The Allies — the British, the French, and the Polish forces in exile — are fully engaged with the German invasion of Norway: Denmark has already fallen, and southern, central and western Norway are now under German control. An Allied expeditionary force had landed in the north on 14 April at Harstad, near Narvik. They are having local successes, but are hampered by divided commands, conflicting orders, and poor battlefield control.
Lt Colonel Colin Gubbins is in command of Britain’s ‘Independent Companies’, a forerunner of the Commandos. With the French forces, Lieutenant André Dewavrin is an intelligence officer, and Maurice Duclos is a tall artillery officer rehabilitated after serving a prison sentence for membership of the Cagoulards, a radical anti-Communist secret movement in pre-war French politics.
At 13.45, Flying Officer John Coghlan of No. 56 (Fighter) Squadron is at 16,000 feet, leading a patrol of three Hurricanes – Red Section, ‘A’ Flight – flying eastwards above the Essex coastline near Clacton. Coghlan had joined the RAF in January 1936 at the age of 21 on a Short-Service engagement. He’d served with Nos 1 and 72 Squadrons before being posted to 56 Squadron on the outbreak of war. The other two pilots in his section are Sergeants Cooney and Baker.
Coghlan spots an aircraft about ten miles away. It is flying on a south-westerly course but it’s much higher at about 25,000 feet. Coghlan turns sharply to climb in pursuit. The other two Hurricanes make to follow, but are left behind. When Coghlan gets to about three miles behind the enemy and 1,000 feet below, the enemy spots him. It stall-turns, and dives to pass Coghlan to port, about 700-800 yards away. Coghlan turns to pursue, with the other Hurricanes forming up line astern, following the prescribed method of Fighter Command tactics.
They dive to about 16,000 feet, but the enemy’s accumulated dive speed makes it difficult for Coghlan’s Hurricane to catch it. From the single pointed fin, long engine nacelles and high speed the aircraft appears to be a Ju88. Coghlan gets to within about 600 yards when the Ju88’s rear gunner opens fire with tracer, which passes harmlessly beneath the Hurricane. Coghlan gets to within about 500 feet of the Ju88 when he realises that he is no longer gaining. He opens fire in one long burst. One of the Hurricane’s eight guns jams after a few seconds, but he keeps firing for about 16 seconds, knowing this will be his only opportunity.
Coghlan throttles back, his ammunition spent, his Hurricane now impotent. The other two pursue the Ju88 down to 6,000 feet, but they never get close enough to engage. They are now 50 miles out to sea; if they engaged boost in an attempt to catch it they might not have enough fuel to make it back.
At some point during his time with 56 Squadron, according to Eric Clayton, one of his ground crew at the time, Coghlan acquires the nickname ‘Nine-gun’, though Clayton wasn’t clear about when. In one combat after his ammunition has run out, Coghlan pulls back his cockpit canopy and fires his service revolver at the enemy. In most combat circumstances this would have been implausible, but against a lone enemy reconnaissance aircraft in the clear skies above the Channel, during the last hours of the ‘Phoney War’, it sounds at least possible.
- Combat reports No. 56 Sqn: TNA AIR 50/22
- Eric Clayton, ‘What if the Heavens Fall?’ (Wye College Press, 1993)