Artist pays tribute to 'Black Thursday' - the day North East pilots sent the Nazis packing

A North East artist has paid an 80th anniversary tribute to the brave pilots who protected our skies against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

Thursday, 13th August 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 13th August 2020, 10:09 am
Squadron Leader Sir Hugh Dundas of No. 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron from Leconfield preparing to attack a formation of German Ju 88s.
Squadron Leader Sir Hugh Dundas of No. 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron from Leconfield preparing to attack a formation of German Ju 88s.

Denis Fox has spent 18 months on a series of paintings which depict ‘Black Thursday’ – the day the Luftwaffe targeted the North East and were sent packing by young RAF airmen.

Each one of his paintings tells a true story of what happened on the early afternoon of August 15, 1940, in the sky above the North East – the day the Nazis concentrated on docklands in Sunderland, Seaham and Hartlepool among others.

Seaham-born Denis, who now lives in Durham, said: “At times it has been very emotional even just to imagine what it would have been like waiting for the call to 'scramble', flying in close formation, ascending to high altitude and seeing an enemy whose intention was not only to kill you but destroy your homeland.

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An air battle over the Farne Islands.

"Being totally outnumbered, Spitfires and Hurricane squadrons gave their very best and with the support given by anti-aircraft fire from stations situated along the coast of Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire.

"The German Luftwaffe suffered humiliation and defeat in so much as they never attacked the North East again in large numbers during daylight hours.

"Everything worked according to plan from high command down to RAF ground crew, women played a vital part in the RAF operations room in Gosforth, radar technicians gave pilots what they needed most of all to know and that was the location of incoming enemy aircraft. Firefighting crew, munition workers and hospital staff were all heroes on that day.”

Denis added: “What was remarkable by the end of the air battle none of our pilots were killed. Some were wounded and some of our fighter aircraft were damaged.

"The Lone Wolf" showing Fl Lt Eric Lock DSO, DFC and Bar from No. 41 Squadron based at Catterick stalking and eventually shooting down a German Me Bf 110 fighter bomber over Seaham.

"However the Luftwaffe lost aircrew and aircraft and many bombers and fighter bombers were severely damaged returning to bases in Norway and Denmark.”

The coronavirus has meant that Denis has had numerous exhibitions cancelled this year. “I had hoped that my exhibition of work would reach out to more people who were not aware of what happened on the 15th August 1940,” he said.

He carried out extensive research for hispaintings from RAF documents, newspaper archives, visits to aircraft museums and eye-witness accounts from relatives.

"I have even had the experience of being flown in my friend's aircraft and taken up along the North East coast. This was a bonus for my strategy of how the composition of some of my paintings would look.”

Squadron Leader Fl Lt Archie McKeller DSO, DFC and Bar of No. 605 Squadron from Drem in Scotland shooting down a German Heinkel 111 bomber beyond Seaham Harbour.

Around 90 Heinkel 111 bombers and Me. Bf. 110 fighter bombers left their airfield in Stavanger, Norway with the intention of bombing RAF fighter airfields in the North-East of England and the docklands of the Tyne and Wear, Seaham, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.

Denis said: “German aircrew were told that they would face no opposition from RAF fighters as they were stationed in southern England and also, by carrying extra fuel tanks for the long journey across the North Sea and back, they would not need to take a full crew especially a machine gunner.

"This proved to be a big mistake, for the RAF squadrons stationed in the North-East had seasoned and experienced fighter pilots who had been 'rested' from combat by ACM Sir Hugh Dowding.

"It was also a testing time for young unexperienced pilots who had to learn quickly in combat especially in the events that lay ahead the following month.”

Squadron Leader Fl Lt Francis William Blackadder from No. 607 (County of Durham) Squadron based at Usworth shooting down a German Heinkel 111 bomber over Seaham Harbour.

Denis said: “We should all remember the air battle that took place on 15th August 1940 in the North East and how it shaped the events that followed the following month.

"The Luftwaffe soon realised that it was up against a formidable enemy whose people would never surrender come what may. Above all, this victory raised morale in Great Britain especially after the crisis at Dunkirk two months previous.”

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Denis Fox pictured working at home during the pandemic lockdown.
Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen John Hillier at Strike Command receiving a print from Denis's painting "The Hero of Tyneside" which was donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund in February 2019.