30 August, 2010

Day 52 - Battle of Britain

Vickers Mk VI light tanks pass through the village of Linton in Cambridgeshire

Day-by-day, the British Army is getting stronger.  Gen. Alan Brooke has flown to Worcester to watch an exercise by the 2 London Division, but all over the country there are exercises in progress.  Britain has become an armed camp.

The German Naval Staff is complaining about the lack of air cover for naval activities, reporting to the Supreme Command that, as a result, it cannot meet the 15 September deadline for completion of Sealion preparations. "The elimination by the Luftwaffe of activity by enemy sea and air forces in the Channel and along the embarkation coasts has not yet materialised, and there is no early prospect of improvement while the Luftwaffe pursues its present operational objectives," it states.

The earliest day for the assembly of the transport fleet is now 20 September, and even that cannot be guaranteed. It depends on the Luftwaffe's effectiveness in eliminating sea and air forces, assuming that the Luftwaffe is prepared to change its objectives to suit Sealion.

In the UK, the weekly resumé from the Chiefs of Staff is in the hands of the Cabinet. Enemy tactics, they are told, have undergone a considerable change. No short-range dive-bombers have been seen, while last week 83 were destroyed; even the Ju 88 has not been used for dive-bombing.

The Chiefs confirm that which is only too evident - that the long-range bomber force is being increasingly employed and night attacks have been intensified. The raids have mainly directed against aerodromes and ports, while industrial plants and the aircraft industry have also received considerable attention.

Other raids have been carried out against aerodromes and oil storage, and a considerable amount of indiscriminate bombing is included in the operations. The heaviest daylight attacks of the week have been made on Portsmouth and Ramsgate. At night industrial areas in the Midlands have been the principal objectives, although aircraft have flown over London on several nights and bombs have been dropped in the City and suburbs.

On the Home Front this Friday, the Battle of Britain is now in its eighth week - not that anyone is counting. Londoners are "more cheerful". They are getting used to the idea of night raids and thus, instead of being woken up through the night and having to find their ways to the shelters, many are going there early and sleeping the whole night under cover.

Once again, there is a distinction between those who have experienced bombing and those who are new to it. In the provinces, where warnings and raids have been suffered for some time, morale is higher than in London, where people have been showing "considerable apprehension".

Not so George Orwell, who records in his diary that air-raid warnings, "of which there are now half a dozen or thereabouts every 24 hours", are "becoming a great bore". Opinion spreading rapidly, he says, is that "one ought simply to disregard the raids except when they are known to be big-scale ones and in one's own area." Of the people strolling in Regent's Park, I should say at least half pay no attention to a raid-warning".

He recalls the previous night "a pretty heavy explosion" just as he is going to bed. Later in the night he is woken up by a tremendous crash, said to be caused by a bomb in Maida Vale. The only comment is on the loudness, before falling asleep again.

But, out in the sticks, there is "some slight resentment" at the way in which London air-raid news is highlighted. This is due, in part, says the day's Home Intelligence report, to the fact that many provincial towns, unlike London, have not been named. This causes a good deal of uncertainty over which targets have been hit.

Nothing of this suggests any sense of impending doom - of any great concern about an invasion or any suggestion that the RAF is engaged in a titanic struggle, fighting for its very existence. In fact, the Chiefs of Staff are all very downbeat about what is historically regarded as one of the key periods of the Battle of Britain but, at this time, has yet to be recognised for what it later becomes.

Of the epic battles then, the Cabinet is told that enemy aircraft engaged in daylight operations have varied between 200 and 500 each day, except on the 23rd and 27th August, when activity was limited to reconnaissance flights and to a few individual attacks involving not more than seventy-five aircraft.

The heaviest attacks, they are told, have developed from the south-east, and large formations of bombers escorted by fighters have been intercepted and dispersed by our fighters. Fighter aerodromes seem to have been the principal objectives, but damage has been "relatively small" in view of the threatened weight of the attacks.

This assessment is, of course, "top secret" and the domestic issues are of little concern to the warriors. They have their titanic battles to fight this day. With the weather set fair, the tempo of operations is about to increase and Fighter Command is about to see the fight of its life - or so the historians are to tell us.

Luftflotte 2 starts the action just after dawn with a series of probing attacks on a north-bound convoy in the Thames estuary. Nine Hurricanes from No. 111 Sqn are already aloft investigating a "raid" which turns out to be three Blenheims from No. 25 Sqn. They are not shot down and the Hurricanes are vectored off to look at the real raiders. Two of those are damaged.

Then, as the official communiqué diligently records, large forces of enemy aircraft cross the south coast in three successive waves at short intervals. Of course, in the public record, they are "scattered" and "driven back". A small force approaches London but it too is "engaged and dispersed".

The first wave, in fact, crosses at about 10:30hrs, consisting of about three Gruppen of Me 109s, sixty aircraft in all. Park, at the helm in Uxbridge, is able to rely on the Observer Corps for an accurate identification and declines the invitation to a scrap. He simply readies his fighters at the forward airfields, believing that the bombers will follow.

They do, the first batch about half-an-hour later, a mixed group of about 40 He 111s, 30 Do 17s, 60 Me 109s and 30 Me 110s. They are all heading for Kent, their targets Park's sector stations.  The second and third waves then follow at half-hour intervals.

Hurricanes from No. 151 Sqn out of Stapleford, a tiny grass strip five miles north of Romford, are up patrolling the mouth of the Thames. Sqn Ldr King gets detached from the squadron. His body is later found in the burned-out remains of his aircraft, downed near Rochester. The rest of the squadron encounters a mixed group of seventy bombers and fighters, claiming three bombers downed, for the loss two more of their own.

The same raid is now intercepted by Hurricanes of No. 85 Sqn and then by others and, as the heat piles on, controllers begin to realise the intended targets. Two squadrons from No. 12 Group are called in as reinforcements, to cover Kenley and Biggin Hill, but they get mixed up in fighting over Surrey and allow through a staffel of Ju 88s, which bombs Biggin Hill from high altitude. Little damage is done to the airfield, but surrounding villages are hurt.

Amid the chaos and scrapping, note is taken of No. 222 Sqn, freshly transferred from the North, on patrol over Gravesend. Ten Me 109s dive through it, taking out one of the aircraft. It becomes clear that the squadron is still employing standard Air Ministry tactics, using vics of three and tail-end weavers.  The lessons of the front line are not being passed to the rear.

After intensive battles, the fighters now need to return to their bases to refuel and re-arm, and their pilots need to eat, drink and to get a little rest.  But Kesselring gives them no time. Just after 13:00hrs, the next assault begins, with successive waves of bombers and fighters, roughly at 20 minute intervals. This goes on without break until about 16:00hrs, when the next phase starts.

Over the next two hours, 19 Gruppen pour in over Kent and the Thames Estuary. They target North Weald, Kenley and Biggin Hill.  At Biggin Hill, serious damage is done. Sixteen 500kg HE bombs destroy one of the four remaining hangers, workshops armoury, barrack blocks, stores, the WAAF quarters and the MT yard. Most telephone lines are severed and gas, water and electricity mains are cut. Thirty-nine are killed and 26 are injured.

But the airfields are by no means the only targets. Luton, Radlet, Oxford and Slough are also on the list. The raid on Luton targets the Vauxhall plant, where there are 113 casualties, including 53 killed. Areas of the town are also bombed - the bus depot is one of the buildings hit (above).  The larger part of the formation continues on to bomb Radlet, the target here being one of the factories producing the new Halifax bomber.  No substantial damage is caused, and production is not interrupted.

By the end of the day, this has proved the most intensive of the battle for Fighter Command. It has flown 1,054 sorties and lost 23 aircraft with eight pilots killed.  The Luftwaffe has also taken considerable casualties.  Thirty-nine aircraft are lost, but of those only 14 are Me 109s. Nevertheless, 12 valuable single-engined fighter pilots are lost, either killed or baled out over England and taken as POWs.

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