On 2 September 1939, 70 years ago this month, No 1 Squadron at RAF Tangmere was ordered to standby for France. On the morning of the 8th came the order to depart and as No 43 Squadron watched, the No 1 Squadron Hurricanes took-off in sections of three to form-up overhead. No 73 Squadron arrived and had just time to disperse around the aerodrome when two other Hurricane squadrons appeared, to refuel before crossing the Channel.
These Hurricane squadrons were destined to either support the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) which comprised Fairey Battle bombers or the Air Component of the Field – the force that supported the BEF army. During the autumn and bitterly cold first winter of the war, the Fairey Battles, often flew without fighter cover and were mauled by the German Bf 109s, resulting in their operations being restricted to night missions. The Hurricanes flew patrols over the allied lines and attempted to shoot down the high flying reconnaissance Do 17s and He 111s. Encounters between the Hurricanes and the Bf 109s in the spring of 1940 were rare but this was to change from 10 May when German forces launched their Blitzkrieg (lightning war).
At first light on 10 May 1940, Luftwaffe Heinkels and Dorniers, escorted by Bf 109s and Bf 110s, bombed their primary targets – the bases, depots and landing strips of the Allied forces in Belgium, France and Holland. Surprise was complete and the attacks very successful. The British Air Force in France requested immediate reinforcements and on the first day of Blitzkrieg Nos 1 and 73 Squadrons of the AASF were reinforced with Nos 3 and 79 Squadrons and two days later by No 504 Squadron. For the first five days of Blitzkrieg the Hurricanes could only defend their own airfields. In the days that followed, the squadrons were forced to make hasty withdrawals, in the face of the German advance, to new bases further west.
On 20 June the order was given for all RAF squadrons to withdraw back to England. The Battle of France was over – between 10 May and 20 June the RAF had lost 944 combat aircraft, including 386 Hurricanes and 67 Spitfires.
Following the battle, Tangmere’s No 1 Squadron was awarded 10 DFCs and 3 DFMs.
CHRIS GOLD’S PICTURE ENTITLED ‘FAIR STANDS THE WIND FOR FRANCE’, SHOWING No 43 SQUADRON WATCHING No 1 SQUADRON HURRICANES LEAVING FOR FRANCE CAN BE SEEN IN THE MUSEUM’S PICTURE GALLERY IN THE TANGMERE HALL