505 Squadron, Dunkirk, France
Flight Lieutenant Colin Leach glanced down at the instruments of his Hawker Hurricane as he cruised across the Channel towards France. He craned his neck to look around his aircraft. His squadron followed behind him in close formation. Two other squadrons flew with them, one of Hurricanes and one of Spitfires. They cruised at fifteen thousand feet and the sky was cloudless around them, a blessing in these large formations. Without inter-squadron radio even light cloud could split them up. Not that he really minded that. Their new large formations were ungainly at best, and dangerous in a dogfight. More than once over the past few days he’d seen deadly collisions as thirty or more aircraft desperately tried to evade incoming fire.
Ahead the familiar dark plume of smoke, climbing thousands of feet into the sky, signalled their approach to Dunkirk. He reached up and switched his microphone on.
“Red Leader to all aircraft, patrol area ahead. Gun buttons and sights on. Keep your eyes peeled. And watch your fuel lads.” Acknowledgements came back into his headset, one after the other. He nodded as the last came in and turned his microphone off.
Five minutes later Leach led his squadron into a wide circle above Dunkirk. He craned his neck to look down below. Smoke obscured most of the town and its large dock area. Off the coast white streaks scarred the water, the wakes of a multitude of boats converging on the harbour. Leach looked around, checking the formation. The Spitfires held formation on the left. The Hurricanes were nowhere to be seen. He shook his head and flicked his microphone on.
“Red Leader to all aircraft. Anyone seen three three nine squadron?” One by one his squadron mates replied that they hadn’t seen 339’s Hurricanes break formation. “Very well. Breaking right. Eyes peeled for them.” He eased his control column over, bringing his Hurricane into a shallow turn to the right. Ten seconds into the turn a voice crackled over the radio.
“Tally ho! Bandits at five o’clock, low. Looks like three three nine are already into them.”
Leach craned his neck to see behind. About a thousand feet below, a large formation of Heinkel 111 bombers was breaking up as the 339 Squadron Hurricanes dived through them.
“Red Leader here. I see them. Open up the formation. Let’s get amongst it.” Eager acknowledgements came back over the radio as Leach guided the formation down towards the enemy aircraft. He checked the Spitfires and after continuing on for a moment they corrected and followed him down. Good job. Leach checked his instruments then pushed his throttle forward.
“Keep watch on your fuel lads,” Leach said. Ahead the enemy bombers quickly scattered across the sky to escape the Hurricanes of 339.
When they closed to within five hundred yards Leach leant his stick right. “Red Leader to all aircraft, choose targets from the right of the formation. Attack, attack, go!”
Leach chose a Heinkel diving away below the other fighters and guided his Hurricane onto its tail. Tracers from the bomber’s rear gunner flashed towards him. He waited until he was within two hundred yards then thumbed his gun button. The Hurricane shook as his eight machine guns fired in unison, his own tracers streaking towards the bomber. Debris erupted away from the top of the Heinkel as his bullets smashed into the fuselage.
The Hurricane quickly closed on the slower aircraft and Leach twitched his stick to veer around it. He flashed past above the bomber, its rear gun limp in its mount. He pulled into a hard turn, watching the Heinkel continue its dive as he came around. It turned back the opposite way again, bringing itself squarely into his sights.
He straightened out of his turn, adjusted his aim as the distance closed then thumbed his gun button. His guns rumbled and more debris burst from the Heinkel across the breadth of its left wing. Black smoke gushed from the bomber’s left engine. As Leach pulled out of the attack, flames spurted from the engine cowling.
He came back around and spotted the Heinkel spiralling wildly earthwards. You’re done. He pulled up, back towards the rest of the bombers and glanced down at his fuel gauge. Five more minutes. “Check your fuel lads!”
Above him three Heinkels rushed away from the melee in a tight formation. He pulled up under the lead aircraft. Tracers speared towards him from the belly guns of all three bombers. He closed to within three hundred yards and squeezed his thumb down onto his gun button. His tracers stabbed at the underside of the lead bomber. Bullets from one of the gunners thunked into the wing of his Hurricane. He held the gun button down a moment longer. Debris fell away from the bomber and clattered over his canopy. Leach pulled out of the attack, briefly stabbing his gun button as one of the other Heinkels crossed his sights. He pulled around hard.
“Tally ho!” someone yelled over the radio. “One oh nines above!”
Adrenaline pulsed through Leach’s body. He held the turn and looked up through his canopy. A mass of fifty or more of the deadly Messerschmitt fighters rushed down towards them.
“Red Leader to all aircraft. We’ve broken the bomber formation. Target the fighters.”
Leach pulled up hard towards the 109’s then glanced out each side of his canopy. Several of his squadron mates climbed hard with him, scattered across several hundred yards of sky. The enemy fighters swarmed towards them, outnumbering them four or five to one. The aircraft raced towards each other. Leach picked a lead 109 and held it in his sights. At four hundred yards tracers filled the sky between them. When they’d closed to within two hundred yards Leach thumbed his gun button. His tracers slashed into the front of the 109 and its canopy shattered in on the pilot. It spiralled out of control, flashing past beneath him. He pulled out of the climb and turned back towards the rest of the 109s.
“I’m hit!” someone yelled.
“Who, damn it?” Leach said.
“Rog—” Two hundred yards away an aircraft exploded with a flash. “No!” Leach turned his head to see the wreckage drop out of a cloud of smoke and plummet earthwards. “Was that Red Five?”
“Still here. That was one of the Spits. I’m done though.”
“Roger. Good luck. Be safe.”
Bullets thumped into Leach’s Hurricane. He threw his head around to see a 109 swooping around behind him, coming in on his tail. He yanked the stick, rolling his Hurricane over and pulled the nose down into a dive. Rolling back upright, he heaved into a tight turn.
The G forces rammed him down into his seat and moments later his vision greyed. He held the turn. His vision closed in, a shrinking light at the end of a dark tunnel. His pulse pounded in his ears. He held the turn a moment longer then straightened out and pulled into a climb. His vision rushed back, his head swimming for several seconds. As his head cleared he glanced back behind. The 109 was nowhere to be seen. He grinned and turned back around.
Ahead a 109 chased a 339 Squadron Hurricane around in its turn. He pulled out his boost plug and chased after the Messerschmitt. His aircraft shook gently. He frowned and glanced at his instruments. No problems there. The 339 Hurricane yanked back and forth in opposite directions, the 109’s tracers spraying around it. Leach followed them around and pulled hard inside the turn. He guided his sights onto the 109 and thumbed his gun button. His Hurricane shuddered and tracers streaked away from his left wing, spearing past the 109 on its left. He shook his head. How in the— He looked out at his right wing. Jagged metal protruded from the top of the wing, directly above his guns. Damn.
He stayed on the 109 as it stripped some debris off the 339 Hurricane with its cannons. He adjusted his aim and thumbed his gun button. His left machine guns chattered and his bullets smashed into the top of the 109, exposed in its turn. The 109 pushed down hard into a dive in the opposite direction.
Leach reflexively shoved his stick forwards. The Hurricane started to nose down then baulked, the negative G forces starving the carburettor of fuel. He sighed. Fool. The aircraft slowed dramatically. Leach pursed his lips as the nose slowly fell. Come on! Fuel finally reached the carbie and the Hurricane surged down into the dive. Only moments had passed but the 109 was nowhere to be seen. He shook his head and pulled out of the dive.
“Red Three here, I’m out of juice and heading back.”
“Roger Red Three,” Leach said. He glanced down at his fuel gauge. Oops. “Red Leader to all aircraft, check your fuel. I only have about a minute before I head back too.” Leach looked around. The dogfight had broken up, the 109’s withdrawing to protect their bombers and most of the Hurricanes and Spits already heading back over the Channel.
“Red Eight here. I’m in trouble. I don’t have enough to make it back.”
Damn. “Where are you Red Eight?”
“Closing in behind you now.”
“Alright, let’s go then. Manage your fuel as best you can and I’ll cover your six. Make for Manston.”
“Roger, cheers Leach.”
“If anyone has enough juice, cover our tails until we get clear of the coast please.”
“Roger Red Leader, Red Ten on your tail.”
“Red Two as well.”
“Cheers, chaps.” Leach dropped his throttle back and let Red Eight overtake him. The pilot waved on his way past and Leach waved back. “Piece of cake.” The other pilot nodded and moved ahead of him. Leach pulled up a little and took position about five hundred feet above and behind the other Hurricane. Two minutes later they crossed the French coast and sped out over the Channel. Leach glanced down at his air speed indicator. “Ten minutes or so and the Old Blighty will be under our wings.”
“Roger,” Red Eight said. They cruised quickly away from Dunkirk. Leach closed in on the other Hurricane. After a few minutes he pulled up alongside. He glanced down at his fuel gauge. Jesus, he must be low. The other pilot looked over at him and Leach gave the thumbs up. The other pilot shook his head.
“I’m showing dead empty.”
Leach’s chest tightened. He looked ahead. They were still twenty miles from the coast. “Hang in there.”
The other pilot looked forward again. Black smoke puffed once from his exhaust pipes and his Hurricane dropped back a bit before coming up to speed again. More smoke coughed from his exhausts and his propeller slowed to a halt.
“Oh Christ. I’m out.”
Leach dropped his throttle back to stay with the rapidly slowing Hurricane. He looked down at the water below. A small group of boats cut white ribbons into the Channel headed for Dunkirk. “Here’s what you need to do. Head down in front of those boats and bail out. They’ll see you coming down and pick you up.”
“What if they don’t see me?”
“It’s your best chance. Otherwise you can glide a little further, then swim to Ramsgate.”
The radio fell silent and Leach looked over to the other Hurricane. The pilot craned his neck to see down below. After a moment he looked up and stared into his cockpit. He looked over and nodded.
Leach nodded back. Good man. He followed the other Hurricane down towards the group of boats. At two thousand feet they levelled out.
“Best of British. See you back on base for a beer.”
Leach watched as the other pilot disconnected his mask and pulled it off before sliding his canopy back. He looked over at Leach again then looked forward. He rolled his Hurricane upside down and after a moment he dropped out of the cockpit.
Leach rolled to the side to watch. The pilot’s parachute billowed out behind him then snapped fully open, abruptly ending his free fall. Above him his aircraft fell into a spiralling dive, quickly slamming into the sea with an explosive splash. Leach watched for a little longer, then waggled his wings and adjusted his course back to base.
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