The Messerschmidt 110
While the Germans were mopping up France in July, there were air attacks on England, and, most particularly, on shipping in the English Channel. It was also known that they were gathering invasion barges in the harbors on the other side. It wasn't hard to guess what was in store.
It was said by a French statesman, Paul Reynaud, that the Germans always tell one in advance exactly how they intend to invade one's country. Thus, for example, General Heinz Guderian in his book, Achtung Panzer, had laid out the concept of blitzkrieg, the tank and aircraft based strategy which was later used so effectively against Poland, France, and others. He wrote this book while his tank troops were still drilling with cardboard mock-ups mounted on passenger cars.
There was another little pre-war tract, by another German general, which was concerned with the invasion of Britain. In it, he compared the Channel crossing to a river crossing, something familiar to members of the German officer class since early childhood. The only difference was that the dive bombers of the air force would play the role of artillery, and that the navy would take the place of the combat engineers with their rubber boats and pontoon bridges. It was taken for granted that the Luftwaffe fighter force would already have air superiority, and would prevent the RAF from interfering with an orderly procession of barges screened by destroyers.
That preliminary stage was being played out in those July days, or would have been if the RAF had co-operated. In the event, Fighter Command, under Air Chief Marshall Dowding, husbanded its resources. The assumption was that the real battle would begin only when the invasion fleet set out, or, alternatively, when the Luftwaffe carried the battle into England in an attempt to wipe out Fighter Command.
For us of the overseas GER, the upshot was that we could perfect our arrangements with almost no interference. In this situation, when we trying to think of ways of aiding the defence, Andrew Stewart had another of his ideas. As usual, he modestly attributed it to others, and said to me,
"Some people in the ministry across the street want to put together some anti-aircraft trains. These sorts of proposals haven't always had a good history in Britain, but I said I'd ask around."
It was true that British gentlemen had often had absurd ideas for dealing with enemy aircraft. One, in the previous war, had wanted fighter planes to harpoon blimps and tow them home. Another, only a couple of years previously, had wanted to freeze the clouds and mount anti-aircraft guns on them. I didn't refer to those proposals as I replied,
"We could mount guns on flat cars, and we do have fast trains. I suppose we could be directed to take them quickly to any area in the southeast that's under attack."
"It seems that we could put together a few trains without detracting materially from any other part of the war effort."
It was something else that was worth trying, and Vignis had no objection. It didn't occur to me then that an airplane and a train might actually enter into something approaching single combat.
It happened that there were lines radiating from Ashford in Kent which would intercept most approaches to the London area. Since we would be given a liason officer at Fighter Command HQ who could radio our trains, they could be put in exactly the right places and moved according to the latest information. Then, when the Germans returned from their raid, we hoped to repeat the process.
In order to achieve speeds which would get us to the interception point before the enemy, the trains were limited to three bogie flat cars, each carrying two seventy-five millimeter AA guns. These would be most effective around fifteen to twenty thousand feet, the likely altitude for the German bomber streams, but they could be used, with any chance of success, only when the train was stopped. However, since the trains might themselves be attacked at low level, we put twin Browning .303 machine guns in a mount on top of the tender which could be used while running.
We supplied the train crews from our GER contingent, and the Royal Artillery supplied the gunners for the 75s. The machine-gun mount was beneath their notice, so our men, with a certain minimal practice, handled that, too. We knew that, all told, we would do well to shoot down one plane a raid, but even that would be helpful.
As often as we could get away from our other duties, John Henry and I put ourselves down for one of the trains, he as the driver and I as the machine-gunner. I got an hour's instruction from an RAF air-gunner at nearby Northolt, and I practiced by letting fly at a few hawks circling over Neasden. Other drivers could do as well as John Henry, and there were machine-gunners better than myself, but we both wanted to be engaged in some sort of action.
In early August, Adler Tag, or Eagle Day, arrived. That is, it arrived for the Germans. We only found out when we felt the brunt of the assault.
We very soon had the feeling that the Union soldiers opposite Pickett's charge must have had. It's when one thinks, or says,
"They keep coming, and comming, and coming. Is there no end to them?"
Fighter Command, still conserving resources, engaged with no more than a dozen squadrons at a time. That was enough to produce some intense aerial combat, but the RAF fighters were always heavily out-numbered. Despite the RDF, later known as radar, young Spitfire pilots often found themselves climbing toward a larger German fighter formation, trying to squint into the sun. According to Stewart,
"There's a full breakfast table policy this time. The men killed are replaced immediately so that there aren't any gaps the next morning."
"Does that really do any good?"
"It's just another shot in the dark. We have very gallant young men, but one doesn't want to go too long with the thought that one's no more than a target in a shooting gallery."
The public morale was not as predictable as that of the pilots. While there were again many individuals whose determination only increased after each raid, there was a noticeable shock effect. With the exception of the isolated and meaningless air raids of the previous war, England hadn't been attacked in force since the time of William the Conqueror. It seemed to many that there was no way of preventing swarms of enemy aircraft from coming over in daylight, bombing what they liked, and then returning the next day. The real danger was not panic in the civilian population, but pessimism.
While we persevered with our main work, John Henry and I were irresistibly drawn to that part of our empire that might conceivably do the enemy some immediate harm, our first completed anti-aircraft train.
In designing these trains, we had been struck with the idea that their top speed could be as much as a hundred miles an hour. The German formations, being limited by the cruising speed of the slow Ju 87, would come in at only about half again that speed.
The first time out on the train, we moved swiftly to our interception position and got set up before the arrival of the enemy. There was scattered cloud at ten thousand feet, and, when we saw a large formation moving across the gaps, the 75s opened up. I had never been that close to artillery before, but I had the sense to put my fingers in my ears and open my mouth. Even so, I wondered whether I would ever hear normally again.
When the guns had finished firing a few minutes later, no aircraft had dropped down through the clouds. John Henry and I knew better than to expect any such thing, but we were still disappointed.
We returned to Ashford, and had hardly gotten there before we were directed to another position, slightly to the north. The returning German formations had been broken up into smaller groups. We fired at one lower down and off to the side. I had seen through my binoculars that an He 111 was trailing smoke even before we fired. Afterwards, I could see it slowly lose altitude, and I was able to see the flash in the distance when it crashed and exploded. Whether we had anything to do with it was impossible to say. I judged probably not.
It was exciting just the same. I was getting used to the crack of the guns when they fired, and then, when we saw puffs burst in the middle of enemy formations, it seemed just a matter of time until we hit something. It wasn't until we met some combat pilots from Notholt in a pub that we found that fighter pilots on both sides simply ignored AA fire, whether enemy or friendly, in their attempts to shoot each other down.
The RAF sector stations ringing London were, by that time, under intense attack. Spitfires and Hurricanes were being shot down at an alarming rate, according to Stewart, faster than was admitted to the public. Moreover, while the morale of the pilots held up wonderfully, the ground personnel at one station hid underground and refused to refuel the fighters. On the other hand, the women of the RAF, who also served on the ground, were entirely undaunted, and were willing to replace the skulkers. It seemed, as so often in England, to depend on which people, and which classes, felt that they had a great deal to lose if the country were conquered.
The second time out, we didn't get an opportunity to shoot at all. However, the third time, we had a panoramic viw of the whole scene. The German bomber formations were headed for the London sector stations, and a fighter formation of some forty Me 109s was above them. We could also see the RAF interception force divide in two, the Hurricanes going for the bombers and the Spitfires climbing to engage the fighters.
I was standing on top of the tender with John Henry, both of us with our binoculars trained, when we opened fire. The aerial combat had not yet begun when an Me 109 began to trail a thin white stream. That was glycol from the cooling system. At long last, we had scored. Even as I watched, the fighter rolled over and a tiny black figure detached himself from it. Before I could follow it to see the parachute open, the remaining Me 109s did a half roll and came plummeting down.
It was an awful moment. We could see clearly from our perspective, but they were coming out of the sun at the Spitfires. The latter were climbing slowly upward, probably trying to see, while the enemy came rocketing down on them. I had a Spitfire in my glasses when the enemy tore past it. At first, I thought they had missed it. But, then, it yawed crazily, flipped over on its back, and burst into flame. No pilot jumped out. It came corkscrewing down, still under power, and, with a horrid scream, hit into a field only a quarter mile from us. The wreckage blazed furiously, and not one of us made a move. I, for one, had no wish to see what might remain of the pilot after the fire burnt out.
That was the closest that the air war had come to us. The Germans seemed to have no interest in trains, and probably didn't even realize that we were shooting at them.
Many people, like ourselves, had seen RAF fighters going down in flames. Squadrons were, in fact, being systematically destroyed. But that was because Air Marshal Dowding was feeding them into the battle in ones and twos, always keeping plenty in reserve. The idea was to outlast the enemy in a war of attrition. Whether it would work and save Britain from invasion was anyone's guess. But it did nothing to calm the nerves of the people who saw the RAF always putting up a few handfuls of fighters against the dark masses of the Germans.
As John Henry and I went out again the next day, we found that our gunners were euphoric over the previous day's shooting down of the Me 109. Of course, they were in a good position. In almost no danger themselves, they were in a position to shoot at will. Even John Henry and myself looked forward to the action. We were going out hunting, and we wanted blood.
Waiting in steam at Ashford, there were reports of a stream of German bombers approaching Hastings. We had to go at an angle to the German course and beat them to the intercept position.
While I usually rode in the cab of the refurbished single engine, and jumped out to man my guns only when we stopped, I this time tied myself on to the flat top of the oil tank of the tender so that I could search the skies with my binoculars.
Lying on my back with my jacket folded under my head, I had trouble holding the binoculars steady enough to see anything. And that was before we even got clear of the Ashford yards. The main line was smoother, but we were accelerating fast. By the time we reached eighty or so, I was in acute discomfort. The wind and smoke tore past me, and my coat blew away. I had to put one hand behind my head to keep it from being pounded against the tank, while, with the other, I held the now useless binoculars. Whether we reached a hundred I don't know, but the ropes bit into my legs and I felt as if I could hardly breathe.
My relief was great when John Henry finally applied the brakes. Then, before I could get myself untied, our guns started firing nearly over me. It turned out that we had run across the tail of a German formation which was fast disappearing. We engaged them at extreme range, and not even the most incurable optimist could have claimed a hit.
We had, by then, missed the incoming stream. There was nothing for it but to return to Ashford. This time, I decided to tie myself to the little low seat of the swivelling gun mount. It couldn't be worse than lying on my back, and, after all, we might be attacked while on the move.
We went backwards this time, but not as fast. There was a tremendous rush of air past me, but I had a clear view over the flat cars, and thought I might be able to shoot reasonably well.
The only alarming thing was going under a bridge. We had designed the gun mounts to clear the bridges by only a few inches, and my head must have missed the girders by little more than that. It felt as if the part above the ears had been sliced off, and I actually put my hand on top of my head to make sure it was still there.
We pulled up at one of the station platforms at Ashford, and all piled into the buffet in the middle of the platform. As the gunners took over the place and John Henry and I approached the counter, the very pretty girl behind it asked,
"Did you shoot down any 'uns, then?"
Everybody wanted to be a hero just then, particularly in the presence of one such as she, and the gunners hardly let the limits of plausibility restrain them. We had shot a wing off a Dornier, set a Heinkel on fire, and scored direct hits on three Messerschmidts. She clapped and cheered, but offered to kiss no one. John Henry and I contented ourselves with railway pies, rather disgusting little cold pork concoctions, and a half bitter each.
The return from the attack was as chaotic as usual, with German aircraft scattered all over southeast England. We set out again, this time on the line to Dover, hoping to see formations approaching, and then racing forwards or backwards to intercept.
We were going forwards at about fifty miles an hour when I saw a twin engine aircraft I recognized as a Messerschmidt 110 drop out of a low cloud and circle lazily under the cloud base. They carried more fuel than the single-engined 109s, and were designed specially for ground attack. This pilot was evidently looking for targets of opportunity.
Considering how conspicuous a steam locomotive is with its trail of smoke, it took the pilot a surprisingly long time to see us. Even then, he did nothing more menacing than bank slowly to his left in a big slowly descending circle. In the bright sunlight and cool crisp air, it seemed unlikely that anything in the whole bucolic scene, including that little buzzing airplance, could do us any harm.
It was only when the 110 came down to a few hundred feet and began to line up with the track that I sensed enough menace to check my guns. John Henry had apparently also seen the attacker, and I could feel the train accelerating.
The 110 seemed only to crawl toward us. It might have been going only a hundred and fifty or so in order to shoot accurately, and, I have been told, the last moments before combat always seem interminable.
I knew, despite my eagerness, that he was well out of my range. However, the rear-most of our 75s fired a shot. It had almost no chance of hitting, and the pilot seemed not at all deterred. Then I saw smoke at his nose. The 110 carried a heavy armament of 20mm cannon and heavy machine-guns in its nose, and the pilot was a good marksman.
As the enemy raked the train and his shots ricocheted off the 75 mounts, I knew that even my puny .303s were in range. No sooner did I open up than John Henry braked hard in an attempt to make the pilot overshoot.
I had heard that the inexperienced gunner almost always under-estimates the speed of an airplane and shoots behind it. I undoubtedly made that mistake, and the sudden braking may have aggravated it.
I naturally wondered if the pilot was coming around for a second pass, and, looking back over my shoulder, I saw him, still alone in the sky, begin another of his big circles. We, however, had suffered some casualties. Two of the gunners were down, whether dead or wounded I couldn't tell. I also noticed some bullet holes in the tender deck right near me. In my excitement, I hadn't even heard the shots over the noise of the train and my own guns, but, looking around, I saw a jagged piece of metal missing from the deck where a cannon shell had torn it open. The oil in the tank below was being sloshed up through the holes by the violent motions of the train, and I felt the unpleasant texture of it as it inundated by feet and trouser legs.
The next approach was even slower, and I noticed that the pilot had his flaps down. Airplanes had shot at trains before, but it seemed that, for probably the first time in history, a train and airplane, going about the same speed, were engaged in a duel.
It was then that I felt real fear. His armament was heavy, mine light, and I could only imagine what would happen if a 20mm shell hit me in the chest and exploded within me. Not only that, the pilot would know about me by now, and would want to eliminate me before shooting up the locomotive. The 110 lined up perfectly with the long straight track, and then dipped his nose. This time I was only too acutely aware of tracer coming right at me. There was, of course, nothing to do but shoot back. While I, miraculously, remained in one piece, I hosed machine-gun fire all over the place. In truth, the pilot had a much better and steadier gun platform than I did. John Henry then braked for the second time. The plane drifted slowly over me, where I couldn't raise my guns enough to reach him, and I could actually hear as the pilot opened his throttles to go up and around again.
By the time that the plane came around for his third pass, I was enveloped in smoke, apparently from the oil in the tank having been set on fire. There was little I could do about it, and I also doubted whether John Henry's trick of speeding up, and then braking, would work a third time. I tried to shout to him, but, of course, he couldn't hear me. At any rate, his burst of speed was blowing much of the smoke away and the intensifying heat that I felt was somewhat counter-balanced by the discomfort of being tied to the jouncing seat and having the wind practically take my ears off.
This time the plane hardly moved relative to the train. When we again braked, the pilot dropped his nose and let fire at me.
Between wind, fire, smoke, and noise, I hardly knew where I was shooting. Whether I hit the pilot or a control cable I have no idea. But the plane slipped off to the side, its right wing dropping. Then the wingtip hit the ground. The plane actually cart-wheeled more than once, almost keeping up with us. It then exploded.
By this time, my clothes were on fire. I managed to get the square knot at my waist undone, and then simply jumped away from the flames. The wind apparently caught me, and I came down, all broken, on the flat car immediately behind the tender.
I can still remember the horrified expressions on the faces of the gunners as I landed among them. They were transfixed for a moment, but they then sprang into action and smothered the flames. At least, I suppose they must have done. I didn't come to for several days.