fine men were killed or captured including fellow Aces 'Paddy' Finucane, Eric Lock and Douglas Bader and on 28th February 1942, Tuck's luck was to briefly desert him when he was shot down over Boulogne. Even then his luck did not abandon him completely; his Spitfire having been hit and gliding towards a forced landing, Tuck fired a final cannon burst at the anti-aircraft gun that had hit his Spitfire, killing all of the gun's crew. He feared a lynching, but as he was surrounded by angry Germans, their anger turned to laughter when they spotted that one of his final shots had split the barrel of the German gun like a banana being peeled! Tuck's time in captivity was an incredible odyssey in itself and would take too long to describe in detail here. Suffice to say that after several escape attempts, he managed to do so successfully on 1st February 1945 and having reached Russian lines, was denied access to the British authorities until he again escaped, this time from his 'liberators' and reached the British Embassy in Moscow, who arranged his repatriation in March 1945. Tuck's final tally of victories was twenty nine kills, two shared kills and six "probables."

'Johnnie' Johnson CB CBE DSO** DFC*
Even this impressive tally was not the highest achieved by a Fighter Command pilot. James Edgar "Johnnie" Johnson was born in Loughborough in 1915 and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in September 1939. An old rugby injury which had broken his collar bone and which had not been re-set correctly precluded his active participation in the Battle of Britain. However, following a successful operation to correct this, Johnson returned to operational flying with 616 Squadron at Tangmere flying under Wing Commander Douglas Bader. Johnson learned much of his early trade under Bader and on 26th June 1941, he was to score his first victory when he shot down a Bf109 over Gravelines. Johnson took part in the sweep on 9th August 1941 when Bader was shot down and captured and despite the loss of his Wing Leader, Johnson added to his personal score. Later promoted to command 610 Squadron at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk which continued on sweeps over occupied France, Johnson continued to add to his score, despite still flying the Spitfire Mk V, which was being outclassed by the new German Fw190s then coming into service. Promoted again in early 1943, this time to Wing Commander, Johnson was given command of 144 (Canadian) Wing at Kenley, which was equipped with the new Spitfire Mk IX, which was able to once again re-establish British mastery over the Luftwaffe's fighters. Johnson's score soon mounted and by August 1943, he claimed his twenty first victory. By this time, apart from fighter sweeps, the Wing was regularly escorting USAAF bombers on their daylight missions to targets in occupied France. In September 1943, Johnson was rested from Ops but was restored to flying duties in March 1944 in time for the run-up to Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Back with the Canadians of 144 Wing, Johnson again scored regularly and by 23rd August 1944, Johnson equalled and then overtook 'Sailor' Malan's tally of thirty two victories. As Johnson modestly pointed out himself "Malan had fought with great distinction when the odds were against him. He had matched his handful of Spitfires against greatly superior numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers." As Johnson also pointed out, his combat was mostly fought on the offensive, with either a squadron, a wing, or sometimes two wings behind him. Johnson's last victory of the war came on 27th September 1944 over Nijmegen, when his squadron bounced a formation of Bf109s. Johnson survived the war to finish with thirty four individual victories as well as seven shared victories, which was the highest achieved by any of the Western Allies. Postwar, he served in the Korean War flying F-86 Sabre jet fighters on exchange with the USAF and remained in the RAF until 1966, retiring with the rank of Air Vice Marshal.

There are many more aces to discuss and hopefully we shall return to the subject again in a future edition but whether one of the Aces, or one of the vast majority of non-scoring pilots, whatever nationality, the fighter pilot was, and remains a breed apart.

Published Sources:

Fly For Your Life: The Story of Bob Stanford-Tuck - Larry Forester, Cerberus 2002
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990
Wing Leader - 'Johnnie' Johnson - Chatto & Windus Limited 1956


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