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Upside down and nothing on the clock in the Battle of Britain


For most people, the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 was all fighters whooshing over the sunlit blue skies of southern England. It was in many ways a very public battle eagerly watched by thousands of anxious spectators far below and even captured on film to be seen by millions more around the globe. Yet for the hundreds of young airmen of Bomber Command, it was very different. For them, the sky was most often pitch black and hostile, their battle unseen and largely unrecognised.

In late October 1940, the Blenheims of 18 Squadron were out over Germany and as F/O J. A. Douch groped his way to the marshalling yards at Hamm, he could find little polite to say about the flying conditions. Cruising high above the plateau of cloud in clear, moonlit air, he warned his crew to keep an eye out for night fighters which were now found regularly over frequently visited targets. Following the instructions given by the Observer Sgt Parr, Douch began a gradual descent through the clouds towards the estimated location of the target. With his eyes firmly fixed on the unwinding altimeter, Sgts Parr and Barrett peered out into the murk enveloping them, scanning all around for any sign of flak, fire, the ground or, indeed, anything.

Douch was down to just 1,000ft before the Blenheim poked its nose out of the cloud, leaving scant seconds as a margin of error. The rain lashing the aircraft did little to help things and Parr had a terrible job attempting to match what he could see of the ground flashing by with the map in front of him. Suddenly, Barrett reported that a deadly layer of ice was rapidly forming all over the surfaces and estimated it to already be a half an inch thick on his turret. Almost simultaneously, Parr identified a railway line and called for Douch to turn right to follow it. He did so only to discover that there was nothing he could do to stop the Blenheim from going into a steeper and steeper turn, eventually flipping right over and heading earthwards only a few seconds air time beneath them.

Just as suddenly, the controls became responsive as the ice broke off and the Blenheim lurched back onto an even keel. With the interior a shambles as the loose articles settled randomly in accordance with gravity, Douch made a gentle climb to gain vital height but ran straight back into ice-bearing cloud which reduced visibility to nil as it latched on to his windscreen. The aircraft alternately sank and rose as it became coated with and then shed its white and lethal blanket. It took quite some time before the aircraft broke out into the clear air above the cloud and when it did, Douch decided to give it up as a bad job and headed home, his bombload intact.

No glory, no fanfare and precious little appreciation. Just gut-wrenching terror and a courageous determination to do one’s duty in the face of terrible danger, both man-made and natural. Hardly worth even shooting a line at the bar.

By Paul Tweddle

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