09 August, 2010

Day 31 - Battle of Britain

No doubt with huge relief, the MoI has rushed out the latest Air Ministry communiqués, announcing newer, bigger and better RAF victories. The strategy is transparently obvious. The "good news" generated by the boys in blue drives the bad news from Somaliland down page.

Not everyone is convinced by this unremitting torrent of these victories - George Orwell is only one of the more prominent sceptics.  There are clearly enough of them around to invoke a mild rebuke via the Daily Mirror leader which has Ernest Bevin complain that, "If we let cynicism and bitterness get into the hearts of the people we shall (blank, blank) lose the war". What can best cheer the people? the paper then asks, "humbly" suggesting that one positive thing is: "... signs of our taking the initiative on any battlefield. News of a victory."

"Don't keep on talking defensively, it says, about moats, ramparts, fortresses, ditches and high sea walls. These things make for cynicism." And what does not make for cynicism, the paper asks. "This sort of thing - we shot down 53 enemy aircraft yesterday".

Today, the weather is dominated by heavier cloud with rain at times, and some bright intervals. After the drama of yesterday, activity is largely confined to light raids and reconnaissance. What the RAF does not know is that, provisionally, Göring had planned Adler Tag for today. But it is cancelled, awaiting more favourable weather.

In good time for the breakfast readers of the daily newspapers, the government propagandists have been at work, lauding the exploits of men who in few days time are to be lauded by Churchill as "The Few".

In fact, they are drowning by the score. Over three weeks in July, some 220 RAF aircrew have been lost at sea. Of the previous day's fighting, local historians have recorded the histories of aircraft wrecks in the sea off the Isle of Wight. They have details of eleven Hurricanes which crashed into the sea. Only one pilot is reported rescued. All the others are missing or killed. By contrast, ten Me 109s are listed. Of those, five pilots are rescued.

There is another detail. An He 59 air-sea rescue aircraft of Seenotflugkommando is reported to have crashed into the sea off St Catherines Point The crew is designated "missing in action". Thus we know that the Seenotdienst was in action that day. Was there a connection between its presence and the apparently high survival rate of Luftwaffe fighter pilots, compared with the RAF equivalents?

The inadequacy of the air-sea service, however, is a down-stream problem. Getting into battle presented its own special hazards, particularly in terms of the RAF's choice of formation. Contemporary photographs (above) and newsreel footage shows aircraft flying in the traditional "vic" formation, three aircraft in tight arrowhead formation. The standard squadron formation for twelve aircraft is four "vics" of three, in line astern, the squadron leader at the head.

This has major disadvantages. The leaders' wingmen are required to concentrate on their leader in order to maintain formation, limiting the ability of pilots to keep a lookout for the enemy. Given the ever-present risk of being "jumped" from the rear by enemy fighters at high altitude, the formation is guarded by a single aircraft at the tail end who adopted a "weaving" pattern. Not only is this relatively ineffective, the "weaver's" fuel consumption is higher, forcing him to break off early.

Furthermore, the weaver is most often the most junior and inexperienced member of the squadron, the one in the most vulnerable position and least likely to survive. The more experienced and more senior pilots benefitted at the expense of the tyros. The "weavers" would be picked off because the German fighters could attack them and get away before the rest of the squadron could leave formation and be ready for a counterattack. Luftwaffe pilots called the vics idiotenreihen ("rows of idiots").

By contrast, the Germans aere using the schwarm or "finger-four" from its plan profile. It is also called the "Molders formation" as it had originally been adopted by Luftwaffe aces Werner Mölders and Günther Lützow during the Spanish Civil War (pictured above).

It had two aircraft flying in a loose pair called a rotte. Two pairs constituted a schwarm), with the aircraft spread apart in loose formation which offered each pilot maximum visibility, each covering their own arc of observation. So successful was the formation that it was adopted by the RAF and latterly by every developed air force in combat.

The "vic" was devised by an RFC Major, Sholto Douglas (pictured below - on left in the frame), in the First World War, for fighting SE5As. The tactic ensured that the best shot in each Flight led the attack, while two pilots backed him up, thus concentrating firepower to make up for the inadequacies of the individual armament, not least the not uncommon failure of the leader's guns.

Even then Douglas was aware that once the "vic" broke up or was broken up, it would be "every man for himself" and issued standing orders that any pilot who left the formation would be sanctioned.

The tactic worked for the First World War technology but was long obsolete for the Second, and unnecessary in view of the more powerful and reliable armament. Unfortunately, by 1938 Douglas was deputy chief of the air staff and there was thus neither incentive nor opportunity to change tactics.

Battle of Britain pilots, therefore, were sent in to fight for their lives using substandard and outdated tactics. By the time the fight was on, in the heat of battle it was simple too late to change.

Nothing of such information is allowed near the public. It is treated to a diet of excited reports from a town "somewhere on the South-east coast", where Spitfires are "roaring", while the cannon of the Messerschmitt and the machine guns of the Spitfires provide "an almost continuous chorus". Thus, George Fyfe, in The Daily Telegraph of 9 August writes:
The battle scene changed swiftly from one part of the sky to another in a highly exciting game of hide-and-seek. Pilots who had lost their adversaries in the mist would suddenly re-establish contact and in wonderful displays of aerobatics begin blazing away at one another will all their guns.
Notwithstanding that Fyfe may well be witnessing Hurricanes, later in the same piece, he writes of a Messerschmitt which "raced away" from the scene, followed by two Spitfires, which "streaked through the sky in thrilling pursuit".

This "highly exciting game of hide-and-seek" had cost No. 145 Sqn five pilots in three actions that day, although it claimed 17 enemy aircraft destroyed (a claim which is almost certainly inflated). This has AOC 11 Group, Keith Park rushing to the squadron to congratulate the survivors on "their magnificent efforts."  Air Minister Sir Archibald Sinclair also sends a telegram of congratulations to the CO of the squadron, Sqn Ldr John Peel.

One wonders whether Park's visit was wholly to proffer congratulation, or whether it concealed his underlying concern of a squadron that is falling apart. In a few more days, after taking three more casualties, it is withdrawn from the line and sent to Scotland, just when Park needs every expeienced unit he can lay is hands on.

In the air on this day, though, there are no great battles. There is activity is on the East Coast, with occasional forays over Dover and Plymouth. One He 111 reaches Sunderland, dropping bombs on Laing's shipyard, a railway bridge, some residential property and Monkwearmouth Station Hotel. Four people are killed and seventy-eight injured. The aircraft is shot down and crashes into the sea off Whitburn. The crew is picked up by a RN patrol boat. Two are injured and two are unhurt.

In South Shields, one HE bomb falls in a garden at the back of Lawe Road near Pearson Street. Four people in an Anderson Shelter,10 ft from the crater, are uninjured. One Home Guard is killed by machine-gun fire. A Heinkel He 111 is shot down by AA gunfire during operations near Flamborough Head. The aircraft and the crew are listed as missing.

Overnight, there is also bombing in Birmingham, a lone bomber thought to be searching for Fort Dunlop or the Castle Bromwich aeroplane factory. It releases its bombs over suburban Erdington before heading for home. The very first bomb to fall on the city severely damages two residential properties (pictured above) and kills an 18 year-old cinema-projectionist. Several other bombs are known to have fallen, causing slight damage.

There is another first. A stick of five bombs fell on a house in the Prenton district of Birkenhead (above), across the water from Liverpool, claiming the life of a maid, 30-year-old Johanna Domenica Mandale. She is the first of 442 to be killed in the town, with 606 injured.

On the day, Fighter Command flies 409 sorties. Luftwaffe aircraft lost run to five - Fighter Command two. There is also an fatal accident. Off the Dunbar Coast in Scotland, a Hurricane from No. 605 Squadron Drem crashes into the sea after it develops a glycol leak. Sgt R D Ritchie is killed. His body is recovered by a rescue boat. Bomber Command loses a Blenheim IV and Coastal Command an Anson.

At Chequers that evening, as recorded by John Colville, Churchill is in after-dinner discussion with Anthony Eden and a group of his war leaders, including CIGS, Sir John Dill, Archibald Wavell, then C in C Middle East, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Pound. Among the topics discussed is yesterday's attack on the "Peewit" convoy, with Churchill approving of the idea of using the convoys as "bait", although he acknowledges that "surviving bait are getting fed up".

In drawing the Germans into battle, Churchill asserted, we stood to lose little, with Pound stating that we actually had a surplus of coastal vessels, while in the air battles we demonstrated to the world that we were superior to the Germans.  The enemy must be less powerful in the air than we supposed, he mused, for if their strength was as great as we believed, they would have come again today and would be bombing our ports incessantly.  

Eden could not understand why the Germans expended so great an effort against comparatively unimportant objects. It was suggested to him that they still though they could starve us out and did not understand the unimportance of these coastal convoys. It that case, it was hazarded, it hardly looks as if the Germans are conserving everything for an invasion and mass attack.

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