Battle of Britain: 'Take off, shoot, land, sleep, take off again ...'

Kate Youde hears the stories of fighter pilots, Waaf plotters, a stretcher bearer, code breaker and telephone operator who took part on 15 September 1940, the day the tide turned
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The Independent Online

Tom Neil

Wing Commander Tom Neil, 90, of Thwaite St Mary, in Norfolk, flew a Hurricane for 249 Squadron on 15 September 1940, destroying four German aircraft. He shot down 13 enemy planes during 141 Battle of Britain sorties and twice won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"I was involved in about four different flights on the 15th. On the second flight I got involved in a fight which received an enormous amount of publicity because it was an engagement with a Dornier 17 bomber: As I was shooting at it all the chaps bailed out. I was so close behind them that I thought they were going to hit my aircraft, which they didn't. The aircraft was shot down and crashed. I learnt 50 years after the event who the people were, and the fact that three of them were killed and one survived. The aircraft fell into the Thames.

"And then I was immediately attacked by German fighters and spent about two minutes ducking and weaving and firing, and doing various other courageous things – I am modest, too! Then I saw another Dornier flying across my bows. I found myself with another Spitfire alongside me. It flew down the Thames in an easterly direction and we followed it down; it went beyond Shoeburyness, out to sea. It got lower and lower and lower, and eventually, with us formating [sic] on it a few yards either side of it, it crashed down into the sea.

"We all flew home. I didn't know who the Spitfire was, and then three days later three intelligence officers turned up from Fighter Command and asked who I was: was I the chap who did such and such a thing on the 15 September? Apparently, the Spitfire pilot said in his combat report that he had seen me shooting down a Dornier and also two German fighters, two 109s, and he accounted me with the second Dornier until it crashed out into the sea, so I was credited that day with four enemy aircraft destroyed.

"We did nothing but take off; shoot at the enemy aircraft; land, go to sleep; take off again; do exactly the same: three, four, five times a day. That was our life. The Battle of Britain to me was just a horrendously tough rugby match in which the penalty of losing was death, whereas in a rugby match you probably break a leg or a collarbone or something like that. There, the penalty was much more severe."

Wing Commander Neil features in 'Battle of Britain – The Real Story' on 22 September, at 8pm on BBC 2

Hazel Gregory

Hazel Gregory, 89, of Leasingham in Lincolnshire, was a Women's Auxiliary Air Force plotter at the headquarters of 11 Group at RAF Uxbridge on 15 September 1940.

"When we went on duty at 8am there was nothing much happening, and then the radar on the south coast started getting enemy bombers over France and Belgium and Holland, so we had advance warning.

"We didn't look at the time but in the middle of the morning large formations came over and I was plotting what was a raid of 400-plus aircraft coming up the Thames headed for Westminster. Sir Keith Park, our commandant, scrambled the Spitfires from Hornchurch, Debden and North Weald. He also called in from Number 12 Group, which was based in the Midlands. The Hurricanes came in and broke up all this. There were hundreds of individual battles going on over the heads of Londoners. It went on for most of the morning; then they either went home or they had been shot down. There was a second attack in the afternoon. It was dealt with very successfully.

"Winston Churchill was there all day. He spoke to us when we went off duty at 4 o'clock, and said, 'Well done, young ladies. This has been a momentous day and one you will tell your grandchildren about.' When you are 18 or 19 years old you don't really think of having grandchildren, but he was right!

"Some of the things he said were extremely funny, and he smoked his cigar. There was no smoking in the operations room because the air conditioning wasn't very good, but he insisted, so he smoked his cigar.

"We went back on duty at midnight until 8 o'clock the next morning. In the middle of the night we would get the figures come down from the intelligence office of how many aircraft had been shot down, both enemy and RAF. The figures were absolutely stunning. They were disputed later but at the time they said 183 German planes had been shot down, and 27 RAF, so we all cheered."

Bob Foster

Wing Commander Bob Foster, 90, of St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, was a 20-year-old pilot officer flying a Hurricane for Squadron 605 out of Croydon.

"For some reason or other I didn't fly on the 15 September, but the squadron flew on two or three occasions ...

"Sitting around waiting was always the worst part of the thing: waiting for the bell to ring to tell you to take off, and also sitting around on that day, waiting and hoping that they'd all come back – and, roughly, they did. That could be quite stressful.

"I only got two and a bit during the Battle, well two-and-a-half – I shared it with another person. Two of us attacked a bomber and shot it down between us, so that was claimed as sort of half a victory.

"One I remember quite well was being attacked from above by some 109 aeroplanes: we dived down out of the way because they were coming down on us. One of my colleagues – friends – was shot down just near me. Went up in flames. I pulled out from a dive near the ground and found this 109 sitting in front of me going home. He'd probably attacked us and thought he'd shot us down and was going home. Well, he didn't make it ...

"My friend who was shot down was a chap called Charles English. He tried to get out of the aeroplane but unfortunately the parachute stuck and he was killed. That was not nice."

Leslie Harris

Leslie Harris, 93, of Isleworth in Middlesex, was a conscientious objector and a stretcher bearer in the then borough of Heston and Isleworth.

"We did 24-hour shifts, which was eight in the morning till eight the following morning. We also had a few volunteers in the evening. It depended on whether we had much local bombing or not. When people were bombed out we used to help move their furniture or various things.

"Largely, either you had very, very serious injuries, when people were blown up –blown to pieces in many incidences – or sometimes it was lighter injuries, with flying glass and that type of thing. And, of course, you got people who were buried in rubble, so we had to dig them out, too.

"I was brought up in the Christian faith, in the Congregational Church, and I accepted it in all sincerity. I was very much anti-war. I joined the Peace Pledge Union when it was formed in 1935 and then I joined Donald Soper's congregation at the Kingsway Hall Methodist West London mission. He was strongly anti-war: an anti-war preacher. I found him a great role model, I suppose."

Keith Lawrence

Squadron Leader Keith Lawrence, 90, of Exeter, was a pilot officer with 603 Squadron at Hornchurch in Number 11 Group.

"On 15 September, 603 was ordered to intercept two raids: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I was on duty for the afternoon raid, which was a raid of some 230 to 250 bombers and fighters south-east of Maidstone, where we made the interception.

"On that particular day, we intercepted the bombers and attacked, but we went in at an awkward angle because we were 3,000ft above them. I overshot my target, so I used the speed to climb back up and engage them, ME109s, one of which the record books say that I shot down. I also damaged two others.

"We lost one pilot, Peter Pease, on that raid. He was shot down and killed. And our commanding officer, squadron leader – we called him Uncle George – Uncle George Denholm (he was a bit older than the rest of us; most of us were around 20 or 21, he was about 25, 26) – he was shot. His aircraft sustained such damage that he had to bail out. But he bailed out safely and returned to Hornchurch the next day, or even the same day perhaps.

"In the course of that, too, I found that when I got down I had bullet holes in both wings, so I must have been so intent on doing what I was supposed to be doing that I was lucky enough to get away with just a few bullet holes from somebody who'd come in behind me."

William Higgins

William Higgins, 85, of Kingsbridge, Devon, was a telephone operator for London Transport at a trolley bus depot in Twickenham, Middlesex.

"I was on two switchboards: one was the switchboard for the London Transport telephone system; the other one was what they called GPO, the General Post Office, which is now BT.

"It was all linked up with the actual services, the different routes. There was a control office at the Oval, the London Transport Oval: that controlled more or less what was happening and when there was an enemy aircraft approaching they used to ring me up and say, 'Air-raid warning yellow'. I used to phone all the offices around to tell them there was an enemy approaching. And then the second one was when they were getting nearer to London, which was 'Air-raid warning purple', so I used to ring them all up again and tell them it was getting near. There was another one, which was 'Air-raid warning red' ... for them to all run for their shelters. When the raid was gone they used to get another warning – 'Air-raid warning white' – the all-clear.

"There was a big overhaul works at the trolley buses depot, where they used to come in badly damaged after the London raids. That was where they were repaired; there were quite a few offices there so I used to call them all to say these different warnings. The London Transport telephone system was also linked to telephone boxes around the different routes in London. If there was anything happening, because of bomb damage or anything like that, they used to ring up, which came through to me. I'd ring up and tell the people concerned, trolley buses on the routes, that they couldn't go any further because of bomb craters ... On 15 September, as fast as I had the all-clear about two minutes later you'd get the enemy approach again, the air-raid warning yellow."

Arthur Bonsall

Sir Arthur Bonsall, 93, of Cheltenham, was in the German Air Section code-breaking team at Bletchley Park. He became GCHQ director in the 1970s.

"There were two wide stations – the interception stations – which belonged to the Royal Air Force: one at Cheadle in Staffordshire and one at Kingsdown in Kent. The one at Cheadle was intercepting the communications of German bombers. They were able to give forewarning of attack to Fighter Command because they could hear the Germans getting ready to take off – they tuned up their receivers, and so on, to make sure they would be in good contact with each other during the battles. It meant that Cheadle could warn Fighter Command even before radar had a chance – because at that point, of course, the aircraft wasn't even in the air. That was quite valuable.

"Also, Cheadle could identify the German airfields from which the bombers took off, which meant the RAF was able to undertake what they called intruder operations, mingling with the German bombers on their way back and attacking them when they were landing at their base. Our job was to support Cheadle and Kingsdown by breaking codes and that sort of thing, which they would encounter in their work.

"Kingsdown was working on the radio telephony the German fighters used – that was the messages spoken by pilots and their controllers. They revealed a lot of information because they also gave us warning of German fighter units getting ready to take off.

"Because the pilots and their controllers revealed the height at which their fighters were flying, it meant Kingsdown could tell Fighter Command the course of the German fighters. That was very important because, in those days, British radar couldn't identify flying height."

Ruth Ure

Ruth Ure, 92, of West Hampstead in London, was a Women's Auxiliary Air Force plotter for 11 Group at Northolt.

"There was a big table and it had a colossal map of the south of England. We were in 11 Group, which was all the south of England stations and these were the stations that were getting attacked and bombed. They were the stations that had the aircraft, the Spitfires and the Hurricanes, that went up. We had several of us round the table and you all took on a certain station. You had your headphones on and the information from the outgoing posts. Around the country were these posts that radiated when the bombers came in: they had the numbers of bombers and that sort of thing. You had a little plot on it and you pushed this round the table as you were told. This gave the information to the commander and the ops people standing up on a platform to look down on the table. As they saw a raid coming in, so our aircraft were ordered up; but it was through us they got the information. We were pushing these plots round as we got the information over the phones."

Ruth Ure took part in the RAF Association's City of London Salute at St Paul's Cathedral last Tuesday

The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, which maintains the memorial to "The Few" at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent, wants to build a £650,000 Learning Centre. Donate by sending a cheque payable to The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, PO Box 337, West Malling ME6 9AA or at

Edith Kup

Edith Kup, 91, of Ilkley, West Yorkshire, was a Women's Auxiliary Air Force plotter at 11 Group sector station, Debden, Essex, on 15 September 1940.

"We could hear everything that was going on because you had your headphones on to get your plots from Uxbridge and wherever. We could hear the pilots on the radio telephone and we heard a lot of swearing. And you know ladies in those days: men never swore in front of ladies, and if they happened to let something slip there was always someone saying, 'Ladies present, you know.' We weren't worried about that. We didn't care what they were shouting at each other because they were fighting.

"It was very anxious because we knew all the pilots, of course; they used to take us out to dinner and dancing and stuff. You were very anxious for them. And, if they were on fire, you could hear them screaming sometimes, which was dreadful, dreadful. But that's how it was ... It was very traumatic.

"We knew all the pilots and 17 Squadron – my fiancé was in 17 Squadron in B flight. The whole of B flight were killed, one way and another. It shows you how intense the fighting was. My fiancé [Denis Wissler] came down in the sea. I don't know whether he was shot or whether he drowned, but he was certainly never picked up. It was in front of my ears, as I always say, on 11 November, about a quarter to 12, in 1940 ... We had just come off for lunch. But it didn't make any difference what happened: you carried on. I mean, it was important we did our plotting.

"Actually, we did have one girl, an Irish girl: she went home when we got bombed once. We were on duty and I saw: she was sitting next-but-one from me, and she was sitting absolutely rigid. She went on leave and never came back. And then we had another girl who had hysterics and had to be comforted. But, apart from that, everybody behaved immaculately. We were tough, you know.

"You are supporting the men in the air. I mean you can't fail, can you?"

Edith Kup's diary is part of the 'Explore History 1940' display at the Imperial War Museum London.

Geoffrey Wellum

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, 89, of Mullion, Cornwall, was a pilot officer flying Spitfires with 92 Squadron from Biggin Hill. He was one of the youngest pilots.

"That day was just like any other: lots of Germans about. We were intercepting big raids coming in and defending this country against an evil regime. All the days were the same: take off, fight the war, land, survive, take off again and so it went on ...

"On the 15th, as far as I can remember, I was airborne twice. I got a bit shot up. It was very unpleasant. The aeroplane was full of holes. That was par for the course. Everybody got bullet holes in them.

"There was just a bloody great bang and a hole appeared in the wing, but I managed to get away and got back to Biggin. They took that aeroplane away and gave me another one. It was nothing to end up the day with five aeroplanes, having started with 12, but they were normally replaced by midday the next day. The big problem was getting experienced pilots.

"You were far too involved to get terrified. In fact, one became almost reconciled. There was one particular situation in which I was heavily involved against gentlemen in black-crossed aeroplanes, and I remember saying to myself quite calmly: 'Oh, you are going to be killed.' Luckily, I flew for my life. After I had survived the first week, I always felt that, if I could see my antagonist, I could out-fly him. It was the Messerschmitt 109 you did not see that shot you down.

"When we were released, which was about dusk, we sort of piled into the transport, went off to the pub, rubbed shoulders with the locals, and had pints of beer and a game of darts. It was all rather casual, really, just as if we'd got off the 5.25pm from Waterloo after a busy day at the office."

Geoffrey Wellum features in 'First Light' on Tuesday at 9pm on BBC 2