Chapter 6: The Battle of Britain
‘What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. … The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world,. including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour”.’
The Prime Minister’s call evoked its due response. A fierce determination inspired the armament industry. Tired workers emerged from long hours in office and workshop to march with the Local Defence Volunteers. Dawn and dusk found men on church towers and hilltops, scanning the skies for the white flutter of parachutes. Barbed wire and concrete sprouted surrealistically from south coast beaches; trenches scarred the immemorial green of the downs. Crazy obstructions blocked the roads, sign-posts disappeared overnight, bewildered motorists were ‘picked up’ for members of the fifth column. Recruits on the front at Blackpool drilled with dummy rifles roughly shaped from pieces of wood. Airmen in maintenance units armed themselves with two-foot lengths of gas-piping.
The German occupation of France and Belgium, which had prompted this activity, confronted the Royal Air Force with new and immense problems. Apart from the greatly heightened menace to our seaborne trade and the imminent prospect of invasion, there was the brute fact that the world’s largest air force was now within an hour’s flight of the world’s largest target. Our defences, too, could be easily outflanked. The radar cover round our shores had been built up against an enemy based in Germany and perhaps occupying some portion of the Low countries; it could certainly not yet cope
with an enemy established all round the coast of Europe from the Arctic to Pyrenees.
Two needs were paramount: the extension of the air defence system to the relatively unprotected north and west, and the greatest possible increase in the strength of Fighter Command. By good fortune, or rather, good management, schemes for the defence of the unprotected areas were already approved and under way. They were at once speeded up. At the beginning of June there was only one fighter squadron based further west than Middle Wallop, in Hampshire; two months later there were seven. With the fighter squadrons went the radar chain and the observer posts. At the time of Dunkirk there were still only three fighter groups—Nos. 11, 12 and 13. By the opening of the Battle of Britain a new group in the south-west (No. 10) was fully operational, and two other groups for the defence of north-west England and northern Scotland (Nos. 9 and 14) were nearing completion.
This extension of the reporting and control organization supplied the basis on the ground for efficient operation in the air; it did not, of course, provide the necessary aircraft and crews. of these two needs, that for more aircraft was at the moment the greater. Indeed, the urgency of this demand had already, on 14th May, caused the Air Ministry’s research and production departments to be detached from their parent body and formed into a separate Ministry of Aircraft Production under Lord Beaverbrook.
It is in the history of our war production rather than in the history of the Royal Air Force that the work of that dynamic and controversial figure must be fully assessed. Here it is enough to mention the details of the planned and the actual production in the three months before and after the creation of M.A.P., and to indicate some of the governing conditions at the time. The figures are so important that they should be set out in full:
Planned production of all types by the Harrogate1 programme of January 1940
|Actual production of all types||Planned production of fighters by the Harrogate programme||Actual fighter production|
No one studies these statistics will be inclined to belittle Lord Beaverbrook’s work. In justice to others, however, it must also be pointed out that, as the substantial rise in output during April and May indicates, some of the worst production difficulties had already been overcome before the creation of the new ministry. And the magnificent achievement of June, July and August was of course the achievement of the aircraft industry as a whole, not only that of the newly appointed Minister. Indeed, Beaverbrook had, in addition to his own unique drive and determination, several assets which were denied to those earlier responsible for aircraft production. The deadly danger which confronted Britain in may 1940 obviously called for an ‘all out’ policy of immediate results; and it was because of this that Beaverbrook was able to secure an overriding priority for aircraft above all other munitions, as well as permission to use stocks of spares for the construction of new aircraft. The Royal Air Force, too, was at this stage prepared to accept aircraft short of various items of equipment which in normal times would have been insisted upon as essential And above all, Lord Beaverbrook was helped by the ‘Dunkirk spirit’—by the great surge of effort in the factories and the long, willing hours of overtime. All these assets the Minister had the genius to exploit to the full. In the long run his method—the reliance on personal inspiration and ‘hunches’, the utter rejection not only of red tape but of all closely planned programmes—might lead to confusion and even loss of production. But just now it was not the long run which counted.
Among the decisions taken immediately on the formation of M.A.P. was to concentrate on producing five types of aircraft—the Wellington, the Whitley V, the Blenheim, the Hurricane and the Spitfire. The intention was to give these types absolute priority of materials and labour for some months; other aircraft would be built only in so far as the resources they absorbed could not be readily diverted to the selected types. Production of the latter certainly benefited from this arrangement. The importance of the decision, however, has been vastly exaggerated. A rule of this sort could not be applied for long without creating chaos; in fact it failed to survive in its primitive simplicity for more than a fortnight. By the end of May priority 1A was given to all fighters and bombers. By mid-June training aircraft had to be placed in the same category.
In one respect M.A.P. and the Royal Air Force were fortunate. Though Hitler could certainly have unleashed some, if not all, his bombers against this country immediately after the fall of France, he preferred to wait: to wait not only until the Luftwaffe was fully deployed on French, Belgian and Dutch airfields, and thus capable of
a much bigger effort, but also to wait until the British had enjoyed a few weeks’ grace in which to consider surrender. The days passed, and no British ‘feeler’ emerged—could the obstinate islanders by banking on the intervention of America, or even Russia? The Führer was not to know that the matter had been virtually decided at the very depth of our misfortunes, when to the defeat of France it appeared that there would be added the loss of the entire British Expeditionary Force. For on 25th May the British Chiefs of Staff, reviewing the course of action to be adopted if France fell, had reported, on the strength of information supplied by the Ministry of Economic Warfare, that—always provided we had full Pan-American economic and financial cooperation—we might well produce a critical economic situation in Germany by the middle of 1941.
Reasonable unmindful of this invincible optimism, Hitler did not seriously consider the necessity for invading England until mid-July—though as a precautionary measure he had instructed the German Services to begin planning a little earlier. The German Navy, though not the German Army, had in fact already anticipated this order. The rejection of his public peace offer of 19th July then confirmed what had by now become clear even to Hitler—that the British had no intention of giving up without a struggle. Three days before this he had issued his personal directive for invasion—an invasion which in the given state of German preparations could not possibly take place before mid-September.
It was to this project—Operation ‘Sealion’, as it was called—that Hitler harnessed German air action. Six weeks before the date when all was to be ready, the Luftwaffe would launch a major offensive against the Royal Air Force; and in the light of the degree of air superiority attained in the following fortnight, Hitler could then decide if the German Army’s journey across the Channel would be either practicable or really necessary. Meanwhile, until the end of the first week in August, Göring’s aircraft would reconnoitre and probe our defences, molest our shipping, and husband their strength for the great day. As for what would then happen, the German were supremely confident. ‘It will take’, reported General Stapf to Halder on 11th July, ‘between a fortnight and a month to smash the enemy air force.’
The German decision to postpone major air action was of the utmost service to Beaverbrook and to all those who were so feverishly working to repair our deficiencies. From Dunkirk to the opening of the Battle of Britain there were two whole and entirely precious months in which our fighters, though busily engaged, were not exposed to unduly heavy wastage. The grievous losses incurred in the
fighting over France could thus be made good, and a respectable reserve built up for the days of intensive action which lay ahead. Indeed, some of this reserve was actually incorporated in the front line, for an extra flight of four aircraft, without pilots, was added to most of the single-engined fighter squadrons. They were to be flown in emergency by those pilots who at less critical moments would have been resting or on leave.
In certain circumstances the production of aircraft may be rapidly accelerated. it is more difficult to speed up the production of trained crews. The severe winter of 1939–1940 had been bad for flying training; the front line had already been enlarged at the expense of the training organization; and nearly 300 fighter pilots had been lost over France and the Low Countries. In spite of the timely and altogether invaluable loan of fifty-eight pilots from the Fleet Air Arm, it was thus quite impossible at one and the same to bring the existing fighter squadrons up to full strength and to form new squadrons which would be capable of fighting in the immediate future. The existing squadrons could be added to the operational strength of Fighter Command. One of those was No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which reached this country on 20th June; the other four—Nos. 302, 303, 310 and 312—were flown by the heroic remnants of the air forces of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
In mid-August, when the Battle of Britain opened, Dowding’s squadrons were not very different in number from those available at the close of the Dunkirk evacuation but they were in altogether better fettle. For whereas on 4th June he had 446 operationally serviceable aircraft, of which 331 were Hurricanes and Spitfires, on 11th August he disposed 704 operationally serviceable aircraft, among which the Hurricanes and Spitfires totalled no less than 620. Even in the front line, then, his effective fighting force had almost doubled. And behind this there was now a far stronger backing of reserves. On 4th June there had been 36 Hurricanes and Spitfires immediately available for issue to the squadrons from Aircraft Storage Units. On August 11th there were 289.
The fighter defences were thus restored, strengthened and extended; but they were still, of course, far short of what was considered necessary. When the Air Staff reviewed the strategical consequences of the fall of France they concluded that Fighter Command needed at least double of its existing strength of sixty squadrons. Since there was not the slightest chance that this number, or anything like it, could be produced in the near future, the review was to that extent
Names from left or right: Sqn. Ldr. A. Bartley, D.F.C., Wg. Cdr. D. F. B. Sheen, D.F.C. and Bar, Wg. Cdr. I. R. Gleed, D.S.O., D.F.C., Wg. Cdr. M. Aitken, D.S.O., D.F.C., Wg. Cdr. A.G. Malan, D.S.O., D.F.C., Sqn. Ldr. A. C. Deere, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (now Lord Dowding), G.C.B., G.C.V.O., C.M.G., Flt. Off. E. C. Henderson, M.M. (W.A.A.F.), Flt. Lt. R. H. Hillary, Wg. Cdr. J. A. Kent, D.F.C., A.F.C., Wg. Cdr. C. B. F. Kingcome, D.F.C., Sqn. Ldr D H. Watkins, D.F.C. and Wt. Off. R. H. Cretton
academic. All the same, it showed how far Dowding was from having s fully adequate force for the situation in which he now found himself. Still more alarming, however, was the shortage of anti-aircraft guns, both heavy and light. Even before the war the Chiefs of Staff had recommended the provision of just over 4,000 guns; a fresh survey of requirements now place the figure at something over 8,000; but the total number actually possessed by Anti-Aircraft Command at the beginning of August was less than 2,000. And with our small output of these weapons—the average number of heavy guns added to the home defences throughout the latter half of 1940 was only forty a month—there could be no quick improvement. Searchlights and balloons were more nearly up to the approved totals, though far below what was desirable.
Since the immediate additions to the gun defences could be so few, Dowding had to find some other answer to the problem of close protection. His solution, effected in concert with General Pile of Anti-Aircraft Command—who was operationally responsible to Dowding as head of the entire air defence system, but in practice a colleague rather than a subordinate—was to redeploy the existing resources. He accordingly lessened the gun density in many areas, including London, and concentrated no less than a quarter of our entire strength in heavy guns for the defence of the aircraft industry—on which our capacity to resist now more than ever depended. At the same time, so far as his means allowed, he strengthened the defence of many of the aircraft factories by balloon barrages. These, like the balloons protecting our towns, were installed, administered and operated by Air Vice-Marshal O. T. Boyd’s Balloon Command under the operational control of Fighter Command. Finally, Dowding was able in some cases to protect the aircraft factories with the installation known as P.A.C. (Parachute and Cable). By this device a system of rockets arranged in line and attached to light steel cables carrying parachutes was electrically discharged on the approach of a hostile aircraft. The rockets ascended to some 600 feet, the parachutes opened, and the dangling cables formed a brief but deadly obstacle in the path of the raider.
Meanwhile the Luftwaffe was preparing for its task . Three Luftflotten, or Air Fleets, were to take part in the operations against the British Isles. Luftflotte 2, under Kesselring, was based in Holland, Belgium and north-east France: Luftflotte 3, under Sperrle, in north and north-west France: Luftflotte 5, under Stumpff, in Norway and Denmark. Together their resources amounted to some 3,500 aircraft; and with 75 per cent of these serviceable they could be sure of having
at least 250 dive-bombers, 1,000 long-range bombers and 1,000 fighters ready for the opening of the offensive. Throughout the last week of July the operations staff at Luftwaffe Headquarters and the three Luftflotten laboured on their plans for the great Adlerangriff, or Eagle-attack, which in a few swift strokes would shatter the Royal Air Force as it had earlier shattered the air forces of Poland and France. On 2nd August the final directive was issued to the Luftflotten; all was decided save the exact date. A few days later and that too was settled. Given the right weather, the grand assault would begin on 10th August.
While these plans were being perfected, and while all was being made ready on the newly occupied airfields, the Luftwaffe used no more than five to ten per cent of its strength on active operations. Its main tasks during this preliminary period were reconnaissance of our airfields, ‘experience’ flights over the English coast, night training, and attacks on our Channel shipping. All these duties except the last were combined with the further function of harassing the British population and testing its morale.
The first operations over England in any strength were flown on the night of 5/6th June, when some thirty aircraft attacked airfields and other objectives near the east coast. Similar attacks were mad on the following night; then there was a lull until the French request for an armistice on 17th June. But from the moment France was dispose of, and until the daylight offensive was well under way, German aircraft ranged over England almost every night. The force employed was never more than sixty or seventy bombers; its losses rarely amounted to more than one or two aircraft. Apart from their reconnaissance and training value, the operations were thus a cheap means of maintaining pressure until the full weight of the German air arm descended upon us. at first they caused great inconvenience and some loss of production—not from the actual damage inflicted, but from the perpetual and protracted air raid alarms; on 24/25th June, for instance, the whole of the country south of a line from Hull to Liverpool was under the ‘red’ warning, though only Bristol was threatened by more than one or two aircraft. But as soon as we accepted the chance of the odd bomb falling unannounced and sounded the siren more sparingly (a remedy also adopted in Germany at this time against the activity of Bomber Command) the Luftwaffe’s night operations were seen to be singularly ineffective as the efforts of our guns, searchlights and night-fighters to prevent them.
German operations over the Channel were not much more fruitful, though these confronted Fighter Command with difficulties
beyond its immediate capacity to resolve. The Luftwaffe had no lack of targets, for though most of our ocean-going convoys were by now taking a route west of Ireland a few still used the Channel, and there was an almost continuous procession of coastal convoys. In terms of vessels sunk, the enemy’s daylight attacks but moderately rewarded—in the month preceding the Battle of Britain they sank some 40,000 tons—and the Germans obtained an almost equal return, at far less expense, from their mine-laying by night. But the flying-effort forced on Fighter Command by the daylight attacks was very large, amounting to some 600 sorties a day; and since the fighter escorts with our ships were of necessity small, and the warning usually too short for further squadrons to reach the convoys before the attack developed, most of the combats found our pilots at a grave disadvantage. Over and over again a mere handful of Spitfires and Hurricanes found themselves fighting desperately with formations of a hundred or more German aircraft. it says everything for the skill and valour of our airmen that in these circumstances 227 enemy aircraft were shot down between 10th July and 10th August, while we ourselves lost only 96.
These days of chase and combat over the Channel soon revealed the need for some better means of rescuing ‘ditched’ aircrew. The existing system depended on search by ships in the vicinity, Royal Air Force high-speed launches, and whatever aircraft could be spared by Coastal Command or the station of the lost aircraft. What was needed was on the one hand the certainty that specially-equipped aeroplanes would be instantly available, on the other hand the development of all possible devices by which crashed airmen could indicate their position and remain alive until help arrived. in both respects the Germans were well ahead. They already had some thirty He.59 float-planes equipped for rescue work over the sea; and their single-engined fighters, like the bomber and reconnaissance aircraft on both sides, carried an inflatable dinghy at a time when our Hurricane and Spitfire pilots had to rely entirely on their Mae Wests. The German aircrews were also provided with fluorescein, a chemical which stained the sea around their dinghy bright green. For our part we refused the right of the He.59s to bear the Red Cross—they would certainly have used their immunity to report our convoys—and from 14th July our fighters were under orders to shoot them down. As a more constructive measure we imitated the device of fluorescein. By the end of July, Air Vice-Marshal Park at No. 11 Group, acting in cooperation with the Vice-Admiral at Dover, had also succeeded in borrowing some Lysander aircraft to work systematically with the launches and other craft—an event which marked
a start towards a truly comprehensive organization for Air-Sea Rescue. Few investments of aircraft were to yield more precious dividends.
How badly we needed special aircraft for this purpose may be seen from the almost fortuitous fashion in which our airmen were being picked up from the sea. The case of Pilot Officer Stevenson of No. 74 Squadron is not unrepresentative. Early on 11th August his squadron was ordered to intercept enemy aircraft over Dover. Stevenson sighted a single Me.109. His combat report tells the rest of the story:
I climbed up to him. He must have thought I was a Me.109 but when he suddenly dived away I followed him and gave a two-seconds deflection burst. The E/A [enemy aircraft] lurched slightly and went into a vertical dive. I kept my height at 15,000 feet and watched. I saw the E/A dive straight into the sea fifteen miles South East of Dover and disappear in a big splash of water. I then climbed to 23,000 feet up sun and saw a formation of twelve Me.109s 2,000 feet beneath me, proceeding North of Dover. It was my intention to attach myself to the back of this formation. As i was diving for them, a really large volume of cannon and machine-gun fire came from behind. There were about twelve Me.109s diving at me from the sun and at least half of them must have been firing deflection shots at me. There was a popping noise and my control column became useless. I found myself doing a vertical dive, getting faster and faster. I pulled the hood back. I got my head out of the cockpit and the slipstream tore the rest of me clean out of the machine. My trouser leg and both shoes were torn off. I saw my machine crash into the sea a mile off Deal. It took me twenty to come down. I had been drifted eleven miles out to sea. One string of my parachute did not come undone, and I was dragged along by my left leg at ten miles an hour with my head underneath the water. After three minutes I was almost unconscious, when the string came undone. I got my breath back and started swimming. There was a heavy sea running. After one and a half hours a M.T.B. came to look for me. I fired my revolver at it. It went out of sight, but came back. I changed magazines and fired all my shots over it. It heard my shots and I kicked up a foam in the water, and it saw me. It then picked me up and took me to Dover.
The fighting in the Channel waxed fiercer, and floating balloon barrages began to form part of the convoys. Dover, too, acquired a barrage, and the Luftwaffe took with such relish to the sport of shooting down the balloons, and lost so many aircraft and crews in the process, that Göring hastily ordered a close season. and everywhere the preparations went forward—on the one side for ensuring an easy and agreeable trip across the Channel, on the other side for giving the visitors a warm, not to say hot, welcome.
Defence at its most effective is very seldom purely defensive. Fortunately the Royal Air Force was also able to disturb the enemy
by offensive action. But, before either defensive or offensive action could be applied with much profit, the nature of the German plans had to be laid bare. This task, too, our aircraft discharged to the full.
Thanks to the brilliant work of a few individuals among whom due credit must be given to the adventurous and unorthodox F. S. Cotton, there now existed a means of extensive, efficient and economical air reconnaissance. The high-altitude Spitfires, no longer merely a promising innovation, had already become one of our most important weapons. The time was therefore ripe to bring them into line with normal Royal Air Force organization; and in preparation for the tasks that lay ahead the Photographic Development Unit in which most of them worked was renamed the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, placed under the command of a regular officer (Wing Commander G. W. Tuttle), and embodied in Coastal Command. At the same time steps were taken to improve and expand the facilities for photographic interpretation.
From Norway to the Spanish frontier these Spitfires and the lower-flying Hudsons now ranged, photographic the ports held by the enemy. Of the danger points where an expedition might be in preparation only the Baltic was still beyond their reach. At first they brought back little evidence of anything unusual; but during the second week of August their prints began to reveal small concentrations of barges which might be explicable in terms of invasion. The German plan was maturing. So Coastal Command kept watch, building up a picture remarkable not only for its accuracy but also for its low cost.2
Meanwhile Bomber Command was hitting out. At first the main intention was to reduce the potential weight of German air attack against this country. To this end the night bombers operated for the most part against the German aircraft industry, the day bombers against airfields in occupied territory. During July enemy ports and shipping were officially rated ‘top priority’, but until the shipping concentration became very marked in August aircraft plants and airfields remained our prime objectives. Throughout the period, however, attacks were delivered on other target systems, such as oil plants and communications; and, as in other crisis of May and June, our bombing policy displayed a variety which was perhaps too great for the circumstances.
Whether much good was done by our attacks on the enemy’s airfields is an open question. The Air Staff at the time had no love for work of this king. There were over 400 airfields from which the Germans could, and did, operate against this country; well dispersed
aircraft offered a very unprofitable subject for attack; the small fragmentation bomb which later gave such good results in this type of operation was not yet in existence; and ‘shooting up’ by fighters, which was known to be effective, was at the moment a luxury we could not afford. Nevertheless, the situation demanded attacks on airfields, and the bombers did the best to provide them. On occasions that best was very good indeed; but all too often our attempts resulted only in a depressing waste of effort.
The bulk of these operations against airfields were carried out in daylight by the Blenheims of No. 2 group; the ‘heavies’, operating by night, usually attacked airfields only when they had failed to identify their prime objectives in Germany. As they had little chance of surviving against German fighters, the Blenheim pilots were soon under orders to abandon the task if there was less then 7/10ths cloud near the target area. This was certainly a wise precaution, but in the latter part of July it resulted in no less than 90 per cent of the sorties proving abortive. It was to avoid this waste of effort that from then onwards the Blenheims, aided by some of the Battles which had returned from France, began to operate by moonlight.
What was liable to happen during the daylight operations before the pilots were bound down by hard and fast instructions about cloud cover may seen from the experience of Nos. 21 and 57 Squadrons on 9th July. Their target was the airfield at Stavanger, where a large concentration of enemy aircraft was reported. After standing by at 0500 hours for some days, waiting for a suitable report from the ‘Met’, six aircraft from each squadron at last took off in good weather—too good, as it proved. A hundred miles from the Norwegian coast not a cloud was in sight, but the pilots kept on. At least one of the navigators was doubtful of the wisdom of this. ‘I suggested we should turn back,’ writes Sergeant T. Hudspeth, ‘but the pilot would not hear of it; the others were going on and we were simply obliged to follow the leader. We were under strict W/T and R/T silence, so therefore unable to exchange opinions. i quite saw his point, for it we turned back as I suggested our two outside aircraft would have followed us, and the strength of the formation would have been weakened considerably. Also, of course, we should no doubt have received a good raspberry from the powers that be, so on we stooged.’
The Blenheims made their landfall without incident, then turned for their run up to the target. The enemy had been caught unawares: his fighters were still on the ground. But up came the flak, and down went the bombs, and then the crews ‘had only one ambition in life, and that was to get to Hell out of it’. Three aircraft had now broken
formation; the other nine, still in company, made off west at full throttle. They were not many miles out from shore when the enemy’s fighters came up with them—three Me.110s and thirty Me.109s.
Most of the nine were by now already badly damaged. Of what followed, Hudspeth had an excellent view, since the Blenheims were not more than ten yards apart. ‘I could see through my mirror’, he records, ‘the enemy fighters manoeuvring to attack. On one occasion I saw six fighters queuing up getting ready for the kill. It was not long before casualties started to pile up. First I saw our port machine and its valiant crew smashed to smithereens when it was shot down and hit the sea. Then came the starboard machine’s turn. He got a packet in the petrol tank and was burning like a torch. The pilot screamed out over his R/T that he was on fire but there was little we could do about it. The Jerry fighter on his tail, with the usual Teutonic thoroughness, would not ease up in the slightest, and continued to pour a stream of lead into the doomed machine till I saw him, too, disintegrate into the sea, legs and arms and parts of the machine being scattered far and wide. Both of our wing aircraft had now been shot down, and according to the law of averages we were next on the list. My pilot therefore did his best to catch up with the rest of the formation, but this was easier said than done, for they were taken absolutely wizard evasive action and we simply could not get in, no matter how we tried. Nor could we get below them, for they were at deck level, about 10 feet off the water; we had no alternative but to keep above them and slightly behind.’
By this time the nine had been reduced to four, but still the attacks continued. One of the pursuers was shot down, then another of the Blenheims. Then came what Hudspeth describes as his climax. ‘We stopped a packet in the starboard engine. i was kneeling up at the time, watching the fighters off our starboard, when to my great amazement our starboard propeller flew off—literally flew off. There was the prop. calmly sailing on ahead, leaving us stooging along now my ammunition had almost run out and it seemed just a matter of time before we joined the others, so I took what was, to me, a coward’s way out. I say back on my heels and offered up a prayer. I prayed for a cloud, for something that would ease this one-sided battle; and the, fantastic as it may sound, when I opened my eyes, there, about a mile away and about 1,000 feet above us was a cloud—a big, beautiful cloud. “Look, look,” I screamed to the pilot, “Clouds.” He did not want any second telling.’
Shaking off the enemy on the cloud-bank, the Blenheim eventually reached Wick and mad a successful belly-landing. Of the twelve
aircraft which had set off, four others, all damaged, also regained our shores.
As the day for the launching of the great Adlerangriff drew nearer, the Germans intensified their attacks against Channel targets. For the operations against our south coast ports and shipping had the treble purpose of weakening the Royal Navy, damaging our trade and wearing down our fighter forces. Indeed, the German activity on 8th August (when repeated assaults were mad on our convoys off Dover and the Isle of Wight, and we lost twenty aircraft and enemy twenty-eight) was so great that it afterwards appeared to us to mark the beginning of the Battle of Britain. But in truth Göring had not yet opened his main offensive, nor did the weather permit him to do so on his appointed date of 10th August. The 11th, with attacks on Dover and Portland and two convoys, and thirty-two of our aircraft destroyed as against thirty-five of the enemy’s, was another bug day; but it was not until 12th August that the Germans, doubtless unaware of the significance of the date in the sporting calendar, went all-out against the Royal Air Force. By that date Raeder, forced by the German Army to agree to landings on a far wider front than he felt himself able to protect, had already lost confidence in the whole plan of invasion. ‘Paradoxical situation,’ noted Halder on 6th August, ‘where the Navy is full of misgivings, and the Air Force very reluctant to undertake a mission which at the outset is exclusively its own. And O.K.W. [Supreme Headquarters], which for once has a real combined force in the whole situation comes from us.…’
The Germans themselves reckon that they began the Battle of Britain on the afternoon of 13th August. They admit, however, that two formations misunderstood orders and took off in the morning. But the attacks of 13th August did not differ materially from those of the previous day, and it is from 12th August that the beginning of the battle proper must be dated. For it was on that day that the enemy, while not yet ignoring our shipping and Channel ports, began a systematic assault on our airfields and radar stations.
The operations of 12th August displayed a number of features characteristic of the days to follow. The German bombers, which included Ju.87s, were heavily escorted; five or six major operations, involving many hundreds of aircraft, were undertaken; and attacks on one area were timed either to coincide with, or to follow closely upon, attacks or threats against some other area many miles away. As the targets were on or near the coast our fighters were hard put to it to intercept, and the German bombing was not unsuccessful. All
the five radar stations attacked were damaged, Manston airfield was put out of action, and at Lympne and Hawkinge take-off and landing had to be confined to very narrow strips. But though many structures were destroyed, the general effect on our air activity was small. At one radar station on the south coast, for instance, every building was smashed except the three that really mattered—the transmitting and receiving blocks and the watch office. By dint of hard work all the attacked units except the radar station on the Isle of Wight (which was not replaced until 23rd August) were in operation again by the following morning. Moreover, though a few small formations had penetrated unchallenged, none of the major raids had escaped detection and combat, and some—including one aimed at Manston—had been entirely frustrated. No. 11 Group had managed to put its fighters into the air, if not in time to meet the raiders in force, at least in time to interfere with their bombing and harass their departure; and though our fighters were consistently outnumbered they had lost only twenty-two of their number in shooting down thirty-six of the enemy.
The following day the Germans left the radar stations alone. Three times they came over in strength, with one prong of their attack directed at airfields in the south and the other at airfields in the south east. Their intention was to find a loophole in our defence: to see if we could fight over Kent and Essex only at the expense or our resistance over Sussex and Hampshire. Much of the day was cloudy, favouring attack rather than defence; but the enemy was sadly disappointed if he expected, after the previous day’s damage to our warning system, to cross our shores undetected and unchallenged. Our radar continued to plot the enemy’s approach towards our shores; the Observer Corps continued to track his progress inland. the result was that serious damage was confined to the Coastal Command stations at Eastchurch and Detling and the ‘fringe’ target of Southampton. Split up and harried by our fighters, the enemy pilots dropped a few bombs on seven Royal Air Force stations, including Middle Wallop, Benson and Thorney Island, but nowhere achieved an effective concentration. Three of their main objectives—the airfields at Odiham, Farnborough and Rochford—remained entirely untouched. And this time the balance of losses was still more in our favour—thirteen against forty-seven. The Germans, however, thought otherwise. Reporting on the results of the attacks since 8th August, Stapf informed Halder that eight of our major air bases had been virtually destroyed, and that the ration of German to British aircraft losses was one to three for all types, one to five for fighters.
On the night of 13th August the enemy embarked on a fresh departure. Not content with the minor operations and mine-laying
thus far reserved for the hours of darkness, and closely pursuing their main plan of reducing British air power, the Germans began nightly attacks on our aircraft plants. On this first even eleven high-explosive bombs hit the Nuffield factory at Castle Bromwich—a factory producing Spitfires. The bombers were from KG 100, one of the few bomber Gruppen in the German Air Force which specialized in night operations, and one which was to lead many of the heavy raids of the autumn and winter. The success of this initial attack, however, did not truly represent German ability to find specific factories by night. Between 14th and 23rd August, the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s Works at Filton were selected for attack on at least eight occasions, but bombs fell on them only twice. And during the same period, nine attempts to bomb the Westland, Rolls-Royce and Gloster works, the Germans only twice got their bombs within five miles of their objective. Indeed, they were so far astray in this whole series of attacks only one German pilot so much as claimed to have hit his target—the Rolls-Royce works at Crewe, on the night of 20th August. Fortunately he was mistaken.
After the intense fighting of 13th August the following day was quieter. In the morning Manston was attacked by nine Me.110s carrying bombs—a clear indication that Göring already doubted the ability of his Ju.87s to survive against our Hurricanes and Spitfires. Some rather pointless attacks were also mad on the Dover balloon barrage and on the Varne lightship. In the afternoon and evening single enemy aircraft, or aircraft in very small formations, mad scattered raids over the west and north west, and bombs fell on eight Royal Air Force stations as far apart as Middle Wallop, Cardiff, Andover and Sealand, near Chester. But our capacity to put our fighters into the air was almost unaffected; and the enemy had lost nineteen aircraft to eight of ours.
During the hours of darkness that followed, the enemy’s usual nightly activity—a matter of between sixty and a hundred sorties, ranging far and wide over the country—was strangely absent. Apart from a few individual reconnaissances the quiet continued well into the next morning. It was the calm before the storm. August 15th saw the heaviest fighting of the whole battle.
For some time now the Germans had been waiting for this moment—the moment when the weather would be right for a concerted onslaught by all three Luftflotten. This, it will be remembered, was how they had planned to open the intensive phase of their campaign. While Luftflotte 2 attacked the south-east, and Luftflotte 3 the south, Luftflotte 5, in Norway and Denmark, would operate against the north-east. The British fighters would thus be engaged
all along the line, If Dowding had stripped the north to thicken up his defences in the south, Tyneside and the bomber airfields of Yorkshire would suffer in full measure.
The first blow was struck at the south-east. At 1129, two German formations, amounting to about sixty Ju.87s escorted by fifty Me.109s, crossed the coast between Dover and Dungeness; a third formation, of fighters only, was driven back before it reached out shores. Two of the four British squadrons ordered up—Nos. 54 and 501—made skilful interceptions; and of the several airfields that were attack, only the little-used Lympne suffered much damage.
Then, while the Channel remained the scene of repeated alarums and excursions, so that No. 11 Group was continually forced to put up patrols, the attacks began against the north-east. At 1208, nearly an hour before the enemy eventually crossed the coast between Blyth and Acklington, the Operations Room table at No. 13 Group showed its first plot of German aircraft. They were opposite the Firth of Forth, nearly a hundred miles out to sea; and they were heading south-west. With such good warning five British squadrons were soon on patrol. No .72 Squadron intercepted thirty miles out beyond the Farne Islands; it reported that the enemy, so far from number some thirty, as indicated by our radar, consisted of about a hundred He.111s and seventy Me.110s. This sort of mistake was not infrequent in 1940, for though our radar stations at this time gave very accurate information about the enemy’s bearing, they were much less reliable in their estimates of height and number. Nothing daunted, the squadron sailed in, caught the Germans by surprise, inflicted heavy losses, and split the broad mass of the raiders in twain. One of the resulting formations was savagely mauled by No 79 Squadron before it reached the coast; and as soon as our shores were gained the Me.110s, short of petrol and very unhappy in the presence of Hurricanes and Spitfires, turned and fled. Despite our attacks most of the He.111s managed to cross the coast, but they were then so harassed by Nos. 41, 605 and 607 Squadrons, with the Tees and Tyneside guns joining in, that their bombing went entirely astray. Not a single factory or airfield was hit. All that the enemy pilots could show for their efforts was the destruction of twenty-four houses at Sunderland.
Meanwhile another German formation from the Scandinavian bases was heading for Scarborough, a hundred miles to the south. Against this threat, four British squadrons were already on guard. No 616 Squadron was the first to engage, ten miles out beyond Flamborough Head. No 73 Squadron followed. Together their attacks resulted in the destruction of several of the enemy; but the
bulk of the formation, consisting of fifty Ju.88s, pressed on and crossed the coast. Some then turned north to join in the attacks on Tees and Tyneside, while others turned south. They were pursued, completely in vain, by the makeshift Blenheim fighters of No. 219 Squadron, one of which chased a Ju.88 for 160 miles over land and sea without getting close than 600 yards. Nevertheless, the enemy bombers managed to hit only two military objectives. one of these, presumably struck by accident, was an ammunition dump near Bridlington. The other was the aerodrome at Driffield, where ten aircraft were destroyed and much damage was done to buildings and hangars.
The bombing of Driffield was the one item on the credit sited that the Germans could display for their operations from Norway and Denmark. Indeed, their losses were so severe that throughout the remaining weeks of the Battle of Britain they never again attempted a daylight raid against the north-east. Yet on the British side not a single fighter had been lost. The whole episode was a remarkable demonstration of the German bombers’ complete impotence in the face of our defences when forced to operate by day without the company of Me.109s.
By 1420 the last German aircraft had disappeared from the scene of the attacks in the north. At the same time the third great operation of the day was just beginning in the south-east. After a number of feints, the enemy flew beyond the Thames estuary and crossed the coast in some force near Felixstowe, Harwich and Orfordness. But the six British squadrons which had been set up were less skilfully controlled than usual, and few interceptions were made—part of No. 17 Squadron from Martlesham Heath, for instance, was sent off on search, and had then to be ordered back to its own airfield, which the enemy was bombing at leisure. Meanwhile, at precisely the same moment another raid consisting of nearly a hundred aircraft was plotted over Deal. Twenty minutes later, at 1530, yet another formation, nearly 150 strong, came in near Folkestone. Both of these formations were challenged and harried all over Kent and Essex by our pilots, who though consistently and heavily outnumbered prevented any serious damage to our airfields. The Germans were much more successful, however, against their other main object of attack—the aircraft industry at Rochester. Pobjoy’s and Short’s were both heavily hit, with resulting loss of output for several weeks.
Two hours later the enemy struck at yet another point. Between 1700 and 1720 the south-coast radar stations detected no less than seven strong formations, containing in all between 200 and 300 aircraft approaching the shores of Hampshire and Dorset. Before
the Germans could cross the Channel eight British squadrons were in the air; and altogether about 150 Spitfire and Hurricanes left the ground in the course of the raid—the largest force which Fighter Command had as yet put up to meet one attack. Fierce battles developed near Portsmouth and Portland, where many of the Germans were beaten back before they could cross the coast, and long straggling encounters took place all over the southern counties. Yet such was the ascendancy of our pilots, and so small was the proportion of the enemy’s bombers to his fighters, that once again the damage on the ground was insignificant. Only at Middle Wallop airfield, where two hangars and a few aircraft were affected, did the German crews reap the slightest reward for their efforts; and even then they spoilt the effect by reporting on their return that they had bombed Andover.
Scarcely were these attacks over when large forces were again plotted in the region of Calais. By 1815 sixty or seventy enemy aircraft were heading for the coast between Dover and Dungeness, and within the next ten minutes four British squadrons were ordered up. Six others followed, as the enemy penetrated inland. Some of the Germans were intercepted over Folkestone and others were turned back near Maidstone; but one formation of Me.110s, carrying bombs and escorted by Me.109s got through to Croydon. Here they were sharply engaged by No. 32 Squadron from Biggin Hill and by No. 111 Squadron from Croydon itself. Several of the enemy were shot down; but the Germans managed to bomb not only Croydon and West Malling airfields, but also Rollason and Redwing aircraft factories. Damage in both cases was severe—though Redwing’s started up on a new site within twenty-four hours—and another factory engaged in making switches for aircraft radio sets was completely destroyed. That evening Londoners became uncomfortably aware that the great battle in the air was moving their way. Its significance, however, they as yet barely apprehended.
So 15th August closed. Five major assaults, some of them almost simultaneous, had been launched by the enemy against areas as far apart as Portland and the Tyne. The attacks had had their profitable moments, as at Driffield, Rochester and Croydon; but considering that no less than 1,790 aircraft—520 bombers and 1,270 fighters—had been hurled against our shores, the damage was infinitesimal. Everywhere the Germans had been checked and harried by our Hurricanes and Spitfires; nowhere had they discovered a serious gap in our defences. And if the emphasis of their operations was on wearing down our fighters rather than destroying objectives on the ground, they had achieved any success in that direction only at a great price; for though we lost thirty-four aircraft the enemy lost seventy-six.
This figure of seventy-six enemy aircraft destroyed, though impressive enough in all conscience—especially as many were bombers carrying a crew of three or four—came as a great disappointment when it was discovered from secret German archives after the war. Our estimate of the day’s successes given to the public at the time was that we had certainly destroyed 182 enemy aircraft and probably destroyed another fifty-three. The circumstances, however, were unusual. Raids came in so thick and fast that there was often barely time to interrogate4 pilots before they were again leaping into their cockpits; aircraft were landing away from base; communications were affected; No. 11 Group and Fighter Command, besieged by the Press for the day’s results, could give only the roughest check to the claims pouring in from the stations; and with the size of the formations involved it was inevitable that two pilots, or a pilot and a gun crew on the ground, should sometimes claim the same aircraft. The enemy, too, had a trick of breaking away in a steep dive, emitting black smoke, and pulling out near the ground to escape at deck-level. As our pilots were rightly forbidden to follow suspected victims down for the satisfaction of witnessing the crash, this also swelled the score. This unwitting exaggeration was to be repeated on all the big days of the battle, though whenever the fighting was less intense the pilots’ claims were extremely accurate. That the figures were inflated, then, is not to be taken as a criticism of anyone at the time—least of all the pilots. The only charge that may justly may be made is that in the years to follow, until the discovery of the true figures, the Air Ministry did not sufficiently insist on the provisional character of those given to the public at the time. Statistics which of their nature could only be estimates were allowed to take on the guise of hard facts. Yet it must also be admitted that the figure of 182, like that of 185 for 15th September, though subsequently shown to be wrong, had an important psychological effect during the battle. For it undoubtedly inspired not only the fighter pilots but the whole nation to still greater miracles of effort.
While the the Luftflotten were engaged in the massive onslaught of 15th August, their commanders were enjoying the hospitality of their corpulent chief at his Prussian country-seat. On this occasion the guests had more important business than to study the activity of their host’s prize stallions, and a general conference took place on the progress of the operations against England. After some discussion Göring issued directions on a number of points. Among other matters, he found it necessary to remind his subordinates that the object of the battle was to crush the Royal Air Force. ‘Until further orders’, ran his instructions, ‘operations are to be directed exclusively against
the enemy air force, including the targets of the enemy aircraft industry allocated to the different Luftflotten. Shipping targets, and particularly large naval vessels are only to be attacked where circumstances are particularly propitious. For the moment other targets should be ignored. We must concentrate our efforts on the destruction of the enemy air forces. Our night attacks are essentially dislocation raids, mad so that the enemy defences and population shall be allowedno respite; even these, however, should wherever possible be directed against air force targets.’ Moreover, insisted Göring, there had been too many attacks on alternative targets which had ‘absolutely no connection with our strategic aim’. Henceforth even the alternative targets must be chosen for the degree to which their destruction would speed the victory over the Royal Air Force.
On this point Göring’s guidance was certainly sound. But on another matter his judgement, doubtless corresponding with the general sense of the meeting, was crucially at fault. For the ninth item in his summary of conclusions ran thus: ‘It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing the attacks on radar sites, in view of the fact that not one of those attacked has so far been put out of operation.’ In fact, these attacks had done more harm than the enemy thought, for on 12th August the station on the Isle of Wight had been virtually destroyed. But Göring’s decision, tentative in form, was acted upon as if it were absolute, and only two more attacks were made on these objectives.
The 15th August thus witnessed not only the enemy’s plan of operations at its most extensive, but also a fateful, and fatal, turn of policy. The decision to stop attacking radar stations was not, however, the only remarkable order issued by Göring that day. For it was on 15th August, only two or three days after the battle had begun, that had gave instructions that no aircrew operating over England should contain more than one officer. Thus early did the fear of heavy losses weigh on the German commander’s mind.
After the great battles of the day came the usual minelaying and other minor activity during the hours of darkness. Forty-two of our night fighters were sent up. Only one claimed an interception.
Then, with the morning of 16th August, the Luftwaffe returned in force. The day was marked by three great assaults. At midday the Germans operated over Kent and the Thames Estuary; a little later they attacked objectives in Sussex and Hampshire; and in the early evening they crossed the coast almost simultaneously at four points between Harwich and the Isle of Wight. Once more the forces employed were very large, amount in all to some 1,720 aircraft; and it was no small tribute to the defenders that of this number all but
4000 were fighters. Despite this the balance of losses in the air fighting—forty-five of the enemy, twenty-one of ours—was in much the same proportion as before. They day was cloudy, and for that reason the evening attack was able to penetrate well inland. For precisely the same reason it petered out in much scattered and ill-directed bombing, though the two Ju.88s which attacked the Maintenance Unit and Flying Training School at Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, scored the biggest single success of the whole battle by destroying no less than forty-six aircraft in the hangars. Other airfields bombed during the day were Manston, West Malling, Tangmere, Gosport, Lee-on-Solent, Farnborough and Harwell, while the radar station on the Isle of Wight, already out of action, suffered another pounding. It was typical, however, of the weaknesses of the German plan, or German intelligence, that only three of the eight airfields attacked were used by Fighter Command.
It was during the second of the day’s great operations, when the Germans were attacking Gosport, that one of our pilots performed an action typical of the spirit of the hour.Flight Lieutenant J. B. Nicolson, of No. 249 Squadron, was hotly engaged with the enemy when his Hurricane was hit by four cannon-shells. Two struck him, a third set fire to the reserve petrol tank behind the instrument-panel. Flames at once poured into the cockpit, and Nicolson was about to jump when he saw a Me.110 in a vulnerable position. Disregarding his intense pain and danger, he stayed in the blazing aircraft and delivered an attack which sent the German diving down out of control. Only then, badly wounded and severely burned about his face, neck, hands and legs, did he take to his parachute—to be promptly shot in the buttocks by an over-zealous Local Defence Volunteer. Nicolson’s great gallantry was later recognized by the award of the Victoria Cross, the first to be won by a pilot of Fighter Command.
The huge efforts on 15th and 16th August evidently impose some strain on the Germans, for on 17th August they paused to recover. Though the weather was not unfavourable, only seventy-seven raiders crossed our shores. But by 18th August the enemy was back again in force, with 750 sorties. Soon after midday part of a formation which had crossed the coast at Beachy Head got through to Kenley, one of the vital sector stations of No. 11 Group. Despite spirited intervention by Nos. 64 and 111 Squadrons, and despite the success of the local P.A.C. rockets in bring down at Do.17—the first victim to fall to this device—the enemy attack was delivered with skill and success. Every hangar except one was destroyed; six Hurricanes were put out of action on the ground; the runways, though they could still be used, were heavily cratered; and signals communications
were so badly affected that the Sector Operations Room had to be closed down and the organization transferred to an emergency room in disuse butcher’s shop in the main thoroughfare of Caterham. From then on the station controlled only two squadrons instead of its normal three.
Ten minutes after the bombing of Kenley a small detachment from the main body of the enemy again attacked Croydon airfield and the Rollason aircraft factory. West Malling was also hit once more, but a large force was headed for another of the all-important sector stations—Biggin Hill—was largely beaten off by Nos. 32 and 610 Squadrons. Later in the afternoon the airfields at Gosport, Ford and Thorney Island were all heavily attacked, and another radar station—the last of these objectives to suffer during the battle—was put out of action. But the enemy was less successful in the evening, when an onset by strong forces against our airfields in the Thames Estuary was entirely frustrated. On the whole, though the damage was in some places serious, we had done well to prevent the raiders knocking out Kenley and Biggin Hill. As for the tally of losses, this was still more in favour. We lost twenty-seven; the enemy seventy-one.
For all the German advantage in numbers, the exchanges up to this point had been well in our favour. This was the more remarkable since the enemy’s numerical superiority was even greater in actual combat than in total resources. For since the Luftwaffe was operating for the most part against targets near our coasts, the warning we received was usually much too short to mass our squadrons into larger formations before challenging the enemy; only by allowing the Germans to bomb their objectives unhindered for the sake of concentrating a large force against them on the their way home could Park have overcome this difficulty. So it was squadron by squadron that our Hurricanes and Spitfires were coming into action against the enemy; and in any given combat they might be, and usually were, outnumbered by as many as twenty to one. Yet it was in conditions of this kind that our pilots were shooting down two of the enemy for every loss they themselves suffered.
The enemy’s advantage in numbers was to be expected. For that reason it was less galling to our pilots than his all too frequent advantage in height. Over and over again our squadrons, ordered to intercept the enemy at 10,000–15,000 feet, found themselves ‘jumped’ from above. This occurred partly because the radar height readings were unreliable, partly because the controllers had to keep some of our fighters below cloud-level to protect our airfields, and partly because Spitfires and Hurricanes in 1940 were unable to climb to 25,000 feet in less than about twenty minutes. All the same the orders
were not entirely to our pilots’ disadvantage, for above 18,000 feet the relative performances of the Hurricane and the Me.109 turned in favour of the latter.
Despite all adverse factors, then, our pilots had so far more than held their own. The first German formations had come over with the bombers low, the fighters high above them; and on Park’s orders our squadrons had met them by splitting up, one fight engaging and holding off the fighters, the other flight dealing with the bombers beneath. These tactics had proved so successful that from 16th August onwards the Germans resorted to much tighter formations, with their fighters not only close on top of the bombers, but also ahead and on the flanks at the same level. To that extent our pilots’ manoeuvre was soon countered. There was nothing, however, that the enemy could do to disguise the now obvious vulnerability of the Ju.87. For though the Stukas had bombed some of the coastal airfields with great accuracy, they had suffered the heaviest losses of all; so heavy that after the raid on Gosport on 18th August they were withdrawn from the battle. From that date they were condemned to wait on airfields behind Calais until the great day of invasion, when in absence of the defeated Royal Air Force they could demonstrate their powers against the Royal Navy.
But though our pilots were proving more than a match for their opponents, and though the German attacks on our airfields had resulted in only West Malling being out of action for more than twenty-four hours, there was every prospect that the enemy’s superior resources might tell in the end. From 8th to 18th August the Germans had lost 367 aircraft, Fighter Command 183 in combat and 30 on the ground. This number of Hurricanes and Spitfires, however, could not be mad good from production when the combined weekly output of these types was a little over a hundred. To replace our losses we were thus having to eat into our scanty reserves. If this went on for many weeks there could be only one end—defeat for the Royal Air Force.
In this situation the work of those engaged in making, repairing and servicing our fighters took on a degree of urgency greater than ever before or since. All responded overwhelmingly to the demands of the hour. Typical of the efforts was that of No. 24 Maintenance Unit at Tern Hill, in Shropshire. This unit, a Service-manned Aircraft Storage Unit in No. 41 Group, Maintenance Command, was primarily engaged in preparing Spitfires flown to it from the manufacturers. ‘We worked’, wrote the Commanding Officer, ‘two twelve-hour shifts daily, and the Spitfires were received, checked, modified, and had their guns removed, cleaned, re-fitted, tested and harmonized; the aircraft were fitted out with radio, fitted with
ammunition, and were ready for collection within 48 hours. They were frequently collected by the Fighter Squadron pilots and were in action against the enemy on the same day.…’
Alarming as was the shortage of aircraft, it was not the worst danger. Long before our fighters gave out we should have reached crisis-point in the supply of trained fighter pilots. Between 8th August and 18th August we had lost 154 pilots killed, missing and severely wounded; and the number of new fighter pilots produced during the same period was only 63. Moreover these newcomers, though of equal spirit, as yet possessed only a tithe of the fighting skill of their predecessors. To meet the need of the hour volunteers from among the Lysander and Battle squadrons, the air forces of our allies, and those about to embark on the final stages of Bomber and Coastal training were rushed through specially shortened fighter courses. Emergency measures, however, could only reduce the gap, not close it. Throughout the battle the supply of pilots remained Dowding’s gravest anxiety.
The replacement of casualties was the most serious aspect of the pilot problem, but it was not the only one. There was also the growing strain on those who survived. Incidents such as befell Flying Officer E. S. Marrs of No. 152 Squadron, and recorded below in his own words, were happening every day. They could not be suffered very often without some effect on the nervous system.
I got in a burst of about three seconds when—Crash! and the whole world seemed to be tumbling in on me. I pushed the stick forward hard, went into a vertical dive and held it until I was below cloud. I had a look round. The chief trouble was that petrol was gushing into the cockpit at the rate of gallons all over my feet, and there was a sort of lake of petrol in the bottom of the cockpit. my knew and leg were tingling all over as if I had pushed them into a bed of nettles. There was a bullet-hole in my windscreen where a bullet had come in and entered the dashboard, knocking away the starter button. I had obviously run into some pretty good cross-fire from the Heinkels. I made for home at top speed to get there before all my petrol ran out. I was about fifteen miles from the aerodrome and it was a heart-rending business with all the petrol gushing over my legs and the constant danger of fire. About five miles from the ‘drome’ smoke began to come from under the dashboard. I thought the whole thing might blow up at any minute, so I switched off my engine. The smoke stopped. I glided towards the ‘drome’ and tried putting my wheels down. One came down the other remained stuck down. There was nothing for it but to make a one-wheel landing. I switched on my engine again to make the aerodrome. It took me some way and then
began to smoke again, so I hastily switched off. I was now near enough and made a normal approach, and held off. I made a good landing, touching down lightly. The unsupported wing slowly began to drop. I was able to hold it up for some time and then down came the wing-tip on the ground. I began to slew round and counteracted as much as possible with the brake on the wheel which was down. I ended up going sideways on one wheel, a tail wheel and a wing-tip. luckily the good tyre held out and the only damage to the aeroplane, apart from that done by the bullets, is a wing-tip which is easily replaceable. I hopped out and went off to the M.O. to get a lot of metal splinters picked out of my leg and wrist. I felt jolly glad to be down on the ground without having caught fire…
The long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day was normal, six or seven not uncommon), the repeated combats, the parachute descents, the forced landings—all took their toll, even where the harm was not at once apparent. The growing tiredness of those who had been most actively engaged was a factor which Dowding could neglect no more than his casualties. Fighter Command was still successfully resisting the enemy. Its own strength was being steadily sapped in the process.
From 19th August to 23rd August there was much heavy cloud, and the Germans were unable to operate in strength. Nevertheless they carried out many scatted raids; Manston was heavily attacked, and on the afternoon of 19th August a single aircraft bombed the oil and storage depot at Llanreath, starting a fire which burned for a week and destroyed ten out of the fifteen oil tanks. By night the enemy again damaged the Bristol works at Filton and some industrial targets at Castle Bromwich, but otherwise his efforts resulted in little beyond the now customary catalogue of rural incidents. Satisfaction at the ineffectiveness of the night attacks, however, was marred by the sobering thought of how little this was due to our defences. During these nights none of the three enemy aircraft claimed by the guns was found on the ground, and 160 sorties by night fighters resulted in only one pilot so much as gaining contact with the enemy.
On 24th August the Germans were able to resume mass attack by daylight. From then until 6th September there was only one day—27th August—on which they despatched less than 600 sorties. Over the whole period they put an average of almost a thousand aircraft a day into the air; and on two days—August 30th and 31st—they operated more than 1,600 machines against us. Yet the number of bombers included in these vast formations never rose above 400, and was usually not much over 250.
The governing object of the enemy was still the destruction of the Royal Air Force, and especially of Fighter Command. At another conference at Karinhall on 19th August Göring was again explicit on this point. ‘We have reached’, he said, ‘the decisive period of the air war against England. The vital task is to turn all means at our disposal to the defeat of the enemy air force. Our first aim is the destruction of the enemy’s fighters. Our first aim is the destruction of the enemy’s fighters. If they no longer take the air, we shall attack them on the ground, or force them into battle by directing bomber attacks against targets within the range of our fighters. At the same time, and on a growing scale, we must continue our activities against the ground organization of the enemy bomber units. Suppose attacks on the enemy aircraft industry must be mad by day and by night. Once the enemy air force has been annihilated, our attacks will be directed as ordered against other vital targets.’
The enemy’s basic strategy might remain the same, but he took care to alter his tactics. Clearly the attacks on coastal airfields and other ‘fringe’ targets had not decisively weakened the British fighter force, while the simultaneous assaults at widely separated points had only proved that our defences were intact all along the line. A new approach to the task was badly needed; and the Germans accordingly determined to concentrate the whole weight of their onslaught by day against Royal Air Force objectives in the south east. The full fury of their attack was thus turned on No. 11 Group, and more particularly on its inland airfields. For only by penetrating well inland could the enemy reach the vital sector stations from which our squadrons were controlled; and only in this way could he be sure of bringing the largest possible number of British fighters to battle. If still more Hurricanes and Spitfires could be shot down—the German pilots were far more lavish in their estimates of success than ours—and if the control system could be paralysed, London and the invasion coast would soon lie at the attackers’ mercy.
Command and Group were the brain of the defensive system; the sectors were the nerve-centres. Once Group had ordered aircraft into the air, the control of those aircraft and their direction by R/T towards the enemy was in the hands of the sector. In No. 11 Group there were seven of these master stations, each normally controlling three squadrons. Tangmere, on the South Downs behind Bognor, and Debden, near Saffron Walden, were rather apart from the rest; the others formed a close guard round London. Kenley, an unexpected plateau above the wooded slopes of the North Downs near Caterham, and Biggin Hill, further along the ridge into Kent, protected the southern approaches to the capital; Hornchurch, a sudden expanse of grass beyond the factories of Romford and Dagenham, and North
Weald, on the outer fringe of Epping Forest, guarded the east; Northolt, on one of the great arterial exits, stood sentinel against attack from the west. I was against this ring of airfields that the enemy now struck.
The attack on 18th August had already restricted our use of Kenley. Now, on the 24th, North Weald was heavily hit; but the enemy’s second main objective, Hornchurch, was well protected by the local guns and suffered less severely. Two days later a new series of attacks against Hornchurch and North Weald was beaten off, though bombs fell on Debden. But on 30th the enemy twice got through to Biggin Hill, wrecking the workshops, the M.T. yard, the equipment and barracks stores, the armoury, the Met. Office and—a grave blow at the morale of the airmen—the N.A.A.F.I. The attacks also severed the gas and water mains and all telephone communications on the northern side of the station. A direct hit on a shelter trench killed several officers and men.
The next day the enemy was equally successful. After Debden had been bombed in the morning, and Croydon and Hornchurch at midday, Hornchurch and Biggin Hill were again attacked in the evening. At Hornchurch three aircraft of No. 54 Squadron were destroyed as they were taking off. ‘The Squadron’, recorded the Station diary, ‘was ordered off just as the first bombs were beginning to fall. Eight of our machines safely cleared the ground; the remaining section, however, just became airborne as the bombs exploded. All three machines were wholly wrecked in the air, and the survival of the pilots is a complete miracle. Sgt. Davies, taking off towards the hangars, was thrown back across the River Ingrebourne two fields away, scrambling out of his machine unharmed. Flight Lieutenant Deere (in yet another role) had one wing and his prop. torn off; climbing to about 100 feet he turned over and, coming down, slid along the aerodrome for 100 yards upside down. He was rescued from his unenviable position by Pilot Officer Edsell, the third member of the Section, who had suffered a similar fate except that he landed the right way up. Dashing across the aerodrome with bombs still dropping, he extricated Flight Lieutenant Deere from his machine. “The first and last time I hope” was the verdict of these truly amazing pilots, all of whom were ready for battle again by the next morning.’
But once again it was at Biggin Hill that the damage was worst. More telephone lines were severed; many buildings and hangars were destroyed; the operations room block was set on fire, and an emergency room outside the station—in an estate office in the neighbouring village—had to be brought into use. The station still continued in
action but as the emergency equipment could not deal with the normal number of aircraft, two of the three squadrons had now to operate under the control of adjoining sectors.
All this was not accomplished cheaply, for the enemy lost thirty-seven aircraft on the 30th and thirty-nine on the 31st. Moreover the Germans, beaten off over and over again from their main targets, had been reduced to bombing a number of airfields, like Eastchurch, which were of little significance in their immediate plan. All the same their attacks were now beginning to strike home and make a real impression. Manston was no longer in use, Kenley and Biggin Hill were working at greatly diminished efficiency.
On 1st September Biggin Hill had its sixth raid in three days. Most of the buildings left standing were by now unsafe, and the equipment had to be moved into the open. Yet the station still functioned. It did so not only because of adaptability and determination of its airmen, but also because of the bravery of its airwomen. This quality came as a surprise to many, though not to officers like Wing Commander Carnegie, who had already been given some inkling of how the W.A.A.F. would behave under fire. In the early months of war Carnegie, having received a draft of W.A.A.F. at Wittering ‘only because the C.O. at a nearby bomber station refused to take them’, ordered them away from the airfield when an approaching raider was plotted. The next day the W.A.A.F. officer in charge demanded an interview and informed him that if he ever gave a similar order she could not be responsible for the discipline of the girls or for their obedience to his instructions. This admirable spirit was now being maintained at Biggin Hill under actual bombardment. During the big attack of 18th August Sergeant Joan Mortimer, a telephone operator who was also in charge of the despatch of ammunition to the gun positions, remained at her very dangerous post throughout the raid, then, as soon as the bombs stopped falling—and long before the ‘all clear’—began planting red flags round the craters in which there were unexploded bombs. Again, on 1st September, two telephone operators, Sergeant Helen Turner and Corporal Elspeth Henderson, continued to maintain communications even after the operations block in which they were worked received a direct hit. Such calm behaviour, to which the superb example of the W.A.A.F. officer in charge—Assistant Section Officer Felicity Hanbury—greatly contributed, with an inspiration not only to airwomen on other stations but also to their male comrades.
Continuing the plan of attacking the sector stations, on 2nd September the enemy concentrated against Hornchurch. All assaults were repelled except one, and that was so harried that of the hundred
or so bombs dropped only six fell on the airfield. Then on 3rd September raiders again got through to North Weald, setting two hangars on fire and severing nearly all the telephone lines to the Observer Corps. Fortunately a bomb which hit the roof of the new operations room did no damage, and the landing area could still be used by day. The following day, 4th September, the sector stations escaped further harm, but the enemy succeeded in bombing four other airfields in No. 11 Group and the Vickers aircraft factory at Weybridge—a plant responsible for two-thirds of our entire output of Wellingtons. So many raids were being plotted at the time of this incident that the operations room table at Fighter Command was ‘saturated’ and Weybridge received no air raid warning. As a result there were heavy casualties, though the twenty Me.110s which carried out the bombing were intercepted at the moment of attack by No 253 Squadron, and only six bombs hit the works.
On 5th September Biggin Hill was again attacked, but under pressure from No. 79 Squadron the German crews aimed wide. Later in the day others made amends by hitting the oil farm at Thameshaven. This may have been an alternative target for the Estuary airfields, but the enemy’s success encouraged him to a repetition of the attack on the 6th. Stoked by further enemy bombs, huge fires burned all through the night. They were still burning when the heavy attack of 7th September was launched. Another industrial target to be bombed on 6th September was Hawker Aircraft Ltd. at Weybridge, a factory producing more than half of our total supply of Hurricanes. Fortunately the intervention of our fighters prevented serious damage.
It was at this stage, when the German efforts were straining our defences to the utmost, that Hitler, as at Dunkirk, once more came to our aid. The credit for the change in the enemy’s tactics which now occurred cannot, however, be assigned exclusively to the German leader. The Führer’s mental processes were powerfully assisted by Bomber Command.
Up to the end of August our daylight bombing had been directed almost entirely against the enemy’s airfields in occupied territory; but by night we had never ceased to attack targets in Germany. These were all precise objectives—aircraft factories, airfields, oil plants, ports, shipping and communications (among which the marshalling yards at Hamm held a place of honour). Doubtless it was somewhat optimistic to expect any great result from the fifty or so aircraft which carried out these attacks every night. Doubtless, too , much of the bombing went astray. The operations, however, had moments of outstanding success, among which special mention must be made of a
raid on the night of 12/13th August. On that night five Hampdens of Nos. 49 and 83 Squadrons, operating under the cover of diversionary bombing, attacked an aqueduct forming part of the Dortmund–Ems canal. Two of the first four aircraft were shot down, the other two badly hit; but the fifth, piloted by Flight Lieutenant R. A. B. Learoyd, dived to 150 feet through the storm of flak and the blinding glare of the searchlights to drop his bomb within a few yards of the target. He then struggled home in his badly damaged aircraft, waited for dawn, and landed without injury to his crew, so completing an exploit which brought him a richly deserved Victoria Cross. Ten days afterwards the canal was still blocked, with the result that the movement of barges and motor-boats from the Rhineland to the invasion ports fell seriously behind schedule. In concert with many other difficulties, this proved too much for the enemy. At a time of the year when the deteriorating weather mad every hour precious to the enemy, the German D-day was postponed from 15th September to 21st September.
Incidents of this nature were naturally galling to the Führer. It was also galling, however small the damage to industry, to have bombs falling on German cities. And it was still more galling to learn that even Berlin, 600 miles from the British bases, was not immune; for on 25/26th August, in retaliation for some bombs which had fallen on the City of London the previous night—the first since 1918—eighty-one British aircraft raided targets in the German capital. The same medicine was administered several times during the next few nights. It was not a prescription in which the Air Staff had any great confidence, as there were plenty more important objectives much nearer; but there were political advantages to consider, which the Prime Minister was not slow to point out.
It would, of course, be too much to see in these raids on Berlin the whole cause of Hitler’s next move; but they unquestionably added to his anger at the activities of Bomber Command. it would not be long now before D-day. What better policy, then, for this final phase, than to enjoy a swift and sweet revenge by hurling the Luftwaffe in force against London. For if the British capital could be reduced to chaos, the task of the invading armies would be enormously simplified; indeed, if Göring’s pilots did their work well enough the need for a military expedition might entirely disappear. And nothing could be more agreeable than to be freed from the necessity of crossing the Channel while the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were still in being.
While the German ships were moving secretly towards their appointed stations, Hitler accordingly informed the world that his
patience was once more exhausted. ‘The British’, he screeched, ‘drop their bombs indiscriminately and without plan on civilian residential quarters and farms and villages. For three months I did not reply because I believed that they would stop, but in this Mr. Churchill saw a sign of our weakness. The British will know that we are now giving our answer night after night. We shall stop the handiwork of these night pilots.’ Three days later, on 7th September, the Luftwaffe abandoned its offensive against the sector stations and began the assault on London. From the point of view of winning the battle, Dowding himself could not have made a more satisfactory decision.
Each day now, for many weeks past, the Spitfires and Hudsons of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit had scoured the Channel coast from Cherbourg to the Texel. On 1st September their prints showed barges moving in great and unaccustomed numbers towards the sea along the South Beveland and Terneuzen—Ghent canals. During the next few days the growing concentrations at Ostend and Flushing were steadily watched and photographed. On 31st August 18 barges lay in the port of Ostend; on 2nd September the photographs revealed 70; on 4th September, 115; on 6th September, 205. During the same week the number of barges at Flushing increased by 120. And every day processions of barges and motor-boats could be seen moving westwards along the Channel coast in the company of merchant shipping. Between 4th September and 6th September 34 extra barges appeared at Dunkirk, 53 at Calais. By the close of 6th September, there could no longer be much doubt:the Germans would not be massing their craft in ports so exposed to our bombing unless the hour of trial were at hand. That evening, after the Combined Intelligence Committee had studied the interpretation reports of the day, the authorities ordered Invasion Alert No. 2—‘the attack probably within the next three days.
Saturday, 7th September, opened quietly. But in the late afternoon, from the usual maze of activity over the Channel and northern France, the radar stations picked up a number of German formations shaping for Kent and Sussex. The reaction of No. 11 Group—helped by No. 12 Group, which sent down three squadrons from Duxford to guard North Weald—was to concentrate on protecting the vital airfields. This time, however, the enemy’s objective was different. One formation forced its way up the estuary, bombed the Arsenal and other industrial targets at Woolwich, and took a fierce drubbing from the Duxford and Northolt pilots (including the Polish Squadron No. 303) on its way out. Another group bombed Thameshaven, a third the docks at West Ham. Then, while the raiders were fighting
their way back, three fresh formations headed in towards Dover. All were engaged soon after they crossed the coast, but the enemy escorts were very strong, and our own squadrons came into action only one by one. Weight of numbers told. Beyond the inferno of Thameshaven the roar of burning warehouses mingled all along the river with the grey dust of humble homes.
As the enemy had steadily converged in one direction for an hour and a half, no less than twenty-one of the twenty-three squadrons we had sent up succeeded in engaging. The German losses were therefore severe—forty aircraft as against twenty-eight of ours. The powerful escorts, however, had safeguarded the German bombers, and nearly all of the machines shot down by our pilots were fighters. Weighed against the enormous damage the attackers had inflicted, the price doubtless appeared cheap enough to Göring. All the same it was not one which we could afford to pay very often.
Indeed, there was an instructive contrast in the enemy’s immunity during the next few hours, when the Luftwaffe returned under cover of darkness to improve on the havoc it had wrought. For the previous fortnight Luftflotte 3 had been practising concentrated bombing at night, though its efforts against Birmingham and Merseyside had been marked by no great success. Now, with a target near at hand, vast in extent, and lit by the lurid glare of a hundred dockside fires, the task was somewhat easier. From 8 o’clock that night to 4 o’clock the next morning 250 bombers kept up a slow, agonizing procession over the capital. Between them they dropped some 300 tons of high explosive and 13,000 incendiaries, or rather more than their comrades had dropped during the day. Barrage shooting by the anti-aircraft batteries being forbidden, and many of the guns having been moved to protect the aircraft factories, Londoners heard only a few brief and pitiful bursts of shell-fire to relieve the drone of the planes and the steady crash of the bombs. The next morning, weary from lack of sleep, they learned that their defenders had claimed between them one enemy aircraft.
It was a battle now not only against the British air force but against the British people. But the people could ‘take it’, and none better than the long-suffering sons and daughters of the East End, upon whom the first cruel blow had fallen. For as on each succeeding night the German bombers returned to their task and the toll of broken bodies and buildings mounted, there was still no sign that nerve would crack or falter, no hint that London would prove unequal to its ordeal. Instead, a cheerful and unwavering fortitude, an immense patience possessed the population; and in the flame and fury of ‘The Blitz’ were forged the links of wider friendship and a deeper humanity.
Clearly the Londoners were not be frightened easily, and the invasion plans must be pressed forward. Yet if virtually indiscriminate damage at night there could be added the destruction of key-targets by day, the task before the German armies might not prove so difficult after all. Besides, London was still further inland than most of the 11 Group sector stations; it was certain to be defended in the greatest possible strength by the British fighters; and no other objective could offer the same changes of a vast and decisive air battle—a battle which would end, once and for all, the obdurate resistance of Fighter Command. So the German tactics were settled. The main weight of attack would fall on London by night, when losses would be agreeably small; and huge fighter formations, covering a small number of bombers, would force their way through to the capital by day, destroying in their path the final relics of Dowding’s force.
For the leaders of the Luftwaffe, misled by the exaggerated claims of their own pilots, were now convinced that Fighter Command was down to its last hundred aircraft. A few more daylight operations against London might thus complete the ruin of our defences. The German hopes were sadly and speedily disappointed. On 8th September an attempt by 100 aircraft to repeat their success of the previous day against the Thames docks was entirely frustrated; on 9th September an attack by somewhat larger forces was also beaten off; on 11th September, after the weather had interfered with operations on the 10th, a number of bombers got through to the capital, but achieved no concentration; and on the 12th and 13th heavy cloud prevented attacks, though it enabled single aircraft to score hits on the Admiralty, the War Office and Buckingham Palace.3 Not until the 15th, a day of heavy and sustained fighting during which the Germans flew over a thousand sorties and lost fifty-six aircraft for our loss of twenty-six, did an enemy formation of any size again force its way through to London; and even then it was so harried by the British fighters and guns that the damage to the capital was insignificant compared with that of 7th September. After this, cloud was again prevalent until 23rd September, and the enemy was restricted to harassing activity and attacks on fringe targets.
During the whole of the vital fortnight from 7th September to 21st September, when the Luftwaffe was supposed to be delivering the
knock-out-blow, it thus failed completely in every one of its immediate aims. The night raids, whatever their results against bricks and mortar, had no effect on morale; while the day raids inflicted neither systematic damage on the London key-doubts nor decisive losses on Fighter Command. Indeed, as soon as the enemy turned against London, the Command, which was perceptibly weakening, at once began to recover strength. Not only was the pressure of bombardment taken off the sector stations and the greater part of the enemy bombing carried out by night; the enemy’s concentration on an objective farther inland also gave time for the British squadrons to join up in pairs and yet intercept before the German bombs fell. Wherever possible a Hurricane and a Spitfire squadron now operated together, the Hurricanes attacking the bombers, the Spitfires with their greater effectiveness at big heights holding off the fighters. These tactics completed the enemy’s undoing. Göring’s harassed bombers called for ever-closer escort, and with it much of their ability to defend either themselves or their charges. The result may be seen from the casualties on either side. In the fortnight before 7th September, when the sector stations were under attack, Fighter Command lost 277 aircraft as against 378 Luftwaffe—five British machines for every seven of the enemy. In the fortnight from 7th to 21st September, when the main German objective was London, Fighter Command lost 144 aircraft as against 262 by the Luftwaffe—five British machines for every nine of the enemy.
Meanwhile the continued existence of the Royal Air Force was being demonstrated with equal emphasis by Bomber Command. On 7th September the ever-increasing numbers of barges, coupled with the attack on London, caused the country’s defences to be brought to their highest pitch of readiness; and a few hours after the issue of Alert No. 1—‘Invasion imminent, and probable with twelve hours’—our heavy bombers delivered their first attack on the waiting craft on the other side of the Channel. The Blenheims had already been dealing with the same objectives since 5th September, and by 13th September the whole of the bomber force was attacking invasion targets—the ships in harbour, the communications behind the ports, the gun emplacements on the coast.
As the month entered its third week German preparations reached their peak. On the 15th there were 102 barges in Boulogne, on the 17th 150. By the same date the 136 barges at Calais on 13th September had been increased to 266. By 18th September the Channel ports held more than a thousand of these craft and a further 600 waited up river at Antwerp. But night after night the Battles and the Blenheims, the
Wellingtons, the Whitleys and the Hampdens went forth. There was no trouble now in finding the targets, and the short distance allowed the aircraft to carry their maximum bomb-load. In a fortnight of extremely profitable work our bombers crippled 12 percent of the invasion fleet and greatly hampered the Germans in their task of organization, minesweeping and assembly.
It was on one of these raids, on the night of 15/16th September, that Sergeant John Hannah, a wireless operator/air gunner of No. 83 Squadron, won the Victoria Cross. While over Antwerp his Hampden was hit by an incendiary shell, which burst in the bomb compartment. Both petrol tanks were also pierced. Fire quickly enveloped the navigator’s and rear-gunner’s cockpits, and the rear-gunner baled out. Forcing his way aft, Hannah seized two extinguishers and fought the fire, though ammunition was bursting all round him and the heat was so great that it melted the aluminium floor. When the extinguishers were spent he finished the job by beating at the dying flames with his logbook. Badly burned, he then crawled forward, found that the navigator had also taken to his parachute, and passed the maps and log to the pilot, who brought the aircraft safely back to base.
An excellent description of a successful attack at this time was written soon afterwards by the pilot of a Blenheim, Flying Officer R. S. Gilmour. ‘The whole of “Blackpool Front” [wrote Gilmour], as we call the invasion coastline stretching west from Dunkirk, was now in near view. It was an amazing spectacle. Calais docks were on fire. So was the waterfront of Boulogne, and glares extended for miles. The whole French coast seemed to be a barrier of flame broken only by intense white flashes of exploding bombs and vari-coloured incendiary tracers soaring and circling skywards.’ Gilmour’s target was Ostend. He approached and dived, dead on line:
Then came the great surging kick on the stick as the bombs left the plane. A second later the bomb-aimer was through to me on the ‘phones … ‘Bombs gone’. My waiting hand threw open the throttle levers in a flash. The motors thundered out. Hauling back on the stick, kicking at the rudder, we went up in a great banking climb. As we went I stared down and out through the windows. There they were! One, two, three, four vast flashes as my bombs struck. In the light of the last one, just as lightning will suddenly paint a whole landscape, I saw the outline of the jetties in vivid relief. Between them the water boiled with thin black shapes. They were barges flung up-end and fragments turning slowly over and over in the air.
Then came a most gigantic crash. We were nearly 2,000 feet up now and well away from the jetties but the whole aircraft pitched over as if a giant blow had struck us underneath. A vivid flash enveloped us and lingered as the sound burst round our ears. It was a blinding white flash like a great sheet of daylight stuck in between the dark. While
all hell broke loose around us, I fought like mad to get control of the bomber. But all the time my mind was blankly wondering—half-sunned as I was—what the devil we had hit. Afterwards I learned that the last bomb had struck a group of mines stacked on a jetty waiting to be loaded aboard the mine-layers. Photographs taken the next morning showed two stone jetties blown away to the water’s edge; all barges vanished from the inner basins; and devastation over a mile radius!
These anti-invasion operations of Bomber Command had a direct effect on the German programme, and on 11th September the enemy’s prospective D-day was once more postponed—from 21st September to 24th September. The German naval authorities had always stipulated that Hitler must take the final decision—the yea or nay—ten day before D-day. On 14th September Hitler accordingly gathered again in conference with his commanders. The omens were scarcely inspiring. The previous night the Royal Navy had bombarded four of the Channel ports and at Ostend the Royal Air Force had sunk eighty barges. It was not surprising, then, that Admiral Raeder, never an optimist about the subject, should come armed with a memorandum which began: ‘The present air situation does not provide the conditions for carrying out the operation, as the risk is still too great.’ Hitler, however, was not yet prepared to abandon hope. ‘The accomplishments of the Luftwaffe’, he declared, ‘are beyond praise. Four or five more days of good weather, and a decisive result will be achieved.’ In this spirit he refused to accept the Admiral’s wily suggestion that a decision should be left over until October, and insisted on reviewing the position yet again on 17th September.
As Raeder expected, the next three days made little difference, except to witness the consignment of further quantities of German shipping to the bottom of the English Channel and to demonstrate on 15th September that even the Luftwaffe’s greatest efforts availed little against Fighter Command. When 17th September came, the compiler of the War Diary at German War Headquarters was thus left to record: ‘The enemy air force is still by no means defeated; on the contrary it shows increasing activity. The weather situation as a whole dos not permit us to expect a period of calm.… The Führer therefore decides to postpone “Sealion” indefinitely.’ to avoid the attentions of the British bombers the invasion vessels were to be widely dispersed; but some hope was still entertained for the unlikely combination of fine weather and German air supremacy, and the expedition was not yet to be disbanded.
This relaxation of tension was soon sensed by our reconnaissance aircraft. Between 19th and 22nd September photographic cover of the Channel ports was incomplete, but the 23rd there were signs
that the immediate crisis was past. By then several destroyers were seen to have moved round to Brest, and the number of barges in the ports between Flushing and Boulogne had decreased by nearly one-third.
For another month the German threat was still maintained, though in a less immediate form. By day there were dangerous blows against the aircraft factories of the south and south-west, as well as renewed attempts to penetrate in force to the capital. But however much the enemy varied his tactics by strengthening escorts, or using fighter-bombers or sending over great diversionary sweeps of fighters, Dowding’s forces remained equal to their task. On 27th September, one of the last of the great days, there were three major raids against London, as well as one against the Bristol aeroplane factor at Filton. Bristol’s escaped damage; only a few bombers got through to the capital; and in the attempt the Germans lost forty-five aircraft. We lost twenty-eight. Even more discouraging for the enemy were his last full scale daylight operations against London on 30th September. Again there were three distinct raids, as well as attacks and diversions elsewhere; but in every direction the German pilots were baulked, and the balance of losses—forty-seven against twenty—was still more in our favour.
After treatment of this kind the Luftwaffe could be forgiven for not wishing to continue the daylight onslaught in that precise form. The invasion, though not yet cancelled, was most unlikely to be mounted that year, once September was over; and if it was simply a question of conducting a long-term campaign against British morale and economic life the whole thing could be done by might without such distressing losses. It would still, of course, be necessary to keep up pressure against Fighter Command by day; but that could be done by the Me.109s and Me.110s, which would doubtless be able to look after themselves so much better when not escorting Do.17s He.111s and Ju.88s.
From the beginning of October the Germans accordingly reserved their bombers for the hours of darkness, and almost the whole burden of the daylight offensive passed to their fighters and fighter-bombers. Flying at a great height and taking every advantage of the cloudy weather, these aircraft set Fighter Command new and difficult problems and imposed many fruitless hours of climb and chase upon the British pilots. But they did little else; and Dowding’s forces continued along that path of recovery which had opened up on 7th September.
As October wore on, it became only too clear to the German commanders—even to those who had some appetite for the venture –
that the situation in the air was unchanged. The Royal Air Force was as far from defeat as ever. On 12th October Hitler therefore postponed operation ‘Sealion’ until the spring of 1941. In the meantime a winter of night-bombing, coupled with the activities of the U-boats, would no doubt help to soften up British resistance. But the plans of a dictator are liable to strange and sudden metamorphoses. Long before the spring of 1941, Hitler’s eyes were fixed on what appeared to be bigger and better game.
The Battle of Britain has been the subject of much misconception and not a little controversy. There was the British misconception about the German losses; there was the far greater German misconception about the British losses;4 and there have been any number of misconceptions about the extent to which Dowding’s forces became depleted. Until the post-war publication of the Führer’s conferences on Operation ‘Sealion’, there was even a growing misconception that the battle had had no relation to a German invasion. This, however, was only a tribute to the very completeness of our victory. The controversies, as opposed to the misconceptions, were fortunately limited to fairly narrow circles within the Royal Air Force; but they were concerned with matters so important as Park’s tactics and Dowding’s strategy.
After the battle there was much exaggerated talk about our shortage of fighters. It is therefore worth emphasizing that Fighter Command was at no time reduced to a reserve of half-a-dozen aircraft, or any similar number. The critical period of the battle was the fortnight from 24th August to 6th September, when the enemy’s main objective was the airfields of the south-east, and in particular the sector stations of No. 11 Group. not only was there very considerable damage to the ground organization during this period, but the British losses in fighters so greatly exceeded the output from production that in three weeks of activity on the same scale—if the Germans could have stood three more weeks—the fighter reserves would have been completely exhausted. But on 7th September the enemy not only turned against London, but also—so heavy were his own losses—began to drop his main weight of bombs by night. From then on Dowding’s forces once more grew numerically stronger. For in the week from 7th September to 14th September the gross wastage of Hurricanes and Spitfires from all causes fell below the gross output, and continued so until the end of the battle. The
position in reserve aircraft was thus at its worst about 7th September; and on that date there were still 125 Spitfires and Hurricanes immediately available for issue from reserve, quite apart from what was in the pipe-line from production.
Indeed, it has already been made clear that Dowding’s main problem was not aircraft but pilots. By the opening week of September his squadrons had, on the average, only sixteen operational pilots out of their full complement of twenty-six. It was for this reason that on 8th September Dowding was compelled to introduce his Stabilization Scheme. As he himself puts it in his Despatch: ‘By the beginning of September the incidence of casualties became so serious that a fresh squadron would become depleted and exhausted before any of the resting and reforming squadrons was ready to take its place.’ By the end of the first week in September there were thus no fresh squadrons to replace the battered units, and instead of moving exhausted squadrons from the south-east and bringing in rested squadrons from the quieter sectors, as he had so far done, Dowding was forced to divide his squadrons into three categories. The ‘A’ class squadrons, for No. 11 Group and the adjoining Middle Wallop and Duxford sectors, were to be kept up to strength in fully-trained pilots; the ‘B’ class squadrons, for Nos. 10 and 12 Groups, were also to be kept up to strength—only five in number, they were intended to relieve A’’ squadrons when the latter needed replacement as whole units; the ‘C’ class squadrons, for all groups except No. 11, were allowed only five or six experienced pilots, and existed largely to ‘bring on’ the new pilots so that they could eventually take their place in the ‘A’ and ‘B’ squadrons. Dowding would never have introduced a scheme of this sort, with its depressing effect on the ‘C’ squadrons, unless the position was desperate; and the very nature of the scheme exhibits clearly where our main weakness lay. For though the number of pilots in Fighter Command was distressingly less at the beginning of September than at the beginning of August, it was not so much the smaller quantity as the lower quality that gave Dowding so much anxiety. The new pilots were, of course, magnificent material; but they had as yet nothing like the technical competence of those whose places they were taking.
There was thus a very real crisis in Fighter Command. Fortunately there was an equally real crisis in the Luftwaffe. Though the Germans’ first-line strength greatly-exceeded ours, they had now lost their lead in aircraft production. They could therefore not easily replace their heavy and repeated losses. Further, they had not seen able to solve the problems of large-scale escort; yet without such escort their bombs were powerless. That the Germans began to attack London
by day was a mistake of tactics. That they then virtually abandoned daylight bombing in favour of night operations was the measure of Fighter Command’s triumph.
That triumph, for all its completeness, was achieved by a narrow margin. The margin was narrower, in fact, than some of those in high positions thought necessary. Dowding’s initial policy of concentrating only one-half of his force in the most threatened area, and relieving tired squadrons as necessary, was not one which commanded unqualified approval. One school of thought maintained—mostly after the battle—that a larger number of squadrons should have been packed into No. 11 Group and the adjoining sectors at the outset of the offensive, so that the enemy could have been met on more equal terms; for with the given position of London and the limited range of the Me.109, the struggle was virtually bound to be fought out in the south-east. Dowding, however, had good reason to believe that the congestion on the south-eastern airfields and the technical difficulties would be too great, and that the Germans would be quick to take advantage of any drastic weakening elsewhere. And indeed, that the enemy intended to deliver subsidiary attacks against the north and east, but was deterred by the strength of his reception,t was amply proved by the events of 15th August. It must be remembered, too, that Dowding throughout remained responsible for protecting our coastal shipping, and that unlike subsequent critics he had no means of know how long the battle would last.
The tremendous odds which our pilots had so constantly to face gave rise to criticisms not only of Dowding’s deployment but of Park’s tactics. During the final stages of the battle, when victory was assured, Park found that his handling of operations had suddenly became the subject of an informal inquiry. the impetus for this came not from his own outnumbered units, but from No. 12 Group, where the Air Officer Commanding, the bluff, forceful Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, was strongly critical of Park’s direction. When called upon to provide support in the No. 11 Group area, Leigh-Mallory had operated a number of squadrons together—usually three, four or five, but once as many as seven—as a mass formation, or ‘wing’. This wing, normally operated from Duxford, had obtained some striking success at very little cost, under the inspiring leadership of Squadron Leader Douglas Bader.5 In the
result, growing differences between the two Group Commanders eventually reached the point where the Air Staff felt obliged to consider the main tactical issue between them—the respective merits of the wing and squadron formations.
Ths involved several very debatable factors. Should the successes of the Duxford wing be ascribed rather to the fact that the enemy formations had already been broken up by No. 11 Group? Had the wing neglected its appointed role of guarding No. 11 Group’s northern airfields to chase the enemy all over the southern counties? Had No. 12 Group’s keenness for battle resulted in perplexed controllers in No. 11 Group ordering up Spitfires and Hurricanes to investigate what was presumably a large hostile formation? But whatever the merits of these matters, it was difficult to disagree with the general principle that the wing formation was stronger than the squadron formation. It was, in fact, so elementary a precept that Park himself would surely have acted upon it—as he did over Dunkirk—could he have done so without harm to the objectives he was supposed to defend. For the unhappy truth was that the two commanders were largely at cross-purposes. Since there was nearly always good warning of the enemy’s approach before No. 12 Group was required to come into action, Leigh-Mallory had time to mass his squadrons into a wing; No. 11 Group, on the other hand, usually had much shorter warning, and Park did well if he could get his squadrons into pairs, let alone wings, before the bombing began. And neither the, nor subsequently in Malta, was he prepared to allow bombs to fall on an important target for the sake of securing better results in the air fighting.
Be this as it may, Leigh-Mallory’s tactical conceptions won a warm measure of approval from the authorities at Whitehall. So it came about that when the Air Ministry decided in November to give Dowding and Park some comparative rest, after the enormous strain to which they have been subjected, Leigh-Mallory was appointed to succeed Park in command of the all-important No. 11 Group. At about the same time the Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal W. Sholto Douglas, took over from Dowding at Stanmore. These changes reflected the end of one phase of the air war, and the beginning of another; for, besides the fact that Germans had been forced into attacking mainly by night, the British Air Staff was now resolved to pass from the defensive to the offensive and to carry the daylight fighter battle to the other side of the Channel. For this new phase, Douglas and Leigh-Mallory were admirable choices. Equally, there was no lack of careful thought behind the selection of Dowding to serve on a mission to the United States, and of Park to command
a flying training group, where he could give the new generation of pilots all the fruits of his hard-won experience. Both Dowding and Park, however, were naturally reluctant to leave the forefront of the struggle; and their translation to quieter spheres, though doubtless wise in itself, was not perhaps the most impressive immediate reward that might have been devised for the victors of one of the world’s decisive battles.
The Battle of Britain has often been compared with the Battle of the Marne. Its general relation to the Second World War was indeed the same as that of the Marne to the earlier conflict; but there the resemblance ends. For the Marne was a miracle of good fortune born of the enemy’s mistakes, an incredible victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. The Battle of Britain, on the other hand, was the result of years of careful thought and scientific preparation. It was the testing time of the whole British system of air defence—the radar stations and the observer posts, the pip-squeak and the R/T, the balloons and the guns, the Spitfires and the Hurricanes. That system had been built up to defeat unescorted bombs operating from Germany; it proved good enough to defeat escorted bombers operating from France. Fighter Command’s victory in 1940 thus followed logically—though not, of course, inevitably—from the decisions of the Air Ministry in 1934 and thereabouts. It would be difficult to maintain that Joffre’s—or Galliéni’s—victory in 1914 followed logically from any decision of the Ministère de la Guerre or the War Office in 1908.
There is another difference no less striking. The Marne was fought by vast masses who were not unequally matched in numbers. In the Battle of Britain the enemy’s numerical superiority was at least two to one in terms of general strength, and often twenty or thirty to one in terms of particular combats. And though large numbers of our men and women on the ground carried out their duties under fire, from the unwearying maintenance crews to the W.A.A.F. tellers who quiet voices never faltered amid the droning crescendo of the approaching ‘hostiles’, the numbers engaged in the actual fighting were very small. Our bomber and reconnaissance crews amounted to some six thousand men. The fighter pilots who bore the brunt of the battle numbered, all told, not much more than thousand.
This element had already been stressed by Winston Churchill in an eloquent prophecy before the battle opened; ‘The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast aside and destroyed by the onrush of a few thousands of armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and
devotion of a few thousand airmen?’ And it was again what he crystallized for posterity at the height of the battle, on 20th August, in his famous tribute that ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. Indeed, it was this very slenderness of the fighting force, allied to the greatness of the issue, that has given to the Battle of Britain the quality of an epic.
But ‘epic’ is a word which would certainly have drawn disrespectful comments from Dowding’s pilots. For one of the supreme qualities of these young men—few of them were older than 25—was their light-hearted refusal to take either their dangers or their achievements seriously. They had that natural buoyancy of spirit which comes from robust youth, perfect health, and an adventurous disposition; they demanded of existence not that it should be long or leisured, but that it should be lively. Hence they applied to celebrations and ‘parties’ the sentiments of Voltaire about the Deity: if a ‘party’ did not already exist, it would be necessary to invent one. But usually it did exist; and if it was a party with the enemy, so much the better. The main gloriously extrovert—the self-analysis of Richard Hillary was quite untypical—they drank cheerfully of life with few questions as as to the quality of the beverage; and if death struck the cup from their hands long before the dregs were reached, there were worse ends than one which was sudden, swift, and encountered in the service of what they held dear.
The Battle of Britain was fought by the gayest company who ever fired their guns in anger. Indeed, their gaiety was such that it penetrated even the official records. Into the tedious catalogue of moves and visits, postings and sorties, casualties inflicted and casualties suffered, there intrudes the alien note of youthful laughter. No. 73 Squadron debags a sergeant for identifying a Anson as a Blenheim; No. 54 Squadron hears with delight that one of its flight leaders has shot a cow during combat; Tangmere, heavily raided, watches with approval while the station commander sets one of the captured German crews to sweep up the remains of three hangars; an officer of No. 43 Squadron complains, not of his wounds, but of the M.O.’s description of them as ‘multiple bodies in both legs’. No. 609 Squadron rags the pilot who spins down from 15,000 feet and admits to feeling ‘rather unwell’; No. 87 Squadron rejoices to see a Pilot Officer who has landed ‘in the drink’ return to base ‘dressed in a tunic and blue underpants—a somewhat fearsome spectacle’.
This lightness of heart, a lightness which defied even tired limbs and jangled nerves, only adds to the quality of the epic. It would not, however, have carried our pilots very far had their equipment of their skill been inferior to that of the enemy. But of that there was no danger.
The eight-gun Spitfire or Hurricane, powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, was a magnificent weapon. The training of our pilots had undergone was second to none.
The combination of gay hearts, admirable equipment, good leadership, first-class training and devoted service on the ground, proved too much for the Luftwaffe. For though high and even supreme courage was necessary, that could be taken for granted. The pilot who delayed his jump until his burning aircraft was clear of town, or chased the enemy from a convoy when his ammunition was exhausted,or took the air again within a few hours of baling out, or waded alone and undismayed into a sea of enemy aircraft—was the rule, not the exception. The German aircrews, too, were brave men; but Dowding’s pilots had something more than courage. They had that restless spirit of aggression, that passion to be at grips with the enemy, which is the hall-mark of the very finest troops. Some—like ‘Tin-legs’ Bader, ‘Sailor’ Malan and Stanford Tuck—were so fiercely possessed of this demon, and of this skill to survive the dangers into which it drew them, that their names were quickly added to the immortal company of Ball, Bishop, Mannock and McCudden. But all possessed it to a high degree; and it was this which gave them a strength not to be measured in terms of numbers.
The Battle of Britain was not won in the air alone. It was won, too, in the factories, the repair shops, the maintenance units, the flying training schools, the radar stations, the operations rooms—and a host of other places, including the Air Ministry. And even in the air it was the achievement of bombers and reconnaissance aircraft as well as fighters. But all the devoted labour on the ground existed only that more men might operate the better in the air; and the work of Bomber and Coastal Commands, important as it was, was secondary to that of Fighter Command. The public verdict, though it was has done much less than justice to others, has thus rightly acclaimed Dowding’s pilots as the foremost artisans of victory; and when the details of the fighting grow dim, and the names of its heroes are for forgotten, men will still remember that in the summer of 1940 civilization was saved by a thousand British boys.