Avro Ansons vs Messerschmitt 109s, Dunkirk 1940.

Official documents are an important source of information, but can at times be a little terse:

“Aircraft MKV shot down two M.E.109’s and seriously disabled another, when carrying out the “THISTLE” Patrol.” 500 Squadron’s Operations Record Book for 1 June 1940.

First-hand accounts also have their shortcomings, but can give a very different impression of the same event:

“We were only flying at about 50-80 feet at the time… he dived even lower, right onto the surface, right on the sea, and they appeared to pick on us, the leading aircraft, because the cabin was full of explosive bullets.” Jack Watchous, wireless operator, 500 Squadron, 1940.

This blog aims to show how first-hand accounts – oral history, as quoted above – can add drama, humanity and new dimensions to a brief official statement.

The story of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 is, of course, very well-known, particularly given recent movies on the operation.

An Avro Anson I at North Weald in 1942, it is a similar aircraft to that in which Jack Watchous flew in June 1940

Less well-known is the role of the Avro Anson during the evacuation. By 1940 it was already obsolescent as a front-line aeroplane, and would spend much of the war in use for training and light transport away from the battle areas.

But in 1940 they were still used by RAF Coastal Command to patrol the Dunkirk evacuation beaches and the surrounding sea, attacking German E-boats (small, fast attack craft) and reporting back on the progress of the evacuation.

An example of an Avro Anson in flight, this aircraft was from 7 Air Gunners School, August 1943 (PC98/173/5963/2)

The operations record book – the squadron diary – for 500 Squadron records how, on 1 June 1940, Pilot Officer Philip Peters shot down two M.E.109’s and seriously disabled another’ while on patrol.

Pilot Officer Peters was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross a week later for this achievement, which is mentioned in histories of Coastal Command and of 500 Squadron.

The incident is further commemorated at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, where the Avro Anson on display is painted to represent Pilot Officer Peters’ aircraft.

Fg Off Philip Peters, circa 1943 (PC95/286/59)

But, while in no way detracting from the bravery of Peters and his crew on 1 June 1940, there is more to the story. Peters’ aircraft was not alone when attacked on 1 June; it was in a formation of three Ansons.The citation for Peters’ DFC, published in the London Gazette of 14 June 1940 recorded that:

‘In June, 1940, near Dunkerque, this officer was pilot of an aircraft which, in company with two others, was attacked by nine Messerschmitt 109’s. Pilot Officer Peters immediately turned to the attack and so skilfully manoeuvred his aircraft, that he and both the air gunner and navigator were enabled to concentrate their fire on the enemy. Two Messerschmitts were seen to crash, and two more appeared to be seriously damaged. After the engagement this officer continued to carry out the patrol alone, having lost touch with the other two aircraft which had returned to the base.’

Jack Watchous, interviewed for the RAF Museum’s archives in 2015, was on-board one of the other aircraft. He recalled how:

‘We were just flying away to search for E-boats, still in formation, when we were suddenly hit by bullets. Our pilot, we were only flying at about 50-80 feet at the time, anyway, he dived even lower, right onto the surface, right on the sea, and they appeared to pick on us, the leading aircraft, because the cabin was full of explosive bullets.

I instantly started to send an SOS, still sitting at the desk. It lasted I think probably about 1 ½ – 2 minutes. During that time there were three attacks on us during which our gunner was critically injured. After I sent my SOS I went back to man the gun that was on the left-hand side but as I approached it our pilot did a sharp turn and I was thrown onto the floor right near the air gunner’s entrance. And when I picked myself up I could see he had collapsed in his turret, so I tried to get at him but I couldn’t because his body was trapped in the turret and the turret couldn’t move.

Bust-length portrait of Sgt Jack Watchous

Now our aircraft was quite badly damaged, we were leaking fuel and we managed to make Manston. But we couldn’t make a circuit because we were almost out of fuel and so the pilot flew directly into Manston from the sea, and as we landed both engines packed up, one almost immediately after the other, and so we just plonked down and the undercarriage came down but the wheels were shattered with bullets and so we just stopped dead.

Now the emergency people, the fire engines and so on, hadn’t seen us come in, so we stuck there just for a second or two or a short while, so the pilot said ‘oh you’d better run off and tell them we’re here’ sort of thing.

So I was picked on because I was the only fit one there, or the youngest one anyway, and so I had to hare across the airfield, so then they noticed us, they came over and of course took poor old Smithy away with the ambulance and so on. And I thought he was dead, but apparently he did live for two or three days and then unfortunately he died.’

Jack’s aircraft, and the third Anson in the formation, both landed at RAF Manston in Kent, while Peters’ aircraft was the only one of the three to return to its home base at Detling. The reports of the two aircraft at Manston seem to have been lost in the confusion of the time, and later accounts of the incident often (but not always!) overlook their part in the incident.

But for Jack’s account, little or nothing would survive on this aspect of the story. LAC Smith’s date of death, several days later in hospital, means that it would not necessarily be easily connected with the incident of 1 June.

Human memory is famously erratic and unreliable, and there is a broader question related to this on the purpose and value of oral history. But documents, especially those written during war and crises, also have their failings.

History – and the personal stories wrapped up in historic events – are at their strongest when the sources are brought together. It could well be that there is still more to the story of Ansons over the beaches at Dunkirk on 1 June 1940, but in any case the story told by Jack Watchous is an important part of it.

Messerschmitt Bf 109E's similar to those that attacked Ansons of 500 Squadron on 1 June 1940 (P007677)

About the Author

Ewan Burnet: Film and Sound Curator

Prior to joining the Museum I worked at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. I became the curator of film and sound at the RAF Museum in 2010. My role includes caring for the film and sound collection, cataloguing new material, recording of oral history interviews, processing enquiries from the general public, film and television producers and the preparation of audio-visual material for the museum’s exhibitions.