Pilot Officer John Cock
Crashed 11 August 1940
The Fleet, Dorset
Battle over Portland
At dawn on August 11, 1940 the plotting tables of Fighter Command began once more to record the enemy’s movements over the Channel. After initial engagements off Dover early in the day a significant number of aircraft began to appear from the Baie de la Seine area, between Cherbourg and Le Harve. At 10.05 hours the following forces had been identified:
50 + enemy aircraft fifteen miles north of Cherbourg.
9 + enemy aircraft twenty six miles north-west of Cherbourg.
During the previous weeks the main targets to receive the still jubilant Luftwaffe’s attentions were the many small convoys plying the Channel. On this day, however, there were no convoys to attract a force of such magnitude. Only the prominent naval base of Portland lay in the path of the advancing aircraft. Almost immediately the controllers of 10 and 11 Groups began to dispatch their forces to patrol the Portland area. Nos. 1, 145 and 609 took off first, followed by 601, 152, 213, 238 and lastly 87 Squadron at 10.10 hours — a total of about 70 aircraft.
609 Squadron’s twelve Spitfires were the first to encounter the enemy, a large number of Bf110s of ZG2 and Bf109s from JG2 south of Swanage. 609 Squadron made a diving attack out of the sun at the circling Bf 110s, five being claimed as destroyed, 601 and 145 Squadrons then joined the combat but were to lose six aircraft and their pilots in an engagement with what appears to have been a decoy fighter force. The main bomber formation was by now approaching Portland Bill unmolested. Only the eight Hurricanes of 213 Squadron were able to engage the Ju88s of KG54 before their bombs began to fall.
On the ground the various gun batteries under command of the 5th Anti-Aircraft Division looked on as two formations approached Portland from the east and west. The Ju88s dived down from 15,000 ft to between 1000 and 500ft, approaching in a series of waves, bombing and machine gunning as they went.
The Verne Citadel and oil tanks of the naval base appeared to be the main targets. Two of the tanks caught fire, the resulting pall of smoke hampering the anti-aircraft gunners as further aircraft approached. Around the naval base itself a road leading to the Citadel was cratered and four small huts destroyed. A fire was started in the naval hospital but soon brought under control. Three hundred yards of railway track near HMS Osprey were demolished while further along the line the signal box at the entrance of Portland Station received a direct hit, the signalman being killed. In the harbour two small destroyers were hit, while damage was caused to the submarine school. Further afield 20 houses and a brewery were either demolished or nearly so while another 100 houses received damage of a minor nature from splinters and shrapnel.
Following the bombing, Nos. 1 and 152 Squadrons engaged the fighter escort whilst 238 Squadron went for the Ju88s, followed a few minutes later by the six Hurricanes of 87 Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight: P/O McLure, P/O Cock, F/Sgt Badger, F/O Glyde, F/Lt Jeff and P/O David.
Dennis David still recalled in 1983 the awesome sight of this phalanx of planes, the largest formation yet seen over Britain:
“There didn’t seem much that we could do against this force, but we made to attack the Ju88s as they turned away from Portland.”
Before any of the pilots could make their attack, a group of Bf109s dived through the Hurricanes, breaking their line astern formation. Flight Sergeant Badger, flying as Blue 3, dived away after a 109 and was able to damage it with two short bursts of fire before another 109 attacked his own aircraft. During the brief dog fight which followed two bursts hit the 109, its engine stopped and petrol poured out. The aircraft spiralled down and was seen to crash into the sea.
Pilot Officer McLure, Green 2, went into a series of steep right hand turns and found himself out-turning one of the 109s. The Hurricane’s fire hit the fighter and McLure watched it spinning into the sea. A number of the accompanying 109s then attacked McLure’s aircraft. Their bullets struck home wounding McLure in the leg. The instruments were shot away and oil sprayed into the cockpit, covering its interior and the canopy.
McLure’s combat report recalls what happened: “I dived away steeply doing right hand aileron turns down to about 5,000ft. The 109s did not follow me down. I headed for shore and was attacked by, I believe, He112s. I again turned steeply to the right and got my sights on the rear enemy aircraft. I followed him down to thirty feet off the water and gave a burst of about two seconds. He seemed to lose control but oil covered my windshield and I was unable to see what happened.”
The other six aircraft continued to attack McLure’s machine until he reached the coast where a wheels up forced landing was made near Warmwell.
John Cock’s day had started well. A fellow pilot had repaid a long standing debt of £5, “a considerable amount in those days” John recalled.
“With the fiver firmly in my trouser pocket I left Exeter and had little trouble in spotting the bombers. By then there were a total of about 200 of them spread out all over Portland. The first aircraft I shot at was a 109. I gave him several bursts and saw bits come flying off. He was obviously damaged and I doubt that he got very much further.
“I found the Ju88 next and managed to get in behind him. One of my guns had already jammed but I carried on and fired off the rest of my ammunition. One of the wings was well alight but I didn’t see the 88 crash as a line of bullets hit the left hand side of my cockpit. There was a dreadful din. The dash panel disintegrated and the engine began to run a bit rough. A bullet had nicked my left arm and other bits of shrapnel embedded themselves in it.
“The 109 that had hit me dived away and I saw two white bars on it. Later the Squadron Intelligence Officer told me that this was probably Helmut Wick. With my plane fairly badly hit I decided that this was no place to be, so I pulled back the hood and rolled the plane over. I tried to get out, but got stuck on something, so I kicked the stick forward and shot out into space. I grabbed the rip cord and pulled it. When the ’chute opened I was still hanging on to the handle for all I was worth. I put it in my jacket pocket and kept it as a souvenir!
“Floating down I could see and hear the other aircraft whirling around. I felt a bit vulnerable, especially when my parachute cords fell around me. Another Me 109 was shooting at me! Dennis David got onto the 109 and I watched him shoot the aircraft down. The pilot didn’t get out of that one.
“When I hit the water my ’chute began to drag me towards Portland. I thought about hanging on and sailing ashore but I soon realised that the ’chute was taking me the wrong way. I managed to release it and started to swim to the beach, about a quarter of a mile away. My arm was beginning to hurt and the left half of my Mae West had been punctured by the bullet so I floated a bit ‘left wing low’. I had already taken off my boots and considered that losing my trousers would ease the situation a bit. As they floated away I suddenly remembered my fiver in the pocket! I couldn’t quite reach them and I often wondered if anyone ever found my £5.”
Eventually Pilot Officer John Cock reached Chesil Beach to be greeted by some Home Guards armed with shot guns. 87 Squadron’s Operational Record Book records the event thus . . .
“ he arrived dressed in a tunic and blue underpants — a somewhat fearsome spectacle.”
Not all of ‘B’ Flight were so lucky. The Flight Commander, Flight Lieutenant Jeff DFC, did not return. He was last seen in a vertical dive off Portland Harbour.
The 1983 Recovery
The Royal Engineers Training Camp at Wyke designed a platform based on three assault craft which could be assembled on site by their apprentices.
On April 30, 1983, the working platform was assembled and rowed out to the site by about twenty apprentices who also provided a fourth assault craft to use as a ferry. Six ex-87 Squadron pilots – John Cock, Dennis David, Jimmy Joyce, Watty Watson. Roland Beamont and Frank ‘Dinkie’ Howell went out to the site.
Things were different in 1983!
The Fleet revisited
The first problem was to re-locate the site. Glyn and Phil take to the water, while Gareth and John stay dry. A magnetometer was dangled from the dinghy to pick-up the wreck which was buried under the floor of the lagoon. Poles were then pushed into the mud so that the barge could be positioned accurately.
Normally in this area no engines are permitted, only rowing boats, to prevent oil spillage and pollution.
Risk Assessments, Method Statements and Environmental Impact Assessments had to be commissioned to satisfy all parties from Natural England down. Eventually Blue Boar Contracts, a specialist marine dredging company agreed to build a purpose built tug and two shallow draft barges to carry a digger – all running on bio-degradable oils. For the most part The Fleet is little more than a metre deep, it’s tidal, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a UK Marine Special Area of Conservation and in a World Heritage Site on the Dorset Coast. The crash site itself is controlled by the World famous Abbotsbury Swannery with its enormous flock of Mute Swans and growing on the bottom is a rare Seagrass Bed (Zostera marina) – in short – it is one of the most environmentally sensitive and valuable places in Britain!
The digger had been positioned where the most substantial wreckage was believed to be; control cables had been ‘felt’, rather than seen, going down into the mud and it was assumed that the centre section and engine would be below them. The positioning was critical, for permission had been granted for only one small area of mud and Seagrass to be disturbed; only the area within reach of the digger with the barge in its initial position could be excavated.
As the first buckets of mud surfaced the plan swung into action. The mud and water would be dropped onto a mesh fitted to the second barge and the ‘diggers’ would do their best to sift through it by whatever means possible to find the smaller pieces. The mud would then be dropped into the bottom of the barge so that it could be replaced exactly where it had been excavated from at the end of the operation.
Before long the digger driver working ‘blind’ had found the main area of wreckage and began to lift some large items onto the barge, including the centre section spar, an undercarriage leg and the back armour. As another bucket surfaced the control column was spotted; hanging from its control wires among the weeds.
One of the most significant finds was the control column with the gun button that John Cock had left on ‘Fire’ when he had baled out in 1940.