The battle of Barking Creek:

Fighter Command’s forst fatality of World War II -

An early victim of ‘friendly fire’

September 6th 1939.
The war was only four days old, and apart from one or two false alarms, nothing much had happened.  This was the beginning of the time which was to become known as the ‘Phoney War’.

There was little activity in the air.  Efforts were limited largely to the dropping of propaganda material over enemy territory.  The Royal Air Force had been considerably expanded in the late 1930’s, but many of it’s pilots lacked flying experience.  None of them had experienced combat before.  There was no method of aircraft recognition, other than by the naked eye.  British pilots had for the most part never set eyes on a German fighter.  Radar was in it’s infancy, and was largely untested.  Communication between airfields and command centres was relatively primitive.  Ground to air radio was nowhere near as sophisticated or reliable as we know it today.  All of these factors had a bearing on the tragic events which were to unfold during the day.

At 06.15 hours a searchlight battery reported unidentified aircraft approaching from the east at high altitude over West Mersea, on the Essex coast.

This message was relayed to 11 Group headquarters at Bentley Priory.  They ordered up one flight of six Hurricanes from 56 Squadron, based at North Weald.  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 managed to take up a pair of reserve aircraft and followed at a distance.

Other aircraft were also scrambled.  151 Squadron’s Hurricanes (also from North Weald), and Spitfires from 54, 65, and 74 Squadrons based at Hornchurch.  All the aircraft were vectored eastwards.

As they converged on the area in which the unidentified aircraft had been reported, ‘A’ Flight from 74 Squadron spotted what they believed to be two ME109’s, and were given permission to engage them.  Three Spitfires peeled off to attack.  They were piloted by Flying Officer Byrne, Pilot Officer Freeborn and Sergeant Flinders.

The ‘bandits’ were in fact the two reserve aircraft from 56 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officers M. L. Hulton-Harrop and F. C. Rose.  Byrne and Freeborn were the only pilots to actually open fire.  Hulton-Harrop was hit in the back of the head.  At this stage of the war Hurricanes were not fitted with armour plating, and the unfortunate pilot was dead before his stricken aircraft crashed at Manor Farm, Hintlesham, Suffolk, west of Ipswich.  P/O Rose crash landed but was not injured and was taken to the airfield at Martlesham Heath.

Byrne and Freeborn were placed under arrest on their return to Hornchurch.  They later stood trial but were acquitted.  Group Captain Lucking was removed from his post as CO of 56 Squadron.

This tragic affair became known throughout Fighter Command as The Battle Of Barking Creek.  The 26 year-old  Hulton-Harrop was buried in St Andrews Churchyard at North Weald, where his grave can still be seen today.

John Duffell, The Royal British Legion, Epping & District Branch, 2001

picture courtesy of the Royal British Legion