Spitfires on the Continent

28 May 2019

A Spitfire of No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, being prepared for take off from Ford, England, on D-Day, 6 June 1944. The black and white invasion stripes were applied for “the big show” two days earlier. AWM UK1426

In late April 1944, an Australian pilot in England wrote home excitedly about the anticipated invasion of Europe. “You have no idea of the feeling in the air,” he told his family, “it is electric.” The pilot was Flying Officer Russell “Rusty” Leith, then an instructor in a training unit. Posted previously to No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), he was eager not to miss the invasion. “If you were here,” he concluded, “you would realise why I am dying to get back to the Squadron.” He would rejoin the squadron in July in Normandy, France, only to be forced down behind German lines three weeks later.

Leith was one of several thousand Australian airmen who participated in the Normandy campaign. On D-Day, 6 June, there were more than 1,800 RAAF pilots and aircrew serving in operational squadrons in Britain. Just over half were in Australian squadrons; the rest were serving in Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons. Another 13,500 RAAF personnel were in training and non-operational units. There are no records for the unknown number of other Australians who enlisted directly into the RAF.  

Given the vast resources available to the Allies, Australia’s contribution is easily overlooked. The ten Australian squadrons then serving in Britain – No. 10 Squadron, RAAF, as well as nine nominally Australian “Article XV” squadrons – constituted only a small portion of the RAF’s 306 squadrons in Britain. When considering the sizeable effort of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), the Australian story is further dwarfed; and No. 453 Squadron was only one of the 171 British and American fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons available for D-Day.

Raised as an Article XV squadron in mid-1941, No. 453 Squadron was nearly destroyed by the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore the following year. The survivors were evacuated before Singapore fell and the squadron was disbanded on returning to Australia, only to be re-formed in Britain in June. The squadron usually had a complement of 16 operational aircraft with two or three in reserve and 25 pilots.

At the time of the Normandy invasion, 27 pilots were posted to the squadron (two were in hospital) and it was equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX. These young men, with an average age of 23, came from a variety of backgrounds. There were farm hands, labourers, a grocery assistant, a radio mechanic, and an apprentice boilermaker – as well as the university students and clerks represented in the popular image of pilots. Seven had served in the Militia before joining the air force and another had been a schoolboy cadet.

Their commanding officer, 28-year-old Squadron Leader Donald Smith, was the squadron’s oldest and most experienced pilot. A South Australian farmer, he had flown in the defence of Malta in 1942. He was credited with several victories before being shot down and severely wounded. In April 1944 he was awarded the USSR’s Medal for Valour – an unusual award for an Australian. In the coming months, Smith would claim at least two more German aircraft.

Flying Officer Roger Bush was another of the squadron’s key officers. The English-born 25-year-old supervised the ground crew and was described by one pilot as the “master of scroungers” and the “wizard of engineers”. After the war, Bush was ordained as a Methodist minister and became a media identity. In Normandy, however, his ground crew – half Australian and half British – worked 16-hour days to keep the aircraft serviceable.

Ground crew from No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, with French children on Advanced Landing Ground B11 (ALG B11) at Longues, France, June 1944. The landing ground had been a barley field. AWM UK1527

Stationed at Ford in West Sussex, in the south of England, as part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force’s No. 125 Wing, the squadron flew fighter sweeps over northern France, escorted bombers, and attacked ground targets. In an atmosphere of growing anticipation, on the eve of the Normandy landings the squadron patrolled off England’s south coast, witnessing what Smith described as “the greatest convoy the world has ever known”. That evening the pilots attended a large briefing and were told “this was IT”. As the diarist of the squadron’s operations record book noted, all were up early the next morning:

All the pilots out of bed at 04.00 hours for dawn readiness … all the night we hear bombers going over to France. There must be thousands of them. The pilots took off at 08.00 to give cover to the invading forces … all day long all work was accompanied by the roar of bombers over-head. We are glad we are not Germans.

 

The Allies completely dominated the skies. American fighters patrolled the sea-lanes to Normandy and provided high-level cover over the invasion beaches. Thirty-six RAF Spitfire squadrons, including No. 453 Squadron, flew low-level cover. Six Spitfire squadrons were over the beaches at any time: three over the Americans on “Omaha” and “Utah” and three over the British and Canadians on “Gold”, “Juno”, and “Sword”. They patrolled for up to 50 minutes, making a round trip of about two hours from their base in Ford. Smith led three of the squadron’s four formations. Seven pilots flew three sorties each, and ten flew two each.

The mental and physical strain was exhausting. Strapped into the Spitfire’s tight cockpit, the pilot’s head was only centimetres from the canopy, his shoulders almost touching the sides of the cockpit. Constantly alert, the pilot’s eyes itched from the strain of searching the skies, his leather helmet soggy from perspiration, his stiff muscles cramping.

On 10 June, Warrant Officer Keith Daff, a florist from Victoria, was the first man from the squadron to land on French soil. Engine trouble forced him down on an emergency landing strip at Vierville-sur-Mer, but he was quickly in the air again. That afternoon he told an Australian war correspondent that American soldiers had warned him of German snipers, and he had been more nervous on the ground than he had ever been in the air. This was the first of several lucky escapes. On 27 June, three days after his 24th birthday, Daff was hit by anti-aircraft fire. A month later, another hit from flak severed part of his Spitfire’s propeller. Not all pilots were so fortunate.

Pilots from No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, gathered at the mobile orderly room on ALG B11 at Longues, France, July 1944. Three of the five became casualties. One pilot was badly burnt, another was shot down and taken prisoner while the third pilot was killed.

Late in the evening of 11 June the squadron was patrolling over Ouistreham when Flight Lieutenant Henry “Lacy” Smith’s Spitfire was hit by flak. Losing speed and height, his plane emitting white fume trails, Smith called over the radio telegraphy (R/T): “I am going to put this thing down in a field.” But his aircraft struck a canal, skidded along the surface and then nosed into the water, flipping over onto its back to partly submerge; it sank a few days later. Initially posted as “missing”, Smith’s Spitfire was discovered in the River Orne in November 2010. He was buried with military honours in April 2011.

On 16 June 1944, the squadron scored against the Luftwaffe near Caen, claiming two Messerschmitt Bf 109s destroyed, two probably destroyed, and one damaged. There were also losses, including a pilot killed in an accident in England. By the month’s end, the squadron had moved to Normandy, establishing itself at Longues, south of Gold Beach on the Advanced Landing Ground B11 (ALG B11). These bulldozed landing grounds were primitive and dusty with the men living under canvas.

The interaction between the Australians and French farmers and villagers was positive, if limited. Some French greeted them with calls of “Bonsoir, Australie” whereas others seemed amazed the pilots were actually Australian. The first pilots to land in France received flowers as well as German helmets and belts as souvenirs, while the Australians learnt enough French to buy fresh milk and eggs from farmers. In one village they met a man who had proudly fought alongside Australians in the last war. 

Squadron Leader Donald Smith (centre, standing) with some of his pilots outside a café in Bayeux, France, July 1944. [L to R] Flying Officers John Olver and Kenneth Lawrence; Smith; Flight Lieutenant Vernon Lancaster; Flying Officer Michael West and Flight Lieutenant Patrick McDade. McDade was shot down by flak and became a prisoner of war. AWM UK1532

During a patrol on 27 June, Flight Lieutenant Vernon “Lanc” Lancaster’s section of four Spitfires engaged eight German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, with Lancaster claiming one probable destroyed. Several of the German aircraft were thought to be damaged, but later that evening Lancaster and another pilot were “bounced” by six Fw 190s. Canon fire blew Lancaster’s Perspex windscreen to pieces. Wounded in the head and neck, the 25-year-old Victorian with more than a year’s operational experience recovered quickly and fired a long burst at another Fw 190 that burst into flames and dove towards the ground. “I was so mad,” Lancaster said afterwards, “I almost pressed the ‘tit’ [firing button] through the stick.”

Another successful dogfight was fought on 2 July, but the most dramatic action occurred a week later, on the 9th, when more than 40 German fighters were spotted west of Lisieux. Squadron Leader Smith said calmly over the R/T, “Look up and you’ll see something nice,” before the 12 Spitfires climbed to attack the Germans head on. “We simply spearheaded through them,” he said afterwards. The melee was over in minutes. Smith claimed a Bf 109 destroyed and an Fw 190 damaged. Warrant Officer Daff and two others also claimed victories. Such claims were usually difficult to verify, but on this occasion Daff gave a frank description of shooting down an Fw 190.

I fired at him from about 200 yards [180 metres] and saw a bit come off his tail plane. Then I scored hits on his fuselage and he went into a slow, gentle roll before corkscrewing down. I saw the flutter of a parachute, and as I watched it opened up and glided right down on top of the burning plane.

The Australians fought several other successful actions in July, but such encounters were rare. By the end of June, 31 Allied squadrons (19 British and 12 American) were in Normandy. They also called upon the numerous reserves in Britain. The Luftwaffe could not compete. Heavily outnumbered, German fighter pilots like Oberleutnant Willi Heilmann knew they were fighting impossible odds. Leading a squadron of Fw 190s based outside Paris, Heilmann later described the situation as “futile” and “hopeless”. The Germans would be airborne for only a few minutes before Allied fighters would come in from every quarter. Then neither skill nor the “craziest bravery” could prevail: the order of the day was just to “stick it out”.

Enjoying this superiority, No. 453 Squadron, along with other British and American squadrons, focused on smashing the Germans’ line of communications, dive-bombing and strafing their vehicles and interrupting their flow of supplies and reinforcements. The Australians hunted up to 60 kilometres behind the German front lines. An Australian newspaper described an occasion when a flight of four Spitfires spotted a single German military policeman directing traffic. The pilots “riddled the luckless Nazi with their machine-guns” before continuing to attack the convoy. Another report had an Australian pilot flying so low to “shoot up” a German staff car that when the Spitfire returned, the aircraft’s Perspex windscreen was covered with the blood of the car’s occupants. As the fighting ground on, the squadron’s tally of destroyed armoured vehicles, lorries, wagons, and staff cars – described as “flamers”, “smokers”, or “damaged” – continued to climb.

Constantly harried, the Germans sought what protection they could. They stopped moving in large numbers and started driving vehicles in short stages, darting from tree to tree. There were rudimentary attempts at camouflage, with some vehicles carrying tree branches. Smith admitted that the chief hazards to low-flying Spitfires were the many anti-aircraft guns hidden in the fields neighbouring roads: he noted that “the Hun” had “substituted flak for fighters”.

Flying Officer Russell Leith when No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, were operating from Advanced Landing Ground B70 at Deurne, near Antwerp in Belgium, September 1944. Leith claimed three German aircraft destroyed and one shared. AWM UK1947

Flak was the greatest killer of No. 453 Squadron’s pilots. In addition to Flight Lieutenant “Lacy” Smith, three others were killed as a result of flak in July, and a fifth was killed in August. Many more were shot down, a few on multiple occasions.

Other pilots were victims of unfortunate twists of fate. Warrant Officer Kenneth “Kenny” Kinross was one of the squadron’s more experienced pilots. The son of a Great War veteran who had served in the Australian Flying Corps, Kinross joined the air force in 1941. On 24 July 1944 he was one of four Spitfires returning from a patrol over Bayeux, Caen, and Cabourg when an American P-47 Thunderbolt appeared and opened fire. Kinross’s Spitfire was hit and plunged into the ground, killing the 22-year-old pilot. The American disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared.

Shortly after moving to ALG B19, near Lingevres, another disastrous incident occurred on 14 August when a single German aircraft dropped three anti-personnel bombs among the pilots’ tents and near the officers’ mess. Warrant Officer Mervyn Watson was killed a day before his 21st birthday. Originally a plumber and tinsmith in north-eastern New South Wales, he had joined the squadron in mid-June. Three other pilots were seriously wounded, including one who had been with the squadron for only five days.

Being trapped in a burning aircraft was possibly a pilot’s greatest fear. On 16 August, Warrant Officer Fred Cowpe’s Spitfire was hit by flak near the cockpit. He was shot through both legs and his emergency dinghy caught fire. He later described what happened in his diary:

Slid hood back and cocked door, noticed seat and most likely chute was riddled with flak fragments … Suddenly I’m on fire, it pouring up and out through open canopy … pain excruciating, trying to beat off flames with left hand … suddenly all pain gone (found out later, when nerves burnt through, pain ceases) … ground hit with a mighty crash … Got out and trying to beat out clothing, British soldiers helping me and carried away from aircraft … looked at my left gauntlet, it was charred and burnt black. Thought … it’s no good now so pulled it off, but in so doing skin and flesh came off with it.

Despite suffering second-degree burns, Cowpe had managed to land on an airfield recently captured by the Allies at Carpiquet.

Several other pilots were brought down behind enemy lines. Warrant Officer Roderick “Froggie” Lyall, aged 22, had a remarkable escape. A student from Victoria, he was hit by flak on 12 July and crashed south-east of Falaise. After two days on the run, he was caught by four members of the German SS and was kept in various prison camps near Alençon. As the Germans began their withdrawal in early August, Lyall, in company with an American and wearing American clothes over his RAAF uniform, jumped from a moving lorry and escaped into the night. Hidden by French villagers near St Denis-sur-Sarthon, the two airmen were picked up by American soldiers on 13 August. Five days later Lyall was back with the squadron, now operating from ALG B19 near Lingevres. A second pilot, missing since early July, also returned to the squadron, followed by Flying Officer Leith on the 25th. All three men owed their escape and survival to the bravery of the French farmers who had hidden them at great personal risk.

The safe return of these evaders was a welcome boost to the squadron’s morale. The previous month, July, had been costly, particularly towards the end, when over four days eight pilots were lost – four killed and four shot down behind German lines. These were heavy losses to a small, close-knit group already fatigued by the stress and strain of combat. Consequently, the squadron’s medical officer used a 24-hour break from operations on 27 July as an opportunity to throw a party. It proved a welcomed distraction. Hosted by a nearby British military hospital, the Australians enjoyed beer, Scotch, gin, and dancing with the nurses. The diarist of the operations record book observed how the night helped break the “gloom” caused by recent losses. A fortunate few also took brief respites in Britain, either on leave or to ferry replacement aircraft to France.

By the end of August, the last German troops had withdrawn across the River Seine. In September, British and American forces continued advancing through northern France, and later No. 453 Squadron was operating into Holland, supporting the British army’s push towards Arnhem. It is worth noting too that following the Allied landings in southern France in mid-August, No. 451 Squadron, RAAF, also flying Spitfires, was based in France for several weeks.

The Australians enjoyed their role as liberators. In mid-September, Flying Officer Leith was with a group who drove to Lille in a German car to witness the city’s liberation celebrations. Elsewhere, farmers greeted them with open arms, offering drinks long hidden from the occupying Germans. At a village near Douai, the group enjoyed a long lunch with a family and drank what Leith considered “absolutely the best” champagne.

Armed Australian ground crew of No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, just arrived by transport aircraft at the Advanced Landing Ground B11 at Longues, France, June 1944. AWM UK1520

But the war was not yet over. During two patrols near Arnhem on 27 September, the squadron again outfought the Luftwaffe. In the first action, Warrant Officer Lyall claimed a Bf 109 destroyed. During the second patrol a Spitfire was brought down by flak, but the pilot was seen running towards a Dutch village and later evaded capture. The patrol went on to engage a large formation of enemy fighters. Four Australians pilots, including Leith, each claimed a Bf 109 destroyed. Four more were claimed damaged. The next day, the squadron received a new commanding officer as Smith, along with Flight Lieutenant Lancaster, completed his tour of 200 operational hours.

On 29 September, the squadron’s Spitfires flew back to Britain. They encountered heavy flak over Ostend in Belgium, still held by the Germans, with Flying Officer James “Fergie” Ferguson taking a direct hit. Turning inland, his Spitfire exploded a few seconds later. All assumed he had been killed: Ferguson, however, wounded slightly and suffering burns, had bailed out and became a prisoner of war. He was the squadron’s final casualty from its time on the Continent.

From June until September, No. 453 Squadron had flown 2,354 operational sorties and clocked up 3,176 operational hours. They claimed 20 German aircraft destroyed, and destroyed five German armoured and 162 transport vehicles. This score had been a hard-fought tally. Eight pilots were killed, eight were wounded or injured, and three became prisoners of the Germans. The squadron had had but a small role in what was a much larger struggle, but the efforts of the Australians had not been mere tokenism, nor were they passive observers. The pilots and ground crew of No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, had been skilful combatants in the great crusade that eventually brought victory to the Allies.

About the author

Dr Karl James is Head of the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial.