Citizen Airman 2: Ray Holmes
On 14 May 1947, Philip Noel-Baker, the Labour Secretary of State for Air, was questioned by MPs in the House of Commons about the number of enemy aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain. The Minister confirmed that recently opened German records showed that the RAF’s claims for most of the air campaign were much higher than the losses the Luftwaffe sustained. Between 10 July and 31 October 1940, the official dates of the Battle, the RAF estimated that a total of 2,692 enemy aircraft had been destroyed. Luftwaffe records, however, showed that only 1,733 aircraft were lost and 643 damaged. Noel-Baker stressed that Fighter Command’s claims had been made in good faith and added that the revised figures:
‘[did] nothing to diminish the achievements or to dim the glory of the men who fought so bravely against great odds.’
Further examination of the German records revealed that in the fighting on 15 September 1940 –generally considered to be the climax of the campaign, and duly commemorated as ‘Battle of Britain Day’ – the RAF’s celebrated tally of 183 combat victories was in reality only 56. Overclaiming is always likely when large numbers of fighters are deployed against enemy formations; and the defending forces were unusually large on that beautiful Sunday afternoon.
During the course of the day, the Luftwaffe launched two major raids on London, but both were fiercely repulsed. Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park’s 11 Group, defending the capital and the south-east, was reinforced by squadrons from Sir Quintin Brand’s 10 Group in the west, and Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s 12 Group to the north. Flying from Duxford, in Cambridgeshire, Leigh-Mallory’s five squadrons operated together as a ‘Big Wing’ and were led by the disabled and pugnacious Douglas Bader. In the first action, 25 Dornier Do 17 bombers, escorted by 120 Messerschmitt Me 109s, were intercepted by over 250 Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires. And in the second, 114 Dorniers and Heinkel 111s, shielded by 490 Messerschmitt Me 109s and 110s, were attacked by 275 defending fighters.
Outnumbered for most of the campaign, the RAF pilots enjoyed the novelty of fighting in strength, but the downside was that they got in one another’s way, and claims were inadvertently duplicated in the heat of battle. By way of illustration, historian Dr Alfred Price refers to a Dornier, brought down in central London during the first German raid, that was claimed by nine pilots from five different squadrons. All of the claims were allowed by their respective Intelligence Officers, who then dutifully passed them to 11 Group Headquarters at Uxbridge. There, they were logged as nine separate victories on Fighter Command’s overall tally for the day. Dr Price makes the point that the RAF had neither the time nor the resources to research the accuracy of the claims. Furthermore, it was left to a squadron leader and a flight lieutenant at Uxbridge to collate all of the claims submitted by 7.00pm, so that they could be vetted and then passed to the BBC to broadcast on the Nine O’clock News.
As the German records show, Fighter Command had had a good day, although they actually shot down more aircraft on the 15th and 18th August. The RAF were convinced, however, that they had had a great day, and that was what was presented to the country, to the Empire and Commonwealth, and to the press of the neutral, but increasingly sympathetic, United States.
In addition to being popular with several RAF fighter pilots, the Dornier that fell to earth in the first raid on 15 September has a particular connection with RAF Hendon, now the site of the Royal Air Force Museum. We know quite a lot about Hendon during the Battle of Britain thanks to Joan Bawden, a 21-year-old member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who came from Claygate in Surrey. Aircraftwoman Bawden was stationed at Hendon from October 1939 to May 1941 and kept a personal diary. She later said:
‘We weren’t supposed to keep diaries, so it was rather naughty…mine was a secret and I had to be very careful about it.’
We are very grateful that she was, because, as well as being well-observed and entertaining, Joan’s diary is an invaluable record of social history. Through its 180 plus entries, we get to know, and to like, a lively, independent-minded young woman experiencing the exhilaration, fear and camaraderie of war.
On 5 September 1940, Joan wrote:
‘…a fighter squadron has arrived at Hendon, making it operational and consequently more alive and exciting…’
Hendon, in north-west London, was the RAF’s most famous flying station, and home to the hugely popular inter-war air displays; but by 1940, it was out of date. Too small for high-performance aircraft like the Hurricane and the Spitfire, the airfield had no hard runways and the surrounding area was heavily built-up. Nevertheless, as the Battle neared its climax, it was decided to transfer No. 504 (County of Nottingham) Squadron there from its base at RAF Castletown in Scotland. Most of the Squadron’s Hurricanes arrived on Thursday 5 September, as Joan described, and were placed under the command of 11 Group. Six of the Hurricanes were being modified at Castletown and reached Hendon two days later. These aircraft were led in by Sergeant Ray Holmes.
Born at Wallasey, Cheshire, on 20 August 1914, Raymond Towers Holmes grew up to love sport and fast cars, and eventually became a crime reporter on the ‘Birkenhead Advertiser.’ His connection with flying began in September 1936, when a friend suggested he apply to join the newly-formed RAF Volunteer Reserve. This part-time ‘citizens air force’ attracted extraordinary young men from ordinary backgrounds, and it provided roughly one third of Fighter Command’s pilots for the Battle of Britain.
Having passed the medical, Holmes became the 55th volunteer to enlist; and in February 1937, he travelled to Prestwick, in Scotland, to begin his flying instruction. He proved to be a good pilot, and on 18 June 1940, he was posted to fly Hurricanes with No. 504 Squadron.
On 7 September, the Squadron commenced operations with a combat patrol south of the Thames Estuary. They were ‘bounced’ by five Me 109s out of the sun, and Flying Officer Kenneth Wendel, from Auckland, New Zealand, was shot down. Wendel was badly burned and died, aged 24, the same day. On hearing the news, Joan wrote in her diary:
‘I am grateful I haven’t a husband or a lover as a pilot, it must be apprehension all the time. I understand now why they are so hard and self-sufficient and untender; it’s the only way they can endure living the way they have to live, each time going out with so little prospect of return.’
At dawn, on Sunday 15 September, the pilots of No. 504 Squadron were at readiness. The weather was fine and clear and enemy raids were expected, but the radar stations dotted around Britain’s coastline reported nothing. The Squadron was stood down and the pilots returned to their dispersal area to await instructions. Ray Holmes decided to return to the Sergeants’ Mess to take a bath. At about the same time, the radar stations on the south coast began to pick up activity over the Pas de Calais, and soon a formation of bombers with a heavy fighter escort appeared on their screens.
Back at Hendon, Sergeant Holmes was no sooner in the bath than, predictably, the telephone rang ordering the Squadron to readiness. Still soaking wet, he pulled on a blue sports shirt and his uniform trousers and ran barefoot out of the Mess to the waiting Humber Snipe. By the time the car reached the dispersal area at the airfield, a squadron ‘scramble’ had been ordered. Holmes only had time to seize his life jacket and flying boots before dashing out to his Hurricane, P2725. The pilots of ‘504’ were unusual in that they ‘scrambled’ to musical accompaniment. The music was always the same: the stirring finale to Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’, which the fighter pilots understood as ‘William Tell: Run like Hell!’
At 11.23 am, less than five minutes after the alert, the Squadron was airborne. Northolt control ordered the 12 Hurricanes to combine with those of No. 257 Squadron, and the two units rendezvoused at 15,000 feet over North Weald. The wing of RAF fighters, now 20 strong, was then directed to join the air battle developing over London. At ten minutes past twelve, the Hurricanes intercepted a formation of Dornier Do 17 bombers of Kampfgeschwader 76 at 17,000 feet over south-east London. The Dornier crews were flying slowly, but with great discipline and determination, on their mission to bomb the railway viaducts at Battersea.
Excited to be in his first combat, Sergeant Holmes headed straight for three Dorniers flying apart from the main formation, braving their return fire. He attacked the bomber on the left-hand side, pressing the gun button at a range of 400 yards, but as he approached, it sprayed oil all over his windshield, temporarily blinding him. It later transpired that the Dornier was fitted with an experimental flame thrower which had malfunctioned. Describing the combat in an interview, Holmes said:
‘Then as the windscreen cleared, I suddenly found myself going straight into his tail. So, I stuck my stick forward and went under him, practically grazing my head on his belly.’
Both of the bomber’s engines had stopped, and it began gliding downwards. Holmes then opened fire on the second Dornier and saw a white canopy appear:
‘…before I knew what had happened this bloody parachute was draped over my starboard wing. There was this poor devil on his parachute hanging straight out behind me… All I could do was swing the aeroplane left and then right to try to get rid of this man. Fortunately, his parachute slid off my wing and down he went.’
Over Hyde Park Corner, Holmes saw that the third Dornier was on fire and heading towards Buckingham Palace. What he didn’t know was that the crew of the bomber had already bailed out. The Dornier had been intercepted over London by the Hurricanes of No. 310 (Czechoslovak) Squadron, and the observer, Hans Goschenhofer, and gunner, Gustav Hubel, had been killed. After ordering Ludwig Armbruster and Leo Hammermeister, the surviving crew members, to bail out, the pilot, Robert Zehbe, also took to his parachute. He landed near the Oval Cricket Ground in Kennington, only to be attacked by a mob of enraged civilians, including several women wielding pokers and kitchen knives. Zehbe was eventually rescued by the Home Guard but died of his injuries the next day. He was 26.
Oblivious of the German pilot’s misfortune, Sergeant Holmes was determined to shoot down the Dornier, but on pressing the gun button, he discovered he had run out of ammunition. There was only one thing for it. In his own words:
‘His aeroplane looked so flimsy, I didn’t think of it as solid and substantial. I just went on and hit it for six.’
The wing of P2725 cut through the Dornier’s slender rear fuselage, neatly severing the tail section. The aircraft immediately broke up and plunged to earth, the forward fuselage landing in the forecourt of Victoria Station, and the tail section coming to rest on a rooftop in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. As it dived, two of the Dornier’s 110 lb bombs and a canister of incendiaries broke loose and fell on Buckingham Palace nearby. One of the bombs went through the roof and landed in a bathroom in the royal apartments two floors below. It failed to detonate, as did the other bomb, which fell into the Palace grounds; but the incendiaries started a fire in the gardens that singed the lawns. Fortunately, the King and Queen were at Windsor that day.
The controls of Sergeant Holmes’ Hurricane were damaged in the collision and he was himself forced to bail out over Pimlico. He landed, minus his flying boots, in an open dustbin in a garden in Hugh Street. Surprised, and grateful, to be alive, Holmes found he was being peered at by two young women in the neighbouring garden. In true ‘fighter boy’ style he leapt the fence and kissed them both.
After telephoning Hendon to say he was safe, Holmes was invited by the local Home Guard to inspect the spot on the Buckingham Palace Road where his Hurricane had ploughed into the ground at over 400 miles per hour. The aircraft had made a deep hole which was filling with water. Holmes paused to pick up a fragment of his aircraft’s Merlin engine as a souvenir while a crowd of well-wishers patted him on the back. A news reporter appeared, and on discovering that Holmes was a fellow journalist, offered to send a message for him. ‘Tell Dad I’m okay, will you?’, Holmes replied, before being led to the Orange Brewery on Pimlico Road for a restorative brandy.
From the pub, he was escorted the short distance to Chelsea Barracks, where he was examined by an Army doctor and then invited to the Sergeant’s Mess for more drinks. They were joined in the Mess by the Commanding Officer who eyed Holmes’ sports shirt and socks and asked ‘Do you always fly dressed like that?’
The Army ordered a taxi to take Holmes back to Hendon but, before he left the barracks, he was called to the main gate where, he was told, a young woman wanted to speak to him. To his surprise, the woman handed him a tin of fifty cigarettes as a gift for making his aeroplane ‘miss her baby’, who had been in his pram nearby. Holmes didn’t think she could afford the cigarettes and politely refused, but she insisted, so he took them, thanking her for her kindness. Touched by the gesture, the young fighter pilot didn’t tell her that he had been completely unaware of her baby, nor did he tell her he didn’t smoke. Sergeant Holmes returned to Hendon in the taxi in the mid-afternoon, where it was discovered that in bailing out he had chipped a shoulder bone. Despite his protests, he was grounded by the Squadron Medical Officer.
No. 504 Squadron had done remarkably well over London, claiming five enemy aircraft destroyed and a further four damaged. However, Pilot Officer John Gurteen from Haverhill, in Suffolk, had been killed. He was 24-years-old. Later that afternoon, ‘504’ was again scrambled, and claimed three more enemy aircraft for the loss of Flying Officer Michael Jebb. Flying Officer Jebb, who was from Chester, was badly burned and would die in hospital four days later, aged 22.
At ten minutes past four, a combat report, compiled by the Squadron Intelligence Officer, was sent to 11 Group HQ which summarised ‘504’s fight over central London. The only reference to Sergeant Holmes’ extraordinary exploit is the line ‘Sgt. Holmes baled out and landed safely.’ This document is now held in the Archive of the RAF Museum.
On Monday 16 September, Joan Bawden recorded Pilot Officer Gurteen’s death in her diary:
‘[Another] one of them is dead: John, who was large and tall and young and so very attractive. John who called me ‘pie face’ and when I protested went down on his knees and called me his ‘darling love…Oh, the wicked, pointless destroying of life.’
Sergeant Holmes’ combat with the Dornier had taken place over Hyde Park Corner in full view of hundreds of appreciative Londoners. What was more, the action had been captured by the Pathé newsreel company, and by several photographers, making it probably the most famous single incident of the Battle of Britain. Ray Holmes was now a celebrity. He was invited to meet the King and Queen and was interviewed by the BBC. He also received over 130 letters from a grateful public, each one of which he answered personally. The press lionised Holmes as the pilot who got ‘the Buckingham Palace raider’ and presented the bombs that fell on the Palace as a premeditated attack on the Royal Family. A number of the papers carried Holmes’ message ‘Tell Dad I’m okay, will you?’
The fight went on, and over the next ten days, No. 504 Squadron was scrambled on seven more occasions. On 24 September, RAF Hendon was bombed and, the next night, Colindale underground station was hit by a parachute mine, killing 13 people and injuring many more. On 26 September, after three successful weeks defending London, No. 504 Squadron departed for Filton, near Bristol, and thus ended RAF Hendon’s existence as a Battle of Britain station.
On 17 September 1940, Hitler indefinitely postponed ‘Operation Sealion’, the invasion of Britain. ‘Sealion’ had always been an impossibility without Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe first winning air superiority over south-east England, and it was clear that it was unable to do this. For historian Stephen Bungay, the Battle of Britain was won not on 15 September 1940, but in late August and the first days of September when Fighter Command survived the Luftwaffe’s onslaught against its airfields. The fighting on Battle of Britain Day was thus less important militarily than psychologically, because it was on that day that the Germans were served notice that the RAF was not only still in business, but remained fully capable of mounting a highly-effective defence of Britain’s airspace.
Throughout the 16-week campaign, the Luftwaffe was also guilty of serious overclaiming, and its intelligence officers consistently underestimated the size of the RAF’s fighter force. In consequence, the appearance of Leigh-Mallory’s ‘Big Wing’ over London, though of questionable military value, had a damaging effect on the morale of the German flyers who had been assured that the RAF was down to its last 50 fighters. Furthermore, the ferocity of the RAF’s attacks in defence of the capital, with pilots willing, if necessary, to ram the Dorniers and Heinkels, was deeply unsettling.
Before the Battle, the Luftwaffe enjoyed great success supporting the German Army, but it proved incapable of fighting a strategic air campaign against Britain. The German air force was also poorly led, and hampered throughout by confused objectives and faulty intelligence. It was opposed by a system of air defence that was efficiently organised, well-equipped and operationally flexible, and which allowed Fighter Command to make the best use of its outnumbered squadrons. This system was put in place by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command.
Winston Churchill chose 15 September to visit Keith Park at 11 Group HQ at Uxbridge. The Prime Minister was alive to the significance of the drama being played out in Park’s state-of-the-art Operations Room and would later write:
‘The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.’
Thanks to Sir Hugh Dowding, the RAF’s margin of victory was perhaps not as narrow as it may once have appeared.
Ray Holmes survived his celebrity and survived the war, leaving the RAF as a Flight Lieutenant. The ‘best blue’ uniform he wore had belonged to Flying Officer Michael Jebb, killed on Battle of Britain Day. It had never been worn, and Michael’s parents kindly gave it to him when he was commissioned. Ray returned to journalism in Liverpool and retired at the age of 80. In 2004, a year before he passed away, his Hurricane, P2725, was excavated by aviation archaeologists Chris Bennett and Steve Vizard from its resting place 12 feet below Buckingham Palace Road. On live television, Ray was presented with the control column he had last held on the afternoon of Sunday, 15 September 1940. The gun button on the joystick was still set to ‘FIRE.’
Joan Bawden left Hendon in May 1941 to train as a photographic interpreter. She was commissioned as an officer and subsequently posted to the Middle East. There she married Hugh Rice, a British Army officer, and after the war she became a writer. Joan’s wartime diaries were published to great acclaim as ‘Sand in My Shoes: Coming of Age in the Second World War’ in 2006, when she was in her late eighties. Joan’s son is the lyricist Sir Tim Rice.
On 10 October 2018, Mrs Anne Holmes, Ray’s widow, and his daughter, Mrs Kate Whitworth, visited the RAF Museum at Hendon with Squadron Leader Andy Ham, Flight Lieutenant Jill Harrison, Warrant Officer David Dundas and Sergeant Nick Woolmer, four serving members of No. 504 (County of Nottingham) Squadron. They had come to see the RAF Museum’s replica Hurricane gate guardian which had been repainted in the markings of P2725, the aircraft Ray flew for 45 minutes on Battle of Britain Day. Anne and Kate later saw the wreckage of the engine of Ray’s Hurricane displayed in the Museum’s RAF Stories gallery. Interviewed by Museum staff, Anne said:
‘I am very proud to be connected through Ray to 504 Squadron. The visit was amazing and moving. A day I shall never forget. Everyone was so kind, even the sun. I wish I could rewind and go through it all once more.’
‘Sky Spy: From Six Miles High to Hitler’s Bunker’, Ray Homes (Airlife Publishing, 1989)
‘The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain’, Stephen Bungay (Aurum Press, 2000)
‘Fighter Boys: Saving Britain, 1940’, Patrick Bishop (Harper Collins, 2003)
‘Battle of Britain Day’, Dr Alfred Price (Royal Air Force Historical Society Journal 29, 2003)
‘Sand in My Shoes: Coming of Age in the Second World War: A WAAF’s Diary’, Joan Rice (Harper Collins, 2006)
‘Battle of Britain: A Day-By-Day Chronicle, 10 July 1940 to 31 October 1940’, Patrick Bishop (Quereus, 2009)
Battle of Britain London Monument www.bbm.org.uk