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Episodes & Studies Volume 2



BY THE END OF THE FIRST WEEK in August the Luftwaffe had completed its preparations for mounting mass daylight attacks, and accordingly, in the next phase from the 8th onwards, it attempted nothing less than the complete elimination of Fighter Command. This ten-day period was one of the most crucial phases of the battle. Attacks on coastal towns and convoys were continued on an increased scale, and to these were added particular targets including radar stations, Fighter Command airfields, balloon barrages, and aircraft factories. It is clear from the tactics employed and from the objectives selected that the Luftwaffe was attempting to gain air superiority by exhausting and swamping the Fighter Command defences. During this phase the enemy used the Junkers 87 dive-bomber and, less often, the long-range Heinkel and Dornier bombers, to make preliminary attacks against coastal objectives in Kent to draw the fighter defence, followed some 30 to 40 minutes later by the main attack against ports or airfields on the South coast between Brighton and Portland. Of these tactics Air Vice-Marshal Park wrote:

The main problem was to know which was the diversionary attack, and to hold sufficient squadrons in readiness to meet the main attack when this could be discerned from the very unreliable information received from the radar stations after they had been heavily bombed.

To meet the attacks against coastal objectives it was necessary to keep nearly all the readiness squadrons at forward airfields, such as Lympne, Mansion, Rochford, and Hawkinge, from which Air Vice-Marshal Park sent half his available squadrons, including the Spitfires, to engage the enemy fighters and the remainder to attack the enemy bombers flying at 11,000 to 13,000 feet. As the fighter screens to the main bombing formations flew in large unwieldy masses some 5000 to 10,000 feet above the bombers, the Spitfires had to climb to well over 20,000 feet to intercept them. Hence they rarely had the advantage of height. On the other hand, this fact often allowed fighter pilots to do severe damage to the bombing force before general dogfighting developed between fighter and fighter.

The first really heavy attack on a land target since July was made on the morning of 11 August against Portland. On this occasion the Nos. 10 and 11 Group controllers were in hardly any doubt as to the target, since three enemy forces were plotted in the central Channel on course for Portland and no convoy was in the area at the time. Accordingly, during the next fifteen minutes the greater part of eight squadrons was ordered to that area. Amongst these was No. 213 Hurricane Squadron from Exeter, led by Squadron Leader H. D. McGregor.8 In the early stages the top cover of Messerschmitt fighters, which were some distance east of the main formation, was brought to battle by other squadrons, but it fell to McGregor to make the only interception of the bombers before they reached their target. He had been ordered to patrol at 10,000 feet and had just arrived page 10 over Portland when the enemy was sighted. He counted about fifty Junkers 88s and thirty Me109s between 10,000 and 15,000 feet and immediately attacked the head of the enemy formation. This attack was so successful that some of the bombers were compelled to jettison their bombs near Portland Bill, wide of any target. In reporting his own share in the action McGregor said:

Attacked Junkers 88 in leading section from beam and gave two-second burst and rear gunner stopped firing. Put a second burst in the starboard engine which caught fire and aircraft crashed in flames on the west side of Portland Bill….

That little very serious damage was done in this attack was largely due to the efforts of Squadron Leader McGregor's pilots, who altogether claimed seven enemy bombers and one fighter destroyed.

For the next few days there was intensive enemy activity between the Isle of Wight and the Thames Estuary. Targets attacked included radar stations, convoys, and coastal towns. According to a German account of the air war against Great Britain, 13 August was chosen as Adlertag (Eagle Day) and marked the opening of an all-out four-day offensive designed to smash the fighter defences in Southern England. Once this goal was reached the offensive was to be extended northwards, sector by sector, until all England was covered by day attacks and Fighter Command was irreparably broken. The way for invasion would then be open. It is interesting to note, however, that at this date (13 August) the German High Command were still undecided amongst themselves on important details of the invasion plan. It was the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, Navy, that in view of the limited means available for naval warfare and transport, an invasion should be attempted only as a last resort if Britain could not be made to sue for peace in any other way. However, it is not at all certain that Reich Marshal Goering shared these pessimistic views, for on 15 August he launched a series of most highly co-ordinated and intensive attacks against England which were to result in the greatest number of German aircraft being destroyed by Fighter Command in any day throughout the entire course of the battle.