Thursday, 17 June 2010

War Approaches for the RAF in Kent, 1939

In April 1939, just as the squadrons based in Kent were getting themselves sorted out and fitted in to Dowding’s plan for Fighter Command, politics intruded in an unwelcome way. As war with Germany loomed closer, the French and British governments began detailed discussions on joint strategy. The French had to make the deeply embarrassing admission that their air force was simply not up the task of facing the Luftwaffe.

The main French weakness was fighters. The magnificent Dewoitine 520 was behind schedule, with only 30 of a planned 400 having been delivered, while the Potez 63 and Breguet 690 were outclassed by the German aircraft. The British government agreed to send four RAF squadrons equipped with Hurricanes to France if war broke out. Dowding was horrified as this represented some 20% of his squadrons with modern fighters. He was even less impressed when he got reports on the dire condition of the French airfields from which the squadrons were supposed to operate. Dowding earmarked some squadrons – none of them from Kent – for service in France but made clear that he would not send them unless the airfields were improved.

Fighter Command in Kent suffered its first casualties even before war began. In early August 1939 a practice black-out was held across London. Two Hurricane pilots of No.60 Squadron, FO Olding and FO Wollaston, were sent up to observe the results from the air. A gale blew up, and both men crashed into Tatsfield Hill when trying to land back at Biggin Hill. A few days later Winston Churchill dropped by to the Officers’ Mess from his nearby home at Chartwell.

This is an extract from Heroes of Fighter Command Kent by Rupert Matthews

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