Thursday, 18 August 2011

10 May 1940 - First RAF operation to counter the Blitzkrieg

In late April and the first week of May the men flying with the squadrons of Fighter Command that had been sent to France noticed a distinct change in the war. While most others had their eyes on Norway and still talked about the Phoney War, the men of Fighter Command in France found themselves up against increasing numbers of Luftwaffe intruders. Most German aircraft were scouts, rather than bombers, but it was obvious to those with eyes to see that some major operation was in the offing.

The storm broke just before dawn on 10 May when the German panzers surged over the borders of France, Belgium and Holland. Even before the Fighter Command squadrons in France were alerted to the invasion their airbases were shaken by bomb blasts as German bombers screamed in to wreak destruction and gain control of the air. Many of the aircraft were destroyed on the ground that morning.

To try to make up for the unfolding carnage, No.600 Squadron was ordered off from Biggin Hill to attack Rotterdam airport, where large numbers of German airborne troops were landing. The six Blenheims flew low all the way, and launched their attack from rooftop height. The damage they inflicted was impressive, but unknown to them a large force of Messerschmitt 110s was circling above. Down came the 110s and in less than two minutes five of the six British aircraft were smoking wrecks.

The lone survivor was piloted by Flying Officer Norman Hayes with air gunner Corporal George Holmes. The first spray of bullets from the Germans ruptured a fuel line, spraying fuel around the interior of the aircraft. While Holmes fired back at the pursuers he calmly gave instructions to Hayes on evasive manoeuvres to take to avoid the incoming fire. After several tense moments the 110s gave up the chase, allowing the Blenheim to head for home.

As they tore at low altitude across the Dutch landscape, Hayes spotted a German Junkers Ju52 transport aircraft ahead and above them. Despite the damage to their own aircraft, the British pair attacked, sending the enemy down with one engine on fire. Only after this did they take their damaged aircraft home to Biggin Hill.

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