15 August, 2010

Day 37 - Battle of Britain

From his lofty height as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Jodl chooses this day to issue a summary of the situation relating to the preparations for Sealion - a sort of half-term report.  He stresses, as if it needed to be said, that the landing operation "must not founder under any circumstances". Failure, he writes, can have political repercussions far outweighing the military setback.

He takes on a growing disagreement between the Navy and the Army about the width of the assault front, siding with the Army in agreeing that it should extend from Brighton to Folkestone. He calls for ten divisions to be landed within the first four days, reinforced by another three divisions during the next four, with airborne troops reinforcing the troops landed in the west.

Should these conditions not be fulfilled, he asserts, "I consider the landing to be an act of desperation which would have to be attempted in a desperate manner, but which we have at this stage no reason whatever to contemplate. "England", he adds, "can be brought to her knees in other ways".

The "other ways" Jodl suggest are carrying on the air war until the economic destruction of southern England has been brought about, stepping up U-Boat warfare from French ports, taking Egypt - if necessary with Italian help - and taking Gibraltar, with Spanish and Italian agreement. He cautions about undertaking military operations which are not necessary for the conquering of England. "We should fight for victory and not just conduct operations on military objectives," he says, adding:
From now till early next year, England's will to resist must be broken, if not be a landing then by every other means. This most important task will take precedence over everything else. We are now entering into the decisive battle against England. Therewith within our coalition the general principles of war will remain valid - to concentrate all strength in the decisive undertaking - that is air and U-Boat warfare against England.
This is the day the Luftwaffe, running its own agenda, attempts to saturate the British defences. Ranged against the RAF are three air fleets but General Hans-Jeurgen Stumpff's Luftflotte 5 has never been fully deployed as part of a co-ordinated attack. Now, this is to be tried, with a full-scale assault on the towns and cities of the north and north-east of England, using aircraft operating out of Norway and Denmark.

Stumpff's orders are to attack airfields near Newcastle and in Yorkshire, for which purpose he has roughly sixty-five Heinkel 111s, fifty Junkers 88s and thirty-five Messerschmitt 110s. The Me 110s, however, are too few in number to escort 115 bombers and have barely the range to cross the North Sea and return.

Making the best of a bad job, Stumpff has them fitted with under-wing fuel-tanks. Minus the rear-gunners to compensate for the added weight, he sends them to Newcastle with the Heinkels. He orders the faster and more modern Ju 88s to fly from their base in Aalborg in Denmark to Yorkshire. Half are the converted "fighter" version, the Ju 88C Zerstörer, tasked with screening the bombers from fighter attack.

The plan itself relies on a flawed tactical appreciation, and suffers from lack of intelligence and faulty execution. Based on the intensity of fighting in the south and the Luftwaffe's estimate of the RAF's strength, it is assumed that the north is denuded of fighters. The raid planners, therefore, expect little opposition.

Against Stumpff  is Air Vice Marshal R E Saul DFC, commanding No. 13 Group from its headquarters in Newcastle. Benefiting from Dowding's policy of rotating squadrons north for rest and refitting, he has elements of six Spitfire squadrons, four Hurricane squadrons, the remnants of No. 141 Defiant Sqn and a Blenheim fighter squadron.

In the two sectors which cover the north of England – his domain covering southern Scotland and Northern Ireland - Saul has three squadrons of Spitfires, one of Hurricanes and one of Blenheims. Crucially, he is also able to rely on a fully operational radar early-warning system, reaching out over the North Sea. Already on alert to cover the departure of a northbound convoy codenamed ARENA, leaving Hull that morning, it offers pilots far more notice of an attack than his colleagues in the south.

Nevertheless, in anticipation of some response, the Luftwaffe planners have set up a decoy raid comprising two staffelen of He 115s seaplanes, flying out of the anchorage at Stavanger on the Nowegian coast, half an hour ahead of main raid. The idea is that they should feint towards Dundee and draw off fighters.

Unfortunately for the He 111s, a navigational error puts them almost on the same track as the seaplanes. So it is that, at just past midday, Saul's radar begins to pick up the formation of seaplanes estimated at twenty plus opposite the Firth of Forth, at a range of over 90 miles. When these turn back some forty miles short of the coast, they are replaced by the He 111s, the only effect of the feint being to give the British even more warning than they might otherwise have got.

As the He 111s come into radar range, the estimates of the raid size go up. With so much warning, it is possible to put up four squadrons. Saul begins by sending one of the four single-seater squadrons close at hand to meet the enemy well off the coast. At the same time he brings down a squadron of Hurricanes from the Firth of Forth to patrol the Tyneside - an almost unprecedented step.

No. 72 Sqn (Spitfires) based out of Acklington, make first contact. Having recently lost its CO, it is temporarily under the command of Ft Lt Ted Graham. Thirty miles off the coast, the squadron sights the enemy - a hundred aircraft to their eleven. As the RDF stations have predicted, the Germans are flying in three formations - the bombers ahead and the fighters in two waves stepped up to the rear. Misled by the supplementary fuel tanks slung below the fighters, which look like bombs, Graham and his pilots take the nearer wave for Junkers 88s.

Stumpff's armada is so vast in comparison with Graham's little force that he hesitates for a moment, uncertain at what point and from what direction to attack it. Apparently unable to bear the suspense, one of his pilots asks whether he has seen the enemy. With his habitual slight stutter, Graham famously replies: "Of course I've seen the b-b-b-bastards, I'm trying to w-w-w-work out what to do."

He does not hesitate for long. The Spitfires have had plenty of time to gain height during their long flight from the coast, and are about three thousand feet above the enemy's mean height. Making the most of his advantage, Graham leads the squadron in a diving attack from up-sun, leaving each pilot free to choose his own target. Two-thirds attack bombers or supposed bombers, the remaining third the second wave of fighters, correctly identified as 110s.

With surprise gone and confronted with superior forces, the Me 110s form defensive circles. The Heinkels split up. Some of them jettison their bombs and head back to Norway, but not without leaving several of their number in the sea. When separate parts of the formation finally make landfall, one is south of Sunderland, the other south of Acklington. No. 79 Sqn intercepts the northern group over the water, while a flight from No. 605 Sqn catches it over land. Most of its bombs fall harmlessly in the sea."

The group off Sunderland find Nos 607 and 41 Sqns waiting for it. It too bombs to little effect, apart from wrecking houses a few houses (pictured below). The raiders turn back to Norway, the Me 110s having already departed some minutes before. Of a total force of about 100, eight bombers and seven fighters are destroyed and several more damaged without British loss.

The bombs hit on the outskirts, here in 2 Newbridge Avenue. The HE bomb scored adirect hit on pair of houses which collapsed within their own boundary. Only two panes of glass were broken in the bay windows. No one was injured and a budgerigar recovered 24 hours later from debris was unharmed. Sunderland residents were not to be so fortunate the next time.

Airfields on the target list, such as Usworth, Linton on Ouse and Dishforth, go unscathed. One staffel loses five of its nine aircraft in the course of the fighting. Further south, the Ju 88s are inbound, detailed to destroy the bomber base at Driffield. Full radar warning is given and No. 73 Sqn Hurricanes, No. 264 Sqn Defiants and No. 616 Sqn Spitfires are sent as a blocking force, supplemented later by Blenheims from No. 219 Sqn.

Both No. 616 Sqn and a flight of No. 73 Sqn engage, but the enemy splits into eight sections. Some turn north to bomb Bridlington where houses are hit and an ammunition dump is blown up. The main force flies to Driffield, Yorkshire, dropping 169 bombs of various calibres on the airfield. Four hangars are damaged and many other buildings are either bombed or raked with cannon fire. Twelve Whitleys are destroyed and seventeen personnel are killed. The damage to the airfield is so bad that it is non-operational for the rest of the year.

Nevertheless, heavy anti-aircraft fire brings down a bomber. Altogether, six Ju 88s are shot down, representing about ten percent of the force sent over. In all, the northern attackers lose sixteen bombers out the one hundred and twenty-three, and seven fighters of the thirty-four available.

On the day as a whole, which includes fighting in the southern sectors, Fighter Command loses 48 aircraft, with many damaged. Bomber Command has lost 12 Whitleys on the ground, and loses a Fairy Battle, a Blenheim and and other Whitley on operations, bringing total losses to 63.  By contrast, the Germans actually lose 71 aircraft to all causes, but the RAF claims 144 "kills" and an outstanding victory.

In fact, it is an RAF victory - a tactical victory, as Luftflotte 5 is never again to mount a large-scale, coordinated daylight attack. There is no need to exaggerate the kills. The RAF does, of course, and so do the Germans, tagging up 101 aircraft, including five Curtiss Hawks, a type which the RAF does not even operate.

But, while the RAF - with the full support of the British government and the approval of the Ministry of Information - chooses to make this a numbers game, the numbers that matter are pilots, in particular single-seater fighter pilots. Fighter Command has lost eleven killed, plus three taken prisoner. Two crash-land in France and one is plucked from the sea by German rescuers.

That is fourteen first-rank pilots, out of 29 fighters shot down - nearly 50 percent (48.3%). Even if this is nowhere near the 83 percent loss rate suffered on the 8 August, it is still serious. Comparing like-for-like, the Germans lose six Me 109s, with four pilots dead or missing - less than a third of the RAF rate of loss.

If the battle was really about loss rates and comparative strengths, this would have been the crucial issue. In three days of Adlerangriff, Dowding has lost the services of 24 pilots, plus a few more who may be in hospital for a little time. That is, effectively, two squadrons. It is not a sustainable loss rate.

But, despite the concentration on the headline figures, this is not really about numbers so much as perceptions. And the perception is that of a great victory, the impact of which is greatest in the upper echelons. Harold Nicolson, in the embattled Ministry of Information, is ecstatic. "Everyone is in high spirits about our air triumphs," he writes, "In fact the superiority shown by our men is a miracle ... Our triumph today was superb".

The King captures the mood with a message to the Secretary of State for Air. "Please convey my warmest congratulations to the Fighter Squadrons who, in recent days, have been so heavily engaged in the defence of our country," he writes. "I, like all their compatriots have read with ever increasing admiration the story of their daily victories. I wish them continued success and the best of luck."

The mood is contagious. Home Intelligence the next day reports that: "confidence and cheerfulness prevail." It adds, "Intensified raids are everywhere received with calmness, the results with jubilation".

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