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Sunday, November 18, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hands Tell All: Pilots Recall Battle Of Britain

Scripps Howard News Service

WASHINGTON - They were in their 70s, wrinkled, graying and slow-moving. But their hands told you who they were: World War II combat pilots.

There were eight of them, four who flew for the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, and four Luftwaffe bomber and fighter pilots who made dozen of sorties over England.

When they described their aerial combats, their hands became Spitfires and Messerschmitts that climbed and dived, banked and rolled. It was the pilot's body language that goes back to Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Military buffs know these men: Brian Kingcomb, the famous ``King'' of 92 Squadron who flew Spitfires; John ``Cat's Eyes'' Cunningham, who hunted Germans in a radar-equipped Beaufighter; Dennis David, the prewar pilot who ran up a big score in Hurricanes, and Desmond Hughes, who became an ace in a hopelessly outclassed Defiant.

The Germans also were familiar: Hajo Herrman, one of the most famous and successful Junkers 88 pilots; Wolfgang Schenck, a Messerschmitt ME-110 pilot in the Battle of Britain who later commanded the world's first jet-fighter squadron; Dietrich Peltz, a Stuka pilot who was so gifted he rose from captain to major general in three years; and Ulrich Steinhilper, a Messerschmitt ME-109 ace who was shot down over England and made five escapes from Canadian prison camps.

They were at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., last week on the first leg of a four-stop tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The two-hour discussion was their only public appearance, and the crowd was so large it overflowed the museum's theater and planetarium. They were also to stop at Scott, Randolph and Maxwell Air Force bases.

The hate and anger of 1940 have faded. What remain are pride in their accomplishments, respect for their opponents' courage and skill, and humor.

Hughes, who was credited with 18 1/2 victories in a long combat career, was quick to admit the RAF learned its basic fighter tactics from the Luftwaffe. When World War II began, he said, British squadrons were flying outmoded V formations that made them sitting ducks for German fighters.

``They taught us to weave, to fly the finger-four formation and to get very close before firing,'' Hughes explained.

One of the advantages the British did have, he added, was a substantial cadre of prewar pilots who were magnificent stick-and-rudder men.

Ulrich Steinhilper, who won five victories in an ME-109 before being shot down in October 1940, conceded that the British pilots were very good.

It was no contest when a young, inexperienced German pilot tangled with one of the RAF's old hands, Steinhilper said, particularly if the Englishman was flying a super-nimble, eight-gun Spitfire.

Not surprisingly, Steinhilper and Kingcomb revived the half-century-old argument over which fighter was better, the ME-109 or the Spitfire.

Steinhilper said the German fighter was faster and a better diver.

``You'd be surprised how fast you could dive a 109 when you were scared,'' he said with a grin.

Kingcomb, who flew Spits for five years, said his mount was the better dogfighter and no ME-109 dared turn with it.

``The Spitfire was the only aircraft (in the Battle of Britain) worth talking about,'' he sniffed.

The love of a pilot for his plane was most eloquently voiced by Hughes who, in the early part of the battle, was forced to fly a Defiant, a slow, cumbersome plane that carried four guns in a rear-facing turret but no front-firing guns. The Germans shot down these planes in droves.

Yet Hughes warmly praised his Defiant as a ``pleasant plane to fly'' that later performed well as a night fighter.

During the battle, Cunningham flew an obsolete Blenheim night fighter. It wasn't until after the Battle of Britain that he downed 20 night-flying Germans with the world's first radar-equipped aircraft, the Beaufighter.

The first airborne radar sets weren't very reliable, he said, but his eyes and gunnery were so good he quickly became the world's first night fighter ace.

The Germans recalled some of their grimmer adventures, but it was evident they were proud of the way they performed in battle and proud of their flying skills.

Herrman, who flew the twin-engined Junkers JU-88, wryly remembered two of his 1940 missions, one over Dunkirk and one over Plymouth.

At Dunkirk, Herrman had a very bad day while trying to bomb British ships evacuating the British army. Using his plane as a dive bomber, Herrman discovered halfway down in a dive that his dive brakes had failed. He barely managed to pull out over Dunkirk harbor, but at that precise moment, a Hurricane and a French Dewoitine fighter ambushed him and shot out one of his engines.

Crippled and at low altitude, Herrman hid in a smoke pall from burning fuel tanks for a while, but when he emerged, a Spitfire took out his other engine. He crashed and swam to a beach in Belgium, which was held by the German army.

Not long after, while he was trying to lay mines in Plymouth harbor, the top half of Herrman's JU-88 was ripped off when he flew into a barrage balloon. Herrman flew the wreck back to his base in France.

Schenck, who flew slow, clumsy ME-110s, remembers some of his frightening missions over England. Because his squadron's planes were no match for the RAF's fighters, when he ran into Spitfires or Hurricanes Schenck would order his men to form a circle in which every ME-110 covered the tail of another plane.

By gradually edging the circle toward his base in France, Schenck's squadron would slowly escape.

``We tried to tell (Reichsmarshall Hermann) Goering the ME-110 wasn't a good fighter, that it was too large and too heavy, but he wouldn't listen,'' Schenck said.

Later in the war, Schenck organized and commanded the first squadron of ME-262 jet fighters and ended the war with 400 missions and 18 kills.

Stuka pilot Peltz also decried Goering's handling of the battle which cost his squadron ``two or three planes every time we took off.''

``We were easy pickings for the Hurricanes and Spitfires,'' he recalled. Eventually, the Stuka squadrons' losses were so severe they were withdrawn from the battle.

In contrast to the Germans' criticism of their leader, Goering, the RAF veterans adored their commander, Air Vice Marshall Hugh ``Stuffy'' Dowding.

Hughes credited Dowding's clever handling of the RAF for ``saving the country.''

Hughes also had a measure of praise for Goering, a high-scoring ace and winner of Germany's highest medals during World War I.

``You know, Goering was a very good fighter boy when he was young,'' Hughes said.

Which leaves the impression that fighter aces never criticize each other, even if they are enemies. Or perhaps Hughes was exhibiting a bit of British gallantry.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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