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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > April 2018 > On a Wing and a Prayer: The RAF in World War II

On a Wing and a Prayer: The RAF in World War II

On the RAF’s centenary, Gavin Mortimer reveals how our stunted air force recovered from years of neglect and stood up to Göring’s Luftwaffe – starting with the Battle of Britain
RAF pilots had to drop everything as soon as they heard the call ‘Scramble!’
GETTY

On 12 May 1940, five RAF Fairey Battle bombers of No 12 Squadron approached the Albert Canal in Belgium. Two days earlier, the Germans had invaded the Low Countries; the aircraft were on a mission to hinder the Nazi advance by destroying two bridges at Veldwezelt and Vroenhoven.

Leading the raid was Flying Officer Donald Garland, 21, and 25-year-old navigator Thomas Gray. As they came within range of the German ground defences they were greeted by an almighty flak barrage. Two of the five Faireys made for the bridge at Vroenhoven, while Garland led the remainder towards Veldwezelt.

Dropping in height from 300 metres to 40 metres, the crews of the Veldwezelt-bound bombers prepared to jettison their 100kg payloads. The crackle of machine guns joined the boom of anti-aircraft guns and two of the Faireys were hit, leaving Garland and Gray to press home the attack. So low was their aircraft that the German gunners could hardly miss. Bullets and shells tore through the Fairey. Smoke began to pour from the stricken fuselage and then, as the bomb was released, the plane fell from the sky.

Garland and Gray were awarded posthumous Victoria Crosses for their part in the attack, which while admirable in its audacity came at a high cost, with only one aircraft returning to base. Nonetheless, the crews had upheld the finest traditions of the Royal Air Force, displaying the same courage and coolness that had been synonymous with their forebears in World War I.

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, it did so from a position of weakness. The British, and the French, had tried to appease Hitler for much of the 1930s, desperate to avoid another world war, whereas the Nazi leader had been preparing for a conflict for several years.

The Luftwaffe had tested itself during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, notably in its destruction of the city in Guernica in 1937, and manufacturing companies such as Junkers, Messerschmitt and Heinkel helped to develop fighter and bomber aircraft far superior to anything that could be fielded by the RAF. What’s more, the Nazis had understood long before their enemies how aircraft and another recent military innovation, the tank, could combine in a new form of warfare they called ‘blitzkrieg’.

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About History Revealed

In this month’s issue… Secrets of the Templars They were the most formidable military order of the middles ages, feared as crusaders and answerable only to the pope. This month we tell the tale of how they fell from grace, and try to unpick their legends from the truth. Plus: the Jarrow March; the RAF and the battle of Britain; Martin Luther King; 26 weird facts surrounding royal births; how to make a mummy; and the crowning of Charles II
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