Chapter 21: The Watch on the Base, 1943–1944
IN 1943 and the early part of 1944 the business of ‘reorganising our forces in the United Kingdom to form the largest possible balanced offensive force’ went on steadily.* After the departure of the First Army for North Africa in the autumn of 1942, Allied troops continued to make ready in the United Kingdom for a landing in north-west Europe. Six ‘holding’ divisions, to which United Kingdom troops were posted for the last part of their training, eased the problem of providing a stout guard for the base by furnishing a nucleus of home defence formations whose continuity was not destroyed by the frequent changes of personnel which necessarily occurred.1 Lower Establishment Divisions, Young Soldier Battalions and, above all, the Home Guard, took a growing share in home defence. As we have already noted, in 1943 the Chiefs of Staff agreed that the coast defences should be reduced only by gradual stages, lest a German victory in Russia should revive the threat of invasion within nine months or a year.† Rather more than a quarter of the existing batteries were then declared redundant. At that time no further changes were contemplated until the Anglo-American armies were safely lodged across the Channel; but by the spring of 1944 the outlook on the Eastern Front had grown so favourable as to justify a scheme for the relegation to ‘care and maintenance’ of more than half the batteries remaining.2
Reduction of the anti-aircraft defences posed more difficult problems while the German bomber force remained in being and while it retained the mobility of which it had shown itself possessed. Moreover, rumours that the Germans were developing weapons which would set new tasks for the air defences grew increasingly circumstantial as time went on. We shall see in later chapters that they proved well founded. Meanwhile the ‘Baedeker’ raids of 1942 enforced the move of 252 heavy guns to 28 hitherto undefended targets; in that year and the next, attacks on seaside towns by
* See p. 299.
† See p. 299.
fighter-bombers called for substantial defences against low-flying aircraft almost everywhere along the coast from Aldeburgh in Suffolk to St. Ives in Cornwall. By the early spring of 1943, 917 40-millimetre guns, 192 20-millimetre guns and 674 light machine-guns were deployed for low-altitude defence at places held to be likely targets for ‘tip-and-run’ attacks.3 To counter minelaying aircraft and to close a gap in the London defences a number of sea-forts, each capable of mounting four 3-7-inch guns, two 40-millimetre guns, a searchlight and a radar set, were installed in the estuaries of the Thames and Mersey.4 The departure of the First Army for North Africa created another special task for General Pile, calling for the rapid deployment of more than a hundred additional heavy guns and nearly twice that number of light guns to protect the ports of embarkation and neighbouring anchorages.5 Finally, in preparation for the landing in Normandy which was to take place in 1944, the anti-aircraft defences of the southern ports, with their supply lines and assembly areas from Yarmouth to South Wales, were raised by the spring of that year to a total of 1,318 heavy and 932 light guns, 535 balloons and 17 smoke-screens—these figures including substantial contributions from field formations of the British Army and from Anti-Aircraft Artillery formations of the United States Army.†6
It would be tedious to recount at length the manifold expedients by which these changes were made possible at a time when heavy demands arose from foreign theatres, and when the surrender of gunners for training in a mobile role with the Field Force imposed a constant sacrifice on home air defence formations. Mention has already been made of the employment of women in Mixed Batteries.‡ Rocket batteries manned by the Home Guard—each member being expected to report for duty on one night in eight—had been formed in 1941. In 1942 members of the Home Guard were introduced to heavy anti-aircraft gunnery, manning one or more guns in certain batteries situated near their homes and thus deriving benefit from the proximity of more experienced companions.7 system of ‘over-gunning’—whereby batteries in some thickly-defended areas
* They were known as Maunsell Forts, after their designer, Mr. G. A. Maunsell. Four were installed in the Thames Estuary by October 1942.
† The numbers were made up as follows:
|Present before special deployment||842||332||342||4|
|Additions from A.D.G.B.||252||244||193||13|
|Additions from Field Force||248||360||–||–|
|Additions from U.S. Army||32||184||–||–|
|Less ‘Diver’ Reserve (see p. 363)||56||188||–||–|
‡ See pp. 278-279
took charge of more than the normal number of pieces—also helped Pile to grapple with difficulties of manning which caused him constant worry. In addition, the light anti-aircraft defence of certain factories and railways became the task of the Home Guard units recruited from among men who worked there, while the newly-raised Royal Air Force Regiment assumed a corresponding responsibility for air force stations.
The supply of light anti-aircraft weapons remained unequal to demands until the autumn of 1942, when a marked improvement in production permitted the reinforcement called for by the ‘tip-and-run’ offensive of the preceding spring and summer.8 Deliveries of the 3.7-inch heavy gun also improved as time went on. In the spring of 1943 a new 5.25-inch heavy gun was introduced, and later in the year conversion of 4.5-inch pieces by substitution of a special 3.7-inch barrel was put in hand. The 5.25-inch gun was based on a twin-barrel naval gun of that calibre which had been used in small quantities for air defence at home since the early part of 1942. By the end of 1943 no unconverted 4.5-inch pieces remained in the London area, though a diminishing number continued to be employed elsewhere to supplement the converted guns, the original 3.7-inch pieces and the 5.25-inch guns which were now the standard heavy antiaircraft weapons.*9
The fighter force was reorganised in November 1943, when the fighter, tactical reconnaissance and tactical bomber squadrons needed to support the coming landing in France were assembled under Leigh-Mallory’s command. Ten day-fighter and eleven night-fighter squadrons under Air Marshal R. M. (later Sir Roderic) Hill were assigned to home defence. In addition, six night-fighter squadrons intended for the defence of the ‘lodgement area’ across the Channel were put temporarily under Hill, who would be responsible for the night defence of the cross-Channel area during the early stages of the landing; and six day-fighter squadrons also intended for ultimate despatch to France were likewise placed at Hill’s disposal to enable him to keep German reconnaissance aircraft at bay and to perform other tasks arising more or less directly from the assault on ‘Fortress Europe’. A further fifteen day-fighter squadrons, nominally
* The numbers of the various heavy guns in service in December 1941, at the end of 1942, and in June 1944, were:
|5.25-inch twin barrel (naval)||–||3||3|
|4.5-inch converted to 3-7-inch Mk. VI||–||–||149|
under Hill’s command but in practice lent to Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham of the Second Tactical Air Force ‘for the duration of the assault phase’, would revert to home defence at once if they were needed. Thus the greatest number of squadrons on which Hill could expect to call—including the fifteen which he would use only in an emergency—was forty-eight. This was less than half the strength assigned to home defence at the end of 1941, when most of the German air force was on the Eastern Front. The Chiefs of Staff agreed, however, that if a serious situation should arise at home while these arrangements were in force, the temporary diversion to home defence of all ‘uncommitted’ fighter squadrons in south-east England (other than United States squadrons) would be justified. Besides his own squadrons, Hill would have the handling of a few naval aircraft during the early stages of the assault on Europe, and at all stages would retain his predecessors’ control of guns, balloons and searchlights.
Hill’s position was in many ways unusual. The old term Air Defence of Great Britain, which was revived as a name for his command, did not fully convey his responsibilities, since his duties during the early stages of the landing in Europe would include the night-defence of the lodgement area and its communications with the United Kingdom. Moreover a directive which he received from Leigh-Mallory on 17th November not only charged him with the defensive tasks which had hitherto rested on Fighter Command, but also called on him to conduct offensive operations involving both his own command and part of Coningham’s. The second part of this order was a temporary expedient, designed to free Coningham and his staff for their major task of preparing for the landing; but though the responsibility which it placed on Hill was scarcely more than nominal, its effect on the structure of his command was one which some commanders might have found unsatisfactory. In practice the operations in question were supervised by Leigh-Mallory himself until, in March 1944, Coningham relieved him of the task. Their tactical direction was in the hands of Air Vice-Marshal H. W. L. Saunders, commanding No. 11 Group. Accordingly Saunders, while he never ceased to be Hill’s subordinate, was in part the agent of Leigh-Mallory or Coningham. To some extent he was thus compelled to serve two masters.
In his relations with higher authority, too, Hill’s position was abnormal. Unlike his predecessors at Stanmore, he was not a Commander-in-Chief, directly responsible to the Air Ministry for the handling of his forces. Nominally, and in some respects practically, his master was Leigh-Mallory. But Leigh-Mallory, preoccupied as he was with the Anglo-American air bombardment which would precede the landing in Normandy, and later with the landing itself
and with the advance through France and the. Low Countries, had little thought to spare for purely defensive tasks.10 The free hand thus given to Hill in matters of operational concern had its advantages, but also imposed its penalties. Where the guidance or approval of higher authority was needed, Hill often found himself compelled to deal directly with the Air Ministry, the Chiefs of Staff and other bodies. Leigh-Mallory had no objection; but the control which he exercised in theory over operations, and in practice over administrative matters, gave his subordinate something less than the status which would normally have accompanied such responsibilities. Again, Hill’s inheritance of responsibility for operational control of guns and searchlights made his position somewhat awkward, since General Pile, who commanded those weapons, was much his senior, had held his post since 1939, and was intimately acquainted with members of the Government who knew Hill only as a promising newcomer. Against these handicaps the new commander of the air defences could set exceptional tact and an unsurpassed knowledge of flying and its problems. A pilot of uncommon skill and daring, Hill could give lessons in airmanship to many of his subordinates. Although in his fiftieth year, he was capable of flying the latest and fastest fighters, and would willingly have led his squadrons in action if he had been allowed to do so. His habit of visiting stations in a Spitfire which he piloted himself did much to endear him to officers and men, and to procure respect for views which seemed not merely the mandates of a commanding officer, but the opinions of a colleague.
In the early winter of 1943 two dangers seemed to threaten the United Kingdom and the preparations which were being made there for the forthcoming expedition to the European mainland. The development by the Germans of novel weapons of long-range bombardment will be discussed in later chapters and need not detain us here. The other danger was a series of more or less orthodox attacks by German bombers, which might be aimed at London, as the nerve-centre of the preparations, or at places where troops, ships and aircraft were assembling or would assemble in the spring. There was little disposition, either in London or at Stanmore, to over-estimate the threat from orthodox bombers, for the German bomber force had been unimpressive in recent months, and the training of crews for accurate bombing of well-defended targets was justly thought to have been so long neglected that a spectacular recovery was improbable.11 At the same time, Peltz, who was rightly expected to take charge of
the venture, had a reputation among British intelligence officers which the subsequent offensive did little to justify, though the fault was perhaps not altogether his. The Germans had taken the lead with ‘blind’ bombing by means of beams and navigational instruments early in the war. They were known to be studying, apparently with a view to imitation, the ‘pathfinder’ methods since adopted by our own bomber force. Reports that Peltz was making ready for a new series of attacks, though they caused no great alarm at the Air Ministry or among Hill’s staff, seemed, therefore, to justify the inference that before long the Luftwaffe might make a resolute attempt to surprise the air defences, and that an improvement on the methods used in the early part of 1943 might be expected.
The countering of such a blow with his relatively few squadrons, and with pilots whose fighting spirit might conceivably suffer from their having been chosen to stay at home while their fellows prepared for a mobile role, was likely to be Hill’s first big task. In the meantime—indeed throughout the period before the initial landing and for some time afterwards—one of his most important duties was to ensure that German reconnaissance aircraft photographed nothing which might compromise the Allied plan, and were not too blatantly permitted to photograph what might mislead them.
In the second task the air defences were almost unbelievably successful. In January 1944, German aircraft photographed ports and aerodromes on and near the South Coast of England for the first time since August, 1943.12 The photographs taken then and subsequently threw so little light on the true state of affairs that, even after Allied troops had landed in Normandy on 6th June, the German High Command continued to believe that the main blow had yet to come and would probably fall much further east.
Meanwhile forecasts of the weight and scope of the attacks which Peltz might be able to deliver were rightly held to justify economies envisaged in Leigh-Mallory’s directive of 17th November.* The directive reminded Hill that henceforth pure defence must be subordinated to offence. No. 14 Group, in the north of Scotland, had already been amalgamated with No. 13 Group; by the following June the number of groups was reduced to four and the number of sectors, from the nineteen existing when Hill assumed command, to fourteen—less than half the total at the end of 1941. Later the process was carried still further. But the speed of the Mosquito night-fighter, coupled with better anti-aircraft guns, new radar sets and methods of control elaborated in the light of long experience, promised a formidable defence against night bombing.
While these economies were in progress, and some five months
* See p. 324.
before the Anglo-American armies were ready to set foot on the Continent, Peltz showed his hand. At the end of the third week in January 1944, the striking force at his disposal comprised 524 bombers and fighter-bombers, of which 462 were serviceable.*13 Nearly four-fifths were Junkers 88’s and Dornier 217s; one unit only was equipped with the modern Junkers 188, another had the fast and formidable Messerschmitt 410, while elements of two units had the Heinkel 177, an aircraft designed as a heavy bomber but hitherto used chiefly against shipping. One Gruppe of single-engined fighter-bombers made up the total. The general standard of training and experience was poor; and Peltz, who seems to have had few illusions on this score, would appear to have pinned his hopes on a small band of ‘pathfinder’ crews who were to mark the target and the approaches to it with marker bombs and coloured flares. The ‘pathfinders’ themselves relied largely on ‘BENITO’ and other beams whose successful application depended in great measure on the ability of a ground-controller many miles distant to gauge conditions over the target and allow for them.14 While Peltz was probably right in exhorting his largely unskilled crews to observe strict discipline and adhere closely to their instructions, a weakness of these arrangements was that such orders spelt certain failure should either the ground-controller or the ‘pathfinder’ crews fall short of expectations. There was little scope for the initiative which might in other circumstances have retrieved such errors.
The offensive began on the night of 21st January, when virtually every serviceable aircraft in the west was ordered to bomb London.†15 The German intention seems to have been retaliation for British bombing rather than dislocation of Allied plans, for which the time was not yet ripe. The attack was made in two waves separated by an interval of about six hours.
For the Germans the results were lamentable. The load carried by their crews was of the order of 500 tons; yet only about half that weight of bombs came down on land, and little more than thirty tons hit London. The Luftwaffe did not fully grasp the extent of their failure, but knew that the attack had not been entirely successful. They blamed too small a ‘pathfinder’ force and a sudden worsening of the weather after the first wave of bombers had dropped their load.16 A second attempt to bomb London eight nights later, again in poor weather, succeeded little better. On the two nights the Germans lost fifty-seven aircraft, or nearly eight per cent, of the sorties flown.17 A good performance by the defences in conditions which were anything but favourable to them was highly satisfactory to Hill, who
* For details, see Appendix 41.
† For a summary of the raids mentioned in the remainder of this chapter, see Appendix 42.
soon felt little doubt of his ability to cope with anything the German bomber force might do to interfere with Allied preparations for invasion.18 Against such forms of attack the methods tested and improved in the last few years seemed capable of providing a satisfactory defence.
In February the Germans continued the offensive against London with seven major raids. Accuracy was again poor on the first two nights, but improved considerably thereafter, largely as a result of better placing of flares. These seem to have been far more helpful to the majority of crews than the marker-bombs which continued to be used at least on some occasions.19 On the night of the 18th, for example, about three-quarters of the bombers which penetrated the defences succeeded in hitting Greater London, although flares were their sole guide, for dense clouds covered the capital and must have made marker-bombs unprofitable.20 Similar conditions on the night of the 20th brought similar results. It is perhaps significant that better weather on the next two nights of major bombing, which may have tempted crews to rely more on what they saw on the ground, brought a marked decline in accuracy. On the night of 24th February a moderately successful attack was made in cloudless weather marred by haze which may well have helped the attackers more than it hindered them, by hiding the ground from the majority of crews. Certainly on this night there was a marked correspondence between the positions of flares reported by British observers and the fall of bombs.21
German losses in the February raids were relatively smaller than those incurred in January, amounting to about one-twentieth of the sorties flown; but a declining effort testified to the cumulative effect of casualties sustained since the start of the offensive, and to difficulties of maintenance and servicing. These signs boded ill for the Luftwaffe’s chances if they were called upon to work at full stretch during the period of crisis which must be expected to follow an Allied landing.22
In March, Peltz’s forces made four major raids on London, besides one on Hull and one on Bristol. The Hull and Bristol raids were utter failures, no bombs falling on either town. In the four raids on the capital, about half the tonnage which fell on land hit London or its outskirts. German losses in major raids were heavier than in January or February, amounting to more than eight per cent, of the sorties flown, and the average effort in the last four raids was less than a third of that achieved on the opening night in January.23
For Londoners the ‘Baby Blitz’ ended on the night of 18th April, when 125 bombers were sent to bomb the capital. Some fifty tons of bombs hit Greater London. Further attacks on Hull and Bristol were attempted on the nights of the 20th and 23rd respectively, but
again no bombs hit either target. Thereafter the bulk of the German effort went into attacks on South Coast harbours and shipping in or near them. Bristol was again the target on the night of 14th May, and this time a few bombs hit the city. Not one of the raids delivered in May and the latter part of April achieved anything of consequence. By this time interference with craft assembling for the assault on Europe was becoming the enemy’s main object; but the chief effect of the raids was to reduce still further the striking force which would be available to the Germans when the Allied armada sailed. Long before that stage was reached, the enemy had squandered a great part of his resources on his ill-conceived attempt to score a moral victory by bombing London. Even if the ‘Baby Blitz’ had been more efficiently conducted, it could scarcely have achieved much of worth, since Peltz’s force was too weak for the tasks it undertook. As it was, the raids had only a propagandist value which was all the more dubious since the claims made in respect of them bore little relation to the facts.* A major consequence was that the eve of the invasion found the German bomber force in the west on the verge of bankruptcy, and capable of only meagre efforts against targets of true military importance.
* After the raid on the night of 13th February, for example, the German radio claimed that ‘several hundred aircraft’ had dropped 180,000 incendiary bombs and several thousand high-explosive bombs ‘in a concentrated attack on London’. In fact, the number of aircraft used was 230; less than four tons of bombs fell on London, about 157 tons in Kent and Essex. The number of bombs counted on land was 57,525, of which the vast majority were small incendiaries.