My Worst Day - Tales of an old Fighter Pilot
by: K.C. (Ken) Lett, MGen (Ret’d)
As the invasion of Continental Europe was being planned, the RAF decided to change the structure of Fighter Command by placing the majority of the squadrons into a Tactical Air Force (TAF). The balance of the squadrons being allocated to the Air Defence of Great Britain.
The photo shows Ken Lett receiving his wings from Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1942.
At the time, I was a Spitfire pilot with 402 (City of Winnipeg) Squadron, and we were selected as part of the Air Defence of Great Britain. We were equipped with the Spitfire Mk V(B), and our home base was a farmer’s field south of London, with a reinforced steel mesh runway. The runway was lined with oil powered "goose neck" flares down one side. These flares were lit by the Flying Control staff for night operations, and we got a lot of them. There we were joined by an RAF squadron, commanded by a Canadian, and a Polish squadron commanded by a New Zealander.
We were the "poor cousins" of our TAF buddies as our aircraft were modified for better low level performance with clipped wings and cropped blowers (modified superchargers). We called them "Clipped, Clapped and Cropped". The TAF on the other hand were equipped with the latest version Spitfire, the Mk IX series. We continued normal operations of bomber escort and armed reconnaissance until "D Day" drew closer, when our operations changed to patrols of the French coast. We flew in squadron strength, departing in sections of three and four aircraft flying in line-astern formation then spreading out into fingers-four formation when entering enemy territory.
The Normandy Invasion
Around midnight of 5/6 June 1944, we were patrolling the Normandy coast, unaware that the invasion was underway. After landing we were briefed on the current situation, including the invasion plans, and scheduled for take-off an hour before dawn. Thus we had a ring-side seat for "act one", and what a magnificent sight it was! The English Channel had so many sea going craft that it looked like one could virtually walk from the UK to France without getting ones feet wet.
Our Wing continued patrolling the Normandy beaches at 6000 feet, and parallel to the coast line, with only minor disruptions. The Canadian commander of the RAF squadron was shot down by the Royal Navy. He was rescued from the channel with a "sorry about that old boy". We were charging up and down the coast on a very dark night, keeping station by using the glow from the exhaust of the aircraft nearest you, when all hell broke loose. A unit on our side of the battle line cut loose with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. All 12 of our aircraft broke away from the tracers and continued to patrol individually until relieved. Fortunately none of our aircraft were hit. We all flew the same altitude and heading and were able to form up as we approached our forward operating base in the early morning light of dawn.
On one sortie, I was leading a flight of four on our Kiwi Wing Commander after we had become disenchanted with what we considered a useless activity, and he decided to do something about it. He led us in behind the battle area where we fired at anything that moved. We were "down on the deck" when he decided to exit at low level, and flew right into an intense "flack" barrage. The Winco turned right in an attempt to avoid it, and I being on his left side could not cross over. I was losing position when I saw his number four go in. I have a distinct recollection of crossing a field below the tree line, and that may be why I am writing this story today.
My aircraft escaped untouched, but as we regrouped over the channel I noticed we were missing the leaders number four and my two, three, and four. We never learned the fate of those missing until a half century later when I was attending a WW2 reunion. There I met my number two, who survived the crash landing and became a prisoner of war.
And that was my worst day as a fighter pilot.