Letter from Sergeant David Denchfield

A letter, written by Sergeant David Denchfield of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron, is the heart of Westhampnett at War.

Denchfield describes life at Weshampnett and his crash and capture on 5 February 1941. The letter is too long to quote fully, but a few excerpts offer the atmosphere:

“I was on readiness, when mid-morning the Commanding Officer popped his head into ‘B’ flight to say ‘released from 13:00 to 9:00 tomorrow morning’. As we all gave vent to various sounds of appreciation, he then smiled and said ‘that’s after we get back from St.Omer. Take off at 12:00’.

***

There followed a fairly basic briefing. We would follow 302 to Rye, climb up through the 10/10th cloud to about 15, 000 ft and join up with the 7 other fighter squadrons, where we would be top but one (having Tangermere’s 65 above us). The whole shooting match would then escort 12 Blenheims to St Omer, where they would cause great alarm and despondency with their 250lb bombs.

***

We broke into brilliant sunshine and climbed to our angels 15, by which time we were orbiting Rye and waiting for the off. The strange thing was, I could see no aircraft above us. Weirdly the cloud over England ended at the coast in an almost vertical cliff edge, leaving the skies over the Channel and France completely cloudless.  The Channel to the east looked ridiculously narrow and the skies over the snow clad French landscape were broodingly ominous. As usual, the sun glare out of the clear blue made looking to the southeast difficult. God only knows what nasties were moving into its hidey-hole and as we circled Rye for a good 5 minutes at least, we certainly gave them plenty of time to get ready for us. I guess, like me, that the others had their gun sights switched ‘on’, their gun firing buttons turned to ‘fire’ and their hoods slid back for better visibility…and I bet they were sweating cobs too.”

The story continues with an attack that riddles his Spitfire with bullets, mangling the port wingtip and draining the fuel tank. He drops to 6,000 feet, sees the Channel and watches the retreating Blenheims pass overhead, on their way home and “going like the Devil.” He realises that he won’t make it back to England and with the cockpit full of fuel, it’s impossible to put the plane down. He bales out, losing his boot in the process and ends up in a coverless field in France. Within moments, he is confronted by German officers:

“…as I stood up the one with the gun said ‘For you the war is over’ (and I thought they only said that in things like ‘Hotspur’ and ‘Magnet’. We live and learn.)

It was all very friendly and we walked as a small group down to the opening they’d come through…We got into the Ford V8 they’d arrived in and drove, perhaps 400 yard to where the remains of my poor ‘P’ were smoking.

…we drove to the airfield at St Omer [where] a load of about 12 Luftwaffe pilots came to attention in front of me and then saluted. Of course I had to reciprocate. At that time there was a fair degree of mutual respect between us, mirroring WWI.

Anyway, I was treated with extreme courtesy…I was introduced to the pilot who had shot me down, Major Oeseau, who became one of the top scoring pilots before losing his life in 1944. We spoke for a couple of minutes and then I signed his cigarette case for him to have engraved over.”

He then relates his transfer to a Polish POW camp for the remainder of the war and sadly recalls that of his immediate friends, none lasted past September 1941.

Denchfield himself survived. His family returns to France every year to visit the grave of his friend, Billy Raine, who was killed only 5 miles from where his own Spitfire went down.

The book includes a photo of Denchfield in 2009, neatly dressed in a cardigan, walking stick in hand, leaning on the wing of Goodwood’s Harvard. He looks quite tough and like a bit of a trouble maker- somebody’s slightly cantankerous grandfather.

After all that happened, not only does he willingly record it in a letter for publication but happily re-visits the airfield and gets back into a plane. I wonder what makes the difference between a war story that is re-told a thousand times and one that is never spoken.

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4 responses to “Letter from Sergeant David Denchfield

  • Amy Scott

    What an incredible story. I am so terrified of flying…I can’t imagine “bailing out”! The courtesy between the English and Germans is fascinating. It reminds me of a moment in War and Peace when a young Russian soldier takes pity on a French prisoner and offers him food. It offers a startling counterpoint to the violence that then ensues. War fiction and memoirs (mostly I’ve read Canadian war fiction/writing from WW1 and 2) are filled with these ironies. I just finished War and Peace and while it concerns another war entirely, it has much to say about the randomness of men’s actions in war. Tolstoy describes how plans are made, commands are given, and very few of them are carried out as planned. He writes that when men pour onto the battlefield, they simply run about. I have to wonder if men flying planes in the Battle of Britain also felt a certain randomness about their own projects. Their flights had to be carefully planned of course, but there were always unexpected developments (cloud-cover for one) that put all plans and all commands in jeopardy. And there is nothing more random, nothing more full of contingency, than dropping out of the sky onto a field in France. I am fascinated by these unpredictable events of war. I am in awe of a man that can experience such terror and can feel capable of describing it to others and taking memorial flights.

  • Angels 14

    Thank you so much for this post. I knew I could count on you to bring some culture and thoughtfulness to this discussion!

    I am sure you are right about the randomness. I was reading a story last night about Bomber Command (will comment more about this book by Max Hastings in another entry). A crew was on its way to bomb a target in Germany. At this time there was no radar on planes, they had no radio and were flying in heavy cloud. They only way they could reach their target was to use Estimated Time of Arrival (calculate the distance, note their speed and then work out roughly when they should be in the bombing zone). Needless to say, this was a horribly inaccurate way to strike a target.

    This particular crew became disoriented and were desperately looking for a landmark. They finally caught sight of the Rhine and followed it to the target, where they release their bombs. As the cloud started to break up, they looked down and saw a city and the sea beyond. They were on the West coast of England. Two Spitfires suddenly rose to meet them and the pilot, Warren, turned to the crew and said “According to my calculations, we can only have bombed something in England. Christ, what are we going to do?”

    Their magnetic compass had been fried by a storm and rather than following the Rhine, they had gone straight up the Thames. They had bombed (with unusual precision) a Fighter Command runway.

    The pilot was demoted and known to the mess forever after as Baron Von Warren. The Spitfire pilots later flew over his base and dropped down some Iron Crosses (German War Medals).

    It’s another contradiction- they were meant to be killing their enemy, ended up attacking their comrades and really there was only thing to do about the whole episode- laugh at it. In a final twist of irony, it was quite a useful episode for the British. They learned that even with a direct hit on the target, their bombs were causing very little damage.

    Although randomness must have been inevitable, there were some moments of sheer, tactical brilliance. Wait for my posts on Dowding and Park!

  • The means to undertake « Place to land

    […] bombing was the RAF’s inability to strike specific targets (for an example, look back at the comment about a crew accidentally bombing their own […]

  • Ben Gee

    Rest In Peace Great Uncle David

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