Battle of Barking Creek

Battle of Barking Creek

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The Battle of Barking Creek was a friendly fire
Friendly fire
Friendly fire is inadvertent firing towards one's own or otherwise friendly forces while attempting to engage enemy forces, particularly where this results in injury or death. A death resulting from a negligent discharge is not considered friendly fire...

 incident that happened on 6 September 1939, resulting in the first death of a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 fighter pilot
Fighter pilot
A fighter pilot is a military aviator trained in air-to-air combat while piloting a fighter aircraft . Fighter pilots undergo specialized training in aerial warfare and dogfighting...

 in the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

.

Incident


At 6.15am on 6 September 1939, unidentified aircraft were reported approaching from the east at high altitude over West Mersea, on the Essex coast. In response, six Hurricanes
Hawker Hurricane
The Hawker Hurricane is a British single-seat fighter aircraft that was designed and predominantly built by Hawker Aircraft Ltd for the Royal Air Force...

 were ordered to be scrambled from 56 Squadron
No. 56 Squadron RAF
Number 56 Squadron is one of the oldest and most successful squadrons of the Royal Air Force, with battle honours from many of the significant air campaigns of both World War I and World War II...

, based at North Weald Airfield
North Weald Airfield
North Weald Airfield is an operational airfield, near the village of North Weald Bassett in Epping Forest, Essex, England. It was an important fighter station during the Battle of Britain, when it was known as the RAF Station RAF North Weald. It is the home of North Weald Airfield Museum...

 in Essex. For some unknown reason, the Squadron’s Commanding Officer, Group Captain Lucking, sent up his entire unit. In addition to these, and unbeknown to the rest of the pilots, two Pilot Officers took up a pair of reserve aircraft and followed at a distance, destined to be the targets of the mistaken attack.

Additionally, 151 Squadron’s Hurricanes (also from North Weald), and Spitfires
Supermarine Spitfire
The Supermarine Spitfire is a British single-seat fighter aircraft that was used by the Royal Air Force and many other Allied countries throughout the Second World War. The Spitfire continued to be used as a front line fighter and in secondary roles into the 1950s...

 from 54, 65, and 74
No. 74 Squadron RAF
No. 74 Squadron RAF, also known as a "Tiger Squadron" from its tiger head motif, is a squadron of the Royal Air Force. It operated fighter aircraft from 1917 to the 1990s.-First World War:...

 Squadrons based at Hornchurch Airfield scrambled.
With the war only three days old, none of the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 pilots had seen combat, very few had ever seen a German plane. Communications between planes and command centres were poor. There was no identifying procedure for pilots to distinguish between enemy and friendly aircraft.

With everyone in the air expecting to see enemy aircraft, and no experience of having done so, the conditions readily lent themselves to misunderstanding. 'A' Flight of 74 Squadron saw what they believed were enemy planes and their commanding officer, Sailor Malan, gave a clear and definite order to engage. Two of the three, Flying Officer Vincent 'Paddy' Byrne and Pilot Officer John Freeborn
John Freeborn
Wing Commander John Connell Freeborn DFC* was a World War II RAF pilot. He was not only an ace but also held the distinction of having flown more operational hours than any other RAF pilot during the Battle of Britain....

, opened fire.

Malan later claimed to have given a last minute call of 'friendly aircraft - break away!' but, whether this actually happened or not, it is certain that no such call was heard by the attacking pilots.

One Hurricane was piloted by Frank Rose, who was shot down but survived. Pilot Officer Montague Hulton-Harrop was not so lucky. Fired upon by John Freeborn, he was hit in the back of the head; he was dead before his plane crashed at Manor Farm, Hintlesham, Suffolk, approximately five miles west of Ipswich. He was the first British pilot fatality of the war. His Hurricane was also the first plane shot down by a Spitfire. The entire air-raid warning turned out to be false.

Both Byrne and Freeborn were, along with Group Captain Lucking, placed under close arrest immediately after the incident.

Court martial


The ensuing court martial at Fighter Command's Bentley Priory
Bentley Priory
Bentley Priory was a medieval priory or cell of Augustinian Canons in Harrow Weald, then in Middlesex but now in the London Borough of Harrow. There are no remains of the priory, but it probably stood near Priory House, off Clamp Hill....

 headquarters was held in camera, and the papers have yet to be released as of 2010.

However, it is well known that Freeborn felt that his commanding Officer, Sailor Malan, tried to evade responsibility for the attack. Malan testified for the prosecution against his own pilots, stating that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken proper heed of vital communications. During the trial, Freeborn's counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings
Patrick Hastings
Sir Patrick Gardiner Hastings KC was a British barrister and politician noted for his long and highly successful career as a barrister and his short stint as Attorney General. He was educated at Charterhouse School until 1896, when his family moved to continental Europe...

, called Malan a bare-faced liar. Hastings' deputy in defending the pilots was Roger Bushell
Roger Bushell
Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell RAF was a South African-born British Auxiliary Air Force pilot who organised and led the famous escape from the Nazi prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft III. He was a victim of the Stalag Luft III murders. The escape was used as the basis for the film The Great...

, later to be incarcerated with Paddy Byrne at Stalag Luft III
Stalag Luft III
Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp during World War II that housed captured air force servicemen. It was in the German Province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan , southeast of Berlin...

 and become the mastermind of the Great Escape.

The court completely exonerated both of the Spitfire pilots, ruling the case as an unfortunate accident.

One history summarises it thus: “This tragic shambles, hushed up at the time, was dubbed in the RAF ‘the Battle of Barking Creek’ – a place several miles from the shooting-down but one which, like Wigan Pier
Wigan Pier
Wigan Pier is the name given today to the area around the canal at the bottom of the Wigan flight of locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. It is a popular location for visitors and the local community in Wigan, Greater Manchester, England, situated just a few hundred yards south-west of the town...

, was a standing joke in the music halls.”

It has been suggested by RAF historians that the incident exposed the inadequacies of RAF radar and identification procedures, leading to them being greatly improved by the crucial period of the Battle of Britain
Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain is the name given to the World War II air campaign waged by the German Air Force against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940...

.

Afterwards


Montague Hulton-Harrop is buried with a war grave headstone in at St Andrew's Church in North Weald.

Group Captain Lucking was removed from his post as Commanding Officer of 56 Squadron.

Frank Rose was killed in action over Vitry en Artoise, France, on 18 May 1940.

Sailor Malan went on to be one of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of the war, rising to be a Group Captain
Group Captain
Group captain is a senior commissioned rank in the Royal Air Force and the air forces of many other Commonwealth countries. It ranks above wing commander and immediately below air commodore...

. He received the Distinguished Service Order
Distinguished Service Order
The Distinguished Service Order is a military decoration of the United Kingdom, and formerly of other parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire, awarded for meritorious or distinguished service by officers of the armed forces during wartime, typically in actual combat.Instituted on 6 September...

 and bar
Medal bar
A medal bar or medal clasp is a thin metal bar attached to the ribbon of a military decoration, civil decoration, or other medal. It is most commonly used to indicate the campaign or operation the recipient received the award for, and multiple bars on the same medal are used to indicate that the...

 and the Distinguished Flying Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross (United Kingdom)
The Distinguished Flying Cross is a military decoration awarded to personnel of the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force and other services, and formerly to officers of other Commonwealth countries, for "an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against...

. On his return to South Africa he worked tirelessly against the apartheid regime until his death in 1963.

Paddy Byrne was shot down and captured over France in 1940. He was detained at Stalag Luft III alongside his former defence lawyer Roger Bushell. In 1944 he was repatriated, having convinced the Germans and the repatriation board that he was mad. On his return to England he was reinstated into the RAF and given a ground position.

John Freeborn flew for the rest of the war and proved to be an outstanding airman. He flew more operational hours in the Battle of Britain
Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain is the name given to the World War II air campaign waged by the German Air Force against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940...

 than any other pilot. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar and rose to be a Wing Commander
Wing Commander (rank)
Wing commander is a commissioned rank in the Royal Air Force and the air forces of many other Commonwealth countries...


Freeborn finally told some of his version of events in a 2002 biography called A Tiger's Tale, before co-authoring a more complete account in Tiger Cub.

In 2009 Freeborn told an interviewer of his continual regret about Hulton-Harrop's death, saying, "I think about him nearly every day. I always have done... I've had a good life, and he should have had a good life too".

John Freeborn died on August 28, 2010. He married, in 1941, Rita Fielder. She died in 1979, and he married, secondly, Peta in 1983. She predeceased him in 2001, and he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage.

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