28 August, 2010

Day 50 - Battle of Britain

There were only so many variations on a theme that the Luftwaffe could offer, so this day saw what looked like, at first sight, a repeat of earlier efforts. At about 08:30hrs, aircraft started to assemble over Cap Gris Nez - the classic pattern with which RAF radar operators were very familiar.

However, it is clear that the Germans knew full well that they were being observed - they could hardly fail to be aware of this and, at a tactical level, stupid they were not. Mason points out (Battle over Britain) the Germans were practising a studied deception programme, assembling aircraft en masse and splitting them up into different raids once they were closer to their targets.

The radar, of course, could still only give limited information on force size, height and composition, so controllers were vitally dependent on the network of observer station to give more detail. But with several raids going over together, this confused the reporting system and made it more difficult to vector the right number of fighters to the right place at the right times.

And so it was in this case. The bomber element of this force was in fact two groups of Dorniers escorted by fighters, amounting to 100-plus aircraft. Crossing the Channel, one section of the raid - led by 20 Do 17s - headed for Eastchurch, while 20-plus Dorniers flew on to the airfield at Southend, then named RAF Rochford.

Four Fighter Command squadrons were put up to block the massed raid. But they were unable to penetrate the defensive screen and instead lost eight aircraft and six pilots. Four of those were from the ill-fated No. 264 Sqn flying Defiants, who were bounced by a Gruppe of Me 109s as they went into the attack.  Only eight aircraft returned to their home base at Hornchurch, of which only three were serviceable.

Thus did the Bomber Command station suffer yet another attack, losing two Fairey Battles destroyed on the ground. The bombers were nevertheless deterred by spirited flak, as the airfields were now benefitting from Pile's policy of concentrating anti-aircraft resources on the airfields. They did no lasting damage and the station remained operational, albeit restricted to daylight flying.

The second raid, headed for Rochford, again met with stiff Fighter Command opposition. Elements of thirteen squadrons attempting to head it off. As before, the fighters failed to penetrate the defensive screen and the station took the hit - but again suffering only minor damage. Winston Churchill, meanwhile, was on the coast to see for himself the state of the defences.

While he was thus engaged, a third attack then developed. But this one comprised a large fighter sweep over Kent and the Estuary at 25,000ft. This was precisely the formation Park wanted his own pilots to avoid but they attempted to take them on, losing nine aircraft in the the process.

On the day, Fighter Command was to lose 15 Spitfires and Hurricanes, plus four Defiants - 19 aircraft in all. The Luftwaffe traded 28 aircraft, of which 15 were Me 109s. Where experienced pilots met the Germans on favourable terms, they gave good account of themselves, but otherwise they were being out-thought and out-fought.

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