IT IS SEPTEMBER 1940, AND THREE YOUNG PILOTS ARE TRYING TO BE NONCHALANT, play it cool, not look at the camera as they sit outside Nissen huts at RAF Fowlmere, an airfield little more than a large working farm with a grass runway used as a satellite for RAF Duxford where No. 19 Squadron RAF – their parent squadron and the first to be equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire fighter – also operated from.
But there is a hint of devilment in the smiles and the studious attention to their reading matter – a folded page from a newspaper, more of which lies on the floor and a aviation magazine.
Perhaps they are sharing a joke at the photographer’s expense, muttered just loud enough for him to hear.
It does not matter.
One of their number Sub-Lieutenant (Air) Arthur Giles Blake – a pilot with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and nicknamed ‘Admiral’ after Admiral Robert Blake, the 17th century English naval commander – would be shot down and killed on 29 October in the last days of what would became known as the Battle of Britain.
Blake was one of twenty-three pilots from the Royal Navy who flew with their Royal Air Force colleagues during that period.
The contribution of the Royal Navy pilots is sometimes overlooked. They served in a dozen different RAF fighter squadrons while two Fleet Air Arm squadrons – No. 804 Fleet Air Arm, and No 808 FAA – operated in the north of Scotland using naval Gloster Sea Gladiator, Grumman Martlet and Fairey Fulmar aircraft.
In all some fifty-six Royal Navy and Royal Marine pilots would take part in the battle which lasted officially from 10 July to 31 October 1940. During that period seven naval flyers – including Arthur Blake – would be killed and two others wounded. (1)
On the afternoon that he died Blake was on his third patrol of the day over Kent, having taken off initially at 1040 before landing at 1210, only to be airborne again at 1330 before landing again at 1515.
None of the aircraft from No.19 Squadron RAF that took off on the these first two flights – twelve each time – engaged the enemy.
A casualty was narrowly avoided when a ‘Pilot Officer Vokes’ passed out through lack of oxygen at 25,000 feet. He regained consciousness with his aircraft in a spin at 6,000 feet above the ground. However his aircraft would play a part later.(2)
But an hour later their luck changed.
According to the Squadron’s Operational Record Book held at the UK National Archives,
‘Some members of our Squadron saw about 7 Me 109’s (sic) above us.
It was unfortunate that we could not attack them as it is probable that some them attacked S/Lt Blake who was doing search behind the Squadron‘.
The same account continues: (3)
‘It is a great loss to the Squadron as he was very well liked by all as well as a pilot of exceptional ability’
His although he was attacked over Kent or South London his Spitfire – not R6889 the aircraft he had been flying earlier in the day, but an older aircraft P7423, the aircraft that Pilot Officer Vokes had experienced oxygen problems in that morning – crashed at Chelmsford, Essex, some distance from where he was set upon.
Interestingly R6889 was fitted with heavier armament than the standard Spitfire MK 1 and arrived on the squadron on 5 October. It achieved its first victory with No. 19 Squadron in the hands of Flight Lieutenant Lawson a month later. (4)
Today he lies with twenty-one other servicemen from both World Wars at St Mary’s Churchyard, Langley Marish, near Slough in Berkshire, England. He was 23 years old. (5)
During his time with the Squadron Sub-Lieutenant Blake accounted for four enemy aircraft destroyed, two more damaged an a share of another. (6)
On Sunday 15 September 1940 – on what has become known and celebrated in the United Kingdom as Battle of Britain Day, Sub-Lieutenant Blake was credited with a victory and at around 1500 that day he was shot down by a Messerschmidt bf 109. Although his Spitfire was damaged Blake was unhurt. (7)
‘Pilot Officer Vokes‘ – the pilot who become unconscious through oxygen failure and recovered his aircraft from a spin at lower altitude (Air 27/252/26 and Air 27/252/27) – was Arthur Frank Vokes. Amongst other things he would be become commander of ‘A’ Flight, No. 19 Squadron. He died on 5 September 1941 (although at least one reference gives the following day) while on a routine flight ferrying an aircraft between two RAF stations. (8) (9)
Of the two other pilots in the photograph above, Scotsman Wallace Cunningham was shot down over Rotterdam Harbour on 28 August 1941. Captured, he remained a prisoner of war and died on 4 October 2011 in Scotland. (10) (11)
New Zealander Noel Brinsden also survived the Second World War. Like Cunningham he was captured after having crashed his De Havilland Mosquito on 17 August 1943.
Flying as support to the heavy bombers on Operation HYDRA (the attack on the Peenemünde research site) Brinsden decided to attack the Luftwaffe airfield on the island of Sylt at low level. Having made a successful attack on hangars at low level, he was temporarily blinded by a searchlight and with his night vision badly affected struck the nearby water. Both he and his navigator took to their dingy but were taken prisoner when the wind blew them ashore.
After his release at the end of the war, he commanded No. 3 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit, one of a number of such RAF teams that attempted to trace and identify the bodies of RAF personnel killed over Western and Central Europe. He retired as a Wing Commander in 1966 and died in Australia in 1993. (12) (13)
(1) https://www.fleetairarmoa.org/Content/sites/FAAOA/pages/178/FAA_amp_BoB.PDF – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(2) Air 27/252/27 -file held by UK National Archives
(3) Air 27/252/26 -file held by UK National Archives
(4) https://allspitfirepilots.org/aircraft/?page=1419# – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(5) https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2706583/blake,-arthur-giles/ – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(6) http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/BlakeGA.htm – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(7) http://blogs.iwm.org.uk/historic-duxford/category/second-world-war/19-squadron/ – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(8) http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Vokes.htm – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(9) https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2763701/vokes,-arthur-frank/ – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(10) http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/CunninghamW.htm – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(11) https://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary_wallace_cunningham_dfc_one_of_churchill_s_few_the_first_glasgow_airman_awarded_the_dfc_in_the_second_world_war_1_1902495 – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(12) http://bbm.org.uk/airmen/Brinsden.htm – retrieved 20 November 2019.
(13) https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/record/C120972 – retrieved 20 November 2019.
My thanks to my volunteer colleague Tim Mansfield who suggested the idea for this post.