16 August, 2010

Day 38 - Battle of Britain

The print media is quick to capitalise on the RAF's triumph, printing uncritically the latest "score". Gone is the rancour of early August between the press and the MoI.  The air battle is now taking centre stage.

With full details of the battle as yet unknown, however, as much attention is given to a night raid by Luftwaffe bombers, which targets Croydon aerodrome - the closest raid yet to London.

Of the battle as a whole, "This was no preliminary", says the Daily Express leader. "This was no skinnish. This was the real thing. Yesterday, Goering threw his air force against Britain. All good Nazis have been trained, disciplined, bullied and starved to this one purpose. This was their hour. They came in their hordes and they went home again humbled."

Yet, what precisely they are trying to achieve is not yet certain. Shirer is still in northern France, guest of the Germans, carrying out a tour. He writes to his diary,:
In a couple of fields along the way this afternoon, we saw what looked under the camouflage like barges and pontoons loaded with artillery and tanks. But there was certainly not enough to begin an invasion of England with. However, two or three Germans in our party keep emphasising what we saw and hinting that there is much more that we didn't see. Maybe. But I'm suspicious. I think the Germans want to launch a scare story about an imminent invasion of Britain.

Francis Mason, in his Battle over Britain, writes of this day that the scale and frequency of the German assaults - including the increasing use of the nerve-racking Stuka - engender "a new grimness in the character of the British."

The growing toll of enemy aircraft which fall over the English countryside, the increasing number of German airman bailing out amongst a population keyed up to meet an imminent invasion, the disruption of long-established amenities by enemy raids - all these pressures upon the English "now quite suddenly give birth to a startling and perhaps frightening atmosphere of hatred for the German people as a whole," he declares.

If that really was the case, then the observers from the Home Intelligence department seem to have missed it. "News of RAF punishment to enemy raiders continues to have a stimulating effect on public opinion," they write. This "more than counteracts the effects of disturbed nights in raided areas". On 17 August, the Saturday, they write (of today) " ... the air battles are everywhere regarded as encouraging victories."

There is also reference to confidence increasing and "a feeling of growing exhilaration", but also a report that the attitude to the war is "stiffening", with "less tendency to compare it with a sporting event.

Yet, the contemporary Flight magazine notes that this is precisely how the battle is being seen. "Day by day the British public waits anxiously for the half-time scores and the close-of-play scores, as if Hutton were batting against Australia; and very disappointed is that public if a century is not scored."

The first century, it goes on to tell us, produced rather delighted surprise, but now we have come to reckon on one as a right. Oh a dull day, when a mere 75 or so raiders are shot down, the public attitude is that, "Jerry is bowling for safety, and won't give our bats a chance."

Being a technical magazine though, Flight has some serious points to make. "What is Göring trying to do?" it asks, then continuing:
The raids on Dover, Portsmouth, and Southampton can be understood, and so can the attacks on our aerodromes. But what profit do the Germans expect from bombing and machine-gunning suburbs? They can have no hope of beating this country to its knees by sheer terrorism, and the price which they pay in aeroplanes and air crews is high.
Thus does the magazine conclude:
Naturally we expect more attacks, and probably still heavier ones, for some time to come, until it begins to dawn on the German High Command that the game is not worth the candle. In the meantime our fighter pilots are "not weary in well-doing."
Another viewpoint comes from Devon Francis, the Association Press aviation editor, who has filed a report entitled: "Furious air attacks may mean Hitler has dropped plans for land invasion".

A new and awesome possibility – that Germany after all may not attempt an actual invasion of the British Isles but will try to bring the British to their knees by air attacks alone – today grew out of the furious Nazi air assaults, Francis writes. He reminds us that the Germans have "borrowed liberally" from the Douhet doctrine, suggesting that if that Germans could inflict enough damage on England by air, no invasion would be necessary.

Francis notes that the primary purpose of warfare is not to take and hold ground but only to destroy an enemy's will to resist, recalling that during the 1914-18 war Germany itself scarcely felt the tread of an enemy soldier's boot, yet the German will to resist was broken.

There we have two of the main models under consideration - one where the focus is on physical and the other on moral dominance. But the very fact that two separate commentators are drawing different conclusions from events betrays a fatal strategic confusion. If both are being attempted simultaneously, neither can succeed with the resources available to the Luftwaffe.

Meanwhile, the third option, the blockade, also continues apace, with another small piece of history being made. The Irish-owned cattle carrier Lady Meath, outbound from Dublin and en route Birkenhead, paused briefly off Holyhead to take on board a Royal Navy team from the inspection vessel HMS Manx Lad. Both vessels are ripped apart by an acoustic mine, laid by a German bomber, the first ever successfully to destroy a ship.

This marks another step in the technology of warfare, a further development of the so-called "influence" mines. The first - the magnetic mine - had been deployed in British waters on 17 November 1939 but, by a happy accident, one had been dropped on the mud flats at Shoeburyness on the night of the 23 November. It had been found and then successfully defused by Lt Cdr Ouvery and his Royal Navy team, allowing counter-measures to be developed. Now, a new threat had to be dealt with.

Nothing of this, or the mounting shipping losses, is released to the public. The focus is on the "successes" in the air war.  The morning's edition of the Manchester Guardian, for instance, projects an upbeat report of: "144 raiders destroyed", recording yesterday's score as the "highest total for one day", with the loss of only 27 RAF fighters. The Daily Express, using the same figures, is even more upbeat.

Such buoyant news is clearly having a beneficial effect on morale. When a Ju 87 makes a forced landing at Ham Manor Golf Course, near Angmering, the Home Guard descend upon it and proudly pose for their photograph. They then go home for their teas. By next morning, the aircraft is stripped bare - by souvenir-hunters. A population consumed with hatred would have burnt the machine.

As for this day, if there was any expectation that the Germans might be dissuaded by their losses of the previous day from continuing the attack, it was not to be realised. Equally buoyed by tidings of victory, they are preparing to deliver what - publicly they believe - is to be the killer blow.

However, it gets off to a slow start. Early morning mists are shrouding the Channel. Not until about 10:45hrs is the first sign of a raid noted. Very quickly, attacks develop against Norfolk, Kent and the London area. Once again, airfields are the main targets, with Manston and West Malling hit. The latter takes loads from eighteen bombers and is knocked out for four days. A Lysander is destroyed.

Less that half an hour after these raids have withdrawn, giving scarcely time for the aircraft aloft to return and refuel, large formations are reported crossing the south and south-east coasts. With an estimate of 300 enemy aircraft inbound, a total of 86 fighters are scrambled to meet the threat.

The main raid, apparently headed for Hornchurch, is intercepted by Spitfires from No. 54 Sqn as it flies up the Thames Estuary. Prevented from reaching its target, it is harried all the way back to the French coast. For a while, all three southern groups of Fighter Command are engaged, from Nos 10, 11 and 12 Groups. Nevertheless, weight of numbers drive many bombers through, their scattered raids causing considerable damage.

Amongst the areas hit are London suburbs, including Esher, Wimbledon and New Malden and Croydon (pictured below). In Malden, several houses and small factories are hit (see above), giving many urban residents their first experience of war. Bombs on the railway station kill several workers and close both lines. Further north, Gravesend and Tilbury were attacked. Raiders also drop bombs on Harwell and Farnborough airfields. In these raids, fifteen civilian are killed and another 51 injured.

At times, RAF fighters have considerable difficulty containing the raids and, in one episode near Deal, No. 266 Sqn is overwhelmed by Me 109s. Five British aircraft are shot down.

Worse is to follow. At exactly 13:00hrs, another large Luftwaffe formation crosses the eastern end of the Isle of Wight. On a signal from the lead aircraft, it splits into four, the largest heading for RAF Tangmere. The base's two Hurricane squadrons are scrambled, Nos 43 and 601 Sqns, but they fail to prevent a "textbook assault" by a large group of Stukas.

Massive fires break out and, in the midst of the mayhem, PO "Billy" Fiske - the first US volunteer to fly for the RAF - tries to nurse his damaged Hurricane onto the strip. Becoming the target for several strafing runs, his aircraft catches fire and only by tremendous feats of gallantry is the badly-burned man extricated from his cockpit. He dies the next day from his wounds.

Six Blenheims are destroyed on the ground and four damaged, plus one Spitfire is written off and another destroyed. Seven Hurricanes are badly damaged and later written off as unrepairable. A newly-delivered Beaufighter, yet to be equipped with top secret radar for night interception, is slightly damaged. Fourteen servicemen and six civilians are killed. 41 are severely injured.

The Stukas pay for their insolence, losing seven of their number, with three damaged, but other Stukas are able to break through to the Ventnor CH radar and further damage the equipment. Another section attacks the naval station at Lee-on-Solent, destroying six naval aircraft and three hangers. Two Fleet Air Arm Blackburn Rocs are damaged. This prompts the stationing of 4 Rocs around the perimeter of the airbase with their power turrets (the same type used in the Defiant) permanently manned as light anti-aircraft guns.

Over the eastern outskirts of Southampton, three Hurricanes from No. 249 Sqn - newly drafted into the area from the north - picked up these raiders. Led by Flt Lt James Nicholson, the flight is bounced by a staffel of Me 109s leaving all three crippled. Nicholson, however, remains with his burning aircraft long enough to shoot down an Me 110, only then baling out. Badly burned he takes fire from Home Guard volunteers before landing, whence he is rushed to hospital.  He later makes a full recovery, but not before becoming Fighter Command's first and only Victoria Cross winner.

The award of a VC must, under normal circumstances, arise from an act (or acts) which have been witnessed and fully authenticated, which was not the case with Nicholson - and which explains why he remains unique in Fighter Command for having been thus awarded. But the award perhaps explains more about Nicholson's superiors, who are said to be looking for a deed to honour in this way.

Back in the battle, there are three more raids to come. These included a strafing run by Me 109s over Manston but, more importantly, an attack by two bombers on Brize Norton. Using the now classic ruse de guerre, the aircraft join the circuit with their wheels down as if to land, only then cleaning up as they reach the perimeter of the airfield. They make for the hangers, dropping 32 bombs, destroying 46 fully fuelled Oxford trainers and damaging six others. Eleven Hurricanes in another hanger are also damaged.

For its deeds alone, this was a day in history to be marked.  But it had a formative part in defining the public perception of the battle.  Visiting 11 Group's operations room at RAF Uxbridge is prime minister Churchill, who is able to watch the drama as it unfolds.

Afterwards, Churchill tells his military assistant, Maj Gen Hastings Ismay "Don't speak to me, I have never been so moved."  After several minutes of silence he says, "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." Four days later, that sentence forms the basis of his speech to the House of Commons, with "the few" then becoming the catch-phrase for the entire battle.

For the day though, Fighter Command had good reason to be pleased. It has lost 29 aircraft, some destroyed on the ground. Only 23 have actually been shot down and, of those, just nine single-engined fighter pilots have been killed. On the other hand, if we include all the aircraft destroyed on the ground, plus the Bomber and Fighter Command operational losses, the RAF as a whole has had to write off 82 aircraft - although there are more. Some "damaged" aircraft later have to be reclassified as beyond repair.

On the other side, the Luftwaffe lose 47 aircraft. On the face of it, they have come out ahead. But this is not a numbers game. The German losses include 18 Me 109s with 10 pilots killed or missing. For once, the RAF has come out ahead in this vital parameter of single-engined fighter pilots, albeit by the narrowest of margins.

Overall though, the picture is not good. Since the official start of the battle on 10 July, Fighter Command has lost 151 single-engined fighter pilots, 78 in the last eight days. The Luftwaffe has lost 75 Me 109 pilots, with 46 lost in that most recent eight-day period.

The loss ratio is improving, but there is no denying the seriousness of the situation. Add in the badly injured, who will not see fighting again during the battle - or at all - the RAF has lost over 200 of its front-line pilots. That is more than 16 squadrons, if they were all up at the same time, equivalent to the entire Spitfire inventory.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread