The Battle of Britain: Black Thursday

Posted on Wednesday 12th August 2015


During the summer and autumn of 1940, the Luftwaffe launched their 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 Australians in the Black Thursday assault.
On 15 August 1940, the Luftwaffe launched a series of attacks designed to overwhelm RAF defences. Almost the entire British Isles was within the range of enemy bombers. In what would become known as Black Thursday, Fighter Command more than held its own in its largest air battle so far. Three Australian pilots contributed to that success: Flight Lieutenant Des Sheen DFC, from Australia’s capital, Canberra; Pilot Officer Bill Millington, who was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne and brought up in Adelaide, South Australia; and Flight Lieutenant Pat Hughes, who hailed from New South Wales’ Monaro region.
At about 9.30 a.m., a large formation of He115 floatplanes took off from Stavanger, in Norway, on course for Dundee, Scotland, tasked with attracting the fighter squadrons based around Edinburgh. They were followed half an hour later by 72 He111s, each loaded with high-explosive bombs, with their escort of 21 Me110s fitted with long-range belly tanks. (Some of the bombers later turned back, and only 63 reached their destination.) The floatplanes and the main force were supposed to follow separate tracks but a navigational error by the Heinkels resulted in them flying almost identical courses. The 115s turned back about 40 miles from the Scottish coast.
Fighter Command’s plotters initially thought just three aircraft were on their way. Still underestimating the numbers, this was soon amended to 30 . The Acklington squadrons were on readiness. At noon, an order to take off was blasted over the tannoy. 72 Squadron was in the air within 20 minutes. 79 Squadron followed at 12.42 p.m. with three other squadrons not far behind.
Flight Lieutenant Edward ‘Ted’ Graham was leading 72 Squadron on a base patrol. 22 year-old Des Sheen was Green Leader. When the He111s swung south to correct their navigational error, the squadron was ordered north to the Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast, to intercept.
Just before 12.45 p.m., they encountered the enemy formation 30 miles east of the Islands. Des thought the German onslaught looked like ‘a large swarm of bees’; as he headed towards it, all he saw ‘was line after line of bombers’. Graham ordered Des and Green Section to patrol both flanks of the bombers at 21,000 feet as rearguard. Coming from the seaward side, with the sun shielding his attack, Graham led Blue and Red sections through a gap between the lines of bombers and their escort. As the Heinkels dropped their bombs the enemy formation broke up. Some aircraft left the scene and others followed-the-leader into a defensive circle. Des ordered Green Section to carry out individual attacks.
Des eased into a circle of Me110s and closed on one, which, with its belly tank, looked like it was carrying a ‘bloody great bomb’. He was fleetingly mesmerized but shook away his surprise and opened fire from 200 yards range. His second 3-second burst hit the aircraft. It exploded into a mass of debris. Flying through it was ‘a frightening experience’. As he dodged the wreckage, ‘the rest of the [enemy] squadron ... took advantage of my temporary preoccupation by diving at high speed towards sea level and home’. Unscathed, Des climbed and spotted another circle of Me110s and attempted to ‘pick one out’ but ‘another showed signs of attacking me’. He took ‘a deflection shot approaching head-on’ but missed. ‘Another enemy aircraft appeared in the sights head-on and a no-deflection shot was made’. Better luck this time: ‘Immediately flame and smoke appeared near the inside of the port engine.’ Des then became the target as ‘the enemy aircraft either with the pilot shot or in a deliberate attempt to ram me approached head-on left wing low’. He took ‘violent evasive action’ and ducked away. ‘The aircraft disappeared over my head with the flame and smoke greatly increasing in volume ... The remaining enemy aircraft were then lost in cloud and attempts to locate the main body failed’. The Australian returned to base and refuelled after the furious battle which had lasted all of five minutes.
After their encounter with 72 Squadron, the enemy formation had split; part of it progressed in a northwesterly direction, the other followed a southwesterly track. While Des was delivering his blow to the enemy, 23 year-old Bill Millington and 79 Squadron had been in the air for three minutes, also on their way to the Farne Islands. Shortly afterwards, the controller reported a large raid approaching Acklington. Bill and his friends changed course. Squadron newcomers had been excited about their first opportunity for combat but were ill-prepared for the 100 or so enemy aircraft, comprising 60–80 bombers escorted by Me110s, that they encountered at 1.00 p.m.
With Squadron Leader John Heyworth leading, they ploughed into the bomber stream, breaking it up. It was utter confusion and every man for himself as the sky filled with twisting and turning, dogfighting aircraft. They accounted for two Me110s shot down and one probable before reforming over Blyth. They were then ordered to patrol Unsworth where they encountered another seemingly overwhelming enemy formation. Again, 79 Squadron pounded into the mass of He111s. Bill found himself alone with a target in his sights. He fired. After trailing black smoke, the Heinkel exploded into flames but Bill’s attention was already focused on another. He fired again and a third fell to his guns.
Bill returned to Acklington; he and his fellows landed safely with only one badly shot up Hurricane to their debit. But the battle still raged and the last of the north’s invaders weren’t on their way home until 2.30 p.m. Fighter Command’s attention then turned towards the attacks on Dover and the Thames Estuary.

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Despite the relaxed setting, Pat Hughes looked careworn and older than his 22 years as he tried to smile for the camera, 9 June 1940. Courtesy of After the Battle.
Eleven squadrons were deployed to meet the next wave of intruders in a series of combats which lasted about an hour and a half. The skies above the Strait of Dover were all but empty by 4.00 p.m. but there was little time for Fighter Command to rest. Within an hour, Portland and Portsmouth were on the alert as 200–300 enemy aircraft approached. Middle Wallop’s 234 Squadron, led by 22 year-old Pat Hughes were in the air at 5.05 p.m. as part of the largest force to date—approximately 150 Fighter Command aircraft—to encounter a single enemy formation.
The squadron patrolled up and down in tight formation for about an hour and were just on the turn over the Isle of Wight when three men disappeared; they were surrounded by a gaggle of Messerschmitt Me110s and 109s. Following Pat’s lead, the defenders ploughed into a confusing mêlée. Pat fired at one of the Me110s which was finished off by Pilot Officer Bob Doe. Meanwhile, Pat claimed one of his own.
After the demise of his 110, Doe chased three Me110s. He expended the rest of his ammunition at the nearest one. As he broke away to avoid debris, he watched Pat finish it off. The enemy aircraft caught fire and plummeted into the water. Guns exhausted, battle over, Pat and his men returned to base.
The fighting continued until after 7.00 p.m. when ten more squadrons were pitted against large forces attacking the area around West Malling and Croydon. The Luftwaffe left considerable damage in its wake but Britain would recover.
The Australians acquitted themselves well that day. Pat Hughes was credited with a destroyed Me110 and another shared Me110 destroyed and Bill Millington destroyed all three of his He111s. Des Sheen recorded his two Me110s and a ‘squadron bag’ of 11 in his flying log and recalled that the atmosphere at Acklington at the end of the day was ‘very elated ... because it was the first action for some of them and it was a successful day out.’ There was mixed joy, however, at Middle Wallop. The squadron had increased its combat tally—Pat Hughes and Bob Doe were not the only victors that day—but this success was tempered by death of one man and the capture (they heard much later) of two others.
Fighter Command’s overall losses were substantial: 34 aircraft destroyed and 17 men killed, including the sixth Australian to die in the Battle of Britain, 25-year-old Western Australian Pilot Officer Frank Cale of 266 Squadron. Casualties aside, the RAF had more than held its own in what was by far the largest air battle in which it had engaged. For the Germans, Black Thursday resulted in 76 aircraft shot down.

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Bill Millington with Pipsqueak, 'a little black and white terrier of indeterminate ancestry'. 249 Squadron, 1940. Courtesy of Simon Robinson.
'"Another enemy aircraft appeared in the sights head-on and a no-deflection shot was made". Better luck this time: "Immediately flame and smoke appeared near the inside of the port engine." Des then became the target as "the enemy aircraft with the pilot shot or in a deliberate attempt to ram me approached head-on left wing low". He took "violent evasive action" and ducked away. "The aircraft disappeared over my head with the flame and smoke greatly increasing in volume... The remaining enemy aircraft were then lost in cloud and attempts to locate the main body failed". The Australian returned to base and refuelled after the furious battle which had lasted all of five minutes.'

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Desmond Sheen DFC and bar, with Australia shoulder flash. Courtesy of Diane Foster-Williams.
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.

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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