Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Wing Commander James Gilbert Sanders DFC, RAF no. 37510

19 June 1914 – August 2002

James Sanders was born in Richmond, Surrey, on 19 June 1914.

He lived in Italy for some years but returned to England to join the RAF on a short service commission in November 1935 when he realised war was coming.

He began his ab initio course on 25 November 1935.
He was promoted to Acting Pilot Officer on 20 January 1936 and was posted to 10 FTS, Ternhill, on 1 February 1936.

He was posted to 111 Squadron on 10 August 1936 and was promoted to Pilot Officer on 25 November 1936.
He was with the unit when it received the RAF’s first Hurricanes in December 1937.

On 25 August 1938, he was promoted to Flying Officer.

On 4 October 1939, he was posted to 615 Squadron at Croydon as ‘B’ Flight Commander.

He led his flight, when 615 Squadron’s Gladiators flew to Merville, France, on 15 November in company with those of 607 Squadron.

At 13:10 on 29 December 1939, Flight Lieutenant Sanders (Gladiator N2308) took off from St. Inglevert for a weather test. Just after take-off and at only 60 meters altitude, he sighted a He 111 flying high at 7,000 meters over Wissand. He climbed up to the He 111 and 6 km south-west of Dover, he attacked it from below at 13:50 by pulling his nose vertically upwards at a distance of 180 meters. He kept his triggers pressed and the He 111 went into a steep dive, which he followed still firing. At 1,000 meters, the Heinkel disappeared into cloud. Sanders had by this time used up all his ammunition and didn’t follow since he didn’t know how the ground below looked and he returned to the airfield.
Sanders was credited with a damaged after this engagement.
This was 615 Squadron’s first encounter with the Luftwaffe.

He was engaged in the initial week’s fighting when the May 1940 ‘Blitz’ commenced.

On 17 May, an early patrol was ordered for the morning and six Hurricanes took off from Moorseele to patrol Charleroi – Wavre. Flight Lieutenant Sanders intercepted a Ju 88 from 7./LG 1 near Wavre at 10:20 and shot it down. His Hurricane seems to have been damaged by return fire since he force-landed near Lille after this combat. However, the Hurricane was repairable.
This was Ju 88 A-1 L1+AR from 7./LG 1, which had taken off from Düsseldorf and crashed at Flines-lez-Raches, 5 km north-east of Douai at 10:15. They had been out to attack the railway station at Douai and the pilot Oberleutnant Ernst Schwarz was captured were badly wounded while the remaining crew (observer Gefreiter Alfred Dudeck, wireless operator Oberfeldwebel Bernhard Hinke and air gunner Gefreiter Georg Salzmann) all were KiA.
Oberleutnant Schwarz was recovered from the aircraft and given emergency treatment by local Doctor Antoine. Two gendarmes took him to hospital in Lille where he died of his injuries on 26 May.

Sanders returned to the UK on 20 May when 615 Squadron withdrew to Kenley.

Sanders was made ‘G’ Flight Commander on 23 May. It was made up of six Gladiators and the flight went immediately to Manston, where it was attached to 604 Squadron for operations over Dunkirk.

The flight returned to Kenley on 30 May and was disbanded.

On 4 June, he was awarded a DFC for three victories during the French campaign in May.
He received this decoration by the King at Kenley on 27 June.

Nine Hurricanes from 615 Squadron took off from Hawkinge at 05:45 on 22 June for Hawkinge from which they took off again at 07:00. They were to fly a reconnaissance of Abbeville – Poix – Boos – Dieppe.
Over Rouen at 08:10, five of them attacked nine He 111s escorted by Bf 110s while one of the Hurricanes attacked a Ju 52/3m.
The returning pilots made several claims:
Squadron Leader J. R. ‘Joe’ Kayll (P2871) claimed two unconfirmed He 111s over Rouen.
Flight Lieutenant Sanders (P3487) claimed one destroyed and one damaged Bf 110s over Rouen.
Pilot Officer K. T. Lofts (P2578) claimed one unconfirmed Ju 52/3m over Rouen.
Flying Officer Peter Collard (P2768) claimed one probably destroyed He 111 over Rouen.
Flying Officer Anthony ‘Tony’ Eyre (P2801/T) claimed one Bf 110 destroyed over Rouen and three more damaged 8 km east of Rouen.
30-year-old Pilot Officer John Richard Lloyd (P2764) (RAF. No. 90569) was missing when the Hurricanes returned at 08:30 and was later reported as KiA while Sanders landed on the Isle of Wight on the way home due to petrol shortage but both he and his aircraft were undamaged.
It seems that Pilot Officer Lloyd was shot down by one of the escorting Bf 110s since Leutnant Kuno-Adalbert Konopka from 7./ZG 26 claimed a Hurricane east of Le Havre at 08:10. Lloyd crashed near La Maillereye-sur-Seine at 08:10.
Despite these claims it seems that only a He 111 H-3 from III./KG 1 was damaged (40 %). It had taken off from Rosieres-en-Santerre and made a forced-landing at 08:00 at Amiens-Gilcy airfield. It seems that the crew was unhurt, and that the aircraft was repairable. They had possibly been attacked by Squadron Leader Kayll and Pilot Officer Lofts.

At 09:25 on 30 June, eleven Hurricanes from 615 Squadron left Hawkinge to together with 111 Squadron to escort twelve Blenheim Mk.IVs from 107 Squadron, which took off from Wattisham at 10:00 in a bombing raid on Merville. Around 11:45, the bombers were attacked by Bf 109s and 615 Squadron engaged these.
All Hurricanes from 615 Squadron returned at 12:10 and claims were made by Squadron Leader J. R. ‘Joe’ Kayll (P3109), who claimed one destroyed and one damaged Bf 109 11 km south of Merville, Flying Officer H. S. Giddings (P2801), who claimed an unconfirmed Bf 109 in the Merville area, Flight Lieutenant Sanders (P3487), who claimed an unconfirmed Bf 109 between Eyre and Bethune and Pilot Officer C. R. Young (P3380), who claimed an unconfirmed Bf 109 in the Merville area.
Three Blenheims failed to return and a fourth made a forced landing at Manston, reportedly due to damage from AA fire. One of the bombers was reportedly by 111 Squadron brought down by AA fire and the other two by Bf 109s.
The Bf 109 Es were from JG 3 and JG 20 with JG 3 engaging the Hurricanes. Unteroffizier Eberhard von Boremski (7./JG 3) and Oberfeldwebel Hans Heitmann (7./JG 3) both claimed one Hurricane each in the Merville area. Leutnant Karl-Heinz Schnell (3./JG 20) claimed one Blenheim at 11:50 south of St. Omer, Leutnant Hans Kolbow (3./JG 20) claimed one Blenheim at 11:50 south of St. Omer, Leutnant Hermann Staiger (1./JG 20) claimed one Blenheim at 11:55 10km east of St. Omer and Feldwebel Wilhelm Koslowski (1./JG 20) claimed one Blenheim at 11:55 south-west of Herbelles. No German aircraft were lost.

He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 25 August 1940.

When 615 Squadron was withdrawn to rest at Prestwick on 29 August, he stayed in the south, being attached to 253 Squadron to operate at night.
With this unit, he flew three night sorties (9, 13 and 23 September).

At 01:25 on 24 September, Flight Lieutenant Sanders (Hurricane I N2455) took off from Kenley to patrol the Redhill – Guildford line. At 02:10, he was ordered to intercept three enemy aircraft flying north at 3,000 meters.
Tally Ho was given at 02:15 when enemy aircraft were seen in searchlights. Sanders thought that the enemy aircraft must have spotted his exhausts as they immediately commenced to orbit and jettisoned their bombs on a hillside.
One He 111 was seen later two or three times caught by searchlight but Sanders was unable to open fire as the Heinkel was banking too steeply. Pursuit was discontinued at 150 meters and very shortly afterwards a blinding flash was seen, the enemy aircraft having hit the ground near Chobham.
This was confirmed by Bromley Observer Corps, who at this time and place saw a He 111 apparently forced down by a British fighter.
Sanders returned to Kenley at 02:35.

The attachment to 253 Squadron ceased on 28 September and he was then attached to 66 Squadron at Gravesend, to help form 421 Flight. In 421Flight’s ORB, he is listed as one of the Flight’s original pilots.
After a few days he was attached to FIU.

On 14 October he was given command of 422 Flight and attached to FIU at Shoreham, this unit then becoming 96 Squadron at Cranage on 18 December, when he became flight commander.

In January 1941, he was posted to 257 Squadron, but the following month moved to 255 Squadron, which was forming as a night fighter unit with Defiants at Kirton-in-Lindsey.

At 23:59 on 12 March 1941, Flight Lieutenant Sanders took off from Kirton Lindsey for a patrol in Defiant N1765/C together with his air gunner Sergeant C. R. Hill. They climbed fast over base and at 00:05, Sanders sighted a Do 215 astern and above going east. He turned east in pursuit and informed Hill of Tally-ho. Unfortunately, Hill never saw the enemy aircraft which Sanders could plainly see 30 to 60 meters above. The Dornier outdistanced to Defiant and faded away.
The patrol continued and at 00:45, the Defiant was vectored 190o from Kirton and orbited about East Retford for three minutes. Sanders tally-hoed when one He 111 was seen about 3,2 km south and 600 meters above. He slid the Defiant into position slightly below the enemy aircraft’s starboard beam, but again Hill just couldn’t see the Heinkel. Sanders closed to 30 meters where Hill engaged with five one-second bursts. They experienced return fire when the Defiant fell slightly behind the beam but was not hit. This return fire ceased when Hill fired the first burst, as two explosions were observed in the lower centre of the He 111 (Hill thought his first burst killed the enemy air gunner) and various hits of De Wilde were observed.
The Heinkel was seen to puff black smoke from Starboard engine and broke away to port at a speed of 200-225 km/h. Smoke ceased for a short time, but started again and increased, leaving a long line of black smoke across the sky. The Defiant followed and small flames were seen above starboard wing. These increased as it lost height gently over 10 km from 4,600 to 3,700 meters going east.
Sanders observed the He 111 about Lincoln proceeding east and he doubted whether it got back to base.
All the guns on the Defiant had stopped simultaneously so they returned to base. It seems that the top starboard stoppage may have been due to Hill catching his sleeve on the back plate and opening it. The top port gun suffered one stoppage, the bottom port gun suffered two stoppages and the bottom starboard gun suffered one stoppage. The bottom starboard had a slight cross feed. There appears also to have been an electrical failure since when Hill was checking, he experienced a severe shook. Hill also stated that he was badly handicapped by the sheen of the extremely bright moonlight on the Perspex of the cupola, and this explains his apparent slowness in catching sight of the enemy aircraft.
Sanders reported that the searchlights were quite ineffective, and the enemy aircraft seem to slip through unmolested while the searchlights tried to pick up the Defiant.
The He 111 was claimed as probably destroyed.

At 00:20 on 8 April, Flight Lieutenant Sanders with Sergeant Hill as his air gunner was taxying in Defiant N1617 at Kirton Lindsey for a general night patrol. Sanders asked Ops. for Flare Path Lights but was told to wait as a raid was in vicinity. He taxied out to take off without lights and saw an aircraft overhead proceeding south at 450 km/h silhouetted against clouds. He Tally-hoed and took off but lost sight of the aircraft. Sanders was hoping it would carry out an attack on base, so to make sure it was really hostile, he orbited the base very low at 60 meters.
The unknown aircraft, which according to Sanders looked very similar to a Blenheim and thus giving him doubts that it was hostile, returned on a reciprocal bearing and he sighted it again proceeding north. He called Ops. and asked them if he was to engage, as he was doubtful of identification. He also asked Hill to take a bead and look out if he could see it.
Whilst taking up position vertically180 meters below the unidentified aircraft at about 365 meters altitude, he received orders that no friendly aircraft was in vicinity, but he still had his doubts. However, Hill stated that he recognised it definitely as a Ju 88 and gave it two bursts each of two seconds at a distance of 275 meters. While the Defiant followed on the same course and below the Ju 88, Hill was firing directly upwards into the belly of it. The Defiant then got into position and closed to 180 meters and Hill fired four or five two-second bursts. On each burst, Hill was blinded by flashes of De Wilde at barrel mouth but observed bullets entering the centre section and forward part of the fuselage on the Ju 88 and no return fire was experienced. Sanders reported seeing hits on wings and centre and forward fuselage. The Junkers appeared jet black with no marking and the Defiant lost contact with it in cloud.

Unfortunately, during this period, he had on several occasions flown in situations where no unit records were maintained, whilst he failed to keep up his own logbook, so no full record of his claims exists.

By the end of June, Fighter Command listed him as having been credited with 11 day and five night victories, maintaining him on the list produced regularly of pilots in the Command with 12 or more victories throughout the rest of the war.
Although some of these were undoubtedly shared, this is accepted as representing as accurate a total of his successes as it is possible to obtain.

On 23 June 1941, he was posted away to 60 OTU, East Fortune and in September, he became Squadron Leader Flying there.
He had been promoted to Squadron Leader on 1 September 1941.

In June 1942, he was made Wing Commander Flying at 53 OTU Llandow and later at 61 OTU, Rednal.

Spells as Station Commander at Hundson, Zealls and Hutton Cranswick followed, and then he attended the Senior Commander’s Course at Cranwell.

On 1 July 1944, he was promoted to Wing Commander.

Following the Cranwell course, he joined the SHAEF mission to the Netherlands, ending the European war in Brussels.

Sanders ended the war with 1 damaged biplane claim and a total of 16 victories (10 without details).

Later in 1945, after the Japanese surrender, he was posted out to Java, subsequently going to Burma as OC Flying at Mingaladon, Rangoon.

He returned to the UK in 1947 and left the service, spending the rest of his working life in the insurance business, with Crown Life of Canada.

He lived in retirement in South London and passed away in August 2002.

His son is also an RAF pilot.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  29/12/39 13:50 1 He 111 (a) Damaged Gladiator N2308 4m SW Dover 615 Squadron
1 17/05/40 10:20 1 Ju 88 (b) Destroyed Hurricane I   nr Wavre 615 Squadron
2 22/06/40 08:10 1 Bf 110 (c) Destroyed Hurricane I P3487 Rouen 615 Squadron
  22/06/40 08:10 1 Bf 110 Damaged Hurricane I P3487 Rouen 615 Squadron
  30/06/40 11:45 ca 1 Bf 109 E (d) Unconfirmed destroyed Hurricane I P3487 Eyre - Bethune 615 Squadron
  16/08/40 17:10 ca 1 He 111 Damaged Hurricane I P3161 S Brighton 615 Squadron
  16/08/40 17:10 ca 1 He 111 Damaged Hurricane I P3161 S Brighton 615 Squadron
3 18/08/40 13:45 ca 1 He 111 Destroyed Hurricane I P3811/R S Kenley 615 Squadron
4 18/08/40 13:45 ca 1 Ju 88 Destroyed Hurricane I P3811/R N Westerham 615 Squadron
  18/08/40 13:45 ca 1/2 Ju 88 Shared destroyed Hurricane I P3811/R S Sevenoaks 615 Squadron
5 25/08/40 00:30 1 Ju 88 (e) Destroyed Hurricane I V7314/S off Hastings 615 Squadron
  25/08/40 00:07-01:12 1 He 111 Damaged Hurricane I V7314/S Godalming 615 Squadron
6 24/09/40 02:15 1 He 111 Destroyed Hurricane I N2455 nr Chobham att. 253 Squadron
  13/03/41 00:48 1 He 111 (f) Probably destroyed Defiant N1765/C East Retford - Finningley 255 Squadron
  08/04/41 00:25 1 Ju 88 Damaged Defiant N1617 Brigg 255 Squadron

Biplane victories: 1 damaged.
TOTAL: 16 (10 without details) and 1 shared destroyed, 1 unconfirmed destroyed, 1 probable, 6 damaged.
(a) He 111 of Wekusta 26, escaped damaged.
(b) Ju 88 A-1 L1+AR from 7./LG 1 shot down and crew KiA.
(c) Not verified with Luftwaffe records.
(d) Claimed in combat with Bf 109 Es from JG 3 and JG 20, which claimed 2 Hurricanes and 4 Blenheims without losses. 615 Squadron claimed 1 destroyed Bf 109, 3 unconfirmed and 1 damaged without losses while 107 Squadron lost 3 Blenheims and 1 damaged.
(e) Ju 88 of II./KG 51.
(f) Possibly He 111 of III./KG 26, which force-landed at Amiens being damaged by a fighter.

Aces High - Christopher Shores, 1994, Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-00-0
Aces High Volume 2 - Christopher Shores, 1999, Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-03-9
Men of the Battle of Britain - Kenneth G. Wynn, 1999 CCB Associates, ISBN 1-902074-10-6
RAF Fighter Command Victory Claims Of World War Two: Part One 1939-1940 - John Foreman, 2003 Red Kite, ISBN 0-9538061-8-9
The Battle of France Then and Now – Peter D. Cornwell, 2008 After the Battle, ISBN 9-781870-067652

Last modified 05 February 2024