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FIGHTER

M UNIC H C R ISIS

COMMAND

BREATHING
In the autumn of 1938, Fighter Command was put onto a war footing
at the time of the Munich Crisis. It also accelerated many changes
WORDS: DAVID NICHOLAS
OPPOSITE: A
sharp formation
of newlycamouflaged No 43
Squadron Fury Is
up from Tangmere.
Their serials were
removed from the
image.
PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES

BELOW:
No 3 Squadron
Gladiators on
parade at Kenley as
a quartet of Furies
displays overhead.

AEROPLANE

T

he rise of Nazi Germany
through the 1930s was
viewed with alarm in
Western democracies. By
the middle of the decade the British
government had recognised the
threat and began a huge re-armament
programme, including orders for
modern monoplane fighters for the
RAF. These, in concert with the
development of a highly-secret radio
direction-finding (RDF) chain, were
to form the core of a most effective air
defence system for home defence.
The expansion also saw the RAF reorganised along functional lines, home
defence becoming the responsibility of
Fighter Command, formed on 14 July
1936. Its HQ was at Bentley Priory,
and Air Marshal Hugh Dowding was

48 www.aeroplanemonthly.com

its commander-in-chief. His leadership
forced the pace of development of
a fighter control system based on
information from RDF reports.
Recognising that the threat would
come from Luftwaffe bombers based
in northern Germany, Dowding, as is
well-known, organised his command
into two subordinate groups. Each
had its own operations room and
commanded several sectors, each of
which again had an operations room
in direct contact with airborne fighters.
No 11 Group covered the south-east
of England south of a line running
east-west through Bedford, while No
12 Group took in the Midlands and
East Anglia.
The first of the monoplane fighters,
the Hawker Hurricane I, entered

service with No 111 Squadron at
Northolt on 15 December 1937 and
was painted in drab camouflage. This
was in marked contrast with its biplane
predecessors, which continued to
wear colourful squadron markings. As
Hurricanes rolled off the production
lines, further units re-equipped: No
56 Squadron at North Weald in April
1938, followed by 73 at Digby in June,
and Debden-based 87 the following
month.
An even greater step forward
occurred at Duxford on 4 August
1938, when the first Supermarine
Spitfire I arrived with No 19 Squadron
to begin replacing its biplane
Gauntlets. It continued to receive
further aircraft in September, during
which No 85 Squadron at Debden
started superseding its Gladiators with
Hurricanes. However, most of Fighter
Command’s 31 operational squadrons
still flew on colourful biplane wings
as war clouds suddenly billowed over
Europe.
Since coming to power, the Nazis
under Chancellor Adolf Hitler had
consistently espoused the unification
of the German-speaking populations,
and in 1936 re-occupied the Rhineland
in defiance of the League of Nations.
Then, on 12 March 1938 German
troops marched into Austria, and
following a rigged referendum
it too was incorporated into the
Third Reich. Suitably emboldened,
in Czechoslovakia the local Nazis
demanded a union of Germanspeaking areas with Germany. Hitler’s
vocal support resulted in the Czech
government declaring martial law on
12 September, when the Germans
threatened war.
Europe was immediately plunged
into crisis. Three days later British
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
flew to Germany to see Hitler in
an attempt to defuse the situation.
Without consulting the Czechs, and
with French support, he promised key
concessions. After a further flurry of
diplomacy, in an effort to avert a war
for which Britain was ill-prepared, the
Prime Minister returned to Germany
on 22-23 September to confirm the
arrangements. He was confronted
with a demand for all the Germanspeaking areas, the Sudetenland, to be

AEROPLANE AUGUST 2016

SPACE

ð

FIGHTER

M UNIC H C R ISIS

COMMAND
RIGHT: E
RIGHT
Every one
of this group of No
72 Squadron pilots
seen in mid-1938
saw action within
the next two years.
Some were to meet
with considerable
success, though
several did not
survive the war.
They are, from left
to right: Flt Lt
F. M. Smith, Fg Off
James B. Nicolson
(later to win Fighter
Command’s only
VC), Fg Off John B.
Humpherson, Fg
Off Des Sheen,
Fg Off Oliver
Pigg, Fg Off R. A.
Thompson and Fg
Off Jimmy Elsdon.
VIA DES SHEEN

BELOW: The
converted Blenheim
IF replaced the
Demon on night
fighting duties
and later carried
the first airborne
intercept radar. This
aircraft is from the
Auxiliary-manned
No 601 Squadron.
RAF NORTHOLT

handed over by the Czechs. Despite
Chamberlain calling the crisis “a
quarrel in a far-away country, between
people of whom we know nothing”,
war became a real possibility.
At home, the RAF was mobilised
onto a war footing with Fighter
Command still in the early stages of
its modernisation programme. Aircraft
were dispersed and camouflaged
while training, especially in air-to-air
gunnery, was increased, as was the
instruction to an operational standard
of new pilots.
In addition to camouflage the
colourful squadron markings were
replaced by two-letter unit identity
codes on fuselage sides, use of which
was to linger into the 1950s. These
code letters first appeared on or
around 25 September 1938 on the

not comply with official instructions,
numerous fighter squadrons
continuing to carry their unit badge
on the tails of their aircraft, usually
within a white ‘spearhead’.
The existing Chain Home RDF sites
with their distinctive mast structures
were put onto full alert as the fear of
an immediate German bombing attack
was seen as an all too real one. Their
trials went on, the Gauntlets of Biggin
Hill-based No 32 Squadron helping
with the training and calibration.

One of the pilots involved was
Plt Off Charles ‘Digger’ Fry, a
Royal Australian Air Force pilot on
secondment. He recalled: “During my
stay at Biggin Hill I was involved in

‘The RAF was mobilised onto a war
footing. Aircraft were dispersed and
camouflaged while training increased’
turret-equipped Hawker Demons
of No 23 Squadron at Wittering.
However, many units did not apply
them immediately, and in reality it
was not until the late spring of 1939
that the task was largely completed.
Even then it appears that some still did

flying calibration patterns and other
activities related to the then secret trials
for radio direction-finding, as it was
known. The trials were so secret that
even Air Marshals whom I met were
not aware of it, even when we flew
some operational tests at the time of

the Munich crisis”. Fry later moved
to Egypt and became an ace flying
over Greece, where he was captured,
though fortunately his participation
in these highly secret activities
remained unknown to the enemy.
As the development of an air
defence system based on RDF
evolved, some thought was given as
to how to locate and intercept an
enemy raider at night when there was
little or no moonlight. Two serving
officers, Sqn Ldrs John Tester and
Walter Pretty, who had specialised
in RDF and commanded the Chain
Home stations at Bawdsey and
Clacton, worked closely with the
Air Ministry scientists and became
convinced that it would be possible
to conduct interceptions under direct
control from the ‘trace’ displayed at
the RDF site. A Blenheim based at
Martlesham Heath flown by Flt Lt

Christopher Smith usually supported
these trials.
Through the final week of September
1938 the crisis continued to deepen,
Hitler remaining unbending in his
demands. Neville Chamberlain flew
back to Germany at the end of the
month for further negotiations, and
in Munich on the 30th Britain and
France agreed to the ceding of the
Sudetenland. Chamberlain returned
to Heston Airport in Lockheed 14
G-AFGN of British Airways and
announced: “The settlement of the
Czechoslovakian problem, which has
now been achieved is, in my view, only
the prelude to a larger settlement in
which all Europe may find peace. This
morning I had another talk with the
German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and
here is the paper which bears his name
upon it as well as mine”. Infamously
waving the paper he declared, “Peace
for our time”. Seen by many as an
embarrassing capitulation in the face
of Nazi threats, the resolution of the
so-called Munich crisis undoubtedly
bought time for Fighter Command.
No 19 Squadron’s Spitfires made
their first public appearance at the
opening of Marshalls’ new Cambridge
airport on 8 October, just as the
dissection of Czechoslovakia began.
The ink on Hitler’s signature was barely
dry when German troops crossed into
the Sudetenland. Within weeks Poland
had annexed the Zaolzie area of Polish
plurality and Hungary had occupied
border areas of Slovakia and Carpathian
Ruthenia.
In Britain the modernisation of
Fighter Command continued apace.

AEROPLANE AUGUST 2016

Now that war was seen as inevitable at
some stage, training took on greater
intensity. Most of the pilots who were
to fly with such distinction in the
first year of the war cut their teeth
during the hiatus. Typical was the
Gladiator-equipped No 72 Squadron
at Church Fenton. Its ranks included
the likes of Fg Off Jimmy Elsdon
(who later achieved seven victories),
Fg Off John Boulter (four or five), Fg
Off James ‘Nic’ Nicolson (awarded

Fighter Command’s only VC), Fg Off
‘Pancho’ Villa (17 kills), Fg Off John
Humpherson (five) and Fg Off Des
Sheen (four-and-a-half ).
While biplane day fighter units
slowly took delivery of Hurricanes and
Spitfires, two-seat fighter squadrons
flying the Demon began receiving the
Blenheim IF as a long-range fighter.
At the RAE, Blenheim I L1424 was
fitted with a trial installation of an
under-fuselage gun pack containing

ABOVE: No 111
Squadron put up
this Hurricane I
formation on 20
April 1938.
AEROPLANE

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www.aeroplanemonthly.com 51

FIGHTER

M UNIC H C R ISIS

COMMAND

ABOVE: One of the
Auxiliary units that
flew the Gladiator
up to the start of
World War Two was
No 607 (County of
Durham) Squadron,
which conducted
this practice camp
at Abbotsinch just
before the start of
the war.
NO 607 SQUADRON
ASSOCIATION

RIGHT: Groundcrew
paint on the
‘UV’ code letters
to identify this
Hurricane as
belonging to No 17
Squadron after reequipment in June
1939. NO 17 SQUADRON

four Browning 0.303in guns,
test-firings being completed from
Martlesham Heath. The conversions
were designated as the MkIF and
almost 150 had been completed by
the outbreak of war. The first batch —
serials L1433, L1436, L1437, L1439
and L1440 — were delivered to No
25 Squadron (see pages 54-57) in
December 1938, while 23 followed
suit from 5 December. On the 12th,
No 64 Squadron commenced its

transition from the Demon. It was
fully equipped by mid-January 1939,
as was No 29 Squadron.
Concurrently, Auxiliary Air Force
fighter units started getting more
modern equipment when, at Usworth
on 12 December, No 607 (County
of Durham) Squadron received the
first Gladiator taken on by the AAF.
Nos 600 (City of London) and 601
(County of London) Squadrons began
receiving Blenheims, along with 604

(County of Middlesex). In the ranks
of the latter was future night fighter
ace Plt Off John Cunningham.
The last rites of the dismemberment
of the remnants of Czechoslovakia
began on 15 March 1939 when
German troops marched into the
remaining areas. The next day
the Protectorate of Bohemia and
Moravia was set up under a puppet
government, while a pro-Nazi fascist
government declared the Slovak
Republic as a Nazi client state. The
resulting shockwaves marked the
end of appeasement, Chamberlain
declaring on the 17th that Hitler
could not be trusted not to invade
other neighbouring countries. This
resulted in guarantees to Poland being
made on the 31st, sowing the seeds
for World War Two.
By the time of this new crisis,
Fighter Command’s modernisation
effort had moved on. The Fury Is of
Nos 1 and 43 Squadrons had been
replaced by Hurricanes, which also
now equipped 32, 46, 79, 151 and
213, having supplanted Gauntlets.
Spitfire deliveries allowed No 41
Squadron to retire its Fury IIs, while
they superseded Gladiators with
54 and 65, and Gauntlets on 66
and 74. AAF squadrons bolstered
Fighter Command’s order of battle
with several units changing role. No
615 (County of Surrey) Squadron
received Gauntlets in late 1938,
as in Scotland had 602 (City of
Glasgow). At the beginning of
1939 Gauntlets arrived for No 616
(South Yorkshire) Squadron, while
603 (City of Edinburgh) and 605
(County of Warwickshire) received
Gladiators. March saw the first
Hurricanes being delivered to Nos
501 (County of Gloucester) and 504
(County of Nottingham) Squadrons.
Units generally conducted their own
conversion, usually aided by a dualcontrol Battle added to their strength.
Concurrent with improving the
equipment of the day fighter units,

work continued on the Chain Home
RDF and the fighter control system.
Amid conditions of great secrecy,
development of an airborne intercept
(AI) RDF set small enough to be
carried in an aircraft proceeded apace.
This was a field in which Britain led
the world.
‘D’ Flight of the A&AEE at
Martlesham Heath worked in
conjunction with the RDF station at
Bawdsey to conduct the first trials on
a primitive air intercept set fitted to
a Blenheim I (K7044). With a very
high development priority, others soon
joined this aircraft as the project gained
momentum. Renamed as the RDF
Flight, the outfit continued its vital
work, and on 17 July a top-secret order
was issued for AI MkIII to be fitted to
21 Blenheim IFs. The first, L1290, was
issued to No 25 Squadron at Hawkinge
on 31 July, and by 3 September some
15 AI-equipped aircraft were serving
with several units.
As the spring of 1939 blossomed
into summer, eight-gun monoplane
fighters continued to re-equip further
Fighter Command squadrons.
Yorkshire-based No 72 Squadron
received Spitfires during April, while
the following month Nos 611 (West
Lancashire) and 602 (City of Glasgow)
Squadrons of the AAF did likewise.
Hurricanes re-equipped Nos 17 and 3
Squadrons at North Weald and Biggin
Hill in June and July respectively,
while in August No 609 (West Riding)
Squadron began its conversion to the
Supermarine thoroughbred. It was the
last fighter squadron to be so equipped
in the final days of peace.
At the beginning of September
1939, those who later were
immortalised as ‘the Few’ under
their inspirational commander-inchief stood ready as part of the most
comprehensive air defence system the
world had yet seen. Fighter Command
had taken full advantage
of the breathing space offered
by the Munich agreement.

RAF Fighter Command order of battle, September 1938
No 11 Group
Squadron

Type

Unit
code

Station

September
1939 aircraft

1
3
17
25
29
32
43
54
56
65
74
79
85

Fury I
Gladiator I
Gauntlet II
Gladiator I
Demon (Turret)
Gauntlet II
Fury I
Gladiator I
Hurricane I
Gladiator I
Gauntlet II
Gauntlet II
Gladiator I
(converting to
Hurricane I)
Hurricane I
Hurricane I
Gauntlet II
Demon
Gauntlet II
Demon

NA
OP
UV
RX
YB
KT
NQ
DL
LR
FZ
JH
AL
NO

Tangmere
Kenley
Kenley
Hawkinge
Debden
Biggin Hill
Tangmere
Hornchurch
North Weald
Hornchurch
Hornchurch
Biggin Hill
Debden

Hurricane I
Hurricane I
Hurricane I
Blenheim IF
Blenheim IF
Hurricane I
Hurricane I
Spitfire I
Hurricane I
Spitfire I
Spitfire I
Hurricane I
Hurricane I

PZ
TM
GG
MV
YN
WQ

Debden
Northolt
North Weald
Hendon
Hendon
Hendon

Hurricane I
Hurricane I
Hurricane I
Blenheim IF
Blenheim IF
Blenheim IF

87
111
151
600
601
604

No 12 Group
19

WZ

Duxford

Spitfire I

23
41
46
64

Spitfire I
(converting from
Gauntlet)
Demon (Turret)
Fury II
Gauntlet II
Demon

MS
PN, EB
RJ
XQ

Blenheim IF
Spitfire I
Hurricane I
Blenheim IF

66
72
73
213
607
608

Gauntlet II
Gladiator I
Hurricane I
Gauntlet II
Demon
Demon

RB
RN, SD
HV
GJ, AK
LW
PG

Wittering
Catterick
Digby
Church Fenton,
Martlesham Heath
Duxford
Church Fenton
Digby
Wittering
Usworth
Thornaby

Filton
Hucknall
Yeadon
Speke
Castle Bromwich
Hooton Park
Abbotsinch
Doncaster
Turnhouse
Kenley

Hurricane I
Gauntlet II, Hurricane I
Spitfire I
Spitfire I
Gladiator I, Hurricane I
Spitfire I
Gauntlet II, Spitfire I
Gauntlet II
Gladiator II
Gauntlet II, Gladiator II

Spitfire I
Spitfire I
Hurricane I
Hurricane I
Gladiator I
Transferred to Coastal
Command

New units by September 1939
501
504
609
611
605
610
602
616
603
615

n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a
n/a

ZH
AW
BL
GZ
HE
JE
LO, ZT
QJ
RL
RR

BELOW: A
simulated scramble
by No 19 Squadron
pilots to their new
Spitfire Is. 19’s
operations record
book entry for 26
September 1938
read: “All pilots
recalled from
leave. Squadron
remained available
at two hours’ notice
until Germany had
entered Sudeten
areas.” AEROPLANE