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 were ordered to be scrambled from 56 Squadron, based at North Weald Airfield 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 from 54, 65, and 74 Squadrons based at Hornchurch Airfield scrambled. With the war only three days old, none of the Royal Air Force 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, 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.
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, called Malan a bare-faced liar. Hastings' deputy in defending the pilots was Roger Bushell, later to be incarcerated with Paddy Byrne at Stalag Luft III 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, 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.
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.
Sailor Malan went on to be one of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of the war, rising to be a Group Captain. He received the Distinguished Service Order and bar and the Distinguished Flying Cross. 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 than any other pilot. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar and rose to be a Wing Commander 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 28 August 2010. He married, in 1941, Rita Fielder. She died in 1979, and he married, secondly, Peta in 1983. She preceded him into death in 2001, and he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage.
- ^ Christopher Yeoman & John Freeborn, Tiger Cub - The Story of John Freeborn DFC* A 74 Squadron Fighter Pilot In WWII, Pen and Sword Aviation, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84884-023-2, p45
- ^ a b c d Bob Cossey, A Tiger's Tale: The Story of Battle of Britain Fighter Ace Wg. Cdr. John Connell Freeborn, ISBN 978-1-900511-64-3, chapter 4
- ^ a b Bill Nasson (University of Stellenbosch), A flying Springbok of wartime British skies: A.G. ʻSailorʼ Malan, Kronos, 35: 71-97, University of Western Cape, South Africa, 2009, http://repository.uwc.ac.za/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10566/101/NassonSailor2009.pdf?sequence=1, retrieved 26 August 2010
- ^ Hough, Richard and Denis Richards. The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II, WW Norton, 1990, p.67
- ^ a b Fallen Heroes and the Battle of Barking Creek, Insight magazine, Issue 6 2009, http://www.raf.mod.uk/rafwaddington/rafcms/mediafiles/4A338D24_5056_A318_A8D6E7556D39DEE1.pdf, retrieved 26 August 2010
- ^ Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry, http://www.cwgc.org/search/casualty_details.aspx?casualty=2426950, retrieved 18 August 2010
- ^ Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry, http://www.cwgc.org/search/casualty_details.aspx?casualty=2279942, retrieved 01 September 2010
- ^ Tamara Miner Haygood, PhD, MD, Malingering and Escape: Anglo-American Prisoners of War in World War II Europe, War, Literature and The Arts Online, http://www.wlajournal.com/webcontent/malingering/malingering.pdf, retrieved 26 August 2010
- ^ Christopher Yeoman & John Freeborn, Tiger Cub - The Story of John Freeborn DFC* A 74 Squadron Fighter Pilot In WWII, Pen and Sword Aviation, 2009, chapter 3. ISBN 978-1-84884-023-2
- ^ "Watch: Spitfire pilot John Freeborn's story". BBC. 3 September 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theoneshow/onepassions/2009/09/watch-spitfire-pilot-john-free.html. Retrieved 18 August 2010.
- ^ "Wing Commander John Freeborn". The Daily Telegraph (London). 14 September 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/military-obituaries/air-force-obituaries/8002880/Wing-Commander-John-Freeborn.html. Retrieved 14 September 2010.