Have guns, will travel

Rhubarbs and Recces: Flying Tactical Recon with RCAF 414 Squadron

By RCAF Pilot Officer Clyde East

When I arrived in England with fellow RCAF fighter pilots in the spring of 1943, I was given my choice of four different fighter aircraft to fly— the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, the Typhoon or the new American fighter called the Mustang. Naturally, being an American in Canadian clothing, 1 choose the Mustang. The British named these early models the Mk I Mustang and these were built to British specifications. About the only negative thing I can say about these early Mustangs was the fact that they were powered by a single-stage supercharged V-1710 Allison engine.

Altitude limited, but great down low!

The Allison engine was fine, quite good, actually, at low level. In my mind, the Mustang was the fastest and most capable fighter the RAF had in the theater at that time. The problem was when you went above 10,000 feet; that’s when its tongue would begin to hang out straining to go higher and was literally out of breath over 20,000 feet. Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe Me 109 and Fw 190 fighters typically operated well into the 25,000 and 30,000 foot range and could sit up there all day long, pouncing on us at will. But as a Recce pilot, I rarely operated over 5,000 feet anyway and typically flew around at 500 feet or below—the lower you got, the easier it was to sneak up on the enemy! I was quite satisfied with the Mustang’s performance down low. It became the premier fighter of the war when the Rolls-Royce Merlin was mated to it, but that would come later.

Although the British realized the Mustang’s altitude shortcomings, they switched its role and exploited its strengths down on the deck. Primar-Newly minted RCAF pilot Clyde East poses for his formal portrait.

Clyde transferred to the USAAC and ended the war with 13 confirmed victories. (Photo courtesy of author) ily assigned to the RAF Army Co-operation Command squadrons in a tactical reconnaissance role, our Mustangs carried out a variety of missions. Our main job was to cause as much confusion, havoc and disturbances with the Germans as we could. There was always something to shoot at and plenty of photos to take as the war planner wanted to know what was going on with the Germans on the other side of the channel. The Mustang was armed with four .50 caliber machine guns and four .30 caliber machine guns; the Mustang carried quite a punch. The ,50s could punch holes in most trains and the early German armor; unfortunately, the ,30s barely chipped the German paint so we didn’t fool with them very much. But by and large, its most deadly weapon was the oblique F.24 camera it carried in the rear window just behind the pilot. Our main task was to gather intelligence on the Germans by taking photos of their troop build-ups and infrastructure. Shooting with a camera was okay, but shooting at targets of opportunity was more my cup of tea.

The game was called Rhubarb

Most of the 26 Tac/Recon missions I flew with 414 Squadron were over France, Belgium and Holland on what we called «Rhubarbs.» This called for a flight of two Mustangs to go out as a pair from our forward bases is England and then go hunting for targets of opportunity like stray airplanes, barge traffic, light armor, communication wires and trains—especially trains. Driving up and down railroads, it was easy to spot the large plumes of smoke coming from the engines as they roared across France. If you were able to get your gunsight properly set on the train, we could normally knock out the engine with just a couple second burst. Once we pounded the engine with our .50 calibers, it would stop in its tracks as we made one more run beating up the train before departing and looking for another one nearby—one pass was bad enough—two was more of a death sentence especially if the trains had flak mounted guns on it.

Not much fighter action

As Tac/Recon pilots, we had always been encouraged to mix it up with the Luftwaffe, but due to our altitude limitation restrictions, it was almost impossible for us to tangle with them. The whole time I was with the Canadians, I only saw a couple of Fw 190s but never got the opportunity to tangle with them—they were flying their way and we were going our way. My flight leader chose to let them go and determined it wasn’t his day to fight. One of my squadron predecessors however, Hollis «Holly» Hills was able to fight them down low where the early Mustangs held the advantage. Although he had left the squadron just prior to my arrival and joined the U.S. Navy, he was held in very high esteem by the other squadron pilots. I ended up meeting Holly later after the war and enjoyed listening to him regale that mission over Dieppe, France, where he became the first Mustang pilot to earn an aerial victory.

First Blood

By RCAF Fit. Lt. Fred Clarke and F/O Hollis Hills As told to Christopher C. Clarke

The battle over the French port of Dieppe on August 19, 1942, is known in some circles to have been the largest single air battle of the war between the Allies and the Luftwaffe. The sky that day was filled with RAF Squadrons of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mk I Mustangs all flying as top cover for the invading Allied troops below. For the men of RCAF 414 Squadron, the mission was simple; seek out and destroy the advancing German armor.

Enter Holly Hills: First to blood the Mustang

P/O (Pilot Officer) Hollis «Holly» Hills, originally hailing frqm Los Angeles, California, along with Flt./Lt Fred «Freddie» Clarke had flown the first sortie of the day at 4:45 a.m. for 414 Squadron during the morning of the Dieppe Raid. Clarke would fly low on a photo reconnaissance mission looking for German armor while Hills stayed high above him acting as a «weaver» to cover his leader. Unfortunately, the two of them became separated in the pre-dawn darkness and returned to England separately. Later that morning, the pair «volunteered» to go up again on their second sortie at 10:25 a.m.—a tactical reconnaissance south of the town of Dieppe. Holly was up on his perch flying cover for Freddie as he was to do a low-level visual check of the road from Abbeville to Dieppe. The Squadron pilots had all been briefed about landing near the Dieppe race track if they were damaged or disabled but able to land. A Canadian Corps was supposed to have secured this site during the morning hours for just such an event, but by midday it had become all too clear that the raid was going badly.

Without the cover of night, it was particularly important that the relationship between the observer and his cover be maintained at all points during the mission. Observing radio silence according to standing orders, they had no way of knowing that Flt./Lt. Clarke’s radio/telephone had failed him once again, like it had in an earlier mission with the Mustang. As they neared the coast west of Dieppe, Hills spotted a flight of four Fw 190s to the right at 1,500 feet—on a course that would take them directly overhead of the two RCAF Mustangs as they crossed the beach. Hills broke radio silence and called Clarke twice— it was to no avail, his radio was dead again. Not realizing the looming threat behind him, Clarke turned left towards the Amiens road looking for German armor below. Unfortunately, he gave the German fighters an ideal bounce advantage as they formed up for an easy kill. Realizing that he would need to take extraordinary action, P/O Hills swung his Mustang wide to Clarke’s left in order to cut off the attackers. Hills recalls:

«This put me right over the town as I was down low dusting chimney tops! I believe the 190s had lost sight of me as I stayed under them. My plan was to cut off the lead 190 before he could open fire on Freddie. My timing all went to pot when a crashing Spitfire forced me into a sharp left turn to avoid a collision with it. That gave the Fw 190 pilot time to get into a firing position and hit Freddie’s Mustang hard with his first burst. Glycol was streaming from the radiator but there was no fire. I was able to get a long shot at the leader but had to break hard right as the number-two man was having a go at me. He missed and made a big mistake sliding by my left side. It was an easy shot and I hit him hard. I knew that he was a goner.»

Always the last to know

Flt./Lt. Clarke was oblivious to the action that was unfolding above his head until the first shells slammed into the oil cooler of his Mustang’s Allison engine.

«The next thing I know is all hell and corruption’s going by,» he said. «I had been hit! The radiator was shot up; my instruments on either side of me were gone. The armor plating saved me. I jettisoned the hood, hoping that it hadn’t been jammed with the shots I took. Thankfully, it wasn’t. And I thought,

‘They’re right, it’s nice—not windy in here at all.'»

Instinctively, he twisted his aircraft into a hard-climbing right-hand turn:

«I went from the tree-top level to about 800 feet before the engine seized.

That’s all she’d get.»

Not this time, Hans!

Without his radiator and the life blood of glycol that flowed through it, Clarke knew it was only a matter of time before the engine on his Mustang would completely seize up. Although the pilots of 414 Squadron had been offered the inland race track as a potential crash or emergency landing site, Clarke had no intentions of risking capture or worse, yet potentially handing over his Mk I

Mustang to the Germans. Fred Clarke preferred instead to take his chances with a summer’s swim in the English Channel. Clarke would never have made it to the Channel, however, had it not been for the timely return of his wingman, Holly Hills who showed up just in time to find another Fw 190 trailing the stricken Mustang. Hills believed that the German was hoping to capture the Mustang intact as the 190 slid in behind Clarke’s Mustang for the easy kill.

«I had to try and stop him so I gave a short high deflection burst at him. I was hoping to get his attention and it worked—he broke hard left into my attack,» said Hills.

As P/O Hills attempted to mix it up with the Germans, proving that the Mustang could at least outturn the Fw 190, Clarke continued in his struggle to reach the safety of the Channel. It was a perilous moment, however, considering that no one had been known to successfully ditch a Mustang and survive. The principal reason was because of the large air scoop under the belly of the Mustang that acted more like a rudder—one that would direct the long slender nose to the bottom of the Channel. Fortunately, this did not happen in Clarke’s case. Flt./Lt. Clarke’s memory has survived to include the moment 10 feet above the water, an airspeed indicator showing 90 miles an hour and then the moment he woke up soaking wet in the bottom of a landing craft:

«I limped out over the water. Just as I crossed the coast that prop seized up solid. Using my trim to keep my tail down, the last thing I remember is about 90 miles an hour on the clock, trying to get that tail down. I wanted the tail to hit first to kill the speed before she flopped in, because it would just go in if you hit the air scoop. The next thing I remember, I came to in a landing craft. I hit the gunsight, I think. The Perspex was coming out of my forehead up until 10 or 15 years ago! They later told me a young Army guy hit the water with his arms going and swam over and got me out of the aircraft. I would give anything to have known who he was.»

Flt./Lt. Clarke was transferred with the other wounded to the Destroyer HMS Calpe, which was itself under extremely heavy attack for most of the morning and early afternoon while they tried to retrieve as many retreating soldiers as they could. Up in the air, Holly Hills had his own problems to deal with as he continued to play cat and mouse with the perusing Fw 190. Turning and turning, the Fw 190 took a desperate shot at Holly’s Mustang before finally breaking off and heading for home. F/O Hills did the same and returned to England minus his flight leader.

After being treated for the wound to his head, Clarke finally returned to Purley where he and Holly were billeted in a requisitioned house. Holly Hills remembered:

«About 5:00 a.m. the next morning, my door burst open. I was grabbed in a bear hug by what smelled like a huge clump of seaweed. It was Freddie Clarke, rescued by the amphibious forces as I had told the squadron on my return from the mission. His head sported a huge bandage covering the severe cuts he had received in the ditching. We had been warned that ditching a Mustang could be hazardous to your health!»

First kill confirmed

Flt./Lt. Clarke was the only pilot to have ditched a Mustang during the war and survived to tell about it—at least what he could remember. On his return to the squadron on the morning of August 20, Flt./Lt. Clarke confirmed witnessing an Fw 190 crashing in a steep dive into the ground. This was deemed to be the same Fw 190 that F/O Hills had first fired on, making him the first Allied pilot to score a victory with the Mustang. Freddie Clarke also shared in the accolades; having the dubious honor of being the pilot of the first Mustang to be shot down by the Luftwaffe.

Epilogue

Flt./Lt. Clarke flew a few more sorties over France until May 1943. At that time, the extent of his injuries became known and he was given 10 days sick leave due to the severe migraine headaches he was suffering and the partial blackouts he was experiencing. When on his return, the commanding officer became aware of the nature of his problem and he was grounded permanently. In late 1943, he became 414 Squadrons Operations Officer through their time in Holland and Belgium after the invasion.

Freddie Clarke was the last surviving member of the original 414 pilots who formed the Squadron on August 7, 1941. Sadly, he passed away in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in May 2005.

Hollis H. Hills had attempted to join the USAAF 4th Fighter Group soon after the Dieppe air battle but was informed he would be assigned to a P-38 squadron instead. Not wanting to fly a twin-en-gine fighter, he opted instead to fly for the U.S. Navy where he flew the F6F Hellcat scoring a further four victories. Not only did he become an ace, but he also was one of few Allied pilots who had victories over both Japanese and German aircraft. Hollis Hills passed away on October 31, 2009, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

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