Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE ATTACK ON THE AIRFIELDS
THE ATTACK ON THE AIRFIELDS
IN THE FOLLOWING five days there was none of the fire that had characterised the German effort throughout the preceding week. Indeed the Germans seemed to be resting after their exertions, and there is no doubt that the pause gave Fighter Command, too, a much-needed breathing space. Nevertheless, across the Channel the German commanders were not without hope of ultimate victory, for on 20 August the battle order of the German Commander-in-Chief was as follows:
Continue the fight against the British Air Force until further notice with the aim of weakening the British fighter strength. The enemy is to be forced by ceaseless attacks to bring his fighter formations into operation….
In accordance with these instructions intensive operations were renewed by the Germans on 24 August, and for the next fortnight they sought by heavy attacks on airfields to the north and south of London, and on targets in the Thames Estuary, to clear the approaches to the capital.page 13
Above the Clouds
DAMAGE BY RAIDERS
A photograph taken from a German aircraft of the enemy attacks on oil storage tanks at Newhaven on the Thames on 7 August 1940
A Heinkel over London on 7 August 1940
HIS MAJESTY THE KING CONGRATULATES FLIGHT LIEUTENANT A. C. DEERE after decorating him with the Distinguished Flying Cross
PHASE II: 24 August–5 September 1940 Attacks on Airfields covering London
On a typical day in which heavy attacks were launched at intervals, activity over the Dover Straits was almost constant. Out of a maze of plots in the operations room would emerge anything from three to six formations heading for the coast of Kent. The amount of warning thus available to the defenders was limited—indeed it was remarkable that in this phase the Germans showed little interest in the highly important radar stations which were thus allowed to recuperate somewhat from the damage they had received during the previous phase—and the Germans further added to the difficulties of identification by splitting into several groups immediately the coast was crossed. Moreover, their general bombing tactics changed during this phase, in that instead of using massed formations of bombers, the enemy used small formations of 20 to 30 aircraft, strongly escorted, and flying higher than previously. Often the bombers were completely boxed in by close fighter escorts, a number of which flew slightly above on a flank or in rear, while others flew slightly above and ahead, with a third formation of fighters weaving in amongst the bombers.
To deal with these new tactics Air Vice-Marshal Park arranged that some of his fighter squadrons should meet the enemy as far forward as possible. Other squadrons, including reinforcements from the neighbouring sectors of Nos. 10 and 12 Groups, patrolled the all-important fighter airfields near and around London. he instructed his controllers to send the Spitfire squadrons against the higher fighter screens and the Hurricanes to attack the bombers and their escorts, but in practice these roles were often reversed, much depending on the state of readiness of the squadrons at the time an attack developed.page 22
On occasions Squadron Commanders would send one flight against the bombers whilst the other attempted to contain the enemy fighter aircraft. These were the tactics adopted by the Commanding Officer of No. 87 Squadron on the 25th when he led his squadron from Exeter to intercept 100 enemy aircraft making an attack against Warmwell airfield. Although six other fighter squadrons were airborne in the area this squadron made interception alone. The trend of the action is admirably described by a squadron report, as follows:
‘B’ Flight went for the Junkers 88s and the Me110s went for ‘B’ Flight. ‘A’ Flight then attacked the Me110s.
Flying Officer Tait, who was leading a section in ‘A’ Flight, attacked approximately thirty Me110s at 18,000 feet and saw the leader fire two red Very lights, evidently calling for the top cover of Me109s to come down. His report continues:
They did. Attacked one 110 trying to enter a vicious circle. After three bursts he dived away with one engine stopped and crashed into the sea. Attacked a 109 from directly above with full deflection—a Spitfire also attacked it from the beam. The 109 crashed on land.
It subsequently transpired that this squadron, although heavily outnumbered, had accounted for no less than nine enemy aircraft. In spite of their losses the bombers got through to Warmwell, where they dropped twenty to thirty bombs, doing damage to hangars and buildings. The enemy fighters at heavy cost carried out their duty of protecting the bombers: thirty-six German fighters were claimed destroyed but only four bombers were claimed to have been shot down in the entire engagement.
It was during this phase that Flight Lieutenant Deere and Pilot Officer Gray established themselves as outstanding fighter pilots. Both had been decorated a few days previously, Deere receiving a bar to the DFC he won at Dunkirk. In the ten days to 3 September, Gray claimed no less than seven victims. Deere also had numerous successful combats and on several occasions led his squadron into battle. In addition he had two narrow escapes, being bombed on the ground while taking off from Hornchurch, and once again being forced to bale out, an art at which he was rapidly becoming expert.
Many of these combats were in direct defence of the vital airfields protecting London, against which the Germans turned their full attention from the 28th. On the serviceability of these airfields depended the efficiency of the defences, and it needed all the Group Commander's skill to beat off the attacks. One method instituted about this time which aided the fighter controllers in their task of keeping track of enemy formations was the ‘sighting report’. This meant that pilots were given permission to break radio silence and transmit the position of the enemy as soon as they were sighted. Later, single high-flying Spitfires were placed on patrol for this purpose. In the air Squadron Commanders were experimenting with new methods of attack to counteract the rear armour which the Germans were fitting to their fighters and bombers. The head-on attack was thus evolved and, as the following example shows, was used with striking success on the 30th by Pilot Officer W. H. Hodgson16 and other pilots of No. 85 Hurricane Squadron.
All through the early morning of that day the Germans had simulated attacks, thereby necessitating wearying standing patrols over fighter airfields. However, by 10.30 a.m. it was obvious that the enemy was preparing in earnest and accordingly upwards of nine fighter squadrons page 23 were ordered into the air. The weather was fine and clear, although there was some cloud between 5000 and 7000 feet. Altogether between 150 and 200 aircraft participated in this attack. Part of this force crossed the coast near Dungeness and steered north-west. Within a few minutes it had been intercepted by No. 85 Squadron pilots, who reported that it consisted of about fifty Heinkel 111s at 16,000 feet, with numerous escort fighters still higher. The Squadron Commander had previously led his pilots inland well in front of the Heinkels, before turning about so as to make a diving head-on attack out of the sun. These tactics were extremely effective for the bomber formation was dispersed, many jettisoning their bombs. In this engagement Hodgson shot down two escorting Me110s, probably destroyed a third, and also damaged a Heinkel 111. Hodgson in reporting the combat said that in the initial head-on attack he fired at a Heinkel 111 which broke away and disappeared. His report continues:
I then pulled up to 23,000 feet, dived on a straggling Me110 and gave a long burst from the beam through to line astern…. I pulled away and climbed to 25,000 feet and dived on another straggler and did the same attack with the same result. I then climbed up to 26,000 feet and dived through a circle of Me110s and pulled up underneath one. I shot into his belly at about 100 yards, closing to 50 yards range, and he rolled over with white smoke pouring out from underneath him and went down in a controlled glide. I had to break away as I had run out of ammunition and about seven Me110s dived on me so I hit out for home base….
As a result of this day's operations thirty-seven German aircraft were destroyed. But twenty-six Fighter Command aircraft were lost and fourteen pilots killed or wounded. This was a severe blow to the fighter strength, especially at a time when losses in pilots and aircraft substantially exceeded the reinforcements available. In respect of aircraft, the needs of the squadrons were being met by using reserves built up during quiet periods, so that although the gross output was not keeping pace with the casualties, the supply of aircraft never became a factor limiting the scale of operations. It was the supply of pilots that caused most concern, for at the beginning of September there was an average deficiency of about ten operational pilots in each Fighter Command squadron, although No. 11 Group squadrons were maintained at an average of nineteen operational pilots.* In fact, by 6 September there were no fresh squadrons available in the country to replace the battered units serving in the South-east and the Commander-in-Chief was compelled as a desperate expedient to institute the ‘stabilisation scheme’. This scheme, by committing a number of squadrons in back areas to the task of training new pilots to operational standard, enabled squadrons in No. 11 Group and on its immediate flanks to be kept supplied with trained replacement pilots without the necessity for moving entire units out of the battle area.
This phase then, marked the crisis of the Battle of Britain, a point which was made by Air Vice-Marshal Park, who later wrote:
There was a critical period between 28 August and 5 September when the damage to sector stations and our ground organisation was having a serious effect on the fighting efficiency of the fighter squadrons. Had the enemy continued his heavy attacks, the fighter defences of London would have been in a parlous state during the last critical phase when heavy attacks have been directed against the capital.
* The establishment of a fighter squadron was 26 pilots.