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Chapter 5: Collapse in the West

At first light on 10th May 1940, while the German columns were streaming westwards across the frontiers of the unfortunate neutrals, the Luftwaffe went into action against some seventy French, Belgian and Dutch airfields. At the same time German airborne forces seized four vital points in the Belgian defences and struck deep into the heart of Holland. The third and most impressive demonstration of the Blitzkrieg had begun.

The event was one for which the Allies had had ample time to prepare. The general direction of the enemy’s attack, through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, as opposed to a frontal assault on the Maginot Line, accorded completely with Allied anticipations. Neatly formulated plans for dealing with the situation were duly available. The necessary orders were at once—or almost at once—given.

The predetermined riposte of the Allied Armies, if the circumstances appeared favourable, was Plan ‘D’ (Dyle). While the troops in Lorraine and Alsace stood ready to repulse any attempt on the Maginot Line, the forces further north, drawn up along the Franco-Belgian frontier, would advance to the line Meuse–Namur–Antwerp. The movement would be smallest on the right, most extensive on the left. The French Second Army, the pivot on the right, would hold the southern exist of the Ardennes; the Ninth Army would move forward to the line of the Meuse from Mézières to Namur; the First Army would hasten into the natural gap between the Meuse at Namur and the Dyle at Wavre; the British Expeditionary Force would travel still faster to gain the Dyle from Wavre to Louvain; and the Seventh Army, on the extreme left, would execute a veritable pas de galop to reach Antwerp and the Dutch islands at the mouth of the Scheldt. Between the British Expeditionary Force and the Seventh Army a gap would thus be left,

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stretching from Louvain to Antwerp. It would be filled by the retiring Belgians, whose resistance along the Albert Canal, their main defence line further forward, was expected to last no more than three or four days.

Compared with standing still on the Franco-Belgian frontier this manoeuvre seemed to offer many advantages. Belgian resistance would be stimulated; the line to be held would be shorter; cover would be given to the French industrial regions of the north-east; and, equally important to both Allies, the enemy would be unable to operate aircraft and submarines from bases in Belgium. These advantages would have been still more convincing had the Belgians and Dutch been prepared to cooperate effectively beforehand, and had there not been that stretch of unbroken, poorly, fortified country around Gembloux, between the Meuse and the Dyle. For the First Army, which was to defend this sector, had to be specially strengthened for the task, just as the Seventh Army, which was to travel farthest, had to be given special treatment in the matter of mechanical transport; and this could be done only by starving the Second and Ninth Armies of such desirable items as guns, tanks, aircraft and lorries, to say nothing of able-bodied young men. Above all it was the Ninth Army which went short; for the Ninth was to hold by far the most easily defended section of the line, the great ravine of the Meuse from Montmédy to Namur—a position of enormous natural strength shielded by the dense woods and narrow tracks of the Ardennes. Through such country, Pétain had once declared, the enemy could never move enough armour and artillery for a major attack. And through such country, the French General Staff reaffirmed in 1940, the enemy could build up a dangerous concentration of force only by fifteen days of intense movement—movement which would certainly be observed ni good time to make the necessary counter-movement of the French reserves.

The tasks of the Royal Air Force in the Dyle manoeuvre, and in the campaign which was expected to follow, had been closely worked out with our ally. Though the home commands would play their part, the main burden would fall on the British Air Force in France, commanded by Air Marshal A. S. Barratt. One of the Barratt’s two subordinate formations, the Royal Air Force Components of the British Expeditionary Force, commanded by Air Vice-Marshal C. H. B. Blount, would cater for the requirements of the British troops. Its five squadrons of Lysanders would be responsible for tactical reconnaissance and photographic survey on the B.E.F. front, its four Blenheim squadrons for strategical reconnaissance beyond the British and Belgian lines as far as the Rhine, its four Hurricane

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squadrons—or six, under the reinforcement plan—for protecting the British troops, bases and reconnaissance aircraft. The other subordinate formation, the Advanced Air Striking Force under the command of Air Vice-Marshal P. H. L. Playfair, had much wider responsibilities. As the French could muster less than one hundred bombers, of which only twenty-five were really modern, the A.A.S.F. was to serve the needs of the whole Allied front. Its ten squadrons of Battle and Blenheim bombers were to attack the advancing German columns, preferably at such natural bottlenecks as bridges and road-junctions, while its two squadrons of Hurricanes—which would be increased to four when the German attack was launched—were to support the bombers and help to defend the area around Rheims, where the A.A.S.F. was based. The original purpose behind the despatch of the A.A.S.F. to France, to bring the short-range bombers within effective striking distance of German industry, was thus in abeyance. The reason for this was partly the urgent need to support the Allied armies, partly the utter helplessness of the Battles before fighter attack of the strength experienced over Germany.1

Though the A.A.S.F. would be able to reach all points of the front, it was expected in the main to support the southern sector. The enemy columns approaching the more northerly sectors would be attacked by the home-based medium bombers—the seven Blenheim squadrons of Bomber Command. In addition, two squadrons of home-based ‘heavy’ bombers—Whitleys—were to operate by night against the German road and rail communications immediately west of the Rhine. These were the bombing forces assigned to the campaign. But though Barratt, working alongside General d’Astier de le Vigerie of the Armée de l’Air at Chauny, could issue direct orders to the A.A.S.F., to Bomber Command he could only address ‘requests’.

The decision to commit the medium bombers to collaboration in the land battle was not taken without certain misgivings on the part of the Air Staff. Still stronger were these feeling at Bomber Command. Two days before the German attack, Air Marshal Portal, who had succeeded Ludlow-Hewitt in April, expressed his fears to the Chief of Air Staff in the most striking terms. ‘I am convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that the proposed employment of these units (the Blenheims of No. 2 Group) is fundamentally unsound, and that if it is persisted in it is likely to have disastrous consequences on the future of the war in the air …’ At the enemy’s chosen moment for the advance, Portal went

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on to urgent, the area concerned would be literally swarming with enemy fighters and we should be lucky to avoid crippling losses. Really accurate bombing under such conditions was not to be expected, and he felt serious doubt whether the attacks of fifty Blenheims, based on information necessarily some hours out of date, were likely to make as much difference to the ultimate course of the war as to justify the losses that he expected them to sustain.

This objection by a Commander on the very eve of a battle to the use proposed for his force may be judged sufficiently remarkable. It was, however, less remarkable than the corresponding fears evinced in the actual operations instructions issued by B.A.F.F. and Bomber Command. These stated that ‘Bomber aircraft have proved extremely useful in support of an advancing army, especially against weak anti-aircraft resistance, but it is not clear that a bomber force used against an advancing army, well supported by all forms of anti-aircraft defence and a large force of fighter aircraft, will be economically effective’. It was thus to a virtually untried course of action, in which those responsible for its execution had far from complete confidence, that something over one half of the British bomber force was committed. Clearly, however, these bombers could not stand idle; and as they could not attack German itself with any prospect of success, and as the Allied armies would certainly need their help, the Air Staff had virtually no alternative but to commit them to collaboration in the land battle.

If there was some misgiving about the proposed employment of the medium bombers there was open controversy about the role of the ‘heavies’. The Wellingtons, Hampdens and remaining Whitleys of Bomber Command—sixteen squadrons in all—were our sole strategic striking force. On these Barratt had no official right of call, though he might request their help in emergency. By May 1940 experience had shown that daylight operations by these aircraft in the fact of fighter opposition would be impossible. Their ability to inflict damage by night, however, was still considered great, and it was with them that the Air Staff hoped to carry out its most cherished project—the great strategic offensive against the industrial capacity, and in particular the oil resources, of German. Soaring beyond the bloody, prodigal clash of the armies, the ‘heavies’ would strike at the very root of the enemy’s capacity to wage war. The French, however, had other ideas, with the result that the winter of 1939/1940 witnessed a sustained and a lively debate between the Allies.

During these months the Air Staff consistently urged that a German invasion of the Low Countries should be the signal for the heavy bombers to attack the Ruhr. Most of the arguments remained

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constant. The heavy bombers had not been designed for work near the battlefield. The Ruhr, the heart of which was no bigger than Greater London, contained an unequalled concentration of industrial objectives, amounting to some sixty per cent of Germany’s vital war plant. The ideal moment to begin the assault on this unique area was when the German violated the neutrality of the Low Countries, for our aircraft could then fly directly across Holland and Belgium, and might reap the full advantages of the brief interval before the Germans set up forward air defences. Moreover, attacks on carefully selected objectives in the Ruhr, in addition to their long-term economic effects, would greatly impede the progress of the German armies into the Low Countries. Not only would the enemy suffer incidental damage to his rear communications: he would also be constrained to hold back fighters and anti-aircraft guns for the protection of the Reich, thereby exposing his advancing armies to the attacks of our medium bombers. These arguments held good whether the favourite project at the moment was to attack general industry and communications in the Ruhr, or, as it finally became, to single out the oil industry in the Ruhr for particular attention.

The French had no effective and reasoned body of air doctrine to oppose to these arguments. Nevertheless, they remained obstinately unconvinced on one point. Whatever the merits of bombing German industry, they entirely doubted whether the correct time to begin this was at the opening of a great land battle. The heavies, they maintained, should drop their bombs somewhat less remote from the front line. And as for the idea that an attack on the Ruhr would impose any immediate or material delay on the advancing enemy (which after all was the vital consideration)—that was fantastic. Our own air leaders, however, could hardly take these opinions at their face value, for they were painfully aware that the views of the French were coloured by an apprehension which was sometimes expressed, sometimes concealed, but never absent. Not to put too fine a point upon it, our Allies were desperately afraid of the Luftwaffe; and in truth the state of their air defences gave them every reason to be. They accordingly opposed any course which could possibly provoke German air action against French cities. Despite certain merits in their general case, the French were thus led into absurdities; for in trying to extend the initial policy of avoiding provocation into the period when the armies came to grips, they were merely shutting their eyes to the general extension of air action that would automatically occur.

There is nothing remarkable in controversies between Allies, but in this particular controversy one feature at least deserves that

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adjective. This was that the French holding such opinions, should ever have agreed—as they finally did in the Supreme War Council on 22nd and 23rd April 1940—that ‘in the event of a German aggression against Holland, or against Belgium, or against both these countries, the British Air Force should be authorized, without further consultation between the Allied governments or the Allied High Commands, immediately to attack marshalling yards and oil refineries in the Ruhr’. Less strange, considering the comparatively untried nature of strategic air bombardment, but also very noteworthy was the fact that neither French nor British based their objections on technical grounds. Both parties considered the British ‘heavy’ bombers—for all that they were only two hundred strong and were compelled to operate by night and navigate largely by dead reckoning—to be capable of accomplishing either of the tasks proposed. For the objection of the Air Staff to the view of the French was not that our heavy bombers would be unable to locate and attack a particular bridge or crossroads near the battlefield, but that they might be doing something much more useful. And the objection of the French to the view of the Air Staff was not that the ‘heavies’ would be unable to locate and attack the oil factories and marshalling yards of the Ruhr, but that such operations would have no immediate effect on the German advance.

Though the objections of the French were overcome—momentarily, as it proved—the way was still far from clear for the Air Staff to apply their plans. The views from which General Gamelin had been so reluctantly weaned were immediately embraced by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who had hitherto favoured the Ruhr project; and the discussion continued with all that ardour which characterizes a debate between two British government departments. Moreover, the War Cabinet was still anxious to restrict air attack to purely military targets, at least until the enemy had himself acted otherwise in the West—even though the sufferings of Warsaw and the Polish villages were held to justify a wider choice of objectives. Not until 8th May was the Air Ministry given definite authority, if the Germans invaded Holland or Belgium, to attempt, by harassing operations at night, to extinguish the lights necessary for the efficient working of the German marshalling yards. As for the main assault against oil or power plants in the Ruhr, this was still not to be launched without express permission from the War Cabinet. Such permission would be given, or withheld, in accordance with the circumstances of the moment, including the extent to which the bombs of the enemy were slaughtering Allied civilians.


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From the Luftwaffe’s opening assault on 19th May the A.A.S.F. and the RAF Component escaped lightly. Nine of the airfields occupied by the British were attacked, but few of our aircraft were destroyed. The Hurricane pilots were at full stretch from first light onwards. ‘A day too crammed with incident to do anything like justice to it’, reported No. 73 Squadron, which, like No. 1, had spent the spring sharpening its claws against enemy fighters along the Franco-German border, and now withdrew to a pre-arranged airfield in the A.A.S.F. area. The verdict was endorsed by No. 501 Squadron, which flew out from England to join the A.A.S.F. in accordance with the reinforcement plan, and was in combat with forty He.111s within an hour of arriving in France. The fighter squadrons with the Component—Nos. 85, 87, 607 and 615—were kept equally busy, some of the pilots putting in as many as six, or even seven sorties before nightfall; and in the evening Group Captain P. F. Fullard, commanding the Component Fighter Group, was able to report ‘I have never seen squadrons so confident of success, so insensible to fatigue and so appreciative of their own aircraft’. During this and the following day these four squadrons were joined by three more Hurricane squadrons (Nos. 3, 79 and 504) from England, so bringing the Royal Air Force fighter squadrons in France up to the promised ten.

While the Hurricanes were taking a tremendous toll of the enemy and protecting the forward movement of the B.E.F., long-range fighters from England were guarding the seaward flank of the Seventh Army and reconnaissance Blenheim were spying out the main lines of the German advance. Meantime Barratt was impatiently awaiting Gamelin’s permission to unleash his bombers against the invading columns. The small hours gave place to mid-morning, but still no word came—for the Generalissimo clung with supreme obstinacy to the hope that a ‘bombing war’ would somehow be avoided. Tiring of this unseemly delay, at midday Barratt took matters into his own hands and ordered Playfair to send off the first waves of Battles. Their target was a German column reported by a French reconnaissance aircraft some hours earlier as advancing through Luxembourg.

The first attack was a fair sample of what was in store for the Battles. Since the defensive armament of these aircraft was limited to one gun firing forward and one gun firing aft, it was clear that they might fall easy prey to enemy fighters. After the unfortunate reconnaissance missions over the German border in September 1939, efforts had indeed been made to add a ‘free’ gun underneath, but though various mountings had been tried none had proved entirely

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satisfactory. When the Battles went into action on 10th May, they were thus known to be still extremely vulnerable to fighter attack from below. Unfortunately this weakness could not be countered by close fighter escort, for there were not enough Hurricanes to provide more than a brief offensive patrol over the target area. The pilots were accordingly ordered to make a very low approach to the target, and to attack at 250 feet, using bombs fused for eleven seconds’ delay.

The orders were carried out. But a storm of machine gun and small arms fire rose from the German columns, and three of the first eight crews were at once shot down. No better fate attended their comrades who attacked during the afternoon. Of the thirty-two Battles despatched that day, thirteen were lost and all the rest damaged—a severe price for operations whose effect on the enemy advance was negligible.

Though there were already clear indications that important enemy thrusts were developing through Luxembourg and Belgium, the black spot of this first day seemed to the position in Holland. The Dutch had not been caught unawares, and their vigorous action had frustrated the airborne attempt against The Hague. The Germans, however, retained a grip on a number of important airfields, including those at Waalhaven, near Rotterdam, and Ypenburg, near The Hague. Requests for Royal Air Force action accordingly soon flowed in. In response to these the War Cabinet, fearing that some of our bombs might miss their mark and kill friendly civilians, would at first permit attack by fighters only; and at midday six Blenheims of No. 600 Squadron, Fighter Command, duly swept down on Waalhaven. They had barely delivered their attack when they were pounced on by a dozen Me. 110s, and one pilot alone returned to Manston to give an account of the operation. Blenheim bombers were then employed against the same target, with better success.

The attempt to shake the German hold on Waalhaven was continued during the night by thirty-six Wellingtons of Bomber Command. Portal would certainly have preferred to send them against the oil plants and marshalling yards of the Ruhr, but the Luftwaffe seemed to be operating against military targets in the narrowest sense, and the War Cabinet would not yet sanction attacks which were bound to result in the death of German civilians. Action by the two squadrons of Whitleys under Barratt’s control against communications in German west of the Rhine was not, however, ruled out; for though the Germans were expected to react violently against damage to their towns east of the Rhine, they would doubtless appreciate the military necessity of attacks west of the river. After the French High

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Command had once more made clear its reluctance to bombard urban targets, nine Whitleys accordingly departed to attack roads, railways and bridges in and near four German towns on the enemy’s route to southern Holland. Doubtless the occasional crash of a five hundred-pounder was very alarming that night to the inhabitants of Geldern, Goch, Cleave and Wesel. The onyl regret at Barratt’s headquarters was that the alarm could not be greater.

By 11th May the pattern of the enemy’s advance was becoming clearer. Apart from the situation in Holland, which grew more critical every hour, two main thrusts were developing. One was aimed through the Ardennes; the other further north, through Maastricht towards Brussels. The first was fully reported by French reconnaissance aircraft, but the second accorded more with the preconceived ideas of the French High Command. It was therefore on the second that attention was mainly focused. And certainly the threat in this direction appeared serious enough; for the Germans, thanks to the west of Maastricht, were already over the Albert Canal, and there was grave doubt whether the Belgians could hold on long enough to cover the Allied advance to the Dyle.

Throughout the morning of 11th Blenheim of the RAF Component flew repeated sorties to establish the strength of the enemy drive through Maastricht. By midday three aircraft had been lost and two damaged out of eight despatched. As German fighters were over the area in such force it was then decided to risk no further reconnaissance; but later in the day urgent French requests led to another Blenheim to reconnoitre the Albert Canal. Not unexpectedly it failed to return. In spite of this two Bomber Command Blenheim squadrons (Nos. 21 and 110) attacked enemy troops and communications along this line of advance during the afternoon; most of the aircraft returned safely to their bases, but in No. 21 Squadron eight out of twelve were severely damaged by fire from the ground. During the night thirty-six ‘heavies’ of Bomber Command carried on the work by attacking the exits of the West German town of München-Gladbach—for the War Cabinet still refused to sanction operations against the Ruhr.

Against the more southerly thrust only one operation was undertaken on 11th May Eight Battles of Nos. 88 and 218 Squadrons were ordered to deliver a low-level attack on a column in German territory moving up towards the Luxembourg border. Whether they managed to reach their target area is doubtful. The only pilot to return saw three of his companions succumb to ground fire in the Ardennes.

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By 12th May the b of the Franco-British forces had gained their chosen line. To General Georges, the commander of the entire north-eastern front, the enemy movement through Maastricht still appeared the greatest threat and it was in accordance with his wishes that Barratt now concentrated against this axis of advance. At dawn the British air commander sent off nine A.A.S.F. Blenheims of No. 139 Squadron to attack a column on the road from Maastricht to Tongres. Running into the swarms of fighters previously reported over the area, they lost all but two of their number—a disaster which ended the life of the A.A.S.F. Blenheims as a useful force before it had begun, for the other squadron (No. 114) had been virtually destroyed on its airfield the previous day.

A grim task now faced the Battles. Ever since the early hours of 10th May the Belgians had been striving to remedy the initial disaster of the bridges over the Albert Canal. Counter-attacks had made no headway; shell-fire had produced no result; and aircraft had succeeded only in inflicting some slight damage one one bridge of prohibitive cost. The Belgians then appealed to the Allies, and, after French aircraft had fared no better, the Royal Air Force too its turn. Since the ever-increasing strength of the German defences made any further attempt against the bridges almost suicidal, Barratt took an exceptional step. He instructed Playfair to despatch six Battles manned by volunteer crews. Protective patrols were to be flown over the area by Hurricanes of both A.A.S.F. and Component, but again there was no attempt to supply close escort.

When No. 12 Squadron—the ‘Dirty Dozen’, in the playful language of the Service—learned that they had been chosen for the task all the pilots present at once volunteered. The briefing officer then asked the six pilots next on the duty roster if they were prepared to go. They were; and their normal crews went with them. Three were detailed to attack the concrete bridge at Vroenhoven, on the Maastricht-Tongres road, the other three the metal bridge a mile or two farther north at Veldwezelt, on the Maastricht-Hasselt road. The bridges were alike in size—370 feet long, 30 feet wide—but the concrete structure was less likely to be affected by the Battles’ 250-pound bombs.

When the six aircraft came to take off, the wireless in one refused to function. The crew promptly transferred to another aircraft, only to find its hydraulics unserviceable. Five machines eventually left Amifontaine. Before they departed the leaders of the two sections, Flying Officer N. M. Thomas and Flying Officer D. E. Garland, had what Thomas has described as ‘a rather heated discussion’. ‘Garland was determined’, wrote Thomas, ‘to carry out a low-level attack

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The German assault in the 
west, May–June, 1940

The German assault in the west, May–June, 1940

thinking it not only the best form, but the safest. I was set on high dive and tried to persuade him to do likewise. My parting words to him were “it will be interesting to see the result, and may we both by lucky enough to return”.’

The results were indeed interesting, for they were invested with all that poignancy which surrounds the death of the young and the brave. Thomas and the other pilot of his section, Pilot Officer T. D. H. Davy, approached the Vroenhoeven bridge above 7/10th cloud, ran into enemy fighters, dived from 6,000 feet through a storm of flak, and nearly blew themselves up with the last of their bombs. For a few minutes Thomas managed to keep his batter aircraft going; then, as the engine failed, he touched down to a fairly smooth landing. Unfortunately it was within 150 yards of a German convoy. Under a hail of fire he emerged and negotiated a surrender, while the wireless-operator stood imperturbably by his gun awaiting orders to open up on the enemy Davy’s machine, also riddled, travelled farther. Ordering his crew to bale out, he succeeded in coaxing the aircraft almost back to base before it crashed. Between them these two pilots slightly damaged the bridge and cratered the approaches.

Meanwhile Garland’s section had headed for the metal bridge at Veldwezelt. Garland, a coldly determined youngster of twenty-one, was resolved to let nothing interfere with his aim. But cloud base was at 1,000 feet. As he approached the target he accordingly radioed back to his No. 2 and 3, Pilot Officer I. A. McIntosh and Sergeant Marland, to set the fuse setting control at ‘11 seconds delay’; he was going in ‘low level’. Through the growing volume if flak the three swept towards their objective. Then, with flames pouring from his machine, McIntosh aimed his bombs and crashed. Pulled from the burning wreck by his crew, he was soon listening to a lecture delivered with full Teutonic solemnity: ‘You British are made. We capture the bridge early Friday morning. You give us all Friday and Saturday to get our flak guns up in circles all round the bridge, and then on Sunder, when all is ready, you come along with three aircraft and try and blow the thing up.’ His captor refused to reveal whether the bridge was damaged, but McIntosh noted with satisfaction that the lorry which bore him to five years’ captivity made a detour and crossed the canal by another route.

McIntosh’s bombs had been dropped in desperation from a burning aircraft. It is unlikely that they hit the target. But either Garland or his No. 3—and all the available scraps of evidence indicate that it was Garland—found the mark; for though the Battles lay broken and burning on the ground, the western truss of the bridge hung shattered in the air. From the ditch in which he was hiding, McIntosh saw one

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of these two aircraft trying to fight its way back. ‘Then it suddenly stood on its tail, climbed vertically for about 100 feet, stalled, and nose-dived to earth.’ At a cost of five machines out of five, and four crews killed or captured, No. 12 Squadron had achieved half its allotted task.

For their valour in ensuring success even at the sacrifice of their lives, Garland and his observer, Sergeant T. Gary, an ex-aircraft apprentice from Halton, were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. This was the first occasion during the war on which a member of the Royal Air Force won the supreme recognition. Since Victoria Crosses are distributed sparingly, and there was no other appropriate honour which might be conferred on a dead man, the third member of the crew, Leading Aircraftman L. R. Reynolds, the wireless-operator/air-gunner, received no award. Let his name than at least stand recorded with those of his companions, in tribute not only to himself but to all the ‘part-time; air crew of the early days of the war—the men who forsook the safety of the ground for the love of flying, and whose efforts were rewarded by the princely addition of a daily eighteen pence to their pay.

While the Battles were attacking the bridges over the Albert Canal immediately west of Maastricht, Bomber Command was concentrated against the bridges over the Maas in the old town itself. Officially, these had already been ‘demolished’ by the Dutch; but an Allied demolition in 1940, carried out with the utmost respect for neighbouring property and the future possibilities of reconstruction, was a very different matter from a German demolition in 1944, and the bridges were already under repair. No serious damage was done by our aircraft, and ten out of the twenty-four Blenheims failed to return. But an evening operation against the road exits as Hasselt and Tongres was more successful; and the day’s work, costly as it was, evoked a signal from Georges thanking Barratt for delaying the German advance and relieving the situation. The Germans, too, were impressed. ‘Great destruction by enemy bombing at Maastricht,’ confided General Halder, the Chief of Staff at German Army Supreme Headquarters, to his diary that evening.

The pressure through Maastricht may have appeared to slacken. That through the Ardennes was obviously increasing. Before the end of the day the A.A.S.F., called on to operate once more in this region, had lost six out of fifteen Battles in attacks near Bouillon. Again the French High Command signalled its appreciation, reporting that the British bombers had saved the position. But it was not to be saved for long, for the effect of bombing bridges and troop columns is inevitably brief unless the ground forces can follow up the air attacks,

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or the bombing can be repeated as often as necessary. Determined action on the part of the ground forces there was not to be. As for the Battles, these could obviously no continue to suffer a rate of less which, taking no account of aircraft merely damaged, was forty per cent of sorties on 10th May, one hundred per cent on 11th May and sixty-two per cent on 12th May.

On 10th May there had been 135 bombers serviceable in the A.A.S.F. By the close of 12th May this number had dwindled to 72. So it was not surprising that during the evening Barratt received a less welcome message than those from Georges. ‘I am concerned’, signalled the Chief of the Air Staff, ‘at the heavy losses incurred by the medium bombers … I must impress on you that we cannot continue indefinitely at this rate of intensity … If we expend all our efforts in the early stages of the battle we shall not be able to operate effectively when the really critical phase comes …’ The following day—13th May—Barratt accordingly made no call on the Blenheims. The Battles he despatched on only one small operation, during which No. 226 Squadron brought a factory down over a cross-roads near Breda. According to the French this helped the Seventh Army, which was now retreating even faster than it had advanced, to take up new positions in safety.

It was while the medium bombers were being rested that von Kleist broke through the French line of defence along the Meuse. In theory this should have been impossible; in practice it was accomplished with the utmost ease. For the enemy, well aware of the difficulties of bringing any great force of artillery through the Ardennes with the necessary speed, set about the task of forcing a crossing of the Meuse by other means. If German guns could not dominate the river, the dismayed defenders with that fury of personal hostility which distinguishes the dive-bomber. It was all too simple. The Ninth Army, barely established its line, and with only a handful of fighters, very few anti-aircraft guns, indifferent troops, and artillery drawn by horses, was the ideal target. The troops went to ground, the horses were killed, the guns stuck fast, and in a few hours the Germans were across. The Second Army, attacked at its junction with the Ninth, was at first overwhelmed, but rallied later. So began the legend of the Stuka. And so began the severance of the Allied armies and the German drive towards the Channel.

The textbook remedy, apart from a counter-attack by what little was immediately available, was now for the French to throw their reserves into the battle. But these reserves consisted of only one Army Headquarters without troops, and a few poorly equipped divisions;

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everything else had been put into the front line. It was therefore essential to pull units out of the Maginot Lien, where the pressure was slight, and rush them north. The Maginot troops, however, were not ‘mobile’: their speed would be that of the French railways. This fact was fully appreciated by the Germans, who now directed most of their 2,000 long-range bombers against communications, and in particular the railways leading from eastern to northern France. When the French strove to hasten towards the fatal gap, they found their power of movement destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

The enemy had forced the Meuse in strength at two points. One was at Houx, a few miles north of Dinant; the other, farther south, was at Sedan—a name which for the third time in seventy years struck chill into French hearts. The news in all its full gravity was reported to Barratt during the late evening of 13th May. Before midnight he warned Playfair not only that the A.A.S.F. would be required to operate at full strength the following day, but that he should also prepare plans for retirement.

The events of 14th May determined both of the A.A.S.F. and of the campaign. In the early morning ten Battles of Nos. 103 and 150 Squadrons pinpointed the German pontoon bridges in the neighbourhood of Sedan and attacked them without loss—for no enemy fighters were encountered, and the tactical low approach had now been abandoned. It was then in Barratt’s mind to attack the bridgehead near Dinant; but before he could do this he was called on by the French High Command for a supreme effort at Sedan, where the ground forces massing for counter-attack had been rudely scattered. Arrangements were accordingly made for the whole strength of the Allied bombers in France to be hurled against the Sedan bridgehead in a series of waves, and soon after noon the few French aircraft available went into action. Attacking bridges and columns of troops, they suffered losses so severe that their remaining operations for the day were cancelled. Then came the turn of the A.A.S.F. Between 1500 and 1600 hours the entire force of available Battles and Blenheims was flung against the same objectives. But the Me.109s absent in the morning, were now on guard. No. 12 Squadron lost four aircraft out of five; No. 105 Squadron, six out of eleven; No. 150 Squadron, four out of four; No. 139 Squadron, four out of six; No. 218 Squadron, ten out of eleven. In all, from the seventy-one bombers which took off, forty did not return. No higher rate of loss in an operation of comparable size has even been experienced by the Royal Air Force.

The day’s work was not yet done. In the evening twenty-eight Bomber Command Blenheims continued the attack. They

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encountered fewer Me.109s than the Battles, and their own fighter protection was stronger. Their losses were accordingly less severe, though at twenty-five per cent of sorties they were bad enough.

These suicidal efforts were not without effect. The evidence of captured prisoners testified to the alarm and fatigue produced by the bombing, and the French High Command entertained a momentary belief that the air assault, coupled with a counter-attack by the Second Army, had saved the situation. During the evening Georges informed Barratt that the air action had slowed down reinforcement of the foremost German troops, and had enabled the French counter-attack to contain the bridgehead. By the following day, Georges thought, the ‘centre of interest’ would have shifted to the Dinant area. He was sadly wrong, though the interest at Dinant was to be real enough. At Sedan the German merely paused for a few hours. Then they brushed aside whatever was still in their path and their joy-ride across France.


While the wrecks of the Battles lay strewn about the valleys of the Ardennes, events were moving to their climax in Holland. The Dutch had always refused to concert plans in advance with the Allies; their country, apart from the islands at the mouth of the Scheldt, was beyond our chosen line of defence; and we had never expected that their resistance could last more than four or five days. Gallantly though they had fought, and heavy as were the losses they had inflicted on the invaders, they had failed to dislodge the German airborne forces from Waalhaven airfield and the great Moerdjik bridge—the key to ‘Fortress Holland’. Simultaneously punched in the face and stabbed in the back, the Dutch put up a brave but inevitably brief struggle. By the evening of 13th May their Air Force was virtually destroyed, Queen Wilhelmina was abroad a British destroyer, and the position was everywhere desperate.

It was to speed the inevitable admission of defeat that during the following afternoon some forty Ju.87s delivered a systematic bombardment of Rotterdam, while negotiations for the surrender of the town were still in progress. There was opposition neither in the air nor from the ground, and the bombing, conducted in a leisurely fashion from 100–200 feet, was a bitter lesson in the potentialities of air supremacy. With the water low in the canals from the dry weather and the main supply pipe quickly severed, the old town was soon as raging inferNo. The most densely built-up square mile of the city was devastated, 20,000 buildings destroyed, 78,000 people rendered

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homeless and nearly 1,000 inhabitants killed. The following morning, except in the Zeeland province, the Dutch forces were ordered to lay down their arms.

The destruction of Rotterdam settled not only the question of further resistance in Holland, but also the question of how far the German Air Force was respecting civilian life and property. When on 15th May the War Cabinet once more considered the propriety of attacking the Ruhr, its remaining doubts had vanished, and the Air Staff was at last given the signal to go ahead. Of the many benefits that this decision was expected to bring, the greatest would be the anticipated effect on the German Air Force; for German air superiority had so paralysed the French ground forces that some diversion of the enemy bombers from their present objectives was imperative. If the Royal Air Force raided the Ruhr, destroying oil plants with its more accurately placed bombs and urban property with those that went astray, the outcry for retaliation against Britain might prove too strong for the German generals to resist. Indeed, Hitler himself would probably head the clamour. The attack on the Ruhr, in other words, was an informal invitation to the Luftwaffe to bomb London.

The decision to bombard objectives in the Ruhr brought in its train a further ruling of great importance. This concerned the despatch of British fighter squadrons to France—a matter on which so many inaccurate statements have since been made, on both sides of the Channel, that it is as well to set set out the facts in detail. Before the war we had agree to base four of our fighter squadrons in France. These had duly flown out in September 1939. The, in the quiet months before the German attack, we had sent two more; and at the same time, in response to pressure from the French, we had undertaken to bring the total up to ten when the enemy offensive was launched—for until the Germans were inextricably committed against France their opening move might well have been the dreaded ‘knock-out blow’ against England. This promise had been fulfilled on 10th and 11th May, and ten squadrons of Hurricanes were now fighting desperately in France against great odds. Their performance was magnificent, and the enemy was suffering heavy losses, but they were obviously far too few. The campaign was not many hours old when Barratt, Blount and Gort accordingly with one voice besought more fighters, and on 13th May thirty-two Hurricanes and pilots—the equivalent of two squadrons—flew out to join the Component. The next day the full extent of the disaster on the Meuse became clear, and French demands took on a new note of urgency. ‘You were kind enough,’ telephoned M. Reynaud, ‘to send four squadrons [i.e. the

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four reinforcing squadrons sent on the 10th and 11th], which is more than you promised; but if we are to win this battle, which might be decisive for the whole war, it is necessary to send at once, if possible today, ten more squadrons.’ Immediate reinforcement on this scale was of course impracticable, and for the moment no promises were made. Pending a final decision, however, the Chief of Air Staff was instructed to make all necessary preparations for despatching the squadrons.

This at once brought Dowding up from Fighter Command to plead against any further weakening of our air defences. However great the need on the Continent, and however tempting the opportunity to send our fighters where there were certainly large numbers of German bombers to be shot down, Hurricanes abroad could not fight as effectively as Hurricanes at home. For though we have built a few radar stations in the North of France, the apparatus as yet worked poorly overland, and the basis of the warning system was still the French observer posts, supplemented by our own ‘wireless intelligence screen’.2 If the drain of fighters to France continued, Dowding could only visualize his forces ‘bled white and in no conditions to withstand the bombing attack which will inevitably be made on this country as soon as our powers of resistance fall below a level to which we are already perilously close’. Everything for which he had fought, all that he had striven so painfully to build up, was in jeopardy. The military leaders might see in France the decisive struggle which would determine the war, but Dowding’s eyes were fixed nearer home. For while Britain survived unconquered the Allied cause was not lost; and while Fighter Command retained its strength, Britain survived unconquered the Allied cause was not lost; and while Fighter Command retained its strength, Britain might still survive.

In response to his own request Dowding appeared before the War Cabinet on 15th May. His arguments prevailed. A meeting, as he saw it, originally hostile to his opinions, was converted to his viewpoint, and to his ‘inexpressible relief’, it was decided for the moment to send no more fighter squadrons to France. And this was the necessary counterpart of the decision to attack the Ruhr; for we could not with good sense at once invite German to attack London and at the same time divest ourselves of our means of defence. Indeed, this close relation between the two subjects had already prompted Dowding to recommend to the Air Staff ‘an immediate assumption of the air offensive against Germany, and particularly her oil supplies’. For he was determined to fight his battle—in his opinion the one decisive battle—over England, not France; and this he could do only if the

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Germans attacked England before Fighter Command had been offered up on the altar of Anglo-French solidarity.

After the intensity of the struggle to persuade the War Cabinet, the Army and the French that the heavy bombers would be best employed against the Ruhr, the result of their operations came as something of an anti-climax. On the night of 15/16th May, ninety-six Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens took off for objectives east of the Rhine. Seventy-eight were directed against oil plants. Only twenty-four of the crews even claimed to have found them.

The following day our bombing policy was again in the melting pot. The Prime Minister had hastened across to France to protest against withdrawals executed, as it seemed to the War Cabinet, ‘on account of the penetration of the French line by a force of some 120 German Armoured Fighting Vehicles’. Finding out the real situation, he accepted the French view that our night bombing should be concentrated against the crossings of the Meuse. From then onwards the effort of the heavies was either divided, or else pursued an uneasy alternation, between the objectives east of the Rhine favoured by the Air Staff and the objectives east of the Rhine favoured by the Air Staff and the objectives nearer the battle proposed by the French. At Hamburg and Bremen, where the lines of the coast and the relatively clear atmosphere made identification easier, our bombers did some damage, but they were repeatedly baffled by the industrial haze of the Ruhr. No better results were achieved against the crossings of the Meuse, where the general unsuitability of the targets for night attack was increased by the mist which invariably shrouded the river valley. In sum, during the next few nights the heavy bombers achieved none of their objects. Industrial damage was negligible; whatever delay was inflicted on the German Army was insignificant; not a single German fighter or anti-aircraft gun was withdrawn from the Western front to protect the Reich; and not a single German bomber was diverted from attacking the French armies and their communications to reply to the provocation from England. The assault on the Ruhr, most cherished of all Air Staff projects, was a failure. The conception had been admirable; the timing doubtful; the available means utterly inadequate.

A fresh bombing programme for the ‘heavies’ was not the only consequence of the Prime Minister’s visit to France. Early on 16th May the War Cabinet had decided, in spite of the impression made by Dowding the previous day, to send four of the extra ten fighter squadrons requested by Reynaud. This reinforcement, in the form of eight half squadrons with only a few key ground staff, left to join the Component within a few hours. Meanwhile from Paris Mr. Churchill now telegraphed to urge that six more squadrons, to make

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up Reynaud’s requirement of ten, should be at once despatched across the Channel. Late that night the War Cabinet met to consider the demand. By that time, however, Sir Cyril Newall had been in communication with B.A.F.F. The Chief of Air Staff was thus able to point out to the political leaders that our bases in northern France could accommodate only three more squadrons, and to make this should be sent over to operate from France in the mornings, and that another three should relieve them in the afternoons—a proposal which brought six squadrons into action yet committed none of them so fully that they would be lost in a French débàcle. This scheme was applied during the next three days. After that the approach of the Germans to the Channel coast at once prevented the use of bases in northern France and at the same time enabled fighter patrols to be flown over the battle area from southern England.

By 16th May the A.A.S.F. bases astride the Aisne were threatened by the German breakthrough. Fortunately the force had somewhere to go. An extensive scheme of airfield construction had been undertaken by the Royal Air Force and the Army during the quiet months before the German attack, and a number of grass landing ground were almost ready tin the south Champagne, around Troyes. A withdrawal south to this district would place not only the Aisne but the Marne between the Germans and the British units. Such an order, however, would be easier to give than obeyed; for the A.A.S.F., until Barratt’s urgent representations during the winter months, had been regarded as a static body well protected by the Maginot Line, and its transport resources were still hopelessly insufficient for a simultaneous move of the kind now required. Six hundred vehicles short even of its official complement, the Force would have been crippled but for two pieces of good fortunate. In the first place the Germans made no serious attempt to cross the Aisne, but held the river as their left flank while they pressed across France to the Channel coast. This meant that once the few units north of the Aisne had been withdrawn, the A.A.S.F. had ample time to complete its move and salvage the equipment that would otherwise have been left behind. In the second place three hundred new American lorries were borrowed from the French, and, in spite of protestations, retained until the final evacuation. How the Air Attaché and his colleagues in Paris were able to persuade our Allies, who could not move their own reserves for lack of transport, to part up with so valuable a prize is something of a mystery—but there was always much more war material in France than ever found its way to the front line. Be that as it may, the lorries proved a godsend. They would, however, have

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been still more useful had the drivers, hastily flown out from England known anything of their workings, or of France, or of the A.A.S.F. locations, and had someone not loaded all the starting handles, jacks and tools into one of the lorries and sent them down to the west coast under the impression that they were unwanted spares.

The French lorries were one part of the answer to the problem of making the A.A.S.F. mobile. The other part was the drastic expedient of ‘rolling up’ four of the ten bomber squadrons. The selection was easy. Two of the Battle squadrons—Nos. 105 and 208—had only four aircraft left between them; these and the surviving crews were transferred to the other Battle squadrons. The two Blenheim squadrons (Nos. 114 and 139) had between them nine aircraft; these joined the reconnaissance Blenheims of the Component. Thus reduced, the A.A.S.F. continued the fight at a strength of six Battle and three Hurricane squadrons. It was this combination of contraction and extra transport which enabled the force to carry out three further withdrawals during the remaining weeks of the campaign and finally to escape from the west coast.

The A.A.S.F. had barely reached safety when danger loomed before the Component. With the Ninth Army shattered on the Meuse, the First Army on its left could only retreat towards the Escaut, and the B.E.F. was forced to conform. By 17th May the most advanced Component units were being withdrawn westwards, and land-line communications with Barratt’s headquarters—south of the enemy penetration, like the A.A.S.F.—had already gone. Still the Panzers rolled on unchecked, and by 19th May Gort, Blount and the Air Ministry were in agreement that the Component could operate as effectively, and with a great deal more security, from the south of England. First the reconnaissance aircraft left, then the fighters. By the evening of 21st May a few Lysanders of No. 4 Squadron assigned to G.H.Q. were the only Component aircraft left in France.

The evacuation of the Component was carried out with such haste that most of its equipment and stores fell intact into the hands of the enemy. One loss was especially grievous. The equivalent of thirteen Hurricane squadrons, plus replacements, amount in all to 261 aircraft, had operated with the Component; 75 had been destroyed and ‘written-off’; but only 66 returned to England. The balance of 120 consisted of damaged machines which could not be repaired in time for them to be flown back to this country. The cost of ten days’ operations in northern France was thus 195 Hurricanes. This loss of something like a quarter of Britain’s entire strength in modern fighters was bad enough. It would have been far worse but for the

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good sense of Newall and the obduracy of Dowding in resisting the demands of the French.

While a new ‘Back Component’ Headquarters was forming at Hawkinge, near Folkstone, the Battles of the A.A.S.F. continued the attack against enemy communications. But they now operated mainly by night, and with few losses. That so radical a change was possible reflected the greatest credit on those who had earlier persisted, in spite of many accidents, in an ambitious programmes of night training. Flying and landing a Battle by night was no easy task—there was a brilliant glare from the exhaust which dazzled the pilot, and the view from the observer’s seat was poor—but those difficulties which were not overcome were ignored, and there was an immediate and dramatic decline in the casualty rate. During the intense daylight operations of 10th–14th May, one aircraft had been lost in every two sorties; during the night operations of 20th May–4th June the loss was just over one in every two hundred. In this the Battles confirmed what the experiences of the ‘heavies’, whose average loss was about two per cent, had already demonstrated—that as our bombers could not survive in daylight against enemy fighters, and as we had no good long-range fighters to provide escort, our long-range bombing must be done under cover of darkness, or not at all. Such a policy, however, was by no means all gain, for safety could only be achieved at the expense of accuracy. In fact, so many Battle crews now dropped their bombs with no more precise identifications of their target than that provided by their watches, that Barratt was compelled to forbid bombing on ‘estimated time of arrival’. After that the phrase ceased to appear in the pilots’ reports. The practice, however, continued.

By 21st Mat the enemy panzers, keeping the Aisne and the Somme on their left flank, had reached Abbeville and were wheeling north along the Channel coast. The Allied armies in the north, completely isolated and already hard-pressed on front and flank, were thus also being hemmed in from the rear. Clearly the situation demanded some action to close the gap between the two groups of armies, either by those in the north fighting their way south, or by those in the south fighting their way north, or by each advancing to meet the other. That this was the correct course in theory there could be no doubt; but only those furthest from the battle believed that it was possible in practice. Weygand, recalled from the Middle East to assume mantle of Gamelin, was at the moment strong for the plan. So, too, was the boldest and stoutest heart of all. Others may not have known their own minds, but unquestionably the Prime Minister did. When the War Cabinet met on 19th May it agreed that the B.E.F. should be directed to move southwards upon Amens, attacking all enemy

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forces encountered, and to take stand on the left of the French Army.

When this order reached G.H.Q. it was received aghast. Commanded to thrust his forces into the very jaws of the German armoured divisions, Gort promised to do his best to mount a counter-attack in due course, but made it clear that a general fighting withdrawal to the south-west was (in the language of his printed despatch) ‘entirely impossible until the situation had been retrieved on the front of the French First Army’. Disappointed in Gort, the Prime Minister tried Reynaud. ‘Salvation (of the northern armies)’, he telegraphed, ‘can only be obtained by immediate execution of Weygand’s plan. I demand that French commanders in North and South and Belgian G.Q.G. be given most stringent orders to carry this out and turn defeat in to victory’. But a lion-like resolution in Downing Street could not now alter the facts of the battlefield. On 24th May the Belgians, between the B.E.F. and the sea, were heavily attacked by infantry and aircraft; forced from the B.E.F., they obliged Gort to extend his left with the two divisions earmarked for an attack to the south. Meanwhile the enemy forces which had turned north from Abbeville were eating their way along the coast, Boulogne fell, Calais was surrounded. The French First Army, so far from striking south, began to retire north. The armies along the Somme and Aisne, thin and poorly equipped, made no move to strike across the gap to the rescue of their comrades. The game was up. On 26th May Gort was given permission ‘to operate towards the coast forthwith in conjunction with the French and Belgian armies’. Thenceforth the hopes of 200,000 men, and a nation, centred on Dunkirk.

During these desperate days, when fantastic and incredible disasters shook established habits of thought to their foundations, the Air Staff were compelled to modify a principle of more than twenty years’ standing. From the war of 1914–1918 they had deduced that the correct employment for the fighter in offence was not to furnish escort to the bomber but to sweep the air clear of the enemy. Only thus, it seemed, could the basic canon of the successful air warfare—the relentless concentration on the offensive—be observed; for systematic escort would demand vast numbers of fighters beyond those needed for territorial defence, and if these were provided there would be little chance of building up the great bomber force without which victory would be unattainable.; Ideally, the bomber force should be able to look after itself; and if it obviously could not, like the Battle and Blenheim, it should have the air swept clear over the target area, but not expect to travel under heavy protective guard the whole way. This system, in which undoubtedly was enshrined much truth—the

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offensive fighter patrol over the battle area is still one of the keys to tactical air superiority—was now, in the special circumstances of a great numerical inferiority, proving an unqualified failure. Half a dozen Hurricanes might perform prodigies of valour over the target area, but they could hardly be expected to sweep the air clear when they always encountered twenty or thirty Me.109s. Indeed, as often as not they simply advertised the forthcoming arrival of our bombers. This was already becoming plain when on 17th May No. 82 Squadron, Bomber Command, was ordered to attack German columns near Gembloux. Hurricanes were over the target area, but the bombers were caught en route by fifteen Me.109s. Eleven of the twelve Blenheims were shot down, and only the exceptional determination of the squadron commander, Wing Commander the Earl of Bandon, prevented the temporary disbandment of the squadron. Within forty-eight hours, in fact, Bandon had scraped together enough crews and new machines to lead six aircraft in a night operation.

Clearly a repetition of this sort of disaster could not be risked. Newall’s first reaction was accordingly to confine the medium bombers, like the ‘heavies’, to operations by night. Then the full extent of the threat to the B.E.F. became clear, and the decision was at once reversed. Daylight attacks from England were to continue; but unless good cloud cover could be relied upon, the bombers were to have strong and close protection. However extravagant, however defensively-minded it might appear, escort was henceforth the rule. And since the battle was now moving within the range of Fighter Command, the rule could be applied—even if it jeopardized still more of Dowding’s precious squadrons.

The development of fighter escort, so vital to the success of the operations that were now to ensue, supplemented, not superseded, offensive patrols. While escorted Blenheims, aided on occasion by Lysanders and even a few ancient Hectors, hammered away by day at the immediate threat to the B.E.F., fighter patrols were scouring the air over the Channel ports. And by night, while the A.A.S.F. and the ‘heavies’ attacked the enemy’s supply lines further afield, Blenheim fighters of No. 604 Squadron continued the patrol over the Pas de Calais. From 22nd May onwards something like two hundred fighter sorties a day were flown from England over northern France. As the main force of German armour reached this area it perceived a sharp difference. ‘For the first time now,’ noted General Halder in his diary on 24th May, ‘enemy air superiority has been reported by Kleist.’ ‘Enemy fighter resistance,’ recorded the War Diary of the German XIX Corps on the same day, ‘was so strong that our own air reconnaissance was practically impossible.’ But still the pressure

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grew; and soon Dowding was forced to draw upon his most treasured possessions of all, the carefully husbanded Spitfires. The whole resources of Fighter Command were being sucked inexorably into the battle. The life-blood of Britain’s air defence was ebbing away in the skies of France.


While hope was entertained for the best, preparations were wisely made for the worse. On 19th May, that fateful Sunday which saw the order to Gort to fight his way south, the War Office and Admiralty had begun to discuss the ‘possible but unlikely evacuation of a very large force in hazardous circumstances’. It was decided that such an operation, to which the codename ‘Dynamo’ was given, should be prepared, and if necessary, executed, by Vice Admiral Ramsay at Dover. As a result of the measures which followed, Boulogne was successfully evacuated on May 23rd/24th; the heroic garrison of Calais, too, could have been saved had the British Government not decided, in the greater interest of the Allied armies south of Dunkirk, that it must fight to the death. There was thus an organization in being, though as yet without anything like adequate forces at its disposal, when at 1857 hours on 26th May, Ramsay was ordered to start up ‘Dynamo’.

Obviously the devotion and skill of the Royal Navy, coupled with that of the merchant seamen and amateur yachtsmen, was the prime factor in ensuring the success of the Dunkirk operation. But there were others of greater importance which are apt to be overlooked. Even Rundstedt (backed by Hitler) played a part; for as a result of his pre-occupation with the forthcoming offensive against the French armies south of the Somme, coupled with his fear of risking tank formations in an areas protected by canals and inundations, the main force of German armour was for three days held back. ‘The left wing,’ recorded the infuriated Halder on 24th May, ‘consisting of armoured and motorized forces, which has not enemy before it, will thus be stopped dead in its tracks upon direct orders from the Führer. Finishing off the encircled enemy has to be left to the air force.’ We must not, however, give too much credit to a German mistake which was soon rectified. The evacuation owed more to the elements of the French First Army who acted as covering troops, to say nothing of the B.E.F.’s own valour and skill in holding off the enemy. And certainly no list of the prime authors can exclude the Royal Air Force.

Dunkirk, like the operations which preceded it, was for the Royal Air Force a battle of all arms—not, as is sometimes imagined, an affair of fighters alone. The fighters indeed bore the main share by

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covering the bridgehead and the sea lanes, but we must remember, too, the reconnaissance aircraft which brought back details of the military position and kept watch against U-boats and E-boats, and the bombers which harassed and help up enemy troops and silenced vital batteries.

This combined action was coordinated by Blount from the Back Component Headquarters at Hawkinge. His task was one of the utmost difficulty. The military basis on which he had to work was distinctly sketchy—a broad requirement was received from the small Component staff still with Gort, or from the War Office, but little positive information on the position of our own or the enemy’s forces was provided. Only by piecing together the results of reconnaissance, the reports of returning bombers, intelligence material from the Air Ministry, and the messages intercepted by the wireless station at Hawkinge, could Blount get much idea of what was happening on the other side of the Channel. Indeed, in his subsequent report, he complained that he received no information whatever of the enemy land forces from any Army source except the combined RAF/Army Reconnaissance Mission—which ceased to operate on 27th May.3 He also stated that information of greater value about our own forces was provided by intercepted German message than by the War Office. To add to these handicaps there were the defects of his own hastily improved Headquarters, including an extremely small staff. Moreover, he was dependent, for all tasks other than reconnaissance, upon ‘requests’ to the chiefs of the operational commands. Fortunately Portal, Dowding and Bowhill were all men who recognized a crisis when they met one, and the organization, though cumbrous, somehow worked.

Indeed, it worked to great effect, though the results were not apparent to everyone. Subjected to an utterly exhausting and terrifying experience, our soldiers and sailors returned home with a single question on their lips—‘Where was the RAF?’ So general and so bitter was the criticism that the newly appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, felt impelled to point out to his commanders that the Royal Air Force had gone ‘all out’, and

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that they should discourage contrary opinions in their units. If mistaken, however, the outcry was fully understandable. The B.E.F. was under the severe emotional and physical shock of being bundled out of France within three weeks of the opening of the campaign, and its members were not for the most part disposed to view matters in a wide context. Conscious of having fought well, and of being fully equal to the enemy troops ‘man for man’, they could only blame their misfortune on French faint-heartedness and Royal Air Force wrong-headedness. Their reasoning took little account of the fact that the Luftwaffe was far stronger than the Royal Air Force, and therefore that they must expected to be bombed; rather it told them that they could have held the enemy on the ground if only the Royal Air Force had played its part in the air. We must also remember that the British soldier—and for that matter any soldier—customarily expects as his right not merely a greater freedom from air attack than his enemies are enjoying, but nothing less than complete immunity. The Royal Air Force may be blasting his opponents from their strong points, strangling their communications and reducing their cities to smoking rubble, but if it permits a single enemy bomb to fall near Private Atkins then for Private Atkins it has failed in its duty. And at Dunkirk it was not a question of single bombs.

The anonymous critic in the ranks, though his viewpoint is necessarily limited, has direct experience and is not to be ignored. Still more difficult is it to dismiss the strictures of the responsible Commander. Admiral Ramsay, after complaining in his subsequent report to the Admiralty that our air action was often brought to bear either at the wrong place, or at the wrong time, or with inadequate force to meet a particular situation, put matters in no uncertain terms. ‘Rightly or wrongly,’ wrote the Admiral, ‘full air protection was expected, but instead, for hours on end the ships off-shore were subjected to a murderous hail of bombs and machine-gun bullets. Required by their duty to remain off-shore waiting for the troops, who themselves were unable to move down to the water for the same reason, it required the greatest determination and sense of duty, amounting in fact to heroism, on the part of the ships’ and boats’ crews, to enable them to complete their mission. In their reports, the C.O.s of many ships, while giving credit to the RAF personnel for gallantry in such combats as were observed from the ships, at the same time express their sense of disappointment and surprise at the seemingly punt efforts made to provide air protection during the height of this operation …’

Yet while matters appeared in this light to Ramsay, Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park, who as Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group was responsible for by far the greater part of the protective patrols,

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was reporting in a completely opposite sense to Dowding at Fighter Command. ‘Our fighter pilots’, Park asserted, ‘obtained such ascendency over the German bombers that during the last phase of the operation the German bombers jettisoned their bombs in the sea on sighting even small formations of our fighters. On one occasion, a fighter pilot who had used up all his ammunition made a feint attack at a sub-formation of German bombers who immediately fled east, one of them losing control and crashing in the sea.’ Park was not an impartial witness—though he was certainly a witness, for he flew over Dunkirk more the once in his own Hurricane. It was weightier voice than his which, again partially to silence criticism, pointed out to the nation that ‘there was a victory inside this deliverance which should be noted. It was gained by the Royal Air Force.

Ramsay and the men on the beaches and in the ships—or Park and Churchill? The difference is striking, but not impossible to resolve. The air action undertaken on behalf of the evacuating forces was, it has been mentioned, of many kinds. Reconnaissance alone occupied some thirty sorties a day, apart from any fighter escort. The bomber effort, too, was certainly as great as the Royal Air Force was capable of at the time. Every day some fifty Blenheims, escorted or under cloud cover, attacked enemy troops closing in on the B.E.F. Every night an equal number of Bomber Command ‘heavies’ concentrated against the road approaches to the Dunkirk area, while as many more, aided by the A.A.S.F. attacked enemy communications further back. Very little of this work could possibly be seen by our ground forces. Occasionally, however, an operation was carried out within sight of the troops, and then it earned its full meed of praise. ‘On the afternoon of 31st May’, reported the Commander of the 12th Infantry Brigade to Divisional Headquarters, ‘this brigade was holding a sector from opposite Nieuport to the sea. Between 1500 and 1700 hours a determined attack was launched upon our front—the third within a period of twelve hours. The leading German waves were stopped by our light machine-gun force and mortar fire, but strong enemy reserves were observed moving through Nieuport and on the roads to the canal north-west of Nieuport. At this moment some RAF bombers arrived and bombed Nieuport and the roads north-west of it. The effect was instantaneous and decisive—all movement of enemy reserves stopped: many of the forward German troops turned and fled, suffering severely from the fire of our machine-guns …’

The attack at Nieuport was exceptional in that it was close enough to our troops to be witnessed and appreciated. A similar exception

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may be found in the operations against the enemy batteries which increasingly harassed Dunkirk, the beaches and the shipping approaches. Almost every day during the evacuation fresh gun-sites were spotted and attacked either by Royal Air Force Blenheims, Lysanders and Hectors, or else by Fleet Air Arm squadrons operating under Coastal Command control; and to this type of work Ramsay paid full tribute. These were the exceptions. In general, our soldiers and sailors at Dunkirk were in no position to appreciate the bombing and reconnaissance operations undertaken on their behalf. Their expressed grievance, however, was not lack of bomber support but lack of fighter cover. There was no ‘air umbrella’ over their heads. There was not even a continuous battle fought out between opposing hordes of aircraft. They were just bombed.

There were many reasons why the troops had so poor an opinion of the protective effort. Even the briefest air combat may take place over a vast area of sky, and the fatal bullets or shells may finish their work many minutes after they hit the aircraft. Moreover, our soldiers and sailors in 1940 were mostly unable to distinguish British from enemy aircraft. Since Spitfires more than once attacked Hurricanes over Dunkirk this lack of skill in aircraft recognition need cause no surprise, but it had some very curious results. On 1st June, for instance, two typical episodes were noted by the same officer. ‘As the mists and clouds dispersed’, recorded Rear Admiral Wake-Walker, ‘many aircraft appeared on the scene and fighters constantly came low over us. More often than not they were Spitfires, but our ships were not taking chances and nearly always opened fire indiscriminately on them. As this kept happening, I hoisted 6 flag—“cease fire”—and blew the siren to draw attention and try and stop the firing. In spite of this I can remember our own machine-gun aft in Keith firing away regardless of the “cease fire” gong. Once started firing, they could hear nothing.’ A few hours later the Admiral was on shore, but the situation there was little different. ‘Back on the pier again I waited for Tennant, who presently walked down. His tin hat had been decorated with the letters S.N.O. cut out of silver paper and stuck with sardine oil—it looked very distinguished all the same. As we stood talking there a Lysander Army Co-op. plane came over very low and flew down the pier. It was fired at by several Bofors guns and Tennant said “I am sure that damn fellow is a Hun—he has been flying over here all day”. I then realized it was the plane flying over at my request to see if the pier was being shelled, and felt rather sorry for the poor chap; though he seemed none the worse.’

Incidents like these were by no means uncommon. Exposed to heavy and repeated attacks, our ships and ground forces automatically

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assumed that all aircraft were hostile. It was, of course, the safe thing to do. Ships’ crews in particular can afford to take no chances and are notoriously light on the trigger. In this connection it is worth noting that even four years later, when the Luftwaffe scarcely dared to rise its head, and Allied aircraft painted in huge black and white stripes swarmed in their hundreds over the Normandy beachheads, many naval vessels still went on shooting with the same gay abandon.

If much of the air fighting took place out of sight of Dunkirk, and if many of the aircraft our troops thought were German were in fact British, it remains true that for the greater part of the operation our fighters were heavily outnumbered. Indeed, they were perhaps more heavily outnumbered than they need have been. The average force at Park’s disposal was limited to some two hundred serviceable aircraft. This was the number which Dowding was prepared not merely to operate, but to keep operating; and to do so he had, in fact, to call on almost every one of his single-engined squadrons. He could, however, have achieved a larger initial concentration over Dunkirk if he had been willing to strip the entire North and the Midlands of their defence against the enemy. this risk Dowding was not prepared to take; nor, with one eye on the greater struggle that lay ahead, was he anxious to expose his entire force, including many squadrons incompletely trained or recuperating, to the heavy wastage entailed in fighting over the Continent. It is however possible—if not profitable—to contend that a bigger initial concentration over Dunkirk might have resulted not, as Dowding feared, in higher losses, but in lower.

It was thus with two hundred aircraft—and the rest of Fighter Command in immediate reserve—that Park had to frustrate the assembled might of the Luftwaffe; for it was to the German Air Force, not the German Army, that Hitler had entrusted the task of thwarting the evacuation. Weakness in numbers, however, was by no means Park’s only difficulty. The area to be protected was fifty or sixty miles away from his nearest bases; operating beyond their normal defensive system, our fighters would have no information from radar and would be compelled to rely on the wasteful method of standing patrols; and the endurance limits of the Hurricane and Spitfire allowed not more than forty minutes on the actual patrol lines. It is with these handicaps in mind that the course of the air operations at Dunkirk must now be traced, and the achievements of our fighters assessed.

The evening of 26th May, when full evacuation began, went well. ‘Enemy fighter activity very strong,’ recorded German XIX Corps: ‘our own fighter protection completely lacking. Use of Luftwaffe

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against sea transport ineffective.’ The following day, however, cumulative disasters threatened to overwhelm the whole project. Early in the morning the French on the western side of the perimeter were forced back to within five miles of Dunkirk. With the enemy’s guns dominating the town and the normal approach from Dover, our ships were thereupon forces to approach the port by a roundabout route from the East until a more central channel could be swept clear of mines. As this eastern route was over twice the length of the direct passage the number of journeys made by the ships was correspondingly reduced. Then the Luftwaffe, concentrating its attacks against the town and harbour, wrought such havoc that all British troops were ordered outside the town; and the newly arrived Senior Naval Officer, Captain Tennant, informed Admiral Ramsay that evacuation would have to take place solely from the beaches. On top of all these calamities the Belgians capitulated with only the briefest notice, leaving a twenty-mile gap on the left of the B.E.F. Fortunately this had been anticipated, and appropriate movements had been placed for our own troops.

It was, of course, impossible for the Royal Air Force with its available resources to prevent the destruction of Dunkirk; for the initiative throughout lay with the Luftwaffe, which could strike when it was pleased. At first the task of the British fighters was complicated by War Office requests for protection and supply-dropping over Calais, as it was not known that the heroic garrison had surrendered the previous evening. Meanwhile, the Admiralty naturally expected continuous cover over Dunkirk throughout the hours of daylight. With a total of sixteen squadron, however, Park could achieve continuity only at the expense of strength. Even when he learned that the fight in Calais was over, he could still not provide continuous cover for the Dunkirk evacuation at more than single squadron strength, for the perimeter stretched back some distance inland, the beaches alone extended for ten miles, and the shipping was liable to be attacked almost anywhere on passage. In consequence our fighters on 27th May though present the entire day on one or other of the different patrol lines, were usually greatly outnumbered Eleven Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron, for instance, gave battle to thirty Do.17s and Me.109s; five Hurricanes of No. 145 Squadron attacked the rear section of a Do.17 formation only to find themselves set upon by twenty or thirty Me.110s; twenty Hurricanes and Spitfires of Nos. 56 and 610 Squadrons, trying to pick off a single He.111, at once ran into thirty or forty Me.110s. But though our fighters could not prevent the enemy reducing the town and port of Dunkirk to rubble, they certainly spoiled his aim against the targets that mattered most—the harbour

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moles and the ships. For the damage did not, in spite of first impressions, make evacuation from the port impossible; and though there were a dozen concerted assaults against our vessels, as well as many individual attacks, not more than two ships were sunk.

After the disasters of 27th May, the following day brought renewed hope. This was thanks in part to the worsening weather and the pall of black smoke that hung over the town came from the burning oil-tanks. Indeed, the greatest danger on 28th May came not from the Luftwaffe, but from the confusion on the beaches, to which evacuation had now been confined. For embarkation was not yet under naval control, and the small craft at work were far too few for the tremendous task of ferrying the troops to the ships off shore. Confidential reports of the time tell of wild scrambles to get abroad the boats, which, launched by inexpert hands, were all too often swamped in the surf. Worst of all, many thoughtless or selfish groups cut their boat adrift after reaching the waiting vessel, instead of arranging for its return to shore. Mercifully it became towards evening that use could still be made of the harbour. Meanwhile on this side of the Channel steps were taken to organize naval beach parties and muster large number of small craft.

From an early hour, the Royal Air Force was in no doubt of its responsibilities. ‘To-day,’ signalled Newall to the Chiefs of Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Command, ‘is likely to be the most critical day ever experienced by the British Army. The extreme gravity of the situation should be explained to all units. I am confident that all ranks will appreciate that it is the duty of the RAF to make their greatest effort today to assist their comrades of both the Army and the Navy.’ In this spirit, Fighter Command was instructed to ‘ensure the protection of Dunkirk beaches (three miles on either side) from first light until darkness by continuous fighter patrols in strength’ and to have ‘due regard to the protection of bomber sorties and the provision of support of the B.E.F. area’. Meanwhile Coastal Command, which was already scouring the Channel for enemy surface craft and submarines, was ordered to maintain a continuous daylight patrol from the North Goodwins to Gravelines and thence along the coast to Ostend. It was asking much for formations of no more than three Blenheims, Hudsons, Skuas and Rocs to fly over waters where the very thick of the enemy’s single-engined fighters would be found, but the duty was faithfully and profitably discharged until the end of the evacuation.

Once again, then, the demand was for continuity. Though the area to be covered had now somewhat shrunk, Park was still unable to put up patrols at any greater average strength than two squadrons. And

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the 321 sorties flown by No. 11 Group in the course of the day still left short intervals when there was no cover at all. During the morning the Luftwaffe was up in force, and our fighters intercepted many powerful formations, one of which was thought to consist of no less than 150 aircraft; then the weather closed in, and in the afternoon our patrols sought in vain for the enemy. Though six ships were sunk and others damaged during the day, 28th May thus saw the evacuation once more making headway. By night fall, Tennant was informing Ramsay ‘Fighter protection has been invaluable, and … bombing only sporadic’.

By 29th May the greater part of the B.E.F. was inside the organized defences of the perimeter, our mine-sweepers had cleared a new middle route from Dover to Dunkirk, and destroyers and personnel vessels were again being directed to the port byday. Park, who had protested strenuously against the policy of continuous weak patrols, was now authorized by the Air Ministry to operate less often and at greater strength.

From this day onwards he accordingly arranged the No. 11 Group patrols so that up to four squadrons—sometimes in two separate formations—were over the Dunkirk area at the same time. The result on 29th May was stronger protection for eleven of the seventeen daylight hours, though during the other six there was no cover except by the small Coastal Command patrols. In the morning, when the enemy’s attacks were light, these intermissions had no serious results; but we were not so fortunate during the afternoon and evening, when the German airmen began a new and devastating series of attacks against our shipping. At least five times they developed a concerted assault in strength; and though our fighters engaged the enemy on three of these occasions on the other two we had none present. The effect of the bombing on the evacuation is difficult to assess. from some accounts it appears to have been very great: eight vessels were lost from air attack, the harbour was again reported blocked, and the Admiralty withdrew the most modern destroyers. On the other hand many of our shipping losses occurred not from German bombs but from torpedo-boats and the ramming and firing of our own vessels. The harbour, too, was not in fact blocked, and had our vessels closed during the night they could doubtless have lifted large numbers of men. More definite pointers to the success of air action were a report from the B.E.F. that it had suffered little bombing during the day, and an appreciative signal from Admiral Ramsay to Fighter Command—‘I am most grateful for your splendid cooperation. It alone has given us a chance of success …’

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The governing factor on 30th May was undoubtedly the weather. It was known from intercepted wireless messages that three hundred bombers, with fighter escort, were waiting to take off against our ships, but in the morning they were baulked by 10/10ths cloud between 300 and 3,000 feet. After the clouds had lifted a little during the afternoon, another intercept informed is that the attacks were about to begin. Small, spasmodic raids then followed, without much profit to the enemy. Once again No. 11 Group provided fighter protection at four-squadron strength for the greater part of the day, but this time there were no major battles. The small Coastal Command patrols more than once drive off single bombers.

The weather was not the only reason for the quickening of the evacuation on 30th May. The immortal flotilla of the ‘little boats’ had by now arrived; powered craft were rounding up the boats which had been cut adrift; the troops had built a pier of lorries at Bray; and the Admiralty allowed the modern destroyers to return. By the end of the day hopes ran high that the night of 31st May/1st June would see the last of the B.E.F. brought to safety. All this, of course, was gall and wormwood to Hitler, who recorded: ‘The consequence of the blunders forced upon by Supreme War Headquarters (OKW){ is beginning to be felt now. … The pocket would have been closed at the Coast if only the armour had not been held back. As it is, the bad weather has grounded our air force and now we must stand by and watch how countless thousands of the enemy are getting away to England under our noses.

After early morning haze, 31st May cleared into a fine day. From intercepted signals it was known that the enemy’s objective would be our shipping, not the town or the harbour installations. Sporadic attacks only, however, developed during the morning. Very different was the afternoon, when fierce assaults were aimed at our ships every thirty minutes or so. But nearly all were engaged, at some time or other, by our patrols. The three biggest raids in particular, while not entirely beaten back by our fighters, were sufficiently harassed for much of the bombing to go astray. As a result only one vessel was sunk by direct air attack, though no less than six destroyers were damaged in collisions. Things were thus still going well, even if artillery fire against the town at one end and the eastern beaches at the other was an ever-increasing menace. Still more strenuous efforts, however, would be needed; for the French had now decided to share in the withdrawal and the War Cabinet gave orders that they should be taken off in equal numbers with our own troops. The end of the evacuation, in sight the previous day, receded into the distance.

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As 1st June broke, mist and low cloud again hung over Dunkirk, only to disperse with the rising sun. Never was the cool splendour of an early summer morning less appreciated by the men on the beaches. There had already been some fitful and ineffective raiding during the night. Now the real thing began, and No. 11 Group’s first patrol was at once among the bombers. Then came a respite, while our second patrol was on the line. But as soon as this had turned for home, and before the third patrol could come up, a series of vicious attacks again developed. Thirty or forty Ju.87s made free with the shipping off shore and in the absence of our fighters descended, in more than one sense, to attacking struggling figures in the water. Only with the arrival of our third patrol did the raiders make off back to their bases. Furious fighting marked the rest of the morning—on one occasion twenty-eight Hurricanes were in combat with fifty or sixty Me.109s and 110s—but for a second time the enemy managed to deliver a major assault in an interval between our patrols. Then the clouds mercifully rolled over again, and the German effort dwindled and died away. Meantime ten vessels had been sunk, including three destroyers, and several others had suffered serious damage. Worse still, the enemy’s guns were by this time covering the newly swept central route to Dunkirk as well as the direct and the eastern approaches. Confronted with this prospect of heavy losses from both aircraft and artillery, Ramsay felt himself bound to call a halt to evacuation in daylight. From now on the work could be done only by night. The operation would drag on even longer. Still more extreme demands would be made on the endurance of the devoted rescuers.

These events, disastrous as they seemed, nevertheless proved something of a blessing in disguise. For if the troops were to be lifted only during the night, the demand for continuous air cover would be relaxed and our fighters could be concentrated over the evacuation area in great strength at the two critical periods. These would be at dusk and dawn, when our ships were approaching and leaving Dunkirk.

The advantages of the new arrangements were soon seen. Although the beaches were shelled and a trawler was sunk in the harbour during the night of 1st/2nd June, loading went on according to plan and the early morning haze helped to cover the departure of our ships. In fact our first patrols found the skies clear of the enemy. Not until 0800 hours did the Luftwaffe appear on the scene; and it then encountered five full squadrons on patrol A series of heavy engagements developed, in which the five squadrons took on something like 120 enemy aircraft. In spite of the odds against them the British

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squadrons inflicted severe losses on their opponents; but what was more important, the Germans were kept far too busy fighting for their lives to molest our ships. For the rest of the morning the enemy was largely content to send over single bombers, some of which were driven off by a Coastal Command patrol. No further incident occurred until the evening. By then our shipping was again approaching Dunkirk, and the four squadrons on patrol proved quite capable of thwarting a determined attack by escorted Ju.87s. The new plan had thus proved an unqualified success. Over the whole day no ships had been sunk and only two damaged—apart from the hospital carriers which had bravely but rashly presumed on German sentiments of humanity by approaching the harbour in daylight. And though the embarkation of our allies was going slowly—not through air attack or lack of ships, but through the French failure to organize a continuous flow of men—before midnight Tennant was able to send the signal for which Ramsay was waiting. It was brief, and infinitely welcome: ‘B.E.F. evacuated’.

But the French were still waiting in their thousands, and for two nights more the heroic work of rescue continued. On 3rd June, as on 2nd June, embarkation ceased at first light and began again during the evening. Once more our fighter patrols were concentrated at the dawn period, but the mist was mercifully heavy, and the Luftwaffe remained on the ground. At about 0730 hours there was an inconclusive encounter with some Ju.87s, then the weather closed in entirely. No further patrols were flown for the remainder of the day, but the fighters remained on call to answer any appeal for help. None came.

Under an extremely effective combination of fog and fighter cover, more men were lifted on the morning of 4th June, but by then the time had come to call a halt. Twenty or thirty thousand French troops still remained in and around Dunkirk, but all ammunition was expended, the Germans were in a position to reach the sea along the whole front, and the end could not be long delayed. After the early morning embarkation had been completed the French accordingly acknowledged that further resistance was useless, and during the afternoon the machinery of ‘Dynamo’ was brought to a stop.

If the sequence of events during the operation is examined, it will be seen that the Luftwaffe enjoyed outstanding success only on 27th May and 1st June. On all other days it was in effect frustrated either by our fighter patrols or by bad visibility. Large numbers of attacks were still delivered on these lesser days, and for the men in the ships or on the beaches the ordeal was long and terrible. It would, however, have been far worse but for our fighters, whose interventions over

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and over again prevented prohibitive losses to our ships. Judged by the acid test of results the evacuation, carried out under the hose of superior forces both on land and in the air, was not merely a success but a triumph. In that triumph our airmen, as well as our sailors and soldiers, certainly bore their share.

In spite of any contemporary opinion to the contrary, then, the Royal Air Force was present, and effectively present, at Dunkirk. It was so much present that during the nine days its bomber flew 651 sorties, its reconnaissance aircraft 171 sorties and its fighters 2,739 sorties directly connected with the evacuation, apart from other work further afield. To assess its presence only in terms of numbers, however, would be very wrong. For its strength lay much less in its numbers than in its superb fighting spirit.

The quality of that spirit may perhaps be judged from two examples of the many that could be quoted. On the evening of 31st May, when our patrols were still endeavouring to cover the evacuation area throughout the whole day, Flight Lieutenant R. D. G. Wight of No. 213 Squadron wrote thus to his mother:

Well, another day is gone, and with it a whole of grand blokes. Got another brace of 109s today, but the whole Luftwaffe seems to leap on us—we were hopelessly outnumbered. I was caught napping by a 109 in the middle of a dog fight, and got a couple of holes in the aircraft, one of them filled the office with smoke, but the Jerry overshot and he’s dead. If anyone says anything to you in the future about the inefficiency of the RAF—I believed the B.E.F. troops were booing the RAF in Dover the other day—tell them from me we only wish we could do more. But without aircraft we can do no more than we have done—that is, our best, and that’s fifty times better than the German best, though they are fighting under the most advantageous conditions. I know of no RAF pilot who has refused combat yet—and that sometimes means combat with odds of more than fifty to one. Three of us the other day had been having a fight, and were practically out of ammunition and juice when we saw more than eighty 109s with twelve Ju.87s, all the same we gave them combat, so much so that they left us alone in the end—on their side of the Channel too. This is not a tale of stirring heroism. It is just the work that we all do. One of my sergeants shot down three fighters and a bomber before they got him—and then he got back in a paddle steamer. So don’t worry, we are going to win this war even if we have only one aeroplane and one pilot left—the Boche could produce the whole Luftwaffe and you would see the one pilot and the one aeroplane go into combat. All that sounds very involved, but I am trying to convey to you something of the spirit of ‘Per ardua ad astra’ today. The spirit of the average pilot has to be seen to be believed.

It may be added that Flight Lieutenant Wright continued to live up to the spirit of which he wrote. Ten weeks later, during the Battle of

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Britain, he was killed leading three Hurricanes into a formation of sixty Me.110s.

Our bomber pilots were cast in no different mould. The story of Wing Commander B. E. Embry, Commanding Officer of No. 107 Squadron, is unusual in its details, but typical in its substance.

Embry was shot down on 27th May while leading an attack on a German column approaching Dunkirk. Though wounded in the leg, he baled out successfully, but on landing he was at once captured. His morale never for once faltered. Ordered to salute a Prussian captain, he maintained that the captain should salute him. Subjected to the usual ‘grilling’, he resolutely refused to divulge the slightest information; indeed, he later reversed the process of systematically collecting intelligence of the enemy’s anti-aircraft defences. For when he had been set to march towards Germany, he quickly detached himself from the long column of half-starved men, and (after two days of attempting to move without being seen), discarded his uniform, fitted himself with a civilian coast from a scarecrow, and was soon making for the Allied lines south of the Somme.

His subsequent adventures had all the elements of good schoolboy fiction. Trapped raiding an empty farmhouse for food, he spent 36 hours in a loft, hiding in straw, with German troops billeted below. Seized by a German patrol and lodged in a farmhouse under armed guard—with a warning that he would be shot if he turned out to be English—he knocked out the gaoler with a well-timed blow to the jaw, snatched the German’s rifle, brought it down on the head of the guard outside the door, delivered a passing blow against a third German encountered in the hall, and dived into a huge pile of manure in the farmyard, where he remained undetected until nightfall. Later, after operating on his own leg to remove shrapnel, he was once more ‘picked up’; his pose as a Belgian breaking down before the fluent French of his German interrogator, he stated that he was really a Southern Irishman ‘wanted’ for bomb outrages in London—and satisfied his captor’s request to talk Gaelic by rattling off a few sentences in Urdu. The, failing to find either the Allied armies or a boat on the coast, he broke into a garage, built himself a bicycle from spare parts, and—though he knew that Paris had by then fallen—made for the capital with the intention of seeking help as an American. A German soldier commandeered his bicycle, but he got to Paris all the same; and though he failed to hoodwink the American Embassy, he at length acquired another bicycle and set off for the south of France. Over and over again he was challenged; always he put up some convincing story At least he reached a district still held by the French, and after many difficulties left Perpignan for Gibraltar.

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Thence he was brought back to England by the Royal Navy, to arrive at Plymouth ten weeks after being shot down.

The story of Wing Commander Embry is, in a sense, the story of Dunkirk. According to the laws of probability his chances of surviving all these incidents were negligible—but he did. In the same way, on 26th May 1940, some 340,000 Englishmen and Frenchmen had, in theory, little or no chance of escaping from Dunkirk—but they did. Granted a measure of good fortune, Embry owed his freedom to his resourcefulness, his skills, his toughness, his optimism and is courage. It was because these qualities were so widely shared by his fellow airmen that the Royal Air Force, for all its slender numbers, was able to play so worthy a part in the ‘miracle of deliverance’.


After the Battle of the North, the Battle of France. It was hardly worthy of the name. If 134 Allied divisions at the opening of the campaign had been unable to hold the enemy, the 63 divisions now remaining were not likely to fare much better. During the brief respite of Dunkirk, while the Germans regrouped for their drive southwards, the French hastily pulled what units they could out of the Maginot fortifications. Their intention was not only to contain the enemy alone the Aisne and the Somme, but also to form, somewhat belatedly, a masse de manoeuvre. But the troops along the Aisne–Somme line remained ridiculously thin on the ground—each division held, on the average, twelve kilometres in place of the prescribed six—while whatever was scraped together as a reserve was neither massive nor manoeuvrable.

When the Germans opened their new offensive on 5th June they accordingly broke through wherever they pleased. By the evening of 5th their right was across the Somme; by the 7th, their left was over the Aisne. By the 10th they were beyond the Seine at one end of the front and the Marne at the other, while the French government was in flight to Tours. Where the lion led the way the jackal was ready to follow, and by the 11th France faced Mussolini’s Italians in the Alps. By the 14th the forces which had crossed the Marne were wheeling east to take the Maginot Line in the rear, the French government was seeking safety at Bordeaux, and German boots were once more ringing down the Champs Elysées. By the 15th the Maginot had been pierced from the front, the French armies were in isolated groups scattered across the breadth of France, and coherent defence was at an end.

The opening of the battle found the Bomber Command ‘heavies’ in the course of a renewed attack against German oil targets, to

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which they had at once been redirected by the Air Staff as soon as the B.E.F. was saved. By 8th June their main objective was once more the enemy’s communications in northern France, and against these they now maintained a steady effort until the end of the campaign. The Blenheims continued to operate by daylight against German columns, and in particular those pressing towards the Seine, while the Battles of the A.A.S.F. attacked troops movements by day and communications by night. In addition Fighter Command for some days flew intensive patrols over the remaining British troops in the coastal sector, including the 51st Division in its march to captivity and glory at St. Valéry. The evacuation from Le Havre was also covered. But from then on fighters from England could no longer reach the main battle zones by direct flight, and the overrunning of our newly opened bases near the lower Seine prevented them refuelling in France.

During these desperate days the Royal Air Force spared no effort to stem the flood of disaster. An air force very much larger, however, would have battled in vain where the ground forces were so unequally matched. Only in one matter were French requests or expectations rebuffed. To all the fervent pleas for the transfer of Fighter Command’s resources to French soil—General Vuillemin, the French Chief of Air Staff, demanded at least twenty more of our squadrons—a firm front was presented. In the three and half weeks between 10th May and the end of Dunkirk we have expended no less than 432 Hurricanes and Spitfires. To continue at the same rate was impossible. While their range permitted, our fighters would accordingly operate from England or refuel at French bases, but on no account must further squadrons be sent across the Channel. Only on 7th June, when Nos. 17 and 242 Squadrons were ordered to join the A.A.S.F., was this decision in any way modified; and by then the War Cabinet and the Air Staff were looking ahead to the problem of fighter protection over the final withdrawal.

Another, though lesser, source of disagreement between the Allies was the policy to be adopted towards Italy. This had already been thrashed out during the previous months, when both countries were taking all possible steps to placate Mussolini; and on 31st May, when the Duce’s decision to intervene became clear, the Supreme War Council had finally agreed that an Italian declaration of war should be the signal for British aircraft to bomb the industries of northern Italy. To this end, No. 71 Wing Headquarters, which had operated Battles during the opening days of the campaign, had been sent down to the Marseilles area on 3rd June with the task of making the necessary preparations on two French airfields. The intention was that this organization, which laboured under the uninspiring code-name

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of ‘Haddock’, would act as a refuelling and operational base for Wellingtons from England, while the longer range Whitleys refuelled in the Channel Islands. In the circumstances of the moment, when the survival of France depended on her ability to beat back the new German offensive, the venture naturally appeared somewhat superfluous to those on the spot. Despite this, ‘Haddock’ force was ready to receive its Wellingtons when Italy declared war as from midnight on 10th June.

By then, however, France was dissolving into chaos. Further, the French fighters normally concerned with defence against Italy had long since been thrown into the battle in the north. At such a time it seemed to the French the worst of policies for the Royal Air Force to open an offensive against an enemy whose retaliation might well fall, not on London, but Marseilles, Lyons and Paris. And on the evening of 11th June this conviction led to remarkable happenings.

The sequence of events that night amply bears out the truth of the old military proverb: ‘Order—Counter-order—Disorder’. Group Captain R. M. Field, the commander of ‘Haddock; force at Salon airfield must surely have thought that he was in the grip of some fiendish nightmare. At 1530 hours a squadron of Wellingtons—No. 99—arrived from England. They had barely touched down when the nearest French Bomber Group telephoned to say that in no circumstances were Italian targets to be attacked. Field was still thinking this over when he received the executive order from Air Ministry to despatch the aircraft. Then the telephone rang again. From one French authority after another the same message arrived: operations against Italy were forbidden.

Meanwhile the same scene was reproducing itself on a higher level. At 2145 hours General Vuillemin phoned B.A.F.F. Headquarters—would Barratt cancel operations against Italy? Confronted with this demand, Barratt felt obliged to consult the Air Ministry: he got through to Whitehall only to be told to ask the Prime Minister, who had left for France. A call to Weygand’s Headquarters then elicited from General Ismay the Prime Minister’s opinion that the operations should proceed. But Barratt had scarcely hung up the receiver when Field came through to explain what was happening at Salon. Again Barratt appealed to Ismay, who this time returned a more forceful reply: the French had officially agreed to the operation, the Whitleys were already on their way from the Channel Islands, the Wellingtons must take off as arranged.

These proceedings were duly made known to the perplexed commander of ‘Haddock’ force, who thereupon prepared to send off his aircraft. Then once more his telephone began to ring. For the next

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two and a half hours it scarcely stopped. Successively higher tiers of French officials informed Field, not once but many times that on no account must his bombers take off against Italy. All this Field ignored, and at last, a few minutes after midnight, the first Wellington began to taxi into position. As it lumbered alone, several French lorries appeared from beside the hangars and drove rapidly across the airfield. They then stopped in a pre-arranged pattern admirably designed to black take-off and landing.

This move could have been countered only by force; for the orders of the local French commander, it appeared, were to keep the Wellingtons on the ground at all costs. But since it was now very late, and the weather was growing worse over the mountains, there was little point in pressing matters to the exchange of blows, or still worse, shots. Bowing to the inevitable, Field called off the night’s operations.

Meanwhile the Whitleys of Nos. 10, 51, 58, 77 and 102 Squadrons, which had refuelled in the Channel Islands, were having little better fortune. Thirty-six aircraft had taken off, but only thirteen reached Turin and Genoa; the rest found the heavy storms and severe icing conditions over the Alps too great a strain on their engines. Indeed there were so many cases of engine failure that it was widely, though wrongly, suspected that saboteurs had ‘sugared’ the petrol.

Four nights later, after the episode of the lorries had been sorted out in high places and strong terms, eight Wellingtons of Nos. 99 and 149 Squadrons took off from Salon to bomb industrial objectives in Genoa. They ran into violent thunderstorms and had great difficulty in finding their targets. Only one aircraft attacked; the remainder returned with their bombs. The next night, 16th/17th June, a further attempt was made by nine Wellingtons, four of which failed to find their objectives. The following day the French negotiations for an armistice ended a singularly unprofitable venture.

The ‘Haddock’ organization in the South of France, whatever its other difficulties, was at least fairly safe from the immediate attentions of the German Army. Not so the main body of the A.A.S.F. With great foresight Barratt had withdrawn this force from the South Champagne to the region around Orléans and Le Mans in the brief lull before the enemy’s second offensives. From this central position and from the refuelling base retained in the South Champagne it was well placed to intervene along the whole line of battle. But when on 11th June the enemy broke through the French positions on the Marne, Oise and Seine—the last line on which any hope of successful resistance could be built—every unit was endangered. By 12th June Air Vice-Marshal Sholto Douglas, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff, was writing to warn Barratt to prepare for a quick withdrawal from

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France. His letter crossed with one from Barratt requesting direction on the same subject. Thoughts of this kind came none too soon. The next day Mr. Churchill learned in Tours that Weygand was pressing for an immediate armistice, and that even Reynaud was begging to be released from the obligation not to treat separately with the enemy.

There was nothing for it now but to take the last step towards the west coast. Fresh bases were secured near Angers, Saumur, Rennes and Nantes, but only with great difficulty; for as the enemy covered the breadth of France, so the few airfields left to our allies became more and more congested. No. 1 Squadron, for instance, arrived at Nantes to find ‘so many aircraft on the airfield that it looked live several Empire Air Days all at once’. To retain the whole force in such a position would have been to invite its destruction on the ground. Bearing in mind that his bombers could operate from home, Barratt took a generous interpretation of his instructions and on 15th June ordered the Battles back to England. The surviving aircraft reached Abingdon that afternoon.

It remained for the A.A.S.F. fighters to cover the evacuation of the ground staff and of the three remaining British divisions under Lt. General Alan Brooke. But evacuation, other than that of ‘surplus stores and personnel’ had not yet been officially ordered from home. For though there was now no conceivable military justification for retaining our forces in France, there was some natural fear that our withdrawal would prejudice the French against continuing the fight from North Africa. By midnight on 16th June, however, that question, though not yet decided, was heavily compromised. Spurning the hastily considered and quixotic offer of union with Great Britain, the French Ministers entrusted the fate of their country to Pétain. The aged victor of Verdun had been agitating since 5th June for the premiership and peace. He now had one; and he at once set out to get the other. His approach to the Germans on 17th June was the signal for the complete evacuation of the British forces.

Barratt’s task was to cover seven ports with five squadrons. It was merely another variant of the problem with which the Royal Air Force was already familiar—how to make a pint go as far as gallon. To La Pallice and La Rochelle, the ports of which least use would be made, Barratt sent the anti-aircraft batteries which had defended the A.A.S.F. airfields. For Nantes and St. Nazaire, whence the flow of troops would be heaviest, he grouped three squadrons—Nos. 1, 73 and 242. For Brest he arranged a small detachment from the squadrons at Nantes. And for St. Malo and Cherbourg he ordered protection by two squadrons—Nos. 17 and 501—at first from Dinard, then from the Channel Islands. Fighter

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Command aircraft from Tangmere would also give help over Cherbourg, while Coastal Command would protect returning vessels. With these arrangements made, Barratt then took off for England. The final operations came under the control of his Senior Air Staff Office, Air Vice-Marshal D. C. S. Evill, who had been throughout the campaign, in Barratt’s words, ‘a tower of strength’.

In spite of the inevitably sparse nature of the cover provided, and in spite of ‘scenes of indescribably confusion’ at Nantes, the evacuation was entirely successful. the Luftwaffe dropped bombs by day and mines by night, but achieved remarkably little. Only off St. Nazaire, where on the afternoon of 17th June German bombers making their third attempt within two hours sank the Lancastria with five thousand troops abroad, was there a major disaster. In this case the enemy made clever use of cloud cover to elude our patrolling Hurricanes.

By the afternoon of 18th June the ground forces had made good their escape, and the fighters, most of whom had flown six sorties on the previous day, were free to depart. After No. 73 Squadron had flown the final patrol, the last Hurricanes left Nantes for Tangmere and the mechanics set fire to the unserviceable machines. A little time was lost while a thoughtful sergeant gave one of the staff cares to a well-disposed café proprietor nearby, and while a more commercially-minded airman endeavoured to sell an Austin Seven. Then the rear parties of the ground and operations staff took off in transport aircraft. A few hours later German tanks came rumbling into Nantes.


Except at Dunkirk, where decisive results were achieved by a concentration in space impossible at any other time in the campaign, the effect of the Royal Air Force on the course of the German advance was very limited. Some delay was imposed on the enemy ground forces by the Battles and Blenheims in the opening days, though only at prohibitive cost; while the Wellingtons, Hampdens and Whitleys, operating by night and handicapped by cross-currents in the policy, proved a harassing, not a deterrent, force. Valuable information was obtained by the reconnaissance aircraft, among which the high-flying Spitfires were a triumph, the Blenheims useful but expensive, the Lysanders altogether too slow and defenceless to survive in the face of the German fighter patrols. But even when the enemy’s columns were spotted and his intentions realized, his attacks still proved irresistible.

The work of our fighters, however, was truly rewarding. For whatever else it did, the Luftwaffe scored no cheap or easy success. How many of the 1,284 aircraft lost by the enemy can be credited to the Royal Air Force, and how many to the air forces and ground

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defences of our allies, is entirely uncertain, but there is no doubt that a very substantial proportion fell to the Royal Air Force, and particularly the Component. This, it is true, made no difference to the result of the campaign. But it was not without importance of the campaign which was to follow.

The British air forces involved in this first great clash were very small compared with those which later assailed the enemy in Africa, in Italy, in France, in his homeland, on the seas, and wherever else he reared his unattractive head. But they were very much in the heart, soul and body of the Royal Air Force at the time; for the whole strength of the A.A.S.F., the Component and Bomber Command was continuously engaged in the struggle, together with a great part of the resources of Fighter and Coastal Command. Any extensive misuse or mishandling of our squadrons would thus have destroyed virtually our entire Air Force, at once shattering our only offensive weapon and throwing open the British Isles to invasion.

Fortunately the Air Force was not misused. Or rather, such misuse as became apparent was at once corrected. After the first few days the low-flying attacks by Battles were stopped, the Blenheims were given stronger and closer fighter protection. Defects in organization were also remedied: by desperate measures the A.A.S.F., originally designed as a static formation, was given the mobility essential for an air force in the field. Above all, two temptations were firmly resisted. The main strategic striking force of Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens was only used by night, where its losses, at two percent of sorties, were low enough to ensure its continued existence and expansion. And the main strength of Fighter Command, deeply committed though it was to the conflict, was safeguarded by the refusal to continue the flow across the Channel.

In May and June 1940, 959 of our aircraft, of which 477 were fighters, were lost to little apparent avail. Every operational command at home and in France suffered heavily: the A.A.S.F. lost 229, the Component 279, Fighter Command 219, Bomber Command 166, Coastal Command 66. All this sacrifice, and all the abiding heroism of the crews that came back, could not compensate for the weakness of the French Army. Yet the work of the Royal Air Force was far from wasted. Our squadrons had exacted a high toll of the enemy, and had learned many lessons in the bitter school of experience. And though nothing within the bounds of sense had been withheld from the struggle, the Service had still emerged strong enough to fight, and win, the crucial battle of the war—not after long years of painful reconstruction, but within a few brief weeks.