The Airmen's Stories - F/Lt. R L Smith
Roddick Lee Smith was born on 23rd June 1915 and joined the RAF on a short service commission on 15th March 1935.
He was posted to 3 FTS Grantham on the 30th. In February 1936, with his training completed, he joined 19 Squadron at Duxford.
In June 1936 Smith was seconded to the Fleet Air Arm. He flew floatplanes at Calshot, went to No. 1 FTS Leuchars for training on Nimrods and Ospreys and in August he was attached to 19 Squadron for the Sassoon Trophy, which the squadron won.
Smith joined 801 (Fleet Fighter) Squadron on 22nd September 1936, based at Southampton and on HMS Furious. On 26th January 1937 he was posted to the Pilot Pool at Gosport, where he remained until 3rd January 1938 when he joined 802 (Fleet Fighter) Squadron, based at Hal Far, Malta and on HMS Glorious in the Mediterranean.
On 19th July 1939 Smith went to 13 FTS Drem, for flying duties as a Flight Commander with the Advanced Training Squadron.
He went to 12 Group Pool Aston Down on 2nd November 1939 as an instructor and also 'A' Flight Commander. The unit was redesignated 5 OTU on 15th March 1940.
Smith was posted to 151 Squadron at North Weald on 10th June 1940 as 'B' Flight Commander. On 30th June and 14th July he probably destroyed Me109's, on 13th August probably a Do17, on the 24th he destroyed a Do17 and on the 31st he got a probable Me109 and damaged another.
He was posted away to Kirton-in-Lindsey on 24th November 1940 to form and then command 255 Squadron. Smith destroyed a Ju88 at night on 5th May 1941 and during the night of 8th/9th May he destroyed a He111 and probably another off the coast of East Yorkshire.
He was sent to 54 OTU Church Fenton on 14th June for a course, after which he was posted to 60 OTU East Fortune to instruct on Defiants. Smith took command of 32 Squadron at Manston on 12th December 1941 and led the squadron until promoted to Wing Commander in April 1942. He then went to HQ Fighter Command as Permanent President, Courts of Enquiry into accidents.
He was also ASR Staff Officer. In July 1943 Smith did a Spitfire refresher course at Aston Down. In August he was attached to Charmy Down for a Day Fighter Leader course. From September to November he was attached in turn to 129, 403 and 421 Squadrons. Smith was appointed Deputy SASO at HQ Fighter Command in December 1943 and in March 1944 he went on the 2nd course at the Empire Test Pilots School at Cranfield.
Smith was attached to Hawkers at Langley in November 1944 and posted to Napiers at Luton in January 1945 as an experimental test pilot on Tempests. He later moved to Percivals at Luton to test Mosquitos.
In June Smith was appointed OC 'D' Squadron at Boscombe Down. On 3rd June 1946 he went to the Empire Test Pilots School at Cranfield as OC Flying for the 5th Course.
In the post-war RAF Smith held a series of appointments and commands in Britain and Germany. He was made OBE (gazetted 12th June 1958) and retired from the RAF on 23rd June 1962 as a Wing Commander.
He died in January 2000 in Waveney, Suffolk.
Smith wrote the following account of his service in the Battle period:
On 10th June 1940 I set off in Matilda, my five year old Ford 8 (BYD 867), from Aston Down to North Weald and as the sun made me feel drowsy I stopped near Cirencester, lay down in the long grass, and had a nap.
I considered the situation – I was 24 and single, and since joining the RAF in 1935, I had had an exciting and satisfying way of life – but I had not thought it would come to this! Here I was, my car full of flying kit, posted to a Hurricane Squadron in wartime having flown a Hurricane for only two or three hours and with nil experience of firing shots in anger and - worse still – of avoiding people shooting at me. I was sure there must be a mistake, and that there would be a message at North Weald telling me to return, so I slept awhile in the hot sunshine. When I woke, the lovely trees of the park in which I had stopped were the first things that met my eyes, silhouetted against the blue sky, moving gently in the breeze. Trees had always fascinated me, the first I could remember were the elm trees around The Rookery, the old house in Bocastle, Cornwall, where I had spent the second five years of my life – trees in which the rooks had built their untidy homes, giving the house its name. Their cawing, and the noise of the stormy winds, had often lulled me to sleep. In the middle of the lawn had been the monkey puzzle tree, past which you could see the old iron front gate over which Father Christmas (my father) had climbed each Christmas bearing a sack of presents mostly for me, a spoiled only child. As I dozed in the long grass I idly wondered if my girlfriend, Marion, would miss me much. On balance, I thought not, as there were plenty of other young pilots to chase her and the other daughters of local families who acted as waitresses, and whose assets were highly valued. Oh well, I thought, better get on with it, and climbed into Matilda and set course for North Weald at a steady 40 mph.
I arrived at about 1400 hrs and reported to the Station Adjutant, who told me to go to No 151 Squadron’s Headquarters in one of the hangars, so no doubt they would be expecting me, as I was to be their ‘B’ Flight Commander. I knocked on the door marked Adjutant and receiving no reply, walked in and saluted smartly an elderly officer seated at a desk with his head in his hands. When he lifted his head, saying “Hello” I could see the Observer’s wing on his left breast, indicating a World War 1 man. However, this Observer seemed lost in thought. After I had introduced myself, feeling rather an intruder, I was told that the Squadron was airborne, he wasn’t sure where, but something to do with Dunkirk – “It’s just like the last time” he ruminated. “How do you mean?” I asked. “Back in World War one” he said “you saw them go off, all six of them, and then you waited. They would come back singly, rarely more than four, sometimes only one. It’s terrible.” As you may imagine, this performance by a grizzled hero of World War One did nothing to reassure me, as I had no wish to get involved in a shooting war; flying was alright and dangerous enough in itself; shooting they could keep. However, I thought it would do me no good to stay in this mans sole company any longer, so went outside the hangar, and gazed Eastwards for some time; but there was only the deep blue summer sky, beyond the tall wireless masts which helped a pilot to find North Weald. No aircraft, yet. I walked through the hangar, in which there were only one or two Hurricanes in various stages of repair, and round the airfield side of the hangar. On asking an airman where ‘B’ Flight were dispersed, he pointed to a wooden hut against some anti-blast revetments on the far side of the grass airfield – at this stage runways did not feature at North Weald, which housed two Hurricane Squadrons - 151’s letters were DZ, and 56’s US – for some reason one often sees wartime photographs with ‘US’ on them, but rarely ‘DZ’ – perhaps this was due to 56 being nearer the entrance, or to the rapidity with which 151 changed its Commanding Officers due to being shot down, making it less easy for press or other publicity people to be shown around. There was remarkably little going on, on this sunny afternoon of June 1940, but I wanted to see the Squadron return, so I waited outside the hangar.
It was then that I realised about the trees. Here they whispered. I knew the hit song about ‘why do you whisper, green grass’ – but not trees. By some quirk of rarely beneficial bureaucracy, the Air Ministry Works Department – AMWD for short – had planted silver birch trees round the hangars and between the buildings; and in a light breeze, they rustled, in a comforting sort of a way – and at this moment I needed comfort, and was grateful to the AMWD, who normally seemed to spend their time digging ditches, into which you were liable to taxi and damage your aircraft. After a while I thought that the Squadron must have landed away, to refuel, so I drove over to the mess, found my room, unpacked my kit and had a bath. I heard the sound of aircraft returning, and when I came down found pilots talking excitedly in the hall and mess front garden, but did not feel I should press my company on them, as there was no-one I knew and they were obviously discussing their last flight, in which I had had no part. As I was slipping past a group on the steps, I thought unnoticed, an Irish voice said “You must be Smith?” and I found myself facing a tough looking Wing Commander, considerably older than myself, who had obviously been flying on the last sortie from his unbuttoned jacket and tousled appearance. This was a new one on me; Wing Commanders where I came from did not speak to mere Flight Lieutenants unless they had to, and were impeccably dressed. Having fallen foul of a Wing Commander at Aston Down, I suspected them as a breed. But I found that I did not want to avoid this one – Victor Beamish, a man in a million, brave as many lions, considerate, fierce with those he disapproved of, a man whose main thought, in contrast to mine, was to get to grips with the enemy. As a rugger blue and an RAF player, this went with Beamish’s makeup – a man's man, loved and respected by all at North Weald, and indeed anywhere, except with senior staff officers who did not know their business, with whom he was short and to the point.
He introduced me to my new Squadron Commander, Teddy Donaldson, a little, lively man, with a high pitched voice, fair hair and magnetic personality – in some respects another Victor Beamish, being a superb wartime leader of fighter pilots, but he had not Victor’s quiet assurance. You felt that, with Teddy, anything might happen – with Victor, that he would probably be the only one who would prevent it happening. Teddy seemed bubbling over with zest, said he was glad to see me, but at that moment was involved with the next day’s plans. So I excused myself, and walked around the well laid out mess gardens. RAF messes were built to a plan – red brick, with the dining, cooking and lounging accommodation in the centre, and rooms for individual officers in either wing, with a wooden hutted overflow building alongside, in which was my room. That evening, I met the rest of the Squadron’s officer pilots, and heard about the day’s operations – the Squadron had been busy all day providing air cover for the Dunkirk troop evacuation – all of which was news to me, kept secret as it was from the nation by security – but today they had had little sight of the enemy. After dinner a squeaky voiced Flying Officer called Tommy Tucker, who spoke with a lisp, , said “who’s for ve fatch, chaps?”, The Thatch was ‘The Thatched House’ pub, in Epping, a few miles away – everyone used to congregate there most evenings for a pint, before turning in early – as they were on readiness every morning before dawn, early bed was a must. At The Thatch, I saw 56 Squadron’s pilots, and later discovered that the Squadrons had very little to do with each other, although they were on the same station; this was largely due to the business of every day Ops within each Squadron, and the fact that they were treated as quite separate units by higher authority and never flew together. Also they were on opposite sides of the airfield.
Next day Teddy took me across to dispersal, having had a chat in his office. He was informal, but direct. The gist of his words was that, whilst I was second senior to Teddy in the Squadron in RAF seniority, I was at the bottom regards operational experience, and would have to learn from the other junior but well blooded pilots in this sphere. But I should have to learn fast, as 151 were already tired from the Battle of France. Teddy did not tell me, but he had shot down eleven enemy aircraft already, and must have been one of the tiredest. He was an altogether exceptional pilot – he could fly lower, shoot better, do better aerobatics, and shoot a better – though well proven line than anyone I had met up to then, barring Harry Broadhurst. All the other pilots recognised Teddy’s brilliance, though some were critical; probably they were jealous of his ability to keep on the top line with less apparent effort than it took them. Victor Beamish, who was Station Commander at North Weald, had hinted at my having to learn about operational flying from my juniors, so I was ready to accept this from Teddy, and wanted to learn as quickly as possible, but at that time there was a shortage of aircraft, and I discovered a curious thing about my fellow fighter pilots, most of them either could not or would not pass on the technique of how to succeed in aerial combat to others – they were either too tired or too shy. Or was it that with all the things they had to do to keep them alive, they had tired themselves into not realising the need to pass on their experience?
Some idiots did not want to listen, so why should they bother.
At the dispersal hut, I found that, as ‘B’ Flight Commander, I had a tiny office, in which I was to keep my paperwork and my personal flying kit. This was before the days of bonedomes, just a leather helmet, like World War 1, but of course with earphones and a combined mike and oxygen mask. I noticed hanging behind the door a yellow silk paisley scarf, and was told it belonged to “poor old Johnny Ives, the man you are succeeding”. Apparently Ives had been shot down near Dunkirk, picked up by a boat, which was sunk, and was machine gunned in the water. I thought perhaps he was out of luck due to leaving the scarf behind, and thereafter wore it myself, wondering how long I would last. There were many wonderful characters in 151 Squadron – one was a charming New Zealander called ‘Buzz’ Allen, who was, I found, prepared to coach me in what to do, and not to do, in attack and survival tactics, and he flew with me as a pair on several training flights in order to break up and dogfight – i.e. get on each others tails. At first I was shot down every time, but later, by getting rougher on the controls and stalling off a climbing turn, I sometimes got near Buzz’s tail. You may follow that, because the Hurricanes eight Browning 303 machine guns were fixed and firing forward, you had to point the whole aircraft at the target, in order to hit it. You usually had to be behind it, and not more than one or two hundred yards away – if the enemy was in a tight turn, you had to aim off, known as deflection shooting, to allow for the bullets time of flight – and although there were eight machine guns, it was much easier to miss than hit, hence the need to be close – and of course the enemy pilot was twisting and throwing his aircraft about all he knew, to avoid being hit. Another fine chap in 151 was Jack Hamar DFC, who was tragically killed in a practice dogfight in which he hit the ground – I had the sad job of visiting his parents and commiserating on behalf of the Service.
On 12th June 1940, I went with 151 flying as number 3 or rear end Charlie, to Tangmere near Chichester. 151 and other Squadrons were gathered to await what transpired on the other side of the Channel. The Squadrons were dispersed around the airfield, the pilots lying on the grass awaiting instructions. I noticed a group of older men coming down towards us, some with broad white stripes of rank – one was Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park, the well-loved Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group; responsible for South East England’s Air Defences. He had his top button undone and no hat – he had flown there in his Hurricane, and was chatting to the pilots as he passed them. At this time it was known that the Germans were sweeping South West down France towards the Cherbourg Peninsula, but no-one knew how far they had got, and it was suggested that someone should take the only Spitfire at Tangmere, as the fastest aircraft, and do a ‘recce’ over the side to find out. Eventually 151 were ordered to patrol off St Valery, about 60 miles of over the sea flying each way, and after 1hr 45 minutes, a long flight for a Hurricane, landed at Hawkinge having seen nothing. There was insufficient petrol available for a second flight. (Note: Hawkinge might have been Hornchurch). On 14th June, 151 were sent forward to RAF Manston, on the South East tip of Kent, from which they did a sweep over Northern France of 2 hours, and another of one hour, before returning to North Weald short of two aircraft. They had climbed to 15000 feet over the North end of the Channel, and could see all the North coast of France, from Ostend to St Valery. They were flying in an open battle formation at this time, in four sections of three aircraft in vic or arrowhead formation – the two wingers being supposed to cover the tail of the leader, who searched ahead. The Germans had learned in Spain that three aircraft in vic was much less efficient than a pair, or if 4 aircraft, two pairs, with the pairs leader doing the forward looking and first attacking, and the number twos covering their leader from attack from the rear, and shooting second. This way, much less time was lost in formation keeping, as the number two could weave about behind his leader without risking collision with the non existent number three, and thus search better – and the leader could turn either way without risk of collision.
On this occasion I heard some noise on the radio, which worked now with about 50% efficiency, and suddenly noticed an aircraft below and ahead of the formation in a left hand turn – with crosses on its wings instead of roundels! This was my first view of a Messerschmitt 109, it dived away going at least 40 mph faster than we could. Our formation leader ordered a quick turn to port, but nothing more was seen of the enemy; however on return to Manston, two of our aircraft were missing – they had been the vulnerable number threes, picked off by fast diving huns without anyone except their victims noticing – probably the noise I thought was in the radio was the enemy Cannons. The huns could push the noses of their 109’s down, to create a very rapid dive to avoid a pursuer, without their engines cutting due to petrol being kept from the engine due to negative g, as they had fuel injection, not carburettors like we had. On another occasion, we were patrolling the Channel when there was a radio shout of ‘Break’, and after a minute or so I found myself behind a 109, in a turn to the left, and fired all my ammo without remembering to aim ahead of the target to allow for time of flight of my bullets – all I scored was to puncture his radiator, which emitted steam – if he had any distance to go, his engine would seize up – so all I scored was a damaged – excitement of my first combat. A much debated feature of our Hurricanes – and of other single seater aircraft – was the reliability one could place on the mirrors above the windscreens – these could not be prevented from vibrating, and an enemy fighter came in so fast that he would shoot you down before you could define him in the mirror – so people did not rely on their mirror, and weaved constantly – as they were strapped in, they could not see over quite a large sector behind them. It was also easier to see with the hood open – but very cold and noisy. On 15th June, I flew in another fruitless sweep over Cherbourg, via Tangmere, and on 17th June flew my Hurricane to test its eight machine guns on an air to ground range at Dengie Flats. This was the first time I had fired eight guns at a Ground Target, and I had only 12 hours on Hurricanes and I was a Flight Commander! But I was gaining confidence and skill on this wonderful monoplane – my previous 1000 hours or so had been on biplanes, more manoeuvrable but slower, and not so liable to spin if mishandled. On 18th June I flew three trips of Operational flying – we went forward to Tangmere, and then across to Cherbourg, at about 18000 feet. It was difficult to see into the sun at our level, but I could see down into Cherbourg harbour, and noticed apparent waterfalls rising in a line in the basin – when I suddenly realised they were bombs – and the bombers must be near us! Then we saw them, darker smudges in the rather murky blue ahead – Heinkel 111 bombers, supported by Me 110 twin engined fighters. We attacked at once, and got split up, and I found myself alone, with three Heinkel 111’s a long way below, in a ‘V’ formation. I dived on them at a very high speed, and in my excitement, once again did not aim far enough ahead of the target – the middle bomber – to allow for the time of flight of the bullets from my guns to match the distance the bomber had travelled meantime – and I passed just astern of the Heinkels, firing madly and uselessly. I could see the enemy rear gunners sitting in their open rear cockpits with their guns in the rest position – up to that moment they had no idea I was around. It then occurred to me that they would have radioed every local 110 where I was, so I unheroically legged it for Tangmere, 70 sea miles away. It seemed a justified decision, as on landing, Teddy had a shell through his cockpit, just below him, Sergeant Atkinson had his windscreen shattered, and Pilot Officer Wright and Sergeant Aslin were missing. I claimed nothing. The other trip this day was uneventful. During the rest of June I only did two bomber escorts. After the one on the 28th June, Pilot Officer Newton went missing. On the second on 30th June, I probably did more personal good than any other trip – we went forward to Manston, to escort six Blenheim bombers due to attack Abbeville aerodrome, always a hot spot for enemy opposition, they flew fairly low, we were at about 15000 feet. There was cloud over the French countryside at 6000 feet, so when the Blenheims disappeared through this, Teddy decided it was pointless going down with them, and we continued at our Commanding height until approximately over Abbeville, then turned about and retraced our course. When we crossed out from the French coast, the cloud ceased, and I noticed what appeared to be small fishes in a line down on the water. I suddenly realised that, from their grey colour, they were Me109’s, and shouted over the radio their position. As no one else picked them out, I asked Teddy should I lead down, and on getting the O.K., dived down almost into the sea, onto the tails of half a dozen 109’s in line astern – who I could now see were rapidly catching up the Blenheim bombers. After a confused scrap, out of which I was credited with two 109’s damaged, we returned to Manston, to find Teddy missing. In the mess at North Weald later on, we were discussing how long to leave it before notifying his next-of-kin, when Teddy walked in, his clothes drenched. He said that he had tangled with the 109’s and been set on fire and got out onto the Hurricanes wing, feeling it would be very wet and lonely in the Channel 40 miles from the U.K, when he noticed a motor boat almost underneath him! (See Teddy Donaldson’s own account of this later in the article).
Pushing off from his crippled aircraft, he opened his parachute and was picked up by one of the few motor torpedo boats in the Channel – there was no organised Air Sea Rescue then. Teddy was incredibly skilful and usually very lucky. We received thanks from the Blenheim boys the next day – they were unharmed – and in 1970 I met a retired Group Captain Haines in Norwich airport restaurant, when he turned out to be one of the Blenheim boys! Worthy of a beer!!
Early in July 1940 I noticed a Hurricane in the hangar with tubes sticking out of each wing, and asked the Engineer Officer, P/O Ford, what they were. “20 mm Cannons” I was told. At this time cannons were dead secret and normally would have been at the Experimental bases at Martlesham or Boscombe Down. This aircraft was L1750, Squadron letters DZ-Z, and it had two cannons, which were cocked and fired by a tricky procedure, I think the system was called ‘Eureka’. As I had always been keen on guns, I asked why it was not being flown, and was told that the other pilots considered it was a much less safe aircraft than the rest of the Squadron’s Hurricanes, which had 8 Browning’s, because it was much slower, less manoeuvrable, and had guns which were highly unreliable and prone to stoppages. We were short of aircraft, the idea of flying an Experimental system appealed to me, and I was now leading ‘B’ Flight and often the Squadron, and having the leader with a slow aircraft helped the rest of the aircraft to keep up – so I flew ‘Z’ as a routine. In one book about the Battle, it says I was ordered to collect it, which was quite wrong, it was entirely my decision – elsewhere the impression is given that I flew it once – in fact, I flew cannon equipped aircraft in 151 Squadron on 133 sorties, most of them Operational. ‘Z’ was later joined by a 4 cannon version, V7360 DZ-C. On 6th July 1940, I took ‘Z’ to Dengie Flats for testing, and was accompanied, in a machine gun equipped aircraft, by a Sub Lt. Beggs, a very pleasant Naval pilot, one of the few loaned to RAF Squadrons by the Navy. In this and many subsequent flights the cannons were unreliable, due partly to their cocking systems, but they improved, by virtue of flying and firing them. In ‘Z’, the cannons were upright in their mountings, and worked better than those supplied to Number 19 Squadron, which were probably on their sides. 19 Squadron had their cannons replaced with machine guns after a short trial. I was surprised that higher authority did not take more interest than they did in 151’s cannons, I cannot recall any urgency for detailed reports. I like to kid myself that my persevering in sticking my neck out flying 151’s cannons helped a little towards their development later in Hurricanes and Spitfires, becoming the highly efficient bomber, tank and train busting armament that they did, in all theatres of war, in 20mm and 40mm format.
‘Z’ ended up at Cardington with enemy holes in the spar and tank, after I had flown 80 trips in her. The 4 cannon one was even heavier and slower than the 2 cannon, and when either were fired, the recoil noticeably slowed the aircraft down.
The comparative size of the 20mm cannon and the .303 machine gun ammunition was roughly that the 20 mm shell was the diameter of a tubular cigar case, and the .303 the diameter of a pencil. Both types had various fillings, ‘viz’ solid, explosive, tracer. The rate of fire of the cannon was very slow compared to the machine gun, you could almost count the thumps of the cannon, of which there were two or more per aircraft – there were eight machine guns in the Hurricanes, (twelve in later versions), and the noise and destructive effect of 8 machine guns all firing at once can be imagined. However, the energy from a machine gun bullet was nothing like that of a 20mm shell, and at say 300 yards a machine gun bullet had lost most of its penetrative effect against the metal of an aircraft, whereas the 20 mm cannon would make a hole in a railway line – consequently the latter would penetrate the armour behind the pilots seat, and the casing of the engines. You might think that either a cannon or machine gun equipped fighter was bound to blast everything out of the sky that they fired at but it was very easy to miss, or score hits in non vital parts of any enemy aircraft. Much violent argument and experimentation was given to where to point all the machine guns – at first they were fixed to produce a wide pattern at 400 yards, rather like a non-choke barrel of a shotgun, but experience later proved that the spray at this distance was ineffective, causing non lethal damage and all the guns were sighted to converge at 250 yards – as were the cannons. Comparing the British and German fighters very roughly at this time – the 109 and Spitfire were very much alike in maximum speeds, about 360 mph – the machine gun Hurricane about 320 mph, the Cannon Hurricanes around 300 mph. A machine gun equipped Hurricane could out turn a Spitfire or a 109, dive at maximum straight down speeds safer, and take more punishment than either. An Me110 twin engined fighter was faster than any, but far less manoeuvrable, and had a rear gunner – before the Germans discovered this, the Defiants had some success by day, but were decimated as soon as their new format, lack of forward fire power (there were no forward firing guns, the propeller prevented the turret guns from being used forwards other than at high angles), lack of manoeuvrability and speed were discovered, and the Defiant was relegated to a non–radar equipped night fighter role. Enemy bombers were nearly as fast as the Hurricane, and well armed – the Heinkel 111 was slow, and often mistaken for a Blenheim – there were a few Blenheims in the Battle, with a pack of 4 machine guns under the nose firing forwards, but they were very unmanoeuvrable in a fighter role, and reverted to night fighting, being used to develop the airborne radar which was later fitted to Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.
A feature of both sides was that generally three times as many aircraft were claimed to have been shot down as in fact were – this was no reflection on the honesty of the claimers – it was just that in the heat of the battle you could not stay around to see someone you had fired at crash – or you would be shot down – and several aircraft firing at the same one might each claim it. Another thing I noticed was that very little attention was given to camera guns – cameras pointing at the target which took pictures either without the guns being fired (when they could be used later to assess the skill of the shooter), or concurrently with the guns being fired, when they would show hits or not – but only if the cameras and films were of high enough quality, the results from British cameras and film were often useless – when the Americans came in their results were definitely better, better film quality and better cameras. 151 did most of their flying on convoy patrols during July. It was wearying flying up and down convoys in all weathers and quite near the sea, waiting for the enemy dive bombers to attack. None did for me, but other pilots had some luck; there was also the likelihood that the convoy gunners would mistake you for a hun. On 14th July I claimed an Me109 probable. On 12th July, I and ‘Buzz’ Allen, the New Zealander who had taught me the ropes, were guided on to two Dorniers off the East coast; I led the attack, but on pressing the tit (gun firing button), there was just a hiss – the compressor for ‘Z’s cannons had broken. ‘Buzz’ pressed on with his machine gun equipped aircraft, and I lost contact with him – he was later seen to fly in to the sea by others – a great loss. This was the cannon at its worse – not firing at all. On 15th July, again in ‘Z’, Sgt Atkinson and I were vectored on to a Dornier 17, so slim it looked like a pencil. We were flying from Manston, and stalked this bomber in and out of the base of clouds. When I felt he would see us if we got any nearer , I fired a short burst with my cannons, both of which worked, and Atkinson had a squirt; the Dornier turned away into thick cloud, and was not seen again – we were credited with a shared damaged Dornier 17. Usually we were sent forward to Rochford (Southend), where we awaited orders, picked mushrooms and breakfasted in the Flying Club building. There were always new pilots – some of whom had very few hours – to train, and wild chases of huns who seemed to disappear off the Radar screen as soon as we flew to intercept them, and the constant hours at some form of readiness – 5 minutes normally, sometimes 2 minutes in cockpits, under which conditions a red verey light from dispersal would give us the start up signal, were cumulatively tiring. There was, of course, no flying control as such, orders came from Ops on the other side of the airfield, by phone, and we could only speak to, or hear, the controller when airborne. Meals were usually in a hot box from the mess, if we were on some form of readiness. We had Air Raid shelters at Dispersal. Sometimes we were caught on the hop – on a day I cannot name, I was scrambled – ordered to take off – in a hurry in the morning, in conditions of low cloud, and when I broke cloud, there was a Junkers 88 steaming across my bows from left to right not half a mile ahead. By the time I had hauled my 4 cannon Hurricane around in pursuit, he had vanished. Had I been quicker on the gun button, I might have prevented the bombing off North Weald, which took place later that day with much loss of life – no doubt the Ju88 was the reconnaissance aircraft. Compared to other pilots who have written about their experiences, I realise that the number of times I was actually air-fighting was very small, but I am jotting them down in case they are of interest. I have found that official records do not always agree with my log book, I now wish I had kept fuller records. I was probably at the peak of my usefulness after a fortnight at North Weald, when I had overcome my ignorance of Operational conditions. Pilots were classified by their C.O.s in their log books annually, as either below average, average, above average or very rarely as exceptional. I had previously been rated as exceptional by one or two C.O.s, and this must have boosted my morale and confidence in wartime. The Wing Commander who had made life a misery for me at Aston Down visited North Weald, and when he had gone, my hero, Victor Beamish, asked me what had gone on – I told him and he laughed. He said “I told him that I would hear nothing against Smithy, he not only does well operationally, he flies to train the new boys whenever there is a spare hour.” This did me the world of good!
In August 1940 I bought a 1938 Vincent HRD 500cc T.T. replica motorcycle (Reg No. EYR 18), from a garage in North Weald for £38, which went superbly on 100 Octane petrol – when I telephoned my Senior NCO to cover up my bike, he topped it up as well from the petrol bowser! I still had my green Ford 8 ‘Matilda’(BYD867). One day Teddy Donaldson, my C.O., said it was high time I had a long weekend off, and why didn’t I go and see his wife and sister in law, who were staying very near my birthplace at ‘Reva. The Crescent, Belmont, Sutton.’. I wasn’t quite sure if he was serious, as his wife was incredibly beautiful, but all went morally and socially splendidly, and I took his wife to a show in town whose name I forget, but which featured a song ‘Sing for your supper’. Fortunately, for me, she chose a small Italian restaurant for supper and not The Ritz! I occasionally took a WAAF (whom I met in a small pub at the Eastern end of North Weald, where we went with Teddy in his MG), out in Matilda, and we had tea in various cafes, though not much was open, being wartime. Her name was Scotty, but I can’t recall her surname. A beautiful film star of this period was Penelope Dudley-Ward, her parents lived at Coopersale House, near North Weald, where they were open house to the pilots, with their beautiful grounds and lake, in which we could swim and boat. We were not supposed to have cameras, but I had a tiny Zeiss Baby Ikonta which took 16 pictures on 127 film with which I took the few prints I have of this era. I went to see my parents at Holford briefly, and remember a Miss Norton, sister of a famous actor and author, who headed a knitting business making socks for the forces. One day in late July I had not been flying, and met some pilots as they got out of their aircraft, one of whom was Tommy Tucker, shouting excitedly with his lisp “Vere were fahsands of em!.” “Thousands of what?” I asked. “Enemy fighters and bombers, stacked up into the sun!” he said. This was the end of the relatively quiet period, and life became increasingly tiring and risky, as we were always heavily outnumbered. One day after being bounced by Me109’s, I found myself alone in my heavy four cannoned Hurricane, when I suddenly noticed two Me109’s about a mile to my right, climbing much faster than I was. One’s mind works like a flash in these circumstances, outclassed in performance and manoeuvrability as I was – and I thought “my only chance of survival is to attack”, and I immediately turned into the lower 109, which pushed its nose down and dived away. I followed, firing a short burst with my four cannons at extreme range vertically downwards, and then hauled the aircraft up into a maximum rate turn and climb, in which I blacked out through positive ‘G’, as I knew the first 109 must be on my tail. Sure enough, there were the stars of his tracer shooting past me, and I hauled back again and the aircraft flicked into a spin. When I recovered control, I was alone in the sky. I could not claim any hits and thought I would not have liked to be below in Kent, at the receiving end of my cannon volley. Some time later, I was introduced to a man with a limp at a party, who said that his limp was due to a cannon shell passing through his foot whilst gardening in Kent. I did not tell him of the above incident! The pressure of dawn to dusk flying Operationally and training others and our losses in killed and wounded, were now telling on me, and I became less confident, and I recall walking round North Weald Mess garden, looking at the smoking bomb holes and recalling Rupert Brookes famous lines about there being some corner of a foreign field which would be for ever England if he were killed, and thinking that, for me and us, this field did not have to be foreign. This frame of mind was a feature of being operationally tired, and those affected were at least temporarily of reduced efficiency as fighter pilots. John Willie Blair, and Dickie Milne, who was highly decorated later, seemed less affected; John Willie used to write up a short account of his eventful sorties in a School exercise book and send it to a relative, who would pay him a fiver – a lot of money in those days. On landing after each sortie we were debriefed by the Squadron Intelligence Officer, and the original of these combat reports, as well as the day to day historical records of events – and possibly my reports on the cannons – are now kept in various places, including Kew, the RAF Museum at Hendon, Records Gloucester and elsewhere. As I have said before, my log book is very incomplete, and does not always agree with official records. On one undated flight, I found myself behind four 109’s in line astern formation, which I could not overhaul – I fired at extreme range, but could claim no hits. Another time I found myself flying parallel to and above a Spitfire, below which was an Me109 – the Spitfire turned quite slowly towards the 109, fired a short burst, and continued on its original course. The 109 went down smoking – it all looked so simple like a peacetime exercise, the accuracy and smoothness reminded me of Broadhurst, the ace shot and leader. Occasionally we would see a little silver aircraft at the head of a smoke trail high above us which would be a pressurised and boosted Ju88 reconnaissance aircraft taking photographs – too high and too fast for us. We had oxygen, which was essential above 10000 feet to help us cope with energetic circumstances like dogfights, but no pressurising, which simulated low level atmospheric pressure at altitude, like civil airlines have now.
The only pressurised aircraft in Britain at this time were photo-reconnaissance aircraft, which flew at 35000 feet and higher. One of my most interesting and argued about meetings with Jerry was when I was on my own at about 25000 feet above Kent, constantly weaving to present a poor target and see behind, when I saw a gaggle of aircraft approaching me head on and below, they seemed to have elliptical wings like Spitfires, which I assumed they were. As they passed underneath me, I saw they had black crosses on their upper wing surfaces, I thought closer together than 109’s, and that their wings were slightly cranked at their roots, which made them, according to our recognition charts, Heinkel He113’s, the latest and fastest German Fighters. It was also strange to see them in close together, almost display formation. I duly reported this on landing, and some pilots said that they had met Heinkel 113’s in France. However, I have since read books whose authors spent thousands on research and stated categorically that there were no 113’s in the Battle, and that sighting report were due to faulty recognition. I have not found a satisfactory answer to this – it was said that the only 113’s were at a test airfield at Marienberg, a long way from Britain – but couldn’t they have decided to come over and have a look, if unofficially.
On 13th August 1940, I received the only personal hurt during the whole war. I had taken off in ‘Z’, leading 8 Hurricanes, and was vectored South East, above cloud at about 10000 feet. We were told that there was a large enemy formation two miles to our right, and someone called that he had sighted them. I led the sweep round, and we were amazed to see about 50 Dorniers with no fighter escort. We overhauled them easily, and they kept excellent formation. We heard later that they were without fighter escort because the ‘washout’ radio message had not been received by the bombers, who had wondered why their fighter escort had aerobatted in front of them (to try to convey the ‘washout’) and then gone home. I opened fire with my cannon, having seen a bomber smoking well to the left of their formation due to being attacked earlier, when there was a tremendous bang in my cockpit, and I could see nothing. I pushed the stick forward and dived into cloud, and when I came out below, discovered that there was a large hole in the armoured windscreen, which was completely crazed, so I slowed down and crept back to North Weald, where Victor Beamish jumped up on the wing and hauled open the damaged hood. An enemy bullet had shattered my windscreen, but the only damage I suffered was a small bit of Perspex in my right eye, which is still there. I had to empty the pockets of my Sidcot suit of Perspex and glass, before flying another aircraft to Rochford. Someone else saw the Dornier I had fired at go down, and I was credited with 1 Dornier 17 confirmed. On 24th August I was taking a full deflection shot (at right angles) at an Me109 when I saw a Spitfire shooting at him from astern, so I rapidly broke off, or I should have run into the Spitfires bullets – somebody’s book credits me with the 109 force landing in France, quoting me with a probable. This was in the 4 cannon V 7360, ‘C’. On 21st August I led a patrol from Rochford in the 2 cannon ‘Z’, when there was a shout from Blair “Break Smithy, Break!” I hauled the aircraft around in a split–ass turn, blacking out in the process, but saw nothing although there was a patter behind me like hail. When I landed, there was a large hole two feet behind my head right down through the fuselage, and two smaller parallel ones – an Me109 must have shot at me in a vertical dive – nothing important was hit, as I see that I was flying ‘Z’ again the next day. Two feet behind my head was too close! On 29th August I was again flying ‘Z’ on a beautifully clear day when I saw ahead and below four Me109’s in line astern formation. I pushed the throttle wide open, and as I slowly caught up. The leading 109 dived away and attacked the balloons over Dover. I was just in time to get a long range burst with my two cannons at the last 109 before it dived after its mates but did not notice any hits, so did not make a claim. The next day ‘Z’s tank and spar were holed, and she went to Cardington for a refit. 151 had by now moved to Stapleford Tawney, a small club airfield a few miles South, for dispersal reasons – i.e. less vulnerable than the ‘bombing target’ of North Weald. On 31st August I claimed a 109 as probable in 4 cannon ‘C’, officially credited. On 1st September, on my third patrol that day in ‘C’, we were told to vector 360, and knew that this was our flight for Digby for a rest period from the battle, as we had had so many casualties. We flew at nought feet under very low cloud, and the first thing I recognised was Cranwell, in less than a mile visibility, and a few minutes later we landed at Digby safely. By this time, I was very operationally tired, as were most of us, and it was a wise decision to take us out of the battle. I see in my log book that I signed myself as O.C. ‘B’ Flight and Acting C.O. 151 Squadron at this time. What had happened was that Teddy Donaldson had been posted on a well deserved rest on 5th August, and a very nice Canadian, Squadron Leader Peter Gordon, had taken his place; he fitted in very well letting me lead until he had got used to things - he was shot down and wounded on August 18th. On 21st August, a Squadron Leader King was posted in, but he could not happily accept the situation of letting me lead whilst he found his operational maturity, and sometimes broke off on his own – we were sad but not surprised when he did not return on 30th August, and was reported to have dived into the Thames mud. (he actually crashed in Temple Street in Stroud). It will be seen that I was effectively C.O. from 5th August until leaving Stapleford Tawney on 1st September – in fact until 2nd September, when a Squadron Leader West, a pilot I had met in the Fleet Air Arm, arrived at Digby. So, although since 5th August I had been leading operationally and making C.O. type decisions, training new boys, and new C.O.’s I was never officially C.O. of 151 Squadron. I also felt it rather hard that as far as I know I was never credited with my work and risk of flying the 2 and 4 cannon Hurricanes and thus prompting their development – there were no other cannon armed Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. But I had only 1 destroyed, 3 probable and 2 damaged enemy aircraft to my credit, so did not deserve any gongs (medals!) – Anyway, I was lucky to be alive – with my basic ‘exceptional’ skill as a fighter pilot; I should have destroyed dozens of aircraft, not just one!
When we arrived at Digby, we found No 603 Squadron there, waiting to go South into the Battle – they gave us a mini heroes welcome party on the night of our arrival, I only wanted to rest, but found myself dragged out of bed and up all night. We were asked to dogfight against their Spitfires to give them some practice in operational conditions. I took a Hurricane back to Aston Down for a couple of days, to see my girlfriend, having handed over as C.O. to Hamish West. Incidentally, I had sold Matilda the Ford to Pete Gordon, who when on rest from his wounds had wrapped Matilda around a lamp post in Princes’ Street Edinburgh! This left me with the HRD motorcycle, which I used to ride on my days off into the Lincolnshire countryside just for the ride – there were hardly any cafes or hotels open. There was a very attractive estate called Ashby Hall a mile or so from Digby, which had been take over as aircrew accommodation dispersed from the airfields, and I took up sleeping accommodation there, sharing the bridal suite with another Smith, I. S. or ‘Bunny’ – a dark handsome New Zealander who had been doing increasingly well operationally – he was known as ‘Black Smith’ or ‘Heinkel Schmidt’, to distinguish from me, as ‘White Smith’ or ‘ Messerschmidt’! There were also two BSA air rifles there which soon vanished! 603 Squadron went South shortly after we arrived, and with them Duncan-Smith, whom I was to meet again later – he was to earn great distinction later, and his nickname of ‘Drunken Duncan’ out of respect not contempt – he could sink any number of pints without visible effect. I cannot recall what other squadrons were with us at Digby, but I remember a cheery Flight Lieutenant ‘Dirty’ Watkins (611 Squadron) who did as well with the girls as he did operationally. There was an attractive WAAF who waited at tables, whom I longed to chat up, but there were regulations about Officers not being supposed to mix with other ranks – at concerts, she sang a song about ‘ A Tropical Moon’ – Bunny Smith used to tease me about her, we called her the Spaniel from the way that she wore her hair, I never dared approach her, another one that got away! Operationally we continued to train new pilots, and to get used to the controllers in this area – as of course Jerry appeared here as well as in the South. I remember a message being received that a large number of Huns were heading in our direction, and I ordered all our aircraft into the air, to avoid them being bombed, and one of the controllers, furious that I had taken the initiative, tried to get me into trouble for not waiting for instructions from Ops. Happily the Station Commander, a Group Captain Parker, said I had done the right thing. We saw little of our new C.O., he was often unwell at home, having a hard war previously. My 2 cannon L1750 ‘Z’ was returned to the Squadron from its refurbishment at Cardington and I tested its cannons on 13th October. On 29th October three Dorniers appeared which I chased, but only one of my cannons would fire, every time I pressed the button the aircraft swung away from the firing gun. On 7th October I had taken a Miles Master 2 seater trainer to see my Gloucestershire girlfriend – all on the RAF!
We had some emergency airfields made locally for dispersal which we used for practice day and night Code name L1 and L2, near Wellingore. L1 was bombed on 7th November when I was waiting to night land. I had been looking up at the underside view of an aircraft, thinking how like a Heinkel 111 a Blenheim was, when it dropped its bombs on the flare path, I realised too late that it was a 111! On 6th November, I went to Sutton Bridge, a small RAF Station where I had done an Armament Practice Camp in 1936 and where fighter tactics and problems were dealt with, to see an Me109 and an Me110. the day before, I had been scrambled in my 2 cannon ‘Z’ just after dawn, and when over the Mablethorpe area saw bursts of fire which happened in sequence in a curve towards me, on the ground – suddenly I twigged – an enemy aircraft dropping small bombs on a track aiming at me! I saw a dark smudge climbing towards me, and turned so as to try and get on its tail – it was climbing very fast and shot past me before I could get lined up on it – which I did, and fired a short burst, it was at too long a range to expect a hit, and vanished into cloud; it was an odd shape, I put Me110 in my log book, and attributed the odd shape to wing tanks. On 11th November, I flew a Miles Master doing blind take off tests, with pilots Courtney, Edmiston, Wagner and Davies. On one circuit I handed over to Wagner, and was alarmed to find us still airborne and losing height, although we were running out of airfield. I shouted to my co-pilot asking what he was up to, and he replied “ I thought you had control”. This must have been the cause of many accidents. I have in my diary the name Barbara?? In a girl’s handwriting, for 9th November – this was a very attractive and forceful WAAF who was very keen on Bunny Smith, in fact she invaded his room at night, but without success –or so he said! The girl and I used to leave notes for each other in a tree at the entrance to Ashby Hall – what a wicked thing for a Flight Lieutenant to do with an ‘other rank’ WAAF. She may have taken everything off Bunn, but not for me. I made my reputation as a shot by taking my service .38 pistol in the cockpit and shooting a partridge whilst taxiing. Bunny asked “Where did you hit it?” I replied “In the eye of course!”. He never forgot this line shoot. About this time I was at my Digby dispersal when a car drove up and out stepped the AOC , Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory. He talked to me for a while and said he was very pleased the way 151 were doing. Shortly afterward, on 20th November 1940, I heard I had been chosen to form 255 Squadron at Kirton-in-Lindsey, with a mixture of 12 Defiants and 6 Hurricanes, at which news I was highly elated. My leave started at once, and on 21st November I flew my 2 cannon ‘Z’ L1750 to Aston Down and then on to Weston Zoyland near Bridgewater to see my parents. Next day I flew back to Digby (where I had first soloed in 1935 on a Tutor), my last flight with 151 Squadron and my 2 cannon ‘Z’, which with the other 4 cannon one, nobody else had wanted to fly operationally; I had done 133 trips, mostly operational, in them. On 23rd November I rode my Vincent HRD down to Aston Down, to spend a week with Marion, golfing and lazing, and on 27th November 1940 I rode to Kirton-in-Lindsey, arriving at 13.10hrs with the back half of my rear mudguard, including the rear number plate and tail lamp missing somewhere along the Roman Road.
Thus ended my time with 151 Squadron during the Battle of Britain.