Among Canada’s “Few”: The RCAF’s No. 1 Squadron in the Battle of Britain

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News Article / September 11, 2017

By Dr. Richard Mayne

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 1 Squadron’s contribution to the Battle of Britain represents the first time our nation sent an expeditionary air force into battle in a coalition environment.

2017 marks the 77th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a battle that changed the course of the Second World War.

Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War, immortalized the of Battle of Britain with his famous declaration that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

These words are highly recognized because they perfectly capture the desperate struggle that took place over the skies of United Kingdom 75 years ago. Less well known among the Canadian public is the role that their nation played in this decisive battle.

More than 100 pilots and an unknown number of groundcrew from Canada served during the battle as part of the Royal Air Force’s 242 “Canadian” Squadron, as well as in other British units. However, among those “few” there were also the airmen of No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). As the only national unit to see combat in the Battle of Britain, it is essential to explore and understand why the actions of this specific squadron are important to both the modern RCAF as well as the nation.

The Battle of Britain is generally recognized to have taken place between July 10 and October 31, 1940, and was marked by the Luftwaffe’s attempt to gain air superiority over Southern England so that the German Army could invade the United Kingdom – or at least force it to a negotiated settlement with terms that favoured the Nazi’s state. Fought on the heels of the Battle of France, the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command was greatly weakened after they had lost some 453 fighters and many combat pilots in the attempt to prevent Germany from capturing Western Europe. It was devastating blow, and the RAF was quick to turn to the Commonwealth, as well as the remaining pilots from its recently defeated allies, to help save Great Britain from the German onslaught that they knew was coming.

No. 1 Squadron prepares for war

Even before the fall of France, No. 1 Squadron was preparing itself for war. Years of interwar defence cuts had hurt the RCAF, as was evident by the fact that No. 1 needed to absorb 115 Squadron (a Montreal-based auxiliary unit), and be augmented with personnel from three bomber reconnaissance squadrons – as well as personnel from a Toronto manning depot – to bring it to a wartime complement . When all was said and done, more than 300 members of this substantially enlarged No. 1 Squadron boarded the steamship Duchess of Atholl for the transatlantic voyage to the United Kingdom.

They arrived on June 20, 1940, and quickly made their way to their first airfield, Middle Wallop, where they joined 10 Group of the RAF’s Fighter Command. Located well to the west of where the main battle was anticipated to take place, this relatively safe sector represented a good area for the squadron to adjust and undergo some of all-important operational training. They were not there for long, however, as on July 4, No. 1 was relocated to Croydon just south of London. In doing so they were also transferred to11 Group, which was responsible for the sector that would bear the brunt of the coming battle.

The Battle of Britain was just entering what some historians would later call its first phase (July 10 to mid-August), which was characterized by the Luftwaffe’s attempt to engage the RAF by attacking ports and local convoys over the English Channel. No. 1 Squadron did not participate in this stage as it continued with its operational training. But that did not stop No. 1’s commanding officer, Squadron Leader Ernest A. McNab, from scoring the squadron’s first victory. The son of a former lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan, Squadron Leader McNab was a natural leader and had considerable flying experience from his previous 14 years of service with the RCAF. The problem was that, like all members of his squadron, he had never seen combat. Realizing that he would soon be leading his men into battle, Squadron Leader McNab made arrangements to fly with an operational RAF squadron. He soon proved his mettle as, on August 15, 1940, he managed to line up and destroy a Luftwaffe Dornier Do 215 bomber over Kent.  

Squadron Leader McNab’s victory was a pivotal moment for a squadron that was getting closer and closer to the fighting. In fact, on the same day of his achievement, Croydon was bombed by a formation of Messerschmitt Me 110 fighter-bomber aircraft that destroyed the armament section quarters and orderly room. While the raid itself was small, it had larger implications as it was part of a shift in the Luftwaffe’s tactics that had occurred two days earlier.

No. 1 Squadron joins the fight

On August 13, known as Adlertag (Eagle Day), the Luftwaffe had redirected the fight from the Channel to the RAF’s radar sites and airfields. Their aim was simple: they would first blind the RAF, by robbing it of its radar network, and then German bombers and fighters would destroy Fighter Command.

This was the fight that No. 1 joined when it became operational on August 16 and moved from Croydon to Northolt. However, the war started a slowly for the squadron; during the first eight days of its operational existence they were scrambled a number of times but without engaging the enemy.

Unfortunately, the fog of war shrouded their first encounter. Believing that they were attacking Junkers Ju 88 bombers, the squadron’s actions had resulted in a friendly fire incident that brought down two British aircraft. The fact that the RAF had started the war with a similar incident – in which two British Hurricanes were destroyed by friendly Spitfire fighter aircraft – was little consolation to the Canadian pilots involved. The entire incident hit the squadron hard but, as they were desperately needed in the battle, they carried on.

Two days later, No. 1 temporarily relieved an exhausted RAF unit at North Weald. They barely had enough time to land before they were scrambled. This was followed by another sortie in the afternoon, and it was in this latter encounter that No. 1 engaged the Luftwaffe in battle for the first time. It also brought the first victories that squadron scored as a unit. The engagement was intense, involving a formation of 25 to 30 Do 215s, of which No. 1 claimed three enemy aircraft and another three heavily damaged.

These successes, however, came with a price. Two of No. 1 Squadron’s Hurricane fighter aircraft (one of which was flown by Squadron Leader McNab) were badly mauled and, after forced landings, both were written off.

The third was far more serious than just the loss of an aircraft. While flying next to Squadron Leader McNab, who had just succeeding in downing a Do 215, Flying Officer Robert Edwards opened fire on another aircraft. As the rounds from his Hurricane sheared off the tail of his victim, Flying Officer Edwards was hit by the Do 215’s rear gunner, which resulted in both aircraft ploughing into the ground. It was another difficult moment for No. 1 as the squadron never had to deal with a combat fatality before. As such, Flying Officer Edwards had the dubious distinction of being the first combat death suffered by a member of the RCAF while serving with a Canadian flying unit.

After four days of constant readiness, the squadron again saw action on August 31 when a group of Me 109s pounced on No. 1 from out of the sun. The Canadians were caught by surprise and the engagement did not turn out well. Bursts from only two Hurricanes were the best that the Canadians could muster and both missed their mark.

The other side of the score sheet was more decisive as the Germans downed three Hurricanes with two pilots suffering burns and the third bailing out with minor injury. Although this particular battle was lopsided, the Canadian were given the opportunity to even the tally later that day when No. 1 intercepted a group of approximately 50 bombers over Gravesend. Having to fly through heavy “friendly” anti-aircraft fire to get to their prey, the squadron slashed into the German formation, which resulted in immediate victories over two Me 109 fighters as well as damage to a third. The bombers of this force also suffered as No. 1 claimed two Do 215s destroyed with another damaged. In return, the Germans accounted for only one Hurricane in which the pilot, who had received severe burns, nevertheless managed to survive.

The operational pace was clearly picking up and it was a sign of what was to come. The squadron began to realize, however, that there was routine in the midst of the chaos. For instance, it was observed that No. 1 scrambled three times in a 24-hour period during the first week of September, which occurred “at the usual hours of 09.00 hrs, Noon and 1700 hrs”. On the remaining days of that week they scrambled at least once, and all this culminated in two squadron engagements along with three enemy aircraft destroyed, two probable and eleven damaged. It was a good week. But weighed against these successes, the squadron saw one of its aircraft shot down (the pilot survived) while another Hurricane suffered heavy damage and a third was written off.

Luftwaffe begins bombing London

The following week saw yet another change in the Luftwaffe’s tactics, although it was not immediately appreciated. Thanks to an earlier accidental raid on London – the Luftwaffe had directed that populated areas of the capital were off limits – the RAF’s bombers struck back at Berlin. Tactically the relatively small RAF raid achieved little, but its strategic value was immeasurable. Fighter Command was taking a beating while it was the focus of the German’s attack, yet an outraged Adolph Hitler wanted Britain’s cities to pay for the raid on Berlin. This marked the beginning of a new phase of the battle as the Luftwaffe’s efforts shifted to the strategic bombing of London and other metropolitan areas of the United Kingdom. Their aim was to bring the heart of the empire and its citizens to their knees by aerial assault. It was the beginning of the Blitz.

Expecting the usual attacks on airfields, No. 1 was ordered to protect Northolt on September 7. It did not take long before they noticed that something had changed. After spotting a large raid of approximately 200 enemy aircraft over London, the squadron wanted to respond but the sector defences refused as they still expected attacks on airfields. Two days later, No. 1 finally got its chance to defend London as an interception of an incoming raid led to the destruction of one Me 109 and another three damaged in exchange for one Hurricane in which the pilot survived.

The rest of the week was a mixture of relatively quiet days combined with active and exhausting combat. From September 10 to 14, the squadron accounted for one Heinkel He 111 bomber destroyed and one damaged as well as a truly unique victory when a lumbering Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft was shared with a RAF squadron. In contrast, No. 1 during this period saw one Hurricane shot down (with the pilot suffering a leg wound) while another crash landed.

September 15: A pivotal day

The next day, however, was so active and decisive that it has become the key date that is associated with the commemoration of the Battle of Britain. Having launched a massive raid on London, the Luftwaffe had selected September 15 as the day that they would try to inflict such serious damage on the capital that they hoped it would bring the British people to the point of capitulation. No. 1 was at constant readiness throughout the day, and twice it was scrambled to take part in this pivotal battle for survival.

Fighting over the Biggin Hill area, the squadron’s second encounter went better than the first. In fact, the morning’s scrap was particularly painful as it not only resulted in one pilot bailing out with injuries, but it also saw the squadron’s second casualty when Flying Officer Ross Smither was killed by a Me 109 that had attacked out of the sun. However, thanks to the second battle, No. 1 ended the day having destroyed three and a half enemy aircraft, along with two probables and two damaged. It was a small but important contribution to overall claims that the RAF and its allies downed 185 German aircraft with a loss of only 25 of its own on that day.

Of course, postwar analyst produced a more accurate picture which suggests that the real score was 61 to 31, but this did not take away from the fact that this was a resounding success for the RAF. Although it was unknown to most at that time, this victory was so decisive that the Germans soon decided to indefinitely postpone their invasion of Great Britain.

No. 1 Squadron’s most successful day

From September 16 to 26, the squadron again witnessed a period where it constantly scrambled and was at an ongoing state of readiness, but saw little action. That did not change the fact the squadron was continually under stress as a lack of steady replacements meant that the pilots got little rest or prolonged leave. The strain was almost unbearable. Having started the battle with roughly 24 pilots, No. 1 had just over half that original number by mid and late September. Yet despite the exhaustion and hurdles, No. 1 nevertheless managed to have its most successful day of the entire battle on September 27.

Starting out with only eight serviceable aircraft, which was reduced to six by the evening, No. 1 survived engagements with 70 enemy aircraft through 26 sorties over three scrambles which the unit’s diary observed had reduced them to “a very tired and unshaven group of warriors”. Yet the vengeance that they had unleashed on the enemy was staggering. Their efforts, which were achieved in partnership with the Polish 303 and RAF 229 Squadrons, had left one Ju 88 destroyed, one Ju 88 probable, four Me 110s destroyed, one Me 109 destroyed and one Me 110 damaged. Unfortunately, it also resulted in another RCAF fatality – although it would be the squadron’s last for the battle – as Flying Officer Otto Peterson’s aircraft was shot down near Kent.

The air battles of September 27 were the last time that the Luftwaffe appeared in force over the skies of southern England during daylight hours. While the battle itself was not yet over, No. 1 finally received the well-earned rest that they so desperately needed on October 9 when it was reassigned to 13 Group and the relatively quiet skies of Scotland.

The battle ends for No. 1 Squadron

The Battle of Britain was finally over for No. 1 Squadron. For 53 days, 28 pilots had flown with No. 1 and the constant combat had cost the unit three of its members, eleven wounded, and sixteen aircraft. In exchange, while sources vary, No. 1 had filed combat reports claiming 30 enemy aircraft destroyed, eight probably destroyed and 35 damaged. They had done well and the press recognized that fact by proclaiming them “Canada’s new heroes”. Indeed, at a time when most of the Canadian military had not yet seen combat, No. 1 was able to take our nation’s fight to what appeared to be an untouchable enemy.

Why we remember

And this is one of the key reasons why the Battle of Britain is important to both today’s RCAF and Canada as a whole. Never before had Canada sent its own identifiable national air assets on an expeditionary operation in a coalition atmosphere. But this contribution to the Battle of Britain would set a 75-year pattern where the government of Canada would demonstrate its support to alliance commitments as well as the restoration of international stability and order by sending RCAF squadrons overseas and into harm’s way. Moreover, the nation can be proud that its air force was directly involved in an early epic battle of the Second World War; one that not only helped save a country, but also stemmed what many feared was an invincible German war-machine.

That tradition of assisting allies still exists today and extends to the RCAF’s 2011 involvement over the skies of Libya and the current conflict against the Islamic state in Iraq.

No. 1 Squadron also achieved a number of other important “firsts” for the RCAF: its first Battle Honours; first unit victory over an enemy aircraft; and first personal decorations for bravery. But perhaps the most crucial element of No. 1 Squadron’s participation in the Battle of Britain is that it was the first time that members of an RCAF unit died protecting the values that define Canada as a people and a nation. And it is for this reason, more than any other, that commemorating the first Sunday after the 15th day of September represents an important exercise in national identity and sacrifice.

Dr. Mayne is the Director, RCAF History and Heritage

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