war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper





The Battle of Britain officially began on Wednesday 10th July 1940, but fierce air combats in the summer skies around Dover regularly raged during the first nine days of that month and RAF fighter pilots were losing their lives or suffering debilitating wounds. The added sadness for these young men is that they were killed ‘too soon’, or declared not fit enough to fly operationally again and thus their names are not found listed with the celebrated ‘Few’ of Fighter Command. Dover remembers with pride and gratitude those who gave all they had to give during the first nine days of July.

German air activity during the early summer across the British Isles was both widespread and varied, mostly concentrated on reconnaissance and sporadic bombing raids resulting in numerous skirmishes with defending RAF fighters. Not to be outdone the Dover anti-aircraft gunners claimed three Dornier Do17 bombers shot down on the opening day of July.

Other targets the Luftwaffe were keen to strike against were the convoys of the Merchant Navy that frequently passed through the Straits of Dover, often with non-existent or minimal Royal Navy protection. The RAF was not willing to mount exhausting constant air cover and could ill afford losing pilots over the sea, but the convoys could not be left to fend off attacks entirely on their own. The confident and thus far all-conquering Luftwaffe nevertheless hoped to entice up the ‘Tommies’ in their Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires for duels to gain air superiority.

On Thursday 4th July a convoy of around nine ships passed within sight of Dover at 2pm and without warning about 20 Dorniers with a large escort of Messerschmitt Me109 fighters arrived and cunningly hung around within sight of the convoy to await a response from the RAF. It soon came as Hurricanes of 79 Squadron based at Hawkinge climbed into the air to tackle the enemy raiders.

Though heavily outnumbered the RAF fighters started to intercept and fire upon the Dorniers, but were then set upon by the Messerschmitts and had to fight hard to defend themselves. Tragically, 25 years old Sergeant Pilot Henry Cartwright (right) from Wigan, already awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal for valiant and successful action over France, was hit high above St. Margaret’s Bay and he plummeted down in his Hurricane into the sea to remain forever ‘missing’. The surviving Hurricanes managed to escape relatively unscathed without claiming any enemy aircraft; one ship in the convoy was hit, but managed to beach itself at Deal.

Three days later on Sunday 7th July further tragedy struck 79 Squadron as another convoy plodded eastwards along the English Channel and it was late into the evening when the merchant vessels passed Dover. Moments earlier 65 Squadron from Hornchurch suffered appalling losses reaped on them by the deadly Messerschmitts, who sent three Spitfires and their doomed pilots to watery graves off Folkestone.

Across the Channel, yet another large formation of Dornier bombers were heading out over the Pas de Calais in preparation to target the convoy when 79 Squadron were ordered up to patrol over Dover at 8,000 feet. Squadron Leader John Joslin (left) aged 24 and originally from Manitoba in Canada, was last to get airborne off the grass at Hawkinge; climbing hard and endeavouring to catch up with his squadron he suddenly came under attack from behind and his Hurricane caught fire. Realising they were being attacked, some of the squadron turned to face the ‘enemy’ but to their horror found Spitfires. In shock they watched their leader fall away in flames and crash into the ground at Chilverton Elms, just to the west of Dover. To add to the tragic circumstances, a national newspaper later reported on the drama of the shooting down of a ‘Messerschmitt’, seemingly unaware it was in fact a much-respected RAF Squadron Leader who had been killed.

The next day and still pondering the awful loss of their Squadron Commander, luck yet again deserted 79 Squadron who set out to patrol the Dover area in the mid-afternoon and found a thick cloud layer. Enemy aircraft were reported in the vicinity but the squadron failed to make any interceptions, and on being ordered to land back at Hawkinge, some Messerschmitt Me109’s sneaked up on the rear of the formation and picked off two Hurricanes.

Pilot Officer John Wood (right) was hit first and he managed to bale out of his blazing and falling fighter to drift down into the sea near Dover on the end of his parachute. A Naval Patrol Boat reached him soon after but sadly found him dead as a result of horrific burns he had sustained.

Flying Officer Edward ‘Tubby’ Mitchell (left) faced an equally appalling demise. His Hurricane also caught fire and possibly due to a damaged canopy he could not bale out and so instead valiantly attempted to fly his stricken fighter back over the coastline. This he succeeded to do and force-landed in a field at Temple Ewell, just to the north-east of Dover; the Hurricane however started to burn fiercely and still trapped in the cockpit unable to move the canopy, the poor RAF pilot was burnt alive and beyond recognition. He could only be identified by the serial numbers stamped on the remains of the Browning machine-guns of the cremated fighter plane.

Both P/O Wood and ‘Tubby’ were later buried in Hawkinge Cemetery, where today they rest side-by-side.

The ill-fortune suffered by 79 Squadron proved not to be the only RAF losses this day in the skies around Dover. Three Spitfires of Blue Section from 610 ‘County of Chester’ Squadron at Biggin Hill were also in action; several miles out to sea from Dover at around 2pm they arrived to conduct a convoy patrol and almost immediately engaged a formation of unescorted raiding Dorniers. The RAF pilots succeeded in spoiling the aim of the Luftwaffe attackers whose bombs fell wide of the convoy, but the defending cross-fire from some of the German gunners caught Pilot Officer Arthur Raven and his Spitfire erupted in flames and fell towards the sea.

The shot down RAF fighter pilot was reportedly seen in the water and attempting to swim, but rescue never came and it is assumed he drowned as he was never found. P/O Raven is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

Later that same afternoon, Spitfires of 65 Squadron were scrambled from Hornchurch to intercept enemy raiders near Dover. The squadron records described what happened as follows: “Squadron Leader Cooke, who was leading the patrol, took his Section through cloud, and when the rest of his Section emerged he was nowhere to be seen; attempts were made to contact him over the R/T, but he was neither seen or heard of again”. It is thought a prowling Messerschmitt was again responsible and yet another ‘missing’ RAF pilot has his name commemorated at Runnymede.

In a twist to this tale, it was planned for Sqn/Ldr Desmond Cooke formally to hand over command of the squadron to Dovorian ‘Sam’ Sawyer, but the events of the day denied this pleasant occurrence. Sqn/Ldr Sawyer’s command of the Squadron was only to last less than a month before he too lost his life in action. His commemoration on Dover’s Virtual Memorial  tells the same tale of compassion and bravery.

Tuesday 9th July was to prove another day of tough pre-Battle of Britain dog-fighting when more pilots of Fighter Command would be killed or wounded and miss by mere hours the accolade to be ‘One of The Few’. Convoy patrols were still making great demands of the RAF throughout the day and into the evening and at just before 7pm, ‘A’ Flight from 54 Squadron consisting of six Spitfires departed Rochford near Southend to patrol around North Foreland.

They met a Luftwaffe Heinkel He59 floatplane in Red Cross markings supposedly tasked in searching for downed aircrew along with a heavy escort of Messerschmitt Me109’s. In the ensuing battle, the Heinkel was forced down damaged upon The Goodwin Sands and two confirmed and two unconfirmed Messerschmitts also fell to the guns of the RAF Spitfires.

However three of the Spitfires were in turn lost during the intense fight with two of them crashing near Manston with the loss of one pilot. The other Spitfire that did not return to Rochford was that being flown by 24 years old Pilot Officer Sydney Evershed from Derbyshire. Unable to escape the withering fire of a Messerschmitt, he was possibly killed inside the cockpit of his aircraft; as the doomed RAF fighter arched down towards the Channel Sea, the pilot made no attempt to escape and residents of Dover watched as yet another brave British airman went hurtling down to a watery grave. P/O Evershed would not be the last. Unbeknown then to both the RAF and their Luftwaffe adversary, the next morning would herald the beginning of the Battle of Britain.

This article first appeared in précised form under the title "Remember the Others" in The Dover Mercury, 30 June 2011. Reproduced with permission

Dean is a volunteer for the Shoreham Aircraft Museum, near Sevenoaks, and super-supporter of The Dover War Memorial Project

Hurricane Mark I Serial Number R4118 by Adrian Pingstone from Wikimedia Commons
Pictures of The "First Few" from the collection of Dean Sumner - from top to bottom, Sergeant Pilot Henry Cartwright, Squadron Leader John Joslin, Pilot Officer John Wood, and Flying Officer Edward ("Tubby") Mitchell
Dornier Do 17, photo from Bundesarchive Bild 1011-342-0603-25 Ketelhohn CC-BY-SA 1940 via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright 2011© Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved