24 August, 2010

Day 46 - Battle of Britain

For its lead story, the Daily Express focuses on a second bombardment from the German guns in the Calais area, followed by another RAF attack, and counter-battery fire from British heavy guns, the existence of which is officially admitted.  So a ritual is becoming established.

For the day, the weather has finally cleared, sufficient to permit a relatively high level of air operations, although a morning haze delays flying in some areas. It does not stop an early raid on Great Yarmouth, though. Missed by radar, it is picked up by the Observer Corps but too late for any effective interception. The force dumps about 20 HE bombs west of the harbour, affecting public services for a while. By the time a section of No. 66 Sqn Spitfires gets there from Coltishall, the raiders are long gone.

Shortly afterwards, two formations of some strength are detected building up behind Cap Gris Nez. Squadrons are scrambled to protect the forward airfields. By 08:15hrs the formations are being tracked as they crossed the Channel, by which time others are building up, although these give no sign of following. Nevertheless, more RAF squadrons are sent aloft, building the defending force to six squadrons and two flights.

So compact are the enemy formations, comprising some 40 Do 17s and Ju 88s, that the fighters are only able to make a limited pentration before the raiders are over the Dover gun defended area. Bombs are dropped over the town but the damage is "confined" to the residential area - from which much of the population had been evacuated.

No sooner is this raid under way when another five Luftwaffe formations - none of them less than 20 aircraft - cross the coast at different points, intercepted only by two British aircraft. The raiders, however, content themselves with carrying out deep reconnaissance before returning, only a small number of bombs being dropped near Canterbury.

No more than half an hour after this raid had cleared, another formation which had been orbiting over the Straits without making any threatening moves now begins to head towards the English coast. The main force, comprising more than 20 He 111s, skirted Dover and makes for Ramsgate, bombing the town and the local airport heavily.

Extremely well documented by a local historian, it was for Ramsgate the heaviest raid of the war, killing 29 and injuring over 50, ten seriously. The reaction, however, augers ill for the Germans. One housewife said:
I've lost my home, and I nearly lost my life, but after all, there is a war on and I suppose we must expect such things to happen. But, if Mr. Blooming Hitler thinks he can put the wind up us by bombing women and kids-well, he's got another think coming, that's all.
And so it was all over the town.

In what some say was a separate raid, with others linking it with the Ramsgate bombing, RAF Manston is hit by about 20 Ju 88s protected by a similar number of fighters. The airfield was badly damaged. Living quarters were wrecked, all communications were cut and a large number of unexploded bombs made the administration areas unusable. Effectively, the station had been rendered useless for operations other than serving as a forward refuelling airfield and an emergency landing ground.

One of the squadrons deployed from Manston was No. 264 flying Defiants (one pictured above). Based at Hornchurch, it had been ordered forward on 22 August to join the battle, despite the experience of No. 141 Sqn on 19 July. On its first encounter with Luftwaffe fighters, three aircraft were shot down. By the end of the day, the squadron had lost five aircraft with another seriously damaged. Three complete crews had been killed, their bodies never recovered. One gunner died from his wounds.

The squadron's major losses occurred fending off a raid at their home base which, with North Weald, also received the attention of the Luftwaffe. Concurrently with the south coast attacks, a large raid was despatched to these targets north of the Estuary. North Weald took 150-200 bombs dropped by nearly 50 Do 17s and He 111s, escorted by Me 110s. Living quarters were badly damaged, the boiler room was knocked out and nine people were killed. Ten were wounded.

In what was to have serious long-term repercussions, squadrons from No. 12 Group had been called upon to provide cover, but the Duxford Wing had arrives too late to have any useful effect (although Bader claims the "phone call never came").

While the Sector stations are being attacked, another raid is under way out of the Cherbourg area. Fighters are ordered up to intercept as the formation, estimated a "fifty plus" crosses the Channel. The main force skirts the Isle of Wight and makes for Portsmouth at about 15,000, evading British fighters which have been wrongly positioned by their controllers.

A local source describes how, in the Prince's Theatre in Lake Road, scores of youngsters are settling down to a matinee showing of Gate of Alcatraz. Tragically, the information provided by the radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight has degraded, so the destination of the raid is not picked up. No air raid warning is given.

In the space of five minutes, the Germans drop 65 250kg and 500kg bombs. The imposing theatre is all but reduced to rubble. Eight children are killed and many more are injured. The bombs fall indiscriminately on shops and houses across the southern half of the city. And, with no timely warning, many people were caught in the open unable to reach a proper shelter. The death toll reaches more than 100 city residents and workers.

Then the bombers target the dockyard, which suffers badly. The destroyer Acheron has her stern blown off. Two ratings are killed and three crew are wounded. The destroyer Bulldog, moored alongside, is damaged by splinters. Her commanding officer, Cdr J P Wisden, is mortally wounded and dies on the 29th. The French torpedo boat Flore's bridge is damaged by falling masonry. HMS Vernon, the Navy's mine and torpedo centre, is also badly damaged (pictured below).

By now, many have reached shelter - and do not get a chance to regret it. An air raid shelter takes a direct hit, killing 24 and wounding 42 dockyard workers.

With nightfall, the torment continues. Areas in London and the suburbs are attacked. A letter from a Tottenham resident describes the family experience:
On Saturday night at 5 past 11. Well Tom I have never seen anything like it. We were in bed when we saw a bright searchlight shoot up in the sky, then another, then another, four altogether. I thought Good God what is happening now. We went downstairs and made for the shelter. We looked out the back door and really the sky was one mass of searchlights. I should think there were millions of them and the jerries planes were overhead. Dad made us get down the shelter and we were down there waiting for Mrs Lenny next door to come out with her children before the warning went.

They dropped bombs on two houses in Cornwall Road (Near Braemar Road), Mansfield Avenue (A turning out of West Green Road). We are not sure about Seaford Road. Several people were killed. Your sister Dolly's boyfriends family were blown across their kitchen with the blast from the bombs in Cornwall Road (pictured above).
Bombing is also reported in Cannonsbury Park, Highbury Park, Leyton, Wood Green, Stepney, Islington, Enfield, Hampton Court, Millwall and others.

The bomb in the Hampton Court area completely destroys the home of Frederick Reynolds at 153 Tudor Avenue (pictured above). Although Mr Reynolds and his wife sustained injuries, both have a miraculous escape. Their house has been reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. They are not alone in being homeless - several hundred others share this fate on this night.

For the first time, the City of London is bombed. St Giles Church in Cripplegate, at the heart of the City, takes a bomb in the forecourt (pictured above). The blast does little damage but knocks the statue of Milton off its plinth (below) doing it some injury. The poet is buried in the church and this event rouses indignation not only here but also in the United States. Milton, like Shakespeare, is a common heritage of the English-speaking world.

A large fire is started at Fore Street spreading to London Wall. Neill Warehouse, West India Dock, is badly damaged by fire. Warehouses Nos 3 and 4 are set on fire. At 02:40hrs, the Imperial Tobacco Factory and Carter Patterson's Works in Goswell Road are also fired. Two hundred pumps are mobilised but, with several unexploded bombs also reported, the area has to be evacuated and kept clear until midday on the 25th.

Other suburbs, seemingly at random, get visits from the Luftwaffe. Malden, Coulsdon, Feltham, Kingston, Banstead and Epsom all take hits. In Birmingham, the Nuffield and Dunlop Factories are bombed just after midnight. The Castle Bromwich Spitfire factory at Erdington is hit, and so is the Moss Gear Co Ltd. The main railway line is knocked out between Cardiff and west Wales after a train is bombed at Cardiff. A gun site at Datchet, Buckinghamshire, is bombed at 01:00hrs and ammunition blown up.

A hundred miles further north, it is the same scene. Residential areas in Hull are hit, and the Bomber Command station at Driffield is bombed again. Further north still, bombers hit Leeds. Nos 70 and 72 Whitehall Road are wrecked and much damage is sustained to the roof of St John's Sunday School (below). There is no major damage to the city.

And still further north, bombs are dropped at Newcastle, Wallsend, Broomhill, Seaton Sluice, South Shields, Stockton, Billingham, Hebburn and West Hartlepool. Minelaying is reported off Flamborough Head.

What is by now the previous day, Saturday 24 August, is regarded by many as the start of the third phase of the Battle of Britain, where the Luftwaffe concentrates on the task of eliminating Fighter Command. But, on this day at least, there is no evidence of strenuous attempts to bring the RAF to battle, and good evidence that some formations actively sought to evade confrontation. Although the full-scale Blitz has yet to come, for an increasing number of people bombed out of their homes, the difference is academic.

As to the assault on the RAF, while two Sector airfields are hit and Manston is targeted again, as much if not more effort is being devoted to civilians. Visibly, at any rate, the emphasis seems to be shifting to "terror" targets. Fighter Command has lost 23 aircraft, including two Hurricanes shot down by "friendly" AA - one over Dover, the other over Leeds. Another is damaged. Remarkably, despite these losses, only four pilots are killed or missing. Two are seriously injured. Bomber Command loses a Hampden in a landing accident, but no aircrew are lost.

Against that 24, the Luftwaffe loses 32 aircraft, including 24 Me 109s. Twelve single-engined fighter pilots are killed, missing or taken captive. In the air war stakes, at least, the balance of advantage goes to the RAF. The exchange rate most definitely favours Fighter Command and, but for the Defiant losses, would have been even more favourable.

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