AS YOU WERE. . .
A Monthly Military Tribute Webzine
September 2011 Edition
Dog Fights and Daylight Raids 1940/41War in the air would be seen in three different ways at least. There was the view from the aircrew's perspective; the view of those who suffered one way or another on the ground and there was the view of the spectator who just witnessed the activity going on in the sky above. I was ten years of age when this attack occured. I had I very good view of everything that was going on from my bedroom window. The base attacked was Croydon. The original London Airport. It would start like this …
by Geoff Ellis
There has been a period of quiet since about 6.a.m. The war time activities of the night are once again over and for the people of the home counties, particularly Kent, Surrey, Essex and Hampshire it is a period of respite. For those who have been lucky their breakfast is eaten in peace whilst for the unlucky it is not the case for there is damage, death, and injury to deal with.
It is a bright and sunny morning with little cloud and the usual air of expectancy is prevalent. People with experience are waiting for something to happen for it is too quiet.
Suddenly the awful wail of the air raid sirens commences, followed by the distant noise of aircraft. People living close to R.A.F. fighter bases are conscious of sudden activity as the engines of Hurricanes and Spitfires roar into life and the squadrons take off and climb as fast as they can to try and get the all important height advantage over the incoming enemy aircraft.
Those watching can see the approaching German planes. The bombers in formation and their fighter escorts, some of which are close to the slower aircraft whilst others are up there somewhere, probably positioned with regard to the sun.
In seconds the tidiness has gone and there are planes everywhere. The Hurricanes are going for the bombers whilst the Spitfires, being the faster, are taking on the enemy fighters – mainly the fast 109s. What was an empty cloudless sky is now a mass of twisting, turning aircraft. The higher planes leaving vapour trails in the sky which show up their maneouvering and weaving in an effort to gain a position allowing a kill. The noise of machine gun fire comes in short bursts clashing with the noise of engines being used at full power further coupled with the scream of shot up aircraft diving headlong into the ground below. Both sides are losing planes. Some fall out of the sky with no sense of direction whilst other drop like stones, nose first into the solid earth below. Others are on fire, their war over. Suddenly there are two or three parachuting pilots or crew men in the air and one whose chute is alight.
The bombers have lost some height and are making their bombing run on the runways , hangers and factories. As they cross their intended target areas their bomb doors can be seen open and their bombs loads falling gracefully through the air quickly followed by massive explosions one after another.
Time for the enemy is running out. They all need fuel to get home and the R.A.F. planes are running low on fuel as well and need to land somewhere if they are to be of any use later in the day, let alone tomorrow.
The enemy will be attacked during the journey back across the channel and more losses will take place on both sides but for the spectator it has all been over in less than ten minutes from start to finish. Men have died. Others have been badly injured and or badly burned. People have died on the ground but for the spectator standing just far enough away from the action it has been a sight that was exciting – especially for a boy not yet eleven years of age. Suddenly a Spitfire whistles extremely low across the roof tops and so close to the boy that the pilot can be clearly seen slumped over his controls. The plane seems to be making for the golf course at Morden Hall Park. The Spitfire disappears from his sight and there is a terrible explosion and a ball of fire and smoke rises into the air. It is no longer exciting.
Note: German fighters had approximately five plus minutes of fighting time once they had reached the London area. After that the bombers were on their own! Fighter aircraft had enough ammunition for a handful of short bursts of fire which is why there was no prolonged firing of guns.
This is a true account of the attack on R.A.F. Croydon, South London, Surrey.
Croydon Aerodrome as it was in 1939.
401 Squadron R.C.A.F. [formerly 1 Squadron R.C.A.F.] was the first Canadian squadron to arrive in the UK.
Correspondence from Geoff Ellis
Sgt. Fred "Freddie" Dorken R.C.A.F. / R.A.F.
I first met my Canadian cousin in 1940. He had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force soon after the outbreak of the second world war, later transferring to the R.A.F. He arrived at our family home in England, 29 Malmesbury Road, Morden, Surrey, one afternoon in the summer of that year.
His arrival was unexpected , at least by me, although he may have contacted my father by letter prior to his visit. He looked very smart in his blue air force uniform and he had the most engaging grin on his face. I was so pleased to meet him and I told him that my mother would be home in a little while for she had gone shopping. His uncle Alec, my dad, would be home later.
Mum arrived and Freddie met his aunt Violet for the first time. Freddie’s visit was a great success and when my dad got home from work we all learned more of my cousin’s life in the both Canada and in the air force.
It was decided that Freddie would have my bedroom whenever he was able to stay over or even if he just wanted a quiet rest. He was based at Croydon Aerodrome which was very near to our home and this made it easy for him to get to our place always providing his duties allowed.
Freddie was flying with a night fighter squadron which flew Bolton Paul Defiant aircraft. These planes were designed by Bolton Paul as a fighter but they proved to be useless as a day time fighter as they were under powered for a plane carrying a crew of two and therefore slow in comparison to German fighters. They also had a fault. The air-gunner had a revolving turret with four .303 machine guns but he could not fire directly aft. German pilots soon realized this weakness and it, coupled with speed deficiency made attacking from the rear or below very easy for them.
Fortunately the Defiant was quickly removed from the daytime aerial battle field although crew were lost before this happened. Freddie was an Air Gunner / Wireless Operator and for him and other crews it was good that the plane was re-assigned to night fighter action, something that the aircraft was good for. The aircraft having two forward firing guns controlled by the pilot and four Browning machine guns in the revolving turret controlled by the Wireless Operator / Air Gunner.
I remember the day that Fred came to our house with brand new sergeant stripes and Air Gunner badge. He was going to sew them on his uniform but I offered to do it if he showed me where they needed to be sewn. To my surprise he allowed me to do the job and after the stripes were on his jacket and his great coat I started to sew on the air gunner wing. Freddie stopped me and said I was to pack the wing with Rizla cigarette papers so as to emboss it . This was done and when finished it looked great, standing out proudly on his chest. This was one of the lad's ruses. The other was to rub cigarette ash into the stripes to make them look "well established."
As the war hotted up we saw less of Fred and when he did turn up he was usually tired and often went to sleep on my bed upstairs.
The decision to promote air crew to the rank of sergeant was made so that if captured by the enemy they would under the Geneva Convention have certain rights and reasonable accommodation would be given to them. I suppose it also tended to keep air crews together in captivity.
Freddie did not talk about his flying experiences at this time. It was only later and on the rare occasions that we saw him that he sometimes related something that had happened. His Croydon base was attacked with great force on the 31st. August 1940. The Battle of Britain was in full swing and the German air force was out to destroy the fighter bases of the R.A.F.
I witnessed this attack and the air above Croydon was filled with aircraft of both nations. Fighters were battling it out everywhere whilst German bombers flew in very low dropping their loads on the base and the factories beside the base. The Royal Air Force lost thirty nine aircraft and fourteen pilots on that day. The greatest loss recorded in a one day of the Battle of Britain.
Before my cousin was posted elsewhere he visited whenever he could and on one occasion I went upstairs to talk to him and he was cleaning a hand gun. It was a small neat revolver in what looked like stainless steel. I asked him if it was service issue and he said no. He said that he had acquired it for possible self protection if he had to parachute into enemy territory. I was allowed to examine it and then it was put away in his personal gear. I did not mention it ever again.
We did not know where Freddie was posted to for a long time. He would have been fully occupied and finding time to write letter was no doubt difficult. He did write to my father from time to time and eventually he wrote to say he got some leave and would be visiting us as soon as possible. He arrived early one evening and to our surprise he had a very attractive girl with him. Like him, she was in R.A.F. uniform and her name was Maisie. Freddie said that they wished to marry and he wondered if my father and mother would witness their marriage at a Registry Office. My parents were delighted to oblige and we all celebrated their engagement. They were obviously very happy together and we all took a very strong liking to Maisie. Regrettably we only ever saw them once more together.
Fred was now in Bomber Command and all I ever knew about this period of his life was that he was in the crew of a Handley Page Hampden bomber, nick named a flying pencil due to the narrowness of its fuselage. He told me when questioned that they had flown on numerous raids, many of which were over Germany itself. He said his skipper [pilot] was an Australian who loved hedge hopping. The Hampden was very aerobatic for a bomber and well suited to low flying and hedge hopping was a good way of avoiding trouble and getting home. Bomber crews normally were expected to fly thirty missions before getting a real break and many never reached that number. Perhaps Freddie and his companions were lucky to have this 'mad Ozzy' as he called his skipper.
On one occasion Fred was flying as a crew member in a Short Sunderland flying boat on Atlantic Ocean reconnaissance looking for submarines. Suddenly , the rear gunner reported a German Dornier bomber flying towards them and that it was carrying something under its fuselage. The something parted from the Dornier and it became obvious that it was some sort of aircraft and flying at high speed in the direction of the Sunderland. The Sunderland pilot took evasive action, partially to get a better look at it and recognized it as one of the new German anti-ship weapons, the Henschel Hs 293 radio controlled flying bomb, but on this occasion the target was not a ship – it was the flying boat! Fred told me that the pilot" threw the big plane around the sky" in an effort to lose the radio controlled weapon which was being guided by an airman in the German bomber with a joystick device. Every twist and turn was followed by the weapon's controller and it began to seem that it would be only a matter of time before the large flying boat was hit. The Sunderland pilot had managed to gain height whilst evading the weapon and had reached available cloud cover. This cover saved the Sunderland and its crew by making them invisible.
Later on in the war Fred was posted to a torpedo bomber squadron and they flew from Thorny Island near Portsmouth. He did tell me that this work was nerve wracking for it meant flying just above sea level and straight at the shipping being attacked. This made the work of ships gunners pretty straight forward from an aiming point of view. Torpedoes had to be dropped fairly near to the target and getting closer and closer to the guns every time an attack was made was very trying on the nerves of all concerned. His brother told me that by the end of the war Fred's nerves were shot and that he could not settle down to civilian life. Richard, who was in the Royal Canadian Navy as a regular officer, persuaded Freddie to join the navy. Fred did this and was soon a Petty Officer Class 2 involved in damage control work at sea.
He served on H.M.C.S. Quebec, the former RN Cruiser Uganda. I met up with him on three occasions that the cruiser visited the UK. We enjoyed several pints of good British beer in real old English pubs that I knew well, sometimes with ship mates. I also dined aboard when the ship docked at Chatham in Kent where I lived for a number of years.
Fred and I corresponded over the years and after Maisie passed away I made up my mind to fly to Canada to visit him. At the time I was ready to make the trip he died. I regret it still.
The aircraft types that Sgt. Fred Dorken flew in can be found easily on the Internet. There is much information about all of them.
Bolton Paul Defiant: Fighter.
Handley Page Hampden: Medium Bomber.
Bristol Beaufort: Torpedo Bomber.
Short Sunderland Flying Boat.: Anti submarine and convoy protection etc.
Fred served on H.M.C.S. Quebec as a PO Shipwright in Damage Control.
His elder brother Richard Dorken was regular Navy. Gunnery Officer.
Fred just could not settle down in civvy street after the war.
Richard survived WWII but was badly injured in the Korean War whilst leading a boarding party.
Recently a grandson of Freddie contacted me. In the course of e-mail correspondence his grandson Dustin Dorken told me that he had once asked his grandfather what he had been doing on his twenty first birthday.
Freddie told him that the aircraft of which he was the air gunner / wireless operator was returning from a sortie over the English Channel when the rest of the crew started singing "Happy Birthday To You" and at that very moment his turret was shot away from around him and he was left windswept but unscathed! Nothing had hit him in this remarkable event.
A photograph sent by Dustin showed Freddie to be a Warrant Officer.
Submitted by Geoff Ellis
This crew photo includes Freddie Dorken - front row right
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