Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE GREATEST DAY—15 AUGUST 1940
THE GREATEST DAY—15 AUGUST 1940
THIS DAY was outstanding in many respects. Five major operations were fought; the activity ranged over a front of 500 miles from Plymouth to the Tyne; the fighting continued all day and included, in the North-east, one particular victory which had a lasting result.
The first major attack was launched by two waves, totalling about 100 enemy aircraft, against the fighter station of Hawkinge, in Kent. Pilot Officer J. A. A. Gibson9 led a section of No. 501 Squadron Hurricanes from Hawkinge to intercept the attack. Gibson sighted one formation of about twenty Junkers 87 dive-bombers approaching from the south, and attacking from out of the sun he sent one into the sea in flames. He then noticed other dive-bombers attacking his home airfield. Returning at speed he was in time to intercept two and damage one of them. Their rear gunners, however, set his Hurricane on fire, but, noticing that he was near the town of Folkestone, Gibson stayed with the aircraft in spite of the flames and steered it clear of the town before finally jumping from a height of 1000 feet. For his courage he was awarded an immediate DFC.
Then followed an unusual attack in that it was directed not against the South or South-east coasts but against targets in the North-east. The attack came shortly after noon and was split into two thrusts, one directed at Sunderland and Tynemouth and the other against the airfield at page 11 Driffield, 100 miles to the south. This raid was a rash tactical move on the part of the Germans, for the area attacked was well out of range of the Me109 and the long-range bombers had to be escorted by the twin-engined Me100, already proved to be no match for the British fighter pilots.
It was Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding's opinion that:
The sustained resistance which they (the Germans) were meeting in South-east England probably led them to believe that fighter squadrons had been withdrawn wholly or in part from the North to meet the attack… the contrary was soon apparent and the bombers received such a drubbing that the experiment was not repeated.
In fact, instead of having an easy passage, the Germans were met by nine squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes which considerably thinned their ranks.
Pilot Officer J. N. MacKenzie10 was with one of the four squadrons which intercepted the main attack against the Tynemouth area. His squadron encountered an arrowhead formation of fifty bombers flying at 18,000 feet, escorted by forty Me110s a little astern and above. These escort fighters retained their formation when attacked and the combat resolved itself into a dogfight with the escort and a few loose bombers. MacKenzie singled out a Junkers 88 for attack and closed to within 80 yards of the enemy aircraft before breaking away. He last saw the Junkers entering cloud with smoke pouring from one engine.
The Germans cannot have been well pleased about the effectiveness of this raid, for in the Tyneside area no military damage was caused and industrial damage was insignificant. Meanwhile some 30 to 40 bombers and escorting fighters were attacking the aerodrome at Driffield. The airfield was extensively cratered and many buildings and hangars destroyed. But the fighter pilots exacted a heavy price from the Germans, for as a result of these attacks in the North-east, no fewer than fifty-six enemy aircraft of an attacking force of about three times that number were claimed destroyed. Not one British aircraft was lost although a few were damaged.
In the afternoon large formations of enemy aircraft attacked a fighter airfield and four radar stations in the South-east; an aircraft factory was also dive-bombed. This was followed by two attacks in the evening. The first was launched against Portsmouth and Plymouth and the Middle Wallop airfield by about thirty dive-bombers, escorted by approximately 100 fighters. Squadron Leader T. G. Lovell-Gregg11 led No. 87 Hurricane Squadron, which included Flying Officers D. H. Ward12 and K. W. Tait,13 to intercept this raid and the ensuing combat was described as the fiercest the squadron had experienced. The enemy fighters on being attacked formed themselves into two main defensive circles while the squadron set about them with good results. Squadron Leader Lovell-Gregg was shot down during this hectic engagement, but his loss was avenged by Ward and Tait, who each claimed the destruction of an Me110.
This attack against the South coast was hardly over when the pilots were called upon to intercept yet another heavy raid directed against an airfield in Kent and against Croydon aerodrome. The enemy succeeded in making the Kent airfield unserviceable for four days and also caused minor damage at Croydon. This latter attack was noteworthy as the first occasion when bombs were dropped in the London area, and also because all the aircraft which actually bombed the aerodrome were shot down. In intercepting this attack Flight Lieutenant Deere claimed an enemy fighter destroyed before he was himself shot down over Kent. He baled out at 1500 feet and escaped with a sprained wrist. This was the famous occasion when Deere, sideslipping his parachute to page 12 miss a farmhouse, landed in the middle of a fully laden plum tree and brought the whole crop to the ground. This tree was the only one in the orchard which still bore fruit and had been specially saved, a point which the irate farmer was not slow to point out to the New Zealander.
In all, as a result of the day's operations, it is now known that the German Air Force lost seventy-six aircraft. Fighter Command losses that day were thirty-four aircraft. In spite of this the enemy effort was only slightly less on the following day, when in three major attacks four Fighter Command airfields were heavily bombed.
On the 17th, despite the fact that good weather prevailed over England, there was a general lull in operations. The Luftwaffe's strenuous efforts to knock out Fighter Command ended on Sunday the 18th, when the Junkers 87 dive-bombers operated for the last time in any strength and London's anti-aircraft guns went into action for the first time. Again airfields and radar stations were the main targets; in all, three major attacks were made.
At Biggin Hill, where Pilot Officers W. S. Williams14 and R. M. Trousdale15 were stationed with No. 266 Squadron, the pilots were ordered off the ground shortly before their aerodrome was bombed and by determined attacks against the enemy force were able to mitigate substantially the severity of the attack, so that the only damage to the airfield was light cratering. Both the New Zealanders were engaged, Williams climbing back to 15,000 feet for a second attack after having chased an enemy fighter in a dive before opening fire and sending it crashing into the sea five miles from the French coast. There was an aftermath to this engagement, however, for having returned to their base to refuel, the Squadron's Spitfires were attacked on the ground and Trousdale's aircraft, amongst others, was destroyed.
These attacks brought this phase of the Battle of Britain to an end. The strain had been enormous. By 19 August ninety-four British pilots had been killed or were missing plus about sixty more or less seriously injured. During the period Fighter Command lost outright 183 aircraft, and although it is now known that 367 German aircraft were destroyed, the situation was serious and the ratio of losses much too high.