Shortly after 1 p.m. on 31 August 1940 an Auckland-born 23-year-old desperately gunned his Spitfire down the runway at his squadron’s Hornchurch airfield. Al Deere and his fellow Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots had dashed to their aircraft when ordered to scramble, and the controller screamed at them to take off immediately. A large formation of German bombers, which had escaped early detection, was approaching.
Two of the squadron’s sections managed to get their planes into the air as the first of about 60 bombs began to fall. In the rear Deere and his section had just lifted off when explosions caused all three Spitfires to crash. As bombs continued to burst, Deere was pulled from his upside-down machine by one of the other pilots. He then had to carry his rescuer to safety after the latter collapsed.
Deere was one of 135 New Zealanders who fought in the Battle of Britain as part of the RAF’s Fighter Command. Many others served with Bomber and Coastal Commands. Their participation reflected this country’s vital interest in the outcome of this struggle for control of the British skies in the northern summer of 1940. New Zealand had gone to war in September 1939 determined to support the British cause and defend the British system upon which it depended for both economic and physical security. With the United Kingdom now at risk, New Zealanders followed the events of July-October 1940 with deep apprehension. They needed no reminding of the disastrous consequences that would follow a German conquest of the ‘mother country’.