411 Squadron at Dieppe

News Article / August 18, 2017

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By Major Bill March

411 “City of York” Squadron was formed at Royal Air Force (RAF) Digby, Lincolnshire on June 16, 1941. It was an “Article XV” fighter squadron: a Royal Canadian Air Force squadron formed as a result of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan agreement that stated, whenever possible, Commonwealth aircrew trained by the plan would be sent to their own national squadrons, rather than being absorbed into the RAF.

411 Squadron thus had considerable experience when it received orders on Saturday, August 15, 1942, to execute plan “Venom”: the move to RAF Station West Malling, Kent, to support Operation Jubilee, a raid-in-force on the occupied French port of Dieppe.

By 2:30 the following afternoon, all of the squadron’s Spitfire Vb aircraft had arrived at the new location. However, the groundcrew, who were moving by bus, took a more circuitous route that took them through the heart of London. In order to expedite their city transit, the buses were given a police escort – not the most covert method of travel. If there had been German agents present, it surely would have aroused their curiosity. The last bus arrived at 9 p.m. that evening and all settled in for the night.

The 23 pilots spent the next three days practicing squadron and wing-strength fighter sweeps. The Canadians focused on procedures and the myriad of details associated with operating from an unfamiliar location. The groundcrew were just as busy, going over each and every aircraft with meticulous care. Information on the raid had been kept at a “need to know” basis, but the squadron knew that something big was coming. For some, sleep was difficult to come by.

It was still dark on Wednesday, August 19, when the airfield at West Malling sprang to life. Aircrew donned their flight gear and Mae Wests (inflatable life preservers), grabbed a hasty breakfast and gathered for a final weather briefing. Mechanics and armourers checked their respective “kites” one final time while fuel bowsers darted hither and yon, topping up fuel tanks with every last litre of petrol they could hold. In a way it was anti-climactic as the squadron was informed that they would be held in readiness to relieve the squadrons operating from RAF Hornchurch in case they were delayed because of weather; they were not, and the pilots of 411 Squadron waited impatiently.

Finally, at 7:21 a.m., a signal arrived from 11 Group Headquarters ordering four squadrons into the air; twelve 411 Squadron Spitfires, led by Squadron Leader Robert Buckley Newton, were airborne 19 minutes later. They quickly join with aircraft from 81, 485 and 610 Squadrons and turn towards Dieppe in France. Under the overall direction of Wing Commander Patrick Jameson of New Zealand, their mission is to control the skies over Allied ships and ground forces for 30minutes beginning at 8:20 a.m. For many of the young Canadians it would be the longest 30 minutes of their life.

For one pilot it would be an eternity.

The squadron was to operate at a “middle” altitude – between 1,200 to 1,800 metres. The accompanying squadrons would operate above and below this level. The sky was clear of clouds and, although there was a slight haze, the Allied airmen had no trouble discerning the chaos below as they approached the French coast. Only the briefest of glances were spared for the combat below as the fighter pilots scanned the skies looking for enemy aircraft. Then suddenly, approximately four kilometers north of Dieppe, the Luftwaffe pounced.

Within seconds the sky is full of twisting, darting aircraft. Red Section seemed to take the brunt of the attack.[1]  Red One, Squadron Leader Newton, had made several head-on passes at German fighters without result when he spotted a Focke-Wulf (FW) 190 diving into the melee. Quickly slamming his Spitfire into a sharp left turn, he closed to within 130 meters of the enemy aircraft and opened fire, scoring hits around the cockpit. The German pilot evaded Newton’s fire, but another Spitfire got behind him and with a well-aimed burst sent the FW-190 crashing into the sea. Squadron Leader Newton would claim ½ an FW-190 destroyed.

In one of the other sections, Flight Lieutenant Robert Wendell “Buck” McNair found himself in the middle of a “target rich environment”, firing at several enemy aircraft without apparent result. In the midst of avoiding return fire he spied a German fighter closing on Red Three, Pilot Officer Paris Richmond Eakins, and shouted a warning over the wireless. It was too late. The FW-190 raked the bottom of Pilot Officer Eakins’ Spitfire with cannon and machine-gun fire, blowing the radiator off and sending the Canadian aircraft into a dive. Moments later, Pilot Officer Eakins made a last radio call informing his squadron mates that “I’ve had it”.

Aged 28, Pilot Officer Eakins, from Minnedosa, Manitoba, is buried in the New Communal Cemetery, Neufhatel-en-Bray, France.

Altogether, 411 Squadron’s fighter pilots claimed another FW-190 probably destroyed and several damaged, but the squadron paid a heavy price. In addition to Pilot Officer Eakins, Pilot Officer D. “Tex” Linton, an American serving in the RCAF, was shot down and taken prisoner while Flight Sergeant S.A. Mills was wounded slightly when his aircraft was hit. His radio damaged, Flight Sergeant Mills headed for home while dodging two persistent enemy fighters determined to add him to their score. Another 411 Squadron Spitfire, flown by Pilot Officer Matt Reid, had been shot up by a FW-190 and was carefully nursed back home.

Returning as best they could to the field at West Malling, 411 Squadron lines were a flurry of activity as groundcrew raced to rearm and refuel the Spitfires. Aircraft too badly damaged for speedy repair were replaced from available spares. Flight leaders sent wounded pilots to the base hospital while those too “rattled” or too tired were told to sit out the next sortie. And with unimaginable swiftness orders arrived instructing the squadron to escort three Blenheim bombers back to Dieppe. At 10:30 a.m., the 411 Squadron Spitfires took to the skies for their second mission of the day.

Rendezvousing at an altitude of 610 metres with 13 Squadron’s Blenheim light bombers over the Selsey Bill headland, the Spitfires quickly took up defensive positions before heading towards the pillars of smoke that marked Dieppe. The Blenheims had the vital task of laying smoke to cover the withdrawal of Allied forces and needed to make a low pass over the beaches to maximize the effect. Descending to just above the wave tops, the formation flew towards Dieppe, bomber crews intent on completing their mission while 411 Squadron pilots continuously searched the skies for the enemy. They flew into a hornet’s nest of anti-aircraft fire, attacking Luftwaffe aircraft and defending friendly fighters. The Blenheims successfully laid a ribbon of smoke across the main beach, but suffered greatly from friendly fire with two damaged and one knocked out of the sky. Many of the Canadian Spitfires also sustained damage, but the closest the squadron came to losing one of its own was when one of the aircraft accidently struck the ocean, forcing a nerve-wracking return to England with a bent propeller.

Twice more 411 Squadron would be sent aloft during the day to provide top-cover for the returning ships. For the most part these two missions were uneventful except for a shared claim by Squadron Leader Newton and Flight Sergeant D.R. Matheson of a Dornier 217 damaged. Even as high as 3,000 metres, the pilots paled at the carnage visible around Dieppe.

Upon his return, Flight Lieutenant McNair wrote in his log bog of the “bags of dead on the beach”. By 8 p.m., the last of the squadron’s aircraft had returned and dog-tired pilots sought out a warm meal or a soft bed. Equally tired groundcrew went about their jobs making sure that the aircraft would be ready come the dawn.

The Dieppe Raid was over, but the war was not and soon the squadron would be back in the air, battling a determined foe in the deadly European skies.

Editor’s Note: 411 Squadron was disbanded and reformed several times over its history. It was most recently disbanded in January 1998; at that time it was a tactical helicopter squadron. Major Bill March is a senior RCAF historian.

[1] To avoid confusion a squadron would operate in sections consisting of a number of aircraft. Each section would be designated by a colour and the pilot within a section by a number. Normally, the number “one” was the section or squadron leader. On this particular sortie, 411 Squadron was divided into Red, Blue and Yellow sections, each consisting of four aircraft. Red One was Squadron Leader Newton.

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