18 August 1940 Part I

Perhaps because of the failure of the intended raid on RAF Kenley on 15 August 1940 another mission was ordered, this time to be carried out by a specialist low-level attack unit, the Dornier 17-Z-equipped 9./KG76. Nine of the unit’s aircraft streaked low across the English Channel at lunchtime on 18 August, just above the waves, crossing the Sussex coast at Cuckmere Haven. German war correspondent Rolf von Pebal flew with one of the Do 17 bombers during the operation against Kenley air base on 18 August 1940. Here, the aircraft are photographed passing Beachy Head and its famous lighthouse. An Observer Corps post on top of the cliffs spotted the raiders who were tracked all the way to their target. In total, four of the Dornier 17s were shot down over land or fell into the English Channel, and others made crash landings or emergency landings back in France with wounded, dead or dying crew members on board. Only one Dornier 17 returned to its home base at Cormeilles-en-Vexin. The cost to 9./KG76 had been high, and RAF Kenley remained operational.

 

The Dorniers turned at Burgess Hill onto a track heading the formation due north, and directly towards RAF Kenley. In this photograph, people in Cyprus Road run for cover as the war photographer on board one of the raiders records a brief moment in the history of the Battle of Britain. Simultaneously, the formation of nine aircraft was machine gunning streets, buildings and vehicles en route to their target.

 

Although the Junkers 86-P is not an aircraft generally associated with Luftwaffe air activity over Britain, they were used in limited numbers in the high-altitude reconnaissance role. Teenager Alexander McKee took a photograph of a single extremely high vapour trail over Portsmouth at around 1.30pm on 18 August 1940 and this was almost certainly the trail left by a Junkers 86-P as it went about its work.

Despite clear weather on 17 August, it was quiet in the air over the British Isles. Reichsmarschall Göring sent new attack orders to his commanders. He gave them 24 hours to prepare the next major operation against the British Isles, and in the meantime called two of his favourites, fighter aces majors Galland and Mölders, to his hunting lodge Karinhall in the forests east of Berlin. Göring got straight to the point and told them that the losses had so far been worse than expected, especially among Stuka units. He stated bluntly that in his opinion, the German fighters had not been used aggressively enough. However, this did not reflect on Galland and Mölders. He had not ordered them to Karinhall to criticize them – on the contrary, as the old fighter pilot that he was, he wanted to use their young belligerence to improve fighter operations over the Channel. His decision to make Major Mölders, who was only 27 years old, commander of the whole of JG 51 had proven very successful. Since Mölders took over JG 51 had developed into the most successful Bf 109 unit under Jafü 2’s command. Now Göring wanted to forge ahead and do the same with the other Bf 109 units, and he was going to start with Galland – who, besides Mölders, was also a favourite of Göring’s.

’Galland’, said Göring, ‘you shall take over JG 26!’ ‘I did not like the idea, because I wanted to lead my unit in combat’, said Adolf Galland. ‘Göring tried to reassure me that his idea was to have fighting Geschwaderkommodores.’ Mölders disagreed with Göring, but he did undoubtedly have unusual organisational and management skills. ‘I still could not reconcile myself to the idea of being a Geschwaderkommodore.’

Major Martin Mettig, who was replaced as Geschwaderkommodore JG 54 by 28-year-old Major Hannes Trautloft on 25 August considered that this reform was basically sensible: ‘the replacing of five Geschwaderkommodores in the fighter aviation came about because the heavy combat demanded a rejuvenation at senior command level. With my 37 years I was the fighter aviation’s second-youngest Geschwaderkommodore at that time. The new aim was that our Staffelkapitäns would be less than 27 years, our Gruppenkommandeurs under 30 years, and our Geschwaderkommodores under 32 years of age. I maintain that it was a correct measure.’

Göring also found cause for optimism in a new report which he received from the Luftwaffe’s Intelligence Chief, Oberst ‘Beppo’ Schmid, which again stated that all that remained of the RAF was ‘the last 300 Spitfires’. In reality, thanks to the 24-hour reprieve, the number of serviceable aircraft in Fighter Command increased from 631 at dawn on 17 August to 706 twenty-four hours later. This gain came in handy when Göring’s plan of attack came into force on 18 August. The first goal was to once and for all wipe out the 11 Group sector stations Kenley and Biggin Hill, and to do that the Germans had a sophisicated plan of attack.

Sunday 18 August dawned with beautiful weather. On the German airfields in France the unit commanders assembled their men for briefings. This time the RAF would be decisively defeated, the unit commanders explained.

On the other side of the Channel the British felt increasingly nervous. The sun shone from an almost cloudless sky and it was a warm and lovely summer day, but except for a few reconnaissance aircraft it was completely quiet in the air over England. Would there be a two day reprieve? What were the Germans up to?

Naturally, it was just the calm before the storm. Shortly before lunch Park was notified that the Dover radar station had picked up radar echoes suggesting the largest gathering of German aircraft ever. In the air above the Pas de Calais 110 He 111s from KG 1 formed up together with Do 17s and Ju 88s from KG 76. These were joined by nearly five hundred Messerschmitts from JG 3, JG 26, JG 51, JG 52, JG 54 and ZG 26. Major Martin Mettig, still the commander of JG 54, said: ‘of our five Jagdgeschwaders, two were tasked to fly close escort. We climbed to the flight altitude we had been ordered above Cap Gris Nez.’

When the first fifty or so German aircraft began to fly over the Strait of Dover, at high altitude, Park might have been able to guess but could not know that these were the Bf 109s going out first on a free hunting mission. In any event, the commander of 11 Group had no choice but to alert his fighter units. He decided to send up five squadrons to shield the southeast coast. Nos. 17, 54, 56, 65 and 501 squadrons were tasked with patroling the Canterbury area.

In this situation to send up twelve Hurricanes from the coastal Hawkinge airfield, outside Folkestone, was not very well-advised. They took off just as the Bf 109s left the French coast at Wissant, just five minutes flying time away. Oberleutnant Gerhard Schöpfel from III./JG 26 spotted them, dived immediately and shot down four of them in rapid succession.

The remaining pilots of No. 501 Squadron dived to escape. It was the signal for the entire III./JG 26 to go after them. The Germans did not catch up with 501 Squadron, but instead ran into another group of Hurricanes, No. 17 Squadron. When its pilots saw the whole gaggle of ‘109s coming down, they turned and tried to dive away from danger. The Germans shot down three Hurricanes before they broke off the pursuit in order to not lose too much height. One of the downed Hurricanes from 17 Squadron crashed near Dover, but the pilots of the other two managed to land their machines so that they could be repaired.

Dornier Do 17s played a significant role in the early phase of World War 11, used first on 1 September 1939 when the invasion of Poland began. They played only a small part in the Norwegian campaign, but were used extensively in the invasion of France and the Low Countries, against Allied convoys in the English Channel and targets in England during the Battle of Britain. Deployed in the invasion of Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, most had been withdrawn from first-line service by late 1941.

Major production version was the Do 17Z, which appeared in several variants and was built to a total of some 1,700 between 1939-40. They included the Do 17Z-0 which, powered by two 900-hp (671-kW) Bramo 323A-1 engines and armed with three MG 15 machineguns, was otherwise similar to the Do 17S. The Do 17Z-1 had an additional nose-mounted MG 15 but was underpowered and restricted to a 1, 102-lb (500-kg) bombload; this situation was rectified in the Do 17Z-2 which with 1,000-hp (746-kW) Bramo 323P engines could carry a 2,205-lb (1000 kg) bombload and up to eight MG 15 machine guns. Some 22 examples of the Do 17Z-3 reconnaissance aircraft were built, each equipped with Rb50/30 or Rb20/30 cameras, and they were followed by the Do 17Z-4 dual-control conversion trainer. Final bomber variant was the Do 17Z-5 which, generally similar to the Do 17Z-2, differed by having flotation bags in the fuselage and in the rear of the engine nacelles.

 

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