14-18 June 1940
After the order of final withdrawal, Dowding’s last remaining units in France, Nos. 1, 73 and 501 Squadrons together with other surviving RAF contingent were heading for home. It is perhaps not widely known that the RAF continued to operate from French bases for a considerable period after the evacuation of the main British forces from Dunkirk. While the RAF bomber units almost ceased to operate in an airspace dominated by the enemy, the remaining Hurricane squadrons continued to give good account on themselves despite general lack of organisation and continuous relocations to new airfields as the old ones were overrun by the enemy.
These units were now given the task of covering the final British evacuation from France.
Determining which squadron was the last to leave France has been the cause of some debate, but it would seem that all three mentioned units left the French territory on the same day, 18 June.
No 1. Squadron was ordered to relocate to Boos on the Seine four days previously, covering evacuations from this port. On the 17th, they proceeded south to S:t Nazaire in Brittany, on similar duties. From there, the remaining pilots flew home to England on 18 June. The ground crews were evacuated by sea.
Considering all the rush and chaos of the Allied retreat, No. 1 Squadron’s record of that period had been remarkable. For four weeks between 20 May and their final evacuation to England, they did not suffer a single loss of either aircraft or pilot. This despite the fact that they were engaged in frequent combats, claiming 16 German aircraft destroyed during the period. It was a extraordinary testimony to the leadership of Sqn/Ldr D. A. Pemberton and the ability of his crew, even more so considering that an estimated whopping total of 120 damaged or otherwise immobilised Hurricanes were abandoned in France in the face of the enemy’s rapid advance.
The much-depleted No. 501 Squadron followed suit on the same day of 18 June (some sources state one day previously), relocating to St Helier on the isle of Jersey. Formally already on the British soil, they operated above Cherbourg for two more days, covering the evacuations there, before moving on to Croydon.
Among the pilots of No. 501 was a young lauréat de la Croix de Guerre, P/O James ‘Ginger’ Lacey. He was awarded this French decoration for his battle debut in the turmoil over Sedan on 13 May. On that day, three enemy aircraft fell to the guns of his Hurricane – a Heinkel He 111, a Bf 109 and a Bf 110. On 27 May, Lacey claimed two more He 111s which gained him an ace status. He would go on to become one of the most successful pilots of the Battle of Britain.
No. 73 Squadron’s final base in France was Nantes, which they had reached by 17 June. That day, their Hurricanes were flying the last patrols over its retreating ground forces which were heading for the coast. Most of the squadron’s ground personnel were already sent off to S:t Nazaire to embark on a large troop ship RMS Lancastria, together with the headquarters of British Air Forces in France and hundreds of other RAF personnel. For a moment, it appeared that they were now closer to safety, while back at the airfield the Germans were expected to appear at literally any moment. Just after 2pm on the following day, a warning was received of their approach. The Hurricanes were frantically refuelled, some 18 of them taking off for England and Tangmere. The few remaining mechanics set fire to the unserviceable machines.
Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron