Saturday, 5 September 2015

First victory - Fairey Battles over Aachen

Fairey Battles in formation

The War started rather ingloriously for the Fairey Battles of the AASF as they settled in to their new aerodromes and began reconnaissance and training exercises. The RAF had formed two aerial forces to go to France with the offensive wing, the AASF (Advance Air Striking Force), comprising of the ten Fairey Battle and two Blenheim squadrons with support from two Hurricane fighter squadrons.

RAF bombing policy was tied down by the French who restricted raids on German industry and cities because they did not want to provoke a response from the Luftwaffe which they feared would decimate their infrastructure. RAF planners were keen to strike the Ruhr and cripple German industry but again the French felt that Allied bombers should support the army and make an immediate dent in any military advance. In the strategic impasse the squadrons of the AASF made themselves available to support the BEF and whatever the Army required of them which meant plenty of reconnaissance flights.

On the 20 September three Battles of 88 squadron's B Flight took off at 10:00 from their advance field of Mourmelon-le-Grand for a reconnaissance flight over Aachen. F/O Baker led his formation towards the border encountering only light anti-aircraft fire from a French emplacement as they passed South East of Bitche but this was the least of their worries as at 11:47 they approached the target only to be intercepted by three 109s in a tight vic formation.

Jagdgruppe 152 was an embryo formation of what would become Zerstörergeschwader 52. Due to a lack of Bf 110 fighters being available to arm the formation they had been given surplus Bf 109 D's which were slowly being phased out in favour of the Emil by the Jagdgeschwadern during the assault on Poland. The Stab formation of Jagdgruppe 152 was patrolling the Franco-German border led by Hauptmann Lessmann who had claimed a French Potez 63 the day before. Seeing their foe and supposedly presuming they were Hurricane fighters Lessmann gave theorder for the Messerschmitts to dive on their foes.

In one pass the Messerschmitts sent F/Sgt Douglas Page's craft spiralling towards the ground leaving no survivors. F/O Baker decreased height to avoid the diving German's fire whilst his observer Sgt Fredrick Letcher fired back shooting down one of the attackers. In the dive Baker had lost sight of F/O Graveley but decided to head for home before the Germans came back arriving at 13:10.

Flying officer Graveley
Reginald Graveley had managed to crash land his shattered craft and despite severe burns dragged his wounded observer Sgt Everett to a safe distance from the burning wreck. He returned for AC1 David John but found him dead at his gun with a bullet through the head and Graveley was unable to retrieve his body. Graveley and Everett were rescued but despite having his leg amputated the Sergeant died of his wounds that day. Graveley was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal in December by the King who was touring France. This award was later converted to the George Cross on its inception with the following description in the London Gazette.

This officer displayed great gallantry and a total disregard of his own safety when the aircraft of which he was the pilot was shot down by an enemy fighter in September 1939, and crashed in flames. Though badly burned, he pulled his wounded air observer from the wreckage to a place of safety and then returned to rescue the gunner. He found the airman dead however, and was unable to lift him from the cockpit.

Although the French authorities confirmed the wreckage of a German fighter the Luftwaffe Quartermaster shows no losses on that day. Nevertheless the Letcher's claim is considered to be the first German aircraft shot down by an Anglo/French aircraft. Letcher stayed with 88 squadron and was later killed in action when the Blenheim bomber he was acting as Observer in was shot down over Holland on 28th August 1941.

88 Squadron's losses on the 20th September 1939 were:
Battle K 9242:  Observer Sgt William Stanley Everett (26) and Gunner AC1 David Joshua John (22)
Battle K 9245   Flight Sergeant Douglas Aubrey Page (27), Observer Sgt Alfred William Eggington (25) and Gunner AC1 Edward Arthur William Radford (24).
All of the dead are buried at Choloy War cemetery.

Reginald Graveley’s medals are held at the Royal Airforce Museum at Hendon.

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