“Lanky” Cooke (2nd from left), Phil Hunter DSO (3rd left) standing, with No. 264 Squadron
At 14.45hr on 29 May 1940 Sqn Ldr Hunter took off with eleven other Defiants and headed for the Dunkirk pocket. They were flying at about 6,000ft (1 ,800m) with three Hurricane squadrons- 56, 151 and 213 – flying above them. As they approached Dunkirk they were most aware of the great column of smoke rising from the harbour, and the many ships in the Channel below them. The Hurricanes began to engage some Bf 110s escorting some Ju 87s.
Six Bf 109s dived on the Defiants, coming out of the sun in the classic fighter tactic. Hunter saw them coming, but for the time being kept his four Vics of three flying in line astern. As the first Bf 109 came within 300yd, Hunter’s gunner, LAC King, opened fire, and it soon burst into flames. As the other Bf 109s shot overhead, Pit Off Welch’s gunner, LAC Hayden, hit one and it fell away out of control. The crews of Plt Off Young/LAC Johnson and Fit Lt Cooke/Cpl Lippett each also sent Bf 109s down in flames, the latter shot down right off the tail of another Defiant – probably that of Plt Off Kay/LAC Jones. His Defiant (L6957) was badly hit in the attack, the hydraulics being damaged and the starboard aileron and turret hit; and LAC Jones must have been under the impression that the aircraft was lost, because he baled out. Kay, however, was in fact able to return to Manston and land successfully. Jones’ body was later washed up on a French beach.
Eric Barwell’s gunner Plt Off Williams also fired on a Bf 109 attacking Kay’s Defiant, and saw it going down in flames; this was probably the same aircraft claimed by Young’s gunner. Although the squadron believed it had shot down five of the six attacking Bf 109s, it seems likely that the true score was four or even fewer. It was an inherent problem with the Defiant that different gunners could be firing at the same target from different directions, and all claimed it destroyed when it fell. Hunter now saw a Heinkel He III approaching Dunkirk and turned to attack it – but then he saw an even juicier target, a formation of Ju 87s. Sergeant Thorn/LAC Barker saw an isolated Ju 87 and broke away to attack: the Stuka did not see them coming, and was shot down with a burst of fire. Thorn rejoined the squadron as they turned to attack the main force of Ju 87s, but the dive bombers’ escort of Bf 110s dived on the Defiants. Hunter ordered the squadron into a line astern spiral dive, and as the German twin-engined fighters attacked, they were always faced with accurate fire from the Defiants’ turrets. Six of the Defiant crews claimed the destruction of a Bf 110, PIt Off Stokes and his gunner claiming two. More Bf 109s joined in the frantic battle, and three more of these were also claimed.
Hunter led his men back to Manston, where they landed cock-a-hoop, though their elation was inevitably modified by the news that the thirty-one-year-old Canadian gunner, LAC Jones, was missing. They claimed a total of seventeen fighters shot down, plus the odd Stuka. Refuelled and re-armed, they took off for a second patrol at 18.55hr, Plt Off Kay in a replacement aircraft, L696I, and with a new gunner, LAC Cox.
Once more they had Hurricane squadrons flying above them, and this time the Hurricanes kept the Bf 109s off their backs. Hunter saw large numbers of Ju 87s approaching the beaches from all directions, and wisely did not try to follow them down in their bombing dives, but went to low level to wait for them to pull out. The Defiants then eagerly closed in on the slower Stukas, pouring accurate fire into one aircraft after another, and sending them crashing into the sea. Ten of the crews were able to claim Ju 87s destroyed, four of them two Ju 87s, and Flt Lt Cooke and his gunner an incredible five. It was a massacre, the slow Ju 87s almost sitting ducks at low level, and the Defiants able to take up position on each in turn, slightly below so that their gunners could shoot them down at will.
With the Stukas shot from the skies, the Defiants closed on some Ju 88s, sending one down in flames with their combined fire, and damaging another. They turned for home nearly out of ammunition, and landed having experienced an incredible day’s fighting. They claimed thirty-seven German aircraft shot down, and three more probables, the only loss being of one gunner, and Sgt Thorn’s Defiant that over- shot while landing at Manston with leaking fuel tanks and only one wheel. Flt Lt Nicholas Cooke/Cpl Albert Lippett had claimed an incredible eight victories in one afternoon: three Bf 109s and five Ju 87s.
It was the best day a British fighter squadron has ever had, and many myths have grown around it. Wg Cdr Harry Broadhurst, the station commander at Wittering, but who happened to be at Manston when they landed, was the first to suggest that the Germans had mistaken them for Hurricanes, and therefore attacked from the rear. This ignores the fact that more than half the victories claimed that day were bombers, and it was the Defiants doing the attacking. It also ignores the fact that when they were attacked by fighters in the first sortie, the squadron adopted its proven defensive tactic, a spiral dive, and it did not matter which direction the Germans came from, they faced accurate, defensive fire.
Of course, as already seen, there is little doubt that No. 264 Squadron unintentionally over-claimed. More than one gunner claimed the same aircraft destroyed, though without realizing it, and many of the German aircraft were not actually destroyed. Over-claiming is a feature of all air fighting. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Defiant had had a good day, and back at the Boulton Paul factory, newspaper accounts of the day were soon pinned on notice boards with the words ‘Our work’ scrawled across them. Nicholas Cooke, who had claimed eight aircraft and a share in the Ju 88, that day told one newspaper reporter: ‘It was like knocking apples off a tree.’
By 20.22hr on 29 May 1940, No. 264 squadron had claimed eight Bf 109s, seven Bf 110s, one Ju 88 and twenty-one Ju 87s shot down, for the loss of one gunner killed, and one aircraft crash-landed back at Manston. Their reward was a host of publicity photographs, and by the end of May a clutch of medals. Sqn Ldr Hunter received the DSO, and there was also a DFC for Flt Lt Nicholas Cooke, who, with his gunner Cpl Lippett, had shot down eight aircraft in one day; there were also four DFMs for non-commissioned members of the squadron, Corporal Lippett, Sgt E. R. Thorn, LAC FJ. Barker, and LAC FH. King.
On 31 May the Defiants were back in action, taking off at 14.00hr and crossing the French coast at 10,000ft (3,000m) around 14.20hr. With the Hurricanes of 213 Squadron at 15,000ft, and the Spitfires of 609 Squadron above them at 20,000ft (6,000m), Hunter saw a large formation of around seventy Bf 109s at altitude, and about twenty Heinkel He IIIs approaching from the south-east. He turned towards the bombers, but they jettisoned their bombs and scattered.
Hunter saw the Bf 109s coming down out of the sun, and called the squadron into a defensive circle. His gunner, LAC King, gave one Bf 109 a burst, and it spun away towards the sea; soon after, PIt Off Young’s gunner, LAC Johnson, opened Fire on one of the attackers, and it, too, fell away – Young saw just one parachute emerge From the stricken aircraft. But then disaster truck: Johnson yelled that there was another Defiant almost on top of them, and with that, PIt OFF Whitley’s aircraft crashed into them, and Young’s Defiant disintegrated. The other crews watched in horror as piece of the aircraft fluttered down towards the sea – and again, only one parachute opened. Whitley’s aircraft was badly damaged, but he was able to nurse it down and crash-land near Dunkirk. Whitley and Turner salvaged their Four guns and then set the Defiant on fire before making their escape; they Found their own way back across the Channel.
The attacking Messerschmitts had also shot down PIt Off Hickman’s Defiant, but he and his gunner, LAC Fidler, were able to parachute to safety. As Hunter maintained the defensive circle with the nine surviving aircraft, he counted eight parachute in the air below them, as well as the plummetting remains of Young’s Defiant. Plt Off Barwell, who was leading Green Section, had watched a LAC Fidler had shot down one of their attackers, and had then seen their Defiant fall with smoke and fuel pouring from it. Suddenly Barwell’s own gunner, Plt Off Williams, shout- ed a warning that a Fighter was right on them, and tracers flashed around their aircraft. Barwell pulled the Defiant in a tight turn to the right as Williams hit the BF 109, which fell away in flames.
No. 264 squadron claimed Four BF 109s shot down and another damaged for the loss of three Defiant, two of them in the collision. Only LAC Johnson did not return. Yet again they had proved they were capable of defending themselves against superior numbers of single-seat Fighters. At 18.40hr they took off for a second patrol, this time at 27,000ft (8,230m), with the Hurricane of No. 111 Squadron behind them and the Spitfires of 609 Squadron at 30,000ft (9,144m). Over Dunkirk they saw a Formation of Heinkel He IIIs 2,000ft (610m) below them, and the Defiants and Spitfires dived to the attack.
In a classic turret-Fighter Formation attack, Four Defiant gunner all opened Fire in a devastating assault on one of the bombers, which Fell away into the sea. The Defiant then began individual attacks on the Heinkels, and both Sqn Ldr Hunter’s and Plt Off Hackwood’s gunner sent their targets down in flame. Another Heinkel flew right above Eric Barwell’s Defiant, and his gunner Fired straight up into its cockpit and centre fuselage: the enemy bomber Fell to the sea, just two of its crew escaping to parachute down.
Barwell and Williams then attacked another bomber, but return Fire hit the Defiant’s glycol tank, and Barwell had to turn for home, nursing his rapidly overheating engine. As he slowly lost height it became clear he would not reach the English coast, and so he asked his gunner, PIt Off Williams, if he preferred to bale out or ditch. Despite the fact that ‘Bruce’ Williams had been a stunt man before the war and had made several hundred parachute jumps at air shows, he would not state his preference. Barwell chose to ditch between two destroyers, going in opposite directions. Against standard procedure, Barwell undid his straps and sat on the seat back, operating the aircraft with only the control column. Williams sat on the fuselage with only his legs inside the turret. As the engine topped completely Barwell tailed the aircraft onto the water. Both he and Williams were thrown clear, but his gunner was knocked unconscious; however, Barwell supported him until they were picked up by a boat from one of the destroyers. Imagine their delight to meet Plt Off Young on this vessel: he had managed to get clear of his aircraft when it broke up during the earlier sortie.
Pilot Officer Stokes’ Defiant had also been hit by the Heinkel’ defensive fire, and his gunner LAC Fairbrother was wounded. Stokes ordered him to bale out, but then managed to nurse the crippled Defiant back to Manston, and made a successful crash-landing. A crew who did not return were the squadron’s top scorers, Fit Lt Nicholas Cooke and Cpl Albert Lippet, who had claimed ten German aircraft destroyed up to that point.