Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE PHASES OF THE BATTLE
THE PHASES OF THE BATTLE
THE BATTLE fell into four main phases. During the first phase from 10 July to 18 August a series of raids was directed against Channel shipping and ports on the South coast. Between 10 July and 7 August the Luftwaffe was engaged in testing the fighter defences to ascertain their strength, dispositions, and capabilities. In the meantime, the German units in France were being brought up to strength in readiness for the main assault. From 8 to 18 August the Luftwaffe sought to eliminate Fighter Command by sheer weight of numbers. A lull of five days followed. The second phase opened on 24 August when the attacks began again; although Fighter Command had not been eliminated, these attacks were directed on the airfields covering the approach to London. In the third phase, the full day and night offensive against London opened on 7 September and lasted roughly until the 27th. From that date until 31 October the Germans were forced by heavy casualties to abandon mass daylight raids by long-range bombers. In their place, as the fourth phase of the battle, were substituted high-level fighter-bomber attacks with the sprawling mass of London still the primary target. In effect, the attempt to gain the air superiority necessary before an invasion could be launched had been abandoned.
* * * * * * *
On 2 July German squadrons began regular daylight attacks against targets in Great Britain. From the 10th these attacks were designed principally to exhaust the British fighter force, for on that date the first really large enemy formation (70 aircraft) was employed. This date, then, marks the real opening of the battle.
On 10 July two large formations of enemy aircraft attempted to attack convoys off Margate and Dover. The larger attack was made by about twenty-four Dornier bombers escorted by forty Me109s and Me110s, the enemy's standard single-engined and twin-engined fighters. Aircraft from five RAF fighter squadrons scrambled to intercept this raid, but most of the fighters arrived after the bombers had left and consequently fighting took place mainly between fighter and fighter. Only one enemy bomber was shot down. This aircraft was singled out by Pilot Officer D. G. Cobden,2 who was leading a section of No. 74 Squadron Spitfires; it was the first kill for a New Zealander. Cobden led the eight-gun Spitfires into the attack at high speed and immediately picked out a straggling Dornier for an attack from astern. Black smoke poured from the starboard engine of the enemy aircraft, but at that moment Cobden, then alone, was attacked from above by Me109s, several of whose pilots combined to seriously damage his Spitfire. Despite this, Cobden was able to evade the enemy and make a landing with wheels up on a coastal airfield. The Dornier was claimed as destroyed. Altogether during the engagement seven enemy aircraft were shot down for the loss of one pilot, while the convoy lost only one 400-ton vessel.
The attacks on convoys on the 10th and the following day confirmed Air Chief Marshal Dowding's opinion that if the Channel convoys became the chief German objective a great strain would be put on the squadrons based near the South coast. Because of the small number of available squadrons, in comparison with the wide territory they were responsible for protecting, only small fighter escorts could be provided for the coastal convoys, for whose protection Fighter Command was responsible. Thus there was always the danger that an escort might be suddenly attacked by page 7 superior numbers, for although the radar stations usually detected approaching enemy formations, they did not always do so in time for the controllers to take effective action before bombing began. This was especially true in the region of the South coast. Enemy aircraft from the Cherbourg area could form up in the central Channel outside effective radar range, so that by the time a resolved track appeared on the operations room tables the raiders were already flying directly to their targets. Nor were the Germans lacking in versatility, for in quick succession they might alter their timing and direction of attack, or, having assembled a formidable force, they might wheel it away after the defending squadrons had scrambled, only to return half an hour later when the Spitfires and Hurricanes were landing and refuelling.
For the next ten days the Germans used tactics similar to those already discussed, in that they launched two or three raids, suitably separated in time, either in the central Channel or the Straits. In every case the targets were convoys, and the attackers, having built up a strong force of aircraft over the French coast, moved quickly to the target without any attempt at concealment. Consequently the defending squadrons, arriving one by one over the area, were often too late to interfere with the bombers, who retired as quickly as possible, leaving their escort of Me109s and Me110s, who normally held the advantage of height, to act as rearguard. These conditions prevailed on the 19th when Fighter Command suffered unusually heavy casualties in beating off an attack on shipping in Dover Harbour by Junkers 87 dive-bombers. Defending fighters were late off the ground, and it was fifteen minutes after the first report of bombing had been received that page 8 nine Defiants of No. 141 Squadron came into the area. Three of these aircraft were captained by New Zealanders—Pilot Officers J. R. Gard'ner,3 J. R. Kemp,4 and R. Kidson.5 The Defiants, each mounting a four-gun turret in the mid-dorsal position, were flying towards Cap Gris Nez when they were attacked at 5000 feet off Folkestone by a large number of escorting Me109 fighters. The turret fighters stood no chance against the initial attack from out of the sun and almost immediately two Defiants were shot down. The fight then swung northwards. Hurricane pilots despatched to support the Defiants were prevented from reaching them by a wall of enemy fighters. In the subsequent fighting the Defiants' inferiority was sadly shown. Their free guns could not be brought to bear directly astern beneath their tails, and, profiting from the lessons of Dunkirk when the Defiants caused heavy casualties to the enemy, it was from this position that the German fighter pilots attacked. In this unfortunate action all three New Zealanders were shot down and only one, Gard'ner, was rescued from the sea. Altogether six of the Defiants were lost. After this engagement No. 141 Squadron was moved up to Scotland, well out of range of the Me109.
The events of the next few days indicated that the Germans were possibly not yet agreed on the policy of staying behind to fight after each attack had been made. Indeed on several occasions when Fighter Command aircraft were early in the air, strong German formations turned before the defenders. However, on 24 July the enemy launched heavy attacks on convoys both in the Straits and off Portland regardless of opposition.
No. 54 Squadron, a flight of which was commanded by Flight Lieutenant A. C. Deere,6 and which also included Pilot Officer C. F. Gray7 among its pilots, was heavily engaged throughout the day. The squadron regarded the operations as ‘the biggest and most successful since Dunkirk’. In a morning patrol Gray and five other pilots distinguished themselves when, although heavily outnumbered, they beat off a German bombing attack on a convoy near Dover, forcing the enemy aircraft to jettison their bombs prematurely. Later that day Deere led the squadron through heavy rain to intercept eighteen Dornier 215s, escorted by at least two squadrons of fighters, which were attacking a convoy in the Thames Estuary. The enemy formation was first sighted flying up the Estuary at between 5000 and 10,000 feet. Deere immediately ordered one flight to attack some of the fighters while he led his section above after more Me109s. At that moment he was attacked from the rear by nine enemy aircraft. Subsequently Deere reported:
I managed to stall turn on to their tails and fire a burst into the centre of the formation. Me109s then came down from above and a dogfight ensued. I had general wild bursts at various aircraft but was unable to get a decent bead because of constant attacks from behind. I managed, however, one long burst at an Me109 at close range and he went down with glycol pouring from his machine.
Meanwhile Gray was engaged with two of the enemy fighters. Having damaged the first, he set fire to the second and saw the German pilot jump by parachute and fall into the sea. Altogether under Deere's leadership the squadron was credited with five enemy aircraft definitely destroyed and a further nine probably destroyed or damaged. Only one pilot from the squadron was lost.
This testing phase had made it clear that the Germans were frequently able to bomb targets in the Straits before being intercepted and that the large protecting umbrella, plus the advantage of height which their fighters almost invariably enjoyed, gave them tactical superiority; but the page 9 main German advantage was that they could concentrate before an operation whilst Fighter Command's aircraft could not. Thus, intercepting Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons often found that they were each required to engage anything from 20 to 30 enemy aircraft. Against this were the willingness of the fighter pilots to accept any odds and to attack the enemy whenever and wherever possible, and the deadly effect of the eight-machine-gun armament of both Spitfires and Hurricanes against the German bombers—at that time unarmoured.