"I Flew With the RAF"

by Wendell H Pendleton
The drama of aerial warfare remains as great as in World War I, but now the battles are fought by teams, not individuals.

The secret of successful aerial warfare today lies in the teamwork of the flying units. not in the individual feats of daring by ace pilots.

The British Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe employ a practically identical style of aerial strategy. And all of it is based on coordination.

As an American member of the RAF (part of the time with the famous Eagle Squadron 71) I have 450 "fighting hours" to my credit. I write of what I know and experienced, not of what others told me.

The names of famous aces of the World War? Richthofen, Udet, Billy Bishop, Rickenbacker and many others come to mind. Their individual feats of daring in the air were glorified. How many "aces" can you name today? I dare say very few, although this may be called, in many respects, an "air" war — with many more times the number of planes employed than in World War I.

Speed, altitude and teamwork are all-important in today's air-blitz. The British Hurricane and Spitfire are more maneuverable than the Messerschmitt. But that means very little in World War No 2. The Messerschmitt usually was able to climb above the British craft and also holds the advantage in speed.

I say this with reservation. When I received my honorable discharge from the RAF a short time ago, having been knocked out by sinusitis aggravated by high-altitude flying, the British were sending a super Spitfire into the air which probably matches the famous Messerschmitt Me-109F. And the Flying Fortress flies as high as any Messerschmitt, if not actually higher.

Let me give you an example of a modern day aerial battle. A British squadron is flying at an altitude of say 25,000 feet, with a single "weaver" 1,000 feet higher, and another 500 feet below. The squadron is in "search" or battle formation, which consists of the 10 planes in the main body flying in "V" formation exactly like a flight of wild geese. The planes are spaced four wing spans apart, with the squadron leader farthest in front — exactly like the old gander that heads a flight of honkers.

Suddenly the weaver up above speaks into his transmitter, "Snappers at 6 o'clock!"

The weaver dives down and falls inside the "V" of the squadron and at the rear. The bottom weaver rises and takes his place beside the top weaver.

Two squadrons of German planes are bearing down on us from directly behind at an altitude of 27,000 feet. Above them at 30,000 feet are three more squadrons. The two nearest German squadrons take a line astern formation, one directly behind the other and dive at us. They are coming at a speed of 600 mph, throttle open and bearing down with gravity helping. We' re moving at top speed now, which is somewhere around 400 mph.

We turn the noses of our planes up. The fire from the 12 guns (machine guns and cannon) with which each Hurricane is armed converges at 250 yards. You "lead" a plane moving at 600 mph by three sight rings at that distance.

Here's Jerry. Flash! Flash! Flash! He's by, the vapor curls streaming back from his wing tips. He roars over us so near we could have distinguished the features of the pilots if there had been time — which there wasn't. He dives by, going like hell and headed in that general direction.

You look around. Yes, the weavers are missing. Those two always have the hot seat in a scramble like this. Way back behind you, you see a couple of planes going down, a long trail of smoke following each. Two or three other planes also are falling. There's the white puffs of parachutes.

Three Jerrys, two British. Gone quicker than you can bat your eyes a half-dozen times. That's an air battle for you as it is fought in the war today over England, France or Germany. Somebody else will have to write about the Japs.

The other three squadrons of German planes may or may not come down to attack. They probably will stay up above to serve as a threat against our squadron if it should attempt to descend on the Jerry planes that have shot below us. However, such an attack by us under the circumstances would be a great risk, and the British squadron leader usually is willing to call it quits. He's fought off superior numbers, turned back the Germans. There's no percentage in fighter tackling fighter. It's not the fighter that hurts England — or Germany. It's the bomber.

If Jerry's bombers are coming over, however, the RAF attacks and never tops attacking as long as a British plane is in the air or a bomber in the sky. And Jerry pays the same compliment to the British bombers over France or Germany.

"Blitz warfare" is the proper term when you are talking about modern aerial combat. The one perfect position for attacking is behind and above. The attack is delivered in a screaming dive, motors open full blast, guns blazing. The only defense against this attack is nosing up to meet the enemy. This maneuver gives the attacker a smaller target as he passes by and also permits the "target" to bring his own guns into action.

A premium goes to the fighter who can get above the other. There's a premium on speed as the attack is being delivered.

British planes can outmaneuver the Messerschmitt — so Jerry rarely stays to make a dogfight out of it. It's all teamwork, line astern attack, one plane whirling after the other, diving and reforming far below.

When a scramble is expected, a formation usually will hit for the ceiling, going as high as possible. Sometimes they will nose along just below the clouds. If it is possible the leader maneuvers his planes so that the sun will be in Jerry's eyes.

One of the rules of modern day aerial warfare is never to break formation. A straggler from a formation can be easily attacked by superior forces and shot down.

Sometimes a squadron leader detaches one or two sections from his squadron to attack a smaller group or individual enemy planes. After the attack, the detached sections streak for home. For instance if a squadron leader, cruising at say 25,000 feet, sees a lone enemy raider at 20,000 feet, he probably will order a section (two planes) down after it.

These planes attack, one after the other, bring down the enemy if possible, and then call it a day. They get down and get home as fast as they can. They've done their job. Straggling alone there they invite an enemy attack. And, if an attempt to rejoin their squadron should be made, the squadron as a whole is at a disadvantage while waiting on the other planes to catch up.

A good squadron leader is like a football coach. He may sit up nights mapping out new formations or studying new battle plans. When I was with Eagle Squadron 71, my squadron leader was Bill Taylor, now a lieutenant commander with the American Naval air arm. In fact, I was his No 2 man in flight formation, which meant that he was looking after me since I was for a time a "new" man.

Taylor sometimes would give us as many as two or three blackboard lectures a week on formation and maneuvers. How a maneuver could be speeded up, what we should do under certain emergencies and so forth. He was exactly like a football coach.

But for battle, the "V" formation, based on the flight formation of wild geese, is the old standby. Both bombers and fighters use it whether in squadrons, flights or by threes.

In the last month I was with the RAF, however, on two occasions I saw a squadron of Spitfires flying in an entirely new battle formation. This consisted of two parallel lines, with a weaver above and a weaver below. In fact, it appeared two line astern formations, traveling side by side, each line four wing spans apart from the other.

If we should be caught by Jerry when we were out alone — or out of ammunition or with the firing mechanism out of order — there was one maneuver, our experienced leaders taught us, by which we might save our skins. Here comes Jerry down from above. Our guns temporarily are out of action. Never go into a straight dive! You are gone if you do. Jerry's usually faster, and he likes nothing better than to line his sights on a straight diving target. It's just the same as shooting at a stationary target.

Go into a downward aileron roll. With the engine going full power pull the stick hard over, one way or the other — letting the rudder alone. As the half-roll is three-fourths completed, just before the plane reaches an upside down position, bring the stick back and to the center of the cockpit. Ordinarily, pulling back on the stick pulls the nose of the plane upward. Now, with position reversed, the nose points towards the ground.

When the nose is down, ease the stick back to neutral position. Now back over to the side again, still laying off the rudder. Now you're doing a roll in a vertical position, downward. You're moving in two directions at once and at high speed. If Jerry gets you he's in luck. No sight is made that can be lined up properly on an object going in two directions at the same time.

Jerry probably will follow you down for a spell — he usually does. Sometimes, on a prey like this he follows down to the tree tops and pots at you as you hedge-hop away. But that can't be helped. The aileron roll will get you down out of the air usually with a whole skin and that's something. Or maybe you haven't been in a pickle with a Messerschmitt on your tail and your guns dead!

When Jerry surprises you and your guns are okay, turn up fast at him if you can. Get him off your tail if possible. But if you can' t, circle with him and keep circling. Moving in at you at high speed, the centrifugal force will keep him on the outside of the circle, and you could get our share of shots back at him. It isn't any fun at all when only one flyer is doing the shooting — and that flyer is the other fellow!

Fighters in this modern war must constantly keep on their toes. The enemy always is attempting some new trick, sending out new types of planes, mounting the guns differently.

In the early days of the war the first models of the Hurricane, so veteran fighters told me, were greatly excelled by the Germans in the matter of altitude.

British pilots would fly to their ceiling, shake their fists at the Germans, scream curses at them. They would fire futilely at the Hun planes. The Germans would grin mockingly and stay out of reach or, if an attack was ordered, would enter the fight at an advantage, swooping down from the superior height.

Everyone has heard of the miracle of Dunkirk. But few people really know how this miracle came about; why many more thousands of British troops did not die under the machine-gun fire and bombs of German planes. The miracle, so I am told, was the Boulton Paul Defiant, a two-seated fighter which had just been issued to the RAF. The Defiant was equipped with four machine guns at the rear. These guns, handled by a rear gunner, swung as a unit in a 360° arc. Despite the extra man, the Defiants resembled the early Hurricanes.

The RAF gave the retreating, swimming British a fairly heavy covering of Defiants. The Germans came down on these planes from above, expecting an easy prey, to be met squarely in the face by four machine guns. The Defiants exacted a heavy toll of German Messerschmitts in the air over Dunkirk and many thousands of British lives were saved by them.

Incidentally, it was a high-flying Spitfire photographic plane which, I am told, directly prevented Hitler from following up Dunkirk with a full-scale invasion of the British Isles.

Within a few weeks after the collapse of France, photographs of a coastal region showed many hundreds of barges assembled. The British studied the photographs, decided that it was the real thing, and sent over hundreds of planes, bombing the barges night after night until Hitler thought better of his plan.

This photographic plane, incidentally is a regulation Spitfire, with all excess weight stripped from it. It carries no armament, no defensive weapons. But it does carry a tremendous amount of gasoline. About three times that of the regulation Spitfire capacity. The plane can exceed 40,000 feet altitude. From this great height excellent photographs are taken with wide lens cameras.

The plane can't be touched either by antiaircraft fire or by Germany's best Messerschmitts. The atmospheric haze is completely missing from such a stratospheric height, so that the pictures of the terrain almost always come out remarkably clear.

These high flying photographic planes bring the negatives back to home station. They are developed quickly, enlarged slightly and placed together until a complete map of the terrain is revealed. Then the whole may be re-photographed for extra copies. The work is done at high speed.

If the pictures have been made in preparation for a bombing attack, all the pilots and the bomber station officers go over the photographs with the photographer. The targets are pointed out. That night (or sometimes in daylight) the bombers roar off, to blast the target which the high flying photographic plan has "spotted" with its lenses.

When I left England the Hurricane were armed with 12 guns altogether, either all machine guns or machine gun and cannons. The Germans always are experimenting with varying numbers of guns for their planes — and so are the British.

So far I have mentioned mainly German and British planes. The America Airacobra, in my opinion, is one of the sweetest fighting planes yet developed It has several advantages over the Hurricane, Spitfire and Messerschmitt, such as the absence of motor in front and its pointed nose permitting the flyer to see the ground as he is landing; and the tricycle landing gear — which enables a good pilot to land the ship at high speed with out tipping over. The perfect balance of the ship and the fact that the engine is directly back of the pilot also are great helps. The engine, in this position, protects the lower part of the flyer's body from attacks from the rear — while the armor plate on the back of his seat protects the upper part of the body.

In regard to the British secret night-fighter equipment, I can say only, of course, that it tremendously increases the effectiveness of the fighter at night. One of the favorite tricks, incidentally which both sides employ — is to follow a enemy plane home at night and, after the homecoming plane is given a flare path cut loose on the field with bombs and guns.

The bomber in a daylight raid receive the hottest kind of a reception. In sending over a squadron of bombers, Jerry will protect it with three to five squadrons of fighters.

The bombers come over at about 25,000 feet. There will be a squadron of fighters on each side of the bombers and the remaining fighters up 3,000 to 5,000 feet higher, probably at different levels.

When a British squadron leader see bombers, he sees red. Instantly, the RAF planes strike for the bomber. The Messerschmitts attack the British fighters but the British don't give the fighters a second look. There is no sense, the British figure, in their fighter planes doing battle with German fighters — no matter how many there may be — when there are bombers in the air striking at their cities and citizens. So, although they may leave themselves wide open, the fighter sweep in at the bombers. I have known of a single British pilot attacking a Ger man flight of 50 planes. He was an Australian sergeant pilot and later he lectured to us on the way he made the at tack. Coming up from below, he got the rear plane on the left side of one of their "V" formations. Sweeping on above the squadron, he came down from above and got the squadron leader. Turning again he came up and got another and knock down a fourth as he swept down from the top of his curving attack. Then he got away and headed for home.

Immediately (and note this) this pilot was put to work diagramming his attack and teaching other pilots how it was done.

I know of another pilot, just as daring and just as good a flyer, who brought down two Germans in one air battle — all the Jerry s that were involved — and promptly was court-martialed and discharged from the air force.

This officer, a flight lieutenant, was up on a "sector-recco" flight with a couple of "green" flyers who were just learning how to handle their planes.

By accident, they ran into two German planes and a snappy scramble ensued. The British officer went to work on those Germans and finally shot them both down — and returned to his station alone.

"That was good work," he was told at home station, "but where are the two en who went with you?"

"I don't know what became of them," he said, "I concentrated on the Germans."

But while he was concentrating on these Germans, the Germans were concentrating on his two rookies. Before the lieutenant got the Germans they had shot down the green British pilots.

The officer had sacrificed team-work, lost the lives of two men and forfeited his commission.

Both sides are flying terrific machines of death in this air war today and, because they are flying such machines, the utmost in teamwork is demanded all round and under every circumstance. erratic human temperament seeking individual glory, at the controls of such a plane and with death at his fingertips, might be the cause of the loss of many lives. So, modern air warfare is a combination of human reflexes, high-powered machines and teamwork.

The greatest of these is teamwork!

This article was originally published in the November, 1942, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 5, pp 45-46, 112, 115.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author and 2 photos.
Photos are not credited.