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The Battle of Barking Creek

Pilot Officer Montague Leslie Hulton-Harrop became the first RAF Fighter Pilot killed in WW 2.

Society is ‘fixed’ on firsts. The Sept. 6, 1939 ‘Battle of Barking Creek’, so named as ‘black humour’, represents one of the firsts, but a sad first of World War Two. That morning Pilot Officer Montague Leslie Hulton-Harrop became the first RAF Fighter Pilot killed in WWII.

P/O Hulton-Harrop Had Cheated Death in June 1939

On June 12, 1939 P/O Hulton-Harrop was at the controls of Hawker Hurricane Fighter #L1611 of 56 Squadron RAF. He and Pilot Officer Peter Philip Charlton, in Hurricane #L1598, were practicing formation take-offs at their base at North Weald, Essex. P/O Hulton-Harrop and P/O Charlton touched wings. Charlton lost control of his Hurricane and died when it crashed near Epping, Essex. P/O Hulton-Harrop was able to land back at the Base.

September 6, 1939

The United Kingdom formally declared war on Germany on Sunday, September 3, 1939. It was a jittery time. Everyone was on edge.

At 06:46 (AM) on Wednesday, September 6, 1939 a flight of Hurricanes from 56 ‘Punjab’ Squadron, RAF, was scrambled against what was thought to be an intrusion by Luftwaffe Bf 109 fighters.

A Reserve Flight of two Hurricanes from 56 Squadron departed later from the North Weal Base. 

This was followed by ‘A’ Fight, of Spitfires from 74 ‘Tiger’ Squadron, RAF, stationed at RAF Base Rochford near Hornchurch. This Flight was commanded by Squadron Leader Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan, a South African in the RAF who went on to shoot down 27 enemy aircraft.

When Malan caught sight of the two reserve Hurricanes he falsely identified them as German Messerschmitt Bf109s. He ordered P/O Vincent Byrne and P/O John Freeborn to shoot them down.

Freeborn fired on P/O Montague Leslie Hulton-Harrop in Hurricane L1985. Hulton-Harrop was hit in the head and died instantly. His Hurricane crashed at Manor Farm, Hintlesham, Suffolk.

P/O Frank C. Rose’s Hurricane #L1980 was hit by 303 rounds from P/O Vincent Byrne’s Spitfire. He crash landed, uninjured. Hurricane #L1980 was repaired and put back in action.    

P/O Vincent Byrne and P/O John Freeborn were arrested and court-martialled. S/L ‘Sailor’ Malan denied giving the order to fire. In the end the men were acquitted and returned to active service. The incident was chalked up to human error and poor communications.

Footnotes

Pilot Officer Montague Leslie Hulton-Harrop, only 26 at the time of his death, is buried in the St. Andrews churchyard, North Weald, Essex, UK. He was a very good friend of Kenneth Gilbert More the famous actor who later played Douglas Bader in the movie, “Reach for the Sky”.