Pat Hughes was among the pilots who fought under the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. He was also the highest-scoring Australian in that battle and among the top three highest-scoring Australians during World War II. Even so, not many have heard about his name or his story, although it was definitely something worth telling. In 2016, Dennis Newton, an Australian aviation author, wrote a book titled A Spitfire Pilot’s Story: Pat Hughes: Battle of Britain Top Gun, and only then was his story heard.
Enlisted in the RAAF
Paterson Clarence Hughes was born on September 19, 1917, in Numeralla, New South Wales. He was the eleventh among the twelve children and the last among the four boys. His father was a teacher, although he worked at the community office by the time Hughes was born. He was also a writer, contributing to newspapers and magazines like “The Bulletin.” Pat would inherit his father’s interest in literature.
He entered Cooma Public School until he was 12, then the Petersham Boys’ School when they moved to Haberfield, Sydney. Apart from sports, Pat would develop an interest in aircraft modeling and building crystal radio sets. He entered Fort Steet High School for a while but left after eight months to work a Saunders’ Jewellers. On January 20, 1936, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Royal Australian Navy. Both accepted him, but he chose to join the RAAF.
And so he learned to fly an aircraft in de Havilland Moths and then to Westland Wapitis. He graduated in December 1936, and under the pre-war arrangement between the British and Australian governments, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force. His decision had not been easy, but he was also curious to explore England and experience what he thought was an easy life with beer and women.
A few years after, Pat Hughes was promoted to Acting Flight Lieutenant of No. 234 Squadron. He and his team were assigned to fly Spitfires, one of the most popular lanes among fighter pilots. They managed to shut down two German Junkers. Just a few days later, he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110 and assisted in the destruction of another. In the following days, he took down six more Messerschmitt Bf 109s and three Bf 110s.
Tight for the Kill
Pat would quickly earn the respect of his fellow RAF pilots. He would be known for going in tight for the kill until he almost collided with them, which would sadly bring him to his end. The Battle of Britain started in July 1940, the first World War II battle that was predominantly fought in the sky. Germany planned to invade the British Isles and to make the cross-channel invasion possible, they would need air superiority over England in order to then prevent the Royal Navy from interfering with the landings. The Luftwaffe strategy was to attack RAF airfields and grind down the British planes and pilots in an air war of attrition. And it was working, RAF airfields were constantly being cratered so their planes could not take off and losses on the ground and in the air were having the desired effect. Churchill, seeking to strike, back ordered a night bombing raid on Berlin’s Tempelhof airport by RAF heavy bombers, hoping it part that it would result in the Luftwaffe drawing back fighter squadrons to defend their capital. He was also making a fool out of Luftwaffe chief, Herman Goering, who boasted in public that not a single bomb would ever be dropped on Berlin.
The bombing had the desired effect in the sense that Goering had to bring fighter squadrons back to berlin to defend its airspace, but it also enraged Hitler who ordered a shift in strategy in the air war. The Luftwaffe would now attack cities in England rather than RAF bases and fighters. For three months, the Luftwaffe would drop bombs on London and other cities in England day and night, destroying the homes and businesses of thousands of civilians. More than 20,000 civilians were also killed, while 30,000 others were injured. The other effect was that it took the pressure off the RAF, which was able to repair its airfields and get more planes in the air. Now, rather than just trying to defend their bases, they were able to mass their fighters to attack German bomber formations hitting London.
During the Battle of Britain, Hughs proved himself to be a talented and aggressive fighter pilot, racking up 14 aerial victories including one against Luftwaffe Ace Franz Von Wirra who managed to land his crippled plane in England and was taken prisoner.
On September 7, 1940, during a huge German bombing attack on London, Pat chased a German Dornier 17 when he was killed. At that time, he was just 22 years old and had been married for a mere six weeks with a life of many possibilities ahead of him.
It was not clear what exactly happened, speculations included a collision with his target as he was chasing it, but the general consenus is that his aircraft was stuck by debris from his target as it exploded. It was also said that Pat Hughes jumped out of his Spitfire as it crashed, but his parachute failed him. Understandably, his widow, Kay Hughes, was beyond devastated. “I wept until I could cry no more.” She also recalled her husband jokingly saying that she should remarry in case of emergency. She also discovered she was pregnant a week after Pat’s death but eventually had a miscarriage.
Throughout the Battle of Britain, the Germans lost about 3,000 pilots and crew, while 700 were wounded. Nine hundred more were captured, and around 2,000 planes were destroyed. On the other hand, RAF lost 544 men, more than 700 of whom were from the RAF Bomber Command, while 200 were from the Royal Air Force Coastal Command. More than 400 more were wounded, and they lost some 2,000 aircraft.
On October 22, 1940, Pat Hughes was posthumously presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his skills, determination and “gallantry in his attacks on the enemy.” Kay received the medal at Buckingham Palace on June 23, 1942.