Awards to Men of the Battle of Britain

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Date of Auction: 20th September 2002

Unsold

Estimate: £2,800 - £3,200

Four: Flight Lieutenant F. C. “Freddie” Sutton, Royal Air Force, a very gallant Air Gunner who survived ‘the massacre of the Defiants’, an extraordinary encounter with Galland’s 109s over Kent on 28 August 1940 resulting in him claiming one destroyed and two damaged: two more enemy aircraft fell to his guns in later night fighter operations

1939-45 Star, clasp, Battle of Britain; Air Crew Europe Star; Defence and War Medals clasp side-carriages fitted with slide-on devices, very fine (4) £2800-3200

Footnote

Frederick Charles “Freddie” Sutton joined the Royal Air Force in April 1940 with a direct entry commission as an Air Gunner. Completing his course in the following month, he attended No. 5 O.T.U. at Aston Down, converted to Defiants, and joined No. 264 Squadron at Kirton-in-Lindsey in mid-July 1940.

Teaming up with Pilot Officer Peter Bowen as his pilot, he flew his first patrols later that month, but it would be on 21 August that No. 264 went into true frontline service at Hornchurch, and afterwards at Manston. It proved to be a short commission: just one week later, only three of the Squadron’s aircraft remained serviceable, eleven having been lost in action and fourteen crew members killed. As Richard Collier so rightly observed in Eagle Day, ‘the massacre of the Defiants was complete.’ And the reasons for that massacre, other than Dowding being compelled to call upon 264’s services as a result of heavy losses, were plain enough:

‘A two-seater fighter with an unwieldly power-operated gun-turret, the Defiant’s Dunkirk success had been the merest fluke: no Luftwaffe pilot had then met a “Hurricane” boasting a rear-gunner. But the surprise had been minimal. Within weeks the Germans knew the Defiant for what it was: a humped-backed non-starter, lacking all forward armament, with a maximum speed of 304 miles an hour. Since the pilots relied solely on their gunners’ verbal instructions to manoeuvre into a firing position, they were almost powerless against frontal attack.’

To such stark statistics it should be added that Air Gunners like Sutton had another problem. If the Defiant’s electrical wiring was damaged, the power-operated turret jammed and the gunner could not bale out.

Sutton, in common with the other aircrew of No. 264, first discovered that the Squadron had been selected for a frontline role on the morning of 20 August, their C.O., Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, telling them not to worry about kit - “Just stuff a toothbrush in a parachute bag.” The following day they all flew south to Hornchurch and on the 24th the massacre commenced, amidst an enemy attack on Manston to which No. 264 had been despatched to defend. Eagle Day takes up the story:

‘At Manston, No. 264 Defiant Squadron felt the full impact of this new tempo. Not long after 5 a.m. on August 24, they’d been ordered home by their base, Hornchurch, to furnish Manston’s fighter cover - a near-insuperable task for an aircraft whose rate of climb barely exceeded 2,000 feet a minute. Yet in the first shattering attack, only one section, under Flight Lieutenant John Banham, even had time to climb. As Banham’s section circled on sentry-go, three other sections were on the ground refuelling.

Then, as seven Defiants prepared to take off anew, came the emergency Fighter Command dreaded most: twenty Ju. 88 dive bombers, with a powerful fighter escort, hurtled from the early morning mist, their bombs falling in black ugly salvoes amongst the taxi-ing planes. Above the howling confusion of the attack, one clamour rose, more deadly than the rest - the clanging of machine-gun bullets raining on the fighters’ wings and noses.

Aloft the confusion was as great. Flying Officer Peter Bowen [with Sutton aboard], in the nick of time, realised the 109s were on a reciprocal course; he was due to meet them head-on. Miraculously, there were no collisions; at a converging speed of 600 miles an hour, the fighters flew clean through the Defiant formation, neither side firing a shot. To his eternal surprise, Flight Lieutenant Banham found himself diving with the bombers, hauling both feet on to the control column to keep level. Pilot Officer Eric Barwell, trying for a nose-shot, turned so steeply he blacked out his gunner. Caught up in his first sortie, Pilot Officer Desmond Hughes saw the looming black crosses and thought: This is it. They really do come over here.

One Defiant Pilot, Flight Lieutenant E. W. Campbell-Colquhoun, was as confused as any; promoted to command a flight after one trip in a Defiant, he couldn’t even identify the buttons and switches on his instrument panel. Within minutes, thus preoccupied, he’d joined formation with three Me. 109s, whose cannon shells exploded his Very cartridges. Choking with smoke, his Defiant alive with bouncing coloured balls, Colquhoun touched the plane down somehow, pelting for a slit trench.

Within the hour, he heard the worst news yet; his C.O., Squadron Leader Peter Hunter was dead, shot down pursuing the raiders across the Channel, and two other Defiants were missing. The five-minute skirmish had cost 264 Squadron six men, three machines - and soon they must face the Germans again ...’

Bowen and Sutton, too, had somehow managed to getback to the airfield, but it was like jumping out of a frying pan into the fire. The latter ‘couldn’t believe his eyes; as bombs tore up the airstrip, men ducked beneath petrol bowsers, seemingly too dazed with shock to realise the danger.’

And worse was to follow in No. 264’s clash with Galland’s 109s over Kent on 28 August, a chapter of the Battle that is repeatedly the subject of relevant histories, Eagle Day being no exception:

‘It was now 8.30 a.m. At heights ranging from 16,000 to 21,000 feet, 159 German planes slid unopposed across the coastline of North Kent: 120 of Galland’s fighters escorting thirty-nine bombers. Now the two transformations parted: the Dorniers of the 3rd Bomber Group swung north-west for Rochford airfield, the Heinkels turned west for Eastchurch. Beneath the Heinkels, Galland bored on. Abruptly, over Ashford, Kent, his eyes narrowed behind his goggles. Nobody warned him that Stukas would be part of this formation.

It was a second before he spotted them for what they were: eleven British two-seater fighters, flying in close formation just below the Heinkels, closing in to attack from astern. At any moment the four Browning machine-guns in their power-operated turrets would be raking the Heinkels’ bellies.

It was now or never. Slamming his throttle forward, Galland hauled back on the control column. Momentarily G clamped him to his seat, then he was blazing upwards, followed by his staff flight of three, and the too-tight Defiant formation, at the Messerschmitts’ mercy, scattered and broke.

Scrambled so hastily most were still wearing pyjamas, few of the Defiant crews ever stood a chance. At the rear of the formation, Pilot Officer Freddie Sutton, left elbow over the high speed button, threw his turret from side to side, blazing away at the hurtling 109s - then, as one fell like a torch, the world spun before his eyes.

Suddenly, his pilot, Peter Bowen, had turned the plane upside down, and now centrifugal force was crushing Sutton’s neck and spine against the turret’s roof. Very pistol, cartridges, the axe for cutting trapped gunners loose, floated crazily past his eyes. Dimly Bowen’s voice came: “Hit - fire - jump.”

But Sutton hadn’t even power to raise his hands to the release catches on the turret doors; the whistling roar in his ears threatened to burst his head apart. Icy sweat bathed his body and he screamed hoarsely, in pain and fear.

Miraculously, after an inverted spin of 10,000 feet, Bowen brought the fighter under control, to find the fire in the engine nacelle had blown out. The Defiant was flying straight and level, and Bowen was heading hard for Rochford ...’

The following day the shattered remnants of the Squadron were withdrawn to Kirton-in-Lindsey, now led by a 20 year old Pilot Officer. One pilot sent for his wife to motor him to Kirton - his hands were shaking so much he couldn’t even light a cigarette, let alone drive a car.

For his own part, Sutton was able to claim two damaged enemy aircraft in addition to one destroyed and, no doubt, found time to discuss tactics with a fellow Squadron Air Gunner who had just arrived at No. 264, one Pilot Officer Sydney “Timbertoes” Carlin, the indomitable one-legged, ex-cavalryman and Great War fighter ace, who held the unique distinction of being permitted to wear either his pilot’s wings or Air Gunner’s brevet on his uniform, in addition to the ribands of the M.C., D.F.C. and D.C.M. The 50 year old Carlin would fly operationally before the end of the Battle, but was sadly killed in an enemy raid during his next posting to No. 151 Squadron at Kettering in the following year.

Now re-mustered as a night fighter unit, No. 264 flew many patrols between September and December 1940, but interceptions were few, Sutton sharing this frustration on at least a dozen occasions. The year ended with a visit to 307 (Polish) Squadron, Sutton and fellow 264 hands passing on valuable knowledge for the Poles forthcoming operational agenda. The advent of 1941 brought renewed hope and following many hours on training exercises, Sutton and his fellow aircrew embarked on a successful period of night fighter operations, including intruder sorties.

On the night of 8 April 1941, and now flying with Squadron Leader P. J. Sanders, he brought down an He. 111 over Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The pair of them had taken off in a Defiant from Biggin Hill at 20.20 hours, and having gained height over Beachy Head, they were vectored towards an inbound enemy aircraft at 16,000 feet. A long chase ensued, Sanders requesting that the local A.A. defences be shut down after a few close squeaks, soon after which the raider was sighted at 500 yards range. Sanders closed to 350 yards and Sutton fired a two second burst, seemingly to no effect, the He. 111 maintaining course. But Sutton’s second attack, from just 50 yards range, was more telling, the raider turning over and falling earthward. Their victim was He. 111 H-5 of III/KG 26, piloted by Leutnant Julius Tengler, a 25 sortie veteran who was on his way to Coventry. The Heinkel crashed near Bendish, Hitchin and only one crew member escaped unhurt - three were badly wounded and another killed.

Little, however, remains known about their next victim, brought down on the night of 11 May 1941, excepting it was another He. 111 and, according to Sutton’s Flying Log Book, a ‘Flamer.’ By the time he ended his operational tour with No. 264 in May 1942, latterly with Squadron Leader C. A. Cooke at the controls, he had flown no less than 60 night sorties, including another interception off Brighton - ‘Chased hun at 500 feet out to sea ... Lost him in cloud.’ He had also been on an operational footing for nearly two years without respite, a long overdue posting as a Gunnery Instructor finally coming through in October 1942, when he sailed for Canada. Sutton ended the War as a grounded Flight Lieutenant back in the U.K., at R.A.F. Penrhos, and was released in late 1945.

In later life a manager with the National Westminster Bank, Sutton founded the Air Gunner’s Association.

Sold with the recipient’s original Flying Log Book, covering the period April 1940 to September 1944; and a selection of post-war documentation, including his Battle of Britain Fighter Association membership card and correspondence concerning his wartime memoir, We Defy, a title that appears to have remained unpublished.