Friday 27 September 2013

The Battle of Barking Creek

56 Squadron RAF (MOD)
Warfare is by definition, a pretty grim business but one of it's most tragic aspects is the so called 'Friendly Fire' engagement. These 'Blue on Blue' incidents, as they have become known amongst the post-war NATO allies, are probably as old as warfare itself and have been caused by a myriad of factors, including bad weather conditions, poor tactics resulting in friendly forces being fired upon, technical breakdowns of equipment leading to an unlucky misdirection of fire, or simply poor training or inexperience leading to mis-identification of friendly forces.

It was the latter reason that was probably the cause of an engagement at the very beginning of the Second World War that became known in RAF circles as The Battle of Barking Creek, even though the action took place in the skies above rural Essex rather than above Barking. 

Just three days after the declaration of war, on the morning of 6th September 1939, a single aircraft returning from patrol over the English Channel was plotted as 'hostile' by the 11 Group controllers at Uxbridge and the Hurricanes of 56 Squadron based at RAF North Weald, were scrambled to intercept the raider. None of the pilots involved had ever seen combat and almost certainly none of them had ever seen an enemy aircraft at this early stage of the war. This inexperience wasn't just confined to the pilots; the controllers too were learning the hard way and the system, later to be such a superb instrument of war during the Battle of Britain, needed some serious tweaking. 

The Hurricanes of 56 Squadron became split in their hunt for the so-called intruder and in turn, these sections too were plotted as 'hostile' and soon the Ops Room table in Uxbridge became cluttered with 'hostile' plots. As a result of these multiple plots, further squadrons were scrambled and soon further squadrons were scrambled to investigate - 151 from North Weald, also with Hurricanes, as well as the Spitfires of 54, 65 and 74 Squadrons from Hornchurch. One of the pilots of 54 Squadron was the New Zealander Al Deere, later to become one of the RAF's 'aces' and in his excellent autobiography entitled 'Nine Lives', Deere described vividly the confusion that was beginning to unfold;

"I had trouble starting my aircraft and was late getting off and in the hour I was airborne, I spent the whole time trying to join up with my squadron which was receiving so many vectors that it was impossible to follow them."

When Deere did eventually find his squadron, they were over Chatham and soon came under fire from the anti-aircraft guns defending the area. However, it was not only the gunners on the ground that were having difficulty in aircraft recognition. Based on the information they had been receiving from their controllers, everybody in the skies over Essex on this day were expecting to see enemy aircraft at any moment. This potential disaster had been escalating for about an hour when it was to culminate with truly tragic consequences.

'Sailor' Malan (IWM)
The Spitfires of 74 Squadron's 'A' Flight, led by Adolph 'Sailor' Malan caught sight of one of these suspect plots and Malan ordered "Tally Ho" over the radio, which was the universal signal to attack. Almost as soon as he gave the order, he realised that he had made a mistake - the 'hostile' aircraft were in fact two of the Hurricanes of  56 Squadron. At the subsequent court martial and to the end of his life, Malan insisted that he countermanded the order by shouting "Friendly aircraft - break away" but two of his pilots, Paddy Byrne and John Freeborn didn't hear the order. Neither did they spot the RAF roundels on the Hurricanes and immediately opened fire. In the ensuing melee, both of the Hurricanes were shot down and although one pilot baled out safely, the other, 26 year old Pilot Office Montague Hulton-Harrop had the unfortunate distinction of being the first RAF pilot to be shot down and killed over England during the Second World War, albeit by his own side.

John Freeborn in 1944 (IWM)
Byrne and Freeborn were taken under arrest as soon as they landed back at Hornchurch and quickly brought before a court martial. Fortunately, both men were acquitted, for it became clear that in the confused atmosphere prevailing on the day, it was impossible to apportion blame. However, this whole affair led to considerable ill-feeling in some quarters; Malan had appeared for the prosecution at the court martial and had accused Freeborn of being irresponsible and of ignoring orders. Freeborn, on the other hand believed that Malan was covering his own back and indeed during the proceedings, Freeborn's counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, accused Malan of being "a bare faced liar." Remarkably, once the dust of the court martial settled, the two men continued to serve together in 74 Squadron, although not surprisingly relations between the two never recovered and despite Freeborn receiving a DFC and bar, he was not recommended for either award by Malan; neither did he receive command of 74 Squadron when the South African was rested in March 1941, despite being the next most experienced man in the squadron and an obvious choice as his successor. 

Despite being exonerated at the court martial, perhaps Freeborn's generally outspoken nature counted against him in his subsequent RAF career. He also had a run in with Douglas Bader, describing him later in life as "a self-opinionated fool" and left the service in 1946 having decided that the post-war RAF was being run by "nincompoops" and led a successful business life before passing away in 2010.

'Sailor' Malan had a brilliantly successful career in the RAF, finishing the war with 27 kills and being generally seen as a tough but eminently fair man to serve with and under. Post war, Malan retired from the RAF and returned to his native South Africa, becoming one of the early members of the anti-apartheid movement, before passing away in 1963 at the relatively young age of 53 from Parkinson's Disease.

On the balance of probabilities, Malan probably did countermand his order to open fire but the decision to arrest and court martial the two 74 Squadron pilots was plainly the wrong one. The whole affair was as described by Alan Deere "a truly amazing shambles" brought about by inexperience, a general lack of preparedness and what is known as the 'fog of war.'

Pilot Office ML Hulton-Harrop (seated front left) (North Weald Airfield Museum)

As always with a tragedy of this nature, the death of a blameless young pilot brought about some meaningful changes in Fighter Command's procedures, which when honed and put to the test in the Battle of Britain less than one year later, would prove to be a winning system. The Battle of Barking Creek ensured that the RAF  fitted a workable IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) signal system into all of it's aircraft which showed up to ground controllers whether an aircraft was hostile or not. It also compelled the RAF into strengthening it's training procedures of controllers, plotters and radar operators to ensure that the fighter pilots scrambled to intercept the 'suspect' plots would not receive either too much information - a myriad of vectors, as happened at Barking Creek, or too little, which left fighters flying aimlessly around in search of a target. Aircraft recognition, both on the ground and in the air, was also worked on and whilst this problem was never completely ironed out, it had greatly improved by the time of the Battle of Britain. 

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the action took place over rural Essex, nowhere near Barking Creek but as this unattractive feature of east London was the butt of several music hall gags of the time, it was probably inevitable that this misunderstanding would be christened thus by the rank and file members of the RAF, who as always showed humour in adversity.

The one victim of the Battle of Barking Creek was Montagu Hulton-Harrop, who is buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's, North Weald Bassett, a stone's throw from his old RAF Station at North Weald. His death in a tragic misunderstanding, perhaps indirectly played a part in the RAF's ultimate victory in the Battle of Britain.

Published Sources:

Flying for Freedom: North Weald Airfield in the Second World War - Arthur Moreton, privately published 2008
Nine Lives - Alan C Deere, Crecy Publishing 2012
Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend - Leo McKinstry, John Murray 2007
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000

Friday 13 September 2013

The Time of the Rockets

V-2 at Peenemunde (AElfwine)
Much has been written about the V-2 rockets, both on this blog (in June 2011)  and in February of this year, as well as extensively by far more accomplished writers than here. Sixty nine years ago this month, the first of these technologically brilliant but morally doubtful weapons fell in Staveley Road, Chiswick, thus ushering in a new and far more sinister period of warfare, one that remains with us to this day, where death and destruction could arrive without warning. Ironically, this first missile was the only one to trouble this particular borough, although it's place in history was now assured, perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
Athough these rockets were aimed at London, or other specific targets such as Antwerp, the actual point of impact could not be predicted, hence the wide spread of strikes across the whole of London. The brilliant scientific intelligence expert, Dr RV Jones, had already predicted the likely aiming point as being just down river from Tower Bridge, in the Wapping area. Jones had worked this out by analysing in great detail the fall of shot of the missiles, which showed to him an error in velocity of 'about 0.8 percent', which basically meant that the rockets were not travelling quite as fast as the Germans had predicted. This proved to be a tremendous piece of deduction, as the Germans actual aiming point was about 1000 yards to the east of Waterloo Bridge, ironically almost exactly on the spot of the London Fire Brigade headquarters on Lambeth Embankment!

This slight error in the aim meant that comparatively few of the missiles fell in central London as had been planned but many more of them fell on the eastern side of the city. With the V-1 Flying Bombs, their launching sites in the Pas de Calais region had meant that south and south east London had suffered the worst of these weapons but because of the V-2's launching points being largely in the Netherlands, most of these 'shorts' fell in the boroughs immediately east of central London. So it was that the two boroughs struck by the V-2s were Ilford and Woolwich, with 35 and 33 respectively. West Ham on 27 and Greenwich with 22, were the next in this dubious league table of devastation.

Being a south London boy born and bred, it is natural that this author should concentrate on the boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich, both for reasons of parochial pride and the fact that he is in possession of the incident logs for these boroughs as well as several interesting personal accounts!

The first V-2 to impact upon Woolwich struck early in the campaign on September 14th 1944 when numbers 130-136 Dairsie Road, Eltham were obliterated in seconds. Six people were killed in this incident including a 5 year old boy, Keith Bungay. The list of incidents in Woolwich reflects the unpredictable nature of the V-2s, including a premature 'airburst' explosion on 28th October over Shrapnel Barracks in Woolwich in which nobody was injured. That already much-struck target, the Woolwich Arsenal, attracted the attention of the rockets on no fewer than eight separate occasions, the worst being on 27th November when the mysteriously titled 'Area D78', in reality the Heavy Gun Shop was struck, with six fatal casualties and over fifty injured. There is also one amusing V-2 related incident that pertains to the Woolwich Arsenal, when on 3rd February 1945 another rocket was reported as having struck the site, only for the incident to be cancelled a matter of moments later when it was realised that the explosion had been caused by the Arsenal's own materials being tested!
The most heartbreaking incident in the borough as far as this writer is concerned came on 20th February 1945, when numbers 64-70 Moordown, in the Shooter's Hill area were destroyed by a direct hit. The casualty list makes appalling reading - almost an entire family was wiped out, with Mrs Farrell and her three children aged between 3 and 6 years all being killed amongst an overall death toll of eight. The worst incident in Woolwich came on the morning of 17th March 1945 when an entire area around Jackson Street and Millward Street on Woolwich Common, adjacent to the Barracks was devastated - 14 people were killed and 144 were injured to various degrees of seriousness. This incident is the subject of a surviving incident report which rests in the archives of the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre. Apart from the melancholy reading of the casualty lists, there is a quiet, understated description of heroism amongst the rescuers. The District Warden writing the report mentions the driver and mate of the Rescue Squad's crane who worked "continuously for 20 hours with only half an hour break for meals", such was the dedicated nature of the rescue teams who worked tirelessly to extract the victims, both living and dead. The report also highlights tensions in the hierarchy of the Civil Defence teams when the District Warden pointed out that "certain policemen will not act on Incident Officer's requests and consider that they are in charge of the incident." The report closed by praising a seemingly mundane but vitally important facet of the Civil Defence teams by reporting that the LCC Meal Service served upto 265 meals for those rendered homeless and closed by stating that "No praise is too high for the efficiency of Mrs Bull and her WVS colleagues."

Aftermath at St Nicholas's Hospital (Greenwich HC)
As well as striking 'military' targets such as Woolwich Arsenal, V-2 rockets had no respect for hospitals either as was proved on 6th February 1945 when St Nicholas's Hospital in Plumstead was near missed by a rocket which fell in the nearby churchyard but which shattered windows in the hospital and showered the area with debris. Nobody was killed in this incident but the seventeen injured were at least handily placed for hospital treatment.

Moving across the borough boundaries into Greenwich, the story of the rockets makes familiar, if depressing reading with their first incident, actually proving to be the worst in the borough. On Saturday 11th November 1944 at just after 6.30pm, the drinkers in the Brook Hotel on Shooters Hill Road, would have been settling down for a relaxing evening's drinking, when suddenly everything familiar was obliterated. The adjacent Brook Hospital was damaged and apart from the casualties in the pub, a passing 89 bus was also destroyed, thus adding to the death toll. When the rescuers had finished their work, it was found that 29 people had perished, with a further 22 taken next door to the Brook Hospital for treatment. A further 21 of these missiles fell on Greenwich and whilst the casualty lists steadily grew, none of these incidents proved worse than the first one at the Brook Hotel.

The very last V-2 of the war in Greenwich and Woolwich occurred on 19th March 1945, barely six weeks before the end of the war in Europe, when a rocket struck the end of the Iron Pier at Woolwich Arsenal, putting the pier out of action and causing damage to property within the Arsenal proper but mercifully without incurring further loss of life.

By this time, the missile launching sites around The Hague, were in danger of being surrounded and cut off by the advancing Allies and were withdrawn into Germany, with a view to continuing the struggle from there. Some abortive attempts were made in early April to re-start operations from the Hannover area but these test firings fortunately did not lead to a resurgence of operations and the missile firing units were gradually swallowed up in futile attempts to provide infantry to defend the ever shrinking Reich.
Devastation from a V-2: Troughton Road, Charlton (GHC)

Although 1,358 rockets were fired at London, a higher number were fired at Antwerp, with 1,610 being launched at the by now Allied-occupied port. The excellent website V2ROCKET.COM gives a full listing of each rocket ever launched, as well as a breakdown of the launching units responsible.

Apart from this writer's obvious interest in the subject, the V-2s made a lasting impact on the family home, when on 25th January 1945, a rocket fell in the grounds of Charlton House, partially destroying the Jacobean manor house as well as causing widespread blast damage to houses in the surrounding area, including mine! The legacy can still be seen with replacement ceilings still apparent in the upstairs rooms of the house. Fortunately, Charlton House itself was rebuilt after the war, although the repairs were made using different coloured bricks, making the repairs easy to spot even sixty nine years after the event.
Footprints of the Blitz indeed.
Published Sources:
Hitler's Rockets: The Story of the V-2s - Norman Longmate, Frontline Books 2009
Unpublished Sources 

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Incident Log - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich Incident Log - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Jackson Street District Warden's Report - Greenwich Heritage Centre