Ground crew

Ground crew and armourers refill ammunition belts with .303 bullets by Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No. 85 Squadron RAF at Lille-Seclin. Copyright IWM

Colloquially, they were called the ERKS. But without them, the aircraft, the Spitfires and the Hurricanes, could not have taken off and certainly could not have survived the Battle. They were not to be mistaken for parking attendants. They were highly trained, intelligent, resourceful and devoted members of a team, without which the RAF could not have operated. Every plane that took off in the Battle did so with the help of the ground staff. When a pilot took off early in the morning, the ground staff would have been working on his plane for several hours before, and perhaps right through the night.

The ground staff were part of the Battle. After each day’s fighting, every aircraft which landed back from its operations had to be serviced. In particular, it had to be examined for battle damage. The most obvious would have been damage to the fuselage or the wings from hits delivered by Me109s firing and hitting the aircraft with their canons. All damage had to be assessed. The ground staff had to diagnose the problems that had arisen during the day. The question was, could the damage done be fixed on the squadron or did the damage require deeper surgery before the aircraft could be made safe to fly again. Different problems would require different skills. A problem with the aircraft’s instruments would have to be looked at by the expert who did nothing else but tend to instrument problems. Electrical faults would require the electrical fitter to sort the problem out. Trouble with the coolant system would require attention by the expert in that area. Then there were the armourers who were responsible for rearming the aircraft in between operations. The Browning machine guns, all eight of them, had to function perfectly if their pilot was to survive. Then there was the team responsible for refuelling the aircraft. They had to work together as a team as if they were in the pits of a Formula One racing car. Moreover, unlike the Formula One team, they had to do their job often under fire. Literally, when Me109s strafed their airfields.

When you sum all this up, the picture that emerges is of a very demanding business, servicing fighter aircraft in 1940. Each aircraft had a couple or so of ERKS responsible for that aircraft, but each team could call on the expertise of all these “different” trades. If the pilots had come from Cranwell, the best of the experts on the ground had been trained by an equally demanding institution, namely Halton. The system required a senior NCO to sign off each aircraft as it took to the air. Each pilot had accepted the aircraft and had put his signature on the form, as well. Not only was expertise required, but so was speed. As an aircraft landed, it was in the hands of the ground crew. Once it had taken off, it was the responsibility of the pilot. The two worked hand in glove and relied on each other. On every fighter station, for each fighter pilot, there were at least three or four ground crew. After each day’s operations, the question arose, how many fighters would be available at first light the next day. This vital question could only be answered by the senior NCOs who were running the show on the ground.

The strain on some squadrons during the Battle grew almost intolerable. As the demands on the pilots intensified, so did the strain on the ground crews. The ground crew had to snatch a bite to eat when they could, usually while on the job. Some worked and slept in the same uniform day in day out. The fighting record of each squadron depended as much on the efficiency and dedication of the ground crew, as it did on the pilots.