18 August, 2010

Day 40 - Battle of Britain

Having been given the day off, Fighter Command is back in harness, confronting the godless Nazis who do not seem to believe in the concept of Sunday as a day of rest. On this day the Luftwaffe is to resume its attempts to destroy the RAF, flying 850 sorties involving 2200 aircrew. The RAF resisted with equal vigour flying 927 sorties involving 600 aircrew.

The action startes with a morning reconnaissance flights. Spitfires from No. 54 Sqn shoot it down. From then on, it is a day of massed formations. Such is the intensity of attacks that at one time every serviceable Spitfire and Hurricane in 11 Group area is either flying or at readiness.

As before, the principal targets are airfields. The first wave of attacks is focused on Biggin Hill and Kenley. German tactics are challenging, comprising simultaneous high and low-level attacks, the former escorted by Me 109s to draw away the RAF fighters.

Amongst those sent aloft are Hurricanes from No. 501 Sqn but before they have a chance to intercept the raiders, they are bounced by a formation of Me 109s from JG26 led by Ob. Gerhard Schopfel. Five are disposed of. Famously, Schopfel shoots down four, including Kenneth "Hawkeye" Lee.

On baling out, Lee is "captured" by an armed elderly civilian who refuses to believe that he is British. Some soldiers retrieve the situation, taking him to the local golf course for a brandy while they waited for an ambulance. Heavily bloodstained, Lee stood at the bar, where he overhears a man complaining: "The machine-gunning made me miss my putt. And who's that chap at the bar? Bad show, all that blood - I don't believe he's even a member."

By now, the raid on Biggin Hill is under way. The plan fails. The attack by nine low-level Do 17s from KG76 should have coincided with 30 Ju 88s bombing from high level but the two bomber formations miss a rendezvous over France. Thus, the Dorniers forge on alone, to be met by Hurricanes from No 32 Sqn and Spitfires from No. 610 Sqn.

For the Germans, it is not a happy meeting. Two go down immediately, two crash into the Channel (although their crews were rescued) and three had to force land in France. Of the two that actually get back to base, one carries its dead pilot and is flown by the flight engineer. The damage done to the RAF base is slight.

The raid on Kenley is more successful as the hi-lo combination comes together. Fighters are up to intercept both, though, although No. 111 Sqn is unable to engage until the low-flying Dorniers have cleared the airfield. This time, therefore, the Luftwaffe is able to do considerable damage. HE bombs destroy hangers, the equipment stores, ten Hurricanes and two Blenheims. All communications are cut, as are water and gas mains, 12 personnel were killed and another 20 injured.

Not all the raiders find their way to Kenley. Several make for Croydon, only minutes away as the Dornier flies, bombing one of the undamaged hangers and destroying one Hurricane and damaging another. Other aircraft bombs West Malling, hitting two hangers and destroying three Lysanders.

Disrupted communications create serious problems for No. 11 Group controllers, who lose track of their aircraft for about two hours after the raids are over. This could have been serious as the action for the day has by no means finished. Fortunately for Keith Park, the action is moving westwards.

At around 14:00hrs, 85 Ju 87s drawn from three Gruppen, plus a separate raid of 25 JU 88s, are picked up approaching the Isle of Wight. In total, they were escorted by 157 Me 109s.

Fearing they might be caught on the ground, controllers order all the fighters in the southern sector to take off and orbit their airfields, the unfortunate effect of which is to allow the bombers to head unmolested for their targets, the naval air station at Ford, the naval airfield at Gosport, the Coastal Command station at Thorney Island, and the radar station at Poling, near Littlehampton.

The Ju 88s actually manage a clear run at Ford and Gosport, causing considerable damage. But Ju 87s forming up for an attack on the Poling radar station are picked off by Hurricanes from No. 43 Sqn, catching them at their most vulnerable point, as they enter their dives.

The survivors who form up with the Ju 87s which had attacked Ford and Thorney Island – where considerable damage had been caused (Ford pictured above) – are then savaged by Hurricanes and Spitfires from Nos. 152, 601 and 602 Sqns, while No. 243 Sqn Spitfires held their escorting Me 109s at bay. Some 16 Stukas are shot down, two crash on their way home and two more are damaged.

Some mystery attends the reasons for the Luftwaffe attacking the airfields at Ford, Gosport and Thorney Island. None were operational Fighter Command stations. The first two are Royal Naval Air Stations (RNAS) and Thorney Island operates Coastal Command Blenheims.

Unwittingly though at Ford, the Germans knock out an important part of the air-sea rescue service. In addition to providing the base for the first operational squadron of Albacores, the Station is also home for 751 Naval Air Squadron. Operating Walrus amphibians (pictured above*), it was part of the unofficial "Digger Aitken" flying circus, providing air-sea rescue services for downed airmen. Already in the process of "dispersal", the squadron was moved to Scotland protect it from the bombing, making the aircraft unavailable for Channel rescues.

For the Germans, the raid has also been disastrous. According to Mason, this is the first "decisive defeat" of the Stuka dive bomber. At the beginning of August, 281 had been available in France for operations but, in 14 major raids some 39 machines have been lost. On this one day, a further 17 have been lost and five more damaged, mostly to the guns of fighters.

And still the action is not over. At 15:30hrs, a dozen Me 109s strafe Manston destroying two Spitfires, killing one man and injuring 15. But then comes the grand finale. Two hours later, at about five, eight raids comprising about 250 aircraft cross over the Essex coast via the Blackwater and Thames estuaries. Their targetsare  the airfields at North Weald and Hornchurch.

With No. 12 Group providing four squadrons to patrol their bases, Park alerts 13 of his own squadrons and sends four of them forward to meet the enemy. Spirited fighting by No. 56 Sqn, which is quickly joined by No. 54 Sqn, opensd the proceedings but fails to stop the bombers. As Nos 85, 151, 257 and 310 join the fray, over sixty Hurricanes are engaged, backed by Nos. 32 and 501 to the south.

A far deadlier enemy then intervenes in the shape of dense, low cloud. It forces the German formations to retire without reaching their targets. That same weather system keeps most of Bomber Command home that night as well. However, during the night, the Luftwaffe mounts raids in South Wales, RAF Sealand (Chester), Birmingham and Wolverhampton. A bomb at Hook, Hampshire, explodes killing five members of a bomb disposal squad dealing with it.

As to the German raiders in general, it has been a long and dangerous day. They are now not only being shot down by fighters. This is no longer the beginning of June, when the Anti-Aircraft Command's only contribution was to shoot down a lone Fairey Battle, killing two of its crew. Gen Pile's Command is beginning to acquire new equipment and capabilities.

Defending Kenley had been experimental rocket launchers, known as Parachute and Cable (PAC) launchers. Together with the guns, these are said to have accounted for two Dorniers, although evidence from one downed crew suggested their pilot had been killed - and the aircraft brought down - by a Lewis gun. Whichever device brought down the aircraft, country-wide this day proved to be the best so far for the Command. Thirty aircraft were claimed.

Nor is this a static situation. For instance, by October, Kenley, already equipped with four modern Bofors (one pictured above), will also acquire four three-inch guns. Overall, the stock of Bofors will increase by 70 percent through the course of the battle, to 466 by the first week in September. A quarter of all those guns will stretch in a belt from Sussex to Surrey.

As the RAF is increasingly finding, improvements in detection, prediction and fire control is making anti-aircraft artillery a formidable weapon. Its time has not yet arrived but the balance is shifting from the aircraft to the gun. Similarly, the offensive day bomber is yielding to the single-engined, single-seater day fighter. The Stuka is now proving vulnerable to fighter attack, but no more so than the Battle had done in Holland and France, as the Blenheim was. But all of these, and such types as the Typhoon and Tempest, would become increasingly vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.

Yet, for all that, on this day Fighter Command lost this day 43 aircraft, all of them Hurricanes and Spitfires, including those destroyed on the ground and one shot tragically down by anti-aircraft fire at Kenley. A further 29 aircraft, none of them fighters, were destroyed on the ground during attacks on Gosport, Thorney Island and Ford, bringing the total RAF losses to 72. Add the aircraft lost at Croydon and West Malling and the number reaches 76.

The Luftwaffe lost 60 aircraft, of which only 16 were Me 109s. Twelve Me 109 pilots were reported killed, missing or POWs as against ten RAF fighter pilots killed and three very seriously injured. On a numerical basis, it is difficult to argue that this was a victory for the RAF, or a defeat for the Luftwaffe. But then, this was not a numbers game.

* pic: © Courtesy of the R C Sturtivant Collection. Licensor www.scran.ac.uk

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