Chapter 12: The Battle of Britain: The First Phase*, 13th–23rd August 1940)
WHEN THE Führer ordered the Luftwaffe to ‘destroy the enemy air force as soon as possible’ he suggested that the process might begin on 5th August, but left Göring and his generals free to choose the date that seemed to them most suitable. In due course they chose one five days later than that first mooted. Meanwhile, on 2nd August, the Operations Staff of the German Air Ministry issued instructions for the conduct of the battle. They were discussed at Göring’s personal headquarters on the 6th.1 But as the appointed day drew near, unfavourable weather forecasts led the Reichsmarschall to postpone the start of the offensive, first until the 11th, then until the morning of the 13th.
The intervening day was fine and sunny, apart from early-morning haze, but the 13th began inauspiciously with dull, cloudy weather over southern England and poor visibility in northern France. Last-minute orders were given for a further postponement until the afternoon, but reached some units too late to be obeyed.2
If conditions at the beginning of the second week in August were too unpromising for the long-awaited ‘Eagle Day’, they did not prevent a marked stiffening of the preliminary offensive. At nine o’clock on the morning of 8th August, in cloudy weather which probably did hamper bombing, Hurricanes from Westhampnett repelled an attack on a convoy near the Isle of Wight by strongly-escorted bombers or dive-bombers. Later in the day rather similar conditions, more skilfully exploited, helped another German formation to sink four ships in a convoy of thirty-one, and to damage another six. The nth, another cloudy day, was also marked by heavy fighting, some of our squadrons faring badly; Portland was severely bombed and two ships were seriously damaged near the Norfolk coast. And on the 12th, in
* German air strength and serviceability on the eve of the first phase are shown in Appendix 11; the equipment and location of the British fighter force in Appendix 12. A summary of operations is given in Appendix 13.
better weather, the Luftwaffe struck its first real blow at Fighter Command’s ground organisation by attacking aerodromes at Manston, Lympne and Hawkinge and radar stations in Kent, Sussex and the Isle of Wight. Portsmouth and shipping in the Thames Estuary were also attacked, the latter without much effect.
As we have seen in Chapter X, these closing operations of the preliminary phase were expensive for both sides, the Germans losing a hundred aircraft and Fighter Command seventy-three. The damage done to shipping, too, was heavier than usual. More significant was that done on the 12th to Royal Air Force stations. At Lympne, an emergency landing-ground of small importance, and also at the more valuable Hawkinge and Manston, buildings were destroyed or damaged, some casualties were suffered, and landing-surfaces were cratered. All three aerodromes were serviceable again by the next day, but their usefulness was impaired for at least some hours. Of six radar stations attacked, five suffered no damage of lasting consequence, but the sixth at Ventnor was put out of commission. The gap in the chain was not filled until the 23rd, when a station opened on another site at Bembridge.3
Fortunately for Fighter Command, the Germans seem not to have grasped the significance of these events. Heavy and repeated attacks on radar stations and fighter aerodromes during the next week or ten days might have brought them close to the attainment of their object. As it was, they failed to follow up their limited success of the 12th, wasting much of their bomb-load for the next few days on irrelevant or unimportant targets. The opening of the main offensive on the 13th was not only marred by errors which caused the order for postponement until the afternoon to go unheeded by some units; it also failed to produce a single successful attack on a Fighter Command station. Seeking the destruction of coastal, bomber and other air force units before the fighter force had been disposed of, the German planners dispersed their effort far too widely.4 In some cases they seem, too, to have exaggerated the effect of attacks already made, and so to have missed the opportunity of striking cumulative blows.
On the morning of the 13th the defences had their first warning of impending attack at half-past five, when two forces apparently totalling about sixty aircraft were detected over Amiens. As they did not begin to move north until half an hour later, No. 11 Group had time to put up an appropriate defence. By a quarter past six two squadrons from Croydon and Hornchurch were patrolling near the
damaged aerodromes at Hawkinge and Manston, another from North Weald was protecting a convoy in the mouth of the Thames, and sections drawn from two more squadrons were over the flanking sectors centred on Debden and Tangmere. (See Map 14.) No. 10 Group, newly responsible for the Middle Wallop sector, had a section patrolling near the coast at Warmwell.
As the two forces already spotted began to move north a third, apparently about a hundred aircraft strong, was picked up near Dieppe. A fourth, believed to be at least forty strong, appeared just north of Cherbourg. Shortly afterwards a fifth and smaller formation was detected near the Channel Islands. In response, No. 11 Group ordered a section from Northolt to take up a position over Canterbury and three more sections from Tangmere to patrol a line from Arundel to Petworth. In No. 10 Group the section over Warmwell was joined by the remainder of the squadron. As the last of these aircraft took off at half-past six, No. n Group further reinforced their right flank by sending another whole squadron up from Tangmere, and shortly afterwards strengthened the force over the Thames Estuary by adding three sections from Kenley. A little later, when action had begun, No. 10 Group guarded against a westward extension of the threat by putting up a squadron and an additional flight from Exeter.
In the light of subsequent knowledge these dispositions may appear inadequate. It may seem that, ideally at least, the sections ought to have been squadrons and the squadrons wings. As things were, the position at half-past six was that altogether about seventy British fighters were ready to oppose approaching forces estimated at three times their own number. About three-quarters were over Kent and the Thames Estuary; about a quarter between Weymouth Bay and Petworth. Within the next few minutes they were joined by the equivalent of another four squadrons. But the total of roughly a hundred and twenty fighters was still well below the presumed strength of the enemy.
Action was first joined over the Thames Estuary, where from eighty to ninety bombers of Luftflotte 2 approached in two distinct formations on their way to attack the Coastal Command aerodrome at Eastchurch, in Sheppey, and the neighbouring harbour at Sheerness. Both forces came in unescorted. Flying up the estuary above a thick bank of cloud, the larger emerged near Whitstable to find the squadron from Hornchurch ready. The Spitfires engaged the rearmost bombers with good effect, but were not numerous enough to head off the leaders, who went on to drop their bombs at Eastchurch, where two fighter squadrons temporarily attached to Coastal Command were caught on the ground but escaped unharmed. A satellite aerodrome close by was also hit. The smaller formation was less
fortunate. Engaged near the North Foreland by the squadron from North Weald, and between Heme Bay and Whitstable by Hurricanes from Croydon, the bombers failed to reach Sheerness and dropped their load to little purpose further east.
Meanwhile, on No. 11 Group’s right flank two formations of Luftflotte 3 were meeting stiff opposition over Sussex. About half the bombers, with escorting fighters, were bound for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough; a similar force was bound for Odiham, not far away. Both forces were intercepted almost as they crossed the coast. The squadron originally ordered from Northolt to Canterbury, but later sent south-west to reinforce the Tangmere sector, engaged one near Bognor almost at the same moment as one of the Tangmere squadrons (No. 43) met the other slightly further east. Two more squadrons (Nos. 601 and 64) went into action shortly afterwards. The second German formation was not well served by its escort, which was too far to the rear. Hampered by our fighters and also by bad visibility, both forces missed their targets. Eighty-eight dive-bombers which followed with a strong fighter escort retired without accomplishing their mission.
So far no attacks on fighter aerodromes had been attempted, for neither Farnborough nor Odiham was in that category. Only the force bound for Eastchurch, opposed by insufficient fighters, had reached its target, and Eastchurch was not a Fighter Command station. The aerodrome was badly damaged, but even so was fit for use within ten hours.
The next alarm of consequence came a little before midday. At twenty minutes to noon a force estimated at twenty or more aircraft was picked up near Cherbourg at the gratifying range of nearly eighty miles. In fact, it comprised a slightly larger number of twin-engined fighters which took off prematurely and flew without the bombers they were intended to escort. Despite the gap at Ventnor the force was continuously tracked to Portland, where it arrived about noon. Meanwhile No. 10 Group ordered two squadrons from Warmwell and Exeter to patrol Portland while No. 11 Group sent a squadron from Tangmere over the group boundary to Swanage. Probably because visibility was far from perfect, action was not joined until about ten minutes after the arrival of the German fighters on their pointless errand. A squadron from each of the two fighter groups then came upon the Messerschmitt 110s some distance below them and in no position to put up a good defence. Within the next few minutes the Germans lost five aircraft. With their rear assailed by a third British squadron which had just arrived from Exeter, the survivors then withdrew to brave the wrath of their superiors at home.
In the afternoon the German offensive began its legitimate career
with a repetition of the morning’s two-pronged thrust. The plan was for about fifty escorted bombers of Luftflotte 2 to attack the Coastal Command aerodrome at Detling, the fighter aerodrome at Rochford and another aerodrome on the north bank of the river, while some forty of Luftflotte 3 attacked Middle Wallop, a less important aerodrome at Andover and targets at Southampton and elsewhere.
This time the force from Normandy was noticed first. About half-past three, three formations, each apparently of about thirty aircraft, were detected approaching Southampton and St. Alban’s Head. Later two more of the same size were spotted flying north above the Goodwins.
In the morning the first shock of the attack from Normandy had fallen on No. 11 Group’s right flank, strengthened in the nick of time by the diversion of a squadron from Canterbury. This time No. 10 Group made strong dispositions to meet a threat which came a little further west. A squadron from Warmwell (No. 152) was already patrolling near the group boundary, but clearly needed reinforcement. (See Map 15.) Accordingly the group sent two squadrons from Exeter and Middle Wallop (Nos. 213 and 238) to patrol Portland above and below cloud and another from Middle Wallop (No. 609) to take up a position over Warmwell. A few minutes later No. 11 Group ordered a squadron from Tangmere (No. 601) to patrol over the Isle of Wight. Sections from Pembrey (No. 10 Group) and Tangmere (No. 11 Group) were also ordered up and afterwards directed to the scene of battle.
On the other flank the first alarm found No. 11 Group with a section from Debden over a convoy off Clacton, two aircraft from North Weald over another convoy off Harwich and one flight from Manston over Dover, where the rest of the squadron (No. 65) were about to join them. Between fifteen and five minutes to four the group put up the equivalent of two more squadrons in an arc from Martlesham to Dungeness. As they left the ground a further hostile formation was reported south of the South Foreland.
The position immediately before action was joined at four o’clock was, therefore, that on the defenders’ right flank some sixty to seventy fighters were ready to meet forces estimated at roughly ninety aircraft, while on the left some forty prepared to meet what seemed to be a substantially smaller threat. Over much of Kent and the Thames Estuary thick clouds, mostly between four thousand and six thousand feet up, promised to hinder bombing without offering much cover to the attacker.
Fighting began about the same time on both flanks. On the British right a big formation of German fighters, drawing well ahead of the striking force, was intercepted off Portland by squadrons from Exeter and Warmwell (Nos. 213 and 152). The bombers then
approached in two or more waves, each accompanied by more fighters. A squadron of Hurricanes from Middle Wallop (No. 238) met one wave near the coast, but were vigorously engaged by German fighters and could not prevent the bombers from going on to Southampton. Another, with its escort well behind it, was engaged by No. 609 Squadron from the same base, apparently with good effect. Bombs fell at widely separated places in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset, including several air force stations; but Middle Wallop came to little harm, and only at Andover—a station not in Fighter Command—was any important damage done. On their way out German formations were further engaged by No. 601 Squadron from Tangmere and by elements of four other squadrons.
On the left flank, too, the first squadron to engage (No. 65) saw only fighters. Meanwhile a formation of bombers slipped through the defences and successfully bombed Detling. But clouds prevented the force detailed to bomb Rochford from discovering its target. Turning south over the Thames Estuary, the bombers were engaged by a squadron from that base (No. 56) and afterwards dropped their load blindly near Canterbury. A Spitfire flight armed with Hispano-Suiza cannon, already tried in Hurricanes, were not in action and had no opportunity to see what they could do.
These were the last important actions of the day. Minor attacks on shipping, with a subsequent night-attack aimed chiefly at the Morris works at Castle Bromwich, brought the Luftwaffe’s effort for the twenty-four hours to the impressive total of 1,485 sorties, about two-thirds of them by fighters. Fighter Command flew seven hundred sorties in daylight and twenty-seven towards dusk or during the ensuing night. The fruits of this ambitious effort by the Luftwaffe were three moderately successful attacks on aerodromes not in Fighter Command, some damage to Southampton and Castle Bromwich and a number of minor incidents elsewhere. None of these things affected the capacity of Fighter Command to carry on the battle. Furthermore, the balance of losses in air combat was markedly in our favour. In the twenty-four hours the Luftwaffe lost forty-five aircraft, including at least thirty-nine destroyed by the defences. Fighter Command lost thirteen aircraft but only seven pilots. Thus the long-heralded ‘Eagle Day’ brought the German air force the worst rebuff it had yet received and cost the air defences very little. On the other hand, the day’s experiences emphasised once more the difficulty group commanders and controllers had in meeting the enemy with forces large enough to rout him.
The German effort on the 14th was much smaller, amounting to fewer than five hundred sorties. The main events were an attack on Manston by twin-engined fighter-bombers, and a prolonged but widely-scattered series of attacks by aircraft of Luftflotte 3 on aerodromes and other targets in the western half of England.
The attack on Manston was made by about ten bomb-carrying Messerschmitt 110s of the unit responsible for the previous day’s abortive raid on Rochford. The fighter-bombers approached with a small escort shortly before noon, while larger forces consisting mainly of fighters with a few dive-bombers threatened Dover. No. 11 Group responded briskly, getting two and a half squadrons into the air before the leading German aircraft reached the coast and ordering up another squadron as they were about to cross it. A few minutes before the attack a squadron from Manston and a flight from Rochford were both near the threatened aerodrome and a squadron from Biggin Hill was bound for the same neighbourhood. Meanwhile a squadron from Kenley was ready to intercept the force off Dover. Fresh orders then took the Spitfires from Manston south to reinforce the Kenley squadron, with the result that they missed the formation bound for their base, while the flight from Rochford, their view impeded by thick clouds, saw only some single-engined fighters flying fairly high, and engaged them in ignorance of what was going on below. Four hangars at Manston were destroyed or damaged. Nevertheless, the fighter-bombers bought their achievement dearly, for light anti-aircraft guns at Manston opened fire on them and brought down two. Meanwhile one flight of the squadron from Biggin Hill saw some single-engined fighters and climbed to engage them off the coast.
Some twenty-five minutes later the bulk of the German aircraft which had been over the Straits for the last forty minutes came inshore near Folkestone, shot down seven barrage-balloons at Dover, swept inland to Ashford and retired after dropping a few bombs near the coast. Elements of the force attacked the neighbouring Varne light-vessel. Coming upon a number of dive-bombers as they released their load, one flight of the Kenley squadron engaged them vigorously, but could not prevent them from finishing off their harmless quarry. Other actions were fought by the squadron up earlier from Biggin Hill and another which joined it from the same base.
The novel plan pursued by Luftflotte 3 in the afternoon was not very effective and earned the Luftflotte a rebuke from Göring. Attacks by a large number of bombers drawn from three Geschwader
were spread over about five and a half hours, beginning at half-past three and ending towards nine o’clock. With few exceptions the bombers flew unescorted in formations of two or three aircraft; their targets were mostly aerodromes or rail-centres. Happily the radar stations were capable of estimating strength well enough to avoid gross confusion. In most cases No. 10 Group detailed only single sections to individual raids, and their policy proved sound. In eleven combats Fighter Command’s aircraft were outnumbered only once, when a flight from Exeter met a superior formation south of Portland; and when evening came the wreckage of six German bombers had been counted. Of eight air force stations which reported attacks the most important to Fighter Command were the fighter aerodrome and sector station at Middle Wallop; Colerne, a Maintenance Command station and future sector headquarters; and Sealand, near Liverpool, where a valuable maintenance unit was installed. At the first a hangar and some office buildings were destroyed, at the second work was not affected, at the third all damage was repaired by the next morning. Attacks on railways caused serious interruption of traffic only at Southampton, where debris blocked the line.
On this, the second day of the main battle, the Luftwaffe lost nineteen aircraft, including at least seventeen destroyed by the defences. Fighter Command lost eight fighters. Altogether the command had lost ninety-seven aircraft by day and two at night since the first stiffening of the preliminary offensive on 8th August; but many pilots whose machines were destroyed had escaped unhurt, while others were more or less seriously wounded and would ultimately rejoin their squadrons. Even so the drain was serious, for every pilot was needed. Furthermore, in the course of the week gross wastage of Hurricanes and Spitfires from all causes, including accidents, had overtaken output, so that reserves were dwindling.6 But with a big bag of German bombers and fighters to their credit both pilots and anti-aircraft gunners were in good heart. They had in fact destroyed well over a hundred and fifty aircraft in the last week, and believed they had destroyed about two hundred and forty.
The Luftwaffe miscalculated far more grossly. They claimed that in the seven days they had sunk some forty thousand tons of merchant shipping, made thirty or more successful attacks on aerodromes and aircraft factories and destroyed more than three hundred British fighters in air combat—about three times the true number.7 Nevertheless, the strength of the opposition, the manifest failure of some raids, and big losses already sustained by certain units gave their leaders much to think about. Conferring with his senior commanders on the 15th, Göring condemned the lack of foresight which had sent so many bombers of Luftflotte 3 on difficult missions suitable only for
picked crews.8 He also deplored the waste of effort caused by choosing targets of no strategic value as ‘alternatives’ for crews unable to reach their primary objectives. Believing on rather slender evidence that ‘the enemy is concentrating his fighters against our dive-bomber operations’, he went on to suggest that his subordinates should allot escorts in the proportion of three fighters to one dive-bomber, reminding them at the same time that twin-engined fighters were scarce and must not be wasted as on the afternoon of 13th August. In general, he recommended concentration on objectives valuable to the Royal Air Force, but seems not to have grasped the importance of limiting the choice still further to those on which the fighter force relied. Not knowing that Ventnor had been put out of action, he was too hasty in deprecating further attacks on radar stations, and did nothing to check the bombing of bomber and coastal stations which might well have been left on one side while the fighter force was being tackled.
On 15th August the battle reached a climax. Between midnight and midnight the Luftwaffe made 1,786 sorties, or about three hundred more than on ‘Eagle Day’. For the first time the planned scheme of co-ordinated attacks in daylight by the three Luftflotten deployed from Norway to Brittany was put into effect; and the innovation proved exceedingly expensive. Attacking across the North Sea with large, weakly-protected bomber forces, Luftflotte 5 created precisely the conditions for which the Reorientation Scheme and its successors were designed. Nos. 12 and 13 Groups, backed by the guns of the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division, made good use of their chances, inflicting heavy casualties and turning back many bombers well short of their targets. In the south, Nos. 10 and 11 Groups, again backed by the guns, had as usual to meet repeated blows by forces well protected by single-engined fighters. On the whole they were less successful in keeping bombers from their targets, but they too punished some German units very heavily. In the twenty-four hours the Luftwaffe lost seventy-five aircraft, while Fighter Command lost thirty-four. But these figures do not reflect the whole significance of the day’s events. The moral effect of General Stumpff’s failure to pierce the left flank of the defences cannot be assessed with any certainty and was partly offset by a too-sanguine estimate of British losses. Nevertheless, there is ground for the opinion that August 15th was one of the great turning-points of the battle and perhaps of the whole war.
The day began quietly with the usual reconnaissance flights. Between nine o’clock and half-past ten the appearance of small hostile
formations over the Straits led No. 11 Group to put up a squadron to safeguard two convoys off the north shore of the Thames Estuary, but they made no contact with the enemy.
The first signs of a bigger threat came about a quarter to eleven, when a substantial force was detected moving from Cap Gris Nez towards Kent. No. 11 Group responded by ordering four squadrons to patrol the coast from Manston to Dungeness. At half-past eleven nearly forty dive-bombers of Luftflotte 2, escorted by single-engined fighters, arrived near Dungeness and at once turned north to bomb the aerodromes at Lympne and Hawkinge. The nearest British squadron, correctly informed of the enemy’s position, were able to attack from up-sun and were probably responsible for two casualties known to have been suffered by the dive-bombers. Two other squadrons were in action with mixed success. Accurate bombing at Lympne put the station out of use for the next two days, but Hawkinge—a more important aerodrome—suffered little damage.
Later in the morning flights over the Channel by small German formations led No. n Group to put up three squadrons as a precaution, but they saw nothing of the enemy. A reconnaissance aircraft which flew over Shoreham, Kenley, Croydon and Northolt was not intercepted.
The next important event occurred much further north. Just after midday the radar chain detected a force estimated at twenty or more aircraft many miles east of the Firth of Forth. Within the next three-quarters of an hour, while the enemy was still far out to sea, this estimate was raised to thirty or more aircraft, apparently making for Northumberland in three formations.
Meanwhile No. 13 Group, responding vigorously to the first big threat to their territory in daylight, were preparing to do battle. (See Map 16.) By half-past twelve a squadron of Spitfires from Acklington (No. 72) were on their way to meet the enemy to seaward of the Fame Islands, and a squadron of Hurricanes from Drem (No. 605) to patrol near Tyneside. Within the next few minutes the group added a further Spitfire squadron from Catterick (No. 41 Squadron, formerly at Hornchurch), and a quarter of an hour later, when action was just beginning, put yet another Spitfire squadron (No. 79) in the probable path of the oncoming enemy. Still later a squadron of Hurricanes (No. 607) went up from Usworth. To meet a force believed to comprise some thirty aircraft, nearly forty fighters were thus airborne well before the battle and were later reinforced by two more squadrons.
In reality the force fast closing with our squadrons at half-past twelve was very much larger than the British estimate. It comprised some sixty-five Heinkel 111 bombers of Kampfgeschwader 26, inadequately escorted by about thirty-five Messerschmitt 110 fighters of
Zerstörergeschwader 76. The whole force was bound from Stavanger in Norway for a number of targets between the Pennines and the coast.9 Two objectives, the bomber aerodromes at Linton-upon-Ouse and Dishforth, were well south of the neighbourhood for which the enemy at first seemed bound.10
The honour of striking the first blow in this memorable action fell to No. 72 Squadron from Acklington. Making roughly eastwards from the Fame Islands as they had been told to do, they met the enemy some thirty miles from the coast. The bombers were flying at 18,000 feet in a broad reversed wedge whose leading edge comprised some thirty aircraft in groups of three. The Messerschmitts were flying a thousand feet above in two waves about three-quarters of a mile apart.11 Heavily outnumbered by the Messerschmitts alone, No. 72 Squadron nevertheless had the advantage of being a good three thousand feet higher and slightly to the south, so that they were between the enemy and the sun. The squadron at once turned in to attack, four pilots engaging some of the Messerschmitts while the rest dived on the bombers from astern. The results were startling. Apparently taken by surprise, some of the bombers jettisoned their load and took refuge in the clouds. The Messerschmitts, which seem to have been flying without rear-gunners in order to increase their range, were powerless to do anything but form defensive circles for their own protection, and could only leave their charges to their own devices. How many German aircraft were shot down in this particular engagement cannot be determined. No. 72 Squadron claimed, probably with justice, that several were destroyed, and had the additional satisfaction of emerging without a single hit on any of their Spitfires.
Thereafter the German formation split in two, one portion making for Tyneside while the other turned further south. Within the next few minutes the second Acklington squadron, No. 79, met the northerly band just off the coast. Engaging the Messerschmitt 110s, the squadron broke up, but afterwards re-formed and went on to find the bombers approaching Newcastle, where their primary objective would seem to have been the aerodrome at Usworth. Engaged as they reached the coast by the Tyne guns and by one flight of the Hurricanes from Drem, the Heinkels dropped some bombs which fell largely in the sea. The southerly force, severely buffeted by Nos. 14 and 607 Squadrons from Catterick and Usworth, and by the Tees guns, also distributed their load to little purpose, mostly near Seaham Harbour. On their return to Norway survivors reported that ‘the effect of attacks on Linton-upon-Ouse and another airfield to the north were not observed’.
In all the engagements Kampfgeschwader 26 and the accompanying escort unit lost eight bombers and seven fighters respectively.
Fighter Command lost no aircraft. Bombs were widely scattered about Tyneside and on villages further south, but only at Sunderland, where some houses were destroyed, was any major damage done. As no objective of military value came to harm, No. 13 Group and the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division, commanded respectively by Air Vice-Marshal R. E. Saul and Major-General R. B. Pargiter, could justly claim to have fought one of the most successful air actions of the war.
Meanwhile another action was in progress some ninety miles further south. Here a force believed to comprise at first about six and later some thirty or more aircraft had been detected about half an hour after midday, apparently making for Spurn Head. In fact, it consisted of nearly all Luftflotte 5’s remaining bombers, comprising about fifty Junkers 88’s of Kampfgeschwader 30, bound from Aalborg in Denmark for Yorkshire without an escort.12 The main objective was the Bomber Command aerodrome at Driffield.
The task of dealing with this threat fell mainly on No. 12 Group, commanded by Air Vice-Marshal T. L. Leigh-Mallory. (See Map 16.) At one o’clock, when the enemy was still some miles distant, the group ordered a squadron of Spitfires from Leconfield (No. 616 Squadron) over Hornsea. Five minutes later the Defiants of No. 624 Squadron from Kirton-in-Lindsey were sent to patrol a convoy in the Humber; a minute afterwards they were followed by a Hurricane squadron from Church Fenton (No. 73), with orders to devote one flight to its base and the other to a second convoy off the coast. At ten minutes past the hour No. 13 Group, already heavily committed in the north, contributed a Blenheim squadron (No. 219) from Catterick. The whole force airborne in the threatened area when the enemy drew near five minutes later thus comprised two squadrons of single-engined fighters and one each of Blenheims and Defiants. The Blenheims, and perhaps also the Defiants, would be outmatched if the oncoming force included fighters, but might be useful against unescorted bombers. As we have seen, there were in fact no fighters; but the Junkers 88 was a difficult aircraft for Blenheims to bring down in a running fight.
No. 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron were first in action. Ordered northwards from Hornsea, on arriving at Flamborough Head they saw the enemy approaching in irregular formation. The squadron turned east and opened fire some miles off the coast. No match for the Spitfires though numerically superior, the Junkers 88’s sought refuge in the clouds and offered little return fire. A few minutes later the flight of Hurricanes previously covering the second convoy, but afterwards ordered north, met them just off the coast and fought them as they crossed it. Nevertheless, some thirty or more reached Driffield and bombed it heavily and accurately, destroying or badly
damaging about a dozen Whitley bombers, four hangars and three blocks of buildings. Others dropped bombs at Bridlington, where some houses were destroyed, and (apparently fortuitously) on an ammunition dump six miles away. The Blenheims from Catterick fell in with some of them over Yorkshire and chased them for long distances over land and up to a hundred miles out to sea. The Defiants, tied to their convoy in the Humber, had no chance to engage, nor did the rest of the Hurricanes at Church Fenton.
In these engagements Kampfgeschwader 30 lost eight aircraft and Fighter Command none. The two raids thus cost General Stumpff nearly one-eighth of his entire bomber force and about one-fifth of his long-range fighters.
For the rest of the day honours were more even. About an hour after the attack on Driffield nearly forty dive-bombers with accompanying fighters slipped through the defences in Essex and Suffolk. After successfully attacking the fighter aerodrome at Martlesham and a neighbouring signal station they withdrew without loss, though engaged by the Harwich guns. The equivalent of seven squadrons of British fighters were ordered to intercept, but were either bypassed or drawn off by the German escort. A few reached Martlesham as the dive-bombers were withdrawing.
Meanwhile, nearly a hundred bombers with their escort were approaching East Kent. To oppose them four British squadrons were patrolling between Manston and Hawkinge, but many of our fighters were held off by the German top-cover while the bombers crossed the coast unseen or out of reach. The bulk of them flew to the neighbourhood of the Thames and Medway estuaries, where some made a heavy attack on Rochester while others bombed East-church and the railway close by. Hawkinge, too, was hit for the second time that day. Losing four or five aircraft to Fighter Command’s nine, the enemy scored damaging hits on two aircraft factories at Rochester and on the aerodrome at Eastchurch.
The next big raid was launched by Luftflotte 3 with some seventy to eighty bombers and dive-bombers escorted and covered by large numbers of single-engined and twin-engined fighters. Warned between five o’clock and twenty minutes past that from two to three hundred aircraft were approaching the South Coast, the two southern fighter groups put up the largest force yet used to counter a single operation by the enemy. No. 10 Group’s contribution comprised three squadrons with orders to intercept a force approaching Portland, and a squadron and section to patrol Swanage and Ring-wood respectively. Later two more squadrons took off hurriedly when their base was imminently threatened with attack. No. 11 Group began by putting up five squadrons to cover the south and south-west approaches to London and the Medway, afterwards
adding another two. So doing, the group ran some risk that a threat to their left flank by Luftflotte 2 might find them with too many squadrons committed on their right. We shall see that, when the threat in fact arose a bare hour later, they were able to counter it with the better part of ten squadrons, including three recently in action and one already airborne for an hour.
Action began at twenty minutes past five off Portland Bill, where nearly fifty dive-bombers escorted by single-engined and twin-engined fighters were met by one of No. 10 Group’s squadrons from the Middle Wallop sector. After diving out of the sun on to the dive-bombers, the squadron climbed to engage the close escort of twin-engined fighters flying two thousand feet above and themselves protected by single-engined fighters. Two more of No. 10 Group’s squadrons then went into action. Relinquishing his primary objective, the enemy dropped some bombs at Portland and withdrew with heavy losses, particularly among the twin-engined fighters. Further east a Hurricane squadron from Tangmere came upon some thirty bombers with escorting fighters, but found them flying higher than had been predicted. Engaged within the next few minutes by another Hurricane squadron, and afterwards successively by no less than five squadrons and by a section of Hurricanes patrolling Ringwood, the bombers went on to attack Middle Wallop (mistaken for Andover) and a naval aerodrome at Worthy Down. The Portsmouth and Southampton guns were also in action and claimed one victory. In the whole series of engagements off Portland and elsewhere the Luftwaffe lost eight bombers, four dive-bombers and thirteen twin-engined fighters. Fighter Command lost sixteen aircraft. At Middle Wallop two hangars were hit, one aircraft was destroyed on the ground and five more were damaged. The attack on Worthy Down was almost wholly unsuccessful, seven of the fifteen bombers concerned being shot down and only three of the survivors claiming to have reached the target. Although less one-sided than the morning’s encounters near the East Coast, the action was therefore a satisfactory one for Nos. 10 and 11 Groups and the 5th Anti-Aircraft Division, commanded respectively by Air Vice-Marshals Brand and Park and Major-General R. H. Allen.
It was barely over when warning came of an impending attack on No. 11 Group’s left flank. Shortly after six o’clock Air Vice-Marshal Park was thus faced with the necessity of meeting some sixty or seventy aircraft said to be approaching Dungeness and Dover at a moment when many of his squadrons had just landed after making their second or third patrol that day. One Auxiliary squadron, No. 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron, was in fact still airborne, having been up for about three-quarters of an hour, and had already been in action twice. He was nevertheless able to reinforce
No. 501 with four squadrons from his more easterly sectors and afterwards add another four and a half, including three squadrons recently in action near the South Coast. The attackers reached the coast at half-past six with the intention of bombing fighter aerodromes at Redhill, Biggin Hill and Kenley. Intercepted within the next few minutes by at least two squadrons, including the battle-weary but undaunted No. 501, they seem to have lost their bearings, and ultimately attacked quite different targets. One portion made for the neighbourhood of Maidstone, where they bombed West Mailing under the impression that it was Biggin Hill, while most of the remainder dropped their load at Croydon, some crews mistaking the aerodrome there for Kenley and others for Redhill. Ironically enough, these attacks were among the most effective yet made by German bombers. Bombs at Croydon severely damaged valuable buildings, including two aircraft factories, and killed or seriously injured about eighty people, while at West Mailing damage done to buildings and the landing-surface put the station out of action for several days. In a confused series of engagements Fighter Command lost five aircraft and the attackers seven, all belonging to a formation engaged with notable success by No. 111 Squadron from the Kenley sector.
So ended a day of heavy fighting which extended both sides almost to the limit. Like their opponents, many German units had made several patrols since the forenoon and several Gruppen had lost from seven to nine aircraft each out of their normal complement of thirty-odd. One squadron belonging to the third Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 26 had, indeed, lost five of its nine aircraft in the disastrous raid on the East Coast. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe did not remain quiescent during the ensuing night. In the course of the next few hours some sixty or seventy bombers made sorties over the United Kingdom or laid mines off the coast. Fighter Command responded by adding forty-two evening and night sorties to its day total of nine hundred and seventy-four; and the guns were in action at many places from South Wales to the Yorkshire, coast. One bomber was brought down, probably by anti-aircraft fire.13 Bombs were dropped at many places, notably in South Wales and at Bristol, but only at Smallheath (Birmingham) did a target of military value suffer damage.
On the morrow of the great battles of the 15th the Intelligence Branch of the German Air Staff calculated that heavy losses since the beginning of July had reduced Fighter Command to about three
hundred serviceable aircraft.14 As daylight raids on the United Kingdom continued to meet stiff opposition, that estimate was not universally accepted. Later one German commander complained that he was always being assured that not more than about a hundred fighters would be met in any operation over south-east England, but that in practice anything from two to three hundred might be found.15 In a sense he was right, though in fact the number met at one time and place was nothing like as big as he supposed.
In reality, Fighter Command’s resources on the morning of the 16th were fully twice as great as the German Air Staff thought. Combat losses had reached double figures only on August 8th, 11th, 13th and 15th. From the end of the Dunkirk withdrawal until the beginning of the preliminary phase on July 10th they had been almost negligible; from that date until nightfall on August 15th they amounted to roughly two hundred aircraft as against the German estimate of well over five hundred. Some squadrons in the south had suffered heavily in the last few days, but the Aircraft Storage Units still had 235 Hurricanes and Spitfires ready for immediate issue as replacements.16 Pilots were none too plentiful, but the vital single-seater squadrons nevertheless had an average of nineteen apiece, of whom from sixteen to eighteen were fit for active operations and the rest were completing their operational training alongside their more experienced companions.17 Thus the command, though hard pressed, was still capable of operating at its normal fighting strength of twelve aircraft a squadron. Without counting three of the more recently formed squadrons which were just about to take their places in the line, it mustered a total of 672 first-line aircraft, including the two Defiant and six Blenheim squadrons and one flight of Gladiators, or a net figure of 570 Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Even so, the battle was far from won. Stored reserves of Hurricanes and Spitfires might be ample to meet immediate needs, but had nevertheless fallen by more than fifty aircraft during the last week. At present rates of loss and estimated output they would last two months; but one or two bad days might extinguish them more rapidly, leaving our squadrons living from hand to mouth on such new aircraft as could be turned out and made ready from day to day. The supply of pilots was still more precarious. Here again the command was not yet down to bedrock; but the six or seven pilots in reserve in an average squadron were too few to cover casualties, reliefs throughout the long hours of summer daylight and other contingencies, even if all had been fully fit for active operations. To bring the single-seater squadrons up to full establishment nearly three hundred and fifty new pilots were needed; and the number due to complete their training within the next eight or nine days was less
===> reference location unknown18
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than eighty. Again, the number of serviceable aerodromes in the most important sectors was at present ample; but if attacks like those already made on Lympne and West Mailing were to impair the working of the more vital sector-stations, serious difficulties might arise. At Croydon, too, damage done to the operations room pointed to a danger soon to be emphasised by an attack on Kenley.
In the outcome, two of these three problems became acute within the next few weeks. We shall see, however, that the resulting dangers were ultimately weathered, though not without great difficulty.
On the 16th the main targets of the German air force were West Mailing and Tangmere, with aerodromes outside Fighter Command at Gosport, Lee on-Solent, Brize Norton, Harwell and Farnborough. Despite Göring’s discouragement a fresh attack on the radar station at Ventnor hampered efforts to repair it. At Tangmere many buildings and fourteen aircraft on the ground were destroyed or damaged. Electricity and water supplies were temporarily cut, but the landing-surface remained serviceable. In the course of the day’s fighting Flight Lieutenant J. B. Nicholson of No. 249 Squadron pressed home an attack on a Messerschmitt 110 although his Hurricane was in flames and he himself was severely burned, thus gaining the first Victoria Cross awarded to a pilot of Fighter Command. In the twenty-four hours the Germans made some seventeen hundred sorties and lost forty-five aircraft; but the twenty-one British fighters lost in combat could be ill spared, even though the enemy suffered so much more heavily.
On the 17th the Luftwaffe, having operated almost at full stretch for two consecutive days, made few attacks, despite good weather; but the 18th was another heavy day. Kenley, Croydon, Biggin Hill and West Mailing were all bombed; single-engined fighters machine-gunned Manston; and three aerodromes not in Fighter Command, as well as a radar station at Poling in Sussex, were attacked. Poling remained out of action for the rest of the month, and its loss was serious; at Kenley the damage was such that thereafter the station could accommodate only two squadrons instead of three. The German air force lost seventy-one aircraft in the twenty-four hours, Fighter Command twenty-seven. Thereafter indifferent weather until the morning of the 24th brought a lull in which both sides had time to digest the lessons of the battle.
Meanwhile, on the 17th the Air Ministry had taken steps to check the fast-growing shortage of fighter pilots. A few days earlier Dowding had asked that the more experienced pilots in the obsolescent Battle squadrons of Bomber Command should be withdrawn, put through a short conversion course, and drafted into his command.20 In principle the Air Staff rejected this proposal, partly because the Battles, though outmoded, might soon be called upon to attack invasion
forces, partly because they were about to be replaced by better aircraft for which the old crews would be needed. Yet the loss of some ninety pilots killed or missing and fifty more or less seriously wounded since 8th August gave Fighter Command a strong case for preferential treatment, especially as they had started the battle with a big deficiency.* In practice, the Air Staff compromised by allowing five volunteers from each of the four remaining Bomber Command Battle squadrons, and three from each of the eleven Army Co-operation squadrons administered since the fall of France by No. 22 Group, to transfer to Fighter Command after going through a six-day course at a fighter operational training unit.21 Thus fifty-three new pilots would be quickly added to the fighter force, besides the seventy or eighty already due to complete their operational training in the course of the next week. Furthermore, the Air Ministry arranged that the next series of courses at the three fighter operational training units should be filled to capacity by calling on Allied pilots and on specially selected candidates who would otherwise have qualified for other commands. An earlier decision to restore the normal four weeks’ course in place of the two weeks’ course adopted in the early summer was rescinded; and for the rest of the battle pupils were passed out with only some ten to twenty hours’ solo flying in the aircraft they would fly in squadrons.22
As linguistic and other problems made it desirable that Allied pilots should serve in national squadrons, the decision to call upon them in large numbers had paradoxical results; for the flow of Polish and Czechoslovakian pilots which it created could only be turned to good effect by the formation of new squadrons at a time when there were barely enough aircraft for existing units. To meet the difficulty, and at the same time fall in with the wishes of the Allied Governments concerned and of Air Chief Marshal Dowding—all of whom were opposed, from their different viewpoints, to anything which might delay the arrival of such eager warriors in the line of battle—the Air Ministry agreed that one new Czechoslovakian and three new Polish squadrons should be formed at once, but stipulated that they should begin with only half the usual establishment of pilots and machines. Moreover, they would be expected to help the hard-pressed operational training organisation by themselves undertaking
* The figures were:
|Deficiency of pilots, 8th July||197|
|Deficiency of pilots, 8th August||160|
|Casualties, 8th–18th August|
|Pilots killed or missing||94|
|Hurricanes and Spitfires destroyed or damaged beyond repair||175|
|Hurricanes and Spitfires so damaged as to need repair elsewhere than at unit||65|
|Hurricanes and Spitfires destroyed or damaged on the ground||c. 30|
the operational training of pilots subsequently posted to them.23 On these terms clearly they could not be ready for many weeks, and in fact none of the new Allied squadrons was fully fit for action before October. Meanwhile, no big improvement in the supply of pilots could be expected before the end of the next series of operational training courses during the first half of September.
Happily the threatened shortage of aircraft did not come about, although the fear of it did something to impede the formation of new squadrons. By the end of the first phase the number of Hurricanes and Spitfires ready for immediate issue had fallen to one hundred and sixty-one, an uncomfortably but not dangerously low figure.24 The other great problem which arose in the next few weeks was that of aerodromes and their swift repair when they were damaged. But that question, as well as the tactical lessons learnt in August, will be best considered in later chapters, where the second and third phases of the battle are reviewed.