23 May – 1 June, 1940
After the temporary relief in German bombing due to bad weather, on 1 June the Stukas appeared once again over the beaches of Dunkirk. The experience of the troops on the ground was harrowing, leading much anxiety about the Army having been abandoned by the RAF.
“Each half an hour there was a raid and always there were 30 to 50 wounded or dead and we had to get stretcher bearers and also take the dead off and give them some sort of resting place. We couldn’t bury them. We covered them with tarpaulins to give them some respect. After the fifth day I noticed the stench – the sweet smell of death. It was a glorious summer so we had this stench of death around us.
I was kept busy but I was all the while aware of this smell and the smoke from the tanks that was drifting over. It was very, very traumatic.”
John Davis, Dunkirk veteran
At the same time, away at the aerial approaches to the evacuation area and therefore largely invisible to men on the ground, Fighter Command’s meagre resources were putting a maximum effort. For away from the frontline, one of the RAF pilots noted in his diary:
“Been confirmed the Spitfires are taking to the skies over Dunkirk. New 11 Group AOC by the name of Park trying to stem the slaughter.
The King had sent a message asking everyone to pray for those in Dunkirk.
I Could only think of the news of Stukas picking off the stranded.”
Having the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that despite all the bombing and suffering it caused on the ground, Fighter Command’s home force proved its worth at Dunkirk. It wasn’t an unqualified success. But in a space of just over a week, the home force held their stand in a large aerial battle and their best weapon hitherto largely held in reserve, the Spitfire, was blooded an fulfilled expectations. RAF got its first fighter aces (pilots with at least 5 aerial victories) and invaluable experience regarding fighter tactics was won.
The top scoring pilots over Dunkirk were F/Lt Robert Stanford Tuck and F/Lt Al Deere. Coincidentally, both were also flight commanders at the time, both were flying Spitfires and both opened their score on 23 May. Also, each shot down no less that three enemy aircraft that day.
Technically, Tuck and Deere were “only” the first Spitfire aces. Their success was pre-empted by P/O Albert GeraldLewis, a Hurricane pilot with No. 85 Squadron in France, who had beat them to “acedom” by four days, shooting down five Bf 109s on May 19 near Lille.
Bob Stanford-Tuck flew with No. 65 Squadron. His first combat patrol took place in the morning hours of 23 May and he succeeded in shooting down a Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Tuck’s third victory that day nearly ended in his own demise. The Squadron took off in the afternoon for its second sortie. They spotted a formation of about 30 twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf-110 fighters near Dunkirk, and attacked.
Tuck rapidly shot down one of them and then only narrowly avoided collision with another Bf 110. The German pilot tried to escape by diving to the ground level and Tuck gave chase. The two aircraft sped at low altitude for several minutes, skimming over trees and houses. At one point, Tuck noticed to his horror that he was heading beneath some electrical wires. Instantly, he pulled up to avoid the wires, exposing his Spitfire’s belly to the Bf 110′s tail gunner, who fired at him. Tuck managed to regain his posture and dived back on the German fighter, finally shooting it down to a crash.
The following day, Tuck shot down two German bombers. Over the next two weeks, his score rapidly mounted. In June he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his ‘initiative’ and ‘personal example’ over Dunkirk.
Alan Deere’s exploits of 23 May were later described by London Gazette in a citation to his DFC:
“During May, 1940, this officer has, in company with his squadron, taken part in numerous offensive patrols over Northern France, and has been engaged in seven combats often against superior numbers of the enemy. In the course of these engagements he has personally shot down five enemy aircraft and assisted in the destruction of others.
On one occasion, in company with a second aircraft, he escorted a trainer aircraft to Calais Marck aerodrome, for the purpose of rescuing a squadron commander who had been shot down there. The trainer aircraft was attacked by twelve Messerschmitt 109s whilst taking off at Calais, but Pilot Officer Deere, with the other pilot, immediately attacked, with the result that three enemy aircraft were shot down, and a further three severely damaged. Throughout these engagements this officer has displayed courage and determination in his attacks on the enemy.”
London Gazette, 14 June 1940
Not mentioned in the paper, Deere was also shot down himself. On 28 May, his aircraft was hit by a Dornier Do 17 he was attacking near Dunkirk. Attempting to make a forced landing on a beach, the Spitfire dug nose-down into the sand, knocking the pilot unconscious. Rescued by a soldier, Deere made his way on foot to Oost-Dunkerke where his head injuries were dressed.
Burnt-out wreck of a Spitfire which had crash-landed at a beach near Dunkirk
[Copyright unkown, presumed to be German source]
He then hitched a ride on a British Army lorry to Dunkirk. There, after having to sustain vicious comments from soldiers about the effectiveness of the RAF’s fighter cover, he boarded a boat to Dover from where he took a train back to London. He was back in action with his squadron at Hornchurch mere 19 hours after the incident.
Many other future RAF aces made their first contact with the enemy over Dunkirk, one of them being P/O Colin Gray of No. 54 Squadron. On 27 May his unit escorted a squadron of antiquated FAA Swordfish biplanes on a mission to attack German troops between Gravelines and Calais. Initially there was no interference in the air. Having completed the mission, the Swordfishes set on return course, but the Spitfires remained over the French coast for an offensive patrol. Soon after, they were attacked by Bf 109s. Gray described his experience:
“Suddenly, we found ourselves in amongst a gaggle of 109s. I opened fire at one of them, but stopped when I noticed smoke coming back over my wings. That shook me – I thought somebody was firing at me. I pulled round hard but there was nobody there what I had seen was cordite smoke blowing back from my own guns.”
Having shot at one enemy aircraft, Gray was attacked and hit by another, narrowly escaping death. He returned to base with his aircraft heavily damaged by canon shells, landing with damaged aileron and no hydraulic pressure, flaps or brakes. The ground crew gathered in awe around his aircraft. It was the first Hornchurch Spitfire that had been badly shot and still got back.
Soon there would be many others.
- Robert Stanford Tuck: World War II RAF Ace Pilot, http://www.historynet.com/robert-stanford-tuck-world-war-ii-raf-ace-pilot.htm
- The South African Military History Journal – Vol 1 No 6
- Hurricane Aces 1939-40 By Tony Holmes