McGlashan’s Hawker Hurricane P2902 flies again

The Hawker Hurricane of Squadron Leader Kenneth McGlashan AFC has taken to flight in the UK. ‘Mac’ had been shot down in this aircraft over Dunkirk in 1940 and after rediscovery and years of restoration, P2902, G-ROBT has taken to the air once more.

I cannot help but think of Mac and his lovely wife, Doreen, and how thrilled they would have been to see the Hurricane flying. I am sure that they are looking down from the heavens with a sense of nostalgia. In writing the book, ‘Down to Earth’, I was honoured to come to know them and in time, become friends. Today, I will remember them through the photos, notes and recordings from when we worked together on their story. In the meantime, here are some words about Mac to share with you.

Blue skies, Mac.

In the darkest days of 1940, the skies over Britain were a sea of swirling contrails as the Luftwaffe challenged the stoic resistance of the Royal Air Force and the British people. As the skies began to clear, Sir Winston Churchill made note of the debt owed to “The Few”. By numbers, they were the 3,000 fighter pilots who had defended the realm through the Battle of Britain and within this sum only three percent were officially recognised as “Aces”. Squadron Leader Kenneth Butterworth McGlashan AFC was proud to be counted amongst the remaining 97%.

Before the Battle of Britain came the Battle of France. The German forces had rapidly advanced to the French coast and encircled the Allies. Now, ‘Operation Dynamo’ was attempting to evacuate these troops across the Channel using all and sundry vessels to access the shallows of the coastline near Dunkirk. A tell-tale pall of smoke from burning oil and the haze of devastation hung over the evacuation.

Above the English Channel a young Pilot Officer, Kenneth McGlashan was perched at 25,000 feet, leading the rearmost section of Mk. I Hawker Hurricanes tasked to defend the evacuation from the continuous pounding of the Luftwaffe’s bombers. In a confused instant, McGlashan’s wingman blurted a garbled transmission and broke left aggressively, ahead two grey Messerschmitt Bf109s swept past. McGlashan rolled in on his foe when the sound of an alarm clock reverberated behind his head; it was a wake-up call initiated by German rounds striking armour-plating. He had gone from the hunter to the hunted in the blink of an eye.

“Red tracers started bombarding my cockpit, whistling between my legs and ravaging the left hand side of my cockpit. I slammed the control stick forward and to the right, entering a downward roll in that direction sending my world spinning around. The back of my legs stung as splinters from the maze of piping beneath my feet had been shredded. Engine coolant and all variety of oils showered me as smoke began to fill my cockpit. The attack seemed to have abated, though I knew my machine was done for. I pulled the aircraft out of the dive and began readying myself to bail out. I cut the engine and fuel and set about sliding back the hood. Silly me, I had been flying with my goggles atop my helmet. The mix of smoke and oils that were bringing down my Hurricane were also serving to partially blind me. I fumbled to get the canopy back, but each time it slid closed. In my excitement, I was failing to lock it open and I began to wonder if this is how my war was to end. At that moment, the second attack started.”

Powerless, McGlashan dived again, combining gravity and inertia to make a beeline for the beach below. He decided to test the newly held theory that the Hurricane was more effective at recovering from a dive than the 109 and at the very last moment heaved back on the control column with all the might he could muster.

“As the blood drained from my head, my world went ‘black and white’ and then just black …………………. When my sight returned, I was fortunately beetling along in level flight at the grand altitude of 10 feet towards Dunkirk. In an almost surreal scene, I weaved myself a path between the sea of abandoned trucks, Lorries and equipment that covered the beach.”

McGlashan’s Hurricane came to rest on the sand 9 miles south of Dunkirk near the Belgian border. His trek to the devastated township was punctuated by air battles overhead and encounters with German infantry fire, yet his overwhelming memory is of the isolation and the dead soldiery floating on the waves like so much flotsam.

“It was an eerie sensation walking along the beach surrounded by the debris of battle, whilst a fierce air battle continued to rage overhead. The rattling of machine gun fire and the pounding from an anti-aircraft battery filled the air. With expended cartridges and ammo belt links returning to earth, metal seemed to be falling out of the sky all around me and I stopped to pick up a ‘tin hat’.

As I walked the beach toward the rising smoke from the Dunkirk I had never felt such isolation. Downed on foreign soil in the midst of combat, I had no grasp of what was coming next. A mere teenager, I was face to face with the realities of the ground war. In all honesty, I had hoped that joining the RAF would have spared me from the horror.”

Returning to England via a Thames paddle steamer, McGlashan continued to operate with 245 Squadron from the RAF base at Hawkinge on the English coast and at the battle’s forefront. Soon the airfield fell under heavy bombardment and the squadron was transferred to Ireland to protect vital shipping routes against the Focke Wulf F-200 Condors. Before the relocation, McGlashan tangled with the Luftwaffe once again, this time over Cherbourg. Three bogies had climbed through his formation’s level but escaped the attention of his leader. The unreliable radio in his Hurricane failed to transmit a warning of the impending attack, so when the German fighters rolled in from above McGlashan broke with his section and confronted the enemy head-to-head. Inexplicably, at the crucial moment, the attacking leader abandoned his attack, peeling away and leaving McGlashan with a textbook full deflection shot.

“Laying off a gunsight’s width, I fired. The tracers streaked to the target and the De Wilde ammunition hit and sparkled as my shots worked their way entire way down his port side, from nose to the tail. My angle made for good penetration of the .303’s and I knew I had him as he started down.”

At this point the combination of slow speed, high bank angle and recoiling Brownings flicked McGlashan into a spin and the clouds below. Despite absolute confidence that he had his foe, the strict RAF guidelines precluded him claiming a victory; he had not seen the enemy aircraft crash, catch fire or explode.

After a frustrating period of cat and mouse with the Condors, McGlashan ventured into a new world, that of night fighting. Based out of RAF Cranage in north western England, 96 Squadron was equipped with cannon-equipped Mk II Hurricanes and the two-crew Boulton Paul Defiant. To date the young fighter pilot had only 17 hours previous night experience, all in fine weather. Now in the depths of 1941, the industrial refuse blended with the streams of low cloud to provide miserable conditions. To add to their woes after a sortie, the pilots had to dodge nearby barrage balloons before overcoming 100 foot trees on the airfield perimeter.

“On one particular evening, the standard recovery was not working well so they moved the approach lamps five times due to the debris of crashed aircraft. Finally, out of space and low on aeroplanes, they closed the airfield to operations.”

It was the early days of night-fighting and the modus operandi involved the stacking of aircraft above the burning cities of England. This layering of aircraft was termed the “Jacobs Ladder” and flying above 12,000 feet to hopefully remain out of the range of their own anti-aircraft batteries. Separated by a mere 500 feet, up to ten fighters would fly along pre-designated routes and look earthward for enemy bombers silhouetted against the inferno of devastation below. The technique was far from successful and on the rare occasion that the enemy was sighted below, the dive to attack would often only serve to put the fighters at the mercy of Ack Ack as the bomber slipped back into the veil of darkness.

After a short term instructing, McGlashan’s next posting was to 87 Squadron and immediately something big began to stir. On August 19th 1942, McGlashan departed RAF Tangmere on the second wave of fighters bound for Dieppe. It is now history that the landing at Dieppe, codenamed ‘Operation Jubilee’, was the allied forces first combined effort to land troops on the French Coast. It was also the greatest single day of losses for the RAF with over 100 aircraft failing to return, many due to the intense ground fire.

“With an air-filled VOOF my mission nearly ended there and then as a shell passed close enough to be heard. The sky was absolutely thick with the black smoke of exploding shells. The cliff tops were littered with houses within which were stationed light German anti-aircraft guns. They were terribly accurate and in company with the barrage from their heavy guns, there was little room left in the sky for us.”

With great relief he crossed the French coast, though now separated from his squadron. Alone, he set about attacking a major gun emplacement. His .303 Brownings were akin to throwing stones at a tank, so McGlashan made a series of attacks from varying approaches, popping up and hoping to surprise the German personnel behind the parapets.

“I was setting myself for a fourth attack when there was a series of chest wrenching “Bangs!” These were accompanied by columns of earth being hurled skyward. I looked up to see a bunch of our “Hurri-bombers” releasing their payload of two 250 pounders. I was down in the dirt, the wall of the gun’s parapet was ahead at eye height and I readied for one last pass when all hell broke loose. A deafening explosion erupted directly below me and threw my Hurricane hundreds of feet into the air. The percussion and negative “G” force starved my Merlin’s carburettor of fuel and all went quiet up the front. I was seemingly hanging in mid-air, with a choking engine, for a few of those seconds that seem to take forever. I thought I’d had it. “

McGlashan’s luck held out and he was able to limp the battered fighter and its overheating engine back across the Channel; but only just. Whilst waiting to de-brief at Tangmere before readying for another sortie his ground crew hailed him to come and inspect his aircraft more closely.

“The bottom of my aircraft was pulp. In the sagging canvas hung wires, pipes and numerous other pieces of the Hurricane’s anatomy, literally hanging by a thread. I was aghast.”

In the wake of the disastrous raid on Dieppe, McGlashan was on the move again, this time to 536 Squadron and a new night-fighting tactic termed, “Turbinlite’. The concept was to provide a “Hunter-Killer” pairing of aircraft to intercept enemy bombers. A Douglas Boston or Havoc equipped with a powerful floodlight in the nose constituted the ‘Hunter’ while a Hurricane flying in close formation would be the ‘Killer’ component. The technique was for the Boston to make a radar interception of the target, close to firing range and then illuminate the target with the brilliant spotlight for the Hurricane to attack. That was the theory. In reality, the danger of mid-air collision was far greater than the chances of a kill as the Hurricane held formation on the Boston with the assistance of a lone, tiny light shining its narrow beam.

The folly of Turbinlite was soon abandoned as advances in radar technology and the introduction of the de Havilland Mosquito made the pairing obsolete. For McGlashan, the ‘Mosquito’ was to be his next aircraft and the type on which he would ultimately accrue the majority of his flight time.

Prior to joining 264 Squadron, McGlashan had minimal experience on multi-engine aircraft his endorsement on the high-performance Mosquito consisted of riding along in the Navigator’s seat on a brief sortie, recorded in his log book simply as “watching things”.

Paired with a Navigator/Radar, McGlashan’s primary task involved the all-weather radar interception of enemy aircraft. By 1943 German bombers had well and truly ceased to cross the British coastline in any numbers. More often lone ‘intruders’ would make attacks which had more effect on morale than being of real strategic significance. Conducting a post-maintenance test flight on May 5th, McGlashan and his Nav/Rad Bernard Cannon were brought down, not by enemy fire, but an explosive failure of the port engine. Never having been formally trained in ‘engine-out’ flying, McGlashan’s approach to land was high and fast and ended in a fireball at the end of the runway at RAF Colerne. Whilst Cannon escaped unscathed, McGlashan was dragged unconscious from the wreck and subsequently spent an extended term in hospital. Post war the experience would result in McGlashan formulating a multi-engine training syllabus for the RAF which contributed to the award of Air Force Cross.

McGlashan’s final operational sorties occurred on the night of June 5th/6th 1944 as allied forces prepared to land at Normandy. Training clandestinely away from the peering eyes of radar, a handful of specially equipped Mosquitos were tasked with ‘jamming’ and German aircraft that were set to disrupt communications on D-Day. This had become a real concern just prior to the landings when a Junkers Ju88 had been downed over England in the preceding weeks. On board was radio jamming equipment which covered the spectrum of allied frequencies intended for use at Normandy.

On the eve of D-Day, the handful of 264 Squadron Mosquitos was the only aircraft airborne as they hunted for enemy aircraft. Flying ever expanding circles over France, they had orders to shoot down or if need be ‘ram’ any targets. After extensive training, thorough briefings and pre-flight tension, the skies proved to be clear.

“For three hours, we sought out any evidence of German signals or jamming devices and registered nothing. Did we genuinely have an element of surprise, or were the enemy lying low and waiting for us in his den? Whatever the cause, we encountered nothing at all until we turned for home and started to pick up the foil being snidely dropped by our own bombers. To our radar the ‘chaff’ painted a very impressive strike force that never was!”

Following D-Day, McGlashan was deemed ‘Tourex’ or ‘Tour Expired’. Having flown continuously since the outbreak of the war in 1939, he was not bound for France with the rest of 264 Squadron. He saw out the war, seconded to the British Civil airline BOAC based in Cairo and establishing air routes through the Middle East. Post war he would command his own fighter squadron, see the transition of RAF fighters to a jet force and serve in the nasty campaign in Cyprus. He would finally leave the RAF in 1958 after nearly 20 years service as a Squadron Leader with the Air Force Cross and the esteemed “Battle of Britain” clasp to his credit.

Nearly half a century later and living in Australia, McGlashan received a mysterious letter from England. It outlined facts that initially the retired fighter pilot had trouble grasping; the Hawker Hurricane that he had left on the Dunkirk beach in 1940 had surfaced through the sand and now been recovered. In an emotional pilgrimage to France, McGlashan was reunited with the steed of his youth and its bullet riddled cockpit.

“The port side still bore numerous wounds from the spitting guns of the Messerschmitt. The canopy panels were shattered, metal frames were holed and the windscreen bore evidence of a lethal projectile. I drew close and leant over, attempting to align myself with the angle of the attack. Peering through one hole towards another in the glass, I could make out the trajectory as the bullet had sped across the cockpit. How it had missed me, I’ll never know. This was probably the most overwhelming of the many thoughts and feelings that swirled about me. I felt like a ghost. I felt that the bullets had passed clean through me. Yet here I was. Given the fury that had been expended upon my cockpit, it defied logic that I had not met my end over the French shores.”

Today the restoration of the Hurricane is nearing completion and it is set to again take to the skies, though unfortunately Kenneth Butterworth McGlashan has not lived to see the event take place. He never saw himself other than an ordinary man who was thrust into extraordinary times. For history’s part he will always remain one of “The Few”. Albeit one of the proud 97%.