Awards to Men of the Battle of Britain

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Date of Auction: 20th September 2002

Sold for £15,000

Estimate: £6,000 - £8,000

A classic and emotive Fall of France and Battle of Britain fighter ace’s D.F.C. group of six awarded to Squadron Leader A. F. “Shag” Eckford, Royal Air Force, who flew in Bader’s No. 242 Squadron at the beginning of the Battle and was among the Hurricane pilots of No. 32 Squadron to be memorably captured on film at Hawkinge in the Summer of 1940: one of his victims, a 109 pilot, stood up in a Kentish cornfield with his hands up as Eckford approached

Distinguished Flying Cross, G.VI.R., the reverse officially dated 1940; 1939-45 Star, clasp, Battle of Britain; Air Crew Europe Star, clasp, Atlantic; Africa Star, clasp, North Africa 1942-43; Defence and War Medals extremely fine (6) £6000-8000

Footnote

See Colour Plate VI

D.F.C. London Gazette 24 December 1940. The recommendation states:

‘This Officer has displayed great keenness in his attacks against the enemy both in France and in England. His courage and skill, often in the face of odds, have enabled him to destroy six enemy aircraft.’

Alan Francis “Shag” Eckford was born at Thame Park, Oxfordshire in 1919 and was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham before winning an engineering scholarship to Loughborough College. Entering the Royal Air Force on a short service commission in November 1938, on completion of training he joined No. 32 Squadron, a Hurricane unit based at Biggin Hill, in September 1939. On the Squadron’s strength were two Flight Lieutenants who would shortly gain numerous decorations, and no small degree of fame, for their part in the coming Battle, and afterwards - Peter Brothers and Michael Crossley. Eckford, too, was shortly to gain ace-status and a D.F.C., and to place his signature on the blackboard at the White Hart Inn, Brasted.

He flew his first patrols that December, but the new year witnessed a rapid increase in operational acivity, numerous defensive and convoy escort sorties being carried out between January and April, in addition to a good deal of battle practice. But it was in mid-May 1940 that No. 32 first got to grips with the Luftwaffe, having been ordered to France. Eckford quickly made his first claim to a victory, a Do. 215 at 16,000 feet over Le Cateau:

‘ ... I saw an aircraft, which I believe was a Hurricane, diving vertically in flames and a parachute behind it. An Me. 109 turned towards me and I fired for 3 or 4 seconds head on. His tracer missed up to the right. He passed on my starboard side and continued diving without turning. I had to shake off another Me. 109 on my tail and spun out of turn, losing the other aircraft. I made off towards another machine I saw, which turned out to be a Hurricane, and landed at Le Touquet. I opened fire at about 400 yards, until the other machine passed very close on my starboard side’ (Combat report refers).

No. 32 returned to Biggin Hill a few days later and flew around 10 operational patrols over the Manston sector before the end of the month. Then in early June, Eckford was posted to No. 242 Squadron, a hard-pressed Canadian unit that was taking heavy casualties out in France. Arriving at Chateaudun on the 8th, he became quickly embroiled in the Squadron’s punishing operational agenda, flying several offensive sorties before moving to a new airfield at Le Mans. The following day, after a hair-raising combat, he brought down an Me. 109 over the Seine-Rouen sector. Many years later he wrote:

Incident at Le Mans - June 1940

Jumped by a one-o-nine at fifty yards
thought he was one of our flight
looked back at his spinner through green fire
how he could miss - his shower of shells
just clearing my perspex
panicky, yanked the stick to my guts, kicked
full right rudder, a hundred feet over the trees.

The Hurricane flicked upwards - he was still there
closer - another dizzying flick roll
with the speed dropping right away
fell into a spin at seven hundred
they said - curtains, less than a thousand
the ground rushed up incredibly, a clearing -
knew I was dead in five seconds, thought coldly,
you bloody fool, you’ve done it now
the air gripped the wings again, levelled
out of the dive, below the trees, frozen
saw the German beside me, going faster
now I had him, fumbled the sight switch on
gun button off safe
he turned his head, did nothing
flew into my three second burst -
a shiver of wings, then slowly, slowly
half-rolled, falling inverted
down to a cornfield, dissolved in flames

Etched deep, the film plays
over and over, after forty-eight years
the green-starred terror, the whirling sky
ground rushing up, the cold thought without fear
the boy’s head, so close, the fire in the corn -
a short film, thirty seconds, that’s all.

And so the offensive patrols continued, over Nantes, St. Nazaire and elsewhere, until, mercifully, No. 242 were withdrawn from France on the 18th. Two days later, its exhausted, demoralised and battle-scarred pilots flew in to Coltishall to meet their new C.O., Acting Squadron Leader Douglas Bader. The latter’s forceful character was soon felt by all and he quickly dismissed any doubts about his tin-legged flying capabilities, putting on a spectacular 30 minute session of low-level acrobatics right over the airfield. Red tape, too, was swiftly brushed aside, mounds of paperwork quickly finding its way into the waste-paper basket, and an annoying desk-bound Officer (Equipment) at Fighter Command H.Q. received a memorable Bader-broadside. Far more noteworthy, however, was Bader’s related message to Group:

‘242 Squadron now operational as regards pilots but non-operational repeat non-operational as regards equipment.’

He had barely been with 242 a week. Quite what Eckford and his fellow pilots made of this extraordinary display remains a matter for debate. Certainly they were not amused by their new C.O’s thoughtless jab at the lack of proper shoes, ties and shirts being worn by them - he was quickly informed that most of their clothes had been left in France. But his immediate apology was better received, especially when he sent them all off to a tailor in Norwich at the Air Ministry’s expense.

There can be no doubt, however, that not all of 242’s pilots were willingly fitting into Bader’s required mould, a dogmatic leader that he was. When Eckford and fellow pilots were taken up to lead a formation in dummy attacks, Bader would bark at them ‘like an exuberant mastiff’ if they made any errors. It must have been a difficult experience, most of them having seen far more action than their C.O., but failure to fit in with his future plans meant almost certain transfer. In fact Bader had just such transfers in mind when he first interviewed each pilot on his arrival.

In early July, following a successful meeting with Dowding regarding equipment supply, Bader signalled Group:

‘242 Squadron now fully operational.’

And on the 10th Eckford shot up an He. 111, off Yarmouth, in one of 242’s first interceptions since returning to England:

‘I took-off [as Green Leader, ‘B’ Flight] at 0725 hours to patrol a convoy 12 miles S.E. of Yarmouth. On reaching the convoy, I noticed flashes from a destroyer’s guns, then shellbursts. Two bombs dropped close to the ship and then I saw a Heinkel climbing N. from 1200 feet, my section being at 4000 feet. I followed the E.A. into cloud and lost sight of him until I saw him again about a minute later. I opened fire from astern and above at 300 yards, noticing tracer from the top gun which stopped when I fired. I expended all of my ammunition in one burst, but the E.A. broke away in the cloud. I saw it when I emerged, climbing S.E., leaving a trail of white smoke. I returned to the convoy, picking up Green 2 and 3. I saw another He. 111 approaching. Green 2 gave chase, making three attacks when I lost sight. I returned to convoy patrol and landed at 0855 hours’ (Combat report refers).

Over the next couple of weeks, Eckford participated in another seven operational sorties, but all the while Bader’s personnel changes continued apace, two new Flight Commanders being brought in. Unusually, they were both English, for apart from Bader and Eckford just one other Englishman made up 242’s aircrew strength, Denis Crowley-Milling. But that all changed on the 24 July, when Eckford was posted back to No. 32 Squadron, then at Biggin Hill, and now commanded by Michael Crossley.

The Battle was now in full swing, and the daily demands on Fighter Command ever increasing. The very day after arriving at Biggin Hill, Eckford flew three operational patrols, a daily tally that was repeated four more times that month, often out of forward bases such as Hawkinge. It was here, towards the end of the month, that a cameraman captured some of the most evocative images of the Battle, namely the exhausted pilots of No. 32 Squadron, including Eckford, resting between scrambles. August, of course, was even busier, No. 32’s pilots undertaking a constant flurry of patrols, back and forth between Biggin Hill and their chosen forward bases. And it was on the 18th that Eckford claimed his first ‘double whammy’, a Ju. 88 and a Do. 17. Alfred Price featured the latter aircraft’s fate in his Royal Air Force Yearbook article, Death of a Dornier:

‘Early on the afternoon of 18 August, as a formation of 27 Dornier Do. 17s of Kampfgeschwader 76 were running in to bomb the airfield at Kenley, the Hurricanes of No. 32 Squadron moved into position for a head-on attack. As he closed on the enemy planes, Pilot Officer Alan Eckford worked out his attack plan. “The bombers were stepped up, in close formation. I remember thinking as I was approaching the formation, that if I opened fire at the first one and then gradually lifted my nose and kept the button pressed, several would have to pass through my fire.” The plan failed to take into account the tremendous closing speed of the opposing forces.

Eckford had time for only a short burst at the Dorniers, before he had to push hard on his stick to avoid colliding with his victim. Once he was past the enemy formation he looked back and saw the bomber he had attacked pull into a drunken half roll before falling into a spin.

Lying on his stomach on the floor of the Dornier and manning the rearwards-firing machine-gun, Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Lautersack had heard a crash as Eckford’s rounds rammed into the bomber and saw smoke spurt out of the starboard engine. When the Dornier fell into a spin he was pinned to the floor by G forces. Glancing forwards, he saw his pilot was slumped lifeless against his harness. With a strength born of fear Lautersack inched his way to the escape hatch in the floor of the cabin, pulled the release lever and as the door fell away he tumbled after it. After a long delay he pulled his ripcord and was relieved when the canopy opened with a loud ‘thwack’. The navigator followed him out the hatch, but none of the other crewmen escaped.

At her home at Warren Lane, Hurst Green, Mrs. Doris Addison was in her kitchen preparing Sunday lunch. Her two children and two others who were there for the day had just run into the house chattering excitedly about the formation of German bombers passing overhead. Suddenly there was a loud bang, the house shuddered and from her kitchen window the housewife saw the remains of the Dornier go skidding away across her husband’s smallholding, shedding pieces as it went. As the bomber swept past the building the outer section of the starboard wing was wrenched off, shattering the fuel tank and spewing out petrol which immediately caught fire. She ushered the frightened children into the downstairs bathroom on the opposite side of the house and lifted them out one by one. Firemen were soon on the scene and quickly extinguished the flames.’

In his subsequent work, The Hardest Day, 18 August 1940, Price adds considerable detail to Eckford’s memorable victory. The dead pilot of the Dornier turned out to be Oberleutnant Werner Stoldt, who was leader of the 1st Staffel of Kampfgeschwader 76 - an extraordinary series of photographs depicting the 9th Staffel on its way to Kenley that day also appears in the book. Eckford was back in action for the remainder of the month, shooting up an He. 111 on the 26th.

Then in mid-September, he was posted to No. 253 (Hyderabad) Squadron at Kenley, taking part in two scrambles during his very first day. But the pace got even hotter, the last day of the month culminating in four separate scrambles and patrols. In between all of this activity, on the 27th, Eckford claimed his first victory with the Squadron, a109 over Kent on the 27th:

‘ ... I dived vertically on the E.A. and opened fire at about 300 feet above, observing my tracer entering the machine. The engines started to give off a little white smoke, and the E.A. lost height. I delivered another quarter attack from the port side and broke away upwards. I then attacked from astern, closing to 50 yards and firing at that range, breaking away just behind as the E.A. exploded. The wreckage fell 500 feet into a field in the vicinity of Dullington’ (Combat report refers).

By October, Eckford was not even bothering to enter the nature of his daily sorties in his Flying Log Book, a series of dittos under the word ‘Patrol’ grinding to a halt on the 9th. He was four times called up on the 11th, flew a night patrol over London on the 15th (‘Don’t volunteer when tight again!’), and destroyed another 109 over Kent on the 30th:

‘ ... I attacked the second E.A. of the front pair and saw my tracer entering the fuselage and he turned away and dived. I then attacked the last E.A. with a stern attack. He climbed with a left hand turn which I had no difficulty in following. After firing a burst of 4-5 seconds I observed white smoke coming out, then a little black smoke with flame. The E.A. dived vertically and I followed him through the cloud, the E.A. being slightly faster in the dive. I came out of the cloud at about 3000 feet and saw the wreckage burning in a field about 4 miles south of Meopham, near Gravesend. The pilot had baled out and when I approached he held his hands up. I then returned to base’ (Combat report refers).

November, however, proved to be Eckford’s most successful period, with one destroyed, one shared destroyed, two probables and a damaged. The first of these victims, afterwards assessed as a probable, was an He. 113 over Dungeness on the 5th:

‘ ... I fired a burst at the leader, in a beam attack, and got on his tail, firing a burst of about 5 seconds using no deflection, at 100 yards. The E.A. started to give off white smoke, and I ceased firing. I then noticed a single stream of tracer apparently passing underneath me into the tail of the E.A., and assumed that I was being fired at from behind. However, such was not the case, and I saw the tracer was coming back at me from a fixed gun under the fuselage of the E.A. I then had to take evasive action as another E.A. dived on me, and I lost sight of the first E.A.’ (Combat report refers).

A patrol on the 22nd produced further positive results, Eckford sharing in the destruction of a Do. 17 with Flight Lieutenant R. M. B. Duke-Woolley, and in the damaging of another, both over Newhaven. And on the very next day a brace of 109s met comparable fates, the first of them a confirmed victory following a combat six miles S.W. of Cap Gris Nez:

‘ ... I attacked the last E.A., who was slightly below me, attacking from the beam, changing to astern, range 100 yards. After two bursts of 5 and 3 seconds, the E.A. half-rolled and dived, turning vertically. I was able to counter this evasive action easily and observed flame and smoke. I gave the E.A. a further 5 seconds at 80 yards, as the E.A. straightened out of its dive, and observed that he was well on fire. I then had to take evasive action, as the other 5 E.A. had dived in line astern behind me, and I returned home at 10,000 feet crossing the coast at Dungeness. The E.A. had yellow noses up to the cockpits, and bright grey camouflage’ (Combat report refers).

The second 109, assessed as a probable, Eckford engaged in an afternoon sortie over the Maidstone - Biggin Hill sector:

‘ ... I noticed one E.A. coming towards me and turned on his tail quickly. We then dived steeply straight for the cloud, and I fired three bursts of 2, 4 and 5 seconds approximately. The enemy aircraft disappeared into the cloud emitting white smoke’ (Combat report refers).

Eckford appears to have been notified of the pending award of his D.F.C. on the following day, and No. 253 retired to Acklington for a few days rest. Returning south in early December, he flew another night sortie, over Sevenoaks, on the 21st. The new year found the Squadron allocated to a good deal of convoy escort work, in addition to section scrambles and an increasing number of night operations, work that Eckford undertook for the remainder of his time with No. 253, latterly as a Flight Commander. He also ran into Squadron Leader J. B. E. Nicolson, V.C., during a period of co-operation with Turbinlite Havocs of No. 1459 Flight.

Posted to No. 55 O.T.U. at Usworth in November 1941, where his C.O. and Chief Instructor was Dennis “Hurricane” David, the famous ace, Eckford returned to the operational scene with No. 64 Squadron at Hornchurch in May 1942, having converted to Spitfires. Participating in a number of offensive Rodeos and Circuses in the following month, he transferred to No. 154 Squadron for similar operations in July. That month, among other offensive sweeps, he flew on a Rhubarb operation to Etaples, in which sortie his Wing Leader, the famous ace “Paddy” Finucane, was lost. Casualties were high, too, on a bomber escort mission to St. Omer at the end of the month, Eckford noting in his Flying Log Book the loss of 13 out of 54 participating aircraft.

Then on 19 August, Eckford was credited with damaging a Do. 217 and an Fw. 190 over Dieppe during “Operation Jubilee”, his score being further improved by a probable Fw. 190 five miles south of Dover on the 27th. He had been flying as “Butcher Leader” on an Air Sea Rescue mission, when sector control warned of a pending attack by inbound enemy aircraft from Cap Gris Nez:

‘ ... A few minutes later Red Section was attacked from behind by two Fw. 190s. I turned to port and made a beam quarter attack on one E.A. which was firing at a Spitfire of my section. I observed strikes on the underside with cannon shells and the E.A. gave off a stream of white smoke, diving towards Dover. I was then forced to take evasive action as another E.A. was close behind me, and I did not see the first one again. Yellow 1 saw the E.A. giving off white smoke and diving. I carried out two further attacks on enemy aircraft with M.G. only, but observed no results.’

Two more offensive sweeps were flown over France that month, but September and October proved to be non-operational, probably as a result of the Squadron having to prepare for its onward journey to North Africa, via Gibraltar, that November.

Arriving at Maison Blanche, Algiers on the 8th, No. 154 went quickly into action in support of the Allies’ North African landings, Eckford and fellow pilots busying themselves in the defence of the harbour of Algiers and covering the Army moving rapidly east. On the 12th, having moved to an airfield at Djidjelli, the Squadron was allocated to escort a formation of American C 47s carrying paratroops for the capture of the harbour at Bone. Halfway there, at about 2000 feet, a Do. 217 was spotted, Eckford, and his Wing Leader, Group Captain P. H. “Dutch” Hugo, diving through the C 47s to head off the enemy aircraft. The latter afterwards wrote:

‘ ... This gave Eckford an opportunity to attack and immediately afterwards I opened fire from the starboard. There were strikes all along the fuselage and into the wing root; the starboard engine slowed, was feathered and then stopped. The Dornier rolled quickly over and dived into a narrow, deep gorge leading up to the mountains. The pilot levelled off over the bed of the gorge and started “hedge-hopping” up it, twisting and turning to follow its course. I called Eckford to stop attacking as I could see that having once got in, the Dornier couldn’t get out again flying on a single engine; nor could it maintain height above the rising level of the gorge. The aircraft got slower and slower, there was a spurt of dust as the left wing-tip touched the surface - a pall of dust, debris and bits of wreckage were thrown up as the enemy ploughed to a stop. I reduced speed, put down my flaps and entered the gorge higher up. As I flew slowly down it I could see no sign of life in the tangled wreckage.’

The following day, over Djidjelli, Eckford shared a Ju. 88 with two other pilots, and destroyed another, but was compelled to make a crash landing after the latter combat. And in December he was wounded by flying debris during an attack by 109s on his airfield. In the new year, however, he returned to a busy round of operations, participating in numerous sweeps and bomber escort missions until March 1943, when he was appointed to the command of his old Squadron, No. 242. Between then and late May, when victory in Tunis was celebrated, he led 242 on many sorties, but no further interceptions came his way.

Returning to the U.K. in mid-June 1943, Eckford was employed at the Air Ministry, Whitehall for the rest of the War, gaining advancement to substantive Squadron Leader in July 1944. He did, however, notch up a final flight in a Spitfire from Hendon to Worthy Down and back in September 1943. The Squadron Leader was finally demobilised in February 1946.

Sold with the recipient’s original Flying Log Book, covering the period October 1938 to September 1943, which latter month marked the end of his flying career and appointment to the Air Ministry, Whitehall - a handwritten statement immediately after his last entry states, ‘Certified approx. 100 hrs. flying in 510 Squadron aircraft at Hendon between Sept. 43 and Oct. 45. Aircraft: Proctor I, III & IV, Spitfire VB. Records lost’ ; and two or three original photographs, including one of the famous images from Hawkinge, July 1940.