6 October 1940
Even under the best of circumstances, fighter operations of the 1940 would be a highly challenging business. Complexity of aircraft built for speed and operated at the extremes of their performance envelope translated to difficulties in maintaining high serviceability rate, but also to a relatively high rate of accidents.
As the Battle of Britain progressed, combat stress, fatigue and lowered standards of training of new pilots added to the dangers of flying. Even in the initial month of the Battle between 10 July and 11 August, no fewer than 47 RAF fighters were written off in accidents, and another 68 were badly damaged. These numbers compare to 85 aircraft lost to enemy combat during the same period.
As soaring combat losses were being replaced by fresh pilots, the resulting decrease in general level of pilot experience contributed to an even higher accident rate. By September, some of the replacement pilots could have had as little as 1.5 hours of flying in a Hurricane before joining an operational unit. Familiarizing with their aircraft and the intricacies of formation flying – not to mention deflection shooting – under operational conditions posed a considerable danger to themselves and their fellow pilots. Raw and scared, many of the green pilots crashed their aircraft and died or were wounded without any aid from the enemy.
One of such accidents occurred on 7 October, Shortly after 3:30pm, No. 607 Squadron took off from Tangmere on patrol with eleven Hurricanes led by F/Lt Bazin. Fiften minutes later, the enemy was not encountered, but /O Ivor Difford and P/O Alec Scott collided. Luckily, Scott managed to bale out and descended safely on the parachute near Slindon. Difford didn’t survive the crash. His Hurricane, carrying the dead body of the pilot, fell into the ground at Eartham Farm.
Three days later, No. 92 Squadron from Digby took of in pursuit of a single Dornier Do 17 east of Brighton. All nine Spitfires descended on their prey, but firing was difficult because their windscreens were iced up. P/O John Drummond and P/O Bill Williams simultaneously attempted a beam attack from the opposing sides of the bomber, unknowingly also heading towards each other. The Spitfires touched each other, the starboard wing of Drummond’s machine striking the tail of his colleague. Williams was either knocked unconscious of died in the crash and fell to the ground with his aircraft. Drummond baled out, but it was too low for his parachute to open fully. He suffered fatal injuries when hitting the ground. His Spitfire crashed close to him, landing on a flintstone wall that bordered St Mary’s Convent in Portslade. Drummon was still alive, and a priest could be called to administer the last rites before he died. [Google map].
Later during October, another mid-air collision befell No. 302 (Polish) Squadron operating from Northolt. A flight commander of the unit, F/Lt Czerny, collided in the air with another Hurricane flown by F/L Thomson of the Northolt Sector headquarters. The impact was so violent that Thomson’s aircraft was cut in half. Thomson baled out. Czerny made a forced landing at white Weldham with broken propeller and raised undercarriage. Miraculously, both airmen escaped uninjured. Subsequent investigation stated the usual “error of judgement” as the cause of the accident.
Arguably the briefest operational career of the Battle of Britain was that of John K. Haviland, one of the four American fighter pilots participating in the Battle. Haviland was one of the new aircrew posted into reinforce the decimated No. 151 Squadron. On the exact day when he joined the unit, he was sent up in the air for formation practice. Shortly after takeoff, Havilland collided with another Hurricane, but thankfully was able to bring his aircraft down in a paddock. He saw no further action during the Battle.
Accidents and collisions were also frequently occurring on the ground. On 18 July, No. 266 Squadron used a day of clear weather or relative lull to conduct practice flights. Training included interception and attacks, target and camera gun practice. P/O D.G. Ashton, taxiing his Spitfire across the aerodrome, collided with a tractor, severely damaging his aircraft. The pilot escaped without injury.
There were periods during the Battle of Britain when Fighter Command was losing as many aircraft and pilots in accidents as they were in combat.
– Leo McKinstry: Hurricane – Victor of the Battle of Britain, John Murray, 2010, p. 167
– Americans in the Battle of Britain, History.net http://www.historynet.com/a-few-americans-in-the-battle-of-britain.htm
– No. 266 Squadron, Operational Records Book
– No. 302 Squadron, Operational Records Book