Messerschmitt Bf 110: Bombsights over England Erprobungsgruppe 210 in the Battle of Britain
On 7 July 1940, a special Luftwaffe unit was formed at Köln-Ostheim under the command of Hauptmann Walter Rubensdörffer. Equipped with a mixture of single-engined Messerschmitt Bf 109s and twin-engined Bf 110s, its task was to pioneer the tactics that would be employed by the Bf 110’s successor, the Messerschmitt Me 210 – hence the new unit’s designation of Erprobungsgruppe (‘Trials Group’) 210, or EGr 210. One of the unit’s Staffeln, I/EGr. 210 was equipped with the Messerschmitt Bf 110C, and was activated by simply renumbering I/Zerstörergeschwader 1; similarly, III/Stukageschwader 77, which was armed with the Messerschmitt Bf 110D, became II/EGr. 210. The group’s third Staffel, which had Messerschmitt Bf 109Es, was previously IV/Trägergruppe 186, which had been designated as the fighter element of the air group intended for the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, on which work had been halted.
Walter Rubensdörffer was of Swiss origin, having been born at Basle in 1910. He had joined the new Luftwaffe in the early 1930s and had subsequently fought with the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, flying Heinkel He 51 biplanes on ground attack work.
Rubensdörffer was destined never to fly the Me 210, which was plagued by development problems from its inception in 1937, when the German air ministry (Reichslu ftministerium, or RLM) approved the project and took the unusual step of ordering 1,000 examples off the drawing board. The prototype, initially fitted with twin fins and rudders, flew for the first time on 2 September 1939 and showed serious stability problems. The twin fins were replaced by a single fin assembly, which improved matters somewhat, but not much.
Although the service debut of the Me 210 would now be seriously delayed, the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) decided to proceed with the use of the Bf 109 and Bf 110 in the fighter-bomber role. Following the installation of bomb shackles, permitting the aircraft to carry either SC250 or SC500 bombs, EGr 210 moved to its main operating base of Denain in France, from where it deployed aircraft to its forward base at Calais-Marck on the Channel coast for operations against the British Isles.
These began almost at once, the Messerschmitts carrying out dive-bombing attacks on British shipping in the Channel, and the unit’s first casualty was sustained on Saturday, 13 July 1940, when a Bf 110 was seriously damaged in combat with RAF fighters and had to crash-land at St Omer. Its crew suffered no injury, despite the fact that their aircraft was 45 per cent wrecked. On the 18th, another of the group’s Bf 110s dived vertically into the ground near Antwerp, one of its crew being killed. On the 24th, yet another Bf 110, engaged in a shipping attack, exploded in mid-air off Harwich, the probable victim of anti-aircraft fire. This time, both crew were killed. Two days later EGr. 210 lost a fourth Bf 110, which dived into the sea at high speed after being hit by anti-aircraft (A A) fire at 2,000 ft (610 metres); its pilot, Oberleutnant Fallenbacher, and his observer were killed.
The Gruppe was now suffering losses on an almost daily basis. On 29 July, Bf 110C-6 S9+TH of I/EGr. 210 was attacked by a Hawker Hurricane of No. 151 Squadron (Flying Officer Blair) as it attempted to bomb a convoy off Orfordness and badly damaged, its pilot, Leutnant Beudel, made an emergency landing at St Omer with a wounded gunner.
On the 30th, I Staffel lost another Bf 110, shot down 19 miles (30 km) east of Harwich by Flight Lieutenant Hamilton and Sergeant Allard of No. 85 Squadron, also flying Hurricanes. Leutnant Herold and his observer were killed.
During the first week of August 1940 the Gruppe was withdrawn from anti-shipping operations to concentrate on honing its dive-bombing skills. Despite its absence from the combat area, losses continued; on 6 August a Bf 110 of II/EGr. 210 dived into the sea off Denain during dive-bombing practice, and a second crashed on a routine test flight. In each case, both crew members were killed. The next day, the Gruppe lost its first Bf 109, when an aircraft flown by Hauptmann Valesi crashed off Denain, killing its pilot.
Back in action again on 11 August, attacking shipping off Harwich, I/EGr. 210 lost two Bf 110s in combat with RAF fighters. The two pilots, Gefreiter Weiss and Leutnant Bertram, were both killed, along with their observers.
Erprobungsgruppe 210 was now about to face its biggest test so far, for it had a key role to play in the German air onslaught that was about to be hurled against Britain. The organization which RAF Fighter Command now had in place to meet that onslaught was far different from that with which the RAF had very nearly gone to war two years earlier, at the time of the Munich crisis of 1938. Under the determined and energetic leadership of 54-year-old Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Fighter Command had become a tightly knit defensive network, where control and standardization were the keywords.
Dowding’s approach was essentially a scientific one; he believed that Britain’s air defences should have the benefit of the latest technological developments. This was reflected in Fighter Command’s operations rooms, linked with one another by an elaborate system of telephone and teleprinter lines to provide an integrated system of control. This enabled fighter aircraft to be passed rapidly from sector to sector and from group to group, wherever they were most needed.
Nowhere was modern technology more apparent in Britain’s defences than in the use of radar – or radio direction-finding (RDF) as it was then known. Developed by Robert Watson-Watt from earlier experiments in thunderstorm detection by the use of radio waves, the use of radar as an integral part of the British air defence system was largely the fruit of Dowding’s initiative; he had worked with Watson-Watt during the 1930s and had not been slow to recognize the potential of the new invention. The Germans had made several determined efforts to ferret out Britain’s radar secrets before the war with the aid of special radio equipment installed in commercial airliners and the airship Graf Zeppelin, but reconnaissance of this kind had come to a virtual standstill after the outbreak of war, and the erection of the chain of radar masts along the southern and eastern coasts of Britain had continued unmolested.
The Germans recognized that the destruction of the radar stations was a vital preliminary to the main air offensive against southern England. Planning for the offensive was completed by 2 August 1940; Luftflotten (‘Air Fleets’) 2 and 3 were to attack simultaneously, their main task being to bring the British fighters to combat, to destroy the coastal fighter airfields and the radar stations, and to disrupt the RAF’s ground organization in southern England. On the second day the attacks would be extended to airfields around London, and would continue at maximum effort throughout the third day. The Luftwaffe High Command hoped in this way to weaken the RAF by a few decisive blows, so establishing the air superiority necessary for any further operations.
To carry out this task the Luftwaffe had three Luftflotten. Luftflotte 2, under General Kesselring, was based in Holland, Belgium and north-eastern France, Luftflotte 3, under general Sperrle, in northern and north-western France; and Luftflotte 5, under General Stumpff, in Norway and Denmark. Together their resources amounted to some 3,500 aircraft, of which 2,250 – 1,000 medium bombers, 1,000 fighters and 250 dive-bombers – were serviceable. To counter this force, Air Chief Marshal Dowding had 704 serviceable fighters, including 620 Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Everything was fixed except the date. To carry out its allotted tasks the Luftwaffe needed at least three days of continuous good weather. A fine spell was expected to continue during the first week of August, but the Luftflotten were unable to take advantage of it as they needed another week to make final preparations for the great onslaught. At last the Lufwaffe was ready and Adlertag – Eagle Day – was fixed for 10 August, but then the weather took a sudden turn for the worse and it had to be postponed. On 11 August the weather forecast for the next few days looked more promising; the final decision was made and Adlertag was scheduled for 13 August.
On the morning of 12 August, twenty-four hours before the main offensive was due to begin, twenty-one Messerschmitt 109s and 110s of Erprobungsgruppe 210 took off from Calais-Marck airfield and set course at low level over the English Channel. As they approached the English coast they climbed and split up, heading for their individual targets. I Staffel, comprising six Bf 110s led by Oberleutnant Martin Lutz, attacked the radar station at Pevensey, near Eastbourne, each aircraft dropping two 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs, causing damage to installations and power cables but leaving the four masts intact. Under Oberleutnant Rössiger, II Staffel dive-bombed the radar station at Rye, near Hastings, also causing substantial damage to installations, while the Bf 109s of Oberleutnant Otto Hintze’s III Staffel swept down on Dover, with similar results. Despite the damage, however, all three stations were operational again within three hours.
It was a different story at Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight, where the radar station was attacked thirty minutes later by fifteen Junkers Ju 88s. Their bombing was extremely accurate and the station was damaged beyond repair. To cover up the dangerous gap created by the loss of the Ventnor station, the British transmitted a false signal on the wrecked station’s frequency; the German listening posts on the other side of the Channel consequently believed that Ventnor was still fully operational. In fact, it was only after eleven days of non-stop work that another station was brought into action on the Isle of Wight.
In the afternoon of 12 August, EGr. 210 attacked the forward airfield of Manston with twenty Messerschmitts. Manston was temporarily disabled. All the Messerschmitts returned to Calais-Marck unscathed with the exception of one, which crash-landed near Calais and was written off after an engagement with RAF fighters over the Channel.
Erprobungsgruppe 210 did not participate in operations on Adlertag itself, but it was back in action on Wednesday, 14 August, a day in which air operations were hampered by bad weather. Once again, Manston was the target. The attack was carried out by the Bf 110Ds of I Staffel, and on this occasion two 110s fell victim to Manston’s anti-aircraft defences, three of the four crew members being killed.
The next day, 15 August, was disastrous for EGr. 210. In the early evening, fifteen Bf 110s and eight Bf 109s set course over the Channel to attack the airfield at Kenley, south of London, but they made a navigational error and attacked Croydon by mistake, destroying forty training aircraft. As they were making their attack they were engaged by the Hurricanes of Nos 32 and 111 Squadrons. The first to go, at 18.50, was Bf 110D S9+CB, which crash-landed at School Farm, Hooe, after being attacked by a Hurricane. The crew, Leutnant Koch and Unteroffizier Kahl, survived and were taken prisoner.
Walter Rubensdörffer was an early casualty, his aircraft (Bf 110D S9+AB) crashing in flames on Bletchinglye Farm, Rotherfield. The pilot and his observer, Obergefreiter Kretzer, were both killed. The time was 19.00. Also at this time, a Bf 110C-6 of II Staffel was attacked and shot down by Squadron Leader Worrall and Flight Lieutenant Crossley of No. 32 Squadron, crashing at Ightham. The pilot, Leutnant Ortner, baled out wounded and was captured, but his observer, Obergefreiter Lohmann, was killed.
The other Messerschmitts were harried mercilessly as they fled for the coast. At 19.10, Bf 110C-6 S9+TH of I Staffel was shot down by Flight Lieutenant Connors and Sergeant Wallace of 111 Squadron, crashing at Broadbridge Farm, Horley, and killing its crew, Leutnant Beudel and Obergefreiter Jordan; while Bf 110D S9+CK of II Staffel crashed at Hawkhurst after a fighter attack. Its crew, Oberleutnant Habisch and Unteroffizier Elfner, were captured. Five minutes later, Bf 110D S9+BB of EGr. 210’s Staff Flight was shot down by Sergeant Dymond of No. 111 Squadron and Sergeant Pearce of No. 32, crashing on Nutfield aerodrome. The pilot, Oberleutnant Fiedeler – the Gruppe Adjutant – was killed, but his observer, Unteroffizier Werner, was captured alive. Also taken prisoner was Leutnant Marx, Staffelkapitän of 3/EGr. 210, whose Bf 109 was shot down at Frant.
On the following day, command of Erprobungsgruppe 210 was assumed by Hauptmann Hans von Boltenstern, and operations continued at a reduced rate for the next few days until the Gruppe was brought up to strength again. On 31 August, II Staffel suffered two aircraft damaged, although both returned to Calais-Marck, but a third (Bf 110D S9+GK) was forced down at Wrotham Hill on the southern outskirts of London. One crew member was killed, the other captured.
Hans von Boltenstern’s tenure as Kommandeur of EGr. 210 was short-lived; on Wednesday, 4 September 1940, his Bf 110D S9+AB was shot down into the Channel and he was killed, along with his observer, Feldwebel Schneider. He was succeeded by Hauptmann Martin Lutz. On 6 September, the day after Lutz took over, the Gruppe lost another aircraft, when Bf 110D S9+BH of I Staffel was shot down near Oxted, Surrey, after attacking Redhill aerodrome. The pilot, Unteroffizier Rüger, was killed; his obsever, Unteroffizier Ernst, was captured wounded. On the next day, a Bf 109 pilot of III Staffel had a lucky escape when he was rescued by the Seenotdienst (German air-sea rescue service) after being shot down into the Channel.
Hit-and-run bombing attacks against targets on the English coast continued. On Tuesday, 24 September, Bf 110D S9+HH was shot down into the sea by AA fire off Southampton Water; the bodies of the crew, Leutnant von der Horst and Obergefreiter Ollers, were never recovered.
Friday, 27 September, was another bad day for the Gruppe, which launched an attack on targets in the Bristol area around midday. Four Bf 110s were lost, including that (S9+DH) of the Gruppe Kommandeur, Martin Lutz. Under attack by fighters, he crashed into some trees at Bussey Stool farm, Cranbourne Chase, near Shaftsbury. He and his observer, Unteroffizier Schön, were killed. Also killed were Leutnant Schmidt and Feldwebel Richter in Bf 110D S9+JH, which went down at Bradle Row, Kimmeridge, after a fighter attack. Luckier were Feldwebel Ebner and Gefreiter Zwick in S9+DU, who were captured wounded after being shot down by fighters at The Beeches, Preston Hill, Iwerne Minster; but the Staffelkapitän, Oberleutnant Rössiger, and his observer, Oberfeldwebel Marx, were both listed as missing after their aircraft was shot down over the sea. Only one of the original Staffelkapitän was left now, and Hauptmann Otto Hintze took over as Gruppe Kommandeur. The Gruppe suffered further losses on 5 October, when two more Bf 110s were destroyed and two damaged.
By this time, with the Luftwaffe’s medium bomber force suffering unacceptable losses in daylight attacks and the main offensive switching to night operations, the fighter-bomber tactics pioneered by EGr. 210 were adopted by other fighter units, and October 1940 saw an increase in fighter-bomber operations against southern England. To counter these new methods, RAF Fighter Command initiated high-level standing patrols on a line covering Biggin Hill-Maidstone-Gravesend. On 8 October the Germans made several small-scale fighter-bomber attacks on London, and the next day, slipping across the Channel under cover of cloud and rain, the fighter-bombers made sporadic attacks on RAF airfields in the south-east. On 10 October enemy fighter-bombers came over south-east England in streams, and Fighter Command pilots reported extreme difficulty in intercepting them because of heavy showers interspersed with dazzling bright intervals.
On 12 October, Adolf Hitler issued an order postponing his planned invasion of Britain until the following spring. The pilots of Fighter Command knew nothing of this tacit admission of defeat, and on that day they were busy warding off attacks on Biggin Hill and Kenley, losing ten aircraft against the Luftwaffe’s eleven. On the 15th the weather was fine, and a morning attack on London by Bf 109 fighter-bombers wrecked the approach to Waterloo station and temporarily closed the railway lines. Factories on the south bank of the Thames were badly hit, and in the evening a major attack by medium bombers wrecked parts of the docks and Paddington, Victoria, Waterloo and Liverpool Street stations. The Luftwaffe’s loss of fourteen aircraft that day included eight Bf 109s, destroyed in a ‘bounce’ by RAF fighters. Attacks by high-flying fighter-bombers, operating in streams or in massed raids, continued throughout the remainder of October, the 29th being a particularly active day, with heavy attacks on RAF airfields and coastal targets. The Luftwaffe’s combat loss of twenty aircraft included five Bf 109s of JG 51, bounced by RAF fighters as a result of good tactical planning.
From now on, because of increasingly bad weather and the fact that the Luftwaffe had exhausted its tactical options, the daylight offensive against Britain began to peter out. Although daylight incrusions would continue for the rest of the year, weather permitting, to all intents and purposes the Battle of Britain was over. The Luftwaffe had been rebuffed, its tactical advantages ruined by inept political and military decisions.