Night fighters

by Edward Kennedy

These pilots are the individualists of the RAF. They have become a legend of the North African front.

Included in the great air force striking hard at the Germans in the North African offensive are cat-eyed desert night fighters of the RAF.

This British squadron flying Hurricanes armed with four cannon has two tasks: One, to catch enemy night raiders and shoot them down; two, to harass the enemy on the ground.

They have been doing both with great success.

I visited the night fighters in the late afternoon. That is the proper time to call on night fighters. In the morning, they will be sleeping; at night they will be flying. This is one of the rules of desert etiquette which is learned from experience.

First of all, I wanted to check on popular notions about night fighters. One is that they eat special vitamin tablets so they can see better at night. Another is that they are not allowed to eat eggs because of a theory that the sulfur in eggs impairs night vision.

The squadron leader and the squadron doctor were standing together so I put these questions to them.

The egg legend is absolutely untrue, they said. All the flyers eat eggs for breakfast every afternoon. Vitamin tablets are left up to each night fighter. If he finds vitamin tablets make him see better and he can find the tablets, no one prevents him from eating them.

"There is no way of improving sight," the doctor said. "All that can be done is to prevent it from deteriorating."

And then the squadron leader came through with this real explanation of what makes a night fighter:

"If he has a good record and we can use him, he is accepted. The main thing is whether he likes night flying. If he does, you don't have to worry much about night vision. Most of us would never want to go back to day flying."

Night fighters are the greatest individualists among desert pilots. They strive for none of the close teamwork which means so much in bomber squadrons and even among day fighters. Each man is on his own, lurking around in the sky looking for something to shoot at.

He may be assigned to hang over certain areas where enemy raiders are expected. Or he may be assigned to areas on the enemy's side. Over there he looks for good targets such as a camp, a group of soft-skinned vehicles or a gasoline dump, comes down and strafes it with cannon shells and usually leaves fires behind. "He also carries a single bomb for any target worthy of it.

He may lurk over an enemy airfield until planes land, then dive on them. Phases of the moon are very important and tactics are altered with its wax and wane. In full moonlight the night fighter must be more cautious. In the moonless period he has ways of finding targets.

It's fortunate that night fighters live on the earth rather than on Jupiter because that planet has nine moons, seven going in one direction and two in the other. This would make night fighting most complicated.

This article was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 5, p 35.
The original article includes 2 photos.
Photos are not credited.