Towards dusk, a lone Hurricane landed at Tangmere and went almost unnoticed in the lingering confusion. No ground crew signalled the Hurricane to a dispersal point, and no fitter mounted the wing to help the pilot unstrap and slide down. The tall, thin pilot stepped carefully out of his Hurricane and let himself to the ground decorously. Although his white overalls and white flying helmet should have attracted attention, the people wandering about the field were still in such a daze that no one seemed to take any notice.
The pilot took advantage of the situation and went himself to look into the hangars. The ground crews had formed a chain to pass boxes of spare parts and supplies out of the collapsed hangars into a tent. A little to one side, technical crews from the postal service worked up to their knees in mud to get the telephone lines repaired. A team of army sappers had cordoned off an unexploded bomb and were preparing to disarm it.
The pilot made his way to the sick bay, and nearly collided with a doctor coming out. The MO drew up to avoid the collision and glanced up to apologise, and then his eyes widened. “Air Vice Marshal Park?”
“Yes, how are things?”
“We just lost P/O Fiske, the American, I’m afraid. It’s his Hurricane that is out there smouldering on the field.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. No doubt the press will make much of it. I’ll go in, if I may, and have a word with the injured.”
Afterwards, Park made his way to the Station Commander’s office. Here he was given a full account of the damage and the progress and prognosis for repair. The Station Commander pointed out that their one Spitfire squadron at Westhampnett was completely unscathed. Also, pilot — although not aircraft — losses had been minimal for 15 Stukas claimed, the carcasses of nine of which were littering the countryside, testimony to the legitimacy of the claims.
When Park had convinced himself that Tangmere did not yet need to be written off, he asked the Station Commander to summon the four Squadron Leaders and the controllers. Park asked for their accounts of what happened. Everyone had had a shock, but only S/L Jones really seemed shaken. In fact, Jones fulminated bitterly against the duty controller for not warning them in time, shocking Park both by the tone and the sentiment. With Ventnor RDF down, the Huns had come in through the blind spot in their RDF, Park reminded the squadron commander. “It was by no means your Controller’s fault that you had no warning. You might just as well blame me.” Jones fell silent, but a sour expression settled on his face, as if he did not believe Park.
To lighten things up, Park suggested they go to the Mess for a drink. Here he stayed only for one brandy, however, before excusing himself. The others assumed he was heading back to Uxbridge, but instead he sought out Doug Allars. In Allars’ office they discussed the situation for about half an hour more, then Park flew back to Uxbridge.
Several things were clear to Park. First, Tangmere was very close to being inoperable, and if it were hit again like this tomorrow or the next day, they would have to abandon it. Second, Tangmere was the only station whose operations room was in a bunker; if any other station were hit as Tangmere had been, it would be nothing short of a miracle if the unprotected, above-ground operations room survived. Third, if the control room of any station were put out of action, the station would have to close down – at least temporarily. If a sector airfield closed down, he could disperse the squadrons onto satellite fields, but it would be almost impossible to control them and so ensure interceptions. With the Ventor RDF station down, he was going to have a very hard time making interceptions anyway.
Almost as unsettling was the fact that the Germans had apparently learned that if they flew in low, they could sneak in under the RDF. Several of the raids today – like the one on Ventor and the one on Brize Norton – had been carried out by small numbers of low-flying aircraft. These had all gone in and out without being detected or intercepted, and the damage at both had been devastating. The technicians at Ventor were saying it would take at least a week to get it fully operational again, and at Brize Norton they had hit hangars containing fuelled-up aircraft. The resulting conflagration consumed 46 aircraft, fortunately mostly trainers. If the Germans changed their tactics completely and concentrated on this kind of low-level, surgical strike on vital targets, the entire RDF chain could be knocked out in a matter of days – and Fighter Command would not have a fighting chance.
Park knew that he had committed every squadron of 11 Group in the course of this afternoon’s fight. That was calling things very close, even if Fighter Command still possessed considerable reserves in the other Groups and aircraft production exceeded losses. Furthermore, the pilot situation was becoming critical. But Park refused to admit that he could not win. He refused to consider the possibility that the Nazis with their brutality, bigotry and banditry might win. The consequences – if they did – were unthinkable.
Somehow, Fighter Command had to beat the Luftwaffe back, and the key to that was good Squadron Leaders. Young pilots were always prepared to give their very best, but if they were poorly led, then they were little more than calves led to the slaughter. That had been the key lesson of the last war. Of the four men he had just spoken to, he had confidence in three – but not in Jones.
From what he had seen and heard, No. 606 Squadron had no esprit de corps and no vitality. He had seen for himself that the little clique of old Auxiliary pilots kept to themselves, leaving the younger pilots wandering about confused and bewildered like fish out of water. On top of that, Allars reported that the only professional Sergeant Pilot, MacLeod, was a loner and an aggressive drinker. Clearly, Jones had failed to mould his squadron into a team, and equally failed to set his pilots a good example. His attacks on the Duty Controller had been unprofessional and misplaced.
Then again, Park had no grounds for replacing Jones. He was quite effective as a hunter – at least he claimed five destroyed and three probables. Whatever his deficiencies, he was also a known quantity. Park had no reserve of combat-experienced squadron leaders to draw on. So, while S/L Jones was not good, Park had no way of knowing who would be better. It was always dangerous to change horses in mid-stream. Reluctantly he admitted to himself that he would have to leave Jones where he was, but Park flew back to London with a bad feeling about No. 606 Squadron. He couldn’t shake off the feeling that it was going to get ravaged – probably soon.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish