Anzacs and the Battle of Britain: author interview with Adam Claasen

Running from early July to the end of October, the Battle of Britain ended in the failure of the Luftwaffe to gain air supremacy over the UK. The German invasion of Britain was called off and Hitler turned his attention to the Soviet Union instead.

Together Australian and New Zealand airmen made up the second largest Allied foreign contingent in the battle. Their story has been told fully for this first time in Dogfight by Adam Claasen, Senior Lecturer in History at Massey University. In recognition of the 75th anniversary of the battle we spoke to Adam about its Anzac connections.

134 New Zealanders and 37 Australians fought in the Battle of Britain. How do their experiences add to the overall story of this pivotal event of the Second World War?

It’s a story that has never been brought together before. There has been the odd book either side of the Tasman but this is the first time the New Zealand and Australian experience has been combined and told within the four phases of the Battle of Britain.

What I discovered was that the Anzacs had a significant part to play in combat and a larger role in leadership. The Anzacs nearly made up a third of the top ten aces of the campaign and became widely known: Colin Gray and Brian Carbury from New Zealand and Pat Hughes for the Australians. Gray, Carbury and Hughes knocked out close to fifty machines in total over some four months.

Air Marshal Keith Park performed magnificently under very difficult conditions, notably a lack of trained airmen. His leadership and strategy at the time is widely seen as instrumental in the eventual success of Fighter Command the failure of Hitler to gain air ascendancy as a perquisite to an invasion of Britain.

A number of these Anzacs flew Boulton Paul Defiants with 141 and 264 Squadrons. How did this two seater fighter aircraft compare with the with the famous Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane?

The Boulton Paul Defiant was a strange beast. Officially it was know as an ‘interceptor aircraft’ but popularly known as a ‘turret-fighter.’ It looked very much like the Hurricane but with the important addition, directly behind the pilot, of a powered turret armed with four Browning machine guns. In a way, it harked back to the successful two-man fighters of the Great War, for example, the Bristol F.2 Fighter.

Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I. Date [circa 1940]
Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I. [circa 1940], Wikipedia

However, the Defiant was no match for the Luftwaffe single engine fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, because it suffered from two principle impediments: first, a lack-luster climb rate and poor maneuverability due to the added weight of the turret; and, second, it was not equipped with forward firing guns. Once Luftwaffe airman had gotten over the initial surprise of a backward-firing fighter they simply attacked it from below or head on.

Eventually they were withdrawn from the frontline of the Battle of Britain, but not before a number of men were killed in these ill-fated machines, including the youngest New Zealander to lose his life in the battle, eighteen year old Lauritz Rasmussen, a Defiant gunner. In the pre-war period, Winston Churchill had strongly advocated that Fighter Command to be equipped with large numbers of Defiants but mercifully wiser heads prevailed and only two squadrons saw the light of day.

Aviators seem to like clubs – there is the Caterpillar Club for this who have bailed out using a parachute, the Goldfish Club for those who have been rescued from the sea and the Guinea Pig Club for those burns victims treated by Archibald McIndoe. Did many Anzacs become part of these clubs during the Battle of Britain?

I don’t have exact numbers for the first two clubs, Caterpillar and Goldfish, but I’m pretty sure that we only had one New Zealand Battle of Britain Guinea Pig Club member, John Fleming and one Australian, Richard Hillary.

Both these Hurricane pilots suffered horrific burns. Fleming’s legs were so badly burnt that initial advice was that they should be amputated and Hillary hands and face revealed bone in places. Hillary’s forehead, eyelids and lips had to be reconstructed from skin grafts from inside his left arm. Fleming’s burns were treated with saline baths that MacIndoe helped to popularise as a treatment for wide spread burns.

The Dunedin-born MacIndoe revolutionized plastic surgery for burns victims and made him a hero to the Guinea Pigs who were able to reenter the world with a degree of confidence thanks to his work and care.

As for the Caterpillar and Goldfish Clubs it was always possible to become a member of both of these in a single mission. John Gibson of New Plymouth Boys’ High School bailed out of his aircraft over land only to drift out over the Channel. Clearly this entitled him to membership of the Caterpillar and Goldfish Clubs.

He was also awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for this action. Gibson had not only shot down an enemy aircraft before being hit himself, but bravely stayed with his burning aircraft in order to direct it away from a town before baling out at only 1000 feet. Gibson ‘hit the silk’ on four occasions during the battle.

You say towards the end of the book that “the Battle of Britain was significant out of proportion to its limited duration and relatively small number of participants”. How important is the Battle of Britain to New Zealand?

If you mean how ‘important’ was it to New Zealand’s immediate security in 1940, then probably not a lot. The greater threat would not appear until late 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

But for the British Commonwealth, the future course of the war and the post-war world, it was very important. As part of the Commonwealth we shared in its success and failures and until the Battle of Britain, the failures had been numerous. The evacuations from Greece, Crete, Norway and France were a long line of humiliations. The Battle of Britain represented the first time Hitler’s advances had been checked.

With the second largest contingent of foreign airmen in Fighter Command, New Zealand played a limited but notable part in the fighting, while Thames-born Sir Keith Park was an astute and inspiring leader at the forefront of the battle. Britain’s successes were our successes.

Of course, Britain’s survival made possible D-Day, which, in turn, liberated western Europe from the Nazi jackboot and ensured that Communism would not dominate all of Europe in the succeeding decades.

What books have inspired you?

In terms of Second World War non-fiction story telling, Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: An Extraordinary True Story of Courage and Survival. This book is engaging, traumatising and redemptive. I could hardly put it down once I had a couple of pages under my belt. Some moments are simply emotional gut punches.

Cover of The most dangerous enemyWith regards to the Battle of Britain, the two best books for my money are Stephen Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain, and Patrick Bishop, Fighter Boys: Saving Britain. The former gives a real solid and thorough reassessment of the campaign while the latter puts you in the boots of an airman. Although new books are coming put all the time, it’s hard to go past these two publications.

More about The Battle of Britain

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