Chapter 6: Norway to Dunkirk, (April–May 1940)
BY THE SPRING of 1940 some elements of home defence were not far short of pre-war programmes, others far below them. The fighter force, as we have seen, had reached a strength of fifty-seven squadrons; but six of the fifty-seven were in France and only fifty-one at home. As Air Chief Marshal Dowding had renounced the trade-protection squadrons but was nevertheless committed to the defence of coastal shipping, his minimum requirement for all needs except the protection of Belfast, which as yet was not in danger, could scarcely be put at less than the fifty-two squadrons allotted to the main scheme, trade protection and the defence of Scapa Flow by the plan drawn up in 1939.1 We have also seen that any further demand for fighters in France could be met only at the expense of Dowding’s force until such time as an increase in production—whose achievement threatened dislocation of the Air Staff’s programme of re-equipment and expansion—permitted the formation of more squadrons. Other components of the air defence complex were still further below admitted needs. Anti-Aircraft Command was short of guns and searchlights, and much of its ancillary equipment was old-fashioned. Balloons were scarce. The system of early warning and control was well-knit at the centre, but called for consolidation and extension on its flanks. Devices to counter night attack—notably airborne radar and radar sets for guns and searchlights—were still in the experimental stage. Despite these weaknesses, the air defences could perhaps be reckoned capable of dealing with such daylight attacks as the enemy was likely to deliver from his present bases. But their ability to cope with night attacks was much more doubtful. Moreover, there was always the risk that hitherto neutral or friendly countries, falling into German hands, might give the enemy bases nearer to the United Kingdom. In any case some awkward problems were certain to arise if a land campaign in Europe coincided with even modest air attacks at home.
To what extent the defences could be reckoned adequate against other forms of direct assault depended on the soundness of assumptions soon to be severely tested. For many years the attitude of
* See p. 72.
British governments to invasion had been coloured by the belief that British naval power would confront an aggressor with almost insuperable problems. More recently the coming of new weapons had shaken that belief but not destroyed it. At bottom the JULIUS CAESAR plan was founded on two hopes. The first was that, despite doubts expressed when the matter was mooted in October, naval and air power, backed by the coast defences, would virtually preclude a landing by seaborne troops alone; the second, that the admittedly weak divisions left at home would suffice to mop up airborne landings. Recent experience, so far as it was relevant, did nothing to confirm the one, while the other rested on no experience at all. Up to the present the maritime defences had not gained control of the North Sea, and even the return of the Home Fleet to Scapa Flow in March left many problems still obscure. The coast defences lacked much that they might need, especially for dealing with fast light surface craft. With few exceptions the booms installed under local naval defence schemes were intended only to keep out submarines, and the short-range armament at most ports was not of the most modern type. Generally the fixed defences fell short of the approved scales.*1 In any case the scales did not reflect the new conception of the invasion risk adopted since the war began. Perhaps the fairest verdict is that, while the measures taken since the autumn were possibly the best that could have been devised at a time when much else had to be considered, such confidence as was reposed in them owed less to their intrinsic merits than to the unlikelihood that they would be put to the test without good warning.
Until April these shortcomings aroused few apprehensions—perhaps fewer than they should have done. But if the authorities seem
* The state of the fixed defences in May 1940, can be summarised as follows:
At the nineteen ports assigned to Category A before the war, the numbers present, as compared with the approved scales, were:
At most of the Category C ports the scales had not been fixed when war broke out. In May the five ports considered most important shared ten 6-inch guns.
In general, searchlights were provided on a scale of one for each two-gun battery. At large estuaries, such as the Thames and Humber, their power was insufficient to allow the 9.2-inch and 6-inch guns to fire after nightfall to their full range, if at all.
in retrospect to have been unduly hopeful, at the time they had strong support from the argument that invasion was unlikely without their getting wind that such an undertaking was in view. Additional precautions could then be taken, and the whole weight of the bomber force—whose effective striking power was still overrated— could be brought to bear against the expedition while it was assembling. On the other hand, one of the Government’s duties was to provide against the unexpected. Their attitude must be judged in the light of both considerations. As for the general public, the chances of invasion would seem to have figured little in their calculations. In the early part of 1940 most citizens would probably have found it difficult to imagine that hostile troops could land on British soil. Many educated Englishmen, seduced by romantic interpretations of naval history and by the claims of poets from Shakespeare to Thomas Campbell, forgot that wind, tide and geography could be enemies as well as allies of Great Britain. Even in face of experience, there was a tendency to take control of the North Sea for granted as long as the country possessed a relatively strong surface fleet. Before long dire events gave a sharp jolt to that assumption.
From the British standpoint the events which culminated in the fall of Norway began on 4th April, when aircraft of Bomber Command reported ‘two enemy capital ships of the Gneisenau class’ at Wilhelmshaven, the principal German North Sea base.2 Two days later photographic reconnaissance confirmed the presence there of the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, with other warships. That night a stationary warship was seen in the Jade roads, and a bomber crew reported seeing a large ship twenty miles north of Heligoland, moving north.
Attempts by Bomber and Coastal Commands to follow up these finds next day were only partially successful. Even so enough was seen to make it certain by the afternoon that several German warships were at sea. In fact they comprised the two battle-cruisers, the cruiser Hipper, and fourteen destroyers, all on their way to land troops in Norway. At the time their identity and destinations were not known. For some time past, reports from confidential sources had testified that the enemy was accumulating troops and shipping in the Baltic, possibly for despatch to Scandinavia; but whether the warships now at sea would in fact go to Norway, or alternatively turn into the Skagerrak, make for the Atlantic, or return to North Sea bases was not established. Meanwhile their presence was a potential threat to the United Kingdom and to Allied interests generally.
Accordingly, measures were taken to intercept them.3 On the evening of the 7th Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, left Scapa Flow with the capital ships Rodney, Repulse and Valiant, accompanied by two cruisers and ten destroyers. The Second Cruiser Squadron, numbering two cruisers and four destroyers, sailed from Rosyth to support him. The Renown and fourteen destroyers being already at sea on a mining expedition designed to check the flow of Swedish iron-ore to German ports, his force comprised the greater part of the available strength of the Home Fleet. Other British naval forces already at sea included a cruiser under orders to join the Renown, and nine destroyers covering or escorting convoys.
With the object of coming up with the German ships if they made for the Atlantic, Admiral Forbes set a course which left the central part of the North Sea uncovered.4 The First Cruiser Squadron was at Rosyth embarking troops held ready to exploit any opportunity of landing unopposed in Norway which might arise from the mining expedition; after the Commander-in-Chief had sailed, these ships were ordered by the Admiralty to disembark their troops and join him at sea. The cruiser Aurora and six destroyers similarly occupied in the Clyde were to move to Scapa Flow when they, too, had put their troops ashore.
Early on the 8th an encounter between the Hipper and one of the destroyers covering the mining operation left no doubt that she at any rate was bound well north of the Skagerrak. For the rest of the day the search for the German ships was the main task of the maritime defences. While the Home Fleet sought them in a waste of waters, shore-based aircraft covered a great part of the North Sea and the Norwegian coast, though in general their patrols were too far north to reveal other German forces which sailed unobserved to ports in southern Norway.5
Next morning the German expeditions reached their destinations and Norway awoke to find herself invaded. At the same time German troops crossed the Danish frontier; and within the next few hours the principal Danish aerodromes fell to parachutists and airborne infantry. By the evening Denmark was virtually a conquered country.
In Norway, resistance by the Norwegian Army and counterattacks by Allied forces postponed defeat, but the enemy’s progress in the early stages was almost equally spectacular. Helped by an accurate if lucky long-term weather forecast, and profiting by British failure to grasp the situation at the outset, the German High Command reaped the reward of a bold and well-coordinated plan. The success of their naval forces in eluding interception on the outward voyage, followed by a daring and imaginative use of first-line
and transport aircraft, enabled them to forestall and outwit their adversaries, despite a marked inferiority in naval surface power and a sparing employment of troops. The small Norwegian air force was annihilated before it had time to take the air.6 Parachutists and airborne infantry then seized the principal aerodromes near Oslo and Stavanger, which were forthwith put to use as bases for the next stage of the offensive. Pending the capture of the aerodrome at Vaernes, near Trondheim, on the second day of the campaign, German transport aircraft landed on an improvised strip outside the town. Possession of these bases was of great help to the Germans in repelling counter-attacks by Allied troops whose lack of similar facilities was a tremendous handicap. On the Allied side a shortage of anti-aircraft weapons was also keenly felt. Two British forces which tried to re-take Trondheim by a converging movement were sorely hampered by the much-envied efficiency of German arrangements for co-operation between troops and aircraft, and by their own lack of air support. At Narvik, ultimately captured by the Allies only as the prelude to withdrawal from the Norwegian theatre, British air bases were improvised before the end of the campaign; meanwhile air superiority rested with the Germans. Finally, theoretical inferiority at sea did not prevent the enemy from sending the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the Hipper once more into the North Sea in early June, when the two battle-cruisers sank the aircraft-carrier Glorious as she returned from Narvik.
These events have been recounted much more fully in other volumes of this series. They are recapitulated here because their bearing on certain problems of home defence was clearly, and was seen at the time to be, of great importance. The Scandinavian campaign cost Germany one eight-inch cruiser, two light cruisers, ten destroyers and eight submarines, against one aircraft-carrier, two cruisers, a sloop, nine destroyers and six submarines lost by her opponents. In addition, many German ships were damaged. On the one hand these losses, relatively much heavier than our own, diminished her capacity to give naval cover to a seaborne attack on the United Kingdom; on the other, she captured naval and air bases of great value for her offensive against trade, while the latter were also of some value for attacks on Britain. Outwardly, too, she gained an important moral victory, for her ability to carry troops to Norway in the teeth of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force could not fail to impress potential victims elsewhere, and came as a great shock to the British public.
But the moral effects were not all one-sided. Worse setbacks were needed before the British public and its leaders awoke to all the dangers to which German Blitzkrieg methods exposed a country whose defences were not designed to meet such blows, and in any
case were incomplete. But some at least of the lessons of Norway did not go unheeded, even though their full import was not apparent until later. One immediate result was a widespread feeling that all was not well with British strategy. Not all those who criticised the handling of the campaign in Norway were at one in their diagnosis; but, justly or unjustly, allegations of inadequate co-ordination at the highest level found wide support. After a stormy debate in the House of Commons, Mr. Chamberlain resigned his leadership to take office in a Coalition Government under Mr. Winston Churchill, hitherto First Lord of the Admiralty.
Before Mr. Chamberlain had actually resigned, the Germans launched their main blow in the west. Early on 10th May their bomber force struck at aerodromes, rail centres and other targets over a wide area in France and Belgium, while parachutists and airborne infantry seized vital objectives near the Belgian frontier and in Holland as the prelude to a powerful assault by troops well supported by air and armour. In the Low Countries objectives which had been expected to hold out for days or weeks succumbed in a few hours to methods of attack which their defences were not designed to meet. Airborne forces overwhelmed the Netherlands in eighteen hours; in Belgium a fort built to withstand a long siege fell early on the second day, its captors suffering only five casualties.7 Within a few days the French line gave way before the German onslaught. Pressing westward, the enemy soon reached the Channel, cutting the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force, with other Allied forces, from its bases and from the French armies south of the German penetration.8
Within a few hours of the opening of the German offensive, reports from Holland, coming hard on the heels of events in Norway, set in motion a drastic reassessment of the chances of direct assault at home. Now at last the British public, long accustomed to assign invasion to a class of undesirable events which happened only in foreign countries, began at last to wonder whether their island home was in truth as impregnable as most of them had hitherto supposed. The sudden appearance of well-armed parachutists in the English countryside, in the neighbourhood of great ports or even in the streets of London, seemed no longer a vague menace which did not seriously threaten our security, but a present danger. In a message widely circulated on 10th May, the Air Ministry urged all concerned to take prompt steps for the capture of any who might be seen descending, possibly in the guise of airmen seeking only to surrender.9
But this particular danger, though it impressed the popular imagination more strongly than any other, was only one of many which seemed to have sprung up overnight. On the same day a new body, called the Home Defence Executive, was set up to supervise a drastic overhaul of measures of defence.10 Besides the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, who took the chair, the members included representatives of the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Home Security and the chief home commands of the Royal Air Force.
The province of the Home Defence Executive extended to almost every aspect of home defence; but not the easiest or the least important of their tasks was that of preparing the commercial and domestic fabric of the nation for the shock of invasion by sea or air, and so avoiding the dislocation which was said to be causing such havoc in Continental countries. Elaborate arrangements for Civil Defence, including the appointment of twelve Regional Commissioners with wide powers to co-ordinate local schemes with military needs, and if necessary to act on their own responsibility should communication with the central government become difficult, had been made before the war; but as long as invasion seemed unlikely the emphasis had rested on the dangers arising from air attack.11 A great number of counter-invasion schemes had now to be hastily improvised by civil departments and local authorities, passed as satisfactory, and knitted into a coherent whole.12 At the same time naval, army and air plans— with which the civil plans must not conflict—had all to be scrutinised from a standpoint almost inconceivable a few weeks earlier. Surrounding and obscuring the whole process was the cloud of rumour, exaggeration and false witness stirred up by the swift advance of the German armies from the Ardennes to the Somme. Lying reports were said—with some exaggeration—to be so potent an ally of the German cause that steps to counter potential ‘fifth column activities’ were not the least of the Executive’s preoccupations.
Meanwhile the Chiefs of Staff were trying to define the threat. To do so was not easy at a time when anything seemed possible, and almost any energetic action meritorious. In fact, the German High Command had sanctioned no plans to cross the Channel; but lack of evidence that immediate mischief was intended seemed less reassuring than in the past. Even so, the experts felt justified in assuming that invasion proper was not imminent.13 The enemy was still heavily engaged in France, and would need some weeks to collect the necessary shipping. As for air attack, its dangers would be increased by the fall of Holland, but the offensive might not take the form so long expected.14 Instead of ordering a ‘knock-out blow’, the enemy might aim at air superiority over a stretch of coast where raiding forces were to land, or where full-scale invasion was contemplated in the future. The practical difference was that, while a ‘knock-out’ blow
might be attempted at a number of places—and might still be made —the neighbourhood where seaborne landings could be best supported by air power was limited by factors of geography and range. In particular, the dive-bombers which figured so largely in reports from France were restricted to an effective radius of about a hundred miles.
On this basis the most vulnerable area was the stretch of coast from Sussex to the Wash. Attacks by parachutists and airborne infantry would be most menacing if aimed at the fighter stations defending London; at the same time seaborne troops, conveyed in fast self-propelled boats of shallow draught, might come on a scale which fell short of invasion proper, yet do such harm as would make subsequent defence extremely difficult. Already installed in Holland (which capitulated on 15th May) and threatening to overrun the whole of Belgium, the enemy had no long sea-route to cover; and such boats could, the experts thought, be quickly assembled in Dutch or Belgian estuaries without being spotted by air reconnaissance.15 Hence no warning of their arrival could be relied upon. Looking further ahead, the authorities admitted that if, for example, a hundred small German transports carrying troops and tanks were to sail boldly up the Thames, some at least would reach their destinations, and that the process might be repeated at all the small ports between Portsmouth and the Humber.16 Five 9.2-inch, six 6-inch, four 12-pounder and two 3-pounder guns defenced the estuaries of the Thames and Medway, but on a dark night those at the mouth of the Thames were likely to be very ineffective.17 The Humber had eleven guns, including four 12-pounders, but again their probable effectiveness at night was fairly small.*18
Accordingly, measures to reinforce the seaward defences along the most vulnerable stretch of coast were among the first to receive attention. Light naval forces were ordered to positions which would give the best chance of intercepting a seaborne expedition from Dutch or Belgian harbours. Since the beginning of the war a series
* The guns present, as compared with the approved scales, were:
|Thames and Medway||Humber|
|Approved Scale||Present||Approved Scale||Present|
The 9.2-inch guns commanding the Thames estuary could not fire by night, as they had no fighting lights; the 6-inch guns, which could fire in daylight to 12,000 yards, were restricted at night to a practical range of 4,000 yards, as their lights were not effective beyond that distance. At the Humber the effectiveness of the medium-range guns was also limited after nightfall by the range of their searchlights. The relatively narrow entrance to the Medway was protected by day and night.
of declared minefields along the East Coast, primarily for the protection of coastal traffic against minelayers, had been begun but not completed; arrangements were now made to strengthen the southern portion and extend it seawards so as to hamper attempts to sweep a passage for an invading force.19 To fill some of the worst gaps in the fixed defences, the Admiralty agreed to find 150 6-inch guns from a pool intended for the arming of merchant vessels; later additions, including some smaller pieces, brought the number ultimately drawn from naval sources to 653.20 Under the general supervision of the Admiralty, local naval authorities from Aberdeen to Swanage drew up schemes for denying ports to the enemy by various means, including blockships, mines and demolition charges. In general, the intention was not to wreck ports on the mere chance that they might be captured, but to ensure that at worst the enemy should not find their supplies and facilities intact.21 A flag officer was appointed to inspect all ports concerned, and another to visit all likely landing-places. Naval brigades were formed to give additional protection to dockyards and other naval establishments threatened with sabotage or capture. At the end of May the Admiralty assumed control of the Coastguard Service, a civil organisation hitherto administered in peacetime by the Board of Trade and in war by the Ministry of Shipping.22 To simplify co-operation between navy and army, a senior naval officer joined the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, and was given authority to deal directly with his colleagues at the Admiralty.
Measures of a more general character included the internment of aliens of enemy origin and the detention of many members of organisations whose loyalty could not be relied on. Preparations were made to render useless to an invader not only ports but also railways, telephone and radio communication systems and public utilities, and to deny him bulk stores of food, petrol and other commodities.23 To hamper the landing of troop-carrying aircraft and gliders, open spaces and stretches of arterial road near the South and East Coasts were obstructed; at the same time roads leading to ports and aerodromes were blocked and bridges were prepared for demolition. Policemen were armed against parachutists. Place-names were removed from signposts, shop fronts, tradesmen’s vans and the like throughout the country. Restrictions were placed on the sale and possession of maps, plans and guide-books, and retailers near the coast were asked to move their stocks of such material inland. After discussion between the Ministry of Home Security and the ecclesiastical authorities, orders were given that church bells should be rung only as a warning that parachutists or airborne infantry were descending.
Meanwhile many members of the public had given earnest of their determination not to succumb lightly to the fate which had overtaken Holland. Since the start of the war the formation of local defence forces recruited from those debarred by age or circumstances from volunteering for general service with the armed forces had been proposed from many quarters. On 10th May and the succeeding days the news from Holland gave a tremendous impetus to the movement, while at the same time it created a climate in which many of the orthodox objections to such schemes lost much of their force.
On 11th May the possibility of forming some kind of local defence organisation was discussed at a meeting held at the War Office under the chairmanship of Mr. Oliver Stanley, Secretary of State for War in Mr. Chamberlain’s outgoing Government. Those present included the Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the Adjutant-General, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, and a representative of the Home Office. General Kirke, who had been considering the matter for some time, made a number of suggestions, and ultimately he and General Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, the Adjutant-General, drafted a message to the public, which they intended that General Kirke should broadcast on the evening of the next day. At a further meeting on 12th May the authorities agreed that any man between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five who had fired a rifle or a shotgun and was ‘capable of free movement’ should be eligible unless there were special grounds for his rejection. Those accepted would be embodied in an organisation to be known as the Local Defence Volunteers, and would be unpaid. Later the force was known as the Home Guard.
In the outcome ministerial responsibility for the scheme fell on Mr. Anthony Eden, who succeeded Mr. Stanley while the discussions were in progress. His colleagues agreed that, in order to give special weight to the broadcast appeal for volunteers, he should deliver it himself.
Mr. Eden drafted his broadcast on the evening of 13th May from the notes already prepared by Kirke and Gordon-Finlayson.* He delivered it on the evening of the 14th, immediately after the French had suffered a severe reverse across the Channel. After referring to the German use of parachutists, and to the many offers of help which had been made by private citizens, he asked volunteers to enrol at their local police-stations. Some of his hearers left to offer their services before he had finished speaking, and in a few hours police-stations all over the country were thronged with callers.
* Graves, Charles, The Home Guard of Britain (1943).
By 20th May about a quarter of a million local defence volunteers had been enrolled, and by the end of the month the number had reached about three hundred thousand. On 30th May Major-General Sir John Brown of the War Office accepted the immense task of organising the force with the help of Territorial Associations throughout the country, and of supervising its training in consultation with the Director of Military Training. Operational control was vested in the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces. Rifles of military pattern were available for about one-third of the volunteers; the rest had shotguns, sporting rifles or improvised weapons such as golf clubs, sticks and bludgeons. Even those with rifles would scarcely be a match for parachutists armed with sub-machine guns and grenades; but at worst the volunteers might usefully supplement the work of the scanty home defence divisions by giving the alarm.
Meanwhile, on 11th May, the War Cabinet had honoured a longstanding promise to the French by ordering the immediate despatch to France of the 1st Armoured Division.24 The division had long been earmarked for that destination, but its preparations were not yet complete. With it went the better part of the country’s armoured strength. Later the 52nd Division and parts of the 1st Canadian Division also crossed the Channel. On the assumption that invasion was not yet imminent, these moves could not be censured, but they left Home Forces very weak. From the outset divisions destined for the Expeditionary Force had enjoyed a substantial degree of priority, so that those which remained at home were neither as well equipped, nor generally as well manned, as those in France.
On the other hand, where air forces and weapons of air defence were concerned, the home front had the advantage. In view of the scale of air attack which might be delivered from German or other Continental bases, diversion of the major part of the air defences from their prior task of defending the United Kingdom had formed no part of pre-war plans. In early May the fighter squadrons at home outnumbered those in France by roughly eight to one, and Anti-Aircraft Command, though far below its approved scales, had a generous share of the available anti-aircraft weapons. Across the Channel six fighter squadrons had not only to meet all the claims of the Expeditionary Force, but also shared with a small number of heavy and light guns and balloons the task of protecting rear areas, including their own bases and those of other air force units. Numerically the troops in France were better off for bombers, with ten medium squadrons in the Advanced Air Striking Force, and the
promise of direct support from another six at home. But even though the original plan of using these squadrons for ‘strategic’ bombing had been relegated to the background, they were not at the sole disposal of the Expeditionary Force, since they also had a duty to the French.25 The rest of the effective bomber force comprised eighteen heavy squadrons at home bases. These the Air Staff wished to keep for ‘strategic’ bombing, though they too might be called upon to support the Franco-British armies in certain circumstances. The Army Co-operation squadrons in France—now raised from eight to nine— comprised the major part of those available, some fifty aircraft remaining in Great Britain. Coastal Command now mustered some nineteen squadrons, all at home.
As soon as the Germans opened their offensive against France and the Low Countries, the Air Ministry despatched to France the remaining four of the six fighter squadrons which had been put on a mobile footing early in the war.26 Their departure left Air Chief Marshal Dowding with 43 squadrons fit for first-line duties, including two about to go to Norway, and with four as yet unready for active operations. Thus he was already nine short of the fifty-two squadrons which represented his minimum requirement. From the start, however, events across the Channel showed so ominous a tendency that further demands on his resources were inevitable. The medium bombers could not live against German fighters and anti-aircraft weapons unless escorted, and the army called urgently for fighters to counter the bombers and dive-bombers which harassed artillery positions, tanks and infantry. Sorties by home-based fighters along the Belgian coast and over Holland were not a sufficient answer. On the fourth day of the battle the Air Ministry responded to appeals from British army and air commanders on the spot by sending 32 more Hurricanes, drawn from several of Dowding’s squadrons.27
Next day the French suffered a severe reverse on the left bank of the Meuse above Namur. They were thus confronted with a situation which could scarcely be retrieved except by a powerful counterattack, for which they would need far stronger air support than their own air force, depleted by recent losses, could provide. In these circumstances M. Reynaud, the French Premier, asked that ten more British fighter squadrons should be sent to France.28 After discussing the matter the British Government came to the conclusion that in any case no counter-attack would be possible for several days.29 Accordingly they did not at once return a favourable reply, but asked the Chief of the Air Staff to make such preparations as would ensure that the squadrons could start without delay if they did decide to send them.
* See pp. 88-9.
A sharp conflict between two policies was now inevitable. For months past Dowding had strongly opposed the sending of any fighters to France until his needs were met. He had yielded only under protest to demands which had cost him more than the equivalent of a dozen squadrons since the beginning of the war. In the autumn of 1939 he had argued forcibly in favour of conservation of the air defences to meet a ‘knock-out blow’ whose consequences might be decisive. ‘The continued existence of the nation, and all its services,’ he had written on one occasion, ‘depends upon the Royal Navy and the Fighter Command.30 Admittedly it could be argued that the gravity of the situation in France now made that attitude untenable; but the fact remained that to send another ten squadrons of fighters across the Channel would certainly weaken the defences, and would not of itself ensure the success of a counter-attack which called primarily for offensive weapons.
Meanwhile the eighteen heavy bomber squadrons had yet to make their contribution. The Allied Supreme War Council had agreed on 23rd April that, in circumstances such as had now arisen, they should attack the German oil industry; but a decision by the War Cabinet was needed before executive orders could be given.31 By 14th May Dowding had come to the conclusion that the proposed attacks were not only calculated to ease pressure on the Franco-British armies, but would tend rather to promote the interests of home defence than otherwise. They might draw reprisals on the United Kingdom; but his forces would, he thought, be far better employed in dealing with such reprisals than in engaging the enemy over France, without the benefit of the well-organised system of early warning and control available at home.32 Having been invited some days earlier to give his views, he now wrote on those lines to the Vice-Chief of the Air Staff. Learning that the sending of more fighters to France was about to be discussed at the highest level, he also sought and received permission to put his views personally before the War Cabinet.
Accordingly he attended the meeting next day at which the French appeal for more fighters was discussed. There he strongly opposed the despatch of the ten squadrons, declaring that if the fighter squadrons already in France continued to lose aircraft at the current rate, the supply of Hurricanes would soon be exhausted.33 At the same time he affirmed his readiness to meet such reprisals as might arise from the bombing of the Ruhr. Clearly impressed by his arguments, the War Cabinet decided not to send the squadrons.34 That night 96 aircraft of Bomber Command were sent to bomb the Ruhr, 78 of them with orders to make oil targets their primary objectives.
But the respite was short-lived. On the 16th the War Cabinet, learning more of the plight of the French armies, resolved that a
supreme effort must be made to save France from collapse. They therefore so far fell in with M. Reynaud’s wishes as to agree that the Air Ministry should order another eight half-squadrons of Hurricanes across the Channel.35 Fighter Command was thus reduced to the equivalent of thirty-six or thirty-seven squadrons—about two-thirds of the force considered necessary for home defence when the Luftwaffe was limited to bases in its own country.
Later on the same day Mr. Churchill left for Paris. After discussing the situation with M. Reynaud. he asked his colleagues in London to send six more squadrons.36 They would necessarily be Hurricane squadrons, for there were no facilities in France for the maintenance of British fighter squadrons otherwise equipped.
For two reasons the request could not be fully met. In the first place, there were now only six Hurricane squadrons at home which had not been already drawn upon; secondly, the only aerodromes available in France were incapable of taking, between them, more than three additional squadrons at one time.37 The War Cabinet, meeting without the Prime Minister at eleven o’clock that evening, fell back on a compromise. They arranged that the six Hurricane squadrons still intact should be concentrated in Kent. Each morning three of them would fly to France, where they would work from French bases until midday, when their place would be taken by the other three. At the same time the War Cabinet reversed their bomber policy of the previous day by agreeing, in deference to French wishes, that on the night of the 17th and succeeding nights the heavy bomber force, instead of bombing oil targets, should try to check the movement of German troops and supplies across the Meuse.38 In the meantime six of the eight half-squadrons ordered across the Channel earlier that day had gone; the others were to leave next morning.
Meanwhile Dowding had warned the Air Ministry that any further weakening of his command might be disastrous. He drew attention to the serious calls already made on his resources; reminded the Air Council that the possibility of defeat in France must now be faced; and asked them formally to say what they considered to be the smallest number of fighter squadrons which would suffice for home defence in that event.39 He concluded:
I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organised to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.
During the next few days the crucial issue raised by Dowding’s letter was considered by the Air Staff and by the Prime Minister in his capacity as Minister of Defence. On 19th May Mr. Churchill ruled that no more fighter squadrons should leave the country, no matter what happened across the Channel.40 On the 20th the War Cabinet formally confirmed that decision.41 Meanwhile German troops had reached the Somme, and General Gort, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, had ordered his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General H. R. Pownall, to tell the War Office that his force might have to be withdrawn under pressure by way of Dunkirk or its neighbourhood. In that case a major fighter operation from home bases might be necessary to cover the withdrawal.
In the meantime many of the aerodromes allotted to the Air Component were threatened with capture or had already fallen. The rest were so much exposed to air attack that their defence seemed likely to absorb the entire effort of the Component’s fighters.42 The headquarters staff had been obliged to leave their base at Arras and might soon lose touch with superior formations of their own service. On the other hand, General Gort was still in touch with London. Accordingly, on the 19th and 20th the bulk of the Component, including all its fighters, returned to bases in England, from which the squadrons continued to patrol over the far side of the Channel. The six Hurricane squadrons recently concentrated in Kent ceased to land in France each day; and after the 20th the only British fighter squadrons based in France were three with the Advanced Air Striking Force, which had retreated westwards.
After General Pownall had telephoned the War Office on 19th May to say that the Expeditionary Force might have to be withdrawn in adverse circumstances, provisional plans for the withdrawal were begun in London. The advantage of appointing a single officer to direct embarkation of the troops and their passage across the Channel were obvious, and the choice fell on the Flag Officer, Dover (Vice-Admiral B. H. Ramsay). A number of anti-aircraft guns already with the Expeditionary Force would presumably be available to defend the embarkation area, but fighters would certainly be needed too. Accordingly Admiral Ramsay was given authority to call directly on Dowding for air support. Tactical control of the fighters would rest with Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park, who had succeeded Air Vice-Marshal Gossage at No. 11 Group, the formation responsible for the air defence of south-east England. As a former Senior
Air Staff Officer to Dowding, Park was well aware of the Commander-in-Chief’s views on the handling of the fighter force, and many of the squadrons in his group had already met the enemy over France and the Low Countries. Co-ordination between fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft would be the task of Back Headquarters, a formation improvised primarily to supervise sorties over France by Army Co-operation squadrons withdrawn to England. Its base was Hawkinge, a forward fighter station conveniently close to Dover and connected by good communications with Park’s headquarters at Uxbridge.
Many aspects of the withdrawal from Dunkirk lie outside the province of this volume. We are concerned here chiefly with the air fighting which accompanied the operation. Combats over Dunkirk gave the home-based fighter force its first large-scale encounter with the enemy, and had an important bearing on subsequent events which concern us more directly. In a sense the fighting was—and seemed at the time to be—a rehearsal for the more widespread struggle for air superiority over the approaches to this country which came later. Not merely for the fighter force, but also for Coastal Command, the withdrawal entailed risks and sacrifices of great moment.
When the decision to give full effect to the plan of withdrawal was made on 26th May, the plight of the Expeditionary Force seemed grave in the extreme. The hope of a great counter-offensive to restore contact between Allied forces north and south of the Somme having faded, about a quarter of a million British troops were irretrievably cut off from their original lines of communication, could be supplied only meagrely and with increasing difficulty through the few ports still open, and for some days had been on half-rations. At most about a fifth seemed likely to escape before the rest surrendered or were killed, though much might depend on the support which the fighter force could give from its home bases.
On the eve of the withdrawal the first-line strength of Fighter Command, now reinforced by squadrons recently in France, stood at rather more than 700 aircraft.43 About 600 were single-engined monoplanes of modern type. Reserves immediately available numbered about 230 aircraft; machines under repair or otherwise incomplete, and aircraft of first-line type in training units and the like, amounted to another 700.44 The German first-line strength, without transport aircraft, was estimated in London at more than 5,000 machines, including well over 2,000 bombers and some 1,500 fighters; reserves were believed to total 7,000.45 But in fact these estimates were overdrawn. At the height of the offensive against France and the Low Countries, the Luftwaffe disposed of about 1,500 to 1,700 bombers and 1,200 fighters in the western theatre.46 Reserves
of all types probably did not exceed a thousand aircraft.47 Thus at the worst our forces would not be quite so heavily outnumbered as was feared in London and at Stanmore.
Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the air defences the difficulties were formidable. In recent encounters over France and the Low Countries the Hurricane and the Spitfire had done well, but the Blenheim fighter had suffered heavily at the hands of the single-engined Messerschmitt 109, while the Defiant had scored only a transient success. Lying some fifty miles from the coast of Kent, Dunkirk was outside the range at which the system of early warning and control could give effective help, and could be reached by single-engined aircraft from only very few of Fighter Command’s bases. Responsible as he was for defending the whole country, including vital aircraft factories in the Midlands and the equally vital naval base at Scapa Flow, Dowding could not afford to concentrate his whole fighter force in one corner of the Kingdom. Strong air cover for the withdrawal was clearly much to be desired, but he could not assume that his superiors would wish him to stake the future of the air defences on an operation which would not necessarily give him an opportunity of decisively defeating his opponents.
The beginning of the withdrawal proper on the 26th came too late to have much effect on No. 11 Group’s programme for that day. Withdrawal of troops not urgently needed in France had, however, started earlier, and fighting was in progress at various points on the French coast, so that much of their effort was in any case devoted to patrols between Dunkirk and Calais. On the 27th Calais, which had fallen on the previous evening, was believed until midday to be still holding out; in consequence a great part of the morning’s effort was wasted on patrols intended to support our troops there.48 In the afternoon Air Vice-Marshal Park’s fighters paid more attention to Dunkirk, though they also patrolled inland, especially towards Saint-Omer. In the course of the day sixteen fighter squadrons made 287 sorties over north-east France, patrolling at an average strength of about one squadron. On at least four occasions our pilots were substantially outnumbered by fighters engaged in clearing the way for German bomber.49 Bombing destroyed a great part of the town of Dunkirk, though the outer harbour remained more or less intact. At the time these setbacks were believed to have been offset by the destruction of some 38 German aircraft for the loss of fourteen fighters; but in fact German losses on all parts of the front amounted to 35 machines, of which only ten are known to have been shot down in the immediate neighbourhood of Dunkirk.50 No mere numerical comparison can do justice to the achievements of our pilots, to which all who witnessed them bore tribute; but our squadrons were too few to achieve the mastery.
That night the Air Ministry warned the air force that the coming day was likely to be ‘the most critical ever experienced by the British Army’, and called on Fighter Command to ‘ensure the protection of Dunkirk beaches... from first light until darkness by continuous fighter patrols in strength.51 At that time the previous day’s bombing was thought to have made the harbour useless, so that embarkation from the beaches only was expected.
These orders confronted Dowding with a task almost impossible to carry out, for the twin demands of strength and continuity were largely incompatible. To concentrate the entire fighter force, or most of it, on the few aerodromes from which Dunkirk could be reached would have left the rest of the country dangerously exposed, and perhaps would scarcely have been practicable even if it had been prudent. Yet the previous day’s experience had shown that weak patrols were likely to be ineffective. Accordingly the course he sanctioned allowed Park to patrol the beaches with eighteen squadrons, at an average strength of about two squadrons, but to leave brief intervals between patrols. Most of the eighteen squadrons made two patrols, and some made three. On the whole the results were not unsatisfactory. No great toll was taken, of the enemy—at most six or seven first-line aircraft were destroyed52 for the loss of thirteen fighter-pilots, though at the time the number of German aircraft believed to have been destroyed was twenty-three—but the damaging attacks of the previous day were not repeated. At the end of the day the naval authorities expressed their satisfaction with the air protection they had received. In his instructions for the morrow, Dowding received authority to use his squadrons as he thought best, the demand for continuity being tacitly abandoned.53
On the 29th Park made full use of the greater latitude allowed him by using as many as four squadrons at a time, but leaving longer intervals between patrols. Consequently Dunkirk saw no British fighters for periods which ranged from forty to ninety minutes.54 Attempts were made to synchronise the arrival and departure of squadrons with the ebb and flow of shipping, but the consequences were far from happy. German bombers were out in force—of fifteen ships which sank that day, at least eight would seem to have succumbed to bombing—and British troops and sailors were painfully impressed by the absence of fighters at times when they would have been extremely welcome. Some thirteen or fourteen German aircraft were destroyed as against the 65 claimed by our pilots, one squadron in particular greatly over-estimating its success.55 Thus, while the dangers incurred by sacrificing continuity were plain enough, the absence of a compensating return from the larger formations which it permitted was not apparent.
Whether more accurate knowledge of the enemy’s losses would
have affected subsequent events is a question which, for many reasons, it would be rash to try to answer. As it happened, there were only two more days on which a change of tactics could have modified the outcome. On 30th May mist and low cloud reduced the German effort to inconsiderable proportions. Next day the Luftwaffe made another determined effort to disrupt the withdrawal, though operations south of the Somme claimed some of its attention. Strong patrols separated by longish intervals were tried again, this time with better effect. Several German formations were driven from their targets, and throughout the day only three ships were sunk or seriously damaged by air attack. But on 1st June the same tactics failed to prevent heavy bombing, though our squadrons fought a number of stiff actions.
On that day heavy casualties were caused, too, by shells from German batteries newly established on the French coast. Accordingly no more withdrawals were attempted in full daylight. Thereafter Park’s patrols were virtually confined to the morning and evening. Patrols over the sea at moderate strength were continued throughout the day by Coastal Command. Meanwhile troops still ashore at Dunkirk relied in the middle of the day on their remaining anti-aircraft guns. On the evening of 2nd June the British rearguard was withdrawn, but the embarkation of French troops continued until, on the 4th, an Admiralty message brought the operation to a close. Altogether some 225,000 British and 112,000 Allied troops had then been withdrawn in British vessels since 26th May.
To assess the effectiveness of the air cover given by the fighter force during that critical week is difficult, if only for lack of an agreed standard by which it can be judged. If the success of the withdrawal as a whole is the criterion, Park’s patrols must be deemed successful. On the other hand, there is no denying that many eye-witnesses of the withdrawal left Dunkirk with the impression that the air force had not pulled its weight. Inevitably their views were partial. Much of the air fighting took place where they could not see it; lacking detailed knowledge of Fighter Command’s problems and resources, they were in no position to say what could or ought to have been done. To many a soldier awaiting his turn for embarkation, with little food or water and in peril from an enemy at whom he could not strike back, and to many a harassed member of a ship’s crew or naval landing party, anything short of continuous air cover in his neighbourhood was bound to seem inadequate. Conversely, every airman knew that cover on that scale was quite out of the question. Even so, a daily average of about 300 sorties at a period of crisis may seem less than might have been expected from a force some six or seven hundred aircraft strong. Numerical strength was, however, in some respects a bad index of Fighter Command’s capacity. A number of squadrons had recently returned from France, where they had
suffered heavy casualties; others had been weakened by the well-meant but perhaps short-sighted policy of sending half-squadrons or smaller elements across the Channel during the first week of the battle, rather than a few whole squadrons.* Long an airman, Dowding was a soldier by training, and perhaps in a sense by temperament. Despite his keen solicitude for the claims of air defence at home, he was surely not the man to hold back when the army was in peril. Yet he told the Air Staff as early as the third day of the withdrawal that the fighter force was ‘almost at cracking point.56 Moreover, the number of bases from which Dunkirk could be reached was limited, as was the number of squadrons which a given base could handle. If Dowding was right, a substantially greater effort was not to be expected, even if the problems of administration and logistics which it would have entailed were soluble. But even if he was wrong—and this can only be a matter of opinion—such an effort could not have been achieved except by exposing parts of the kingdom remote from Dunkirk to fearful damage if the enemy should switch his bombers to another quarter. To assume responsibility for that risk was scarcely in Dowding’s province, or even in the Air Staff’s. Probably no one in the country would have been prepared to take it. While, therefore, we must leave open the question whether more air cover for the withdrawal could have been provided in any circumstances, we shall not be far wrong in concluding that, in the circumstances that did obtain, the effort made was about the biggest compatible with prudence.
As for the results of the air fighting, at the time the conclusions drawn from them were more hopeful than the true facts warranted, yet not more so than the outcome justified. According to claims whose accuracy seems not to have been seriously doubted—though experience gained in the First World War gave grounds for scepticism—our squadrons destroyed 262 German aircraft over or near Dunkirk in the course of the withdrawal, for the loss of rather more than a hundred of their own machines and some eighty fighter-pilots. In fact the enemy’s losses, including aircraft destroyed by formations other than Fighter Command, were roughly half that number.†57 the unwitting exaggeration was not an unmixed evil.
* i.e., 32 Hurricanes, drawn from several squadrons, on the 13th, and eight half-squadrons on the 16th and 17th.
† The figures were:
|On all parts of the front||5||151||156|
|In known areas remote from Dunkirk||1||18||19|
|At or near Dunkirk or in areas unknown||4||133||137|
|Losses not attributable to hostile action, included in first line above||–||5||5|
Having apparently done so well in difficult conditions, the fighter force was expected to do still better when it fought in more favourable circumstances over its own territory. The onslaught on the United Kingdom which would surely follow was therefore awaited with some confidence; and that streak of good cheer was doubly welcome since the outlook in early June was in other respects extremely bleak.