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Library Reference Number: 156

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Norman M. Brown, Pilot Officer (Ret'd), 41 Squadron, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

The Battle of Britain extending from 10th July to 31st October 1940, was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces. It was the largest and most sustained bombing campaign attempted up until that date. The failure of Nazi Germany to destroy Britain's air defence or to break British morale is considered its first major defeat. While RAF Bomber Command was constantly attacking German preparations to occupy Britain and nightly sinking German invasion barges tined up in ports such as Ostend, Fighter Command's role was also one of high drama. A taste of this highly-charged period may be felt in Norman Brown's earlier story "A Day in the Life of a Spitfire Pilot" (No.97 in Website Library). In the following account, Norman Brown describes how barrage balloons designed to float at low altitudes for defensive purposes could also prove a hazard for RAF planes as well as for enemy aircraft.

In the autumn of 1940 I was stationed at Homchurch with 41 Squadron and took a small part in the rather hectic aerial activities of that memorable year, flying Mk I and 11 Spitfires. The encounter to which I refer was not with enemy aircraft but with a defenceless barrage balloon over Dagenham.

B Flight, of which I was a member was scrambled at daylight that day on an interception patrol. We did not make contact with the raid and were instructed to land at Gravesend airfield as the murk had closed in over Homchurch. We had breakfast there, and our aircraft were refuelled, then shortly afterwards, we were instructed to return to Homchurch as conditions had improved. Our Flight Leader's aircraft failed to start and his place as leader was taken by 'AN. Other' The short flight was uneventful, and it was only when we 'closed up' and the Flight made an abrupt steep turn that I realised that all was not well.

The weather was still quite thick and we had overshot Hornchurch and into the balloons over Dagenham. White still in the turn my starboard wing struck a cable  - not a pleasant discovery. My first instinct was to bale out, but I couldn't for two reasons; I was fully occupied holding the Spitfire straight as it tried to spin round the cable and secondly I could see I was over houses. If I had tried I would almost certainly have killed myself. As it was I struggled hard with the controls and literally 'flew down' the cable with the airspeed falling dramatically. Finally the aircraft stalled and did what I can only describe as a violent flick roll. At this point the cable, I think, broke and tore away part of the wing, and I went into a steep dive. On trying to pull out, the Spit turned over on it's back at about 1000 feet and I thought all was over and I momentarily experienced the most unusual sense of complete tranquillity. I even remember thinking; did the other lads who had been killed have similar experience.

However my efforts to control the Spit had effect, and on getting her the right way up I found that I could stop her turning over again as long as I continued in a shallow dive. At this point I spotted a small housing development site just beyond a railway line, and decided I my only hope was to put her down there. I couldn't reduce my speed as any attempt to lift the nose and the Spit tended to turn over again. My undercarriage was up of course, and I recall automatically going to select flaps down and realising that the airspeed was too high - they may not have worked anyhow. On the other side of the railway line and along the side of the housing site there was a path with high iron railings along which two workmen were running. I aimed to hit the fence, just clear of the men, to reduce my speed, as the site was not very big and there were houses at the far end.

I don't recall much about the impact except that it was very much more violent than a normal 'wheels up' forced landing which I had previously experienced. I was very confused and found myself in almost complete darkness and realised that the Spit was upside down and there was only a little light through the windscreen as it was buried in soil through into which it had ploughed. The most dreadful thing of all was the stench of petrol and I thought that I was about to be barbecued. The canopy had slammed shut - I don't know if I had opened it and there was no way out. What seemed to be about a year later, I heard the sound of digging and found the two workmen I had narrowly missed were busy shovelling the soil from around the canopy. Once clear a hob nailed boot smashed the canopy. I was never so pleased to see a hob nailed boot and I was pulled out after I released my straps.

l was laid on a blanket some women had brought from the nearby houses and plied with cups of tea, and of all things they threw sixpenny pieces onto the blanket, with such remarks as 'he's only a boy.' I found that very amusing and also very moving. I was later informed by the Squadron Leader in charge of that sector of balloons that the one that I had struck was the only one in the group that was not armed. I found out much later that an armed balloon has a subsidiary cable with a parachute at each end which ensures there is no escape. While I was drowning in tea, a Spitfire flew over the site. It was piloted by 'Hawkeye' Wells, a wonderful New Zealander with whom I sometimes shared the task of 'tail end Charlie'. As a result of what he had seen, he had me taken off the Squadron strength on his return to Hamchurch. He very rarely made mistakes, and I am glad that this was one!

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