Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain

Posted on Monday 26th January 2015

an epic day: 31 august 1940

William Henry ‘Bill’ Millington Jr was born in Newcastle-in-Tyne on 11 August 1917. He and his family arrived in Australia, to settle in Adelaide, the South Australian capital, on his 9th birthday. Fourteen years later, Bill was defending his homeland as one of ‘The Few’. In this edited extract from Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain, Kristen Alexander tells the story of a remarkable deed of chivalry during the height of the Battle for which Bill was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The last day of summer 1940 was shaping up to be fine, clear and hot: a perfect day for the Luftwaffe to leave its explosive calling cards and so it did, launching a massive offensive which targeted the southeast and eastern airfields, including Biggin Hill, an important 11 Group station.

At 12.30 pm, 23-year-old Pilot Officer Bill Millington of 79 Squadron was in the air for the second time that day. An enemy formation of about 40 Junkers Ju 88s and escorts had crossed the coast near Folkestone and was heading for Croydon. Diving from out of the sun, Messerschmitt Me 109s surprised Bill’s Blue Section. Within an instant, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts were dogfighting furiously, ranging down from 15,000 to 3000 feet. The young Australian twisted, turned, ducked and dived until he gained a clear line of sight on one of the 109s and shot it down. He was, in turn, caught by enemy fire. With his machine’s hydraulic system on the fritz, he made a forced landing near Folkestone and returned to Biggin Hill courtesy of a police car.

Within hours the alert sounded again and, at 5.45 pm, 79 Squadron, including Bill Millington in Hurricane P3050, took off. They soon sighted 15 Dornier Do 215s, escorted by large numbers of Me 109s and 110s, approaching the station. With little regard for risk, Bill again plunged into battle and attacked the Dorniers. ‘What is one fighter compared with a German bomber?’ he later remarked. He lined up a Do 215 and fired, setting alight the port engine. He followed it down and, while he was distracted by bits of the Dornier shedding over Biggin Hill aerodrome, three Me 109s pounced on him. He eluded them then took the offensive and attacked. He damaged one during the ensuing dogfight then shook off the other two.

He pursued the bombers on their homeward track but was beset by more Messerschmitts. He dodged one and pumped the last of his ammunition into another. It caught alight and ploughed into the military firing range south of Lydd. His attention was again diverted as he watched the pilot climb out of the crashed aeroplane. Another mistake: he was attacked by a 109 over Romney Marsh. A cannon shell exploded on the left side of his cockpit. P3050’s engine and radiator were hit and ‘I was shot up badly by cannon fire and wounded in the thigh.’

The engine started to burn and flames seared his skin. The cockpit filled with heavy black smoke as the fire caught hold. Bill struggled to open the hood and prepared to bale out. Looking down, he caught sight of Tenterden, nestled on the edge of the Weald. Although he knew full well the hazard of a horrible death in flames, he hesitated. The memory of his squadron friend Edward Mitchell, who, just a few weeks ago, had burned for an hour before his unrecognisable body could be retrieved from his Hurricane, would not have been far from his mind. Bill, however, was a former boy scout and rover. Scout Law was at the heart of his existence and he always put others first. There was no choice. ‘I considered it unwise to bale out’, he later explained, ‘as my machine would probably have crashed into a small village’.

Bill stayed at P3050’s controls and attempted a controlled landing, willingly placing his own life at risk to protect innocent civilians.

The aircraft crash-landed at Conghurst Farm, Hawkhurst. Farm hands rushed to Bill’s assistance and one of the local lads watched as the young pilot was dragged from the burning machine. Seconds later, it exploded.

Burnt, wounded, covered in blood and grease, Bill limped with assistance towards a nearby farm house ‘to clean up and [drink] the inevitable cup of tea’, and to recover from an ‘epic’ day. Then, as he told it, ‘the typical village police constable turned up, pulled out a note book and said “name and address please”. He wouldn’t believe I was the Prince of Wales!!’ Not surprising, given there wasn’t one at the time.

Eight Australian Spitfire and Hurricane pilots of the Battle of Britain: Jack Kennedy, Stuart Walch, Dick Glyde, Ken Holland, Pat Hughes, Bill Millington, John Crossman and Des Sheen. Only one survived.

As Bill convalesced, the squadron totted up his victories. He had taken part in nearly every patrol since joining 79 Squadron in June 1940 and had accounted for six enemy aircraft, two probables and one damaged. He was an ace fighter pilot with a reputation for displaying ‘great courage in attacking superior numbers of enemy aircraft’. His squadron leader recognised Bill’s extraordinary bravery and chivalry for choosing ‘to make a crash-landing rather than abandon his aircraft and let it fall in flames into a village’ and recommended him for a DFC. Attached to the recommendation were additional remarks from Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the air officer commanding 11 Group: ‘I consider he is well worthy of reward and strongly recommend him for the Immediate Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross’.

Bill was posted to 249 Squadron on 19 September. There, his victory tally continued to increase until, on 30 October, he was lost over the Channel.

From his first combat success on 9 July, Bill Millington had accumulated a total of nine and two shared destroyed, four probables and three damaged. He was a double ace and the fourth highest scoring Australian in the Battle of Britain. Before going into battle for the first time, Bill told his family that he had ‘endeavoured to live up to those standards dictated by honour and chivalry’ which they and he held so dear, ‘and am sure that I have not failed you’. His exceptional bravery of 31 August 1940 leaves us in no doubt that he had not.

A final accolade comes from fellow 249 Squadron pilot Tom Neil, who knew Bill as a ‘brave and capable colleague and friend, who fought with distinction and was a credit to himself, to his parents, and to all who were close to him. He served both Britain and Australia well. He answered the call to arms and gave all he had to give—with good grace and with cheerful willingness’.

Bill Millington (left) with Wilfred the duck and Tom Neil with Pipsqueak, 249 Squadron, 1940. Tom neil recalled that Bill 'appeared to enjoy flying as my partner... and often told me so.' (Courtesy of Simon Robinson)

Until now, Australian participation in the Battle of Britain has received little attention. In Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain, Kristen Alexander provides an intimate perspective of the lives, loves, fears and combat successes of eight Australian pilots, as she follows them from childhood to death, and beyond that to commemoration.

kristen alexander
Kristen Alexander is a writer and researcher with a particular interest in Australia’s aviation history. She won the Military Historical Society of Australia’s Sabretache Writers Award in 2012 and 2013, and was highly commended in the non-fiction section of the 2014 ACT Writing and Publishing Awards. Her second book was included on the RAAF Chief of Air Force’s 2010 reading list and her articles and book reviews have appeared in Sabretache, Aviation Heritage, the Journal of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, Wings, Official Publication of the RAAFA, Britain at War and Flightpath. Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain is her fourth book.
Kristen is a passionate reader and loves afternoon tea served on fine china, leaf tea, and old movies. Kristen and her husband share their home in Canberra, Australia’s capital, with a few thousand books. On rare breaks from her writing desk, she is a bookseller, specialising in Australian military books.
Rabbit shooting in he Adelaide Hills, January 1939. Bill Millington never lost his eye. (Courtesy of Simon Robinson)

'From his first combat success on 9 July, Bill Millington had accumulated a total of nine and two shared destroyed, four probables and three damaged. He was a double ace and the fourth highest scoring Australian in the Battle of Britain.'

Bill Millington with Pipsqueak, a little black and white terrier of indeterminate ancestry, 249 Squadron, 1940. (Courtesy of Simon Robinson)

Further Reading

Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain
(Hardback - 409 pages)
ISBN: 9781473833791

by Kristen Alexander
Only £25.00

During the summer and autumn of 1940, the Germans launched their Luftwaffe campaign to gain superiority over the RAF, especially Fighter Command. They were not successful, and this defeat marked a turning point in the Allies' favour. This is the story of eight Australian fighter pilots engaged in the Battle of Britain, the first major battle of World War II (or any war) fought entirely in the air. Jack Kennedy, Stuart Walch, Dick Glyde, Ken Holland, Pat Hughes, Bill Millington, John Crossman and Des Sheen – only one of them…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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