Hurricane P3395

Hurricane P3395 'JX-B'

Hurricane LF363's new colour scheme (based on Hurricane Mk 1 P3395 'JX-B' - Sgt Arthur Clowes, No. 1 Squadron)

On Saturday 7th September 1940, at the height of what was to become known as the Battle of Britain, the situation in Britain looked grim in the extreme. The Luftwaffe had pounded and pounded at the RAF, grinding away at Britain’s defences, and slowly Fighter Command was weakening. It appeared that victory was within the German’s grasp and the threat of invasion was as great as it had ever been. In the last two weeks, from 24th August, 295 RAF fighters had been totally destroyed and 171 badly damaged, against a total output of 269 new and repaired Spitfires and Hurricanes. Worst of all, during the fortnight, 103 pilots were killed or missing and 128 were wounded, which represented a total wastage of 120 pilots per week. Losses of aircraft were exceeding production rates and fighter pilot numbers were now down to about only seven hundred in all.

7th September 1940

The day dawned bright and clear, a nice, warm late summer’s day, but there was a strange, deadly quiet and no sign of the enemy. At the radar stations along the south coast the screens were empty. From RAF Northolt nine Hurricanes of No 1 Squadron were launched on a patrol at 0920 and then again at 1115, more it seemed out of expectation than anything, but there was “nothing doing”.

The British commanders didn’t yet know it, but this was the day that the Germans had decided to implement a complete change of strategy. This was to be the first day of the London Blitz, the day when the Germans shifted their focus from the RAF airfields and radar sites, to bombing London instead.

Across the Channel, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and his invited guests were having a picnic lunch on the French coast at one of the closest points to England – Cap Blanc Nez – from where he wanted to watch the massive raid he had planned for that afternoon, setting out towards England.

The huge number of aircraft involved, hundreds and hundreds of bombers with Bf109 fighter escorts, meant that it took some time to marshal the vast armada, but by mid-afternoon it was passing overhead Göring and his entourage, on the way to England, much to Göring’s rather childlike delight.

Pilots of 1 Squadron The Afternoon Raid

The RAF radar station at Foreness was the first to detect the appearance of the enemy at 1540; the operators could not believe what they were seeing and the apparent size of the enemy formations. Within moments the radar stations at Dover and Rye also had radar contacts and were confirming the worst. At 1554 the first information reached the Operations Room at the Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory.

At 1615 the first of the German aircraft came within visual range of the Observer Corps posts on the English coast. Some 1,100 aircraft were approaching the coastline: 300 bombers (Do-17s, Ju-88s and He-111s), 200 Bf110s with bomb loads and about 600 Bf109s flying as escorts. The phalanx of enemy aircraft covered nearly 800 square miles of sky. Once over the Kent coast, the German bombers and their escorts broke into separate groups, seemingly heading for different targets and sowing confusion in the RAF commanders’ minds.

Eleven Hurricanes of No 1 Squadron at Northolt were the first RAF fighters to be scrambled in response to the raid at 1624. No 1 Squadron’s ‘Yellow Section’ was led by Sergeant Pilot Arthur ‘Darkie’ Clowes DFM, flying Hurricane Mk 1 P3395, ‘JX-B’ (“B for Beer” he said), which had been his personal aircraft for only a couple of weeks. Clowes had already flown on the two uneventful squadron patrols launched during the morning.

Sergeant Pilot Arthur Clowes

Arthur Clowes came from humble stock. He grew up in the industrial town of Long Eaton, Derbyshire, and was brought up by his grandparents after his father was killed during the First World War when Arthur was still only a small boy. Clowes joined the RAF in 1929, aged 16, as a Halton apprentice, and later became a Sergeant Pilot. When war was declared in September 1939 he had been with 1 Squadron for some time, flying Hawker Furies and then Hurricanes. He served with 1 Squadron in France throughout the so-called ‘Phoney War’ and the Battle of France.

1 Sqn pilots including Arthur Clowes By the time of the Battle of Britain, Clowes was a 27-year-old, married man. He was now an experienced fighter pilot who had learned how to kill and how to survive. He was also an official fighter ace with, up to now, 8 confirmed kills (plus one shared unconfirmed), 3 ‘probable’ kills and two ‘damaged’. Clowes was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) for his actions in France, the citation for which, promulgated in August 1940, stated: “Sergeant Clowes has displayed courage and determination in many combats against the enemy … He has displayed great skill and power of leadership.”

Cuthbert Orde, the war artist who sketched many RAF fighter pilots at this time, met Clowes and described him as being, “a proper tough guy in his own quiet way, with an inherent toughness apparent in his build and in his walk, an obvious ability to give it or take it both physically and mentally, very cheerful, very much on the ball”.

By this stage, all the pilots on 1 Squadron were feeling very tired. Each pilot had flown an average of two operational sorties per day for most of the summer, and Clowes had flown as much as anyone. The day before – 6th September – despite his lowly rank of Sergeant, Clowes had led the Squadron on an afternoon patrol when the CO’s engine had failed to start. They had been attacked by a gaggle of Bf 109s, which came hurtling down on them from above, but Clowes fought a brilliant defensive action and brought all of the pilots and aircraft in his charge home safely.

Combat

The eleven Hurricanes of 1Squadron climbing frantically out of Northolt on the afternoon of 7th September were led by one of the flight commanders, Flight Lieutenant ‘Hilly’ Brown DFC. He and Clowes had been flying and fighting alongside each other with 1 Squadron from the start of the war, the only two still on the unit to have done so. The Hurricanes met the enemy at 1700 – a large concentration of German bombers flanked by perhaps 100 Bf109s and 110s. After the first head-on attack, the Hurricanes almost inevitably became separated. As Clowes fought to defend himself against the Luftwaffe escort fighters and to avoid a mid-air collision in a sky seemingly full of aircraft, he fired several ‘snapshots’ at various enemy aircraft, apparently without effect. The enemy formation wheeled round over the Thames Estuary, carrying him with them as far east as Manston.

Finally, he latched on to an unsuspecting twin-engine Bf 110 flying straight and level at 13,000 feet. Clowes fired two concentrated bursts of machine gun fire at the enemy aircraft from above and behind and saw his tracer rounds striking home. The stricken German fighter-bomber nosed over into a terminal dive and he saw it crash into the sea off the Kent coast in a cloud of spray. His prey was most probably Bf 110C-4 3570 ‘A2+ML’ of 6/ZG.2, which ditched off Birchington at 1720. The pilot, Oberleutnant Willi Brede, survived to become a PoW, but his gunner was killed. Clowes returned to base, fuel and ammunition exhausted. He was scrambled twice more that day, at 1800 and 1930; by the end of the day he had flown five patrols.

The Balance Sheet for 7th September

The German bombers were back that night – the first night of the London Blitz – flying some 265 sorties over England. By the end of 7th September, despite the terrible effects of the bombing on the ground in London, the RAF concluded that it had been a successful day. On the basis of the fighter pilots’ and anti-aircraft gunners’ claims, almost 100 enemy aircraft had apparently been destroyed; half as many again were claimed as probably destroyed or damaged, for the loss of 27 RAF aircraft and 14 pilots killed or missing. The actual German losses were, in fact, around 40, with another 10 of their aircraft returning to base with significant damage and injured or dead crewmen, but the balance of losses had unquestionably swung in favour of the British.

Hurricane P3395 ‘JX-B’

The Hurricane that ‘Darkie’ Clowes flew on 7th September – P3395, ‘JX-B’ – is now represented by BBMF Hurricane LF363 in its new colour scheme. Flying this aircraft, Clowes claimed 2 destroyed, 3 ‘probables’ and 2 damaged from his total score of 10½ destroyed, 3½ ‘probables’ and 2 damaged.

Hurricane P3395 P3395 was delivered to the RAF in April 1940 and it was issued to No 1 Squadron upon the unit’s return from France in mid-June 1940. When Clowes took on P3395 as his personal Hurricane, near the end of August 1940, he painted a fearsome looking wasp motif on both sides of the aircraft’s nose underneath the exhaust stubs. Clowes had some skill as an artist and he painted the device himself. The 1 Squadron Hurricanes also had distinctively marked propeller spinners, with a ring of ‘roundel yellow’ painted on the front of the black spinners.

On 2nd November 1940, after 1 Squadron had been moved to RAF Wittering in 12 Group for a period of lighter duties, P3395 suffered some relatively minor damage from a belly landing when the engine lost power on take-off, with Czech pilot Evžen Cížek at the controls. He was uninjured in the incident.

The Hurricane was passed to No 55 Operational Training Unit at RAF Aston Down on 8th November, where it stayed until being issued to No 5 Flying Training School sometime in 1941. P3395 was finally written off on 24th March 1942 when a student pilot at 5FTS landed it without lowering the undercarriage first; the aircraft slewed off the runway and crashed into a gun position, causing irreparable damage to its structure.

After The Battle

In September 1940 Arthur Clowes was granted a belated and well-deserved commission. By November that year he had already reached the rank of Flight Lieutenant. His final combat with 1 Squadron, which resulted in what was to be his last kill of the war, occurred on 24th October 1940, when he and ‘Hilly’ Brown shot down a German Do-215B. The German bomber crashed to earth near St Neots; 3 of the 4 crewmen were killed when they baled out too late.

Clowes’ time with 1 Squadron ended on 23rd April 1941. Six days later he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross to add to his DFM. The citation read: “This officer has displayed great skill in his engagements against the enemy, and he has destroyed at least eleven of their aircraft. His coolness and judgement on all occasions have been an inspiration to his fellow pilots.”

After spending some time as an instructor on Hurricane Operational Training Units, Clowes returned to operations. He served briefly with 145 Squadron before taking command of 79 Squadron (Hurricanes) in December 1941, with promotion to Squadron Leader. In April 1942 he commenced a series of staff appointments in various parts of the world, in between which he took command of 601 (County of London) Squadron (Spitfires) for three months from August 1942. He then commanded 94 Squadron (Hurricane Mk IICs) in Libya from June to September 1943, after which he was posted back to England.

An ill-judged bout of overly high spirits in the Officers’ Mess at RAF Uxbridge in November 1943 resulted in Clowes losing his left eye, which effectively put an end to his flying career. He was employed as a staff officer until, in late 1944, he accepted a permanent commission in the Secretarial Duties Branch, remaining in the RAF after the war.

Tragically, this brave, skilled and tenacious fighter pilot, who had somehow survived all that the enemy could throw at him, died in December 1949, aged only 37, from cancer of the liver. He was buried with full military honours in the quiet churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Brampton, three days later.

Lest We Forget

Squadron Leader Arthur Clowes DFC DFM rose from humble beginnings in Derbyshire to become a leading RAF fighter ace during the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain. He was a man well respected by his friends and colleagues. Since 2014, BBMF Hurricane LF363 has been painted as ‘Darkie’ Clowes’ P3395, ‘JX-B’, with his personal ‘wasp’ nose art. It will ensure that his memory is perpetuated along with all his 1 Squadron colleagues and all those others of ‘The Few’ who saved Britain from Nazi tyranny in 1940.

Photographs:

Header image: Hurricane P3395 ‘JX-B’ (by Chris Sandham-Bailey / INKWORM © 2014).

Photo 1: Pilots of 1 Squadron study a captured German 7.9mm machine gun in the spring of 1940 in France (left to right: Fg Off Paul Richey, Sqn Ldr P J H ‘Bull’ Halahan (OC 1 Sqn), Sgt A V ‘Darkie’ Clowes & Flt Lt P R ‘Johnny’ Walker).

Photo 2: 1 Squadron pilots at Wittering in November 1940.

Photo 3: Sgt Arthur Clowes with the wasp nose art on his Hurricane P3395, October 1940.

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