An interview with John Greenwood, who fought with 253 Sqn. during the Battle of Britain in Hurricanes, from August 30 1940 when he was posted to December 1940. The interview was conducted by e-mail in March-April and June 2004.
Q: Many of the histories talk about the old HF R/T sets in fighters being replaced by VHF sets before the end of the battle. What was your experience with the VHF changeover?
John: When we were fitted with VHF, I had to do an air test. I just referred to my log book and was quite surprised to see it was done on November 8th. All the squadron was equipped within a few days. Some squadrons had already been equipped, so I would say 11 Group was done first in October and November. 253 Squadron was definitely reequipped in November. HF and VHF were operating at the same time, obviously. I remember going south down to the coast 70 miles away and still getting wonderful reception after the old TR9D HF sets. We had no serious bugs as I remember.
Q: The usually-quoted range of the TR9D HF set is around 35-40 miles. Were you ever out of sector control when you ventured that far from base? If not do you recall the presence of radio relays or some other mechanism?
John: I'm sure there must have been R/T relays, but I cannot for the life of me remember. However, we used to fly up to 150 miles away and still be in radio contact. I can never remember ever having been out of R/T range.
Q: Did the TR9D HF sets suffer poor reception?
John: Yes. TR9D was awful to listen to with all sorts of interference; it was better between aircraft and ground control than between aircraft.
Q: Did you every find yourself in situations where ground control was very difficult to make out? Or was it always legible?
John: It was mostly okay. On 10% of occasions we had to ask “Please Repeat”. As I remember it, we were always in control while flying as a squadron. After a fight with the enemy, the whole squadron was broken up and I never ever remember forming up again, it was amazing how few aircraft were to be seen after a scrap. Sometimes two or more could join up, but no orders were ever issued as far as I can remember, the sensible thing was to return to base as low down as possible. Being on one's own and climbing back towards the enemy was a recipe for disaster.
Q: When in the air did you ever have the Group controller cut in and issue instructions?
Q: How often did you fail to intercept?
John: There were quite a few times we were vectored to bandits that failed to materialise. I would say one in three intercepts failed, because of (a) wrong height, (b) weather, (c) bandits turned back home. After a failed intercept we would await new orders from control.
Q: Was weather and visibility the primary factor for a failed intercept?
John: Haze and cloud were the main factors. 90% of the time we met them the enemy were above us. In those conditions our visibility was about 1,500 yards and quite often we did not see them. Bombers were at 15-20,000 ft, fighters were at 25,000 ft and above. On a good day without haze or cloud we could see them from 25 miles away. Mostly we were looking into the sun.
Q: When did weather prove to be an advantage to the Germans?
John: The months of September and October. There was very little cloud in September. In October there was more, mainly between 5-10,000 ft.
Q: Were some fighter controllers were better than others?
John: We nearly always had the Chief Controller, but we would like to have been sent off ten minutes earlier than we were when bandits were climbing to their heights over France. This always made us below them in height when we met them.
Q: What was the most common order given after a failed intercept? Did you often receive new vectors or were you told to return home?
John: After a failed intercept, if the weather was okay we would either be told to patrol between two towns (i.e. Ashford - Maidstone) at a certain height, or told to return to home base, depending on circumstances. In late September/October Me109's came over between 25 -30,000 ft. This was far too high for a Hurricane's performance, so we were nearly always at a disadvantage and we didn't bother to attack.
Q: The communications centre was the sector station. What happened if your squadron was assigned to a satellite airfield? Did you have a separate radio channel for talking to the airfield (for landing permissions and so on), or did they operate on the squadron frequency and therefore were able to listen to or break into that?
John: Kenley was our sector station, and all orders were issued from there, however I was never directed to a satellite station, although I am almost sure 11 Group stations were on the same frequency.
Q: The controller could order a squadron to be at: Stand By, Ready, Available 15, Available 30, etc. What did you do when at ‘Available' state?
John: As I recall, Standby was either in or at one's aircraft. Readiness was sitting around dispersal waiting for the telephone to ring. Available 15 minutes, was being in or around the Mess, or lying on one's bed, dozing. Available 30 minutes, was much the same as above, but one could be anywhere on the station. When on Available, the tannoy would broadcast in the Mess, bringing either flights or Squadrons to readiness. Transport would be outside the Mess to take pilots to dispersal, and usually we were ready to fly well within the allotted time.
Q: What was the routine on returning from a sortie?
John: After returning from a sortie, we were met by the intelligence officer, to whom we gave all the details, meanwhile the aircraft were being rearmed, refuelled etc. This was all done in about fifteen minutes, providing there were no problems with the aircraft, and if necessary we took off after a cup of tea if not too urgent.
Q: Most squadrons used Fighting Area Attacks and close vic formations in the early battle. The histories state that squadrons would often abandon these as the battle went on and create their own ad hoc tactics. How did this work at 253 Squadron?
John: I can only speak for 253 Squadron. Our tactics remained the same throughout the Battle, four flights of three aircraft, in vic formation, which could be either turned into either line abreast or line astern for attacking purposes. It showed no imagination, it was discussed between us several times, but nothing was done, because we were a badly savaged squadron, and lost 6 CO's between August 30th and the end of September, either killed or wounded, so we never really settled, and of those six, we only had one good leader.
I should like to give you a true idea of the realities of this Battle. The Me109 was the best fighting plane of the three main types of fighters involved. It could out-dive and out-climb both Hurricanes and Spitfires. It could out-dive and out-climb both Hurricanes and Spitfires, it was faster than the Hurricane at all heights and faster than the Spitfire above 23,000 ft. The armament of the 109 was far superior to ours since their 20mm cannon was lethal at 1,000 yds. Our .303 peashooters were effective at 250 yds or less.
They were doing the attacking, so picked the height that best suited them and their largest attacks were in the morning and early afternoon with the sun behind them or above. If they had had long-range tanks we would have lost the Battle, of that I am quite sure. On the other hand, had we had 20mm cannon, I think we would have shot down a lot more of the enemy. I can tell you that I ran for cover as many times as I attacked. When they dived to attack us, the squadron broke. I used to turn in towards them, and dive flat out at the same time, making it impossible for them to take a bead on me; when I pulled out, I was usually on my own with a few 'dots' and smoking 'dots' around the sky. It was rare that we ever formed up again as a squadron. If we could have been airborne 10 minutes earlier than we were, it would have made it more even. The fact that we were more manoeuvrable was not an issue as they could dive on us and then climb away from us without having a dog-fight. It was only when they stayed to fight that things became more equal.
Q: If battles against fighters always resulted in the squadron being flung apart, was this also true of attacks on bomber formations?
John: I can only remember clearly two attacks made as a squadron, the first one on September 1st, against a formation of Dornier 17's. We were 12 aircraft and we attacked in line abreast from the beam. During the attack we ourselves were pounced upon from above by 109's, this broke us up and we did not reform.
The second attack I shall never forget. We were led expertly by our CO Jerry Edge, in line abreast head-on, I was flying number two to the CO, right in the middle of the formation, it was a classic attack, absolutely frightening for me, as I could neither break left nor right at a closing speed of around 600 mph. After firing a three second burst I rammed the stick forward, the motor cut, and the Ju88's, about 30 in number, missed me by a few feet. I still dream of it sometimes. Afterwards, I saw the enemy jettison their bombs, landing not far from my own home town in Ewell and Epsom. I don't think any claims were made and we certainly didn't join up as a squadron again. However, after the war when German records were accessed, it was found that we had destroyed 5 of the Ju 88's and the nine of us who carried out the attack were credited with a half each.
Most of the other attacks on bomber formations were broken up by 109's before we could attack, and in late September and October most enemy sorties were by 109's. They were very much higher than us, and mainly ignored, unless we were forced into battle.
Q: When the German fighters engaged you, did they all come down mob-handed, or did they send down just a portion of their force, leaving a top cover reserve?
John: I cannot give you an honest answer to this question, as with their superior speed, height, and armament, I ran for cover, hence I am still in the land of the living. But my opinion is that if there were twelve or more, some would obviously have kept top cover.
Q: To what do you attribute your survival in the Battle?
John: I had to have been very lucky, but that was not all.
The four days that 253 spent in France was the longest and most harrowing I spent during the whole war. We lost our CO and both flight commanders, and one third of our pilots. I was dead lucky, completely inexperienced and in the hands of the Gods. My first melee lined up on a Me110, to find I had not switched on my gunsight. Having done that I found that I had not switched on the gun button after which I had nothing left to fire at. I forgot all about my tail, and would have been easy meat for anyone, however I survived. But on my way back to Lille Marq, I spied a 109, fifty feet below me, going the same way. The poor bugger never stood a chance, I fired from within 100 yards, all my bullets going into him. I must have killed the pilot as he slowly went into a steep dive, no-one leaving the aircraft until it hit the ground. That was my first victory. It shook me considerably, as it so easily could have been me. I learned then to never stop looking around and above, which held me in good stead later on.
I also saw that the German fighters were a lot better than we had been led to believe, and that to attack them head-on with their two cannon was suicide.
I have very good eyes, and was made "tail-end Charlie" during the Battle, weaving around looking for the enemy, and reporting anything to the leader.
I attribute all the above to my survival.
Q: I always had the impression the tail-end weaver position was often given to novice pilots because of the risk; or was this regarded as a job for skilled hands?
John: The "Tail End-" or "Arse End Charlie" was usually given to an experienced member of the Squadron, with "eagle" eyes!!
Q: Allowing for use of full throttle on an intercept, what was the endurance of the Hurricane?
John: Endurance was about 2 hours. In the squadron most flights were an hour and 45 mins, which gave us 15 mins for landing difficulties. This included times of full throttle.
Q: What was your speed over the ground in a full-squadron climb?
John: We would almost always be on the climb when vectored towards 'bandits', which would be full throttle. I cannot remember what the airspeed was, but think it was about 200 mph on the clock. Our ground speed depended on the wind speed and direction.
Q: What ammo load did you carry in the Hurricane guns? Some accounts say pilots avoided tracer because of the ballistic characteristics but preferred de Wilde incendiaries because it sparked on impact. What was the policy in 253 Squadron?
The ammo load was 300 rounds each gun : 2400 rounds. We never used tracer, but about 30% de Wilde ammo.
Q: What landmarks did you navigate by over southern England?
John: From 10,000 ft and above, The Thames was the best landmark. When forced low, after an escape from the enemy, the landmarks I remember best, were:
• The long straight railway line from Ashford, westwards,
• Canterbury Cathedral, (with Thomas O'Becket waving to us!!).
• The masts at Fareham Radar Station.
We couldn't read the names on Railway Stations as they had been removed.
Q: Thank you, John Greenwood.
Update: John Greenwood passed away on 31 December 2014. An obituary can be found HERE.
The Burning Blue copyright © Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, 2006. All rights reserved.