Battle of Britain Day – 15 September 1940

Posted on Thursday 17th September 2015

During the summer and autumn of 1940, Germany launched its air campaign to gain superiority over the RAF. They were not successful, and this defeat marked a turning point in the Allies’ favour. A handful of the 3000 or so airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain were Australians. In this edited extract from Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain, Kristen Alexander tells of the part played by 22 year-old Pilot Officer John Crossman, from Newcastle, New South Wales and 20 year-old Sergeant Ken Holland from Bondi, New South Wales (but more recently from Camelford, in Cornwall).

Sunday, 15 September 1940 saw the Luftwaffe launch a concentrated attack against London: the goal was to bring the RAF to its knees once and for all. 11 Group was totally committed, 12 Group’s Duxford Wing was involved, and 10 Group squadrons were called to protect the southwest in a series of battles and defensive actions that lasted until dusk.

From mid-morning, German forces massed near Calais. Fighter Command had had so much forewarning that 17 squadrons were airborne before three columns of bombers and their escorts crossed the coast of Kent at 11.30 a.m. en route to London. Five minutes later, John Crossman, in Hurricane V7442, and nine others from 46 Squadron were ordered to form up with 249 Squadron over Stapleford Tawney and proceed to South London.

The wing broke through the cloud cover at about 12,000 feet. Vectored south over Kent, John and his confrères climbed to 17,000 feet before catching a glimpse of the first puff of anti-aircraft fire. A little before 12.20 p.m., they encountered a ‘formation of 20 Dornier 215s over South London at 18,000 feet, escorted by many Me109s 5000 feet above’. The Dorniers dispersed as the Hurricanes approached and some Messerschmitt Me109s dived to engage the defenders. Most, however, clung to the bombers, protecting them as they advanced towards their target.

To John, it appeared as if he had run into ‘hundreds of Jerry kites’. He was ‘scared stiff’ as ‘three of us were going round to do head-on attacks on some Dorniers’ but he steeled himself for battle. He put aside his fear as he carried out the dangerous tactic but something went wrong. ‘I lost speed, spun down 6000 feet, came out near 20 more escorted by about 60 Messerschmitt 109s’. His advantage was gone. Two or three ‘Me109s detached themselves from the formation and dived to attack me. I turned inwards and headed for the bomber formation.’ Next, ‘he evaded then came round [and] did a stern attack on the Dorniers’. Closing from 350 to 300 yards he delivered four bursts and ‘put all my shots into one of them.’ He ‘saw black smoke pouring out from the port engine of the Do215 and the aircraft detached itself from the formation and began to lose height’. John ‘saw him go down’ but then ‘dived away from the oncoming Me109s’. With no ammunition left, he wasn’t ‘going to stay round on my own with 60 Me 109s’ on the plot.

Later, he proudly annotated his flying log, ‘shot down one Do215’ but the squadron diarist simply recorded that the Dornier ‘left the formation losing height’ and lumped all combat successes together stating ‘considerable damage was inflicted upon the enemy’. At best it would have been a probable, but John was not officially attributed with any part of the Dornier’s demise.

John Crossman had no chance to rest on whatever laurels he claimed for himself. A quick lunch and he was in the air again: 46 and 249 squadrons were on their way to meet 120–150 intruders that would cross the coast between Dungeness and Dover in three formations five minutes later. The Hornchurch squadrons were the first to strike, and other squadrons attacked in succession. 249 Squadron claimed ten confirmed, the same number of probables and some damaged.

The enemy eluded most of 46 Squadron, but at about 3.15 p.m., when they were over the Thames Estuary and bombs were dropping over the London metropolitan area, John ‘chased a 215 into the clouds and lost him, otherwise wasn’t able to get near anything. They ran too fast’. Meanwhile, 152 Squadron’s B Flight scrambled from Warmwell. Another enemy formation was on its way to Portland. Heinkel He111s, without fighter escorts, crossed the Channel at St Alban’s Head then turned west. 152 Squadron, faced the formation on their own.

Pilot Officer Eric ‘Boy’ Marrs and another from Blue Section were patrolling Warmwell when the call came through to intercept the raid. They were joined in the air by Blue Section’s third man and Green Section, comprising Flight Lieutenant Peter O’Brian, Pilot Officer Arthur ‘Watty’ Watson and Ken Holland, who was bringing up the rear in Spitfire R6764 as Green Three. Just before 3.30 p.m., B Flight was over Weymouth when Marrs sighted about 30 He111s at 15,000 feet, heading towards Portland from the west. They dropped their bombs within minutes and B Flight soon caught up to them.

While B Flight targeted a Heinkel on the extreme left of the rearmost enemy section, Green section homed in on a straggler. With little return fire from the Heinkel, O’Brian concentrated his guns on the starboard engine. Closing from 300 to 200 yards, Ken Holland fired off a five second burst from astern. The Heinkel began to lose height as black smoke poured from the starboard engine. Ken managed another two bursts and O’Brian fired again, followed by Watson as it went down with smoke pouring from the starboard engine. Ken had ‘shot all my rounds at one doing three attacks on it’ but Watson had enough ammunition to attack another straggler which blew up before plunging into the sea. When Ken returned to Warmwell, he ‘claimed a third probable’ and surveyed the damage to his Spitfire. ‘R6764 had bullets through engine sump, tailplane, fin, one gun, oil tank! Fool’s luck to get home at all’.

It seems that, although 152 Squadron’s fighter combat report notes Green Section’s probable, their downed Dornier was not officially acknowledged. Neither Ken, nor O’Brian, nor Watson were credited with third shares.

John Crossman and Ken Holland appear to have been in the minority as far as acknowledged claims credit was concerned. When the day’s figures were totted up and added to those made by the anti-aircraft gunners, apparently 185 enemy aircraft had been downed, of which 127 were bombers. It was Fighter Command’s highest victory count. Although losses included 12 killed, one missing, one wounded who would die later, one taken prisoner of war, and 26 of their own machines, they had done well, but their victory tally was nowhere near the 185 claimed. Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the air officer commanding 11 Group, realised this: he thought such a high tally was ludicrous, particularly as there was little crash evidence.

Even so, the Air Ministry announced the dodgy figures as fact and the aerial successes produced enthusiastic praise for the RAF from all sectors of the public. Inflated or not – post-war research indicated only 60 German aircraft had been downed—enemy losses were the worst since 18 August which would become known as ‘The Hardest Day’.

The Germans had believed the RAF was a hair’s breadth from collapse and had faith that another mighty onslaught would result in the final blow. It didn’t, and their losses were so high they were as good as defeated. A rethink was needed. 15 September has ever since been celebrated as ‘Battle of Britain Day’, not for the real or even exaggerated RAF claims but because it marked a turning point. Five days after the most recent failure to break the RAF and gain air supremacy, Hitler postponed his invasion plans indefinitely.

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 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.
A happy Ken Holland with a furry friend, May 1939. Courtesy of Jonathan Falconer.

Studio portrait of John Crossman, with wings, taken in Newcastle-upon-Tyne during 32 Squadron's Acklington exile, August/September 1940. This was one of the photos treasured by Pat Foley. Courtesy of the Bowden family.

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…
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