Thursday, 3 November 2011

Montague Hulton-Harrop

Pilot Officer M.L. Hulton-Harrop
On Wednesday 6 September 1939, just three days after war had been declared; RAF Fighter Command suffered its first pilot casualty of the Second World War in a tragic incident known as the 'Battle of Barking Creek'.
      After an early morning air raid alert six Hurricanes of No.56 Squadron were ordered to scramble from North Weald aerodrome to meet an enemy raid which had been spotted by searchlight battries. Instead of scrambling six aircraft the Squadron's Commanding Officer scrambled twelve Hurricanes to patrol in formation between Harwhich and Colchester at 11,000 feet.
      Two pilots that had been left behind at North Weald decided to join their colleagues on the patrol. One of these young men was Pilot Officer Montague Hulton-Harrop and the other was Flying Officer Frank Rose. Without orders, the two pilots climbed into the cockpits of two reserve Hurricanes and raced off after their Squadron. Hulton-Harrop and Rose eventually caught up with the  twelve Hurricanes over the coast and continued to fly about a mile behind and about 1,000 feet below the main formation (which was totally unaware of the two stragglers to its rear).
      At approximately 0645 hours Sailor Malan led Spitfires of No.74 Squadron off from Hornchurch to meet the enemy raid as instructed. Hurricanes of No.151 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader Donaldson, were also airborne at this time, having been scrambled from North Weald.
      When Malan's Spitfires arrived in the area they caught sight of No.56 Squadron's reserve aircraft and mistook them for enemy Bf 109s. Malan gave the order to attack and Flying Officer Vincent 'Paddy' Byrne and nineteen year old Pilot Officer John Freeborn of Yellow Section dived to engage the Hurricanes. Squadron Leader Donaldson recalled watching this tragic friendly-fire incident unfold from his own cockpit: "I saw two of the Spitfires turn in on two of the Hurricanes and open fire. I yelled over the R/T. 'Do not retaliate. They are friendly!' A frantic melee ensued, but not one of the North Weald wing fired, although there was a frantic manoeuvring by almost everyone."
       Freeborn's attack killed Montague Hulton-Harrop outright. His Hurricane was seen gliding down in a left-hand turn before it hit the ground. Frank Rose was also shot down by Byrne's attack but he survived after force-landing his aircraft in a sugar-beet field. Both Freeborn and Byrne broke away from the engagement under the impression that they had just shot down two enemy fighters.
      This incident known mysteriously as the 'Battle of Barking Creek' was made top secret at the time and discussions concerning the matter were strictly forbidden. This dreadful Wednesday would forever stay in John Freeborn's mind.

      In 2009 I spent a moving day with Wing Commander John Freeborn, DFC*, at North Weald, where he was interviewd by journalist and presenter Lucy Siegle about the 'Battle of Barking Creek' for a short feature made for the BBC'S 'The One Show'. This touching episode can be viewed by clicking HERE

Left - Hulton-Harrop circled, Frank Rose far right.
Right - John Freeborn at the grave of Hulton-Harrop in 2009


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