On 21 July 1940 the squadron performed a feat that made them world famous, though war time censorship meant that at the time the identity of the squadron concerned was not printed in the newspapers. A convoy of merchant ships was heading up the English Channel for London and had reached Bognor Regis when radar picked up a formation of German aircraft on an intercept course. At Tangmere, Squadron Leader Badger was at readiness along with five other pilots. They were ordered into the air and as their Hurricanes swept out to sea, climbing for height, were given a course to steer that would lead them to the German aircraft. Badger organised his six Hurricanes into two flights of three. He was leading one himself, with Flt Lt Thomas Morgan heading the second. They had not yet reached Bognor and the convoy when Badger spotted the Germans. There was a bombing formation of 40 Dornier Do17 bombers, with a close escort of about 20 Messerschmitt Bf110 twin engined fighters. High overhead was an upper escort of Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters, which Badger thought numbered about two dozen aircraft. The bombers were about 2,000 feet above the Hurricanes, which were now climbing fast.
“Huns ahead, chaps”, called Badger over the radio. “It’s like looking up at Piccadilly Circus escalator. Line ahead, chaps. Let’s upset them a bit.” He sent Morgan and his flight to tackle the Bf110s, while he led his wingmen to attack the bombers. Badger opened fire first, at the rather long range of 250 yards, but his aim was good and pieces flew off the Dornier at which he was aiming. Badger then veered to get a second bomber in his sights and fired again, this time knocking out an engine.
Up above, Morgan and his comrades had got in among the Bf110s. Morgan had caused one German to go down with a clearly damaged wing, while another Hurricane pumped bullets into a second German with the result that one of the enemy’s engines caught fire. There was no time to celebrate, for now the Bf109 single engined fighters dived down to join the fray.
Morgan spotted a Bf109 on his tail and flipped his aircraft up to try to evade the stream of bullets coming his way. Instantly the entire cockpit cover of Morgan’s Hurricane was covered in oil. Assuming his engine oil lines had been severed by the German, Morgan pushed his fighter’s nose down and steered north toward land. Unable to see anything through the oil, Morgan flung back the canopy hood and half stood in the cockpit so that his head poked up out of the canopy and he could see where he was going. Finding that the engine still seemed to be running, Morgan headed for Tangmere. When he landed he found that his fighter was totally undamaged, the oil had come from some other aircraft.
Back in the fight, Badger was also hit. A cannon shell hit his port wing and tore off the aileron. He too put his nose down and headed for Tangmere. The other pilots continued the fray, and eight more Germans were seen to be damaged by their gunfire. As each No.43 pilot ran out of ammunition or was damaged he dropped out of the fight and headed for home. Their mission had been successful for the German bombing attack so badly disrupted that the bombs were scattered over a wide range of sea and none of the ships in the convoy were damaged.
What Badger and his men did not know, however, was that soon after they had taken off an RAF staff officer from London had arrived at Tangmere with a journalist from the USA in tow. The journalist had been promised a day at a fighter base, and Tangmere had been chosen almost at random. Escorted by the staff officer, the journalist was shown about the base. He was being led to the control room when Morgan’s Hurricane came in to land covered in oil. Soon after that, Badger’s fighter came in with a chunk missing from its port wing. The American asked if he could talk to the pilots. The staff officer agreed, but said it could only be a quick chat at that point since the pilots had to attend debriefing after which they might be free. The journalist scampered across the grass and hailed Badger.
“How many did you meet?” the American asked.
“Oh,” replied Badger tugging off his flying helmet. “About 40 Dorniers, I should say. Plus about the same number of Messerschmitts. Yes, must have been about eighty in all.”
“And how many squadrons did you have?’ queried the journalist.
Badger laughed. “Not even one. I had six of our boys from No.43. That was enough.” At which point the journalist was hustled away and told he had to wait until the pilots were ready to talk to him at length. Some time later the American was allowed to talk to Badger and Morgan to get the full story, scribbling down details of the battle over Bognor. The story of how six RAF pilots had climbed to attack 80 Luftwaffe aircraft was subsequently splashed across newspapers the length and breadth of the USA, and later was repeated in neutral countries across the world.
The incident proved to be a turning point, for it was the first time that many people in neutral countries realised that Britain really was prepared to fight on alone. In the previous months Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and even the mighty France had all fallen to the German military machine. Some fighting had been intense, but often the panzers had simply stormed through defences as if they barely existed and then rounded up vast numbers of dispirited prisoners too shattered even to fight. Many had expected Britain to go the same way, or to negotiate a hurried peace treaty. Nobody outside Britain had really taken the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill seriously when he had stated the determination of the British to fight it out. Now people began to believe him.
Soon afterwards Morgan was awarded a DFC, the citation stating that “His behaviour in action has been an inspiration to the pilots in his flight.”