Dinger's Aviation Pages
First Blood

Detailing the first confirmed victory by a British naval aircraft in WW2. Revised in July 2024.

After the loss of two Blackburn Skuas in the
Fanad Head action, 803 Squadron were not long in getting revenge. On the 26th of September 1939, the Ark Royal along with the battleships Nelson and Rodney were part of a force sent to cover the escape of the badly damaged British submarine HMS Spearfish from German waters. They were 250 miles North West of the German North Sea fortress island of Heligoland when a Dornier 18 flying boat was sighted and at 11:00 hrs three Skuas of 803 Squadron were launched to intercept it. They claimed this Dornier as damaged near position 57.36N 02.36E. Another Dornier was sighted soon afterwards and another three Skuas of 803 were launched at 11:30 hrs. This Dornier (coded M7+YK) was shot down by Lt BS McEwen and PO BM Seymour, the 4 crewmen of the stricken aircraft were picked up by the destroyer HMS Somali. A third Dornier then appeared and another three Skuas, this time of 800 Squadron, were launched at 12:30 and they claimed this third Dornier as damaged.

Most reports of the event say that all four members of the crew of the Dornier were rescued unharmed. However, one
<see link here> says that one of the crew members, Lt Wilhelm Fhr von Reizenstein, was killed in the incident. It lists the surviving three crewmembers as Lt Ernst Körner, Uffz Heckt and Uffz Schmalfeld. Other online records list all four members of the crew as taken prisoner but indicate that Lt Wilhelm Fhr von Reizenstein may have died of wounds later, or died in captivity.

The engagement highlighted a critical deficiency in the Royal Navy's almost paranoid doctrine of enforcing "radio silence". Although the German seaplanes were visible to lookouts on the warships their position could not be relayed to the Skua crews with accuracy by Aldis lamp signals. The Skuas had to be alerted to the direction of the German aircraft by flares launched from the warships.

This shooting down of the Dornier 18 is often cited as the first kill by a British Aircraft in World War II. In fact, the first claimed kill was by Sgt F.A. Letchford, an observer/gunner in a Fairy Battle Bomber of 88 Sqdn RAF, 6 days earlier, on the 20th September 1939. Sgt Letchford's claim was not confirmed straight away and modern research seems to show that the claim was mistaken, which would indeed make the Skua's downing of the Dornier the first British aerial victory of WW2. See notes below for the full story.


This is the actual Dornier 18 D (coded M7+YK) shot down by the Skuas. The Dornier's crew are scrambling into an inflatable dingy before being rescued by the destroyer HMS Somali. the Dornier was then sunk by gunfire from the destroyer. At one stage there was a suggestion that these photos, and others in the same sequence, were of a Dornier shot down on 17th October 1939 by Gladiators of 607 Squadron, the crew being rescued by HMS Juno. This possibility has been ruled out by research by Robert Dixon.


The Dornier, as seen from HMS Somali as it closed to pick up the crew. The Dornier was then sunk by naval gunfire

With the position of the British fleet passed to the Luftwaffe by the Dornier 18 flying boats, a force of German bombers was soon on its way. At the time this force was reported by the British to be Heinkel He 111s, but the aircraft that actually attacked the
Ark Royal were Junkers 88s*. Bad visibility obstructed the bomber's attacks. No Skuas were airborne to intercept them, Royal Navy doctrine at the time was that bomber attacks could be driven off by anti-aircraft fire alone! A policy soon to change! None of the German bombers scored any hits, but a very close miss was scored by Leutnant Adolf Francke flying one of the Ju 88s who reported that he thought he had hit the Ark Royal. A reconnaissance flight by the Germans later spotted a large fleet of Royal Navy ships without an aircraft carrier amongst them so the Germans assumed that the Ark Royal had been sunk. What they did not know was that there had been two large groups of Royal Navy ships in that part of the North Sea that day, and they had spotted the one without an aircraft carrier. Poor Adolf Francke was caught up in the Nazi propaganda machine, he was hailed as a hero, promoted and given the Iron Cross while the Nazis churned out vivid accounts of his destruction of the Ark Royal. This all backfired when the Royal Navy was able to show off the Ark Royal in neutral ports. Adolf Francke later reportedly committed suicide (although this is disputed). The lesson of trying to score a hasty propaganda coup was not lost on the British, but it did mean they did not take full propaganda advantage of the Skuas sinking of the cruiser Königsberg a few months later.



The German press revelled in the "sinking" of the Ark Royal.

From October 1939, 801 Squadron operated briefly from
HMS Furious on Convoy Patrols. 803 Squadron stayed aboard the Ark Royal when she was sent to operate from Freetown on the West Coast of Africa as part of "Force K" searching for the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. When this threat was removed by the scuttling of the Graf Spee at Montevideo, on 17th December 1939, the Ark Royal returned to Scapa Flow. The two Skua squadrons then operated as fighters for the defence of the fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow flying out of the RAF airfield at Wick on the Scottish mainland and then Hatston airfield, just west of Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands (known as HMS Sparrowhawk by the Navy). During the winter and spring of 1940, the Skuas drove off many Heinkels and Dorniers, but only one kill was claimed, on 20th March, a Heinkel 111 was destroyed by Lt.William Paulet Lucy (commander of 803 Squadron) and his crewman Lt. Michael Charles Edward Hanson. In this period some Blackburn Rocs were also operated by the Hatston squadrons and one of these, operated by 803 Squadron claimed a Heinkel 111 damaged. The Squadrons were operating a mix of Skuas and Rocs in this period, and the extra range of the Skua was considered of great benefit compared with the shorter range of RAF Fighters such as the Spitfire and Hurricane. The Skua squadrons then went on to sink the German cruiser Königsberg in Bergen harbour and take part in the Norwegian campaign.

Note

* It is hardly surprising that the British misidentified the Ju88s as Heinkels because they would never have seen any pictures of this new German design (the first image of a Ju88 to appear in "Flight" magazine did not do so until the 12th of October 1939, even then it was a very inaccurate artists impression rather than an actual photo). Confirmation that the aircraft that attacked the Ark Royal were Ju 88s can be found in Henry Buckton's book "Birth of the Few" (Airlife 1998 ISBN 1 85310972 X). On Page 66 there is a quote from Sigmund Storp who flew in a Ju 88 alongside that flown by Adolf Francke.

Notes on the first British aircraft to shoot down an enemy aircraft in WWII.

On 20th September 1939, three Fairey Battle bombers of 88 Squadron based at Mourmelon-Le-Grand in France as part of the RAF Advanced Air Striking Force (A.A.S.F.) took off at 10 am for a recce flight. One source (Norman Franks' "Valiant Wings") says the flight was along the whole length of the German border with Luxembourg and Belgium from east of Saarbrücken all the way to Aachen. If so, this was the first major daylight penetration of German airspace attempted by the RAF, previous daylight missions by Battles (starting on the 9th of September) had only ventured 5 or so miles into Germany and incurred no losses to German action (propaganda leaflet dropping missions over Germany at night by RAF Bomber Command Whitleys had been going on from the start of the war on the 3rd of September). The Battles were fired on by French anti-aircraft guns before they crossed the French border near Bitche (the firing ceased when the aircraft fired off "colours-of-the-day" flares). The same source says they were over Aachen when they were engaged by three Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters that other sources identify as belonging to 5/JG53 (the famous "Pik As"Geschwader). If this is true, rather than seek the safety of neutral airspace over Belgium, the Battles retraced their flight back some 120 miles along the German border. "Valiant Wings" implies that Battle K9245 flown by Flight Sgt D.A. Page with crewmen Sgt A.W. Eggington and AC1 W.A.W. Radford was shot down over Germany. All other sources say it made it back over the French border before crashing near Guéblange, this certainly seems true since the crew are buried in France. Battle K9242 flown by Flying Officer R.C. Graveley with crewmen Sgt W.S. Everett and AC1 D.J. John, definitely made it all the way back to Bitche in France before crashing. Flying Officer Graveley was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal (later exchanged for the George Cross when it was introduced) for his attempts to rescue his crew from the burning aircraft. In the remaining aircraft, K9243 flown by Flying Officer L.H. Baker and crewed by Sgt L.H. Letchford and AC1 C.A. Edwards, fire was returned by Sgt L.H. Letchford in the gunner's position. He claimed a Bf109 shot down. This does not seem to have been officially "confirmed" at first, which is why the shooting down of the Dornier by Skuas on the 26th is often listed as the first British aerial victory of WWII. It should more accurately be called the first British aerial victory to be confirmed. Evidence to support the claim for Sgt Letchford came later, from French sources, which in turn led to it being confirmed. However German records list no Bf109 being lost in combat on the Western Front that day.

According to German records, the first loss to an RAF aircraft on the Western Front was that of a Messerschmitt Bf109D-1 on Wednesday, Sept 27th 1939 (the day after the Ark Royal's Skuas shot down the Dornier 18). The German aircraft was piloted by Obergefreiter Joseph Stern of Jagdgruppe 152, who was killed. Stern had been one of three German fighters attacking a formation of three Fairey Battles of 103 Squadron on a recce mission over the front lines near Saarbrücken. Stern's aircraft was hit by return fire from Leading Aircraftman (LAC) John Summers, the rear gunner of one of the Battles. Stern's Bf109 fell in dense woodland on the French side of the lines. The Observer in Summer's Battle, Sgt John Henry Vickers, was seriously wounded in the exchange, so the Battle's pilot, Flying Officer Arthur Vipan, carried out a forced landing on a French airfield to get him to hospital as quickly as possible. Sergeant Vickers died of his wounds ten days later. The Battle (K9271) was reported to have been only slightly damaged in the forced landing but seems to have been written off and never repaired to fly again. The other two Battles in the formation escaped unharmed, the remaining German fighters having been scared off by the appearance of French Morane MS406 fighters. The Messerschmitt Bf109D-1 fighter that Jagdgruppe 152 was equipped with, had an armament of only four rifle-calibre machine guns and had a less powerful engine than the later Bf109E version that made up most of the Luftwaffe's fighter strength.

Sources for the above accounts are
"Valiant Wings" (2nd edition, 1994) by Norman Franks, "The Battle of France - Then and Now" (2007) by Peter D. Cornwall. The database of losses on the International Bomber Command Website and the RAF Commands website.