Chapter 13: The Battle of Britain: The Second Phase*, (24th August–6th September 1940)
ON 19th AUGUST the Luftwaffe took stock of the battle. Conferring with his generals on that day, the German Commander-in-Chief reminded them that the difficulty of their task demanded the most careful planning and a nice choice of subordinate commanders.1 His orders were that Luftflotten 2 and 3 should do everything they could to weaken Fighter Command while Luftflotte 5 prepared for a night attack on Glasgow and meanwhile made minor raids on other targets. Any intention of repeating the mass raids of 15th August across the North Sea was thus rejected; and the difficulty of pressing home daylight attacks on factories and similar targets was admitted. Göring decreed that for the present such attacks should be made only at night or by single aircraft with cloud-cover. Henceforth fighter battles would be the real object of big daylight raids, and only enough bombers were to be used to tempt defending squadrons into action. He ordered Luftflotte 3 to make plans for a night attack on Liverpool, but reserved to himself the right to order raids on that city and on London. Elsewhere bomber crews would have a free hand to seize such opportunities as might arise when they could not find their primary objectives.
On the same day his opponent at No. 11 Group embodied the lessons of the last few days in the fourth of a series of instructions issued for the guidance of sector commanders and controllers.2 Park wished to avoid unnecessary losses and at the same time make sure that everything possible was done to engage incoming bombers before they reached their targets. He decided therefore that the greater part of the squadrons sent to deal with a given raid must be devoted to bombers and only a small proportion to their escorting fighters. Sector-stations must be protected by substantial formations patrolling below cloud-base whenever the stations were seriously threatened; if necessary, reinforcements must be sought from No. 12
* For a summary of operations, see Appendix 14.
Group to guard those north of the Thames Estuary. Finally, pilots must be told to engage as often as possible over their own territory or within gliding distance of the coast. Though unaware of what the enemy was planning, Park had no intention of being drawn into an unprofitable exchange of fighters. His adversary proposed to dangle a line baited with small bomber forces before a victim who had determined in advance to seize the worm and avoid the hook. Above all, Park was determined to preserve his sector-stations from destruction, believing that if he could do that, and could continue to inflict steady losses on the enemy, ultimate victory was assured.
When the struggle was resumed on 24th August both sides became aware of changes in the other’s attitude. The defenders noticed that German formations contained more fighters and relatively fewer bombers than before.3 They found, too, that some fighters in every formation stayed close to their charges instead of flying so high and far behind that they could be ignored. Conversely, some German fighter units received the impression that our pilots had grown less ready to do battle with them.4 In fact they had, for the simple reason that they had been told to concentrate on bombers. Nevertheless, new German tactics prevented Park from going as far in that direction as he wished. Having begun the battle by sending Spitfires against German fighters and Hurricanes against bombers, he had recently decided to send both against the latter. But as the relatively small bomber formations now employed were henceforth closely escorted and were protected also by additional fighters as top-cover, he was soon forced to adopt a modification of the earlier method, sending Spitfires to meet the topmost German fighters and Hurricanes to deal with bombers and close escort.5 Wishing to reduce the numerical disparity so often noticed in the past, he also ordered formation-leaders to give a ‘Tally Ho!’ message as soon as they saw the enemy, adding particulars of height, course, numbers and approximate position.6 The hope that this information would help him and his controllers to put more squadrons in the right position to engage was not, however, fully realised in practice. We shall see, indeed, that ultimately the difficulty of meeting the enemy in sufficient strength gave rise to a controversy which, in the minds of some, cast doubt on some hitherto cherished principles of air defence.
On the first day of the new phase the Germans adopted a practice which caused No. 11 Group a good deal of anxiety in ensuing weeks. Almost continuously from dawn to dusk they patrolled the Straits
with formations of varying size, whose mere presence helped to conceal preparations for genuine attacks still further disguised by occasional feints towards the English coast. From the 27th onwards Luftflotte 3 were mainly concerned with night attacks and had little need of fighters. Thus nearly all the single-engined fighters in France and Flanders could be drawn upon to support Luftflotte 2’s attempt to throw dust in the defenders’ eyes.
But in spite of the admitted difficulty of their task the Commander-in-Chief remained reluctant to give No. 11 Group more squadrons at the expense of other areas.8 Even when mass raids on the provincial groups were discontinued they remained bound by commitments for night defence and the defence of shipping, while Nos. 10 and 12 Groups were often called upon to meet attacks on their neighbour’s outlying sectors. And any of them might still be heavily attacked in daylight without any longer warning than that given by the radar chain. Admittedly Dowding considered that Luftflotte 5’s recent raid on Yorkshire and Tyneside had failed dismally; but General Stumpff might not agree with him, or might hope to do better if he tried again. Dowding also refused a request from Park to comb the less harassed squadrons of their best pilots for his benefit, believing that the effect on squadrons so treated might be unfortunate.9 Instead he met his subordinate’s need for fresh blood by a system of replacement which preserved the integrity of individual squadrons. Thus towards the end of the first phase he replaced six squadrons which had suffered heavily by others drawn from quieter sectors, and this remained his policy until an approaching crisis enforced more drastic measures.*
At the beginning of the second phase about a third of No. 11 Group’s line of battle therefore consisted of relatively inexperienced squadrons, while the rest contained an admixture of pilots more recently posted from the operational training units than their fellows and less seasoned in battle. The veterans held this dilution responsible for the higher ratio of losses to victories soon noticeable, although perhaps more skilful tactics by the enemy and larger escorts were really quite as much to blame. But in any case some such dilution was inevitable, whatever policy had been adopted. The only alternative to the method of replacement actually followed, or the more drastic combing urged by Park and afterwards practised from sheer necessity, would have been to allow the more seasoned pilots to go on fighting until they were exhausted and had to be replaced throughout by novices. However attractive to the veterans themselves, who felt they could go on for ever, such a course had nothing to recommend it in the long run.
* See Chapter XV.
The first big raid on the opening day of the new phase followed a series of minor threats which kept the defences busy all the morning without bringing any major engagements or damage to targets of much military value. Half an hour after midday five German formations were visible to the radar chain at various points from Dunkirk to Boulogne. One British squadron was guarding Manston at the time and another was on its way to mount guard over Hawkinge, but the first was almost due to be relieved. In addition, elements of two squadrons were patrolling No. 11 Group’s flanking aerodromes at Martlesham and Tangmere.
After a series of feints, one of which brought the Dover guns into action, the force genuinely bent on mischief crossed the coast near Deal at a moment when three sections of the squadron formerly patrolling Manston had just landed there and were refuelling while the fourth kept guard above. Their relief was not yet in position. Thus favoured, the German bombers and their escort flew unimpeded to their target. On arriving as Manston they planted their load to such good purpose that later in the day the squadron based there and the bulk of the ground staff had to be withdrawn. The nine Defiants of No. 264 Squadron caught refuelling just managed to get off the ground before the bombs fell, and the whole squadron then fought a brisk action which paved the way for the Hurricane squadron lately flying towards Hawkinge. The Germans lost five bombers and two fighters, but had the satisfaction of severely damaging an objective which the defenders had taken special pains to guard.
During the next two hours more patrols over the Straits by German fighters compelled No. 11 Group to fly nearly a hundred sorties. All were sterile except one patrol which led to an engagement of little consequence for either side.
The next big action further exemplifies the difficulties which No. 11 Group had now to meet. Soon after three o’clock a threat by several formations totalling about fifty aircraft found one squadron returning from the engagement last mentioned and another four patrolling various points on the eastern and southern approaches to London. Two of the four had been up for some time and had only enough fuel left for about another hour’s flying at cruising speed. Both engaged an incoming force near the North Foreland, but could not prevent a second attack on Manston within four hours. Another squadron, holding off until they were in a favourable position, attacked a second incoming force out of the sun’s eye near the confluence of the Thames and Medway. But they were outmanoeuvred by part of the German escort, which wheeled up-sun and accepted combat while the rest of the force passed on to Hornchurch, assailed but unchecked by two more fighter squadrons and by the Thames and Medway guns. There, as at Manston earlier in the day,
circumstances again conspired against the unfortunate No. 264 Squadron. Seven of their Defiants were about to take off when the enemy arrived, and not all were airborne when the bombs began to fall. Nevertheless, they managed to get to grips with the attackers and claimed good results for the loss of their fourth Defiant destroyed that day. In the meantime spirited action by the ground defences did much to spoil the bombers’ aim, with the result that only six bombs out of a much larger number fell within the limits of the aerodrome. The enemy then retired down-river, speeded by more fire from the Thames and Medway guns.
Further north an attack on North Weald followed much the same course. But there the damage was more serious, though the station remained serviceable. Again the bombers were well guarded and our squadrons found them difficult to reach. Even so the enemy lost at least five bombers and four fighters, while Fighter Command lost eight aircraft but only three pilots killed or wounded.
Meanwhile Luftflotte 3 were preparing for one of their last big raids in daylight. About a quarter to four the radar chain detected a substantial force just north of Cherbourg and two smaller forces near the Channel Islands. Soon afterwards some mischance whose cause remains obscure caused the radar picture to become confused, so that under cover of a real or apparent tangle of small raids about fifty bombers with their fighter escort were able to approach the English coast without betraying their strength or precise course to the defences. Meanwhile No. 11 Group had protected their right flank by posting one and a half squadrons there, while No. 10 Group had put two and a half squadrons near the Isle of Wight and had taken steps to guard their stations further west. In the circumstances only one squadron succeeded in meeting the enemy before he reached his target, and they were in a poor position, down-sun and at least a thousand feet too low. Engaged by anti-aircraft fire, the bombers dropped their load on Portsmouth town and dockyard, where more than a hundred people lost their lives. They then withdrew without being seriously challenged by our fighters.
So ended the first day of the second phase, unfortunately notable for the low proportion of fighter squadrons which had been able to engage incoming bombers before they reached their targets. It was followed by a night of widespread bombing on a far heavier scale than that of recent weeks. Altogether one hundred and seventy German bombers were sent to targets ranging from Northumberland to Kent and from Plymouth to Lancashire. London was not among the intended targets, though about a dozen aircraft were sent to attack objectives near the perimeter of the capital, including oil tanks at Thameshaven and aircraft factories at Rochester and Kingston.10 In the outcome many crews went so far astray that the City of
London had its first raid since 1918, and the suburbs also suffered heavily. Fires kindled in London Wall and Fore Street were attended by no less than two hundred pumps; other parts of the capital and its outskirts which attracted bombs intended for targets far away included Islington, Tottenham, Millwall, Finsbury, Stepney, East Ham, Leyton, Couldsdon and, worst of all, Bethnal Green, where about a hundred people lost their homes. In north-east England, where Tyneside, the Hartlepools and Middlesbrough were the main targets, about twice that number were similarly afflicted at South Shields. Elsewhere bombs were dropped at Cardiff, Swansea, Birmingham, Hull, Leeds, Rotherham and several other places. In addition, many aerodromes were made objects of attack, though few were hit. At Driffield the Bomber Command aerodrome, already damaged in daylight on the 15th, attracted bombs from a single aircraft; and in view of its exposed position the two squadrons based there were withdrawn within the next few days. Otherwise the military consequences of the night’s bombing were not serious; but the human suffering caused by the many bombs which missed their targets needs no stressing.
From dusk onwards Fighter Command added 45 sorties to their day total of 936. The anti-aircraft guns were in action during the night at the Tyne, Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Birmingham, Coventry, Portland, Bramley, Langley (Slough) and Dover. In the inner artillery zone they held their fire. A Hurricane of No. 615 (Auxiliary) Squadron, not specially equipped for night fighting, destroyed a Heinkel 111 near the South Coast; and the Swansea gunners claimed that one of their targets exploded in mid-air. Altogether the Luftwaffe lost thirty-six aircraft during the day and two at night, while Fighter Command lost twenty-two, all in daylight. In general the role of the guns at night was to hamper bombing, for neither they nor fighters could expect to shoot down many aircraft after dark until the new radar devices were ready for use in batteries and squadrons. Meanwhile, as Dowding was uncomfortably aware, the enemy had almost a free hand at night as long as he refrained from flying as low as he had done in June.
On the 25th the Luftwaffe made no big raids until the afternoon. Feints and minor threats kept the defences fairly busy, but their first important task came only when a force estimated at a hundred aircraft or more was detected off Saint-Malo between four and five o’clock. Thereupon Nos. 10 and 11 Groups put up almost every available aircraft from Exeter to Tangmere, ordering the squadrons
to reduce the risk of damage on the ground by sending up all their serviceable fighters. A well-judged disposition by No. 10 Group, who took special pains to guard the neighbourhood of Portland, enabled two squadrons sent forward for the purpose to make early contact with a formation bound for Warm well. They were, however, seriously outnumbered by forces totalling some forty-five bombers and upwards of two hundred fighters.11 A third squadron, meeting the enemy just short of the target, likewise found the German fighters too numerous to give them a clear run at the bombers, whose attack on Warmwell disrupted communications there for eighteen hours. After the bombing several more squadrons were in action, but also found the bombers hard to reach. Between them fighters and guns destroyed one bomber and eleven German fighters, Fighter Command losing eleven aircraft and eight pilots killed or wounded.
An action near Dover about half an hour later brought German losses for the day to twenty aircraft and Fighter Command’s to sixteen. During the night some fifty German aircraft took off to bomb factories at Birmingham and twice that number to attack a variety of targets in southern England, the Midlands, South Wales and Scotland.12 The heaviest bombing was at Birmingham and Coventry. Fighter Command flew forty-three evening and night sorties and guns were in action at many places. No German aircraft were brought down.
The 26th was notable for Luftflotte 3’s last big daylight raid for several weeks and for a successful attack by Luftflotte 2 on the fighter aerodrome at Debden. Coming in the afternoon, these operations followed a morning of desultory bombing which did little damage and brought no big engagements. The raid on Debden was part of a wider threat aimed also at Hornchurch and North Weald; but bombers bound for the last two places missed their targets after being intercepted over the Thames Estuary, and a force apparently bound for Manston also failed to achieve anything of consequence. At Debden the defenders were less fortunate. Two squadrons of No. 11 Group witnessed the enemy’s approach, but could not get through his fighters to engage the bombers; and a squadron sent from Duxford in No. 12 Group to guard the aerodrome saw nothing of the enemy, probably because they had been given too little time to reach the spot. The station was badly damaged, but remained in service. After the bombing No. 310 (Czechoslovakian) Squadron engaged the attackers, but were handicapped by unsuitable radio sets which prevented the bulk of their pilots from receiving orders from ground or air.
Luftflotte 3’s contribution was a raid on Portsmouth. It was almost wholly defeated by three squadrons of No. 11 Group, which engaged the enemy independently on his way to the target, and by antiaircraft fire.13 Many bombers dropped their load well short of the
target, the rest on the outskirts of the town, the dockyard escaping what might well have been a damaging attack. Seven German aircraft destroyed in these engagements brought the total for the day to forty-one, including nineteen bombers; but Fighter Command’s losses, amounting to thirty-one aircraft and sixteen pilots, were heavier than the command could well afford.
That night Birmingham and Coventry again bore the brunt of the bombing, though Plymouth was the primary target for some fifty bombers and thus also had its share. At least six aerodromes were listed for attack, but once again the aim was poor. St. Eval was saved by its decoy, which drew many bombs. At Birmingham sixty fires were kindled and several factories were slightly damaged. Fighter Command flew forty-two evening and night sorties, but conditions were unfavourable and there were no interceptions. As on the previous night, low clouds which should have hampered bombing handicapped the searchlights, setting the gunners a problem scarcely soluble without new equipment.
On the 27th the ‘Tally Ho!’ procedure came into force, but little opportunity arose to try it. Despite reasonably good weather outside the Midlands, the enemy made few attacks. The defences took the opportunity to hunt down reconnaissance machines, and three long-range bombers were destroyed, the Luftwaffe losing nine aircraft altogether while Fighter Command escaped with the loss of one. The score since the beginning of the new phase on 24th August was thus brought to seventy aircraft lost by Fighter Command and one hundred and eight by their opponents.
After a night enlivened by more attacks on the Midlands and elsewhere, the enemy resumed the daylight offensive on the 28th with attacks on Eastchurch and Rochford. About twenty bombers bound with escort fighters for the first arrived near Dover a little before nine o’clock under cover of sweeps by other fighters. Interception by four squadrons on the inward route failed to halt the bombers, our pilots being met by a determined escort force which shot down two of No. 264 Squadron’s Defiants and damaged another four. Altogether Fighter Command lost eight aircraft and six pilots in exchange for five German aircraft shot down, and Coastal Command’s much-bombed aerodrome suffered further heavy damage. A few days later Dowding finally resolved to use both Defiant squadrons primarily for night fighting. Accordingly No. 264 Squadron, who had done good service in the past, returned to No. 12 Group, there to embrace a new career in circumstances which restored the advantage of two pairs of eyes.
The twenty-seven bombers and accompanying fighters which attacked Rochford soon after midday were also intercepted by several squadrons before they reached the target, but again stout resistance
by the escort force helped the bulk of the bombers to break through the defences. No. 1 Squadron, making a bold head-on attack, were nevertheless able to turn some of them away. Apparently doomed to find themselves at the centre of the target, No. 264 Squadron were again forced to take off hurriedly, and this time just succeeded in getting away before the bombs fell. Some buildings at Rochford were set on fire, but the station as a whole was only slightly damaged. After the bombing the wreckage of two German fighters and one bomber was found, while Fighter Command lost three aircraft but no pilots.
In the afternoon German fighter formations made sweeps over East Kent at heights in the neighbourhood of 25,000 feet. Seven British squadrons were tempted to combat and lost nine aircraft. German losses were about the same, but such an exchange was scarcely profitable from the British point of view. With twenty aircraft lost during the day as against thirty by the enemy, Fighter Command was in fact experiencing a diminishing return for its efforts. And during the ensuing week, which brought the most continuously sustained series of attacks yet launched by the enemy, the margin of profit was to decline still further.
On the night of 28th August Luftflotte 3 delivered the first of the series of attacks on Liverpool for which they had recently been ordered to prepare.* By German standards the night’s bombing was reckoned the first major night attack on the United Kingdom. As the process was repeated on each of the next three nights, the four raids may conveniently be considered together.
Appendix XV shows that on the four nights Luftflotte 3 sent an average of 157 bombers a night to Liverpool and Birkenhead. About seventy per cent, of crews afterwards claimed to have reached the target, dropping on each night an average of 114 tons of high-explosive and 257 incendiary-canisters, each containing thirty-six one-kilogram incendiaries. The biggest and—as the Germans thought—the most destructive raid was made on the 29th, when 176 crews were sent, of whom 137 claimed to have reached the Mersey ports and to have dropped there 130 tons of high-explosive and 313 incendiary-canisters. On the first and third nights the attacks were accompanied by heavy raids on other targets, mostly (though not exclusively) made by aircraft of Luftflotte 2. Thus on the 28th, 180 bombers were sent to places other than the Mersey ports and on the 30th, 112. On the 29th and 31st only 44 and 25 respectively set out
* See p. 203.
to confuse the defences and interfere with sleep and work by making the usual ‘dislocation raids’ on widely scattered districts.
For Luftflotte 3 the four raids involved about the biggest effort they could make without impairing their capacity to operate for many weeks to come. With minor exceptions all the units they could muster contributed some crews, including some Kampfgruppen lent by the naval organisation responsible for joint operations by submarines and aircraft.15 Machines pressed into service even included a few of the valuable and not particularly suitable Focke-Wulf 200s of Kampfgeschwader 40. Originally a civil aircraft, the so-called Kondor had in fact been used in Norway for both transport and bombing, but its exceptional fuel-capacity made it far more useful for spotting ocean-convoys well beyond the limits of normal air reconnaissance.16 An interesting feature of the raids is that in each case the attackers were led by units hitherto specialising in attacks on shipping. Some German strategists, believing that maritime blockade was Germany’s best weapon against the United Kingdom, deplored the change, but their protests were unheeded.
The impression given by Appendix 15 is that the raids on Mersey-side presented themselves to German eyes as a series of weighty attacks well concentrated within an area admittedly large but well defined. Such was indeed the German view; but the reality was very different. On the first night the bombs supposedly aimed at Liverpool were in fact sown broadcast over a wide area. Moreover, the attack was so effectively masked by subsidiary raids that until much later the defenders remained unaware that a major raid on Liverpool and Birkenhead had been attempted. Indeed, the enemy’s main objective was authoritatively supposed to have been the Midlands.17 Again on the second night, when more than four-fifths of all bombers which set out had the Mersey ports for their objective, Liverpool and its environs suffered only desultory bombing. In fact, barely fifty tons of high explosive fell anywhere near the Mersey, as compared with a hundred and thirty supposed by the Germans to have been dropped there. On the other hand, quite thirty tons hit Portland, Portsmouth, Bristol, South Wales and various parts of Yorkshire and north-east England. Accordingly the Ministry of Home Security reported, reasonably enough, that ‘the areas mainly attacked were the Tyne and Hartlepool, South Wales, Liverpool and Manchester’, adding that no serious damage had been done.18 On the third night only some forty tons of high explosive fell at Liverpool, Birkenhead, or close by: the docks were not hit and damage was mostly to suburban property. And even on the last night, when Liverpool was clearly the main target and suffered heavily, a fair number of bombs fell well south of the city, though only a sprinkling of German crews admitted to dropping their load between the Severn and the Dee.19
The attacks achieved little success except on the last night of August, when over a hundred and sixty fires were kindled in the commercial centre of Liverpool. Some damage was done, too, at Birkenhead; but only a few bombs hit the docks. On the other hand, the very imperfections of the bombing helped to keep many parts of the country under warning, as did the ‘dislocation raids’ undertaken for the purpose. Alerts lasting up to five or six hours robbed many people of sleep and doubtless had some effect on production, though its extent cannot be measured. Fears that railway communications might be seriously affected proved groundless, though they might have been justified if attacks like that of August 31st had followed early in September. As it was, the volume of traffic carried by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway was slightly greater in August and the first part of September than before the bombing started.*
One effect of the attacks was to expose the shortcomings of the night defences. In the four raids Luftflotte 3 lost seven bombers—only slightly more than one per cent, of the whole number of sorties flown. The guns continued to do good work by forcing the enemy to fly high and hampering his aim; but neither they nor the fighter force could make much impression otherwise. Their inability to inflict punitive casualties was, indeed, so obvious that at one stage Dowding advocated wholesale jamming of German radio aids to navigation, even at the cost of hampering our own night offensive.20 But the Air Ministry preferred the subtler methods for which No. 80 Wing had been created. By 18th August the location of the all-important KNICKEBEIN transmitters had been established and nine stations for the re-radiation of signals from German beacons were in action.21 The precise effects of the measures taken in August could not be determined at the time, nor can they now; but the failure of many crews to find their targets shows that at any rate the attackers did not have everything their own way. Ultimately the work of No. 80 Wing proved invaluable and saved some important targets from destruction.
After making 340 sorties on the previous night the Luftwaffe contented itself on 29th August with sweeps by fighters rarely accompanied by bombers. But on the 30th Luftflotte 2 resumed the day offensive with attacks on targets in Kent and Bedfordshire.
In the morning a layer of cloud some 7,000 feet over Kent increased the difficulties of the defences by hampering the work of the
* For details, see Appendix 16.
Observer Corps. With only an imperfect picture of the enemy’s movements before him, towards half-past eleven Park nevertheless became aware that his sector stations in Kent and Surrey were threatened by forces approaching from the south. Many of his squadrons had already been airborne for some time and several were committed to action with outlying German formations. He therefore took steps to meet the threat by bringing one squadron westwards from the neighbourhood of Maidstone to guard Kenley, reinforcing them with the rest of the fighters stationed there, ordering up a squadron stationed at Biggin Hill to guard their base, and seeking reinforcement from No. 12 Group. Impeccable in theory, these arrangements unfortunately broke down in practice. Moving south to join the squadron which had come from Maidstone in an attack on a German formation over Surrey, the fighters from Biggin Hill left their base in the sole care of a reinforcement squadron from No. 12 Group. Meanwhile a second German force slipped by and bombed the station unseen by its protectors, though the attackers were later brought to action by the remaining squadron left behind at Kenley. In the whole series of engagements the Luftwaffe lost at least six aircraft and Fighter Command eight aircraft and five pilots; but more serious than these combat losses was the damage done to Biggin Hill, which Park and his subordinates had been at some pains to protect.
A worse blow followed in the afternoon. Soon after four o’clock a substantial German formation, though intercepted over Sheppey and forced to jettison part of its load there, succeeded in reaching Luton, where a heavy attack on the town and civil airport killed about fifty people and damaged the Vauxhall factory; and while ten squadrons ordered up in consequence were returning to their bases a smaller formation, intercepted by a single squadron which failed to halt it, put Coastal Command’s aerodrome at Detling out of action for fifteen hours. Another dropped some bombs at Lambeth. Fifteen minutes later yet another small force surprised the defences by flying swiftly to Sheppey and then turning south to make an accurate and devastating attack on Biggin Hill. The bombers were fewer than ten in number and dropped less than fifteen tons of bombs, but damage to the station was far heavier than that done earlier in the day. Wrecked workshops, stores and hangars, the severance of power, gas and water mains and the loss of sixty-five officers and other ranks killed or wounded combined to make the setback one of the worst that Fighter Command’s ground organisation had yet suffered.
Thus ended a day on which Fighter Command made the largest number of sorties they had yet flown and the Luftwaffe their biggest daylight effort since the middle of the month. In the twenty-four hours the Germans lost thirty-six aircraft and Fighter Command ten fewer.
Next day a still larger effort by the Luftwaffe began a week of heavy attacks on sector-stations vital to the defence of London, fortunately interspersed with raids on objectives less important to the air defences. At the same time the ratio of casualties inflicted to those suffered became less favourable to our squadrons, though over the whole week the defences still succeeded in destroying about as many aircraft as they lost. More precisely, from 31st August to 6th September Fighter Command lost 161 aircraft, the Luftwaffe 189. Of the latter the Germans estimated that 154 were shot down by the defences and the rest destroyed or damaged beyond repair in other ways.
For Dowding and Park the week was therefore the most critical of the whole battle. The brunt of the fighting was borne by a score of single-seater squadrons and some four hundred pilots in No. n Group. The Commander-in-Chief had sanctioned arrangements for the tactical reinforcement of the group by squadrons from the flanking sectors in Nos. 10 and 12 Groups; he also allowed its Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons a bigger share of fully-qualified pilots than those in other groups. But he was not prepared to play into the enemy’s hands by denuding outlying sectors of their squadrons, nor was he ready to strip those squadrons of good pilots for the benefit of one corner of the kingdom.22 Park had therefore to meet the crisis by doing everything he could to cut down losses without exposing his vital sector-stations by refusing battle. Some of his sector commanders suggested that he should seek a higher ratio of losses inflicted to pilots lost by using larger tactical formations.23 He agreed that big formations were desirable in themselves, but feared that the delay involved in their assembly would reduce his chances of intercepting German bombers before they reached their targets. Nevertheless, he accepted the principle that as far as possible squadrons should engage in pairs instead of singly, ordering that squadrons from adjacent sectors should, when time allowed, be brought together before they were sent forward to engage the enemy.24 Like Dowding, he believed this to be a sound move only when the enemy’s objectives lay some distance from the coast. Another school of thought, which favoured big formations even at the cost of delaying engagement until the enemy had bombed his targets, had not yet become vocal. Later it found some highly-placed adherents, notwithstanding the directive which called on Dowding to think first of defending aircraft factories.*
Meanwhile the virtual loss of Manston and the damage already done to Biggin Hill and Kenley gave Park ample warrant for the view that he must protect his stations at almost any cost. But unfortunately their protection was difficult even when he and his controllers did their utmost. On the 31st elaborate measures to guard
* See p. 79.
aerodromes north of the Thames Estuary proved insufficient, largely because at least one German fighter escort was too strong to be breached by the single squadron which engaged it. A bold engagement by nine Hurricanes of No. 111 Squadron probably saved Duxford, the bombs intended for that place being scattered unprofitably over Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. But another German force reached Debden without much interference from the several squadrons in the neighbourhood, and bombed the station heavily. Later in the day the story was repeated at Biggin Hill and also at Hornchurch, though the second was not badly damaged. At the first, on the other hand, accurate bombing set the operations block on fire, and did much other damage to buildings and communications. Coming on top of the previous day’s attacks, the effect of this new blow was such that two of the three squadrons based at Biggin Hill had to be withdrawn and put under the control of adjacent sectors for more than a week afterwards.
Events during the next few days followed much the same course. Biggin Hill, Hornchurch, North Weald and West Mailing, besides other and less important stations, were all bombed once or more in the first five days of September. Nominally, the new system of engaging more frequently with pairs of squadrons was introduced on 2nd September, but practically it made no difference to the fighting. Almost without exception large, well-knit fighter escorts seriously outnumbered our formations, so that often our pilots were prevented from getting at the bombers.
Happily the besetting sin of the German planners came to Fighter Command’s aid. Too easily satisfied with incomplete successes, they failed to hammer their advantage home. Even as early as 1st September, when part of the German effort was diverted from aerodromes to the docks at Tilbury, signs of a coming change could be detected. Two days later factories in the Medway towns and at Weybridge were included among the German targets and the only air force stations hit were the relatively unimportant Lympne and Bradwell. Finally, on 6th September heavy bombing of oil installations at Thameshaven sketched the outline of a new plan of attack.
For Park the change came none too soon. In the course of the offensive, and particularly during the last few days, five forward aerodromes and six of the seven sector-stations in his group had suffered extensive damage, in several cases serious enough to impair the efficiency of the squadrons using them. Another week of such attacks might have been disastrous, for any further damage to the sector-stations would seriously have prejudiced the subsequent defence of London. ‘Had the enemy continued his heavy attacks against Biggin Hill and the adjacent sectors,’ he wrote a few days later, ‘and knocked out their operations rooms or telephone communications,
the fighter defences of London would have been in a perilous state during the last critical phase when heavy attacks have been directed against the capital.25 As it was, the premature switch to London, though it did not relieve him of anxiety, gave time for essential repairs and for some administrative changes which helped him to surmount the crisis.