“Needs Must When The Devil Drives”

“Needs must when the devil drives,” is a phrase coined around 1420. In modern language “needs most” would read “necessity compels” and it delivers the message that evil times often command responses we would rather not consider, let alone make.
That’s the way it was 76 years ago when Great Britain remained the only challenge in the world to the juggernaut of Hitler’s Nazi Germany under orders to crush by air power the tiny fortress.
British historians mark July 10, 1940 as the day the battle started, September 30 as the day it finished. German historians agree on the start date but say it didn’t end until the autumn of 1941.
I remember a summer day in 1940 watching as tiny specks of metal wove inter-twining contrails in a clear blue sky. Once in a while one of the white trails would change to black and the speck of metal would be converted to an aircraft losing height at accelerated speed, sometimes in a shallow dive as a pilot struggled for control; sometimes in fluttering spiral the pilot already dead.
Along with thousands of other civilians scattered across the southern counties of England I was bearing witness to the first great aerial clash in the history of the world with the fate of our country hanging in precarious balance. And we were losing that battle although we never knew that until long after it ended.
In the first nine days of the battle the Royal Air Force (RAF) lost 118 aircraft and almost as many pilots – including 80 Squadron and Flight Commanders – and teetered on the brink of collapse. Not that we who watched from the safety of green fields knew anything about such danger.
If we saw a plane and pilot fall to their death we assumed they were German and the British Broadcasting Corporation confirmed our assumptions each day on the news as it reported the daily losses like cricket scores – and always with the RAF slightly ahead.
We were never told how many replacement pilots were failing to return from first missions after being sent into battle with only 20 hours experience in Hurrricane or Spitfire fighters to combat battle-tested German pilots with skills honed in Spain or the blitzkrieg from Poland to Dunkirk.
Only after it was long over did we realize that close to 20 per cent of the “The Few” who eventually turned the tide from near disaster to victory were foreigners. Some were from Commonwealth countries, many more from countries already occupied by Germany.
Among the first non-Brits to join “The Few” was Josef Frantisek, a Czechoslovakian who had been a fighter pilot since 1938. When Germany occupied his home country in early 1939 he fled to Poland, moved again when Germany conquered Poland, first to France then to England.
He was by all accounts an undisciplined pilot and a danger to his colleagues when flying in formation. He would peel off from the set formation to find his own battles. His first confirmed victory was on September 2, 1940. Before the month ended he had shot down 17 German aircraft. His last “kill” was September 30, 1940. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFC).
Eight days later he was killed as he crashed while attempting to land after a routine patrol. Some say he was doing show off aerobatics to impress his girlfriend; kinder voices say he finally succumbed to battle fatigue. He was one of 87 Czechs who flew with “The Few.”
A total of 147 Polish pilots – 30 of them killed in combat – were with “The Few.” It is estimated that of the 520 RAF pilots killed in the battle, 102 were non-Brits.
More than 100 Canadians fought in the battle, 23 died, three were honoured with the Distinguished Flying Cross. I name just one for no other reason than Flight Lieutenant Howard Peter “Cowboy” Blatchford was the first Canadian of “The Few” to register what historians call “a battle victory.”
From Edmonton, Alberta, he was an “old man” in the squadron when he won his DFC. The citation tells us he was “the leader of a squadron which destroyed eight and damaged a further five enemy aircraft in one day. In the course of the combat he rammed and damaged a hostile fighter when his ammunition was expended, and then made two determined head-on feint attacks on enemy fighters, which drove them off.”
He was shot down and killed on his second “tour of duty” on May 3, 1943 while flying fighter escort to bombers on a mission over Holland.
Most Commonwealth countries plus Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, Ireland and single pilots from Palestine and Jamaica joined “The Few” – and New Zealand sent a best and a worst from down under.
Air Vice-Marshall Keith Park, a Kiwi, controlled the vital Number 11 Group with responsibility for defending South East England. So was Flying Officer B.J.G. Carbury who was named one of the top guns with 12 enemy aircraft shot down including five during one day. He was awarded the DFC in September, 1940, and won an additional bar a month later.
A year later, alas, in November 1941, it was reported in the Evening Post newspaper that “Flying Officer B.J.G.Carbury – DFC and bar – has been dismissed from the RAF. He was found guilty by a court martial of desertion, of wearing badges of the rank of flight lieutenant to which he was not entitled and of ‘behaving in a scandalous manner’ by presenting cheques knowing he had insufficient funds in the bank to meet them. The court-martial recommended he should be cashiered, but this was commuted to dismissal by the King.”
In 1940 “The Few” had room for everybody on a “necessity compels or needs must when the devil drives” basis. And we should be thankful they did and that the occasional rogue was not entirely without honour.
We are grateful to them all – 76 years later.

3 comments

  1. Thanks Jim for reminding us that “the Few” (which included my Uncle Philip Wareing) in the Battle of Britain included Poles, Czechs, Belgians, French, Canadians, etc – indeed, the Commonwealth and Empire countries stood with Britain from the outset of WW2. Growing up next to Northolt RAF base, home of the famous Polish 303 Squadron, I recall as a child how heroic everyone thought of them. And rightly so.

  2. During my military service I had the pleasure of serving with (then) Colonel Doug Lindsay DFC who was a WW2 and Korea “Ace” with five kills in each war. He even took me flying on several occasions in T-33 aircraft – a real treat for a “Pongo”.

  3. Well said Jim, cou ld not agree more. Keep up the good writing, we enjoy all your posts. Cheers, Pete & Alice Chiko., Port Alberni.

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