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

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