On these days, one could sit all day on top of the medieval walls of the Dover Castle and watch the steam ships slowly passing through the Straits of Dover. It was said that on a clear day, a sharp-eyed spectator armed with binoculars could read the clock on a belfry in Calais. It was from here that Vice-Admiral Ramsay supervised the successful evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk only a month previously. Now, on the opposite side, Luftwaffe’s Kanalkampfführer set up his command post in an undistinguished bus on top of Cap Blanc Nez. There was a new spectacle to be watched – German aerial attacks on convoys in the straits, with distant dots of aircraft, black puffs of anti-aircraft fire and occasional fountains of water surrounding the stately silhouettes of the ships sharply outlined against a glistening sea.
Here, in a house overlooking the port, BBC set up a radio crew with the task of reporting on these latest events of the war. It was Saturday afternoon, 13 June, and the west-bound smaller convoy “Bread” was about to enter the straits. The crew made their way to the top of a nearby cliff, offering a grandstand view of the sea. The recording was on when BBC war correspondent, Charles Gardner, suddenly interrupted his pre-conceived script to announce the arrival of German dive-bombers.
“The Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out at sea… there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive-bombers, Junkers 87s. There’s one going down on its target now… Bomb! No! he missed the ships. It hasn’t hit a single ship. There are about ten ships in the convoy, but he hasn’t hit a single one.
And… there, you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now. There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about ten German machines dive-bombing the British convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel.
I can’t see anything… No! We thought he had got a German one at the top then, but now the British fighters are coming up. Here they come. The Germans are coming in an absolute steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now. I am looking round now. I can hear machine gunfire, but I can’t see our Spitfires. They must be somewhere there.”
Unknown to the reporter, three Hurricanes belonging of No.615 Squadron which flew standing patrol over the convoy were already engaged in the fighting.
“Oh! Here’s one coming down. There’s one going down in flames. Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak, coming down completely out of control… a long streak of smoke. And now a man’s baled out by parachute. The pilot’s baled out by parachute. He’s a Junkers 87, and he’s going slap into the sea… and there he goes. SMASH! A terrific column of water and there was a Junkers 87. Only one man got out by parachute, so presumably there was only a crew of one in it.
Now, then, oh, there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel!! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are Germans. There was one definitely down in this battle and there’s a fight going on. There’s a fight going on, and you can hear the little rattles of machine gun bullets.
Grump! That was a bomb, as you may imagine. Here comes one Spitfire. There’s a little burst. There’s another bomb dropping. Yes. It has dropped. It has missed the convoy. You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all this. The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where the bombs have burst, but as far as I can see there is not one single ship hit, and there is definitely one German machine down. And I am looking across the sea now. I can see the little white dot of parachute as the German pilot is floating down towards the spot where his machine crashed with such a big fountain of water about two minutes ago.”
What Gardner described as a downed Junkers Ju 87 was in fact a RAF Hurricane and the pilot baling out was P/O Michael Mudie. Mudie, who was the only casualty of that day, was later picked up by the Navy, but he died the next day of his injuries.
The broadcast continued:
“Well, now, everything is peaceful again for the moment. The Germans, who came over in about twenty or twenty-five dive-bombers, delivered their attack on the convoy, and I think they made off as quickly as they came. Oh yes, I can see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten Germans haring back towards France now for all they can go – and here are our Spitfires coming after them. There’s going to be a big fight, I think, out there, but it will be too far away for us to see.
Of course, there are a lot more German machines up there.
– Can you see, Cyril? [Gardner turned to his radio crew]
Yes, there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven on the top layer, one, two, three – there’s two layers of German machines. They are all, I think, I could not swear to it, but they were all Junkers 87’s.
– There are two more parachutists? [Another subdued dialogue with the crew]
– No, I think they are seagulls.
You can hear the anti-aircraft bursts still going… Well, that was a really hot little engagement while it lasted. No damage done, except to the Germans, who lost one machine and the German pilot, who is still on the end of his parachute, though appreciably nearer the sea than he was. I can see no boat going out to pick him up, so he’ll probably have a long swim ashore.
Well, that was a very unsuccessful attack on the convoy, I must say.
Oh, there’s another fight going on, away up, now! I think about 20, 25, or even 30,000 feet above our heads, and I can’t see a thing of it. The anti-aircraft guns have put up one, two, three, four, five, six bursts, but I can’t see the aeroplanes.
There we go again.. What?. Oh, we have just hit a Messerschmitt. Oh, that was beautiful! He’s coming right down. I think it was definitely that burst got him. Yes, he’s come down.
You hear those crowds? He’s finished! Oh, he’s coming down like a rocket now. An absolutely steep dive. Let us move round (probably to another window – Ed.) so we can watch him a bit more. Here he comes, down in a steep dive… the Messerschmitt.
– Looking for a parachute?
No, no, the pilots not getting out of that one. He’s being followed down. What, there are two more Messerschmitts up there? I think they are all right. No, that man’s finished. He’s going down from about 10,000, oh, 20,000 to about 2,000 feet, and he’s going straight down. He’s not stopping. I think that’s another German machine that’s definitely put paid to. I don’t think we shall actually see him crash, because he’s going into a bank of cloud. He’s smoking now. I can see smoke, although we cannot count that a definite victory because I did not see him crash. He’s gone behind a hill. He looked certainly out of control.
Now we are looking up to the anti-aircraft guns. There’s another! There’s another Messerschmitt. I don’t know whether he’s down or whether he’s trying to get out of the anti-aircraft fire, which is giving him a very hot time. There’s a Spitfire! Oh, there’s about four fighters up there, and I don’t know what they are doing. One, two, three, four, five fighters fighting right over our heads. Now there’s one coming right down on the tail of what I think is a Messerschmitt and I think it’s a Spitfire behind him. OH, DARN! They’ve turned away and I can’t see. I can’t see. Where’s one crashing? No, I think he’s
You can’t watch these fights very coherently for long. You just see about four twirling machines, you just hear little bursts of machine-gunning, and by the time you’ve picked up the machines they’ve gone. Hullo, there are one, two, three; and – look, there’s a dog fight going on up there! There are four, five, six machines wheeling and turning around. Now, hark at the machine guns going! Hark! one, two, three, four, five, six; now there’s something coming right down on the tail of another.
Here they come; yes, they are being chased home – and how they are being chased home! There are three Spitfires chasing three Messerschmitts now. Oh, boy! Look at them going! Oh, look how the Messerschmitts! Oh boy! that was really grand! There’s a Spitfire behind the first two. He will get them. Oh, yes. Oh, boy! I’ve never seen anything so good as this. The R.A.F. fighters have really got these boys taped. Our machine is catching up the Messerschmitt now. He’s catching it up! He’s got the legs of it, you know. Now right in the sights.
Go on, George! You’ve got him! Bomb! bomb! No, no, the distance is a bit deceptive from here. You can’t tell, but I think something definitely is going to happen to that first Messerschmitt. Oh yes – just a moment – I think I wouldn’t like to be in that first Messerschmitt. I think he’s got him.
Yes? Machine guns are going like anything. No, there’s another fight going on. No, they’ve chased him right out to sea. I can’t see, but I think the odds would be certainly on that first Messerschmitt catching it.
Where? Where? I can’t see them at all. Just on the left of those black shots. See it? Oh, yes, oh yes, I see it. Yes, they’ve got him down, too. I can’t see. Yes, he’s pulled away from him. Yes, I think that first Messerschmitt has been crashed on the coast of France all right.”
As we know now, Gartner got most of the detail of the aerial engagement wrong, reducing the opposing forces to “Ju 87s” and “Spitfires” where in fact there were Hurricanes and Bf 109s. But to his defence, details would be immensely difficult to observe with a naked eye. Instead, his recording remains a prime first-hand testimony of how the Battle of Britain was preceived by those on the ground.
Although it was broadcast on the following day, the eight-minute report was sent uncut, retaining all the drama of a live transmission – a novel feature in a time when live broadcasting was in its infancy. It caused strong reactions among BBC listeners. Hundreds protested, feeling that the account was too dramatic, vulgar in its rendition of a life-and-death struggle in the tone and language of a sporting commentary. Most listened, mesmerized by the sound of the Battle of Britain brought to their fireside. The next day, the journalist Conrad Philipps made a humorous remark that Charles Gardner should be canonized.
Pilot Officer Muddie, a man whos deadly fate was recorded on the radio, is buried at Esher. The words on his gravestone read:
“In proud and loving memory of
Michael Robert Mudie RAF
Killed in Action at Dover July 14th 1940
Aged 24 Years
Per Ardua Ad Astra”
PS. You can listen to Charles Gardner’s broadcast here [BBC Archives]
– Marcel Julian: The Battle of Britain July-September 1940, Cedric Chivers, 1974
– BBC Audio Clips Library
– Dover War Memorial Project, http://www.doverwarmemorialproject.org.uk/
– Leslie Hunt: Twenty-One Squadrons – The History of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force 1925- 1957, Crecy, 1992