11 August, 2010

Day 33 - Battle of Britain

Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, but for many this day seventy years ago it was a one of life and death. The air war starts early when at 07:30hrs Me 109s and 110s attack Dover. Spitfires of Nos 64 and 74 Sqns are vectored in to intercept.

In the official history of the RAF during the war, it is about this time, we are told, that Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park had succeeded in borrowing some Lysander aircraft to work systematically with the launches and other craft, a step towards building a truly comprehensive organisation for air-sea rescue service. Few investments of aircraft were to yield more precious dividends, the writer asserts.

How badly we needed special aircraft for this purpose is then highlighted by the "not unrepresentative" experience of Pilot Officer Stevenson from No. 74 Sqn, sent in to intercept this raid. It is an illustration, the official historian cites, of "the almost fortuitous fashion in which our airmen were being picked up from the sea." Having baled out of his aircraft at high altitude (23,000 ft) after mixing it with a group of Me 109s, he has drifted eleven miles out to sea on the end of his parachute by the time he hits the water. His narrative thus continues:
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 an MTB 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 Dover attack, however, is a prelude to a larger attack on Portland Naval base and Weymouth. These aircraft are followed at 09:45 by large formation of 165 comprising Ju 88s, He 111s and Me 110s, escorted by Me 109s, launched from the Cherbourg area. This is the largest raid yet sent against England.

At 10:15hrs Pilot Officer Warren is flying one of ten Spitfires from No. 152 Squadron on its way to assist eight other squadrons were ordered to intercept the German. The massive dog-fight that ensues spreads across the width of Weymouth Bay at heights up to 23,000ft. Tangling with the Messerschmitts, the RAF fighters are blocked from getting through to the bombers, which commence their bombing runs at 15,000ft, setting the oil tanks on fire.

Ten to fifteen miles off Swanage ten Me 109s are sighted by Warren's flight of four aircraft, in a dog-fight with another RAF Squadron. The Messerschmitts break turn for France when they see the Spitfires. Warren and another pilot chase after them but are unable to get into range.

During this time, Pilot Officer Jones is shot down between Portland and Swanage. He bales out and lands in the Channel. Warren, in company with two other Spitfires from No. 152 Sqn are ordered up again (in company with Blenheims of No. 604 Squadron) to look for him. Still, the units have responsibility for recovering their own.

The three Spitfires come across a sea rescue Heinkel He 59B (from Seenotzentrale Cherbourg) riding on the sea 30 miles off Cherbourg, recovering Luftwaffe airmen (pictured). They are protected by six circling Me 109s. The Spitfires hold off 109s whilst the Blenheims destroy the seaplane. There is no sighting of PO Jones or his parachute, but his body is later recovered and buried in Y-Port Cemetery France.

Another He 59 of Seenotzentrale Cherbourg, flying out of Calais, had also flown into the area. Before it had got even 20 miles, it was spotted by twelve Spitfires of No. 610 Sqn. Flt Lt Edward Smith took the kill, but the others were bounced by escorting Me 109s. They shoot down two Spitfires, killing their pilots, Sgts John Tanner and William Neville.

Others are still fighting for their lives. Amongst them is the crew of the destroyer HMS Windsor, fortunately only damaged by German bombing off Botany Buoy in the Thames Estuary. Destroyer HMS Esk is also damaged at Harwich, although the repairs needed are minor. Destroyer HMS Scimitar is damaged by near misses while in Portland Harbour - dock hands manage to repair her in four days. Also damaged in the harbour is the destroyer HMS Skate, taking numerous near misses which wreck her bridge.

Yet another armed trawler, this one HMT Edwardian ends its career. She is damaged by bombing off Kent. Three crew are killed and three wounded. The damage to the ship is so serious the she is run aground at North Foreland to prevent her sinking. The trawler Peter Carey is also badly damaged in the same area, but her crew manage to save her.Elsewhere, the steamer Kirnwood (3,829grt)is damaged by bombing, as is the tanker Oil Trader (5,550grt), 3½ miles from Shipwash Light Vessel.

Air casualties on both sides are heavy. Fighter Command loses 30 aircraft - 24 Hurricanes and six Spitfires. The Luftwaffe loses 11 bombers and 22 fighters, the latter made up from nine Me 110s and 13 Me 109s. With two "sitting duck" He 59s also shot down, that brings the total to 35 aircraft lost.

Elsewhere, there are private tragedies. Sub Lt H W Isherwood of No. 806 Sqn is killed when his Fulmar crashes near Aberdour. A Coastal Command Anson out of RAF St Eval fails to return after a patrol. After a frantic plea for help over the radio is heard, Blenheims are sent out to search the last-known position. Nothing is found. The four crew are posted missing, due to enemy action. Bomber Command loses two Blenheims, a Hampden, Wellington and Whitley.

Overall then, on the day, British losses run to 37 aircraft, the Luftwaffe 35. By any measure, and certainly by the short-term measure the RAF parades each day to the newspapers and the BBC, it is a significant defeat. In fact, it is more than a defeat. It is a disaster. Of the 30 first-class, single-seat RAF fighters shot down, 25 pilots are killed. The Germans lose nine Me 109 pilots, including one POW. Two are rescued unhurt and one crashes on home territory. A ratio of nearly three fighter pilots lost to every German one, this is not an exchange rate Dowding can sustain.

But, there is reality and then there is propaganda.  By the end of the day, the RAF is claiming 50 Luftwaffe fighters down, a figure which is rapidly to increase to 60 - against 24 Fighter Command losses. Duff Cooper, speaking in the early evening to an audience which includes the press, is jubilant.  Taking the figure of 50 Luftwaffe aircraft down, he predicts that Britain will soon have established air superiority. "Just as we retain command of the seas," he says, "so we are rapidly assuming command of the air".

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