For the last two months, the great air battle that had raged over south-east England was to go down in history as one of the most important battles that Britain had to overcome. We cannot argue that the German Luftwaffe was by no means an inferior opponent, on the contrary, as far as men and machines were concerned, they were a far superior force. The Luftwaffe, as the attacking force had a combined strength of bombers, fighters and fighter-bombers. There were huge numbers of aircrew both trained and straight out of flying school, and they had the advantage of flying by both day and by night.
Fighter Command on the other hand, as the defending force had only front line fighters that combined did not equal the number of their enemy. They were also at a disadvantage as far as aircrew were concerned, often not enough to man the operational squadrons, who were also losing valuable aircraft daily. The biggest advantages that Britain had over German was the fact that they had the English Channel as a natural form of defense and the advantage of flying most of the time over home territory. Germany had carried out many blitzkrieg invasions with great success. Warsaw and Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium and finally France. But to make an invasion of Great Britain the German military forces could not use their normal course of events such as pushing in advance columns of Panzer troops, and providing them with the required support of bombers, fighters and dive bombers. The English Channel had first to be negotiated.
Any attempt at crossing the Channel would be nothing short of disastrous. Aircraft of the Royal Air Force would pick out the sitting targets one by one and the invasion forces would be annihilated before they even got to the English coastline. Hitler had only one option, and that was to destroy the Royal Air Force before he could even make a positive date to commence the invasion. That attempt to destroy the RAF, and in particular Fighter Command is what this web site is all about. From courage to casualties, Fighter Command defended with everything that they had even though the odds were far against them.
September 15th 1940 was the turning point even though the Battle of Britain was to go on until the end of October. The Luftwaffe threw everything that they had into the attack, morning, afternoon and in the evening, but they could not succeed. Disillusioned and demoralized, Germany had to revise its tactics. Even Adolph Galland stated that ".....September 15th proved that penetrating the British defenses and the taking of London was now as far distant as ever." But as the battle continued into October, the Luftwaffe was to lose a further 320 aircraft against Fighter Commands 144. The heavy bombers would continue to attack London by night and the smaller Ju88s with Bf109s now carrying a single bomb were to attempt to do as much damage during small daylight raids.
Looking back, we can often wonder as to why Hitler did not follow up with attacks on Britain at the time of the Dunkirk operations. At this time Britain was weak, they had succumbed to a demoralizing defeat and Fighter Command at this time was nowhere near ready being short on both pilots and aircraft. Instead, Hitler turned his attentions on Paris and the taking of France. We could also look at why Hitler did not continue with attacks on Fighter Command instead of his "eye for an eye" attitude when RAF Bomber Command dropped their first bombs on Berlin. Fighter Command was at this time, after being worn down with exhausted pilots and tremendous loss of aircraft, yet London was to be destroyed "at all costs".
The possible answer was in the chain of command
and decisions by those in authority. The Luftwaffe leaders did have a free reign
as far as the decisive factors were concerned within their own departments, but
they were governed by the decisions of Hitler. The Führer was in total command.
In Britain, while Churchill exercised his position as Prime Minister, much of
the decision making was left to his military commanders. Dowding and Harris were
in charge of Fighter and Bomber Commands respectively and Churchill, knowing
full well that they had more knowledge of the situation than he had, and had
every faith in the decisions that they made.
So, was Park justified in his criticism. After all the encouragement that he had given them since the battle had begun, after the many times that he had shared in their successes and sorrows, was this statement of dissatisfaction warranted. One pilot stated "what does he want of us?......we stopped them successfully bombing their targets, we stuffed up all their plans, we threw them into utter confusion and to top it all off, we won the battle of the day." But Park did not see it that way, a coach would have been happy with a one nil victory, a win is a win. Parks vision was that the more planes shot down now, the less that would be coming over later.
But the reality of it was, that many of the
veterans and experienced pilots had either been killed or had been posted
elsewhere or were recovering from injuries. Many of the newer pilots, although
by September were receiving more training than they were when the battle
commenced were not all combat experienced, this was a contributing factor as to
why the professionalism and skill of the pilot had declined over the last few
On the other side of the Channel, Goring was still not ready to admit failure. He believed that providing that he could have a few more days of good weather, and this now was going to become a gamble as the autumn would soon give way to winter and all hopes of successful attack would be out of the question, he could still demoralize the RAF and crush Fighter Command and with continued bombing of all major cities and factories compel Britain to surrender, even without the now aborted invasion.
In the morning of the 16th, Goring orders a conference between his Luftflotten and Fliegerkorps commanders. He maintains that the RAF will be wiped out within four or five days, a statement that the commanders had heard many times before and regarded it as just a comment rather than a statement. He orders his bomber commanders to dispatch smaller formations if weather conditions are not favorable, only on days when the weather could be termed as ideal should large formations be dispatched. He stated that he wanted attacks to be made on London, the aircraft factories and the important seaports around Britain, and that these are to be carried out by both day and by night. To his fighter commanders, he stated that he wanted absolute maximum fighter protection on all bombing raids so that as many RAF fighters can be shot down as possible.
Six aircraft of 600 Squadron Hornchurch
(Blenheims) is moved to Redhill, mainly because of the now frequent night
attacks and would be better positioned to intercept any night formation that
appeared. To strengthen this, a radar equipped Beaufighter is transferred from
25 Squadron also to Redhill. This move had success on the very first night, when
a lone enemy aircraft was seen on radar, and Flight Lieutenant C.A.Pritchard
scrambled and climbed to his vectored position to intercept the raider. A number
of searchlights located the bomber, and their long shafts of light stayed with
it enabling the Blenheim to get into a favourable position, and at close range
after identifying it as a Heinkel He III, fires a number of short bursts causing
the bomber to erupt in flame and crash into the sea. The bomber was later
identified as a Junkers Ju88.
Unaware that Hitler had postponed Operation Sealion, Churchill, after being informed of the landing barges at the French Channel ports, informed the Parliament:
An enemy formation is detected by radar forming over the French coast at 0900hrs, and Fighter Command HQ orders some 15 squadrons into the air. Included are 17 Squadron Debden (Hurricanes), 46 Squadron Stapleford (Hurricanes), 73 Squadron Debden (Hurricanes) and 257 Squadron Martlesham (Hurricanes). These Hurricane squadrons are ordered to maintain contact with the enemy when it was realized that the formation consisted only of Luftwaffe fighters. The Spitfire squadrons were told to return to their bases, 46 Squadron also was recalled.
During the afternoon, a number
of Ju 88s are spotted flying in from the Thames Estuary and heading for London.
11 Group orders up about 14 squadrons, and requests assistance from 12 Group
London is heavily bombed on the
night of the 18th, and the 'blitzkrieg' last through to 5.30am on the 19th
September. Damage is done to both sides of the Thames with Southwark and the
financial sector of London namely Mansion House, Leadenhall Street and the area
around St Paul's taking a heavy battering. Central London also suffered,
Piccadilly, fashionable Bond and Regent Streets also suffered considerable
damage with most of the main roads closed. Many are killed and trapped and
Police, rescue units and the Civil Defense are kept busy in rescue operations.
Right through September and into October each day was very similar, and carried the same stories carried through day after day. Up to and including September 15th, Britain was battling for survival, like a game of chess that was going down to a stalemate unless one of the two sides cracked or made a stupid move. The 15th was as if Britain moved all its pawns into position and then brought in the knights and bishops and had the opposition in retreat with checkmate not very far off. This bravado move by the British was the climax of the battle.
From September 17th through to the end of the month The Luftwaffe done everything in its power to pound London while at the same time making spasmodic attacks on other places such as Merseyside, Birmingham, Swansea and Southhampton. Many of these attacks were made by day, but by far the greatest damage was done during the night bombings. London was to experience night bombing every night for over two months. The three raids of September 18th, 27th and the 30th were by far the most intense, considerable damage was inflicted on the capital city but had it not been for the British fighters who by now were gaining valuable experience every day the damage would have been much worse. Each of these days, the German bombers sustained many casualties. In total 120 German aircraft were shot down or severely damaged while Fighter Command lost only 60.
The sad saga continued for the
Luftwaffe, from September 15th German losses were mounting, but still Goring did
not understand that he could ill afford to lose aircraft at the rate that he
was. Although his aircraft establishments were producing more aircraft, Britain
too was producing just as many. In fact newer models of the Hurricane and
Spitfire were being produced that were to prove far more deadly than the earlier
versions. Between September 7th and the 30th, Fighter Command had lost 242
aircraft compared with the Luftwaffe loss of 433. Nearly twice that of Britain.
Goring had now realized that sending in an advance squadron of fighters and fighter bombers was not luring the RAF fighters into the air, and that strongest reaction by the British was concentrated bombing attacks. For this reason, Bf 109s were laden with a small bomb load, and that after the release of the bombs they could then revert to being fighters. Although this move only proved marginally effective, the 109s, because of the extra weight, used up more fuel and their stay over enemy territory was made even shorter.
With the introduction of the Bf 109E-7 Jabos, it was to set new tactics for the Luftwaffe and a new headache for Fighter Command. The German High Command issued orders that at least one Gruppe in every Jagdgeschwader was to be equipped for Jabo operations. The problem that Keith Park was now faced with was that these Jabos would fly at extremely high altitudes and come in at great speeds. The Hurricane was a great aircraft at lower altitudes, did not perform well at 25,000 feet. So the job of taking on the Jabos was left to the Spitfire squadrons which was a good performer at high altitudes.
October 7th saw a small but ineffective raid on Portsmouth and the west country. But 10 Group responded. The heaviest attack came as Ju 88s attacked the Westland Aircraft factory at Yeovil in Somerset. 609 Squadron Middle Wallop (Spitfires) responded at the order of AVM Brand, as well as 152 Squadron Warmwell (Spitfires), 238 squadron Middle Wallop (Hurricanes) and 601 squadron Filton (Hurricanes). 152 spots the formation first, there is a formation of 25 Junkers Ju88s escorted by 50 Bf 110s who are flying above and behind the bombers. Warmwells Spitfires are in front and above, and dive into the bombers splitting them up before the 110s can move in and give the bombers protection. 601 joins in and dogfights the 110s while the Spitfires attack the bomber formation.
Some of the bombers get through and succeed in causing some damage to the Westland factory by dropping over 80 high explosive and 6 oil bombs onto the complex. Over 100 people are casualties when one of the bombs scores a direct hit on an air-raid shelter. 2 Ju 88s and 7 Bf 110s are shot down at the expense of five British fighters destroyed and two badly damaged. The casualty list of aircraft may have been higher had not a squadron of Bf 109s came to the rescue of the bombers and the 110s as they retreated.
Raids and attacks continued as October wore on, the introduction of the Jabos was not as successful as Goring had hoped. The Spitfires had their measure, they maintained speed and contact and as their greatest advantage was their diving speed, the Spitfires seemed to round them up forcing them into a dive and into the waiting Hurricanes below. October 15th was one of the busier days.
The initial flight of Bf 109s
get through to London. They drop their 250kg bombs on the factories of South
London and Waterloo Station, one of the main railway stations in London gets a
direct hit bringing all of the Southern Railway to a halt. Squadron from Biggin
Hill and Hornchurch intercept them, but not before the damage has been done.
By nightfall, yet another raid was made on London, still the RAF had no answer to the night raids of the Luftwaffe. They had a few Blenheims and Beaufighters that were equipped for night duties, but these were only good for attacking an odd recon plane or observation aircraft, they were not strong enough to take on a whole formation of heavy bombers. London suffered badly on October 15th when 520 civilians were killed, over 1,000 of them were injured and it is estimated that 10,000 more were made homeless.
By the 27th October, daylight raids were spasmodic, they were considered more of nuisance raids than anything else. There seemed to be no absolute pattern to the German attacks. Raids were conducted only by small groups of planes that were usually turned back by the intercepting British fighters.
The only change of any
difference was on the 26th October,
after the Italians had entered the war, a flight of Fiat BR 20s attacked the
port of Harwich on the Essex coast causing only minor damage. On the 27th
October a number of the airfields came under
attack again. Hawkinge, still a forward airfield and of only minor importance,
Martlesham, Kirton-on-Lindsay, Driffield and Honnington are also attacked, but
serious damage is kept to a minimum.
Near mid day, a 100+ bomb carrying Bf 109s are intercepted by nine squadrons of British fighters. The Hurricanes and Spitfires have height advantage and dive onto the approaching 109s. 8 of the Messerschmitts are shot down in less than ten minutes, and the others drop their bombs at random and turn back in retreat. Other attacks were made at Harwich, Portsmouth, and North Weald is attacked by dive bombing 109s.
The 31st October is wet with limited visibility. Only minor attacks are made which are nothing more that nuisance raids interrupting dinner of many of the RAF pilots. Many thought that it may have been a repeat of the previous day when 80 German bombers in the morning session and 130 in the afternoon made feeble attempts at London, but poor visibility and closing weather, especially in the afternoon hampered all raids. The Luftwaffe lose eight aircraft to the RAFs 5, while on the 31st October, no aircraft are lost by either side.
The Battle of Britain has been under the intense scrutiny of historians and others for half a century. Aided by hindsight, they have been able to raise various controversial issues. Criticism is all too easy for those who come after. To touch on but one issue, it is known that both sides over claimed by a considerable amount. (The British claimed that they had destroyed 2,698 aircraft. The German claimed they had shot down 3,058. Post war investigation proved that the RAF had actually shot down 1,733 German aircraft and that the Luftwaffe had shot down 915 British fighters.) No-one who has not experienced air fighting can possibly imagine the confusion. Neither can they judge. Relative scores are an effect, not a cause. What is clear is that the Battle of Britain was won by Fighter Command because it defeated the Luftwaffe in the battle to control the air over southern England.
And the aircrew, Dowdings "chicks" - a term which delighted him when Churchill used it, though one he would have been far too reserved to coin for himself - what more should be said of them? Nothing, perhaps, except that without their skill, their transcendent courage, their devotion and their sacrifice, the scientific system would have been designed in vain. Together, they enabled Britain to escape the devastating clash of armies and the horrors of Nazi occupation.
My own opinion is that it was teamwork, teamwork of all those who had even the slightest portion of responsibility. Fighter Command themselves, in particular Dowding and Park, but let us not forget the other Group leaders, Leigh-Mallory, Brand and Saul. The whole responsibility of Fighter Command lay on the shoulders of Sir Hugh Dowding. We must admire him even those who would not agree with many of his decisions. His task was not an easy one, taking on the might of the German Luftwaffe when it was at its peak, with an air force that that had had no experience in combat, pilots that had had too little training and with not enough planes. With Keith Park in charge of 11 Group, they together weathered the storm, between them they had done their best with what little they had. But their ideas, tactics and decisions would not have borne fruit if it were not for the pilots who were there to carry them out. I can say no more than what Dennis Richards and Richard Hough have said above.
But let us not forget others who
made this victory possible. The radar plotters at the Chain Home and Chain Low
radar stations, the WAAF who worked tirelessly at operations HQ, the
telephonists, the armourers, the refuelers, the army who had to repair signaling
equipment and the damaged airfields, right down to the batmen, the fitters, the
mechanics and the cooks. The Battle of Britain was epic that had no planned
script, yet it had a cast of thousands, and each person that took part must be
given credit for its success.