Dogfight: The Battle of Britain
Adam Claasen, Exisle Publishing
Reviewed by Paul Mulrooney
A journalist who once asked the Australian cricketing great and World War II fighter pilot Keith Miller to compare the pressures of sport to those of war got the answer he deserved. “I’ll tell you what pressure is,” Miller said dryly. “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not.”
The 171 airmen from Australia and New Zealand who fought in the Battle of Britain would have applauded.
Their stories are the subject of senior lecturer in modern history and international relations Dr Adam Claasen’s book, Dogfight: The Battle of Britain, the latest in the ANZAC Battles Series edited by historian Professor Glyn Harper.
Claasen first became interested in Australians and New Zealanders in the Battle of Britain while a graduate student of the University of Canterbury’s late Dr Vincent Orange, an internationally recognised authority on all things Royal Air Force (RAF).
The Antipodeans, Claasen says, warrant special coverage. Unlike the British, they were not public-school educated. A few months before their arrival in Britain they were beginning their working lives as clerks, bank tellers and farm-hands.
“The Kiwis were egalitarian, and it was not uncommon for them to become friendly with their engineers and armourers. They earned respect because they were good at rugby and brilliant pilots.”
Brilliance was needed. If Britain lost the air war – and as Claasen recounts, several times in that summer Hitler and his Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering believed the RAF was on the verge of collapse – Germany would have a free hand in its assault on the Soviet Union.
So who were these Australians and New Zealanders? Claasen covers the full cast of individuals, from Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, whose command bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s air attacks, to the pilots themselves – people like Alan Deere, John MacKenzie and John ‘Gibbo’ Gibson – through to the people who dealt with the consequences, notably pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe. All are vividly drawn.
Kiwi Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park was an imposing yet engaging figure who won the admiration of pilots with his tactical nous, organisational abilities and egalitarian approach – he never forgot that cooks, aviation engineers and armourers were essential to maintaining a group’s operational readiness
He made a habit of sitting in on officers’ meals to gauge morale and pick up first-hand information.
A World War ace himself, Park also flew, piloting his personalised Hurricane to 11 Group bases to get an accurate appraisal of the fighting.
Claasen is good at conveying the psychological pressures the pilots faced – flying three or four sorties a day with the possibility of an agonising death, disfigurement or the loss of close friends constantly present.
“They suffered increasing fatigue, running on fumes and the intensity of combat. They became more snappy, they lost weight and they often drank heavily.”
They also became local celebrities. These were the ‘Brylcreem boys’ (in reference to the hair product), with a reputation for being seen off duty wearing flying jackets, trousers tucked into boots, holstered pistols and a woman on each arm.
“Young airmen lubricated their nights on the town with beer or spirits as they let off steam and tried to forget the terrors of the fight. The patrons of English country ale houses welcomed Churchill’s airmen with open arms,” Dr Claasen writes.
The ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ ethos is understandable, for many did: 20 New Zealanders were killed in the Battle of Britain – the youngest being just 18 years old.
(However, some of those who escaped lived on well into old age. I was a young reporter on the local community paper in Balclutha in the early ’90s when I heard a colleague getting a blast down the telephone from pilot John MacKenzie about some over-exaggerated detail in an account of his exploits. It must have been a chastening experience.)
Noted World War II plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, who worked for the RAF, was one of three New Zealand plastic surgeons in the war.
“He developed techniques to deal with the massive burns that fighter pilots suffered and he revolutionised treatment. If a plane, like a Hurricane, caught fire and fuel entered the cockpit, the pilot could end up with horrific burns if he survived at all.”
Mindful of the psychological effects that such burns and long-term scarring could have on the self-esteem of young men suddenly facing irrevocably altered lives, McIndoe, known by his patients as ‘the Boss’, applied compassionate pragmatism.
“Employing handpicked staff and co-opting local townspeople into his plans meant the Boss was able to create an environment that side-stepped medical conventions of the times, but ultimately eased the airmen back into a life beyond their injuries.”
Yet not everything in this account is dark. The Battle of Britain was ultimately won, and along the way these young men accumulated a record of courage and of boy’s-own derring do that still astonishes.
Let Gibson, a pilot who “gathered bale outs like prized possessions” stand as an example. (He was one of many pilots who made a custom of generously tipping their parachute packers.)
Gibson earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for steering a flaming Spitfire, which he had earlier used to shoot down eight enemy aircraft, away from the town of Folkestone, baling out at the perilous height of 1000 feet.
How do you bale out? Gibson described it thus:
“Some people said you turn the thing upside down and fall out, some people climbed over the side. Some people thought that if there was fuel in the cockpit of the aircraft, and you turned it upside down, it would douse you in fuel. I think you were so pleased to get rid of the thing you didn’t think abut how you did it.”
On one ill-fated sortie, at the end of which he had to bale, Gibson happened to be wearing a brand-new pair of handmade shoes from Duke Street in London.
“Fearing a sea landing, and hence damage to his shoes, he had the presence of mind to take them off and drop them over land before his parachute carried him over the Channel. Remarkably, an astute farmer sent them on to the base – a greater reward than the DFC in the mind of the New Zealander.”