Chapter 13 - Their
Finest Hour, continued
By mid-morning, 609 Squadron had returned to
Middle Wallop. Pilots now lay on the grass or slouched in deck
chairs. Eugene Tobin dozed, trying to make up for just twenty
minutes’ sleep the previous night. Yesterday had been
stormy, with heavy thunder and cloud cover. But this Sunday
morning, when Tobin should have been at Mass, the skies were
an ominous blue. It was 57 degrees, warm enough to roll up
shirtsleeves. A thin film of mist hung above the airfield,
but the sun would soon burn it off. At Chequers, Winston Churchill
also noted the weather and decided to pay Air Vice-Marshal
Park a visit. He was soon speeding towards Uxbridge, west of
London, with his armed bodyguard; his private secretary, John
Martin; and his wife, Clementine. The car’s police bell
It was around 9:30 a.m. at Cormeilles-en-Vexin,
the home base of Dornier bomber unit KG 76. Glum-looking air
crews streamed out of debriefing rooms. Watching them leave
was a thirty-eight-year-old Bavarian, Alois Lindmayr, leader
of the KG 76’s III Group: a cool-headed veteran of devastating
raids on RAF Kenley and Biggin Hill. He had just briefed his
men on that day’s mission. The news that KG 76 was to
have the great honor of leading the Luftwaffe across the Channel
had not been received with stamping feet and applause.
Earlier that morning, Field Marshal Kesselring
had ordered Lindmayr to fly at the spearhead of the greatest
strike force ever sent against a civilian target—more
than 1,120 German aircraft. Although Lindmayr had few experienced
pilots at hand, having lost eleven bombers out of thirty in
the last fortnight, he had been able to cobble together the
required number of planes by combining the remnants of his
III Group with I Group, an even more heavily battered unit.
Lindmayr’s men were soon clambering aboard
their Dornier 17 bombers. Among them were Sergeant Rolf Heitsch
and his crew of three. Each man had a pistol strapped to his
belt. If he found himself trapped in his burning plane, unable
to bail out, he could put the Mauser to his temple and pull
The Dornier was nicknamed the “Flying Pencil” by
RAF pilots, for whom its long slim body was easy prey. With
no armor plating, underpowered, and capable of carrying at
most 2,200 pounds of bombs, it was also called a “Flying
Coffin” by some former crews now in British POW camps
and French hospitals. It had started life, like so many of
the Luftwaffe’s medium-range bombers, disguised as a
mail-carrier back in 1934, when every German aircraft was supposed
have a non-military function. By now, it was clearly obsolete
and yet one out of every four bombers sent over Britain was
a Dornier. The only two strengths Heitsch and his fellow pilots
found in the lumbering albatross were its reliability and capacity
to absorb large quantities of Tommy lead.
Radio operator Technical Sergeant Stephan Schmidt
made his way to the rear of the plane. He had been chosen to
operate a top-secret weapon when KG 76 inevitably clashed with
the Hurricanes and Spitfires that now flocked to greet the
fleet whenever it neared the English coastline. The new device
was in fact a flamethrower that had been borrowed from the
Wehrmacht and fitted to the rear fuselage. If it worked, it
would be fitted to other bombers.
Heitsch ran though his checks, and then the plane’s
two 1,000 hp, nine-cylinder, Bramo 323P air-cooled engines
roared to life. With his left hand, Heitsch opened the throttles
and the Dornier sprang forward, its wings rocking as it picked
up speed on the uneven airfield. At 10:10 a.m. Heitsch felt
the Dornier leave the ground and set course for Cap Gris Nez.
It was not an auspicious beginning to the mission: because
of heavy cloud cover, ten minutes were lost trying to link
up with I Group. Back in England, it was around 10:30 a.m.
when Keith Park learned that Churchill was about to arrive
at the bunker: Fighter Command’s Sector 11 operations
control room. Sure enough, Churchill and his party soon filed
in. Park greeted them and once again had to explain diplomatically
that the prime minister could not smoke inside the bunker.
Churchill grunted and then bit down on his unlit Cuban.
“I don’t know whether anything will
happen today, sir,” said Park. “At present all
Churchill and his party took their seats in the
gallery above a plotting table and several WAAFs.
Around 11 a.m., over the chalk cliffs of Cap
Gris Nez, Technical Sergeant Heitsch breathed a little easier.
He spotted his escorts above: Me-109s from Hans-Karl Mayer’s
Ace of Spades and several squadrons from JG 3, who would stick
as close as possible to the Dorniers.
It was 11:04 a.m. in the bunker at Uxbridge.
Radar reports indicated that KG 76 and its escorts were stacking
up over Boulogne and Calais. Then a young WAAF put down her
knitting and walked calmly over to the plotting table and placed
a wooden block on it. The block indicated that at least thirty
bandits were heading towards England. A few minutes later,
two more blocks were on the plotting table.
“There appear to be many aircraft coming
in,” said Churchill.
Park looked calm. “There’ll be someone
there to meet them.”
More blocks appeared on the plotting table.
“Northolt, Kenley, Debden,” Park
Bulbs on panels covering a wall opposite the
gallery began to light up, indicating each squadron’s
status: at readiness, scrambled, or engaged. More blocks appeared
on the table. There was now a palpable sense of crisis in the
sixty-foot square room, fifty feet below ground. At 11:20 a.m.,
Park ordered the rest of his squadrons into the air and told
10 Group to alert Middle Wallop. A few minutes later, 609 Squadron
Eugene Tobin tucked maps into his boots and followed
several other pilots out of the dispersal hut at Middle Wallop.
Shorty Keough did the same, two cushions under his arm, and
was soon being helped up onto the wing of his Spitfire by his
ground crew. Andy Mamedoff climbed into his cockpit and was
quickly strapped into his safety harness.
At 11:30 a.m., 609 reached twenty thousand feet,
the best performance altitude for the Spitfire. Tobin checked
that his oxygen supply was working. London was below, terraced
housing stretching far into the distance, skirting the Thames.
Barrage balloons hung like giant gray sausages over the charred
“Climb to twenty-five thousand and maintain
Back at the Uxbridge bunker, Winston Churchill
looked with mounting concern at the wall of bulbs facing him.
All but a few of the bulbs now glowed, indicating that most
of Fighter Command was in the air or intercepting the enemy.
It was around midday when the Dorniers of KG
76, led by Alois Lindmayr, began a “flak waltz,” zig-zagging
to avoid anti-aircraft fire, as they crossed over the southern
outskirts of London. In a few minutes, they would begin their
bombing runs. Then the flak stopped and Hurricanes and Spitfires
began to attack. At the rear of the Dornier formation were
Rolf Heitsch and his crew. In his headset, Heitsch suddenly
heard the excited voice of Stephan Schmidt, who was manning
the flamethrower. A Hurricane was fast closing in on them from
astern. At four hundred yards, its pilot let rip. Bullets tore
into the Dornier. Schmidt grabbed the flamethrower and sent
a giant squirt of burning gasoline towards the Hurricane. The
jet of flame fell far short, but Schmidt succeeded in spraying
some unlit oil over the British fighter’s windscreen,
forcing its pilot to push its nose down, duck below the Dornier
and pull away. Rolf Heitsch flew on, now straggling dangerously
behind the rest of KG 76.
Meanwhile, twenty thousand feet above central
London, Pilot Officer Andy Mamedoff looked around and up, watching
for bandits. Once again, he was weaving back and forth, the
tail-end Charlie to 609’s B Flight led by “Butch” MacArthur,
who had been in a particularly gloomy mood of late and so depressed
a week back that he could not eat. As Butch saw it, 609 and
the rest of Fighter Command had failed miserably to protect
the people of London from the Grim Reaper on September 7. Maybe
today 609 would have some success in keeping him at bay.
Eugene Tobin was as usual weaving behind Johnny “Dogs” Dundas
and his A Flight Leader, Frank Howell.
“Many, many bandits at four o’clock!” shouted
Tobin looked up and saw more than fifty 109s
from Hans-Karl Mayer’s JG 53, around four thousand feet
“Okay, Charlie, come on in,” Howell
called to Tobin.
Tobin glanced over his shoulder. Three bandits
were diving towards them.
“Danger, red section!” shouted Tobin. “Danger,
Howell heard him and broke fast to the right.
Tobin began a 360-degree turn, immediately feeling
the G-force. He lifted his feet to the G-stirrups and pressed
down. The blood returned to his head as he spotted 609’s
Pilot Officer Geoffrey Gaunt climbing to his left, followed
by a furious Messerschmitt. Then Tobin was turning tighter
and tighter, pulling the stick as far over as he dared without
blacking out, holding the Spitfire in its life-saving arc.
The cockpit controls shook with the strain and his face contorted
as he struggled to stay conscious.
Tobin pulled his emergency boost. The engine
howled and he was kicked back in his seat. A Messerschmitt
flashed past at more than 400 mph. Then he was easing out of
the turn, head spinning as he searched the sky for bandits.
And there they were—more Me-109s. Tobin set out after
one of them. A black cross was soon in his crosshairs. He fired.
Smoke streamed from the German’s motor. But before he
could fire again, the German disappeared in cloud cover. Tobin
broke to his left and began to climb, opening the throttle,
weaving back and forth violently behind Howell and Dundas at
around 275 mph, not caring now
whether he or his Spitfire could take the strain.
He had no time “for pretty tricks. The main thing was
to get where you could shoot . . . and then get where [they]
couldn’t shoot at you. A neat barrel roll looks nice
from the ground and so does a wreath.”
Tobin suddenly saw a 609 Spitfire and felt sick:
the plane was around two hundred yards away, out of control,
cockpit ablaze. It began to spin down trailing black smoke.
Then Tobin spotted Technical Sergeant Rolf Heitsch’s
Dornier diving towards clouds. Again, he pushed his Spitfire
to its limit. She responded beautifully, like a thoroughbred
in peak form. He was still a long way off but decided to fire
before he lost the ugly gray bandit to the clouds. His tracers
streaked through the sky and, to his delight, struck the bomber’s
Heitsch looked out of his cockpit and saw his
left propeller stop spinning. He knew the cloud cover would
not last for long. Even if he could escape Tobin, could he
then nurse the stricken bomber back across the dreaded Channel,
or should he try to land? Now white smoke was billowing from
his other engine. Tobin had hit the glycol tank or a radiator.
Then 609’s Johnny “Dogs” Dundas
suddenly appeared as if from nowhere—he had climbed almost
vertically below the bomber—and also let rip. More pieces
flew off Heitsch’s plane. Then both Tobin and Dundas
were “pressing the tit,” sending streams of bullets
through the sky. Stephan Schmidt, manning the flamethrower,
was hit badly in the chest. He dropped the flamethrower and
slumped to floor.
Heitsch somehow flew on. He had trained as a
doctor before the war and knew that to stand a chance of saving
Schmidt from bleeding to death he would need to land as soon
as possible. Meanwhile, Tobin was lining up for the kill. “I
moved the ship over a bit so that his left wing was right in
the bull’s eye and sawed off his aileron,” he recalled. “Part
of the wing fluttered off and he disappeared into the cloud.” A
few seconds later, he reappeared. Any moment now it would surely
be all over, but seeing that Heitsch’s plane was critically
damaged Tobin and Dundas chose not to press on with their attack. “[Heitsch]
came down after a while,” recalled Tobin, “just
from sheer weight of lead, but we didn’t knock him apart.”
Heitsch spotted a field near the village of Shoreham
and told his surviving crew to brace themselves for a forced
landing. With great skill, he brought the stricken bomber down,
narrowly avoiding power lines. The Dornier crashed wheels up
with an awful screech of metal and breaking propellers and
skidded to a sudden halt, just missing several cows. Heitsch
threw off his harness, stood up, and struggled furiously to
open an escape hatch.
A few hundred feet above, Tobin circled the crash
site. He opened his cockpit and slid back the hood. He could
see Heitsch and another of his crew climbing out of the Dornier,
carefully pulling the badly wounded Schmidt after them. Tobin
waved his handkerchief, signaling to a growing group of hop
pickers to stay back from the German plane. “A mile away,
a Spitfire and a Hurricane were down in the same field,” he
recalled. “But the white billowy folds of two parachutes
nearby showed that their pilots were safe. Crashed planes were
a dime a dozen. Wherever you looked between London and the
coast, there were cracked-up airplanes.”
White tracer flashed past Tobin. He pulled his
stick back and climbed. Then he realized that the tracer had
been meant not for him but for another Spitfire, dueling with
an Me-109 two thousand feet above him. “It was quite
a show,” remembered Tobin. “Once in a while the
German would loose off with the two cannons in his wings and
they would blink like a couple of rabbit’s eyes. Cute
as can be until one of the shells screams past your cowling.
Then you move out of the way fast, just as I did. By the time
I climbed above the two fighting planes, the Spitfire had sent
the German down in a long sickening spin and the air was clear
of enemy planes.”
Tobin was suddenly alone. He checked his fuel
gauge—just seven gallons left. It was around 12:20 p.m.
After refueling at Biggin Hill, he flew back towards Middle
Wallop. The airfield soon appeared below and he began his approach,
but then a truck suddenly emerged from behind a hangar into
his landing path. It was too late to climb. Tobin heard one
of his wheels skim the vehicle and jolt back into the fuselage. “Now
I couldn’t even make a belly landing, which is the safest
thing to do if your landing gear goes haywire. I circled the
field a couple of times and then came in to land on the one
wheel with the other wing up. It was a pretty tricky business,
but my luck held. As the wheel touched the ground, the ship
wobbled for an instant and then I felt the other wheel flop
down from the impact. I eased the stick and she settled down
Elated, Tobin taxied towards the dispersal hut.
A few minutes later he was jumping down to the oil-stained
grass and heading towards an animated group of his fellow pilots.
But then one of his ground crew came over with bad news: his
plane needed to be serviced and there was no other available,
which meant he was effectively grounded for the rest of the
day. Bitterly frustrated, Tobin joined his fellow pilots for
lunch. They were particularly pleased that fighter command
had scrambled them early enough and had then sent them high
enough to avoid being bounced.
Back in Shoreham, Kent, the local Home Guard
was soon on the scene and arresting the crew of Tobin’s
downed Dornier. Technical Sergeant Sauter had been badly wounded
in the ankle and was taken to Maidstone Hospital. Technical
Sergeants Rolf Heitsch and Pfeiffer, the bomber’s observer,
were escorted to the nearest pub. Someone bought the two trembling
German airmen a couple of brandies to calm their nerves. Then
they were driven to Seven Oaks Police Station. Their other
comrade, Technical Sergeant Stephan Schmidt, did not go with
them. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Seven Oaks Hospital,
his chest torn apart. According to one subsequent news report,
the hospital also admitted a hop picker with a bullet wound
in the leg. Allegedly, one of two circling Spitfires—either
Dundas or Tobin—had opened fire on the grounded bomber
and hit the man in the leg.
Meanwhile, Heitsch’s fellow KG 76 pilots
struggled back across the unforgiving Channel. Just fifteen
of Alois Lindmayr’s Dorniers were still in formation.
Ten were missing. It was a pitiful sight: the “flying
pencils” limping across the dark waters, full of dead
and wounded, cockpits holed and smeared with blood, engines
coughing, props flailing, gashed fuselages letting in gushes
of freezing salty air, white glycol smoke trailing several
as if they were signaling surrender.
Many of the surviving pilots were resentful and
angry. Had Göring not claimed that the RAF had just fifty
Spitfires left, that it would take just a few days in early
September to finish the Lords off? The chilling truth was that
the Lords were stronger than ever and better organized, attacking
from higher than before, out of the sun. The change of targets
from airfields to London had been a disastrous mistake, allowing
them time to recover. They had been out for the count. Now
they were surely ahead on points. Alois Lindmayr had only to
glance out his cockpit to see how they had won this round.
Very soon, another round would begin. Kesselring
had gathered another massive force for an afternoon attack
on the capital: one hundred fifty bombers escorted by three
times as many fighters. Once again, the bombers would simply
be bait to draw up Park’s squadrons so that the Luftwaffe
could then tear them apart, thereby dealing Fighter Command
the death blow, or so Göring hoped. Among the flocks of
Messerschmitts would be two of the most lethal Jagdwaffe units,
JG 54 and JG 26, led by an increasingly ill-tempered Adolf
Just a few days ago, Galland had been forced
to stand between his two main rivals, Mölders and Helmut
Wick, and listen as Göring had yet again upbraided him
over his Jagdwaffe’s lack of aggression. “The bombers
are more important than a fighter pilot’s record of kills,” Göring
had complained. “Your job is to protect them and each
time you fall down on it.” Galland had defended his men
but Göring had dismissively ignored him. Then Göring
had asked what the Group commanders needed. Werner Mölders
had said he would like as many Me-109E-4/N planes as possible.
Their new engines would allow JG 51 to outperform the Spitfire.
Göring had begun to walk away when he had suddenly turned
around and looked at Galland. “And you?” Galland
had looked straight into Göring’s bright blue eyes. “I’d
like some Spitfires.” Göring had sighed, his cheeks
reddening with anger, and walked off.
It was now early afternoon on September 15 as
Galland made his way towards his Messerschmitt at Caffiers,
black Havana clenched between his lips, wrapping a yellow scarf
around his neck. Yet again, he was suffering from “throat-ache.” He
knew that Werner Mölders would also be flying later this
afternoon, also looking to add another stripe to the thirtyseven
carefully painted onto his tail fin. Galland was now just five
kills behind. But at the rate Mölders was taking down
planes, it wouldn’t take long for him to hit forty and
then he, not Galland, would be off to have tea with the Führer
at the Chancellery, his beaming, bony face splashed across
the front pages, the Oak Leaves—added to his Knight’s
Cross— clear for everyone to see.
At 1:45 p.m., back in the bunker in Uxbridge,
a young WAAF placed a marker on the plotting table. Several
more soon followed. From the gallery, Winston Churchill again
watched intently as Park once more marshaled his forces, scrambling
several squadrons. Gambling that the Germans were all headed
towards London, just as on September 7, Park decided not to
intercept until Kesselring’s armada had reached its most
vulnerable position: the big turn over London. By then, the
German pilots would be getting nervous, glancing at their fuel
gauges, able to fight for only a few minutes at the limit of
the Me-109’s range.
Luck was on Park’s side. The German bombers
were forced to circle over Maidstone because they missed their
rendezvous with their escorts. From Maidstone, it was sixty
miles to London: a heart-pounding journey now dubbed the racecourse
by many a rattled German pilot. That afternoon, it took the
bombers and their escorts thirty very long minutes, more than
enough time for Park to direct his forces towards them. It
was 2:15 p.m. when the first two squadrons intercepted.
“Mitor and Gannic squadrons, tally-ho,
Twenty-seven British fighters dived out of the
sun into Kesselring’s armada of four hundred fifty planes.
Churchill’s few had the sun and height
on their side, and some had learned how to fight like Galland’s
hunting packs—a screaming dive, with the target in sights
and guns blazing, and then break away in a flash. Minute by
minute, more RAF squadrons followed. Soon, the bright blue
sky was scarred by tracer bursts and the oily smoke of burning
At Middle Wallop, the telephone rang. Eugene
Tobin watched in frustration as Shorty grabbed his two cushions
and then sprinted with Andy Mamedoff and the rest of 609 towards
Spitfires waiting close by, their engines warm.
Meanwhile, Göring’s bombers lumbered
on. But not for long: over the East End, thirteen more RAF
squadrons pounced on them, ripping several to shreds in seconds
as pilots literally lined up to wait their turn to open fire.
The formations finally broke up and the German pilots then
turned tail, dropped their loads over leafy suburbs, and began
the desperate journey back to France. One in four would not
make it home.
High over London, meanwhile, JG 26’s Adolf
Galland was on the hunt once again. He had only a few minutes
of fuel left before he would have to turn back for France.
Suddenly, he spotted 310 Hurricane Squadron, tightly bunched
below, cockpits glinting in the sun.
“I dove from about [2,500 feet] above them,
approached at high speed,” recalled Galland, “and
fired at the far left aircraft in the rear flight, continuing
fire until point-blank range. Finally, large pieces of metal
flew off the Hurricane. As I shot past this aircraft, I found
myself in the middle of the enemy squadron, which was flying
in stepped formation. I immediately attacked the right-hand
aircraft of the leading flight of three. Again, metal panels
broke off; the aircraft nosed over and dove earthward, ablaze.
The remaining English pilots were so startled that none as
much as attempted to get on my tail; rather, the entire formation
scattered and dove away. Two parachutes appeared about [1,600
feet] below our formation.”
In just ten seconds, Adolf Galland had added
another two stripes to his tail fin. Now, if Mölders had
not scored, he was only three behind. At this rate, with a
little luck, he could make up the difference in just a few
days. Never one to linger after a kill, Galland then dived
away from the mêlée, ordering his squadron to
follow him back to Caffiers before their red lights started
to flicker. There was no need to remind them of what might
happen if they dawdled for even a minute. Not long back, JG
26 had lost twelve planes on one sortie alone when their fuel
ran out. It was now 2:35 p.m. in the bunker in Uxbridge. Winston
Churchill noticed that Park was standing stock still, unusually
tense. The reason became clear when Churchill looked at the
wall of bulbs. Every one was glowing red, indicating that all
of Fighter Command was now engaged.
“What other reserves have we?” Churchill
Park turned around.
“We have none.”
Churchill looked grave, and for good reason. “The
odds were great,” he recalled, “our margins small;
the stakes infinite.”
But for 609, at least, the odds were for once
very much on their side. To intercept the fleeing bombers,
Squadron Leader Darley had led both A and B Flights away from
London to the southeast. Suddenly, as 609 neared the coast,
two battered formations of Dorniers were spotted. The bombers
were a long way off and diving at maximum speed, their pilots
trying to get as low as possible and then skim unnoticed across
the choppy waves back to France.
Andy Mamedoff scoured the skies. Only a few German
fighters were flying escort. Then he heard Darley order 609
to give chase. Throttles open, the West Riding Squadron gladly
obliged, soon fixing onto two stragglers.
Shorty was seated on his two pillows, flying
as wingman to Green Section’s leader, Pilot Officer Michael
“Green Section, No. 1 Attack, go!” shouted
Shorty latched onto one of the stragglers, a
Dornier from KG 2. “I followed Green 1 [Appleby] into
attack on [the Dornier],” he reported, “and attacked
from quarter and then astern.” Satisfied that the bomber
was done for, he broke away and dived through the clouds. Emerging
from them, he could not find Green Section and decided to return
to Middle Wallop. The Dornier pilot somehow kept his plane
in the air and turned back for England, where he crash-landed
ten minutes later in a field at Eighteen Pounder Farm, near
the historic town of Hastings, at 3:15 p.m. Hastings had been
the scene of Britain’s last defeat at the hands of an
invader, almost a thousand years before, in 1066.
Meanwhile, Andy Mamedoff and several other 609
pilots tore chunks out of the other straggler like a pack of
ravenous wolves. “Everybody in B Flight was absolutely
determined to have a squirt at the Hun,” recalled 609’s
David Crook, “and as a result there was a mad scramble
in which people cut across in front of each other and fired
wildly . . . regardless of the fact that the air was full of
Spitfires.” Mamedoff’s flight leader, Frank Howell,
saw two German crew members throw packets of marker dye into
the Channel and then bail out. Mamedoff and another pilot had
finished off the plane “with the concentrated fire of
their sixteen machine guns. They actually sawed one of the
Dornier’s wings off before she crashed. Andy was particularly
pleased about this because it meant that for a change he was
giving something instead of taking it. His back was still sore
from the cannon shell.”
The Canadian Keith Ogilvie had earlier that day
shot a Heinkel in half, the tail end landing near a pub in
Pimlico in London “to the great comfort and joy of the
patrons.” Now he watched one of the Dornier’s crew
drift down in his parachute to the waters below. The German
splashed down and “waved wildly,” Ogilvie later
reported, “figuring I was going to machine-gun him.”
Ogilvie did not. Instead, Johnny “Dogs” Dundas
and Frank Howell “took different bearings [with their
compasses] to enable the German to be rescued.”
It was now 3:25 p.m. in Park’s bunker at
Uxbridge. The bulbs on the wall facing Churchill began to change.
Some now indicated that squadrons had landed and were refueling.
One bulb showed that 213 at Tangmere, Billy Fiske’s old
base, was ready to be scrambled again. There was a reserve
once more. The crisis had passed. Park and Churchill were visibly
“I am very glad, sir, you have seen this,” Park
told Churchill, “Of course, during the last twenty minutes
we were so choked with informa- tion that we couldn’t
handle it. This shows you the limitation of our present resources.
They have been strained far beyond their limits today.”
Churchill and his party thanked Park and left
the bunker, bound for Chequers, where Churchill was soon taking
an afternoon nap. But it was not over yet. At Middle Wallop,
609 was scrambled yet again at around 5:40 p.m. It was Shorty’s
fourth sprint to his Spitfire that day. 609 joined six other
squadrons above Southampton, but neither Fighter Command nor
the Luftwaffe had any luck. Thirteen Me-110s, skimming above
the Channel, missed their target, and Shorty and 609 were sent
too high to intercept.
Finally, September 15, 1940, drew to a close.
At Middle Wallop, the shadows cast by 609’s Spitfires
stretched long across the grass. Dusk settled and then, darkness:
the cue for the pilots to be released at last and head to the
officers’ mess for a bite to eat. At Chequers, Churchill
woke from his nap. John Martin, his private secretary, had
allowed him to sleep through the afternoon, knowing how emotionally
drained he had been by the bunker experience. Now Martin quickly
brought Churchill up-to-date on the day’s developments. “This
had gone wrong here,” recalled Churchill, “that
had been delayed there, an unsatisfactory answer had been received
from so-and-so; there had been bad sinkings in the Atlantic.” Martin
paused. “However,” he then said, “all is
redeemed by the air. We have shot down 183 for the loss of
It was the best news Churchill had received all
Across the Channel, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring
picked up the telephone in his headquarters and put a call
through to the Reich Marshal aboard the sumptuous Asia. Göring
was not in the mood for bad news, having been served sedatives
by his nurse Christa Gormanns. “We cannot keep it up
like this,” said Kesselring, “we are falling below
the standard of safety.”
The Luftwaffe was in fact bleeding to death,
having now lost so many bombers that if Göring kept throwing
them at Fighter Command in daylight attacks there would soon
be none left. Kesselring’s two attacks that day had failed
spectacularly. Fighter Command had not been wiped out. Instead
it had decimated the best of the Luftwaffe’s bomber force.
As the sirens began to wail in London, signaling the onset
of yet another night of air-raids, the presses on Fleet Street
began to roll. Within twenty-four hours, the RAF’s thrilling
success on September 15, would be front-page news throughout
the free world. In America, newspapers and radio would repeat
the RAF’s inflated claim of 183 downed German planes,
prompting an outpouring of support and sympathy across the
nation for the plucky British. A full-page advertisement in
the New York Times would even call for immediate union with
Britain: the first round in the propaganda campaign aimed at
drawing America into the war had been won.
For 609 Squadron, the night was still young.
There was time to sink several pints before closing time in
the officers’ mess or at a nearby pub. “The squadron
had shot down seven confirmed and five probables, which isn’t
bad for a couple of hours’ work,” recalled Tobin. “My
friend Jeff [Gaunt] was the only one not there to share in
On the surface, Tobin was his old Red self no
doubt, joking about taking down “yellow-nosed boys” and
tapping his wings with a grin and then saying ruefully “I
guess these are a one-way ticket pal,” but inside he
was full of concern. Gaunt was not at the brass rail with him,
not asking about the film stars he knew, not creasing up at
his wisecracks, not singing along to Bing Crosby records. Then
Tobin started to feel better: “Hell, Tobin. Why don’t
you quit your beefing? You’ll live through it.” David
Crook was also deeply troubled by Gaunt’s disappearance. “We
had known each other all our lives and been at school together
for about twelve years,” he recalled. “Only a week
or two before, I had said to him one evening that if anything
were to happen to him, I should feel rather responsible because
he was an only son, and I had persuaded him to join the RAF
Late that night, Tobin opened his diary. “Today
was the toughest day—we were in a terrific battle over
London,” he jotted. “Geoffrey Gaunt, one of my
best friends, is missing. I saw a Spitfire during the fight
spinning down on fire. I sure hope it wasn’t Jeff. If
it was—well, from now on he’ll be flying in clearer
The following day, Göring raged at a conference
of his senior commanders about the Jagdwaffe’s abysmal
failure yet again to protect his bombers.
“The fighters have failed!”
This time, Göring’s rant fell on deaf
ears. The Jagdwaffe’s many brave pilots, prime among
them JG 26’s Adolf Galland, now deeply resented his insinuation
that they lacked guts. Göring was delusional, basing his
assertions on hopelessly inaccurate intelligence. For the first
time, there were mumblings on some airfields about the impossibility
of winning not just the battle but the war.
On September 17, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder recorded
in the official German War Diary: “The enemy air force
is by no means defeated. On the contrary, it shows increasing
activity.” And then the all-important words: “The
Führer therefore decides to postpone Operation Sea Lion
indefinitely.” Britain would not be invaded. Instead
she would be brought to her knees through terror bombing at
night and slow starvation by day. What was left of the Luftwaffe’s
bomber fleet and the Atlantic U-boat packs would sooner or
later surely see to that. Besides, Hitler now nursed a greater
design than the humiliation of Winston Churchill—the
conquest of Soviet Russia. “I want colonies I can walk
to without getting my feet wet,” he would soon tell one
of his confidantes.
Churchill’s fighter boys did not yet know
that they had fought off the greatest threat to Britain’s
survival in a millennium, and that they had done so by the
narrowest of margins. Only with the passage of time would it
become clear that on September 15, 1940—“the hardest
day”— they had made possible a far greater victory.
As an official RAF historian would write: “When the details
of the fighting grow dim, and the names of its heroes are forgotten,
men will still remember that civilisation was saved by a thousand
And a few Americans.