13 August, 2010

Day 35 - Battle of Britain

At last the weather looks to be clearing, enough for Göring to launch his long-awaited Adler Tag (Eagle Day). One of the crew of this Dornier, shot down two miles SW of Eastchurch, does not see its end. The other two crew are to spend the rest of the war as prisoners. Others will be less fortunate. RAF stations are on the menu.

For still others, there are different priorities. MP James Hollins is concerned to know whether arrangements for storing 20,000 tons of coal for the borough of West Ham will be speeded up. He is assured that arrangements are complete and deliveries are expected to start the following week.

So to Adler Tag, the creation of a nation whose leaders project themselves as leading the master race to world domination. This makes it hugely ironic that the launch misfires, partly through incompetence and inefficiency, and partly through the unexpectedly poor weather. Mist, drizzle and low cloud ruined any chance of a successful major offensive.

Before the events of the day have played out, however, the British public is digesting through their newspapers the events of the previous day. Prompted by the Air Ministry and under the iron rule of the censor, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express offer a similar diet of distortion and exaggeration, but this time with a new twist. Only slightly upping the "kill" to 39 - as against the actual of 31 - this time Fighter Command losses are heavily discounted, from 22 to nine.

George Orwell, writing in his diary for the period notes of the air battles that "if the reports are true, the British always score heavily." He then records his wish that he could talk to some RAF officer "and get some kind of idea whether these reports are truthful."

As for the Luftwaffe, their problems are of a different order, some of which had started long before today, with faulty and incomplete intelligence gathering. Especially problematical is poor analysis of photographic data. For a campaign which is supposed to be attacking Fighter Command, it is vital that targets are properly identified. But some critical sites have been omitted, such as the Supermarine factory in Southampton. Many airfields are mistakenly labelled as operating fighters when they are Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Command, or even Training Command airfields. The importance of other sites is exaggerated.

From there, it begins to get worse. Even as English readers are still finishing their newspapers, aircraft for the first waves of Adler Tag are taking off, their pilots assembling the formations. But at the last moment, on a personal signal from Reichsmarschall Göring, the operation is postponed until later in the day when the weather has cleared up.

By then, though, three units from KG2 are well on their ways and miss the recall signal. To compound the error, escorting Me 110s get the signal. They are to accompany the main force of 74 Do 17s led by Oberst Johannes Fink. After trying unsuccessfully to bring the bombers with them, they peel away. Not uncommonly - a problem affecting British as well as German formations - there is no radio communication between the different formations. Hand signals were not understood. The bombers plough on without their escorts.

Flying above the cloud, which has a base around 4,000ft, there were two separate formations, one headed for the Coastal Command airfield at Eastchurch, the other for Odiham, with a third element to provide a diversion off Portland. Poor data from the radar and the lack of strength confirmation from the Observer Corps leads to insufficient fighters being scrambled and leaves Fink's group unmolested.

At Eastchurch, the bombing is therefore, very heavy, causing considerable damage, killing 12 and injuring 40, and destroying five Blenheims on the ground. Nos. 111 and 151 Sqns then catch up with the Dorniers and promptly shoot four of them down, including the one pictured above, and damage another four.

To the west, the other group, comprising Ju 88s from KG54 are harried and engaged by fighters from Nos 43, 602 and then 64 Squadrons. The bombers never reach their targets, and nor do the Portland raid, which has kept its Me 110 escort. They are hotly engaged by RAF fighters and lose six of their number within five minutes - a disaster almost on the scale of the loss of No 141 Sqn's Defiants on 19 July. To that extent, the RAF had some capacity to learn.

As the weather improves, but only marginally, Adler Tag is reinstated and large-scale attacks are launched against Portland, Southampton and Portsmouth, Kent and the Thames estuary. Multiple RAF squadrons are brought to readiness and then scrambled to intercept. Ju 87s from Fliegerkorps VII suffer badly from the attentions of No. 609 Sqn Spitfires but a fleet of Ju 88s break through to Southampton, causing serious damage and starting large fires in warehouses and docks.

A small force of Ju 88s attempting to bomb Portland is thwarted by Nos 152, 213 and 601 Sqns, and the escorting Me 109s are put to rout with three of them being shot down.

On the coast near Lyme Regis, meanwhile, is a gaggle of Ju 87s headed for RAF Middle Wallop. What now has become a standard technique for the Luftwaffe is to send in the Me 109s to flush out the fighters, but this goes fatally wrong. The Messerschmitts have already turned back short of fuel, setting up a "Defiant moment" for a staffel from G2. Six out of nine are shot down, one is damaged and the rest turn back.

Other Stukas from G77 are out hunting after RAF Warmwell, but fail to find it and drop their bombs at random on the Dorset countryside. Two other staffeln of Ju 88s searching for Middle Wallop fail to find it and, at approximately 17:00hrs happen on RAF Andover, HQ of Maintenance Command. Twelve HE bombs are dropped. The station headquarters and officer's quarters are extensively damaged. One aircraft on the station is also damaged. Casualties are two killed.

Another force of Ju 87s fly over from the Pas de Calais to open another flank, headed for the airfield at Rochester, but fail to find it. They drop their bombs at random over the countryside.

Forty Ju 87s make for RAF Detling, about three miles north-east of Maidstone, in Kent. At the station, there is no air raid warning and no alarm. So complete is the surprise that airmen fail to take cover.

Later, it is suggested (see note illustrated - click to enlarge) that the Germans had adopted a ruse de guerre, the escorting fighters making a simulated attack on the Stukas, "which dispersed as though being broken up by British fighters." This apparently even deceived the RAF personnel, who believed Spitfires were at work.

The Stukas catch airmen queuing for their evening meals. Sixty-seven base personnel are killed, the operations block is demolished and the CO killed. The hangers are set on fire and other buildings destroying. Services are knocked out. Twenty-two aircraft are totally destroyed, some of them Blenheims bombed up ready for a mission.

The station is claimed to be back up and running the next day, but there is nothing to "run". Civil defence rescue teams are still on the base the next day. The tragedy for both sides is that the airfield is not one of Park's operational bases. Its immediate impact on the battle is slight.

On the day, the Luftwaffe has flown its largest number of sorties ever over England, amounting to 1,485. It claims 70 Spitfires and Hurricanes destroyed, plus 18 Blenheims. Actual Fighter Command losses are 14 aircraft, including one destroyed on the ground at Eastchurch, with 700 sorties flown. The Luftwaffe has lost 47 aircraft. But, including those destroyed on the ground and Bomber Command casualties - which are grevious, as we will shortly see - RAF losses are 50. In terms of aircraft, the Luftwaffe comes away slightly ahead.

More seriously for the Germans, while 13 British fighters have been shot down, only three pilots had been killed, although two have been seriously burned and are out of the fight. Bomber Command have lost 44 crew, either killed, missing or prisoners. The Luftwaffe has lost 89. But only five of those are Me 109 pilots. Neither side has achieved a knock-out blow.

Having fended off wave after wave of attackers, with relatively little loss to itself, the RAF is beginning to demonstrate to a recalcitrant Luftwaffe that unescorted bombers are more than a little vulnerable. But it is going to be a while before the Germans learned the lesson and confined their raids to the hours of darkness.

No one, however, could accuse their teacher, the RAF, of not being equally slow to learn. Despite much of what we might now call strategic bombing being carried out by its fleet of Hampdens, Whitleys and Wellingtons during the hours of darkness, there was a major exception - No. 2 Group and its fleet of Blenheim bombers.

Whether the Command thought this aircraft type possessed some special quality of invisibility or invulnerability is not known, but to all intents and purposes, it behaved as if they did.

Such then was the fate of No. 82 Sqn based at RAF Watton in Norfork, operating Blenheim MkIV bombers (pictured above). To it fell the unenviable task of proving again and again, to the extent that even the High Command could understand the lesson, that sending out small packages of lightly armed bombers in daylight raids against heavily defended targets was nothing short of suicide.

The first major lesson was delivered on 17 May, when twelve aircraft were sent to attack troop concentrations at Gembloux, Belgium, where the German army was sweeping West towards the Channel ports. They were supposed to have a Hurricane escort but these had been intercepted earlier were not available, The aircraft thus proceeded without their escorts and as they reached their target, were bounced by 15 Me 109s.

Eleven Blenheims were shot down immediately. The survivor struggled back to Watton, but so badly damaged was it that it had to be written off. Eight crew were posted as killed, 13 were missing presumed killed and three were taken prisoner.

As operations continued, with replacement aircraft and crews, another aircraft was lost on 22 May, with three killed, one on 7 June, two on 8 June during a raid on Abbeville, with two killed and two airmen captured. Another was lost on the same day elsewhere, with one killed and two POWs. Three more are lost on 13 June, with six killed, one missing and two POWs, one is lost in training on 25 June and one is lost over north-west Germany on 27 June. Then, on 2 July, in a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, another aircraft and its entire 3-man crew is lost.

Thus, at 08:30hrs on the morning of 13 August 1940 - seemingly in an attempt to confirm yet again the vulnerability of their aircraft and their sortie profiles - twelve Blenheim IV bombers from No. 82 Sqn took off from their airfields in Norfolk. Their objectives was to raid the airfield of Aalborg in northern Jutland, which the Germans had recently enlarged.

One aircraft returns prematurely, supposedly with technical problems, leaving the remaining eleven to fly on at 8,000ft in clear skies and brilliant sunshine. Through poor navigation, they make landfall 35 miles further south than intended, crossing over at Søndervig where they are instantly registered by a German air observation post.

The defenders now have had plenty of warning of their arrival and respond by sending up 25 Me 109s. These  have recently been sent to at Aalborg, part of the air fleet which was daily attacking targets in Britain. And, when they have finished, the Flak, now on high alert, takes over.

Unsurprisingly, not a single aircraft survives. No. 82 Squadron, in the space of a few minutes, ceases to exist - the second time it has suffered such a fate in its short history. The aircraft so proudly photographed are now smouldering debris or sunken wrecks. The damage sustained to Aalborg airfield is minimal and easily repaired.

Before the day is out though, the RAF is to add what many regard as an "own goal". Carrying out night flying practice in the early evening, F S Gregory gets into trouble flying his Spitfire from No. 65 Sqn out of Hornchurch. He bales out bit has left it too late and is killed. That brings to six the number of single-seat fighter pilots out of the fight.

The use of single-seat fighters, whether Spitfires or Hurricanes (pictured above) as night interceptors (the reason for the flying practice) proves fruitless. The handful of enemy aircraft despatched by them is outnumbered by the accidental losses - each loss detracting from the number of aircraft availble in the day. Defiants are in fact, significantly better performers. Blenheim F1s have a use pending the arrival of the Beaufighter, which is now rolling off the production lines.

On the other hand, Both Blenheim and Defiant are near useless in the day environment, yet are still flying day missions - to the very great cost of the Defiants as we will see in the not too distant future. Some senior officers in the RAF are not thinking straight.

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