(With thanks to Quebec Heritage News July 2003)
Cultural Heritage – We are what we do
Flyer survived Battle of Britain: ‘We flew by instinct’
Dal Russel, the last of the Few
By Karen Molson
It’s been a long time since anyone has asked Dal Russel, who lives quietly in the Eastern Townships village of Knowlton, about the Battle of Britain. Yet well he remembers that heady summer of 1940 when he and the other fighter pilots of No. 1 Squadron RCAF were battling the Luftwaffe in English skies.
Russel was on board the passenger liner 'Duchess of Atholl' with a contingent of Canadian troops on their way to England when the news came on the wireless. It was June 17, 1940. “The Battle of France is over,” Winston Churchill intoned solemnly, “and the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” The pilots and crew members of No. 1 Squadron, upon disembarking at Liverpool three days later, would be dispatched to Middle Wallop, an airfield near the south coast of England. There they would begin their training for what later would be referred to as the most decisive battle in the history of war.
Sixty-three years later, Russel clearly recalls the sights, sounds, and experiences of those weeks. Excitement, mingled with a sense of pride and purpose, dominated the consciousness of the young flying officers. Though vastly outnumbered, relatively inexperienced, and many days exhausted, their confidence never wavered. At 23, Dal Russel was one of the youngest flying officers in his squadron. Like many of the other airmen, he had learned to fly in a de Havilland Gypsy Moth single-engine biplane, a standard training aircraft at the Montreal Light Flying Club in the 1930s. When Canada declared war on Germany on Sept 10, 1939, Russel and others from the club promptly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, and received commissions with 115 Fighter Squadron stationed at the airfield. This squadron would later be dissolved and reformed as No. 1 Squadron; by 1941, the unit was assigned the new number 401. The young men began their training for combat in Canadian-built Hurricanes. The fighter aircraft were crated and shipped overseas with them, but were soon replaced with newer British models. The new Hurricanes, Russel recalls, “were wonderful to fly.” To one Montreal journalist in 1941, he reported, “In our final period of training . . . we became so used to our Hurricanes that they were very nearly a part of us. We flew by instinct – without consciously handling the controls.” Trained intensively at Middle Wallop then Croydon, the pilots “plunged into our final training with enthusiasm.” They practiced formation flying, steep turns, forced landings and other emergency procedures, they learned about the medical aspects of high-altitude flying, and the strategies involved in combat. From Croydon they were transferred to Northolt, which would be their main base for the eight weeks that would follow. The battle was at a critical point when they arrived in Northolt. The Germans, who had been attacking southern airfields in an attempt to knock out the Royal Air Force, had switched to day and night raids over London.
First big scrap
On August 18, the first day in action for No. 1 Squadron, they became involved in a scrap and knocked down three Dornier bombers.
"We were full of confidence then – and so busy that the days just seemed to march by”
We are what we do
The squadron flew every day, some days engaging in four or five sorties. Often there was no action, but on some days they would find themselves in unrelenting conflicts, whether breaking up raids, intercepting bombers, or attacking Messerschmitt escort-fighters in air battles, which they called dogfights. Many victories and shared victories were recorded. Waiting for the telephone to ring was the hardest part. Ordered to be in readiness, the pilots would don their uniforms and Mae West life-preserver jackets, and tensely await the next phone call, which would deliver orders to scramble for their aircraft.
Flying was an intense experience as well.
“When you are in the thick of a fight at 20,000 feet and traveling at a speed of 400 miles per hour through a sky filled with hostile aircraft you haven’t time to think about much but keeping the other fellow off your tail, avoiding collision, and getting a German within the reach of your eight machine guns. You try to draw a bead on him and watch out behind you at the same time. Your mouth is as dry as cotton somehow, and the palms of your hands are dripping wet”
By the time the Canadian squadron’s last air battle was fought on October 5, physical and mental exhaustion was taking a heavy toll. The pilots had been in the front line of the battle for 53 days. No. 1 Squadron had destroyed and damaged over 70 enemy aircraft; they had lost sixteen Hurricanes in action; three of their pilots had been killed, and ten wounded. Yet they never lost their optimism or their determination. Russel, considered one of the unit’s three most successful pilots, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted words, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” referred to these fighter pilots. Yet Russel, who was interviewed about his experiences for months after the conflict had ended, would always draw attention to the ground crew, whose members’ tireless efforts, he believed, deserved no less praise.
“The men on the ground crews worked just as hard as we did,” Russel pointed out. “They worked half the night with shielded flashlights to make your aircraft ready again for the next day’s fighting.”
The ground crew, it seems, were just as devoted to him. Their nickname for him was Deadeye Dick, though they didn’t call him that within earshot. “He might not like it,” explained one, “for he’s a very modest chap.” A Canadian Press writer who interviewed one of the crew in Northolt was told that mechanics had glued and shellacked an Ace of Spades playing card to the fuselage of Russel’s Hurricane for luck. Indeed, this pilot’s luck held fast, for though he flew 286 operational sorties throughout the war, he was never wounded.
With the sad passing of fellow flying officer Hartland de Montarville Molson late last year, Dal Russel has become the last of the “Few” from No. 1 Squadron.
It is certain that the world will never see the likes of these aerial Galahads again.