As I write this, on 15th September 2012, it is the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Britain; the sky is clear and there is an autumn feel. But the sun and the blue sky must make it very much the same as those life and death times, 72 years ago. However it has long been a misconception that the 15th September was the penultimate day in the Battle of Britain, and it has been proven that Fighter Command’s claims were somewhat exaggerated, but we can be forgiven for this, as the Germans did it all the time. The hardest day for RAF Fighter Command is recorded as being the 31st August 1940, and that is when this story must start. During the morning of 31st August 1940, Goring’s Luftwaffe launched a number of successful raids against RAF airfields in the south of England. In the afternoon further attacks were directed against airfields at Croydon, Biggin Hill and Hornchurch. All over Essex and Kent scramble bells would ring out….”Scramble…scramble make height….make height…Angels One Five…repeat Angels One Five”. Pilots would race for their Hurricanes and Spitfires in a bid to get into the air and climb above the advancing enemy. By the controller saying “Angel One Five” it would indicate at what height the enemy formation was at…in the above statement translated as 15,000 feet. Amongst these Squadrons was number 85 (F) Squadron, operating from out of Hawkinge, Kent. The time 17:10 and at hearing the alarm 10 Hurricanes climbed for height led by S/Ldr Peter W. Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC, RAF. Their instructions were simple, “Patrol forward base”, which quickly was changed to “Intercept Enemy Aircraft making for the Thames Estuary.” Very soon afterwards approximately 30 Dornier DO215s were sighted, time approx 17:40hrs. They were flying at between 16000 to 17000 feet and were being escorted by approximately 100 mixed Messerschmitt 109 and Messerschmitt 110 fighters. 85 (F) Squadron launched their attack approximately 20 miles south of Purfleet. The familar call of the day would ring out from the Commanding Officer, S/Ldr. Townsend, “Okay follow me down, tally ho, tally ho”. 85 (F) Squadron’s Hurricanes effectively broke the German formation up and separated the bombers from the fighters by diving in sections line astern. What follows next is in Pilot Officer Hodgson’s own words, taken from his combat report.
“I attacked with the Squadron and did a head on attack on a Dornier 215. I saw pieces fall off the nose and starboard wing but could not see whether he went down or not. I climbed up and attacked a Me110 but was forced to break away before I fired owing to being attacked by Me109s. I then attacked a Heinkel He111, but owing to an Me109 being on my tail I broke away and engaged it. I out-turned him and got on his tail and gave him a long burst. I saw him stagger and then I noticed five Me109s diving onto my tail so I gave another short burst at 200 yds, white and black smoke burst from it and he rolled over and down with smoke billowing from his engine. I immediately pulled round steeply to engage the two Me109s on my tail but unfortunately there was an Me109 under my tail that I could not see and he hit me at close range with an explosive cannon shell, which blew up my oil lines and glycol tank. I was at 20,000 feet and glided down away from the enemy aircraft. I unstrapped and prepared to bale out but owing to being over the oil tanks at Thameshaven and a populated area I stayed with the aircraft. I switched off my engine and kept the flames away from the fuselage by a series of right side slips and eventually got the flames under control, though white glycol and black smoke poured into the cockpit from the engine. I eventually managed to make a wheels up landing in an empty field at Shotgate, one mile east of Wickford”.
Whilst all this was going on P/O. ‘Bill’ Hodgson made mention of his thanks to S/Ldr. James Leathart, Commanding Officer of 54 (F) Squadron from Hornchurch, who followed Hodgson down in his Spitfire in order to discourage any would be German fighters that may have wanted to finish P/O. Hodgson off. Bill Hodgson made light of his landing in an empty field, as he put it. For at the time the field that ran across the back and length of Fanton Chase was in fact strewn with tall anti-tank invasion poles. At the same time there was a deep anti-tank invasion trench bordering the field and the homes in Fanton Chase. Hodgson put his crippled fighter down in a narrow strip between the anti tank poles and trench. his port wing, said local teenager Sydney Skues, was hanging over the invasion ditch when the fighter came to a stand still. Along Fanton Chase was a large bungalow, ‘Grovelands’, which was the home of Mr. Victor Claude Skues and his wife Annie Marie Skues, and their fifteen year old son, Sydney Victor Skues. The properties in Fanton Chase had very long back gardens and the Skues family kept chickens in large pens at the bottom of their garden. Beyond those was the anti invasion trench, approximately eight to twelve feet in width, with an angled face opposite the garden side and a vertical sheer face the other. This is where P/O. ‘Bill’ Hodgson’s Hurricane came to rest. As he climbed from his cockpit young Sydney Skues and his father lowered a ladder into the ditch to enable the young pilot access into their garden. From here ‘Bill’ Hodgson’s ordeal was over. Vapour trails still criss crossed the sky and the sound of combat still going on could be heard distant. ‘Bill’ Hodgson was said to have looked up at the same time cursing his luck, and at the same time stating where he’d rather be. But for now he was escorted by both father and son to the back of the bungalow where Annie Skues had made the tea and was laying the cakes out in the dining room. Neighbours were calling in to extend their welcome to the young hero, who was incidentally just nineteen years of age. The young Hodgson was treated like a king and before he was drowned in tea and suffocated by cake a small utility van arrived from RAF Rochford and he was taken back for immediate return to his Squadron.
I began seriously researching this incident in about 1980, together with my long term school friend Alan C. Jasper. Like me, Alan was born in Wickford,,both schooled in Wickford and were both full members of the ‘Essex Aviation Group’. We discovered that the young pilot involved in this incident was nineteen year old Pilot Officer William Henry Hodgson, DFC, RAF, a young New Zealander. He was the first born of Mr. Harry Hodgson, JP. and Mrs. Leonora May Hodgson, of Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand. They had a second son Jim, who was tragically killed whilst training for the Army. Both Alan and I learned, that because of ‘Bill’ Hodgson’s selfless action in averting a blazing Hurricane away from Thameshaven, as well as avoiding the homes in Shotgate, this young nineteen year old, who had already been nicknamed by S/Ldr. Peter Townsend,CVO,DSO, DFC, RAF as ‘Ace Hodgson’, was on the 25th October 1940 awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was still off flying operations owing to the reason of sustaining glycol burns to his eyes. It was also late 1940 that this famous RAF Squadron was exchanging its day time Hurricane fighters, for the newly arrived American made Douglas DB7 Havoc, to be used as a stop gap night fighter. The Havoc was much bigger than the Hurricane and was a twin engined aircraft, big and cumbersome compared with their former mount, the Hurricane. The Squadron had moved back to RAF Debden, Essex and was in the process of changing roles from day to night fighter role. 85 (F) Squadron had won acclaim to being a premier fighter Squadron in the First World War, where their pilots flying the SE5A had shot down 90 plus of the Kaiser’s Imperial German Air Force. In the late thirties the Squadron was reformed from ‘A’ Flt87 (F) Squadron at Debden. 85 was reborn and left Debden in 1939 with its Hurricanes for France as the Nazi War machine trampled its way through Europe. Under the Command of S/Ldr. J.O.W. Oliver, CB, DSO, DFC, RAF the Squadron destroyed 99 German aircraft plus probables and damaged, during the Battle of France. Some of the Squadron pilots became household names, the late F/Lt. ‘Dickie’ Lee, DFC, RAF. and the infamous Sergeant Pilot Geoffrey ‘Sammy’ Allard, DFC, DFM*, RAF, who had a personal score of 22 confirmed. At the end of the Battle of Britain 85 (F) Squadron had suffered some horrendous losses in pilots and by the time they had been withdrawn from the front line had destroyed another 54 German aircraft plus probables and damaged.T
he Battle of Britain is said by historians to have officially opened on the 10th July 1940 and is recorded officially as coming to a close on the 31st October 1940. However, German fighters were still marauding over southern England in as many numbers during November and early December. By January 1941 it’s safe to say that the RAF was gaining the upper hand over the Luftwaffe, and had begun taking the fight back to the enemy, in random fighter sweeps, known as rhubarb operations. By now 85 (F) Squadron was becoming accustomed to its new role and adapting to their big new American twin engined fighter. Big, painted black with twelve browning 303 machine guns mounted in the nose, the Havoc proved to be an effective stop gap measure until such time when the Beaufighter and Mosquito would dominate the role. It was on the afternoon of the 13th March 1941, just five months since the Battle of Britain was declared over, that three young airman reported to the Service echelon at Debden to collect Douglas DB7 Havoc Mk.1…BJ500….VY-S. The pilot was F/Lt. Geoffrey ‘Sammy’ Allard, DFC, DFM*, RAF., W/O. Francis-Walker Smith, RAF and Pilot Officer ‘Bill’ Hodgson, DFC, RAF. The reason for the flight was a trip down to Ford to collect another Havoc for the Squadron. Allard would fly BJ500 and Walker-Smith would fly the new aircraft back to Debden. Hodgson was still off flying duty so being great friends with Allard was going along for the ride. There was trouble with an access panel located in front of the windscreen and both the ground crew and Allard, a former Halton airframe fitter, struggled to secure the faulty panel. Eventually they thought the panel secure and the three pilots climbed aboard and taxied out. They climbed out of Debden travelling in the direction of Wimbish village. As the Havoc flew parallel with ‘Mill Road’ its flying attitude appeared erratic, it pitched and see sawed as it went, it somehow turned as it reached the water tower just outside the village. Allard a veteran pilot of the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain with 22 confirmed victories to his name was fighting for his life, not known until the enquiry afterwards. The faulty gun panel on the aircraft’s nose had again come adrift and had flown back over the cockpit and had, being a sharp panel, lodged itself in the leading edge of the vertical stabilizer. This had the effect of another control surface, and because of the angle it had attacked the fin, was forcing the nose of the Havoc down. Within seconds the big American twin struck the ground in fields opposite Mill Road Cottages, Wimbish, and having just taken off with full fuel tanks, the aircraft exploded in a fireball. Three more of 85 (F) Squadrons most experienced veterans had been killed in a freak accident. On the 16th March 1941, a funeral cortege left Debden Camp. The flag draped coffins of the three young airmen were taken the short journey by road to Saffron Walden Borough Cemetery. The Royal Air Force Cranwell Band played and the three coffins lowered into three graves which were situated side by side. A volley of shots rang out in salute as family and friends and service colleagues looked on. What Hitler’s fighter pilots had failed to do, had been caused by a two halfpenny panel fastener. Over subsequent years both Alan and myself got to know the relatives of the deceased airmen very well. We were made history officers of the 85 (F) Squadron Association and have met so very many of the young men that served this Country as fighter pilots. I have lived and worked in Wickford all my life and to date have worked in Shotgate for the past forty two years. Being what I would describe as a true Wickfordian, like so many I’m not a lover of change. I can just about remember the place before so many of the quaint period buildings disappeared to make way for so called new development. I loved my old Wickford the best. But when it was publicised that there was to be new development in Shotgate I looked at the plans for new housing and factory development, and saw that it ran right in front of the site where on the 31st August 1940 a young nineteen year old pilot force landed in his Hurricane. An opportunity had presented itself to pay tribute to a man who had put his life on the line for us. I approached Councillor Brian Pummell and his wife Iris. Brian worked tirelessly for the people of Shotgate and Wickford, he was a local councillor that actually carried out the job he was asked to perform. Together with the Council and Carroll Group of builders, a mile and a quarter of new road leading onto Wickford Business Park was named ‘HODGSON WAY’ in full view of the present day 85 Squadron. The very man, now Group Captain Peter Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC,RAF who had commanded 85(F) Squadron during the conflict was present, along with the infamous Group Capt. John ‘Catseyes’ Cunningham and other distinguished guests. But despite all this there was the icing on my cake that day. As assembled guests stood in tribute to young ‘Bill’ Hodgson, DFC, RAF a black dot appeared in the sky above. All too soon came the oh so familiar sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin engine….Hawker Hurricane MkIIC, of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, LF363, was for that season painted to represent an 85 (F) Squadron Hurricane. To see the codes VY-X painted on the Hurricanes fuselage was enough to bring tears to the eyes. The pilot made several low passes, but as he pulled up and away it was as if Hodgson’s hand was guiding that of the pilot’s, for the Hurricane flew right over the top of Pilot Officer Hodgson’s crash site, where VY-G….N2544 had come to rest. Another tribute paid for and erected by the Carroll Group was a beautiful red brick surround Memorial unveiled by Group Captain Peter W. Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC, RAF Ret’d. 72 years ago today. So if you’re in the area of Hodgson Way, please take time to pause and remember that a young nineteen year old youth boarded a ship in New Zealand, and travelled to England to fight a common foe. Today he sleeps eternal in the military section of Saffron Walden Borough Cemetery. We shall remember him.
‘The Kiwi Ace from Dunedin‘
“It was at the height of the Battle of Britain, when his Hurricane fell. It force-landed in our village, and the pilot survived, so all was well.
After the battle a brief respite, before taking up his sword to continue the the fight.
It was Peter Townsend who christened him ‘Ace’, for he knew how to cull Hitler’s Master Race.
Only twenty years when he looked death in the face, but his end never came from any Master Race.
No bullet from the enemy would stop his young heart, but a freak flying accident, a faulty aero part.
The end was so swift for three of the best, Allard, Hodgson and Walker-Smith had gone to their eternal rest.
They were the cream of 85, remembered in death with affection and pride.
“High in the air soared the Fighter pilots, or waited serene at a moment’s notice around their excellent machines. This was a time when it was equally good to live or die.”
Winston Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister, 1940.