Chapter 3: La Drôle de Guerre: Coastal and Fighter Commands. Training
While the bomber crews dropped their ‘Nickels’ or fretted for the sight of a German warship, their comrades in Coastal Command were busy on the unspectacular but arduous work of maritime reconnaissance and convoy protection. For our strategy, it will be remembered, was a mixture of defence and economic pressure, in which—so long as the German Army and Air Force remained quiet—the main burden must fall on the Royal Navy. And the function of Coastal Command, in the new element of air, was to help the Navy in the old, traditional tasks at sea—the maintenance of our own communications, the severance of the enemy’s.
The Command was well organized for the purpose. Contrary to popular legend, liaison with the naval authorities was from the very beginning close and effective. At Command Headquarters, for instance, there was a small naval staff, while the Groups—Nos. 15 (H.Q. Plymouth), 16 (H.Q. Chatham) and 18 (H.Q. Rosyth)—carried out their day-to-day conduct of air operations in Area Combined Headquarters where naval and air staffs shared the same operations room.
Organization, however, is a very different matter from equipment; and if the Command was well organized for its duties, it was certain not yet well equipped for them. There was, of course, good reason for thus: the task of producing a fighter force capable of protecting our cities and a bomber force able to strike back at Germany had absorbed most of our energies and output, leaving very little over for purely maritime aircraft. To accept such a situation did not, as some critics would us believe, argue any lack of foresight on the part of the Air Staff or the politicians. With the Allies’ great superiority in naval resources, anything higher than third place for Coastal Command in the pre-war expansion would have been utterly unwarranted.
The Coastal force at the outbreak of war was accordingly small compared with that disposed by Bomber or Fighter Command. It was equipped, in the main, with obsolescent aircraft, though new maritime types were on order. All but one of the eleven general reconnaissance squadrons were still operating with Ansons—excellent and highly reliable machines, but limited to a speed of 178 miles per hour and a radius of action, under normal operating conditions, of some 250 miles; the remaining squadron was flying the first of the Hudsons ordered from the Lockheed firm in America—aircraft of twice the range, as well as greater speed and bomb load. Of the six flying-boat squadrons, intended for long-range work, only two had Sunderlands, with their seven machine guns, 2,000-pounds bomb load and normal operational radius of 850 miles; the rest were on Londons and Stranraers, greatly inferior in all respects. Worst of all, the two squadrons of ‘strike’ aircraft were both armed with the completely out-of-date Vildebeest torpedo-bomber, of top speed 153 miles per hour and normal radius 185 miles. This entailed calling on Bomber Command for every attack on a major warship.
First and foremost of the routine duties assigned to Coastal Command was reconnaissance over the North Sea. The greatest danger to our seaborne trade, in the official opinion of the Admiralty before the war, was likely to beg the surface raider, not the submarine; and the North Sea patrols were designed with this appreciation in mind. As a surface raider trying to break out in the Atlantic from North Germany was virtually bound to pass between Scotland and Norway, the main Coastal Command patrol took the form of an ‘endless chain’ in daylight from Montrose up to the Ansons’ operational limit which was some fifty miles from the south-west tip of Norway. Reconnaissance over the remaining fifty miles depended for a few weeks entirely upon our submarines, until there were sufficient Hudsons to take on the job. North of this continuous patrol, dawn patrols were flown by flying-boats based at Sullom Voe (Shetlands) and Invergordon; while to the south dusk patrols were carried out by Hudsons from Leuchars. These routine sorties—which were constantly readjusted in the light of circumstances—were supplemented by special searches whenever necessary. So the watch for the surface-raider was planned; the detection of contraband traffic and U-boats on passage were useful, but subsidiary, functions.
The North Sea patrols began on 24th August, just too late to detect the Graf Spee, which ad sailed from Wilhelmshaven three days earlier. The Deutschland also slipped by before the outbreak of war, passing through the patrol area at a time when our aircraft were grounded by fog—a feat she was to repeat on her homeward
voyage in November. Coastal Command, however, had at least one crumb of consolation. On 2nd November, after an intensive hue and cry, a London of No. 201 Squadron spotted the Deutschland’s returning prize, the City of Flint, in Norwegian territorial waters.
Unfortunately the first cruise of the Deutschland was by no means the only example of the Germans’ skill in picking suitable conditions for their rare naval ventures. On 8th October, for instance, a Hudson of No. 224 Squadron reported a battleship, a cruiser and four destroyers off the south-west coast of Norway, but heavy rain and low clouds made it impossible for the bomber force to gain contact. Again, in the following month vile weather hampered the search for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau after their clash with the gallant Rawalpindi. On this occasion there were two days when the crews at Pembroke Dock could not even get into their flying-boats; and on the last day of the search a Sunderland, after alighting safely at Sullom Voe in a 60-knot gale, tossed helplessly at her moorings for over ten hours before her crew could be taken off. Better conditions, however, attended the hunt in February 1940 for the Altmark, auxiliary and prison ship of the Graf Spee. After agents’ reports had indicated her presence off Norway, a Hudson of No. 220 Squadron was able to pick her up and direct our naval forces to the scene.
Meanwhile the watch between Scotland and Norway, if the most important part of Coastal Command’s work in the North Sea, had become increasingly complicated by other tasks. The Skagerrak, the Heligoland Bight, the Dutch and Belgian coasts—all these had also to be kept under observation, besides many other areas where seaborne raids or invading forces could be detected early in their passage. Such work, of course, called for far better-armed aircraft than the Command possessed at the beginning of the war. So, too, did the duty, carried out in conjunction with Fighter Command, of protecting our East Coast convoys. Aircraft with a sting in them were what was needed; and for the time being all that could be done was to produce a fighter version of the long-ranged, long-nose Blenheim (the Mark IV), and to modify a few of the Hudsons to take a mid-upper turret.
Well armed or poorly armed, the Coastal aircraft were certainly now being called upon for a bewildering variety of tasks. Apart from those being mentioned, there were our mine-layers to be guarded as they laid the great barrage from Dover to the north of Scotland. There were crippled ships and submarines to escort safely back to port. There was the enemy’s mine-laying campaign to defeat. And since the Luftwaffe’s determination to dominate the North Sea
stopped short neither of triviality nor terrorism, there were even the herring fleet and the lightships to look after. All this had to be done with the few aircraft which could be spared from the major commitment. How seriously the force was pressed may be seen from the history of the four ‘trade protection’ squadrons of Blenheim fighters. Formed in October 1939 specifically for the protection of East Coast convoys, they were soon required not only to carry out long-range reconnaissance, but also to act as escort to purely naval forces. Thus early did the hard test of experience shatter the doctrine, long entertained by the Admiralty, that a fleet at sea had nothing fear from the air.
The threat of the German surface raiders came to little; and the harrying of our East Coast trade and our vessels in the North Sea by German aircraft, though vexatious, could not be decisive. But when, in November 1939, Secret Weapon No. 1 arrived, in the form of magnetic mines laid close inshore by aircraft and U-boats, the enemy at first registered a real success. Over a quarter of a million tons of shipping were sunk by this method alone within three months. Fortunately, however, the menace was defeated with remarkable speed. ‘Degaussing’ and the LL sweep proved the ultimate answer, but before these could be fully applied the Royal Air Force did much to reduce our losses. On the offensive side, Bomber Command carried out nightly patrols over the seaplane bases in the North and East Frisians to discourage mine-laying aircraft from taking off; and on the night of 19th/20th March 1940, after we had suffered our first civilian air raid casualties during a raid on Scapa, the War Cabinet went so far as to permit the Command to bomb the hangars and slipway at Hornum. On the defensive side, Balloon Command put up a barrage from barges and lighters in the Thames Estuary; Fighter Command carried out night patrols, somewhat expensive in crashes; and Coastal Command, besides patrolling the east-coast estuaries by moonlight, formed special flights of Tiger and Hornet Moths in the north and west. This last action was done in the conviction, not ill-founded, that the sight and sound of any aircraft would scare the mine-laying U-boats into remaining beneath the surface.
Another task of Coastal Command in the campaign against the magnetic mine was to operate the D.W.I. Wellingtons.1 As the mines could not be swept by normal means, the object of these aircraft, which were evolved by a joint effort on the part of the Admiralty and the Royal Aircraft Establishment, was to explode them. Fitted underneath with a great hoop containing a magnetic coil activated
by an auxiliary and extremely smelly engine inside the fuselage, the D.W.I.s carried out sweeps at 25–40 feet over suspected waters; anything from a tremor to a heavy bump with bits-and-pieces flying off the aircraft informed the crews of an addition to their score. Beginning operations in January 1940, the half a dozen or so aircraft engaged in this task exploded one-eighth of all the magnetic mines swept or detonated in the period from November 1939 to May 1940. Typically enough, the crews obtained most of these successes by disregarding the safety regulations laid down for their benefits.
The magnetic mines were a menace speedily mastered. Very different were the U-boats, whose potentialities as weapon, though decisively curbed between 1943 and 1945, were still as great at the end of the war as at the beginning. Seven or eight of these pests were already stationed west of the British Isles on 3rd September; and the sinking of the Athenia that evening, though, as we now know, carried out against orders, was a grim warning of what was to come. The disaster was certainly no false alarm. Before the month was out nearly 150,000 tons of British shipping had gone to the bottom.
During this difficult initial period, when convoy was being established (it had not been ordered during the precautionary stage) when isolated homecoming ships and stragglers abounded, and when destroyer escort went out no farther than 13° W., Coastal Command did its best to provide close and continuous cover in coastal waters. Escort beyond a hundred miles out from the Scillies, however, was extremely important, for most of the long-range aircraft were needed on the primary task of North Sea reconnaissance. Nor could aircraft well be spared for distant work when a stream of S.O.S. signals and reports of U-boats was pouring in from the South Western Approaches. The gaps in our air cover at sea, it was already painfully apparent, were all too great. And when the Admiralty tried to fill in some of the nearer ones by using aircraft-carriers the narrow escape of the Ark Royal and the loss of the Courageous soon brought the attempt to an end.
It was during this opening phase of the U-boat offensive that Coastal Command accomplished a rescue which was much written of at the time, and which still remains outstanding. The Kensington Court, a tramp bringing in 8,000 tons of grain, had been torpedoed without warning some seventy miles off the Scillies. Two Sunderlands, one from No. 204 and the other from No.228 Squadron, on separate patrols, picked up the distress signals. The first flying-boat reached the reported position in forty minutes, to find the ship down by the bows. Some way off from the wreck was a drenched and overcrowded
lifeboat. To this a number of men were clinging with their bodies in the sea—for the ship’s other boat had been swamped as soon as lowered. After a brief look-round for the U-boat, the crew of the Sunderland, disregarding a heavy swell, put their aircraft down on the surface and made ready to bring the survivors abroad by means of the rubber dinghy. Then the second Sunderland appeared, carried out a quick search, and also alighted. Between them the rescuers got all thirty-four of the seamen safely abroad, though many were utterly exhausted and helpless. Then, having jettisoned their bombs, the aircraft took; and a little over an hour after their ship was hit the crew of the Kensington Court—not a man missing—were back on dry land. Meanwhile a third Sunderland had appeared on the scene of the disaster, and, after keeping watch till the rescue was completed, had sighted the U-boat breaking surface. The flying-boat at once attacked. Unfortunately, for the artistic unity of the story, the first bomb hung up, and the enemy escaped by a smart dive.
By October convoy routine was settling down, and the sinking, though heavy, showed a perceptible decline. The following month the losses from U-boat attack decreased still further, partly on account of the casualties thus far inflicted by the Navy, partly because the enemy was now concentrating on the magnetic mine. By then Coastal Command was flying ‘police’ patrols throughout daylight along the east coast route, while the Atlantic convoys could rely on regular air escort route, while the Atlantic convoys could rely on regular air escort up to 200 miles from our shores—a figure on which it would doubtless have been possible to improve, had we possessed bases in Southern Ireland. At the same time the North Sea patrols, designed primarily against surface raiders, were proving so successful in their secondary task of spotting U-boats that an excellent picture of enemy movements round the north of Scotland was being built up. Special air patrols to harry these craft on passage were accordingly ‘laid on’; and by mid-November the location and attack of the enemy’s submarines was officially rated as of equal importance to the location of his surface warships. Henceforward, Coastal Command’s routine patrols were to be flown at the height which afforded the best chance of success against the underwater menace. The Command was becoming increasingly ‘U-boat minded’.
These new measures in the air proved their worth from the start. Reduced to travelling submerged for much of their passage, the U-boats perforce spent less time in their operational areas; and on more than one occasion the Coastal patrols brought our asdic-fitted vessels into position for the kill. But no directly lethal effect was yet achieved by the aircraft themselves. This was largely because the 100-pound A/S. (Anti-Submarine) bomb carried by the Ansons
proved to be almost harmless even when it scored a direct hit; while the 250-pound A/S. bomb carried by the flying-boats needed to explode within six feet of the pressure hull to inflict serious damage. Accuracy of aim, too, was at this stage almost a matter of luck. Up till the end of 1939 only the Hudsons of the coastal aircraft had a distributor capable of ensuring a properly spaced stick of bombs; and the Mark IX bomb-sight, which required a steady run up at a height above 3,000 feet, was useless against such small and elusive targets as submarines.
The worthlessness of our anti-submarine bombs was not entirely a surprise. Various critics had had their suspicions before the war; but in peacetime it is never an easy matter to test bombs against the actual objects they are intended to destroy. The war was not many days old, however, before misgivings deepened. On 5th September 193, two of our own submarines were attacked in mistake by Ansons; both escaped with no more than a slight shaking. This was disquieting enough, if fortunate for the submarines; but a similar incident on 3rd December left no room for doubt. On that day the Snapper received a 100-pound anti-submarine bomb directly at the base of her conning tower. The only damage to her pressure hull occurred in the control room, where four electric light bulbs were broken.
A week after this episode arrangements were made for the Admiralty to develop depth charges for use from the air. Until these became available, Coastal Command might harass the U-boats, but it was impotent to destroy them. Of the twenty-three successes scored between the outbreak of war and the fall of France, Coastal Command was credited with a direct share of only one, and even this was partly thanks to the enemy. On 30th January 1940, a U-boat, after being damaged by our surface forces, found itself unable to escape the attentions of a Sunderland of No. 228 Squadron. Losing his nerve the German captain scuttled his vessel.
Fortunately this lack of ability to kill made little difference to the broad picture of success. For by April 1940, in spite of a renewed spell of U-boat activity in the first two months of the year, the war at sea was definitely going well for the Allies. The long-range blockade was operating to good effect, the surface raiders were well under control, the magnetic mine was being mastered, the U-boats, if much more of a menace than had been anticipated before the war, were inflicting nothing like the losses of 1917. The credit for all these achievements belonged primarily, of course, to the Navy. But to each of them Coastal Command had made a useful, and indeed a vital, contribution. It had done this at a time when it was beset with
difficulties—when new and unexpected commitments were arising every months, when aircraft were scarce and obsolescent, and when the re-equipment programme had collapsed through the entire failure of the two scheduled replacements, the Lerwick flying-boat and the ill-starred Botha. Perhaps more significant than any positive achievement, however, was the fact that the Command, designed almost entirely for reconnaissance on behalf of the Navy, was now developing an anti-U-boat offensive in its own right. The day of its triumph in that direction was not yet; but the signs and portents were there for the future.
To the intense dismay of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command also found itself involved in the struggle for control of the North Sea. Upon Sir Hugh Dowding rested what was undoubtedly the most important operational duty of the Royal Air Force at the time—the air defence of Great Britain; and with forces already insufficient, as he deemed, for this vital task, Sir Hugh was naturally reluctant to extent his commitments.
To discharge his duties effectively against an estimated force of 2,000 long-range bombers operating from Germany, it had been calculated that Dowding should dispose forty-six squadrons for the general defence of the country, four for protection of the East Coast convoys, two for Scapa Flow and one for Northern Ireland. But the last three of these requirements had been put forward only in the closing months of peace, and in September 1939 none of the seven squadrons to meet them existed. Still more serious, ten of the forty-six squadrons for the general defence of the country were not due to form until the financial year 1940–1941. Of the fifty-three squadrons reckoned as essential, Dowding in fact had no more than thirty-five at the outbreak of war. Allied to his inherent singleness of purpose, this inevitably prompted him to a rigid regard for priorities.
Given the full number of squadrons, Dowding felt confident of breaking the assaults of the Luftwaffe. But at anything less—and certainly at only two-thirds—he was not so sure. He accordingly threw hiss whole strength and prestige into achieving his due complement. This involved not only demanding the approved additions ahead of schedule, but also ensuring that, in the temporary absence of German attack against this country, his existing squadrons were not diverted to purposes beyond their main role. In the course of this struggle—as he conceived it—to preserve and build up his Command for the great battle to come, Dowding looked neither left nor right: he scouted difficulties and opposed all competing claims, whether of Allies, sister Services, or other Royal Air Force Commands. At
every suggestion to lay hands on one of his precious squadrons or to extend his already great commitments, he directed to the Air Ministry a stream of forceful, cogent and entirely outspoken protests. Others might plan attractive schemes for fighter flexibility, by which our Hurricanes might be defending the British Expeditionary Force in France one moment and southern England next. But Sir Hugh Dowding knew better. A squadron lent might be—almost certainly would be—a squadron lost; and every distraction from the main task was playing the game of the enemy. Before his eyes there was the spectre of an overstretched fighter force vainly trying to plug the gaps and slowly wilting under the inexorable pressure of overwhelming numbers; and after that, of ports choked with sunken shipping, of aircraft and arms factories pulverized into rubble, of London undefended and burning, the whole Allied cause collapsing from the paralysis of the British nerve-centres. However many calls there might be on our resources, Dowding was convinced that one call—the safety of the base—was primary and absolute; and till that was met, he proposed neither to understand other arguments, nor to compromise, nor even to accept with good grace the decisions that went against him.
The war was not many days old when Dowding began to press the Air Ministry for the immediate formation of twelve more fighter squadrons. But the Air Staff, fully alive to the problem ,were already enquiring into possibilities of this sort. The result was not encouraging. Current production of Hurricanes and Spitfires totalled less than a hundred a month—not enough to cover the estimated wastage in existing units, let alone create a large block of new squadrons. Two new fighter squadrons might be formed, reported the Air Member for Supply and Organization—two squadrons, not of Spitfires or Hurricanes, but of Blenheims. Confronted with this verdict, Dowding merely reduced his demand to eight squadrons; and at the same time he complained bitterly that the four fighter squadrons intended for the Expeditionary Force had been sent to France before the Luftwaffe had engaged, and failed, in its grand assault on England. This decision, he foretold, had ‘opened a tap through which will run the total Hurricane output’. For he had already been ordered just before the war to put six more Hurricane squadrons on a mobile basis; and though he had been promised that these would never be withdrawn from Fighter Command unless they could be spared with safety, he knew ‘how much reliance to place on such assurances’. As for the claims of other Commands, he felt he must ‘put on record’ his view ‘that the home defence organization must not be regarded as co-equal with the other Commands, but that it
should receive absolute priority to all other claims until it is firmly secured, since the continued existence of the nation, and of its services, depends on the Royal Navy and Fighter Command’.
The Air Staff, for all their anxiety to ensure the defence of Great Britain, could not regard the matter in the same uncomplicated light as Sir Hugh Dowding. Their responsibilities were far wider, and they could hardly admit an absolute priority on the part of Fighter Command. The Army, the Royal Air Force in France, and the French were all clamouring for more fighters to be sent across the Channel; and the Air Ministry was committed, as its main contribution to victory, to building up a powerful force not of fighters but of bombers Clearly it was impossible to satisfy everyone; but clearly it was also essential to create more fighter squadrons. And this emerged all the more plainly because the Germans had selected for their opening air action in the West precisely those objectives for which special fighter forces had been approved but not yet formed—our East Coast convoys and the new naval base at Scapa Flow.
In the end, thanks partly to his own pertinacity and partly to Sir Cyril Newall, Chief of the Air Staff, Dowding got what he wanted. Supply and Organization had acknowledged that it was possible to form two Blenheim squadrons. Dowding, who had a use for Blenheims as night fighters, asked that these might take the form of four half-squadrons, to be built up to full strength as occasion permitted; and he further requested that an extra squadron previously approved for training and reserve should be allocated to the first-line, also in the form to two half-squadrons. To both these suggestions Newall gave his consent; and he also agreed that two more squadrons should be formed as an insurance against two of the mobile squadrons going to France. This gave Dowding the eight squadrons—or potential squadrons—to which he had reduced his original demand.
Here the matter might have rested for the time being, had not Newall been convinced that the demand for fighters would soon grow still more insistent. From all aspects of logistical possibility no more fighter squadrons could be formed at the moment; for the entire output, not only of single-engined machines but of Blenheims, was already fully earmarked—the latter largely to cover wastage among the bombers. And yet, if only more fighter squadrons could be formed, even on the wrong aircraft types, they might be ready for action—on the right types—precious weeks earlier than if their formation were delayed until the production position improved. So, since he had not good argument except the sheer desirability of more squadrons, Newall decided not to argue. Calling a meeting of the Air Members of and some of the Air Staff on 17th October 1939, he
briefly announced not only that the eight extra squadrons recently approved must be completed by the end of the month, but that an additional ten squadrons must be formed in the following fortnight. He then invited those present to suggest how this could be done.
The act of faith more than justified itself. By December all eighteen squadrons had been formed. Most were armed with Blenheims, but some had Battles—machines as well adapted for air fighting as hackneys for winning the Derby. The struggle of these squadrons towards full operational status was slow and painful. But in the spring of 1940 production of single-engined fighters rose sharply, and by May nine of the eighteen squadrons had changed their Battles and Blenheims for Hurricanes or Spitfires. Since four of the Blenheim squadrons were finally handed over to Coastal Command for shipping protection, and two more of the mobile squadrons were despatched to France during one of the periodic ‘flaps’, Fighter Command finished up with a net increase of twelve squadrons. In other words, the forces available for the defence of this country rose from 35 squadrons (of which 22 were armed with Hurricanes and Spitfires) in September 1939, to 47 squadrons (of which 38 had Hurricanes or Spitfires) in May 1940. Had Newall not settled the pattern of this so early by forming squadrons before the supply of aircraft warranted, it is almost certain that our fighter array when the German offensive opened in the West would have been neither so extensive nor so modern. On the other hand, the expansion of Fighter Command inevitably retarded the already slow development of Bomber Command; indeed it upset all previous notions of the correct balance between offensive and defensive forces, for by May 1940 our fighter squadrons in Britain and France outnumbered our bomber squadrons. But Newall and Dowding did not over-insure; and the narrow margin of victory in the Battle of Britain was the proof of their wisdom.
The decisions of October 1939 kept Dowding quiet (if the phrase may be used without offence) for nearly six months. During this time his main operational problem was the German attack against our east coast shipping and naval bases. The protection of shipping, it has already been made clear, was not a task that he accepted willingly. The existing radar stations were little use against low-flying aircraft; the fighter squadrons were unaccustomed to working over the sea; and fighter airfields near the coast were a rarity. After making it plain that his other responsibilities—of which the protection of the aircraft industry ranked highest—would correspondingly suffer, Dowding at length agreed to defend a coastal belt stretching five miles out to sea. At first his squadrons had little success in this,
but once they could operate from Coastal Command’s airfields they were soon able to bring about a reduction in sinkings. All told, from the outbreak of war until the opening of the Norwegian campaign, some forty German aircraft were destroyed out of the 400 odd which were reported over or near our shores—no mean feat for fighters operating at the fringe of their interception system against bombers attacking widely dispersed targets.
To protect our main naval base on the east coast in the autumn of 1939 was scarcely less of a problem than to safeguard our shipping. There was no great difficulty about Rosyth, which could be covered from Drem and Turnhouse by the two Scottish auxiliary squadrons—Nos. 602 (City of Glasgow) and 603 (City of Edinburgh). But Scapa Flow, in the Orkneys, was a very different proposition, for it was far outside the general Fighter Command system. Not until March 1939 had the Air Ministry learnt of the intention to use Scapa as a main base, and though a scheme of defence had been settled in the following July the squadrons for this were nut due to form until 1941. Scapa was thus without fighter protection when war broke out; and by no possibility did it seem, even then, that fighters could be provided before the summer of 1940. By that date, according to new decisions taken in September 1930, two squadrons and Sector Operations Room capable of handling five more were to be available at Wick, an incomplete Coastal Command station on the mainland. A full balloon barrage was also to be in position. Meanwhile, as emergency measures, some of the London balloons were rushed north, and the Admiralty agreed to operate two Fleet Air Arm fighter squadrons from the small civil airfield at Hatston.
On the other side of the North Sea, on person at least was anxious to take advantage of this situation. Göring—if his own tale may be believed—longed to open hostilities by flinging his bombers in full force against the Home Fleet. It is certainly interesting to speculate what would have happened had he done so. But political considerations and the demands of the German Army prevailed, and for the time being the entire German air effort was concentrated against the Poles. Only with Poland vanquished and the Führer’s magnanimous peace offer rejected by the Allies could the Luftwaffe get down to business in the West.
It was on 14th October 1939, some forty-eight hours after Hitler’s proposals had met their inevitable answer, that Lieutenant Prien nosed the U.47 into Scapa Flow and directed two well-placed salvoes of torpedoes in the Royal Oak. The defences of the base were immediately declared inadequate, and arrangements were made for the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, to move to Rosyth within a
week. Two days later, on the morning of 16th October, reconnaissance aircraft appeared over the Forth and the wireless interception service reported signs of a forthcoming operation against Rosyth. With this warning No. 607 (County of Durham) Squadron was promptly ordered up to Drem; and during the afternoon the threatened raids developed. Unfortunately, the local radar ceased to function at the critical moment through a failure of the power apparatus, with the result that the enemy bombers, who number about a dozen, got their first blows in unmolested. But at this stage of the war under orders as stringent as our own, they made no attempt to damage targets on land, but concentrated entirely on our ships. One bomb went through three decks of the Southampton and out of the side before exploding and sinking the Admiral’s barge; another damaged the Edinburgh: and a third caused several casualties n board the Mohawk. But despite the lack of early warning or coherent direction, Nos. 602 and 603 Squadrons got in amongst the bombers and shot down two He.111s—the first German aircraft to be destroyed over British soil since 1918.2
Apparently well satisfied with the venture against Rosyth, the next day the Luftwaffe turned its attention to Scapa Flow. Shortly before 1100 hours a small force of bombers swept into the anchorage, only to find that most of the fleet was at sea. In the ensuing attack our light guns disposed of two of the enemy, but the raiders scored a near miss against the depot ship Iron Duke, which was so badly damaged that she had to be beached.
Coming on top of the loss of the Royal Oak and the raid on Rosyth, this was too much for the Admiralty, who now decided to move the Home Fleet to the west coast until the two north-eastern bases offered greater security. While work on the approved schemes was hastened forward at Scapa, with a new target date of February 1940, and while some of the Glasgow balloons were redeployed for the benefit of Rosyth, the Home Fleet accordingly retired to the Clyde. Thence it would be difficult, to say the least, for our ships to intercept with due speed a surface-raider breaking into the Atlantic or a force descending on our east coast. By two or three boldly directed strokes, and at a total cost of four aircraft, the German Air Force and U-boat Service had between them scored a resounding strategic success—of which, very fortunately, the German Navy was to take little advantage.
The winter months saw the development of a fighter sector for the Orkneys pressed on apace. In spite of the remoteness of the locality and the extraordinary severity of the weather the work was accomplished up to schedule. By the end of February 1940 a new airfield was under construction on the mainland at Castletown, more radar stations were being built, a Sector Operations Room had been opened up at Wick (in an elementary school), and three Hurricane squadrons—Nos. 43, 111 and 605—were deployed on Wick airfield. Possibly the hardest task was that of No. 950 Squadron, whose duty was to install and operate a balloon barrage. Suitable sites on the islands were few and far between; the naval authorities at first rejected the idea of water-borne sites; and the rough seas repeatedly held up supplies. Then in February, when the first balloon were installed and ‘bedded down’ on screw pickets, violent winds tore them adrift. After this the airmen, who had already gained a nodding acquaintance with the art of building from having to erect their own huts, turned their hands to laying concrete beds. In the face of such obstacles, it was no small achievement that by the end of March there were twelve balloons flying, and that arrangements were well advanced for a total barrage of fifty-six. In the end all difficulties were triumphantly overcome; but the job of flying the barrage remained a tough one, and balloon-operators continued to display a touch of pallor in their weather-beaten countenances at the mention of a posting to the Orkneys.
With the defences of Scapa Flow strengthened in the air, on the ground, and underwater, early in March 1940 the Home Fleet returned. Within a few days No. 111 Squadron shot down a German raider. A more determined assault followed on 16th March, just before dark, when the Norfolk and the Iron Duke were damaged, Hatston airfield was attacked, and some bombs on the island of Hoy caused the first fatal casualties among British civilians. On this occasion our fighters failed to intercept; but, as recorded above, the fall of bombs on British soil stung the War Cabinet into retaliation against the sea-plane base at Hornum. Doubtless with the intention of damaging as many of our vessels as possible before the invasion of Norway, the enemy then made three more raids on Scapa in the following month. All were broken up and defeated up and defeated by the Hurricanes.
By March 1940 the general system of air defence embracing Nos. 11, 12 and 13 Fighter Groups and running from Portsmouth round the south and east of the country to the Forth had thus been supplemented by an isolated sector for the protection of Scapa Flow. But the enemy, finding his efforts against our shipping off these sections of the coast too expensive, was already now beginning to
concentrate his attacks on shipping in the virtually undefended reaches between the Forth and the Orkneys. For the time being the only answer to this—and a very imperfect one—was to operate detached squadrons of fighters from Coastal Command airfields. like Dyce (Aberdeen) and Montrose, even though these places were not linked with the main Fighter Command System. Worse still, however, was the danger at the other extremity of the system; for the enemy was now thought to be developing aircraft with the range to outflank our defences in the south, so that he could attack not only our shipping in the South-Western Approaches but also the whole country west of Portsmouth. Against this threat there was as yet only the isolated sector at Filton for the protection of Bristol and the Bristol Aeroplane Company. It was with these problems in mind, sharpened by his ever-present dread of being ordered to send further fighters to France, that Dowding now approached the Air Ministry once more to augment his forces. What he asked for, in effect, was the extension of the air defence system to the largely uncovered north-east and south-west of Great Britain.
In point of fact, a new Fighter Group, No. 10, had already been projected to cover the gap between Portsmouth and Filton. What Dowding wanted—and got—was a further extension of this embryonic Group to Cornwall, Devonshire and South Wales; while in the north he visualized an entirely new Group, No. 14, with responsibility for all fighter operations between the Firth of Tay and the Shetlands. For these extensions Newall agreed that Dowding must have seven new squadrons within the next six months; and in a general review of the whole problem of fighter expansion, the Air Staff came to the conclusion that beyond these seven squadrons, a further twenty, bringing the Metropolitan Fighter Force to a total of eighty squadrons, would be needed by April 1941. It was, in the words of the Air Staff appreciation, ‘a staggering requirement’.
Neither the seven new squadrons nor the two new groups had been formed by the time the German offensive broke in the West. But that they had been envisaged and approved and were in the process of creation, was the measure of the foresight of both Dowding and the Air Staff; for whereas in March 1940 these additions were certainly desirable, a few months later, with German aircraft based in Norway and France, they were not merely desirable but essential.
So the war continued—a war of alarums and excursions, but singularly little major action. Americans, watching from comfortable seats outside the arena the cautious sparring and pulled punches of
the opposing heavyweights, dismissed the contest as ‘phoney’. The epithet was hardly justified. One of the contestants was nursing his strength for the later stages of the fight; the other was about to launch an all-out effort in the next round. Certainly there was nothing ‘phoney’ about the war for our aircrews, despite the strange restrictions on bombing observed by both sides. For restrictions or no restrictions, our airmen had still to drone their way over Germany through night and the enemy defences, or ceaselessly scan the wastes of ocean, or speed to combat with the molester of our shipping, or—and this to most was the true hardship—sit long, bitter hours at dispersal, waiting for the call that did not come.
The French, too, had a word for it—‘la drôle de guerre’. And up to a point the Royal Air Force in France was inclined to agree with them. It was odd to be in the first party to leave England, travelling in an aircraft on the nose of which was chalked the prophetic words ‘Où sommes nous?’ It was odd to arrive and to find few of the promised arrangements for one’s reception in existence. It was odd to be—if only for a brief time—without blankets, shelter or sufficient food. It was odd to be sent off on daylight reconnaissance of enemy territory in a Battle, and to be shot down almost before crossing the border; it was almost equally odd to be sent off in an Blenheim I, and to run out of petrol short of home. It was still more odd to carry out night training over Germany because of the French restrictions on flying after dark. It was odd, when the soldiers below were not yet at grips, to be fighting hard with the enemy in a corner of sky near Luxembourg; and odd to be a hero of the fighting, like young ‘Cobber’ Kain of New Zealand and No. 73 Squadron, and find oneself the hapless subject of a clash between Service and Press on the merits of publicity for individuals. On a humbler plane, it was odd, when all starting devices from batteries to hot bricks and blow lamps had failed in forty degrees of frost, to hear the flight sergeant’s optimistic injunction to ‘whip out them plugs’—with frozen fingers and one plug-spanner per six aircraft. But it was also a great deal more than odd: how much more, the Royal Air Force, whose adjectival vocabulary is strictly limited, would have found it difficult to express in polite society.
However phoney or odd or anything else the comparative calm of these early months might appear, it was what the Allies had hoped for. But it was also far more than they had expected. For though it was clearly in the interests of the Allies to postpone the decisive clash until they had amassed their full strength, it was less clear why Germany should apparently be playing the same game. The answer, as we now know, lay in a combination of factors. Until his peace offer
was turned down in mid-October, Hitler still hoped to do a deal with Britain and France. Then there was some delay while the apprehensions of his General Staff about attacking France were overcome; but by November the decision to violate the neutrality of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg had been taken. After that it was a question of waiting for the right weather to make the best use of German superiority in tanks and aircraft. But there were also additional complications. In January 1940—incredible as it sounds—a German aircraft carrying certain details of the plan crashed in Belgium, and the German Naval Staff had persuaded the Führer that Norway would make a most palatable addition to the ensuing banquet. For a while there was discussion on the correct sequence of the courses, but in the opening days of March the chef (and principal diner) made up his mind: Denmark and Norway the hors d’oeuvre, France and the Low Countries the entrée. The repast was to begin in April; and by the time the entrée was demolished, the roast—England—would undoubtedly be done to a turn.
Meanwhile the Allies were presented with a heaven-sent gift: eight months of that most precious of all commodities for ill-armed but wealthy democracies—Time. The Air Ministry and the Royal Air Force well understood that the value of the gift was strictly conditioned by the use that was made of it. Lessons of the highest vale were extracted from the operations carried out, limited in scale and restricted in scope though these were. Plans were perfected for the inevitable battle in the Low Countries, and for much else. Technical development and production were speed on; the fruits of earlier research were gathered and the seed of fresh invention sown. The first use of the specially stripped and unarmed Spitfire, camouflaged light blue—a momentous innovation due largely to the prescience of Flying Officer M. V. Longbottom—gave birth to the revolutionary technique of high-altitude photographic reconnaissance. In the all-important matter of radar, ground stations for the detection of low-flying aircraft and airborne sets for the detection of shipping began to come into service. The control of fighter aircraft from the ground was improved out of all recognition by the introduction of V.H.F. (Very High Frequency) radio telephony. New and better aircraft were specified; and in December 1939, thanks in great part to the individual insistence of Air Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman, the first order was placed for that most remarkable of ‘private ventures’, the de Havilland Mosquito. Equally important, the powerful pressure from the British aircraft industry to close down on the development and production of the four-engined heavy bomber in favour of a
greater output of existing aircraft was firmly resisted. A mass of useful, vital work was done in nearly every field; for the expansion of the Royal Air Force, started in 1934, and jerked into successively greater speed many times since, was now set firmly in top gear.
No feature of this activity was more important than the extension of training facilities. The requirement was immense. The ground training alone was a formidable commitment, for its purpose was to produce not well-drilled automata but highly skilled technicians—men whose training in peacetime had taken as much as seven years. Excellent progress was made, and by April 1940 the number of technical schools had more than doubled compared with September 1939. But the ground training was the least part of the difficulty. The flying training, with its tremendous demands on airfields, aircraft and skilled instructors, and its vital, complex relation to first-line strength and efficiency, was the heart of the problem. And here, in September 1939, there were two task beyond all others which called for attention. The first was to ensure that aircrew posted to squadrons were not merely accustomed to an intermediate type of Service aircraft, but were operationally efficient on the particular aircraft of that squadron with a particular crew for the particular tasks they would have to perform; the crews, in other words, must come to the squadron with much of the knowledge and experience which in peacetime—since squadrons must have something to do in peacetime—they usually picked up when they got there. The second and even greater task was to provide facilities for elementary and Service flying training on a vast scale in some less crowded and vulnerable place than the British Isles.
Both these problems were well on the way to solution by the spring of 1940. The danger of having the squadrons either cluttered up with half-trained aircrew or else waiting for replacements who were queuing for the final stages of their training in the few existing ‘Reserve’ squadrons was averted by the creation of operational training units (O.T.U.s). These large organizations, holding as many as seventy aircraft and maintained economically on a station basis, were highly developed in Bomber Command, where the problem was greatest—and where Ludlow-Hewitt was fully prepared to risk unpopularity in high places by insisting on the need to divert first-line aircraft and skilled crews to the duty of instruction. The system, however, was applied generally throughout the operational Commands, and rapidly proved the key to efficiency in the air.
The other danger, that the earlier stages of flying training would be cramped by enemy action and lack of space, was overcome as Canning’s classical remedy of calling in the New World to redress the
balance of the Old. The Air Ministry had seen the need for this well before the war; indeed, one of the oldest Service Flying Training Schools was at Abu Sueir in Egypt. From 1936 onwards Canada, which enjoyed an ideal strategic position and a convenient proximity to the vast industrial resources of the United States, was repeatedly approached; but the Canadians, largely for domestic reasons, felt unable to accept our proposals, and until the outbreak of war undertook no commitments for the Royal Air Force beyond training fifty Canadian recruits a year. During these years Australian and New Zealand were considered too remote for Royal Air Force training, but both provided trained cadets for service with the Royal Air Force, and shortly before the war New Zealand promised a substantial contribution in trained men. For the rest, Southern Rhodesia had both formed and trained an air unit for work with the Royal Air Force, and was prepared to give hospitality to Royal Air Force training; but only in Kenya, of the Commonwealth territories, was there a school actually planned and in prospect when war broke out.
This picture was transformed in the first weeks of hostilities. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, having taken up their stand at our side, at once set out to develop large Air Forces for service with the Royal Air Force. Very early the decision was taken to make the training of the Dominion aircrews to some extent a common enterprise, and on 17th December 1939 there was signed in Ottawa the agreement which brought into being the great Empire Air Training Scheme. By the terms of this, the United Kingdom was to supply nearly all the aircraft and a nucleus of skilled men, the Dominions all other requirements. Canada, training Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and a small number of pupils from Britain or Newfoundland, would build up thirteen Elementary Flying Training Schools, sixteen Service Flying Training Schools, ten Air Observer Schools, ten Bombing and Gunnery Schools and two Air Navigation Schools. Australia, training her own citizens, would create nine Elementary Flying Training Schools, seven Service Flying Training Schools, four Air Observer Schools and four Bombing and Gunnery Schools. New Zealand, also training her own citizens, would form three Elementary Flying Training Schools and two Service Flying Training Schools. By mid-1942, when the organization would reach full size, it was to be capable of producing no less than 11,000 pilots and 17,000 other aircrew each year.
This assured us of a magnificent flow of trained aircrew who, though members of their own Dominion Air Force, would mostly work in or alongside the Royal Air Force. But it was also necessary to find training space and hospitality overseas for large numbers of
our own men. Here Southern Rhodesia led the way by agreeing to accommodate, administer and partially pay for three Service Flying Training Schools, all of which were to be, in the main, staffed by and run for the Royal Air Force. Then, hard on top of the Ottawa Agreement in December, South Africa offered a share of her expanding training organization to Royal Air Force pupils. At about the same time it was also arranged—with less fruitful results—that five Royal Air Force schools should be built in France.
The opening courses in the first of the new schools in Canada, Australia and New Zealand began on 29th April 1940. As the months went by, it was to become apparent that the early plans, richly conceived as they had been, had far from exhausted the genius of the architects. All the Dominions were to undertake, and to fulfil, much more than they had originally promised—Canada in particular, with mounting pride in the splendid edifice rising before her eyes, was to become an ever more lavish deviser and donor of improvements and additions. Meantime, in April 1940, it was much that the plans had been made and the work begun: that the ardent British boy might learn to handle his Moth and Anson in the space and security of veldt and prairie, and that the stalwart sons of the Dominions, hastening to our aid, would soon need no more than the final experience of the Operational Training Unit before they entered the lists of battle. For in Europe, Time had at last run out. Hitler’s armies were once more on the march.