The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.
Ground forces of the United Kingdom were shattered in 1940, along with those of her French, Indian, Moroccan, Polish, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch allies. The hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small were all that stood before unmitigated disaster.
338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France. Defeated but still unbeaten, these would live to fight another day.
In 1940, the island nation of Great Britain stood alone and unconquered, defiant in the face of the Nazi war machine. In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to follow, as Adolf Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union.
After the allied armies were hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”. Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period as only he could, when he said that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
The “so few” to whom the Prime Minister referred, were the 2,342 British aircrew of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the 595 international air crews who were her allies, in the “Battle of Britain“.
John Connell Freeborn was a pilot with the RAF, and a good one, too. Credited with 13½ enemy aircraft shot down, Freeborn flew more operational hours during the Battle of Britain, than any other pilot, ending the war with a Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, and completing his RAF career as a Wing Commander. Yet, there is a time when every hero is as green as the grass. In the beginning, John Freeborn like everyone else, were rank amateurs.
On the third day of the war, September 6, 1939, air combat experience was precisely, zero. Very few had so much as seen a German aircraft, when a squadron of Mk IIB Hawker Hurricane fighters took off from North Weald Air Base after an early morning air raid alert. Two reserve Hurricanes left shortly afterward, piloted by Montague Hulton-Harrop and Frank Rose.
Something went wrong, and the two reserves were identified as enemy aircraft. Three Spitfires from Hornchurch, Essex were ordered to attack. Commanding officer of the flight, Adolph “Sailor” Malan, gave the order to engage. Flying Officer Vincent ‘Paddy’ Byrne opened fire on Rose’s aircraft, as Pilot Officer John Freeborn attacked Hulton-Harrop.
Both aircraft were shot down. Rose survived, but Hulton-Harrop was dead before he hit the ground, shot through the back of his head. He was the first RAF pilot to die in the second World War. In another unfortunate first, this was the first time any aircraft had been shot down by a Spitfire.
At the ensuing court martial, Malan testified for the prosecution, against his own pilots. He claimed that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken heed of vital communications. As for Freeborn himself, his attorney, Sir Patrick Hastings, called Malan a “bare-faced liar”.
As an interesting aside, Hastings’ co-counsel for the defense was Roger Bushell, who was later incarcerated with Paddy Byrne at Stalag Luft III. Roger “Big X”Bushell became the mastermind of the “Great Escape“, in which he and seventy-five other allied prisoners escaped Stalag Luft III via three tunnels, dubbed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. Bushell was caught along with Bernard Scheidhauer, while waiting for a train at the Saarbrücken railway station, and murdered by members of the Gestapo. Only three of the 76, escaped to freedom.
The court exonerated both Spitfire pilots, ruling the case to be an unfortunate accident.
Richard Hough and Denis Richards wrote about the episode in The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II, saying “This tragic shambles, hushed up at the time, was dubbed in the RAF ‘the Battle of Barking Creek’ – a place several miles from the shooting-down but one which, like Wigan Pier, was a standing joke in the music halls.”
The “Wigan pier” joke has to do with an inland industrial town, as if such a place could possess a pier, like some seaside pleasure resort.
Many years later, Freeborn spoke of the first RAF pilot to die in WW2, the man he himself had killed in a “friendly fire” incident. “I think about him nearly every day”, he said. “I’ve had a good life, and he should have had a good life too”.