05 August, 2010

Day 27 - Battle of Britain

Nearly a month into the period designated as the Battle of Britain, one could easily paint a picture of two adversaries ranged across the English Channel, the aggressor planning and scheming, deploying his forces for maximum effect in order to deal a knock-out blow, while the defender analyses his every move, better to craft his responses and devise his counter moves - the respective populations of each nation poised on the edges of their seats, watching the developments with bated breath.

What we have though is something completely different. At one level, there is the aggressor air force, the Luftwaffe, employing a fraction of its power to pursue a campaign largely directed at enforcing an economic blockade, on the verge of mounting major attacks on the opposing air force. That air force, the RAF, already believes itself to be under attack, and is intent more on conserving its forces rather than seeking to protect shipping and ports, which are the true objects of attack. The two air forces, therefore, are fighting different battles, each with different objectives.

At another level, there is an even greater mismatch. Led by Reichsmarshall Göring, the Luftwaffe, poised as it is to step up the offensive, is working on the basis that its more intensive activity will cow the opposition, even to the extent that the government is forced to sue for peace. On the British side though, the government's main problem is trying to keep the population focused on the war, while its own propaganda campaign is unravelling as the Ministry of Information and the press are at odds with each other. Nothing could be more beneficial than a more visible and threatening enemy.

For the moment in the UK, the dominant issue is not even the air war. There is a diplomatic fracas building with Japan, which has captured the headlines (above). As for Hitler, there is evidence at this time that his thoughts are elsewhere. This is the day that a plan to invade Russia is delivered by General Erich Marcks, chief of staff of the 18th Army, temporarily seconded to OKH, the Wermacht high command. The plan has been prepared on the instructions of Hitler, and Marcks had been directed to the task on 29 July, with a view to the plan's execution in the Spring of 1941.

Only a week earlier, on 21 July, Hitler had asked the Army commander-in-chief to to advise on the possibility of an autumn invasion, only a couple of months hence. The Army managed to dissuade him from pursuing this ambition, and the Marcks plan was the considered response.

Nevertheless, almost on autopilot, the Luftwaffe is continuing its attacks on shipping in the Straits of Dover. In the fine weather of the early Monday morning, six Spitfires of No. 64 Sqn scrap with Me 109s of JG54, as do No. 64 Sqn Kenley (Spitfires). Two Spitfires are shot down, one from each squadron. One Me 109 crashes in France.

In the afternoon, Spitfires of No. 41 Sqn out of Hornchurch and Hurricanes from No. 151 Sqn out of North Weald engage 30+ Ju 88s and Me 109s over the Channel, which are looking for targets of opportunity. No. 151 Sqn claims an Me 109. The Luftwaffe lose six aircraft on the day and Fighter Command two, the latter flying 402 sorties.

In another of those curiosities, there is a report that, at 15:12hrs bombs are dropped on Norwich by one aircraft. There is "little doubt" that this was a hostile Blenheim, says the RAF. Some damage is done in a railway goods yard and two timber yards were set on fire.

Oddly, there is actually no raid reported that day in Norwich, and nor is there any evidence emerged which would reliably (or at all) confirm that the Luftwaffe used captured aircraft on bombing operations, even though there is good evidence that several Blenheims were captured (example below).

There is a possibility that, if the raid did take place, the aircraft had been confused with a Ju 88, which were still relatively rare on inland raids. Alternatively, it is possible that an RAF Blenheim on a sortie to enemy territory got lost and mistook the city for the real target.

What we now call "blue on blue" or "friendly fire" incidents were probably far more common than is acknowledged, and were perpetrated by both sides. There is, for instance, that now famous incident on 10 May 1940 when three He 111s led by Lt Paul Seidel, bombed the German town of Freiburg im Breisgau instead of their allocated target, the French town of Dole-Travaux.

Seidel's three aircraft had been flying in cloud and had lost touch with the larger formation of which it was part. Fearing he had missed his designated target, when he spotted Freiburg through a break in the cloud, he had taken his flight down and launched an attack

Unleashing a hail of 60 bombs, his aircraft killed 57 people, including 22 children, and caused considerable property damage. But such were the propaganda opportunities that the raid was blamed on England. The real details were hushed up. Seidel, the prime witness, is killed in the summer, ironically in a raid on Portsmouth, England.

Certainly, on that day, "friendly fire" had been possible. Nine Blenheims from 2 Group Bomber Command had been detailed to attack Dutch airfields and carry out weather reconnaissance. Possibly significantly, five had to abandon because of adverse weather conditions. One of those, lost in cloud, could have drifted well off course and ended up attacking the English city.

As regards the possibility of captured aircraft being used, this was taken seriously enough for the Air Ministry to order all British aircraft to change their markings, just prior to the Battle of Britain. According to then F/Lt Kent, in his autobiography, any aircraft then observed flying with old markings were to be considered hostile. The aircraft thought most likely to be used were Lysanders and Whitleys (type pictured above, in pre-war markings).

This had set off a potentially fatal incident when Kent had been leading a formation of three Hurricanes over the Irish Sea and had seen a Whitley bearing the old markings. Within a hairs-breadth of being shot down, the aircraft had finally obeyed hand-signalled instructions to return to base.

Followed down by Kent, its pilot had been asked why he had not fired a signal flare giving the colour of the day. He had informed Kent that his instructions were to use them only in an emergency. Kent pointed out that three Hurricanes with fully-loaded guns, poised to shoot him down, might possibly have been construed as an emergency.

Back in the war, even though this was the Battle of Britain, the scale of the effort clearly demonstrates that this was not just a fighter show.

Apart from its Blenheims, Bomber Command also had it 4 Group detailing 21 of its Whitleys to bomb an oil plant at Sterkrade and the Dornier aircraft factory at Wismar. Seven from No. 10 Sqn and eight from No. 51 Sqn went to Wismar. Three of the aircraft were damaged by Flak, one so seriously that it had to force land at Spurn Point in East Yorkshire on its return. Six aircraft from No. 102 Sqn were sent to Sterkrade. Four bomb the primary and one bombs the alternative.

Thirty-five Wellingtons took off to attack the Gneisenau at Kiel, oil refineries at Hamburg and Hann, oil stores at Nordheim and ship-building yards at Ostermoor. Airfields at Schipol and Cloppenburg were attacked.

Seventeen Hampdens (type pictured above) are sent to bomb the Bismark at Hamburg and the shipbuilding yards at Bremen, a power station and the Tirpitz at Wilhelmshaven. Airfields at Barge and Nordeny were also bombed. Twelve other Hampdens mine the Elbe Estuary, an ongoing operation nicknamed "gardening".

Coastal Command aircraft are busy as well, taking part in forty-nine sorties. Amongst other tasks, they provided twenty-six convoys with escorts. A Blenheim carried out a reconnaissance of the French coast from Calais to Dieppe, four PRU aircraft are up and about and four others are also carrying out photo reconnaissance sorties.

Hudson P5133 of No. 206 Squadron crashes at Syderstone, Norfolk at 18:05hrs, after a search patrol Pilot Officer R T Kean DFC, a New Zealander, is killed, together with his three crew.

On the naval front, trawlers south of Selsey Bill are attacked early in the morning. RAF fighters fail to intercept. And another minesweeping trawler, this one the River Clyde (276grt, Temporary Skipper J Grant RNR) of Minesweeper Group 6 is sunk on a mine off Aldeburgh Light Float. Eleven ratings are killed and one dies of wounds. Skipper Grant is wounded.

As before, the Navy is taking the hurt. In the Atlantic, bigger slaughter is being perpetrated. The U-boats are out there, and the butcher's bill grows daily.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread