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Chapter 18: Blockade: Part One (October 1940–June 1941)

WE HAVE seen in earlier chapters that the problem of defending coastal shipping against air attack, so prominent in the preliminary phase of the Battle of Britain, was later masked by more pressing needs, so that in August No. 11 Group was formally absolved from the duty of providing close escort for Channel convoys.* Hence in September and October, 1940, the fighter force made only a few hundred sorties for the direct protection of shipping, as compared with about 3,200 and 2,900 respectively in the previous two months.

Nevertheless the place of coastal traffic in the national economy had not diminished since the days when raids on shipping in the Straits had led the Air Staff to comment on Dowding’s disposition of his forces.† On the contrary, the diversion of ocean convoys from the south-western to the north-western approaches gave new importance to coastal traffic moving northabout; and in areas threatened by invasion increasing numbers of minesweepers and other adjuncts to home defence all helped to swell the volume of shipping afloat where fighters might be expected to escort it. If in the autumn the Admiralty accepted a lower standard of security than had been contemplated earlier, the reason was not that they were willing to see coastal shipping relegated to the background, but that for the moment other claims were irresistible. At the first sign of a lull, if not before, their demands were bound to be renewed on an ascending scale.

In the outcome the end of the daylight battle was still some weeks distant when the fighter force received the first hint that more attention to shipping would be expected in the future. Early in October the Admiralty were confronted with the task of building up supplies of coal in London against the coming winter, perhaps with little assistance from railways threatened by the night-offensive. They warned Dowding that they must increase the flow of traffic down the East Coast, where attacks by bombers based in Norway and Holland

* See pp. 164 and 235.

† See p. 173.

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were a constant threat.1 Thereafter requests from naval home commands came in so fast that in the third week of the month the number of convoys or other shipping units for which assistance was asked reached an average of twenty-three a day.2

At that time the daylight battle had reached a stage of peculiar difficulty for the defenders. Approaching London at great heights and high speeds, German formations which might or might not drop bombs proved hard to intercept and often hard to track. Casualties among the fighter force, though lighter than in the summer, were still serious enough to prevent the recovery of squadrons stripped to the bare bone in September. Meanwhile, Dowding was in the thick of the night battle. His twin-engined and Defiant squadrons were committed to night-duty, and he had just been ordered to relegate to the same task three Hurricane squadrons which he would have preferred to keep for daylight fighting. He was therefore in no position to devote some hundreds of sorties a day to standing escort. The Merchant Navy’s need was indisputable, but had been recognised at so late a stage of pre-war planning that nothing effective had been done to enable Fighter Command to meet it while a major battle was in progress. As the Air Staff tacitly admitted, Dowding could do no more in many cases than promise what was technically called ‘protection’, in the hope that soon a lull would enable him to give the standing escort which would doubtless be preferred.*3

In fact, the lull came fairly soon, though not before a new series of attacks on shipping, somewhat similar to those with which the battle had begun, had raised fresh alarms. On 1st November German bombers and dive-bombers sank four ships, including the East Oaze light-vessel, when attacking drifters off Dover and a convoy entering the Thames. Repeated attacks of the same sort during the next few days threatened to make life intolerable for seamen in the searched channels leading to and from the Port of London. So seriously did the Commander-in-Chief, The Nore, regard the danger that on the 8th he asked that a standing patrol should be flown over one of the principal channels whenever a convoy was entering or leaving it.4

Fortunately the menace dwindled to small proportions after the middle of November. Thereupon the daylight battle could be reckoned at an end, though occasional sweeps by fighter and fighter-bombers were still made until the middle of December.

Accordingly Douglas, succeeding Dowding on 25th November, confronted issues disquieting enough, but in some ways less complex than those which had faced his predecessor. Renewal of mass attacks in daylight was unlikely before the spring. He calculated that he would then need eighty day-squadrons to fight a second daylight

* For definitions of ‘escort’, ‘protection’ and ‘cover’, see pp. 91-2.

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battle against larger forces than the Germans had used in 1940.5 Meanwhile he had some fifty-five and the promise of nine more within the next few months. As he would still be sixteen squadrons short of the number he deemed necessary, and could expect no further additions by the time the Germans were expected to attack, clearly he must make the most of what he had by building up existing units. Apart from his concern with the night battle, he had also to consider means of countering ‘pirate’ raids on aircraft factories by single bombers or small formations which cleverly exploited every circumstance of topography and weather. Successfully resisting demands for dispersal of his resources to factory aerodromes throughout the country, he assented to a scheme which gave workers in eleven factories the moral support of a fighter apiece in charge of their own test-pilots; arranged that night-fighters with airborne radar should stand by in cloudy weather; and reviewed arrangements governing the operation of balloon barrages in order to ensure that excessive precautions against accidental loss should not result in their being close-hauled when they were most needed.

For some months, therefore, Douglas was scarcely better placed than Dowding to escort convoys lavishly. Throughout the early winter he followed his predecessor’s policy of giving ‘protection’ rather than standing escort. Instead of rising sharply when the daylight battle ended, the number of sorties flown directly to aid shipping remained from November until February almost stationary at rather more than four hundred a month.

Towards the end of February the problem again came to the fore in consequence of the attention focussed on what was soon called the Battle of the Atlantic. Since the autumn, attacks on ocean convoys by submarines assisted by long-range reconnaissance aircraft of Kampfgeschwader 40 had caused the Admiralty and the Government much anxiety.6 Meanwhile the West Coast ports were attracting growing attention from night bombers; and while mass attacks on coastal shipping had ceased in the middle of November, raids by single bombers or small formations were becoming perceptibly more frequent. At the same time the Luftwaffe was said to be about to strengthen its anti-shipping arm and was in fact about to overhaul it. Signs from many quarters thus pointed to the danger that submarine blockade, assisted by long-range air reconnaissance and backed by an offensive against ports and coastal traffic, might cut the country’s lifeline.

The likelihood of such a threat had been foreseen at least as early as the fall of France, and measures had then been put in hand to meet it. Besides the diversion of ocean traffic to the north-western approaches, they included important changes in the naval organisation for convoy-escort and anti-submarine patrols. In consequence a

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new Western Approaches Command, assisted by No. 15 Group, Coastal Command, had recently assumed responsibility for safeguarding Atlantic convoys approaching or leaving the United Kingdom by the new route north of Ireland. Its headquarters were at Liverpool, to which place No. 15 Group had accordingly moved from Plymouth. At Plymouth another new naval command with different responsibilities replaced the old and was assisted by No. 19 Group, created for that purpose. If these reforms were to be effective in face of the bigger scale of attack on convoys now expected, clearly the resources of the commands and groups concerned must be adjusted to their needs. Recognising that the time had come for such a change, the Prime Minister ruled towards the end of February that the problem should be studied on the understanding that defeat of German submarines and of Kampfgeschwader 40’ s long-range aircraft must rank above all other tasks.7

On 27th February the Chiefs of Staff agreed, therefore, to strengthen surface and air escorts for Atlantic convoys at the expense of other claimants.8 Additional safeguards for the north-western approaches must be sought not only by countermanding reinforcement of distant theatres, but also by moving ships and aircraft from the East Coast to the West. The air defences and coastal shipping must help, too, by surrendering anti-aircraft weapons needed to safeguard ocean-going vessels. To minimise the consequent weakening of safeguards off the East Coast, the bomber force must take on certain duties hitherto performed by coastal aircraft, and the fighter force do more for coastal convoys. At the same time West Coast ports must also have increased protection. Moreover a directive issued by the Prime Minister on 6th March called on Bomber Command to make a special effort against yards and bases which built or harboured German submarines and long-range aircraft.9

The impact of these changes on the air defences was widespread and substantial. Henceforth the Admiralty had first call on a variety of anti-aircraft weapons, including rocket-projectors and parachute-and-cable sets as well as fight guns and machine-guns. Additional defences for West Coast ports were demanded at the very moment when a number of light anti-aircraft guns had perforce to be removed from some of them for the benefit of ocean trade. Within a few days Douglas received instructions to provide additional ‘watch and ward’ for East Coast shipping and to give such reinforcement to West Coast ports as might seem necessary;10 on 9th March the Air Ministry notified him formally that henceforward his primary task was no longer the defence of the aircraft industry but that of the Clyde, the Mersey and the Bristol Channel.11

He responded by taking three steps, followed later by a fourth. In the first place he told his group commanders to pay special attention

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to the needs of shipping, not only off the East Coast but also in other areas favoured by German bombers.12 Standing escort must, he said, be given more generously than in the past; and where ‘protection’ seemed sufficient, fighters earmarked for the purpose must be kept airborne as long as attacks were likely to be made without good warning. Secondly, he made some minor changes in the disposition of his fighters and in local arrangements for reinforcement between sectors. Thirdly, after consulting General Pile and on the recommendation of the appropriate committee, he sanctioned a scheme whereby the heavy anti-aircraft gun defences of the Mersey were brought up to about nine-tenths of their approved scale and those of other major West Coast ports to about three-quarters. The eighty-one additional guns required were found by moving fifty-eight from other areas and bringing in another twenty-three from new production.13 Soon afterwards visits by inspecting officers led to the conclusion that at the Mersey and the Clyde planned scales must be increased and that at the other places in question the existing scales must be made good without delay. On 21st March he therefore sanctioned further additions amounting to more than a hundred guns, of which about a third were to be found from other areas and the rest from accessions due in April.*14 Consequent reductions at such important centres as Birmingham and Sheffield were accepted with reluctance, but were broadly justified in the outcome by the trend of the offensive.†

Of all these measures, the most productive of tangible results were the orders given to group commanders to do more for coastal shipping. Whether the strengthening of heavy gun defences on the West Coast and minor changes in the disposition of fighter squadrons had much effect on the enemy no-one can say with certainty; the impact of more generous escort to coastal convoys on his air offensive against shipping, on the other hand, was profound and striking.‡ Whereas

* The effects at the principal West Coast ports were as follows:

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)
Port 1939 Scale 1940 Scale Strength 27.2.41 Additions 28.2-12.3 New Scale 21.3.41 Strength 21.3.41 Additions Sanctioned 21.3.41
Clyde 80 120 67 19 144 88 56
Mersey 104 104 84 12 112 96 16
Bristol, Avonmouth 56 80 36 28 80 68 12
Swansea, Port Talbot, Llanelli 32 48 18 18 48 36 12
Barry, Cardiff, Newport 48 64 52 4 64 56 8

The figures in column 7 include guns moved or ordered to move since 12.3.41 and hence exceed in some cases the totals of columns 4 and 5.

† See Chapter XVII.

‡ See Appendix 35.

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between December 1940, and February 1941, the number of sorties counted by the fighter groups as directly devoted to the defence of shipping had amounted to about one-twelfth of their total defensive effort in daylight, in March the proportion rose to about one-fifth and from April onwards to about one-half. As compared with a monthly average of well under five hundred sorties so defined at the end of 1940, the groups flew more than two thousand in March and an average of over seven thousand a month in April, May and June. In the first three months of 1941 convoys and other shipping units reported a hundred and sixty-one daylight attacks, or threats amounting to imminent attack, in waters within forty miles of a fighter aerodrome, and thirty ships were sunk in daylight; in April alone a hundred and twenty-four such incidents were reported but the number of sinkings in daylight was only ten. In May and June reported incidents fell to forty-one and forty respectively, sinkings to seven in May and only three in June.

A growing volume of fire from ships’ guns probably contributed to the trend, but a big share of the credit goes undoubtedly to fighter escort. The outcome was not, however, an unmixed benefit, for one result was to drive the enemy to make more attacks at night, when fighter escort was difficult and of questionable value. The number of ships sunk at night in coastal waters rose from three a month to eleven and then to twenty, so that total sinkings by day and night were higher in June than in any previous month except March. A number of remedies were tried, but were not very effective. No comprehensive answer to the problem could be found while in general the night-bomber had the upper hand of guns and fighters.

All this time the struggle against submarines and Kampfgeschwader 40’s long-range aircraft was in progress far to seaward. Atlantic convoys were menaced, too, by ordinary long-range bombers based conveniently in France and Norway. The business of Kampfgeschwader 40’s aircraft was not so much to attack ships—although at first direct attacks were a potent menace—as to shadow convoys and report their movements for the benefit of submarines. So doing, they ran little risk from ships’ guns or from flying-boats and aircraft of bomber type appointed as spotters of submarines and surface craft. Long-range fighters of Coastal Command working from Northern Ireland or the Hebrides stood a better chance of closing with them; but some forty squadrons would have been needed to guard the four convoys usually in the danger area throughout the long hours of summer daylight, and nothing like that number was available.15 A possible alternative existed in the shape of single-engined fighters which might be sent to sea with every convoy and be launched by catapult from ships adapted for the purpose. Sir Charles Portal, who had recently succeeded Sir Cyril Newall as Chief of the Air Staff, was much struck by

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the merits of the plan at a time when direct attacks by aircraft seemed more dangerous than the shadowing which later proved the bigger risk. Observing that ‘neither shore-based aircraft in the numbers that we can hope to provide in the next six to nine months nor gun armament can secure our shipping in the Atlantic against the scale and type of long-range air attack that we must now expect’, he urged on 3rd March that the scheme should be put into effect as rapidly as possible.16

Accordingly the fighter force, whose realm had already been extended from the coast to five and then to forty miles beyond it, soon found their sphere of influence stretching right over the Atlantic. Besides an auxiliary aircraft carrier and four modified Ocean Boarding Vessels equipped to work continuously in the danger zone, fifty merchant ships of about nine thousand tons were modified so that each could carry a single Hurricane and launching-gear without prejudice to its normal trade. The carrier and Ocean Boarding Vessels carried naval fighters, the merchant vessels air force fighters, pilots and maintenance crews and naval ‘fighter directing officers’. On completing his patrol a pilot launched from any of the modified ships could either make for land (if it was near) or wait to be picked up after descending on the water with his aircraft or by parachute. If he achieved his object the loss of his aircraft was no great price to pay for the safety of the convoy, especially as obsolescent Mark I Hurricanes could do all that was required.

Provision for the ‘Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships’, as they were called, added one more to the many novel tasks imposed on the fighter force in recent years. Known as the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit and administered by No. 9 Group, the appropriate unit was formed in May with headquarters at Speke, near Liverpool, and later with outposts in Nova Scotia and at Archangel and Gibraltar. Besides the headquarters organisation and a practice flight, its resources at the outset comprised two erection parties, fifty seagoing detachments and sixty Hurricanes, or roughly the equivalent of two normal squadrons. The first detachments went to sea in early June, but contact with the enemy was not made until November. On the 1st of that month a pilot launched from the steamship Empire Foam about six hundred and fifty miles west of the Irish coast gave chase to an aircraft of Kampfgeschwader 40 but lost touch with it in cloud.* But first blood had already gone to a naval fighter, for on 3rd August a Hurricane of No. 804 Squadron, launched from the converted Ocean Boarding Vessel Maplin, had destroyed an aircraft of the same German unit about four hundred miles south-west of Cape Clear.17

* No further interceptions by the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit were recorded in 1941, but some success was scored on various convoy routes in the next two years. The unit was disbanded in September 1943.

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At the end of 1940 the fighter force was by no means comfortably strong. The German night-offensive was at its height; the daylight battle, with its heavy losses, only a few months behind. The proportion of pilots in Fighter Command whose abilities had been proved in battle was not so high as Douglas could have wished, for many experienced officers had been killed and others were due for posting overseas or to expanding training units where their knowledge was at a premium. Their successors were largely untried, and in many cases the last stages of their training had been curtailed owing to the urgency prevailing in the autumn, or hampered by subsequent bad weather. Numbers, too, were short, the average strength throughout the command amounting to about twenty-one pilots a squadron as compared with the original establishment of twenty-six and the new figure of twenty-three.18

Thus, outwardly at least, the fighter force was in no position to seek new commitments. Indeed, we have seen that until the end of February only meagre escort was available for shipping. Yet such was the value placed on the initiative that before the year was out Fighter Command embarked on a limited offensive.

A warrant for such operations had existed since the time of the French collapse, when the Air Ministry told all home commands to ‘take every opportunity of destroying enemy aircraft wherever met’.19 More recently the Air Staff had sanctioned night-intruder sorties, but these were essentially defensive in everything but tactics. The same was perhaps (though more doubtfully) true of daylight sweeps by three-squadron wings, proposed by Park as early as October in order to surprise the weak patrols maintained by German fighters over the Straits of Dover. A step towards a more explicitly offensive policy was taken about the time of Douglas’s appointment, when the Air Staff sanctioned the principle that in the New Year the fighter force should, if conditions allowed, ‘lean forward into France’.20 At his first meeting with his group commanders Douglas followed up the suggestion by urging them to ‘get away from the purely defensive outlook’.21 He recommended sweeps as far afield as Calais, and told Park to look into the possibility of combining them with operations by the bomber force. Accordingly, fresh orders for ‘sector offensive sweeps’ by wing formations flying high above the Straits were issued from Park’s headquarters early in December.22

Ten days later Leigh-Mallory succeeded Park at Uxbridge. A firm believer in the efficacy of ‘big battalions’, he soon drew up a more ambitious programme. His plan included frequent sorties over

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France by single fighters or small formations which would hop from cloud to cloud, and also occasional sweeps by much larger numbers of fighters sometimes accompanied by bombers.23 The avowed object in both cases was to shoot down German aircraft and so force the enemy on to the defensive; but a weakness not stressed in Leigh-Mallory’s proposals was that, unless objectives worth bombing could be found within the limited range attainable by fighters, operations of the second class would have little appeal for bomber crews, who might not welcome the suggestion that they should act as bait. There were in fact a number of military objectives within reach—the docks at Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk were examples—but neither their value as targets nor the readiness of the Germans to lose fighters in defending them could be defined in terms convincing to all schools of thought.24 In the outcome the response of German fighter units at first proved satisfactory, but later the enemy was sometimes tiresomely quiescent.

Operations of the first class began on 20th December, when two Spitfires left Biggin Hill in the afternoon and flew below a bank of cloud to Dieppe, where they turned inland for a short distance before emerging near Le Touquet. Both pilots fired at buildings on an aerodrome and elsewhere, but saw no German aircraft in the air. Patrols continued at irregular intervals on subsequent days, but no German fighters were seen until 12th January, when a Messerschmitt 109 was inconclusively engaged and two of our aircraft failed to return. Altogether 149 patrols were ordered between December and the middle of June, but 45 of them were frustrated by unsuitable conditions, so that just over 100 (involving 233 sorties) were completed. German aircraft were seen in flight on only twenty-six occasions and in ensuing combats the enemy’s losses were smaller than our own.25 The operations failed, therefore, to achieve their primary object, though the part they played in developing qualities which stood our pilots in good stead on other occasions deserves to be remembered.

The first of the more ambitious operations in which whole wings were used was carried out on 9th January. The day was fine and clear. Snow lay thick on the ground near Calais, but visibility was good. Five squadrons in two formations swept over the French coast, one formation going as far as Saint-Omer. Our pilots saw no German fighters and were not engaged by anti-aircraft fire. Next day six Blenheim bombers of No. 2 Group, Bomber Command, escorted and covered by six fighter squadrons, attacked aircraft dispersal pens and stores in wooded country south of Calais, while three supporting squadrons swept from Dungeness to Cap Gris Nez, Calais and Dunkirk. Our pilots saw a few German fighters and engaged them, but combat losses on both sides were confined to a single Hurricane and its pilot, who was forced to leave his aircraft and was picked up with

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a broken leg.26 In addition, two Spitfires made premature landings and the pilot of one died later from injuries received in consequence.

During the next five months aircraft of Bomber and Coastal Commands co-operated with fighters in ten more raids of a similar character, fourteen attacks on shipping and two special raids on docks at Cherbourg and Le Havre. Fighters without bombers made a further eighty-five sweeps at strengths ranging from fourteen aircraft to more than twenty squadrons, besides a few reconnaissance patrols and the like. From their commencement on 9th January until 13th June these operations involved 190 bomber sorties and some 2,700 sorties by fighters with or without bombers. In all types of daylight offensive operation up to the latter date, including the minor raids described on page 291, Fighter Command lost fifty-one pilots and claimed the destruction of forty-four German aircraft, all but one of them fighters.27 In addition, one or two were claimed by bomber crews. Recorded German losses of fighter aircraft over France or the Low Countries totalled forty, and a further twenty-five aircraft of that category were described as lost over the United Kingdom; but only eighteen and twenty-two of these respective losses were attributed by the Germans to British action.28 On the evidence of the German figures, then, the number of fighters shot down by our aircraft during offensive operations was probably not more than a score or so. In addition, about twenty German fighters suffered substantial damage in contact with our forces and some fifty on other occasions. On any reckoning the operations cannot, therefore, be judged more than moderately successful if a quantitative standard is to be applied to them. On the other hand, their moral value is generally held to have been substantial. Yet at least one German commentator claimed—for what his views were worth—that the raids were welcomed by his colleagues, who saw in them no real threat to the German war machine and were glad of the opportunity to join battle in more favourable conditions than could be expected over England.29