The Battle of Barking Creek
Nick Black | University of Suffolk
When Neville Chamberlain’s voice began to emanate from radio sets across Britain at 11 AM on 3 September 1939, the majority of the British public believed they would almost immediately be subjected to an aerial bombardment by the German Luftwaffe. Preparations had been ongoing for more than three years to ensure that Britain was in a position to defend against this new type of warfare, and the Luftwaffe had already proven how effectively it could be used during their invasion of Poland. Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding, head of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command, had toiled to establish a command and control system that would allow the interception of German raiders before they could do harm. The ‘Dowding System’ was in its infancy by the outbreak of war, but it had been tried and tweaked during exercises during the summer months of 1938 and 1939, and was ready to be put into operational use. The system, laid out like a giant spider web, linked early warning defences such as Radar stations, Observer Corps posts, and Anti-Aircraft Artillery batteries together with a sophisticated telephone network, all reporting to Group and Sector commanders in key locations. This network meant that RAF fighter aircraft could be ‘scrambled’ to intercept incoming enemy aircraft extremely quickly. The key area of protection was clearly London, and RAF fighter stations were established in areas between the South East Coast of England and the capital, to give them the best chance of stopping any mass bombing attempts. Within the first two hours after Chamberlain’s address, RAF aircraft from Biggin Hill were scrambled to investigate an erroneous contact incoming from the North Coast of France. Alas on this occasion it was a false alarm and no harm was done, but three days into the war another false alarm would end in tragedy. On 6 September 1939 an early morning ‘scramble’ would end with the first RAF fighter pilot casualty of the war and two other pilots arrested for their role in his death. This incident was shrouded in secrecy at the time and has taken on a feeling of folklore as it has been re-told again and again in popular history tales of the RAF’s involvement in the Second World War. The folklore nature of the Battle of Barking Creek has meant that over the decades that followed many details have become embellished and inaccurate and never before has a fully detailed investigation of what happened been carried out. Many of the official records from the incident have never surfaced, including the transcript of the court martial. Some records, locked away under secrecy for decades, have only recently been released. A full review of the incident, taking into account the new evidence, tells a different story to that which has been passed along as the accepted narrative.
The morning of Wednesday 6 September 1939 brought with it a thick layer of fog that covered most of the South East of England at ground level, reducing visibility to around 10 feet. At around 6.15 AM a coastal Searchlight Battery on the Island of Mersea in the Thames Estuary reported hearing an unidentified aircraft flying overhead. The identity of this aircraft has been the subject of debate ever since with some pilots being told it may have been an RAF Bristol Blenheim, or Avro Anson. In 1954 Dowding confirmed that it had been a Dutch civilian aircraft. The thick fog on that morning would have made visual identification of this aircraft impossible, and so the Battery duly reported the detection to RAF’s 11 Group Headquarters. 11 Group decided that the detection needed to be investigated and ordered the North Weald sector commander to launch fighters to investigate. Standard procedure during these early days of the war was for RAF fighter squadrons to operate twelve aircraft, divided into two separate flights of six aircraft each, usually named ‘A’ and ‘B’ flight. These flights were further split into two sections of three aircraft each, normally coded Red, Yellow, Blue, and Green sections. The common narrative of the Battle of Barking Creek holds that 11 Group ordered only a single flight (six aircraft) to be launched to investigate the intruder, as per the standard procedure. It is told that the North Weald Sector Commander instead ordered the whole of 56 Squadron to launch, including two reserve pilots (fourteen aircraft in total), and that these aircraft were detected on radar and misidentified as enemy raiders, prompting a further response. The RAF Operations Record Books of Fighter Squadrons from 11 and 12 Groups from September 1939 tell a very different, and ultimately alarming story. The first response to the alarm was actually initiated at 6.30 AM when 151 Squadron, also based at North Weald, was ordered to launch all twelve of its Hawker Hurricanes, led by Squadron Leader “Teddy” Donaldson. 56 Squadron is recorded as having launched ten minutes later, with twelve aircraft of both flights and a further two reserve aircraft flown by Pilot Officers Frank Rose and Montagu Hulton-Harrop. Fighter Squadrons from RAF Hornchurch, around ten miles south of North Weald, became involved when 74 Squadron launched both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights, consisting of twelve Supermarine Spitfire Mk.1 aircraft, at 6.45 AM. These launches were only a few amongst the 116 aircraft that were sent airborne from RAF bases across the South East of England, and a further twenty-four aircraft that were readied but did not take-off.
With all the aircraft in the air on this bright and clear September morning, the heart of this incident was to take place between 56 and 74 Squadrons over Northern Essex. 74 Squadron’s ‘A’ Flight was being led by Flight Lieutenant Adolf ‘Sailor’ Malan with his wing-men in Red section being Flying Officer William ‘Tinky’ Measures and Sergeant Ian Douglas Hawken. The remainder of ‘A’ Flight, Yellow section, were led by Flying Officer Vincent ‘Paddy’ Byrne, with Flying Officer John Freeborn, and Sergeant John ‘Polly’ Flinders. ‘A’ Flight had flown together for some time, having formed as a dedicated unit during the latter part of the summer ‘exercises’ at Hornchurch, and the same pilots had already been called to action during the war, having been launched as a section to intercept a ‘misidentified’ friendly raid in the early hours of 4 September. As 74 Squadron flew North over Essex Malan spotted a group of aircraft ahead and called over the radio ‘Tally-Ho, Number One, Attack, Go.” Freeborn followed his section leader in a dive heading for the target, and upon approach saw unidentified aircraft in a wide ‘vic’ formation, a tactic believed to be used by Luftwaffe fighter squadrons. Byrne and Freeborn closed in and targeted a pair of aircraft flying some distance away from the main group, believing them to be Messerschmitt BF-109 fighters of the Luftwaffe, on escort duty. What they were actually targeting were the Hawker Hurricanes of Rose and Hulton-Harrop, who were slightly behind the rest of 56 Squadron. The Spitfires opened fire, Freeborn’s shots hitting the aircraft of Hulton-Harrop and striking the pilot through the back of his head, killing him instantly. Frank Rose’s aircraft was damaged by Byrne’s fire and he was able to safely crash land in a field at Wherstead, near Ipswich.
Freeborn and Byrne flew back to RAF Hornchurch blissfully unaware that they had shot down one of their own. Freeborn actually attempted to attack another aircraft on the way home, a twin-engined aircraft that he believed was a German Ju-88. Flinders, however, flew in front of the pilot at the last moment to halt the attack. Upon landing back at base, both Freeborn and Byrne were arrested and restricted to quarters. 19-year-old Freeborn was ‘frightened to death’ about what was to become of him. He was informed that he had caused the death of another pilot; but felt that he had simply been following the orders of his Flight Commander, Malan, and his section leader, Byrne. Despite fear over his uncertain future, Freeborn said that his Commanding Officer Squadron Leader ‘Sammy’ Sampson was incredibly supportive and arranged for him to meet Sir Patrick Hastings, a vastly experienced retired barrister who had been commissioned into RAF Fighter Command at the outbreak of war as an intelligence officer. Hastings agreed to defend both Freeborn and Byrne at a Court Martial which was scheduled for Tuesday 17 October 1939 at RAF Hendon. Another barrister, recruited as an RAF pilot at the outbreak of war, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, would assist in the case. Bushell would become famous later in the war as ‘Big-X’, mastermind of ‘The Great Escape’ from prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III.
The court martial was held ‘in-camera’, meaning it was kept under strict secrecy and not open to the general public. The official transcript of the trial has never surfaced, however newly released court martial records show that the evidence presented at the trial included accounts of lectures on aircraft recognition and the focus appeared to be on the fact that Freeborn and Byrne should have recognised that the Hurricanes were not enemy aircraft before firing. Later in his life, Freeborn recounted that ‘Sailor’ Malan was presented as a witness for the prosecution, stating that he had countermanded his original attack order over the radio once he had realised that the aircraft were friendly. Neither Freeborn nor Byrne nor any of the other pilots in 74 Squadron heard this countermanding order. Malan was called a “bare-faced liar” by Hastings and Freeborn was outraged that Malan would lie and try to cover up his own mistake. Aside from personal testimony, there was no concrete evidence against Freeborn and Byrne, and both were acquitted of all charges. The case was ruled to be an unfortunate ‘accident of war’.
Exactly why so many aircraft were launched on that fateful day was eventually narrowed down to an error that began at the Chain Home radar station at Canewdon, near Southend-on-Sea. Chain Home stations had been established along the entire South and East Coast of England, from Southampton to Newcastle, and were directed out to sea to provide early warning detection of incoming aircraft. Although the radio waves emanating from the radar towers went out through 360 degrees, an electronic block was activated to nullify signals coming from the rear of the sites. This block meant that RAF aircraft, flying out to meet the attackers, would not be detected on the radar screens and confuse the operators. On the morning of 6 September 1939, this electronic block had failed on the radar receiver towers at Canewdon. As soon as 151 Squadrons Hurricanes became airborne at 6.30 AM, they were detected on radar and appeared to be enemy aircraft approaching from the east. The response was to scramble more fighters, and as more launched, more ‘enemies’ appeared on the radar screens. The result was total confusion and this undoubtedly led to the pilots in the air fully expecting to see the enemy soon enough. The fault at Canewdon was supposed to have been rectified earlier in 1939 and was not detected until a week after the incident. The trouble highlighted the need for the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system that had been developed alongside the invention of the Chain Home radar system but was severely behind schedule in its implementation to RAF aircraft.
Another system that was intended to help identify friendly aircraft may also have shouldered some of the blame for this incident. Although admitting that he had given the initial instruction to attack, ‘Sailor’ Malan claimed to have issued a countermanding instruction over the radio and pointed the finger of blame for the incident at Freeborn and Byrne, whom he believed were impetuous and should have identified their target properly. No contemporary account of the incident has ever explored this explanation and attempted to verify it, instead leaving doubt over whether Malan was at fault or not. Malan’s order to “attack” was clearly heard by Freeborn and Byrne, but one is left to wonder why Malan would claim to have countermanded the order if he had not done so. The explanation may lie in a device known to the pilots as ‘pipsqueak’. ‘Pipsqueak’ was a clockwork mechanism which activated for fourteen seconds every minute and switched the fighter’s TR9D high-frequency radio from its main communication channel to its secondary channel, transmitting a signal. This signal was detected by three ground-based direction finding (D/F, also known as ‘Huff-Duff’) stations that were located in each of the Fighter Command group sectors and were used to locate friendly fighters and direct them either back to base or towards an enemy. The trouble was that when ‘pipsqueak’ was activated it cut off the communications of the aircraft to which it was fitted. Standard procedure at the start of the war, with ‘pipsqueak’ devices in short supply, was that the lead aircraft in each section would carry the device. If Malan’s aircraft was fitted with a ‘pipsqueak’, and the device was activated, it is highly likely that during the incident his transmission to countermand the original order was interrupted or overridden; and thus was not heard by the other pilots in his section. Freeborn held hostility to Malan for the rest of the war due to the fact that he thought his Flight Commander was trying to cover his own back. ‘Pipsqueak’ may exonerate Malan of blame in this situation.
In many accounts of the incident that can be found in popular history, it is maintained that Pilot Officers Rose and Hulton-Harrop of 56 Squadron had been shot down due to their impetuousness in wanting to be involved in the early morning scramble. Many accounts state that the pair had taken it upon themselves to get into a pair of reserve aircraft and take off to catch up with their colleagues and that this was one of the reasons why they were mistaken for Luftwaffe fighters and attacked by Freeborn and Byrne. Rose’s official statement of the incident, which was only released in 2014, paints a very different picture. Rose wrote that upon hearing the alarm at around 6.40 AM he was ordered to his aircraft by his Squadron Commander, Squadron Leader Edward Knowles, as were the rest of the pilots of 56 Squadron. Rose was readied for take-off, however, his sub-flight commander, Flying Officer Coughlan, failed to get his own aircraft started and so Rose was relocated to a reserve aircraft. Rose’s statement continues that by the time he took off he was well behind the rest of the squadron, and eventually caught up with the other reserve aircraft, piloted by Hulton-Harrop. As he had not received any instructions and had lost sight of his leader, Rose flew alongside Hulton-Harrop, and the two patrolled North of North Weald as per standing instructions for Reserve aircraft. Rose’s statement would certainly seem to indicate that he and Hulton-Harrop had not been impetuous in their actions but instead had been following orders. It appears the fact that Rose was still in his pyjamas at the time he climbed out of his crashed aircraft near Ipswich, coupled with the known fact that the pair were not part of the ‘official’ squadron aircraft to be sent to investigate the intruder, led to an assumption that they had launched without permission. This assumption became part of the popular narrative and has been repeated incorrectly for decades.
The Battle of Barking Creek was, as legendary fighter ace Al Deere put it, a “truly amazing shambles”, but the fact that it happened at all is not surprising when the sheer scale of the response is taken into account. It is clear that the number of aircraft launched on this particular morning caused the situation to be exacerbated, however, given the available information it was a prudent response. Hulton-Harrop and Rose’s launch appears not to have been impetuous but as a response to an order given due to the circumstances. Freeborn and Byrne should certainly have properly identified their targets before opening fire, but their actions too can be understood in the context of the information they received. Malan ordered them to attack, and likely countermanded that order when he realised his mistake. Perhaps he should have come forward and taken responsibility for the error, but it is clear that he believed that Freeborn and Byrne had acted irresponsibly. Ironically, the fault for the incident may lie in two pieces of equipment designed specifically to identify the difference between friendly and enemy aircraft; pipsqueak and radar. These issues were thankfully resolved by the summer of 1940 and although IFF was not in full effect by the start of the Battle of Britain, operators had become more adept at determining the difference between friend and foe. Identification training both from the air, and the ground was improved and the command and the ‘Dowding’ system was enhanced further with extra training and technical improvements. The Battle of Barking Creek, although coming some eight months before the Battle of Britain began, had provided invaluable real-life training, if nothing else. Hulton-Harrop did not get the chance to fight in the Battle of Britain and become one of “The Few”. Many of the other pilots who were involved in this incident, including Freeborn and Malan, are remembered fondly as men who risked everything to protect “the many”. Perhaps Montagu Hulton-Harrop can be remembered as the man whose tragic death in 1939, went a long way towards helping the RAF win the Battle of Britain in 1940.
P. Kaplan, ‘Sailor’ Malan – Legendary Hurricane and Spitfire Pilot in the Battle of Britain: Battle of Britain Legend: Adolph Malan (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2013).
C. Yeoman & J. Freeborn, Tiger Cub; A 74 Squadron Fighter Pilot in WWII, The Story of John Freeborn DFC*, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2009).
D.E. Fisher, A Summer Bright and Terrible; Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain, (Counterpoint, 2008).
B. Cull, Blue on Blue; Aerial Friendly Fire in World War II and Associated Incidents; British, French, Polish, German and Neutrals, Volume I 1939-1940, (London: Tally Ho, 2011).
Primary Sources that can be accessed at The National Archives (Kew).
AIR 27 series RAF Squadron Operational Records Books for 1939-1940. (Free to access online and download currently).
AIR 81/5, Pilot Officer M L Hulton-Harrop: report of death; Hurricane L1985. Pilot Officer F C Rose: uninjured; Hurricane L1980 forced to land near Ipswich, 6 September 1939. (Not yet digitised).
Nick Black is a Royal Air Force Veteran and former Police Officer who has just finished a Bachelor's degree in History at University of Suffolk, Ipswich. He will be studying a Master’s in Public Heritage & Museum Studies at University of Derby in September 2020.