SKUAS AND ROCS OVER DUNKIRK
A Blackburn Skua, it has been suggested this photo was taken at RAF Manston or Detling during the efforts to cover the evacuation from Dunkirk.
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 Royal Navy Air Branch were assigned to the control of RAF Coastal Command to provide support for Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF. In all, four squadrons of Swordfish, one 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 one 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 can 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 Royal Navy squadron in this period would have 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 the 28th May, 806 Squadron operating out of Manston had one Skua shot down into the sea and another was badly damaged with the gunner killed, by RAF fighters in an unhappy incident of "friendly fire". Happily, the crew of the Skua that was shot down were rescued but the pilot had to have an arm amputated. A Roc was supposed to have accompanied the two Skuas on this mission but, perhaps thankfully, it crashed on take-off with no casualties.
On the 29th May, two Skuas and a Roc of 806 Squadron attacked a gaggle of German bombers that were going after British evacuation ships. They claimed a Ju88 destroyed (it was seen crashing into the sea) and another Ju88 damaged. A diving attack had allowed the Roc to pull up underneath the German bomber and shoot it down using the "no-allowance" method. One witness said the bomber was " literally sawed in half..." . This was the only confirmed air-to-air victory for a Roc. There is no recorded German Ju 88 loss over Dunkirk that day that matches exactly the timing of this action. However a Heinkel 111 of 1/KG1 was shot down into the sea at about this time and it was likely to have been the aircraft attacked by the Roc¹ (one account by a witness does specify that it was a Heinkel He111, not a Ju 88). A Junkers Ju 88 of 9/LG1 was damaged, with one crewman injured, at approximately the same time, and it was almost certainly this aircraft that the Skuas and Roc claimed as "damaged".
On the 30th May, the same three aircraft of 806 Squadron drove off a Heinkel 111 attacking a merchant ship off Dunkirk.
On the 31st of May, ten (some sources say nine) Albacores and nine Skuas were tasked with bombing German pontoon bridges over the Nieuport Canal, near the coast, North-East of Dunkirk. Direct hits were claimed by the Skuas. 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 (L2881) 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 Messerschmitts may have broken off the chase to go after three Coastal Command Hudsons, who in turn escaped claiming another Bf109 shot down (LG20 did indeed lose 3 Bf109s in the time-frame concerned). 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 the ground, 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 beat off strong attacks during the day helped by British air support, part of which must have been the attacks by the Albacores and Skuas. A concentration of German troops preparing for another major attack in the same area a few hours later was caught by a British air attack and broken up, this is likely to have been by RAF Blenheim bombers.
On the morning of the 2nd June, 806 Squadron engaged, what they identified as, two Junkers 88 bombers¹, claiming to have damaged both. No corresponding incident in German records found, although there was a big battle that morning over Dunkirk when no less than 5 Heinkel He111s of KG54 were shot down and another damaged when they were attacked by Spitfires of 92 Squadron. It may be that the Skuas were engaging stragglers from this battle.
On the night of 2nd-3rd June a Skua piloted by DH "Nobby" Clarke, accompanied by a Fairey Battle piloted by Flt Lt "Digger" Aitkin, both from No 2 AACU, towed flares along the coastline north of Dunkirk to try to light up any German E-boats attacking British shipping in the dark (there had been an aborted attempt to do the same thing three nights earlier). Nobby Clarke did report that the light of the flares allowed Avro Ansons to sight and attack an E-boat, claiming it sunk (there is no corresponding loss reported by the Germans on that date). However, the flares temporarily blinded the pilots towing them and the tactic was not repeated.
The "Miracle of Dunkirk" ended on the 4th of 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 of 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 Squadron continued to operate bombing and reconnaissance missions over the coast of Northern France at this time using both Skuas and Rocs. The short-range of the Roc was not such an issue for these cross-channel operations and its extra defensive armament was particularly welcome. On the 12th June Skuas and Rocs of 801 Squadron strafed German E-boats in Boulogne harbour and then returned later in the day to dive-bomb the E-boats, doing major damage to one boat and lesser damage to another two and also machine-gunning a row of lorries packed with troops. On June 18th a Skua of 801 Squadron returned to Detling with damage and the pilot injured after a recce flight to the French coast. The reconnaissance flights of 801 Squadron revealed the Germans to be digging in large guns at Cap Griz Nez. On the 21st June (some sources say 20th June) 801 squadron sent 4 Skuas and 5 Rocs, with an escort of RAF Hurricanes, to dive-bomb these gun positions, obtaining direct hits on the target but losing 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 Royal Navy 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).
¹ Correct identification of the Junkers Ju 88 in the first 9 months of the war was hampered by a lack of good photographs of the type. The identification charts of German aircraft contained only a very crude, inaccurate representation. So it was common for the Heinkel He111 to be misidentified as a Junkers Ju 88 and vice-versa. To see an example of the Ju 88 identification silhouette available in early 1940 see this link.
"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
"806 Naval Air Squadron" By Brian Cull and Frederick Galea, published by Fonthill media 2019, ISBN 978-1-78155-750-
"The Battle of France - Then and Now" by Peter D. Cornwall is an exhaustive reference for combat losses by all the air forces involved.
"Flypast" magazine March 2007 has an article "Hard Rocs" giving details of Roc operations over Dunkirk.
"Ghost Fighters over Dunkirk" an article by Sqdn Ldr DH "Nobby" Clarke DFC, AFC, in the April 1959 edition of RAF Flying Review.
Details of three of the books mentioned on this page - Alexander McKee's "Strike from the Sky", Peter C Smiths "Skua!" and Eric Browns "Wings of the Navy" can be found on the Bibliography page.