Note: Spitfire VB 222 Sqn RAF in flight 1942 // Women at War 1939 – 1945 TR1253 // Spitfire VB 222 Sqn RAF in flight 1942
World War II
Finucane spent the winter of 1939–40 gaining as much flight practice as possible. He was unable to gain any hours in fighter aircraft and was abruptly transferred to the practice and parachute test flight centre at RAF Henlow and had to settle for making trips around airfields in an antiquated Vickers Virginia as a copilot ferrying engineers and ground crew from 16 September 1939. That month German forces invaded Poland (1 September) prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany and beginning the war in Europe. Finucane's piloting skills were far from being at the acceptable level for a fighter pilot. He continued in this trend until May 1940 until he was assigned to flying Miles Magister training aircraft.
In May German forces attacked the Netherlands and Belgium which fell quickly. In June France collapsed. Fighter Command now needed an influx of pilots after losses in Western Europe. Finucane had improved and on 27 June 1940 he was posted to 7 Operational Training Unit (7 OTU) in Hawarden near Chester, to undergo conversion training onto Supermarine Spitfires while awaiting a fighter squadron posting. Finucane made his first flight in a Spitfire on 3 July 1940 and made 26 such flights in nine days. The pilots were tested on radio transmission, handling, formation flying and aerobatics. On 11 July 1940 he was permitted just one firing practice. At the end of his stay at 7 OTU he had logged 2 hours 40 minutes on the Magister, 2 hours 25 minutes on the Fairey Battle, 15 minutes on the Hawker Hurricane and 22 hours and 20 minutes on the Spitfire.
Battle of Britain
Finucane was posted to No. 65 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch on 12 July 1940, arriving the next day, just as the Battle of Britain was getting under-way. No. 65 Squadron boasted several aces, including Bill Franklin who had destroyed 10 enemy aircraft. Finucane called him the scruffiest man in the squadron, but was envious of Franklin's skill and was keen to emulate him. Anxious to get more experience, Finucane loitered around dispersal hoping to build up flight time on the Spitfire by asking as many senior officers for as many hours practice as was possible. Finucane was granted a few flights to improve his handling of the fighter before he was assigned to B Flight or Green Section.
On 24 July, the squadron moved to a satellite airfield at Rochford in the county of Essex. The following day, he became operational. The Battle of Britain was slowly escalating and air fighting increased with a series of German air attacks against British shipping in the English Channel, a phase of the battle termed Kanalkampf by the Luftwaffe. Finucane's first scramble came on 25 July 1940. Flying Spitfire N3128 code YT-W, he took off at 08:45. The Spitfire was worn, having served in combat since April. It developed a glycol leak whilst climbing and the cockpit filled with escaping vapour from the cooling liquid condensing on the hot engine. Suddenly his radio transmission failed. Still, he managed a wheels-up landing at Rochford. 65 Squadron was in action again at 12:20 and engaged enemy aircraft but suffered no losses.
For the next few days, Finucane did not scramble. On 1 August, he was assigned Spitfire R6818 taken on charge by the unit on 26 July. On 12 August, he took off to intercept a raid at 11:30. Climbing to 26,000 feet (7,900 m), 10 miles (16 km) off North Foreland, the squadron attacked 30 Messerschmitt Bf 109s several thousand feet below them. Evading a German counterattack Finucane dived upon a formation of 12 enemy fighters. He fired from 250 to 50 yards (229 to 46 m), causing one Bf 109 to crash into the Channel. The victory was witnessed by Sergeant Orchard in Finucane's flight. He landed at 11:45. While the squadron was refuelling and assembling for another patrol at RAF Manston, the airfield came under a low-level attack by Messerschmitt Bf 110s and Dornier Do 17s covered by Bf 109s. The Bf 110s were led by Hauptmann Walter Rubensdörffer, commanding Erprobungsgruppe 210. 18 Do 17s from Kampfgeschwader 2 supported them. Not many of the Spitfires got airborne. Alongside Jeffrey Quill, Finucane took off downwind as the first bombs started to fall. Both Quill and Finucane sighted Bf 109s and engaged. Quill hit a Bf 109 and Finucane fired on two, claiming a probable and one damaged. According to another account Quill had taken off without permission when he heard reverberations to his right. He saw a hangar roof with a mountain of earth flying sky-ward and a Bf 110 pulling out of a dive. He fired at, but missed, a Bf 109. One Spitfire was damaged in the attack. Finucane's first claim may be one of two III./Jagdgeschwader 54 Bf 109s shot down over the Channel by an unknown British fighter unit. One pilot was unhurt, the other, a Leutnant Eberle was wounded in action. No losses for Bf 109s were incurred on the second air battle.
On 13 August, the Luftwaffe began an all-out assault on RAF airfields. Christened Adlertag (Eagle Day), the raids saw the heaviest fighting thus far. Scrambling at 16:00 to intercept an incoming raid near Dover, 65 Squadron encountered large numbers of Bf 109s from Jagdgeschwader 51 led by Hannes Trautloft. Finucane claimed a Bf 109 shot down and damaged another, leaving the Messerschmitt streaming smoke. Finucane lost contact with it in cloud and he claimed as a probable. One Bf 109 was lost from JG 51 and the pilot wounded. Two more were 80 percent damaged. 65 Squadron suffered no losses. 0n 18 August Finucane was involved in the large air battles that characterised the campaign. 65 Squadron engaged Heinkel He 111 bombers from Kampfgeschwader 1 downing one of their number.On 28 August, the squadron was moved to Turnhouse near Edinburgh to rest, having lost two pilots killed in action, one missing in action and four Spitfires between 14 and 27 August. While at Turnhouse, on 3 September, Finucane was confirmed in his rank and promoted to flying officer. A squadron report on 9 September noted that Finucane was learning quickly and showing signs of becoming an efficient combat leader; "I have great hopes of this officer. He is keen and intelligent and shows likelihood of becoming a very efficient leader. Is being trained as a leader and is learning quickly."
65 Squadron remained in the battle until its end in October 1940, but Finucane gained no further successes. On 8 November the unit was moved to RAF Leuchars and then on 29 November back to No. 11 Group RAF in the south at RAF Tangmere near Chichester in West Sussex. The squadron remained idle for the winter as The Blitz and the German night attacks began and lasted in to the following spring. Finucane billeted near Oving. While drinking at a nearby pub overlooking the harbour an air raid struck Southampton. Finucane heard the drone of German bombers over the Isle of Wight in the distance and watched as the pathfinders marked the city. They clambered into a Wolseley Hornet two-seater car and headed into the town to seek out acquaintances of a squadron-mate. After seeing the destruction in the city Finucane remarked: "Until this war is won we must shoot every Jerry from the sky."
By early 1941, the Luftwaffe rarely appeared in daylight and Finucane spent most of his operational time patrolling the Channel coast. On 4 January 1941 at 09:50 off Selsey Bill, he caught and shot down a Bf 110 at 7,000 feet (2,100 m). It took 15 minutes and four attacks to bring it down. The Bf 110 crashed into the Channel. Off St. Catherine's Point on 19 January, Finucane was one of two Spitfires that intercepted a Junkers Ju 88 at 17,000 feet (5,200 m). They chased the Ju 88 to within 5 miles (8.0 km) of Cherbourg and broke off for lack of fuel. They left the Ju 88 on fire in both engines and flying at 50 feet. The pilot had proven a skilful opponent. The Ju 88 flew low-level skidding turns and into the sun where the glare prevented the British pilots from gaining a clear view. The rear gunner was also firing accurately, hitting Finucane's fighter with a few well placed rounds. The Ju 88 was credited as shared destroyed. The share was with Sergeant H. Orchard.
In November 1940 Air Marshal Sholto Douglas became AOC (Air Officer Commanding) RAF Fighter Command. On 8 December 1940 a directive from the Air Staff called for Sector Offensive Sweeps. It ordered hit-and-run operations over Belgium and France. The operations were to be conducted by three squadrons to harass German air defences. On 10 January 1941 Circus attacks were initiated by sending small bomber formations protected by large numbers of fighters. The escalation of offensive operations throughout 1941 was designed to draw up the Luftwaffe as Douglas' Command took an increasingly offensive stance. Trafford Leigh-Mallory, AOC 11 Group, penned Operations Instruction No. 7, which he had written on 16 February. Leigh-Mallory outlined six distinct operations for day fighters: Ramrod (bomber escort with primary goal the destruction of the target); Fighter Ramrod (the same goal where fighters escorted ground-attack fighters); Roadstead (Bomber escort and anti-shipping operations); Fighter Roadstead (the same operation as Roadstead but without bombers) along with Rhubarb and Circus operations.
On 5 February, Finucane participated in the third Circus operation. 65 supported 610 and 302 Squadron over Saint-Omer. Leading high cover, Finucane claimed another Bf 109 over Cap d'Alprech as three German fighters attempted to attack the other squadrons from behind. It was seen to crash into woodland. On 26 February 1941, 65 Squadron was posted to Kirton in Lindsey. The airfield was located in Lincolnshire in No. 12 Group RAF's sector where air-to-air combat was very uncommon in daylight. The stay at Lindsey was short. On 14 April 1941, Finucane was posted as a Flight Commander to the newly formed Australian No. 452 Squadron RAAF, the first RAAF squadron to serve in Fighter Command. He was promoted to acting flight lieutenant the same day.
The following day, 15 April, he flew his final sortie with 65 Squadron flying support for 266 Squadron and 402 Squadron. On the way back in the afternoon he claimed one Bf 109 destroyed. This, his fifth victory, made him an official fighter ace. However, according to other accounts, only two Bf 109s were involved in the brief air battle. Finucane's and 65's likely opponents in the battle was Adolf Galland, Geschwaderkommodore (Wing Commander) Jagdgeschwader 26 and future General der Jagdflieger (General of Fighter Forces). Galland had taken off with his wingman and a crate containing lobster loaded into the fuselage of his Bf 109 to deliver to Jagdfliegerführer 2 Theo Osterkamp for his birthday at Luftflotte 2 headquarters. En route, Galland took a detour over the English coast and attacked several flights of Spitfires, claiming two 266 squadrons shot down. Galland's landing-gear fell down during the battle, possibly leading Finucane to claim it as destroyed. Both German pilots returned to France, their machines undamaged. Finucane was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 25 April.
Finucane's start at No. 452 was unimpressive. On 3 May 1941 while on a recognition flight with his new commanding officer, Squadron Leader Roy Dutton, Finucane got too close and his propeller sliced through Dutton's tailplane. Finucane radioed Dutton immediately. Dutton attempted to abandon the aircraft but was too low and crash-landed, cracking several ribs but surviving. Finucane excused himself from error asserting that his Spitfire was the only one with a metal propeller—the others being elder Mark I's with wooden mounts—which gave him extra speed. In tight formation, this had caused the collision. Despite the incident, he was gazetted on 13 May and given temporary command of the squadron while Dutton was injured. While at 452 Finucane became a popular commander and encouraged a more relaxed atmosphere, which he believed would help him get more out of the Australian pilots. He was now in command of 23 pilots, 16 fighters and 130 ground crew.
The squadron re-equipped with Mk. II's in May 1941 and Finucane was assigned serial P8038, formerly of No. 303 Squadron RAF, on 21 May. It was the first of four Spitfires to carry the Shamrock emblem as his personal insignia. Jimmy Firth, his airframe rigger and 'Speedy' Moore, a Canadian engine fitter, were attempting to put an outline of the design on. Poorly done, it attracted the attention of Maurice Pownhall a professional in Lithography. Using green dope he completed the emblem on the forward left part of the cockpit fairing panel. Finucane approved and the Shamrock stayed.
On 11 July 1941 Fighter Command conducted Circus Number 44. 12 Group flew as the lower echelon with Spitfire squadrons 452, 65 and 266. Two 11 Group wings from RAF Biggin Hill encompassing 72, 92 and 609 Squadrons and the incomplete RAF Kenley wing with 485 and 602. There was so much competition in the squadron to fly on its first Circus operation that Finucane had to draw lots. The squadron re-fuelled at West Malling after staging down to the coast through England. Flying as the middle-squadron at 18,000 ft Finucane's flight crossed the coast east of Dunkirk at 14:45 GMT. Over Poperinghe the wing split into four groups and headed to Cassel. The sole charge was a Bristol Blenheim of No. 60 Group RAF which was to act as a decoy. Five miles west of Lille at 15:00 GMT they were engaged by elements of Jagdgeschwader 2 and JG 26. Finucane engaged 8 Bf 109s and other units engaged three flights of 10 Bf 109s in total. Finucane was able to position himself behind a straggler after firing 90 rounds the Bf 109 was hit and the pilot bailed out. Fighter Command claimed seven destroyed, two probably destroyed and seven damaged for three Spitfires. Circus 45 took place 40 minutes later. Finucane's success was the first victory for the squadron.