Sgt Ray Holmes

Photo:Sgt Ray Holmes and Hurricane fighter

Sgt Ray Holmes and Hurricane fighter

Copyright BBC Online

Photo:The crashed Dornier, Wilton Road, Victoria, 15 September 1940

The crashed Dornier, Wilton Road, Victoria, 15 September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Hugh Street, where Ray Holmes landed

Hugh Street, where Ray Holmes landed

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: Sgt Holmes's plane crashed close to Ebury Bridge and Buckingham Palace Road

Bomb Map: Sgt Holmes's plane crashed close to Ebury Bridge and Buckingham Palace Road

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Hurricane Pilot

By Ronan Thomas

On Sunday 15 September 1940 a force of 100 twin-engined Dornier Do17 bombers, escorted by over 200 ME109 fighters, was launched against London. At 11am, this large formation of raiders - approaching at altitudes of between 15,000 and 26,000 feet – flew in over Dungeness, Kent and headed up the Thames Estuary. The Luftwaffe aircraft were tracked by radar and by RAF 11 Group Headquarters, Uxbridge, under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park. That morning, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine were observers in the Uxbridge Operations Room.

Park concluded that this force - like the daylight attack of 7 September - was the spearhead of an major effort by the Luftwaffe against the capital. He ordered its immediate interception by fighters from 10, 11 and 12 Groups, between Dungeness and Canterbury.

Churchill reportedly turned to Park and asked where his reserves were. Park replied: "there are none". Fifteen Hawker Hurricane and eight Supermarine Spitfire squadrons (250 aircraft in all) were scrambled and intercepted the Dornier bomber stream at around 11.30am. By midday, the Dornier formation had suffered losses but had pushed through the RAF fighter screen to arrive over central London.

504 Squadron (based at Hendon) were vectored in to attack. Among 504’s Hurricane pilots that day was 26-year-old Sergeant Ray 'Arty' Holmes. At noon, as the German aircraft flew on over the streets of the City of Westminster, Sgt Holmes – flying in Hurricane TM-B - identified three Dorniers flying in a loose V-formation. One was damaged and apparently heading in a direct line toward Buckingham Palace.

The subsequent air action, which occurred over Victoria, remains confused to this day, with several contradictory reports.

According to his account, Holmes fired on the first Dornier to enter his gunsight:

Holmes later wrote that he saw this bomber dive away, badly damaged, and turned to attack the second one. With his ammunition exhausted, Holmes stated he went after the third aircraft, in the process ramming its rear fuselage and distinctive twin tail rudder section, which sheared off.

I made my attack on this bomber and he spurted out a lot of oil, just a great stream over my aeroplane, blotting out my windscreen. Then, as the windscreen cleared, I suddenly found myself going straight into his tail. So I stuck my tail forward and went under him, practically grazing my head on his belly”.

The Dornier went out of control, lost its wing tips and crashed onto a tobacconist's shop in Wilton Road, opposite the New Victoria Cinema and close to the forecourt of Victoria Station. Its injured German pilot baled out in time and landed near Vauxhall Bridge in Kennington. Before he was arrested, the pilot was set upon by a crowd of locals. He died of his injuries in Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital, Millbank the following day. The falling Dornier was filmed by a newsreel cameraman from rooftops below.

Holmes’ Hurricane was also severely damaged and he too was forced to bale out. Watching his fighter crash at Ebury Bridge, on Buckingham Palace Road, Pimlico, Sgt Holmes floated down by parachute. He landed on the slanting slate roof of a house in Hugh Street, sliding down over the guttering and into a garden below. His parachute caught on a drainpipe and Holmes ended up dangling a few feet above a dustbin. Two girls watching from the neighbouring garden recalled witnessing Holmes’ descent. Unfastening his parachute harness (and identifying himself as an RAF pilot), he was given a hero’s reception by local Westminster residents. After brandies in the Orange Brewery on Pimlico Road, Holmes was taken to the Chelsea Barracks mess and then back to his squadron in Hendon by taxi.

Overhead, the rest of the German aircraft dropped their bombs over central and south London but their effort was scattered rather than concentrated. As they flew back, they were attacked unremittingly by British fighters over Kent and the Thames Estuary. Many of those which escaped were badly damaged when they landed back at their bases in Belgium and France. At 1.30pm, a further three waves of over 150 bombers, with a 400-strong ME109 fighter escort, approached London once again. A huge air battle developed over Kent as the approaching force was engaged by 15 squadrons of 11 Group and the Duxford Wing including 303 (Polish) Squadron operating from Northolt (one Polish pilot also reportedly rammed a German bomber on 15 September). Furious dogfights erupted. The interception did not prevent the German raiders from reaching their targets, but again their efforts were not concentrated and their bombs fell over a wide area: Islington, Kilburn, Hammersmith, Croydon and Mitcham.

15 September arguably proved the turning point of the Battle of Britain. 56 German aircraft were shot down that day versus 26 British fighters destroyed (13 pilots killed). In little over an hour and a half, 28 RAF Squadrons had seen action and had punched serious holes in the Luftwaffe attack. Worse, the Luftwaffe’s goal of daylight air superiority was dashed on 15 September. It had suffered its greatest casualties since 18 August (the so-called 'Hardest Day'). The RAF showed it could detect, intercept and destroy enemy bombers in unprecedented numbers. For his part, Churchill pointed to the critical significance of the day’s events: “We must take 15 September as the culminating date (of the Battle of Britain)”.

Sgt Ray Holmes continued to fly for the rest of the war, as a Hurricane pilot over France in 1941, as an instructor training Soviet aircrew in Murmansk, as a Spitfire photo-reconnaissance pilot and finally as a personal King’s Messenger pilot for Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in 1941. After the war, he enjoyed a successful career as a journalist in Liverpool and wrote an account of his wartime experiences in 1989 (Sky Spy).

Holmes’ actions in the aerial dogfights of 15 September 1940 were revisited by the British media in 2004. Archaeologists dug up the remains of his buried Hurricane at Ebury Bridge, Buckingham Palace Road, recovering the aircraft’s Merlin engine. The excavation was covered live by television crews with Ray Holmes in attendance. The engine – weighing over a ton - was exhibited in Leicester Square for the ‘West End at War’ event the same year and was subsequently donated to the Imperial War Museum. Ray Holmes died in 2005 at the age of 90.

Newsreel footage of Sgt Holmes' interception over London on 15 September 1940 can be viewed below by copying the following link into your browser:

www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1940/09/19/BGU408020029/

This page was added by Camilla Bergman on 13/09/2010.
Comments about this page

An amazing story. A piece of family memory, that I didn't know about. I've worked in Westminster on and off for 15 years. 

Tim Butterfield

By Tim Butterfield
On 06/09/2015

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