Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE SWITCH TO LONDON
THE SWITCH TO LONDON
ON SATURDAY, 7 September, the enemy turned to the heavy attack of London by day. Throughout the next three weeks the capital was subjected to a series of vicious attacks both by night and by day. The former were designed specifically to do as much damage as possible, especially to the vital rail communications, while the daylight attacks, by keeping the people under a state of almost constant alert, were intended to disorganise life and industry to the highest possible extent.
It had already been envisaged that the Germans would attempt an invasion within the next two weeks and that control of the air over South-east England would be vital to the operation. But although increased attacks were expected, the switch of the main German offensive to an attack on London came as something of a surprise. Nevertheless, while the previous phase was still being fought, Air Vice-Marshal Park had made preparations to counter the expected German onslaught. His plan was that the German attack should be met by as strong a defending force as possible between the coast and the sector stations near London, and that, provided sufficient warning was available, fighter squadrons were to go into battle in pairs. Hurricanes were ordered to engage the bombers, and Spitfires the higher fighter screen. These arrangements had their first test in the evening of 7 September.
PHASE III: 7–27 September 1940 Day and night offensive against London
The third phase of the battle opened with a series of reconnaissance raids during the morning and a light fighter-bomber attack on coastal airfields. The remainder of the day was quiet, and it was not until about 4 p.m. that a German force was first reported to be gathering over the French coast. During the next thirty minutes the development in strength of the attacking force proceeded, paralleled by the periodic despatch of fighter squadrons to the Kent and London areas. In their operations rooms the fighter controllers were faced with the heavy responsibility of deciding from the mass of information displayed on their plotting tables when the attack would develop, in what direction it would be aimed, and which of the several German formations in the air would execute it. The picture resolved itself somewhat by half past four when it became obvious that four formations of enemy aircraft intended attacking over a wide front from Beachy Head to the North Foreland. Accordingly, by 5 p.m. no fewer than twenty-one detachments had been sent into the air, most of them to patrol airfields near London.
Almost immediately Flight Lieutenant J. A. A. Gibson was engaged with No. 501 Squadron against a force of over 150 enemy aircraft, but he was the only pilot to make a claim and that an inconclusive one. The bombers then flew up the Thames and bombed targets at Woolwich, doing heavy damage. On the way back these aircraft were engaged by at least seven squadrons. Flying Officer B. J. G. Carbury,17 leading a section of No. 603 Squadron Spitfires, reported waves of bombers escorted by fighters above, around, and below them. His first attack was against an Me109 which burst into flames, then, having climbed into the sun, he saw a string of fighters below him. He made two attacks on a straggler from this formation and left it in a dive, streaming glycol. Climbing again to 30,000 feet, Carbury dived through a formation of German aircraft, spraying them with bullets, but as he did not see any damage, the New Zealander, although short of petrol, oxygen, and ammunition, once more climbed up and attacked two formations of enemy fighters. Again he fired at a straggler and saw it burst into flames. Of seven enemy aircraft claimed destroyed or damaged by his squadron, Carbury was credited with three.
However, at this time, while one third of the fighter defences was engaged with the retreating enemy, other bomb-carrying formations were approaching East London. The second wave were all engaged shortly after crossing the coast, but in the main the enemy was undeterred and at least four formations attacked London. The main weight of the German attack was concentrated on the East End dock areas about six o'clock. Intercepting this force as it retired, Pilot Officer K. A. Lawrence,18 of No. 234 Spitfire Squadron, damaged a Dornier 17 bomber. He then found himself alone, but in spite of this he attacked a formation of twelve Me109s and set one on fire. This attack was typical of many which took place all over South-east England during the day.
Many squadrons after being engaged were given time only to land, refuel, and re-arm before being sent up again in an effort to stem the hordes of German aircraft which made the evening hideous with their noise and filled the streets of the East End of London with death and destruction. From the ground below Londoners looked up into the blue sky with amazement as they watched the twisting, snaking vapour trails tracing a lace-like pattern above their city. Sometimes they could see the black specks at the head of the snowy streaks; more often the sound and sight of the drama being enacted high above was denied them, except when an aircraft—friend or foe—spun lazily down from the heights, or dived at full throttle flaming like a torch, to crash and explode in a shower of blazing particles in a park or once-peaceful street.page 26
The fighter pilots fought gallantly to stem the enemy advance and although greatly outnumbered they achieved success in the numbers of enemy aircraft destroyed. In those early September days, none of them knew the outcome of the battle or where the enemy would strike next. Day after day they ran to their Spitfires and Hurricanes—kept serviceable by the ground crews in spite of bombing and strafing attacks and lack of sleep—and flew into battle against the hundreds of enemy aircraft whose black crosses filled the skies above them. After dark, while London blazed, they slept uneasily, often awakened by the crash of nearby bombs. Long before dawn they were at dispersal, ready and waiting for the telephone to ring, telling them to ‘Scramble’ and fly into battle once more.
Such was their success that only on 7 September did the Germans succeed in breaking through to London in strength by day. The same success could not be claimed by night, however, and the defence of the capital fell mainly upon the anti-aircraft gunners. At this time, the interception of night raiders by fighter aircraft was rare. Although airborne radar aids had been introduced to the Service and every effort was being made to perfect night fighting methods, such were the difficulties of night interception that during the fortnight preceding 7 September, in spite of a nightly average of thirty-one fighter sorties, only three enemy aircraft were claimed destroyed by the fighters. Two of these, a Heinkel 111 and a Dornier 17, were destroyed on one patrol by Pilot Officer M. J. Herrick,19 one of a small group of New Zealanders engaged in night fighting. This dual success was certainly not a typical contemporary example; it was a unique achievement. Herrick was flying a Blenheim of No. 25 Squadron fitted with airborne radar, but conditions seem to have favoured visual interception and the radar was not used. Nor did he receive much help from ground control, for a few minutes after taking off his radio became unserviceable. The New Zealander sighted both enemy aircraft illuminated by searchlights, and, having despatched the first with a five-second burst, he reported his subsequent actions as follows:
Immediately afterwards another enemy aircraft was illuminated and after chasing for about 10 minutes I got within range and opened fire at about 400 yards. I then fired several short bursts with the range decreasing and obtained a good deflection shot. The enemy aircraft seemed to halt and waver in the air and I overshot as I had used all my remaining ammunition. Then the searchlights turned on me and I could see no more. As I overtook the enemy aircraft, I noticed that it was falling to pieces and that both engines were smoking badly. My rear gunner fired in both actions….
The next morning the remains of both these enemy aircraft were found. Herrick was immediately awarded the DFC for this action.
The week which followed was characterised by the fact that, particularly in the London area but also elsewhere in the country, most of the German bombs fell at night. This was significant, for in expecting a heavier assault to develop Fighter Command had been facing the prospect of intensified attacks in daylight with the attendant continuance of heavy damage to the airfields and a high casualty rate amongst its pilots. As it transpired, although daylight bombing attacks continued in the South-east, they were, with the exception of those on the 15th, not comparable with the great assault on the 7th, nor even with the previous attacks on the airfields.
On 15 September the German Air Force made what was probably its greatest concentrated effort to destroy Fighter Command. The Prime Minister described the day as ‘the most brilliant page 27 and fruitful of any fought upon a large scale up to that date by the fighters of the RAF’, and went on to say that bearing in mind the heavy casualties already caused to the enemy's air strength, superior though it was in numbers, the country could ‘wait the decision of this prolonged air battle with sober but increasing confidence.’
Although it has since been established that only about one third the number of enemy aircraft claimed destroyed on that day were in fact lost by the Germans, it is still likely that 15 September will remain as the day which turned the tide of the battle. It was remarkable for the success of Air Vice-Marshal Park's plans for meeting the enemy as far forward as possible. This was accomplished because the Germans, by using huge masses of bomber aircraft, took over half an hour to fly the 60 miles between the coast and the outskirts of London. Thus the defenders received an unusually long warning of each attack. This was especially true of the first attack, when the controller at No. 11 Group was given time to group ten squadrons into Wings and also to assemble reinforcements from adjacent Groups before the enemy crossed the coast. Many interceptions were made as the Germans approached on a zigzag course over Kent, so much so that a five-squadron Wing from Duxford, No. 12 Group, was forced to delay its attack until the No. 11 Group squadrons had cleared away. This enemy force was only lightly escorted and for once the defending fighters had numerical superiority. As previously arranged, the Hurricanes from Duxford attacked the bombers while the Spitfires made for the fighter cover, and, although most of the latter broke away and abandoned their charges, Flight Lieutenant W. G. Clouston,20 who was leading one of the Spitfire squadrons, was able to attack an Me110 which he claimed to have destroyed. In general the Germans were very roughly handled, as on their way inland they were attacked by eleven squadrons of No. 11 Group and then by the mass Wing from Duxford. During the retirement four more fighter squadrons made interception. Significantly, most of the bombs that fell during this attack were dropped about the same time that combats were taking place.
During the second attack later in the day the Germans did more damage with their bombs, for owing to the fact that a shorter warning was available, only half of the intercepting squadrons were airborne before the Germans crossed the coast. Thus some of the fighters did not engage until the enemy were over South London, which became a bombing and a fighting area at the same time. In intercepting this attack several New Zealanders had successful combats, which can be illustrated by a few examples.
Pilot Officer G. M. Simpson,21 of No. 229 Squadron, attacked, with other Hurricanes of the Northolt Wing, some thirty Heinkel 111s at 20,000 feet. After he and other members of his squadron had made an attack on one of the bombers, it crash-landed on West Malling airfield, to be joined a few moments later by Flight Lieutenant M. V. Blake,22 who was compelled to make a forced landing on the same airfield with his windscreen covered in black oil as a result of a bullet in his oil pipe.
About the same time Pilot Officers H. P. Hill23 and J. N. MacKenzie were patrolling Hornchurch in Spitfires of the Biggin Hill Wing when a large enemy formation was sighted. MacKenzie set fire to the port engine of a bomber before it escaped into cloud and claimed it a ‘probable’. Hill took part in an attack on a Dornier and saw one of the crew bale out, then in quick succession he destroyed three Heinkel 111s. Of the first he reports:page 28
I carried out three beam attacks from slightly ahead and above, breaking away at 50 yards… this aircraft crashed in the edge of a wood and exploded.
The second Heinkel landed wheels up on Maidstone airfield after two attacks by the New Zealander. He then climbed again and his report continues:
As I was about to enter cloud saw a Heinkel 111 coming through. I carried out two beam attacks, also one stern attack, and the enemy aircraft finally crashed in a block of houses near Rochester.
As a result of the day's attacks 174 enemy aircraft were claimed destroyed by Fighter Command. Even at the time this figure was considered rather high, and it has since been established that fifty-six enemy aircraft were actually destroyed. In fairness to the integrity of the fighter pilots it is worth remembering that, considering the enormous numbers of aircraft engaged in combat and the wide area over which the battle raged, it was quite possible that several British pilots, unknown to one another, had engaged one and the same victim. Mr. Churchill in revealing that throughout the battle the defences got two to one of the Germans, instead of three to one as was the contemporary opinion, was content to say, ‘But this was enough’. The German reaction to the events of 15 September is apparent from the following entry which was made in the German War Diary:
The enemy Air Force is still by no means defeated; on the contrary it shows increasing activity. The weather situation as a whole does not permit us to expect a period of calm…. The Fuehrer therefore decides to postpone ‘Sea Lion’* indefinitely.
In fact Hitler did not procrastinate much longer. On 12 October he postponed the whole invasion plan until the spring of 1941.
Meanwhile from 16 to 26 September both the nature and scale of enemy day offensive operations underwent a change. In the main the weight of attack was reduced and there was ushered in a new phase of air fighting in which the Germans began to operate what were essentially offensive fighter sweeps. This was not to say, however, that enemy bombers were no longer seen, although they were used to a lesser extent. Concentration on London was less marked and attention was paid to targets in the South-west, including Southampton and Bristol, where an airfield and aircraft factory were attacked. Nevertheless, although during the following week the weight of attack by day in terms of bombs dropped was not high, the Germans continued to simulate large attacks, and although these were mostly high-flying fighter sweeps, they necessitated the same scale of interception by the fighter pilots as for a major bombing raid. For example, the Command as a whole made as many sorties on the 23rd, when the Germans launched little more than fighter sweeps, as on the 15th. Meanwhile the blitz of London was continued nightly by an average force of between 150 and 300 long-range bombers.
The last heavy daylight raid of the month was on the 27th. In all, four attacks were made, three of them against London. Little damage was done to the capital and altogether the Germans lost fifty-five aircraft. This was the last of the great daylight attacks on London. It can be said to have marked the failure of the German Air Force to prepare the way for invasion.page 29
* The code name for the invasion of England. This decision was made on 17 September.