Before Germany could mount Operation Sea Lion, a cross-channel invasion of the British Isles, it needed to have complete air superiority over the invasion fleet. Because of the Luftwaffe‘s greater numbers and modern aircraft, German military leadership believed this could best be accomplished by defeating the Royal Air Force in air-to-air combat.
The Royal Air Force had been conserving their limited numbers of pilots and aircraft up to this point in the war. Germany’s plan was to send its bombers against targets that the R.A.F. would be forced to defend. The escorting Messerschmitt Bf 109s (also referred to as the Me 109) would then shoot down the Boulton Paul Defiants and Bristol Blenheims. But the Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires were up to the task. While the Hurricanes went after the Luftwaffe’s Dornier 17 and Heinkel He 111 bombers, the Spitfires engaged their Bf 109 fighter escorts.
Britain used a system of radar-directed ground control of its fighter squadrons. The result was that, although both sides lost about the same number of aircraft, the Battle of Britain was a decisive victory for Great Britain. Germany was forced to give up on its plans for an invasion of England.
During a speech the House of Commons, 20 August 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the pilots of Fighter Command when he said,
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Ever since, the Royal Air Force has been known as “The Few.”
Royal Air Force aircraft:
Highly recommended:Duel of Eagles, by Group Captain Peter Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC and Bar, Royal Air Force. Cassell Publishers Limited, 1970 and Castle Books, 2003.
Friday, 5 April 1968: Flight Lieutenant Alan Richard Pollock, No. 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force, based at RAF West Raynham, southwest of Fakenham, Norfolk, was leading a flight of four Hawker Hunter FGA.9 close air support fighters. Pollock described the weather:
“Over London the weather was still one of those rare perfect 8/8 Gordon’s crystal, gin clear days when all the colours shout out brightly.”
Pollock broke away from the formation and flew toward London.
FLIGHT International reported:
Hunter to Tower—Under
An RAF Hunter few through the Tower Bridge, London, in a down-river direction just after noon last Friday, April 5. The Hunter, carrying underwing tanks, was glimpsed momentarily from Flight‘s offices in a descending, mushing turn until lost to sight behind United Africa House. Previous flights through Tower Bridge—never in a jet, and never so fast—have invariably been made in an up-river direction.
The MoD was investigating as we closed for press; the supposition was that the aircraft was an FGA.9 of 1 or 54 Squadrons, which comprise the close-support wing at RAF West Raynham. The station refused comment, but flying was taking place that day. Visibility was excellent. Some authorities attributed the incident to widespread resentment that the RAF had been deprived of a ceremonial fly-past on the 50th anniversary day, April 1. The Red Arrows were expecting to make this fly-past last month, but permission was presumably denied. A Ministry of Defence spokesman to whom we were referred at press time by the duty officer at RAF West Raynham, was not then able to reveal the name of the pilot.
—FLIGHT International, Vol. 93, Number 3083, 11 April 1968, at Page 500, Column 3
. . . and the following week:
The Man Who Shot the Bridge
The RAF pilot who flew a Hunter FGA.9 through Tower Bridge, London, on April 5 was no youthful prankster but a senior flight commander of 1 Sqn, RAF West Raynham, an Old Cranwellian, and the father of four children.
He was Flt Lt Alan Richard Pollock, aged 32. He was named on Sunday, April 7, by MoD (Air) too late, owing to Easter press schedules, for mention in our last week’s story. Flt Lt Pollock was placed under close arrest on April 5 and released into open arrest on April 7. A board of inquiry was convened at West Raynham on April 8. An all-party motion signed by six MPs [Members of Parliament] was tabled in the Commons in his support but was ruled unacceptable.
Whatever their views on the responsibility and possible consequences of flying a jet fighter through the 200ft-wide, 110ft-deep aperture framed by the towers, the bascules and the upper span of Tower Bridge, there is unanimity among pilots that it was a handsome piece of flying.
Flt Lt Pollock was the first pilot to fly through the bridge in a downstream direction, following the gentle sinuousities of King’s Reach from the Waterloo Bend—and passing over Blackfriars’ two bridges (road and rail), Southwark Bridge, Cannon Street rail bridge, and London Bridge. After clearing the last he probably had little more than five seconds to align himself with the eye of the needle presented by Tower Bridge, retaining until the last fraction of a second the option of pulling up had he found the opening partly obstructed by abnormally high vehicles, by hanging cradles or by the bascules opening.
It has been reported that Flt Lt Pollock peeled off from a formation returning from RAF Tangmere, where he had led four Hunters on display duties. This might have accounted for his choice of direction. The absence of pre-placed photographers, who always seem to have been around on previous Tower Bridge buzzings, seems to rule out premeditation. Another explanation of why he preferred the crane-lined Upper Pool downstream of Tower Bridge for his climb-out when all previous pilots have used it for the run in may have been to avoid climbing through the flight levels occupied by airliners on the approach to Heathrow had he made a westerly climb-out. He turned to port over the City.
The RAF and civil authorities were tussling last week about whether Flt Lt Pollock should be court-martialled or tried in a civil court. His one-man fly-past was construed in and outside the RAF as an expression of resentment felt by many in the Service—including those now responsible for deciding his punishment—of the way the Royal Air Force is being treated by the Government. It may be that the last straw was the cancellation of the 50th anniversary fly-past over the capital on April 1. A fly-past planned in conjunction with the Lancaster House dinner with the Queen was cancelled at the last moment as “inappropriate.” A mid-day fly-past, seen by the maximum number of Londoners and visitors, would have been most “appropriate” on this occasion.
Attitudes to the Tower Bridge exploit of past and present members of the RAF whom we have questioned vary from the very strongly censorious to the frankly admiring; but an unvarying theme was that some RAF protest was called for, without infringing flying discipline.
—FLIGHT International, Volume 93, Number 3084, 18 April 1968 at Page 567, Columns 1 and 2
The Royal Air Force did not court-martial Flight Lieutenant Pollack. A medical board discharged him from the service. The Ministry of Defence announced that Pollack had been hospitalized with pneumonia, and that, “. . . if he were brought to trial it would probably have a damaging effect on his health, both immediately and in the long term.”
An oral history recording with Alan Pollack (32 minutes, 20 seconds) is available at the Imperial War Museum:
This was not the first time an airplane had flown through Tower Bridge. On 10 August 1912, Frank McLean (later, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Kennedy McLean, A.F.C.) flew his modified Short S.33 float plane, and, according to his obituary in The Times, 12 August 1955, “. . . created a record by flying up the Thames in a seaplane, passing between the upper and lower parts of Tower Bridge and under London Bridge without touching the water.”
Alan Pollock was flying a Hawker Hunter FGA.9, XF442, c/n S4/U/3318. It had been converted from a Hunter F.6 interceptor. The Hunter was a single-seat, single-engine, swept-wing jet fighter, which first entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1954. The FGA.9 ground attack variant was based on the Hunter F.6 interceptor.
The FGA.9 was 33 feet, 8 inches (10.262 meters) long with a wingspan of 45 feet, 10½ inches (13.983 meters) and height of 13 feet, 2 inches (4.013 meters). The wing area was 340 square feet (31.6 square meters). The wings were swept back 40° at ¼-chord, and had an angle of incidence of 1½°. There is noticeable anhedral. The FGA.9 had and empty weight of 13,010 pounds (5,901 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 18,000 pounds (8,165 kilograms).
The FGA.9 was powered by a single Rolls-Royce RA.28 Avon 207 engine. This was a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet with a 15-stage compressor and 2-stage turbine. The RA.28 was 10 feet, 3.0 inches (3.124 meters) long, 3 feet, 5.5 inches (1.054 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,869 pounds (1,301 kilograms). It was rated at 10,050 pounds of thrust (44.7 Kilonewtons).
The Hunter FGA.9 had a maximum speed of 702 miles per hour at 15,000 feet (4,572 meters)—0.97 Mach—and maximum range of 1,850 miles (2,977 kilometers) with external fuel tanks.
The basic armament of the Hunter were four 30 mm ADEN autocannon installed in a removable gun pack, along with 150 rounds of ammunition per gun. The ADEN was a gas-operated revolver cannon, capable of firing 1,200–1,400 rounds per minute. The FGA.9 could also carry a 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) bomb under each wing, twenty-four 3-inch rockets, or two rocket pods with thirty-seven 2-inch rockets, each, for ground attack.
Hawker produced 144 of the Hunter FGA.9 ground attack variant, with 12 modified from F.6 interceptors. Most of Hawker’s foreign sales were based on the FGA.9.
Hawker Hunter FGA.9 XF442 was transferred to the Fuerza Aérea de Chile, 24 April 1982, and assigned identification number J-742. It crashed near Antofagasta, in northern Chile, 20 May 1982.
Alan Pollock was recently interviewed for the Daily Mail:
6 November 1935: The prototype Hawker Hurricane, K5083, first flew at the Brooklands airfield, Weybridge, Surrey, with test pilot Flight Lieutenant P.W.S. (“George”) Bulman (later Group Captain Paul Ward Spencer Bulman, CBE, MC, AFC and Bar).
Designed by Sydney Camm to meet a Royal Air Force Specification for a high speed monoplane interceptor, the airplane was designed around the Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine. (“PV” stood for Private Venture.)
The Hurricane was built in the traditional means of a light but strong framework covered by doped linen fabric. Rather than wood, however, the Hurricane’s framework used high strength steel tubing for the aft fuselage. A girder structure covered in sheet metal made up the forward fuselage. A primary consideration of the fighter’s designer was to provide good visibility for the pilot. The cockpit sits high in the fuselage and gives the airplane its characteristic hump back profile. The cockpit was enclosed by a sliding canopy. The landing gear was retractable.
The Rolls-Royce PV-12 was a developmental liquid-cooled 1,649-cubic-inch-displacement (27.022 liter) 60° V-12 that would become the legendary Merlin aircraft engine. The PV-12 first ran in 1933 and initially produced 700 horsepower. The engine was progressively improved and by the time the Hurricane prototype first flew, it was equipped with a supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin C, Air Ministry serial number 111144, which had a Normal Power rating of 1,029 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m, at an altitude of 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), with +6 pounds per square inch boost. The V-12 engine turned a Watts two-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller through a gear reduction drive (possibly 0.420:1).
In early flight testing, K5083 reached 315 miles per hour (507 kilometers per hour) at 16,200 feet (4,938 meters), with the V-12 turning 2,960 r.p.m. and +6 pounds per square inch (0.414 Bar) of boost. The speed exceeded the RAF’s requirement by 5 miles per hour. The prototype was able to take off in as little as 795 feet (242 meters) and to climb to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) in just 5 minutes, 42 seconds. It reached 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in 8 minutes, 24 seconds. The prototype’s service ceiling was 34,500 feet (10,516 meters). The estimated absolute ceiling was 35,400 feet (10,790 meters)
The Hawker Hurricane Mk.I was ordered into production in the summer of 1936. The first production airplane flew on 12 October 1937. The Hurricane Mk. I retained the wooden fixed-pitch propeller and fabric-covered wings of the prototype, though this would change with subsequent models. It was 31 feet, 5 inches (9.576 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 0 inches (12.192 meters), and overall height of 10 feet, 6 inches (3.200 meters). Its empty weight was 5,234 pounds (2,374 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 6,793 pounds (3,081 kilograms).
The Hurricane Mk.I was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin Mk.II or Mk.III. The Mk.III was rated at 1,030 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. at 16,250 feet (4,953 meters).
The Mk.I’s best economical cruising speed was 212 miles per hour (341 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters), and its maximum speed was 316 miles per hour (509 kilometers per hour) at 17,750 feet (5,410 meters) and 6,440 pounds (2,921 kilograms). The airplane’s range was 585 miles (941 kilometers). The Hurricane Mk.I could climb to 20,000 feet in 9.7 minutes.
The fighter was armed with eight Browning .303 Mark II machine guns mounted in the wings, with 334 rounds of ammunition per gun.
Peter Townsend described the Hurricane in his book, Duel of Eagles:
“. . . By December  we had our full initial equipment of sixteen aircraft. The Fury had been a delightful play-thing; the Hurricane was a thoroughly war-like machine, rock solid as a platform for eight Browning machine-guns, highly manoeuvrable despite its large proportions and with an excellent view from the cockpit. The Hurricane lacked the speed and glamour of the Spitfire and was slower than the Me. 109, whose pilots were to develop contempt for it and a snobbish preference for being shot down by Spitfires. But figures were to prove that during the Battle of Britain, machine for machine, the Hurricane would acquit itself every bit as well as the Spitfire and in the aggregate (there were more than three Hurricanes to two Spitfires) do greater damage among the Luftwaffe.”
—Duel of Eagles, Group Captain Peter Wooldridge Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC and Bar, RAF. Cassell Publishers Limited, London, Chapter 13 at Pages 153–154.
At the beginning of World War II, 497 Hurricanes had been delivered to the Royal Air Force, enough to equip 18 squadrons. During the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane accounted for 55% of all enemy aircraft destroyed. Continuously upgraded throughout the war, it remained in production until 1944. A total of 14,503 were built by Hawker Aircraft Ltd., Gloster Aircraft Company, and the Canadian Car and Foundry Company.
NOTE: While researching a question by reader Drew Mercer, I came across some additional photographs of “Taffy” Clowes and his Hawker Hurricane, so I thought I would add them. P3395 has a bee painted on its engine cowling. Each time Taffy shot down an enemy airplane, he added a stripe.
The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery : —
Flight Lieutenant James Brindley NICOLSON (39329) — No. 249 Squadron.
During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on 16th August, 1940, Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank. When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down, although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs.
Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.
—The London Gazette, Number 34993, Friday, 15 November 1940, at Page 6569, Column 1
Peter Townsend wrote about Nick Nicolson’s battle in his history of the Battle of Britain, Duel of Eagles:
“Flight Lieutenant J.B. Nicolson of 249 Squadron was patrolling in his Hurricane west of Tangmere at seventeen thousand feet. He dived on some Ju. 88s when suddenly his Hurricane staggered. From somewhere behind bullets and cannon shells ripped through the hood, hit him in the foot and pierced his centre-tank. A searing mass of flame filled the cockpit. As he whipped into a steep turn he saw the offender, a Me. 110, slide below, diving hard. A wild resolve, stronger than reason, seized Nicolson. The cockpit a furnace, his dashboard ‘dripping like treacle’ and his hands fused by heat onto throttle and stick, he yelled, ‘I’ll get you, you Hun.’ And he went firing until the Me. 110 fell, until the frightful agony of his burns had passed the threshold of feeling. Then he struggled out of the cockpit and still wreathed in flames fell until the rush of cold air extinguished them. Only then did his mutilated hand fumble for the ripcord and somehow find strength to pull it. As if his sufferings were not already enough, some imbecile of a Home Guard fired at Nicolson and hit him fifty feet above the village of Millbrook in Hampshire.
“The gallant Nicolson was awarded the Victoria Cross. Of three thousand fighter pilots who fought in the battle ‘to defend the cause of civilization’ Nicolson alone among the defenders received the supreme award for valour. It was enough. The twenty-three-year-old pilot was typical of his young comrades. Alone in their tiny cockpits miles above the earth, there courage was of a peculiar kind which no medal, no material standard, could ever properly measure.”
— Duel of Eagles, Group Captain Peter Wooldridge Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC and Bar, RAF. Cassell Publishers Limited, London, Chapter 23 at Pages 328–329.
Nick Nicolson’s fighter was a Hawker Hurricane Mk.I, P3576, with squadron markings GN A. It was in the third production block of 544 Hurricanes built by Hawker Aircraft Limited, Brooklands, between February and July 1940.
The Hurricane Mk.I was ordered into production in the summer of 1936. The first production airplane flew on 12 October 1937. The early production Hurricane Mk. I retained the wooden fixed-pitch propeller and fabric-covered wings of the prototype, though this would change with subsequent models. It was 31 feet, 4 inches (9.550 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet (12.192 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 3 inches (4.039 meters). Its empty weight was 4,982 pounds (2,260 kilograms) and gross weight was 6,750 pounds (3,062 kilograms).
The Mk.I’s engine was a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 27.01 liter (1,648.96 cubic inches) Rolls-Royce R.M.1.S. Merlin Mk.III single-overhead-cam 60° V-12, rated at 990 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at 12,250 feet (3,734 meters), and 1,030 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., at 10,250 feet (3,124 meters), using 87 octane aviation gasoline. The Merlin III drove the propeller through a 0.477:1 gear reduction ratio. It weighed 1,375 pounds (624 kilograms).
The fixed-pitch propeller was soon replaced with a three-bladed, two-pitch propeller, and then a three-bladed constant-speed propeller. Speed trials of a Mk.I equipped with a 10 foot, 9 inch (3.277 meters) diameter Rotol constant-speed propeller achieved a maximum True Air Speed in level flight of 316 miles per hour (509 kilometers per hour) at 17,750 feet (5,410 meters) at 3,000 r.p.m. The service ceiling was 33,750 feet (10,287 meters). The Mk.I’s range was 600 miles (966 kilometers) at 175 miles per hour (282 kilometers per hour).
The fighter was armed with eight Browning .303-caliber Mark II machine guns mounted in the wings.
At the beginning of World War II, 497 Hurricanes had been delivered to the Royal Air Force, enough to equip 18 squadrons. During the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane accounted for 55% of the enemy aircraft destroyed. Continuously upgraded throughout the war, it remained in production until 1944. A total of 14,503 were built by Hawker, Gloster and the Canadian Car and Foundry Company.
Eric James Brindley Nicolson was born 29 April 1917 at Hampstead, London, England. His parents were Leslie Gibson Nicolson and Dorothea Hilda Ellen Brindley. He was educated at the Tonbridge School in Kent, a private school which was founded in 1553. Nicolson was employed as an experimental engineer at Sir Henry Ricardo’s Engine Patents, Ltd., Shoreham, West Sussex, until joining the Royal Air Force in October 1936. On 21 December 1936, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer. After flight training, P/O Nicolson served with No. 72 Squadron at RAF Church Fenton, North Yorkshire, August 1937–May 1940. He was promoted to Flying Officer, 12 May 1939.
On 29 July 1939, Eric Nicolson was married to Miss Muriel Caroline Kendall of Kirby Wharfe, Yorkshire.
Flying Officer Nicolson was assigned to No. 249 Squadron at RAF Leconfield, East Riding of Yorkshire, 15 May 1940, as an acting flight commander, and then promoted to Flight Lieutenant, 3 September 1940.
Following the action of 16 November, Flight Lieutenant Nicolson was hospitalized at the burn unit of Princess Mary’s Hospital, RAF Halton, Buckinghamshire, and then sent to a convalescent facility at Torquay, Devon. On 12 January 1941, he was promoted to Squadron Leader.
Nicolson returned to duty 24 February 1941, with 54 Operational Training Unit. From 21 September 1941 to 16 March 1942, he commanded No. 1459 Flight at RAF Hibaldstow, Lincolnshire. This was a night fighter unit, flying the Douglas Boston (P-70 Havoc). He was next assigned as a staff officer at Headquarters, 293 Wing, Royal Air Force, Alipore, West Bengal, India. After another staff assignment, Squadron Leader Nicolson was given command of 27 Squadron, a de Havilland Mosquito squadron at Agartala, in northeast India.
Nick Nicolson was promoted to Wing Commander 11 August 1944 and assigned to 3rd Tactical Air Force Headquarters in the Comilla Cantonment, East Bengal.
Wing Commander Eric James Brindley Nicolson, V.C., D.F.C., died 2 May 1945, while flying as an observer aboard a No. 355 Squadron Consolidated Liberator B Mk.VI, KH210, “R” (B-24J-85-CF 44-44071). At approximately 0250 hours, two engines caught fire. The bomber, piloted by Squadron Leader G.A. De Souza, RAF, and Flight Sergeant Michael Henry Pullen, Royal Australian Air Force, ditched in the Bay of Bengal, approximately 130 miles (209 kilometers) south of Calcutta. Of the eleven on board, only Pullen and one of the gunners survived.
Nicolson was the only RAF Fighter Command pilot awarded the Victoria Cross during World War II.