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DEFYING THE ODDS: PADDY FINUCANE & THE KENLEY WING (1941)

’Paddy’ Finucane and the legend of the Kenley Wing: No.452 (Australian), 485 (New Zealand) and 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadrons, 1941 - Anthony Cooper

1941 was a critical year in the Second World War for both the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Allies. RAF Fighter Command, which had helped to keep Britain afloat throughout the summer and autumn of 1940 following the fall of France, represented one of Britain's few effective blunt instruments to keep Germany off balance. As early as December 1940, it had begun engaging in 'lean-to' or shallow penetration missions over Occupied France where small units of RAF fighters attacked German airbases and military installations. By the following summer, this undertaking had been expanded into 'Circuses', which entailed the use of bombers escorted by, on average, 16 squadrons of fighters on both shallow and deep penetration missions (at least 50 miles inland) into France. Missions of this magnitude the Luftwaffe could hardly ignore. With the majority of the Luftwaffe now engaged in military operations in support of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union, 2 fighter wings (Jagdgeschwadern 2 & 26) were tasked with defending the airspace above France against the RAF.

 

Here is where the experiences of the Kenley Wing of RAF Fighter Command, who came to play a significant role in the RAF Non-Stop Offensive of 1941, are described in "PADDY FINUCANE AND THE LEGEND OF THE KENLEY WING." The Wing, one among 6 in the RAF, was made up of 452 (made up mostly of Australian fighter pilots), 485, (mostly New Zealanders), and 602 Squadrons. It was representative of the RAF itself, which contained in its ranks, many airmen from the farthest reaches of the British Empire and Commonwealth. There were also a few Irishmen like Finucane, a veteran of the Battle of Britain, who, during the summer and autumn of 1941, was making a name for himself as one of the RAF best known and top-scoring aces while serving as one of 452 Squadron's flight leaders. Indeed, 452 Squadron, of all the squadrons in the Kenley Wing, would develop a reputation with pilots of the caliber of Finucane and Keith 'Bluey' Truscott (Australian) as one of the top-scoring units in RAF Fighter Command. It seemed that whenever the Kenley Wing took part in sweeps over France that 452 Squadron would find itself involved in many a scrap with German fighters while the other 2 squadrons in the Wing encountered fewer or no enemy air opposition.

 

The book describes in considerable detail the intensity of the air combat the Kenley Wing experienced over France, as well as the standards the RAF had for assessing victory claims by its fighter pilots. What became increasingly evident is that there was a lot of overclaiming on the part of RAF Fighter Command during 1941. Much more so than had been the case during the Battle of Britain. This couldn't always be helped because air combat is a life-and-death affair, carried out by fast moving fighters --- requiring constant alertness on the part of the individual fighter pilot --- fought in three dimensions. One wrong move --- sometimes measured in seconds --- could mean nursing a badly crippled Spitfire across the Channel to Britain, riding a flaming aircraft to either a watery death in the Channel or a fiery crash inland, or being shot down and forced to bail out over France. The latter for an RAF fighter pilot usually meant becoming a prisoner of war or evading capture and - with the help of the Resistance - getting to Southern France and across the Pyrenees Mountains to neutral Spain and a sure passage back to Britain and the war.

 

It also became clear from reading this book that while the RAF was able to provide a widening pool of trained fighter pilots (the EATS or Empire Air Training Scheme was crucial in this regard in which large numbers of RAF aviation cadets received their training in Canada) to replace its losses in France during 1941, it had not given most of its pilots much (if any) gunnery training. Lacking this vital skill was, along with aircraft mis-identication, another key reason behind overclaiming kills in air combat. Indeed, "... the root of the overclaiming problem seems to have lain in the tendency of some pilots to make forced links between purported cause and effect, in the context of an overstimulated combat environment where in fact no-one could see it all, and where many pilots did not see much at all - or anything at all. Despite this uncertainty principle, some pilots repeatedly drew definite causal links between, on the one hand, their gunnery attacks upon fleeting targets' and on the other, subsequent fleeting impressions of flashes, smoke, splashes, hunts, and dives. These putative causative connections were too often accepted by the intelligence officers at squadron, wing, and group level who assessed and confirmed the claims, and too often by the squadron COs, wing leaders, station commanders, senior air staff officers, and air officers commanding who signed off on the paperwork before sending it up to the next level of command. Moreover, all of these officers permitted such claims to be confirmed despite the lack of corroboration --- sometimes pilot claims were supported by reported sightings from other pilots, but they were also routinely accepted on the claimant's testimony alone."

 

I developed a deeper appreciation for the pilots of RAF Fighter Command from reading "PADDY FINUCANE AND THE LEGEND OF THE KENLEY WING."  It's an inspiring account into how these men, through sheer determination, skill, guts, and dedication to duty, helped pave the way to eventual Allied victory in May 1945.