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SKUAS OVER DUNKIRK

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As the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and its French and Belgian allies fell back on Dunkirk at the end of May 1940 units of the Fleet Air Arm were assigned to the control of RAF Coastal Command to provide support for Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF. In all 4 Squadrons of Swordfish, 1 squadron of Albacores and two squadrons of Skua/Rocs were involved. The Skua/Roc Squadrons were 801 and 806. At the same time No 2 AACU (Anti Aircraft co-operation Unit, controlled by the RAF) also used at least 1 Skua over Dunkirk. The Skuas and Rocs flew fighter sweeps, dive bombing and reconnaissance missions. Some books give the impression that the FAA Skua Squadrons were shot to ribbons over Dunkirk; for example in Alexander McKee's "Strike from the Sky" Sqdn Ldr DH Clarke is quoted "Of those thirty seven Skuas and Rocs [that went out on a fighter sweep] nine came back; of those nine, only four were serviceable." Now I simply cannot find any evidence for this slaughter, if it's true then this was one of the biggest disasters in British military aviation, but none of the other sources confirm it. With only two squadrons using Skuas and Rocs over Dunkirk it is hard to see where these thirty seven Skuas or Rocs could have come from, (a Fleet Air Arm squadron in this period would struggled to get 10 aircraft in the sky at the same time) . Certainly German fighters operating over Dunkirk only claimed 2 Skuas during the whole period.

So, what are the facts?

On 28th May 806 Squadron operating out of Manston had one Skua shot down into the sea and another was badly damaged with the gunner gunner killed by RAF Spitfires.   Happily the crew of the Skua that was shot down were rescued but the pilot had to have an arm amputated.*

On 29th May two Skuas and a Roc of 806 Squadron attacked German bombers that were going after British evacuation ships. They claimed a Ju88 destroyed and another Ju88 damaged. This was the only confirmed air-to-air victory for a Roc.

On 30th May the same three aircraft of 806 Squadron drove off a Heinkel 111 attacking a merchant ship off Dunkirk.

On the 31st May ten Albacores and nine Skuas bombed German pontoon bridges over the Nieuport Canal, near the coast North East of Dunkirk. Direct hits were claimed. Returning home the Skuas were engaged by 12 Messerschmitt Bf 109s of I/JG20 and two Skuas of 801 Squadron (L2917 and L3005) were shot down. Another Skua crash landed back at Detling. The battle was not all one sided, the Skuas claimed one Bf109 shot down and another damaged. It seems the Messeschmitts may have broken off the chase to go after three Coastal Command Hudsons, who in turn escaped claiming another Bf109 shot down. The Skua that crash-landed back at Detling is probably the one described in Capt Eric Brown's "Wings of the Navy" and Alexander McKee's "Strike from the Sky", as providing an example of the Skua's sturdiness, with nine bullet holes in one propeller blade alone, the top cylinder of the Perseus engine shot away, along with the pilot's windscreen and canopy. On this very day the British 12th Infantry Brigade (consisting of the 2nd Bn Royal Fusiliers, 1st Bn South Lancashire Regt and 6th Bn The Black Watch) were holding the sector of the Dunkirk perimeter opposite Nieuport. They had just beaten off a strong German attack but at 5pm massive German reinforcements were observed moving along the canal. Just then bombing by British aircraft stopped the enemy movements and the Germans turned and fled. If this was the attack by the Skuas and the Albacores, then this one single incident alone justifies the British tax payer's investment in the poor maligned Skua! Far from being a fighter sweep that was cut to pieces this would then be a highly accurate dive-bombing attack which possibly saved the Dunkirk perimeter from collapse at the cost of only three Skuas.

On the 2nd June 806 Squadron engaged two Junkers 88 bombers, damaging both.

The "Miracle of Dunkirk" ended on the 4th June but the Battle of France raged on until the 22nd June.This is a period often forgotten, many people in the English speaking world assume that the French surrendered immediately after Dunkirk. In fact much of the bitterest fighting took place after the 4th June. Indeed Britain continued to pour troops into France, including its only Armoured Division. The epic struggle of the 51st Highland Division to fight its way to the coast also took place during this period. 801 and 806 Squadron continued to operate bombing and reconnaissance missions over the coast of Northern France at this time using both Skuas and Rocs. On the 12th and 13th June Rocs of 801 Squadron dive-bombed E-boats in Boulogne harbour. The reconnaissance flights of 801 Squadron revealed the Germans to be digging in large guns at Cap Griz Nez. On the 21st June 801 squadron, with an escort of RAF Hurricanes, dive bombed these gun positions, loosing one Roc to ground fire**.

The Skuas and Rocs were often more at risk from their own side than the Germans. Aircraft identification skills were very poor at this time. In particular the Skuas and Rocs were at a disadvantage in wearing FAA camouflage colours. This was unfamiliar to most RAF pilots who often assumed that all British aircraft were camouflaged brown and green the standard RAF camouflage colours (remember that in those days any aircraft identification photos or charts were inevitably only in black and white).

* Full eyewitness accounts of 806 Squadrons tragic encounter with RAF Spitfires is in Peter C. Smiths book "Skua! - The Royal Navy's Dive-Bomber".

** Peter C. Smith book has this event taking place one day earlier on the 20th June.

A note on Sources

"Fleet Air Arm -The Admiralty Account of Naval Air Operations" HMSO 1943. "Coastal Command - The Air Ministry Account of the Part Played by Coastal Command in the Battle of the Seas 1939-1942" HMSO  1942.    "Royal Air Force 1939-1945 - Volume I" by Denis Richards HMSO 1953. "Dive Bombers In Action" by Peter C. Smith. "Air Battle Dunkirk 26May-3 June 1940" by Norman Franks

Full details of the books mentioned on this page - Alexander McKees "Strike from the Sky", Peter C Smiths "Skua!" and Eric Browns "Wings of the Navy" can be found on the Bibliography page.

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Peter C Smith's book on the Skua. Click here to order online.

Renowned aviation author Peter C. Smith's long awaited book on the Blackburn Skua was released in late 2006 - It covers the Dunkirk evacuation period in unprecedented detail.

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