"TURN BACK, TURN BACK!" by Dean Sumner
A Black Day for
Canadian Airmen Trying to Defend Dover
Since mid-August 1940 the Luftwaffe
had launched sustained attacks against key RAF targets like
airfields in southeast and eastern England. Fighter Command had
fought hard to repel the raids but was under severe pressure,
and as the last day of August dawned there would still be no
rest from the enemy onslaught.
Dover had faced many raids since early July, and often in the
sky overhead massed formations of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters
crossed into England on their way to inland targets.
Shortly before 8am on Saturday 31st August, large raids were
detected approaching areas of the Kent coastline, with one raid
consisting of over 100 aircraft seemingly headed straight for
Dover. Sensing this was an early strike to follow-up the
devastating raids of preceding days on Sector airfields like
Biggin Hill, the No.11 Group Controller ordered up two squadrons
of fighters. One of the squadrons receiving the order to
“Scramble” was No.1 Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron based at
Northolt in northwest London.
No 1 RCAF Squadron
No.1 RCAF was Canada’s contribution towards defending the skies
of Great Britain against Hitler’s war machine – equipped with
the dependable Hawker Hurricane, the Canadian fighter pilots,
though relatively inexperienced in combat, were nonetheless
eager to get into the fight and thus far had suffered mixed
fortunes in both losses and victories.
Departing Northolt and climbing hard, the Canadian Hurricanes
had their vector. It was towards Dover and soon they were across
London and racing into Kent, still trying to gain height. In
Dover itself, observers spotted the raiders and endeavoured to
identify them. The large formation looked a little ‘odd’. Indeed
it was, as the Luftwaffe had pulled a trick and sent only
Messerschmitt fighters across The Channel. A frantic signal was
sent to Group Headquarters.
On receiving the message about the large numbers of enemy
fighters and realising that the two RAF fighter squadrons
heading to Dover were going to be at a distinct disadvantage,
the Duty Controller sent a very urgent radio message insisting
that they turn back. One of the squadrons received the call and
turned around to head back to their home airfield, but the other
squadron either failed to receive the message, or if they did,
were slow to react.
The Canadian Hurricanes were now high over Cranbrook in the
Weald of Kent oblivious to the danger ahead, but as events were
quickly to prove, they were not going reach to Dover. Without
warning cannon and machine-gun fire was ripping through the
squadron of Hurricanes – Messerschmitts had dived out of the sun
and caught the Canadians napping.
One of the first Hurricanes hit was P2971 with 26-year-old
Flying Officer George Hyde at the controls. With his RAF fighter
erupting in flames, F/O Hyde from Westmount in Montreal, now far
from home and with his life in peril, wasted little time baling
out of his doomed machine. As the Hurricane fell away
northwards, eventually to crash at Staplehurst, the Canadian
drifted down in his parachute with burns to his face, hands and
legs. Though wounded he would return to duty.
Another one of the surprised Canadian pilots who never saw his
attacker diving on him was Flight Lieutenant Vaughan Corbett,
also from Montreal, but born in Toronto in 1911.
His Hurricane P3869, like that of his colleague, caught fire.
Suffering burns, Flt/Lt Corbett managed to make a hasty exit as
the vanquished RAF fighter hurtled down to crash and burn out at
Biddenden. The injured Canadian landed near a level crossing at
Wittersham Road Station on the Kent & East Sussex Railway (now a
preserved railway line). He too would fly in action again.
The well-aimed fire of the Luftwaffe fighters also riddled the
Hurricane P3858 flown by 29-year-old William ‘Bill’ Sprenger,
from Ontario, but he was spared death or injury and baled out
unscathed to land in his parachute at Ulcombe to the southeast
of Maidstone. His stricken fighter fell to earth a short
distance away within sight of Leeds Castle.
The luckier members of the Canadian squadron twisted and turned
through the sky to avoid their attackers and sought to return to
Northolt as quickly as they could and reflect upon the disaster
inflicted upon them, but the day of drama was far from over.
During the afternoon a delegation
from the squadron had the sombre task of attending the funeral
at Brookwood of their first casualty, Flying Officer Robert
‘Bob’ Edwards who was killed in action five days previously.
Back at Northolt, there was another scramble. In the late
afternoon, the Canadians found a formation of Dornier bombers
escorted by Messerschmitt fighters at 12,000 feet above
Gravesend. Despite the presence of friendly anti-aircraft fire
they attacked the Luftwaffe raiders and managed to inflict some
revenge for the beating they took in the morning from the enemy.
several Messerschmitts and Dorniers fell from the sky, Flying
Officer Jean-Paul Desloges, right, a former ‘Mountie’, got in
too close to one Dornier. His Hurricane received hits from
defensive fire and erupted in flames. Severely burned, the
Canadian from Ottawa managed to bale out before his fighter
crashed at Gravesend. Despite his wounds he would eventually
return to active duty.
The day would prove the costliest for RAF Fighter Command in
aircraft losses during the Battle of Britain with 39 fighters
destroyed or written off in combat. Nine pilots were killed and
a further 21 injured or wounded. Losses suffered by the enemy
were comparable and with the damage being inflicted upon the
airfields in southeast England, Fighter Command was under severe
strain. However, and not for the first time, the Luftwaffe would
soon and inexplicably change tactics and ultimately lose the
battle for supremacy in the air.
Postscript: Though the four Canadian fighter pilots were lucky
to survive that last August day in 1940, tragically none of them
were to see the end of the Second World War.
Sprenger, after escaping his doomed Hurricane went
straight back on operations, but he sadly died on 26th November
1940 when his fighter crashed in unknown circumstances next to
Loch Lomond during an anti-aircraft co-operation flight. He was
buried at the Vale of Leven Cemetery in Dunbartonshire,
recovering from his wounds, George Hyde, went on to serve
as a Flight Lieutenant with 402 RCAF Squadron, but was killed in
a flying accident on 17th May 1941. He was laid to rest in
Scopwick Church Burial Ground in Lincolnshire.
‘Paul’ Desloges rose through the ranks becoming a Wing Commander
serving in North Africa only to lose his life in a flying
accident on 8th May 1944. He was interred in the Dely Ibrahim
War Cemetery, Algeria.
Pilots Hyde, Christmas, Corbett, Beardmore, Edwards, and
Vaughan Corbett returned to operational duty with No.2 RCAF
Squadron in January 1941 as a Flight Commander. The Squadron was
re-numbered 402 (Winnipeg Bears) RCAF Squadron in March and he
took command the following month. Later in the year the squadron
embarked on cross-Channel operations and after a successful tour
he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in February 1942 and
in July returned to Canada. The citation for his DFC read as
“This officer has led his squadron on numerous bomber escorts
over enemy occupied territory in France. Throughout, he has
displayed great skill and leadership which have undoubtedly
played a large part in the splendid protection afforded to the
bomber formations. During these operations, Squadron Leader
Corbett has destroyed at least 1 enemy aircraft and damaged
several others. He has also participated in numerous low flying
attacks on enemy territory during which his tactical ability and
fine fighting spirit have proved an inspiration. This officer,
who fought in the Battle of Britain, has always displayed the
On 20th February 1945, with the rank of Group Captain, Vaughan
Corbett lost his life in a flying accident and was buried at the
city of his birthplace, Toronto (St. James’) Cemetery.
first appeared in The Dover Society Newsletter No 74, for July
Dean is a volunteer
for the Shoreham Aircraft Museum, near Sevenoaks, and
super-supporter of The Dover War Memorial Project
with George Hyde at Scopwick is an American airman who served
with the RCAF; 19-year-old Pilot Officer John Magee. He was
killed on 11 December 1941 in a mid-air collision. His poem
"High Flight" became widely known. John Magee's mother was
British, and he was educated in England between 1931-39, for the
first four years at a school near Walmer, Kent.
Illustrations from the collection of Dean Sumner