Birmingham Small Arms – BSA

The Birmingham Small Arms company of Birmingham, England, was founded in 1861 to manufacture rifle stocks. In 1863 the company built their factory at Small Heath and in 1866 they obtained a military contract to convert 100,000 muzzle-loading Enfield rifles into Snider breech-loaders. Two years later came orders for the complete manufacture of various military pistols and carbines. In 1873 a factory at Adderley Park was acquired for the manufacture of small arms ammunition, trading as the Birmingham Small Arms & Metal Company. This facility was disposed of in 1891 to the Nobel Dynamite Trust.

During the First World War, BSA factories produced 145,397 Lewis machine guns and 1,601,608 Lee-Enfield rifles. The company also began to take an interest in weapon development and in 1919 produced a -40 calibre military automatic pistol which failed to attract military attention. They then obtained a licence to develop the Thompson submachine gun patents in Europe and produced a number of prototype automatic rifles based on the Thompson designs, again without much commercial success. Another venture was the Adams-Willmott machine gun. Before the out- break of the Second World War the company had set up for production of the BESA tank machine gun and during the war developed the Besal or Faulkner machine gun. Anti-tank rifles, aircraft cannon and submachine guns, were also produced.

In postwar years the BSA submachine gun was developed, as was a 7mm automatic rifle, but neither gained military acceptance. Some of the 7.62mm FN rifles adopted after Britain standardised on the 7-62mm NATO cartridge were made by BSA.

After the First World War the company had entered the sporting gun field with an inexpensive shotgun, and they later followed it up with sporting and target rifles. Air rifles had formed part of the firm’s output since the early 1900s, and they were the developers of an unusual air rifle modelled on the service Lee-Enfield rifle and intended for inexpensive training of cadets and militia units.

BSA started to pro- duce submachine-guns in 1924 when they flirted briefly with the Thompson design from the US. This came to nothing, as did another licensing venture in 1939 for a Hungarian weapon designed by Kiraly. BSA put some effort into this latter model, including an element of redesign work, and it obviously disappointed them when the War Office showed no interest. Throughout the Second World War the company made weapons to government order, including Sten guns, but did no original work.

BSA submachine gun

The BSA submachine gun, submitted for trials in 1946-1949, was a compact and ingenious design in which the cocking action was done by rotating the forward handguard, thrusting it forward and back, and rotating it again to lock into place. This system meant that the firer retained his grip of the weapon throughout the cocking action, which was advantageous in the event of a feed stoppage. Of 9mm calibre, the gun had a magazine which, with its housing, could be folded forward alongside the barrel giving compact dimensions for packing and, again, allowing rapid action in the event of a malfunction. But in competitive trials, it suffered from having had less development time than its competitors and was rejected for military service. The same fate befell the P-28 automatic rifle, a weapon of great promise. It was an exceptionally clean design, using a laterally-locking bolt, but the abandonment of the projected British .280 cartridge in favour of the 7.62mm NATO round put an end to its chances.

Welgun

British submachine-gun. The Welgun was one of many British attempts during the Second World War to produce a very small and light submachine-gun. It was called for by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which were at that time in Welwyn, hence the first part of the name. It was designed and built by BSA in Birmingham and the first military trials were in early 1943. From then on there seem to have been several trials, in all of which the Welgun fared quite well, but it was never adopted, not even for the SOE.

The design used some Sten components. The barrel, magazine and return spring were Sten, but the design was most compact. The spring was around the barrel and two long plates ran forward from the bolt to a ring in front of the spring. There was a stop just in front of the breech and rear movement of the bolt compressed the spring against this stop. The plates had serrations on them, and these were gripped to cock the weapon. The Sten magazine fed vertically upwards and the barrel was enclosed in a tubular jacket. The trigger mechanism was very simple, almost crude, and the safety was an external rocking bar which held the bolt either open or closed. A simple folding steel stock was fitted.

The bolt had a floating firing pin actuated by a plunger and rocking bar. When the bolt closed on the breech the plunger was pushed in and operated the rocking bar. This pushed the firing pin forward to fire the cartridge. With a little development the Welgun could probably have been every bit as good as the Sten, and perhaps better, but by then the Sten was already in production.

Welgun and Welrod

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Grinding into the Mountainside: Italy on the Isonzo

The Obice da 105/14 modello 18 was a howitzer used by Italy during World War II. The howitzer was designed by Schneider in 1906. It was chosen by the Italian Regio Esercito to serve as their new field gun, but licence production by Ansaldo was slow.
The Cannone da 381/40 AVS was an Italian railway gun that saw action during World War I.
The Cannone da 75/27 modello 06 was a field gun used by Italy during World War I and World War II. It was a license-built copy of the Krupp Kanone M 1906 gun. It had seats for two crewmen attached to the gunshield as was common practice for the period. Captured weapons were designated by the Wehrmacht during World War II as the 7.5 cm Feldkanone 237(i).

On the Isonzo front, both sides suffered from the winter conditions, including ice storms and avalanches. Shelling and snipers forced both sides to work at night. The mountain troops on both sides grew more proficient at raiding and specialist weapons like flamethrowers made their first appearance. Boroevic´’s outnumbered Fifth Army still lacked enough shells but constantly improving defences and superb intelligence gave him a priceless advantage.

For the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo the Italian artillery continued to rely on area fire and not a detailed fire-plan, even after new regulations were disseminated: a 48-hour bombardment by over a thousand guns was simply more indiscriminate shellfire. Late snowfall and mist only compounded the coordination problems and the Italians were driven back with heavy losses. Alpini units, supported by their own mountain artillery, had more success. Both sides began to use mining in the high alpine passes to edge towards and under enemy positions, blasting holes in San Martino in 1916 and eventually honeycombing the Little Lagazuoi in the Dolomite Range.

Conrad von Hötzendorf was eager to punish the Italians for breaking the Triple Alliance. He could not match the strong Italian forces on the Isonzo, so he decided to shift the battle westwards to the South Tyrol and ordered Colonel-General Archduke Eugen to prepare a suitable plan for April 1916. The Fifth Army yielded some of its reserves and fresh artillery soon followed. The Italian First Army was poorly deployed and Cadorna, easily distracted by a minor thrust on the Carso, became aware of Austrian preparations too late to affect the outcome. Eugen’s infantry and artillery, supplemented by the units stripped from the Russian front, were well co-ordinated and made significant gains before they outpaced their already meagre supply system and Cadorna finally managed to stabilise the front line. The Archduke was pleased with his men and, although most of his reserves were withdrawn after Brusilov’s attack, he gave a press interview to publicise the fact that the defenders had lost more men than the attackers. Eugen believed that better defences and closer infantry–artillery co-ordination gave the Austrians a huge advantage over the Italians:

[On the Isonzo] it was demonstrated what our [Trentino] offensive has now confirmed: that our men, but not the Italians, could stand the horrors of drumfire … Specifically, the close cooperation between our infantry and our artillery, and the batteries among one another has been the main source of our success. Our artillery-based defence has cost the enemy veritable hecatombs of dead … The Italian prisoners unanimously declared the effect of our artillery fire was frightful, simply unendurable. Under cover of this artillery fire, it was possible for our infantry, with […] slight losses, to tear from the enemy, position after position … The Italian artillery answered our fire only weakly – not, as captured magazines afterward showed, from lack of ammunition, but because they were holding back for our infantry attacks …

The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, in August, finally saw the Italians use a genuine artillery fire-plan. Colonel Pietro Badoglio, later a key figure in Mussolini’s regime, was assigned to plan the offensive and he and his staff selected a range of key targets including command bunkers, known supply dumps and artillery batteries. To show his confidence in the plan, Badoglio opted to personally lead a brigade attacking Mount Sabotino. For once the Austrians misread the situation and the size of the offensive surprised them. With only four heavy batteries and fewer than 600 light and medium guns, the Fifth Army was heavy outgunned and ran ruinously low on ammunition. The artillery bombardment cut all communications to the positions on Mount Sabotino and the Italians were able to overwhelm the defenders and trap many of them in their formidable kavernen. This time, when the inevitable counter-attack came, the Italians had enough time to establish their own defensive system. A similar success was experienced on San Michele but here the Austrians ran out of ammunition and their counter-attacks were driven back with heavy casualties. Just as a breakthrough glimmered, Cadorna lost his nerve and the Italian artillery reverted to re-arranging the geography while the Austrians strengthened the new defensive line on the Plava and received urgently needed shells. Further Italian attacks were predictably beaten back after savage fighting. Russian prisoners of war were brought into the Fifth Army sector to help construct an expanded defensive system, and as the Italians dithered, fresh artillery arrived to further strengthen the position.

Once again Cadorna returned to planning how to batter his way through to the Carso and the Duke of Aosta’s Third Army was instructed to prepare the latest assault. The fire-plan on this occasion required the artillery to soften up the front line, and to use heavy guns against the rear areas before intensifying the so-called ‘annihilation barrage’ just before dawn. The 9-hour bombardment was impressive but the Austrians held firm and their surviving gunners broke up the attacks. The bombardment of a key water pumping station that supplied the front line threatened to force the defenders to retreat but some Austrian naval flying boats destroyed the Italian long-range battery by bombing.

The new Italian tactics worked when the Austrian artillery was weak or low on ammunition. The Italians, not understanding how important artillery was to the Austrian system, did not emphasise counter-battery fire. That, combined with the strong Austrian defences, meant that too many attacks were broken up before they could make any progress. Worse, poor concealment meant that the Austrians could shatter attacks even before they commenced. Technical problems also hampered the Italians: their air force was still relatively weak, flash-spotting was difficult when the guns were in kaverne and sound-ranging was almost impossible in the mountains.

The bombardment before the Eighth Battle (although involving an even more intense barrage that destroyed 41 of the Fifth Army’s guns) made real progress because of the combination of dust and fog in the Carso sector during September. Austrian counter-battery and counter-assault fire inflicted heavy casualties but the Italians retained the advantage in both guns and ammunition. By the Ninth Battle the Italians were finally using curtain barrages to protect their hard-won advances, deluging the inevitable counter-attacks with gas and shrapnel before moving on to attack the Austrian second line. Only frenzied counter-attacks straight into the Italian advance prevented a major breakthrough. The Italians had learnt a great deal in 1916 but the Austrians were better at balancing resources and results. By comparison, the Italian success ‘bore no relation to the mighty expenditure of men and materiel that it cost’.

‘It will crush us all’: The Isonzo in 1917

On the Isonzo the morale of both armies was increasingly fragile. Cadorna ignored the growing criticism from his men and listened to the siren voices of Italian politicians (who wanted the Irredenta captured) and the demands of the Allies (who wanted constant pressure on all fronts). After considering the options, the Italian Third Army was ordered to attempt yet another attack into the Carso, but this time with more supporting artillery, including 166 new heavy batteries, but there was little sign of sophistication in the fire-planning. Even though the Italians had doubled their number of guns, they still had little more than a quarter of the numbers seen on the Western Front and the uncertain ammunition supplies meant that the rate of fire for heavy guns was a fifth of that seen in the Heavy Artillery Groups of the Royal Artillery. Field Marshal Robertson, visiting the front before the offensives of 1917, was stunned by the lack of pre-battle planning: ‘no system of co-operation existed between the artillery and the infantry in the attack; in fact the relations between the two seemed strained.’

Cadorna’s tenth offensive on the Isonzo began a few weeks after Nivelle’s offensive had collapsed and was delayed by the transfer of guns from the Trentino. On 10 May some 2,150 guns and 980 mortars blasted Austrian positions northwest of Gorizia for 44 hours. Initially the intention was to form a bridgehead at Hill 383 and then seize the Bainsizza Plateau. The Austrian artillery, firing at pre-planned sectors of the defensive system, shattered the first massed assaults. However, Italian numbers, a successful bombardment and dwindling Austrian ammunition stocks meant the Italians still managed to seize part of the Tri Santi position. Even then the Austrians reacted quickly, retaking several key positions in night attacks.

In other sectors the usual problems of coordination led to ruinously heavy casualties but the Italians grimly refocused their efforts. They shifted artillery from sector to sector and their methodical battering of Austrian positions enabled gradual progress. In some sectors intense shelling prevented either side from holding the objective. The attack on the Asiago Plateau was even less successful, with heavy rain disrupting the preparatory bombardment and Austrian machine guns slaughtering the fanti struggling through the mud and barbed wire. An Alpini captain described the aftermath: ‘the mountain is infinitely taciturn, like a dead world, with its snowfields soiled, the shell-craters, the burnt pines. But the breath of battle wafts over all – a stench of excrement and dead bodies.’ With typical petulance, Cadorna was furious with the slow progress of some units and blamed everyone but himself for the inadequacies of his own plan.

To launch the second phase of the battle, on to the Bainsizza Plateau, the Italians fired a million shells in 10 hours – approximately 20 shells for every foot of the front line. Dust and smoke from the intense bombardment covered the advancing infantry and major gains were made wherever the artillery were able to dominate the battlefield. The Austrians retained the key observation posts and utilised units released from the Eastern Front, using more flexible tactics and working more closely with their artillery support, to counter-attack and many of the Italian gains were lost. During the savage fighting both sides expended prodigious amounts of ammunition – the Austrian Fifth Army fired almost 2 million shells during the battle – a rate of expenditure that Austria’s industrial base could not support.

After a short pause, during which Cadorna displayed a ruthless disregard for the simmering discontent within the army, the Italians began planning the Eleventh Battle, which Cadorna described as a ‘general simultaneous attack’. The Second and Third Armies would take both Gorizia and the entire Bainsizza Plateau before capturing Tolmein, the Austrian Isonzo army’s main railhead. However, even if Cadorna’s plan succeeded, the Bainsizza was a rugged wilderness that would prove a poor basis for a fresh offensive, and Boroevic´ recognised this flaw in the plan for the eleventh Italian offensive far better than did his Italian opposite number. The Italians massed 3, 750 guns and 1,900 mortars, almost three times the Austrians’ total (450 heavy guns and 1,250 field and mountain guns), and four times the ammunition; the artillery duel would be the largest on that front. The barrage commenced on 18 August with the Italian guns, howitzers and mortars mercilessly hammering the entire front line. The quality of the artillery preparation was higher than in earlier battles and there were a small number of Allied batteries supporting the attack. In some sectors the defenders were rapidly cut off from headquarters and the defending corps commanders found it difficult to coordinate counter-attacks or to update the Isonzo army’s headquarters on the progress of the battle. Elsewhere the difficult terrain and poor Italian planning gave the Austrians enough time to reorganise and prevent a breakthrough.

Weak planning left the Italians unable to capitalise on their gains. Despite their collapsing defences, the Austrians could choose to withdraw or to feed troops into the meat-grinder. Boroevic´ was assured by the High Command that a counter-offensive was being planned and commenced a series of skilful Austrian withdrawals that delighted the Italians but ensured that he was able to consolidate on new positions on the eastern edge of the plateau. The end result was that the Italians secured most of the Bainsizza Plateau but stalled in front of Boroevic´’s new position, unsure of how to proceed. Monte Santo was taken by coup de main but desperate assaults on San Gabriele by massed columns were torn apart by artillery and machine-gun fire. Desperate counter-attacks, supported by heavy artillery, prevented the last of the Tri Santi from falling; the mountain is said to have lost 10 metres in altitude due to the near-continuous bombardment by guns of calibres of up to 420mm. Angelo Gatti, a staff officer in the supreme command, described his mounting despair: ‘I feel something collapsing inside me; I shall not be able to endure this much longer, none of us will; it is too gigantic, truly limitless, it will crush us all.’ The Austrians looked as if they had suffered a major defeat but, after Cadorna’s grimly pyrrhic victory, the tide was about to turn.

There are excellent British sources on the quality of the Italian artillery at this stage of the war. Lieutenant Hugh Dalton served with the B2 Heavy Artillery Group assigned to the Isonzo sector while Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Moberly commanded B1 Heavy Artillery Group. Dalton was particularly impressed with the individual technical skills of the Italian artillery and their incomparable mountain engineers but noted that local commanders were very keen to secure Royal Artillery support. While the total number of shells appears impressive on the Isonzo Front, Dalton noticed that the ammunition levels were lower than those in France and Flanders and noted that this was reflected in the rates of fire, RA ‘ordinary’ rate being 30 rounds per hour, five times Italy’s fuoco normale. Dalton also noted that the proportion of heavy guns was one quarter of what he had experienced in France. The abundance of good observation post sites astonished the Royal Artillery officers. Depending on the sector, there were kavernen, mountain huts or treetop hides, all under cloudless skies. Such luxury delighted one of Dalton’s colleagues, who gleefully described Italy as a ‘gunner’s heaven’. The no. 101 fuse was almost as effective as the no. 106 in Italy due to the impact advantage of hitting solid rock. Wire-clearing was relatively simple but a great deal of fire was required to destroy rockhewn trenches or kavernen – Moberly and his Italian colleagues naturally preferred enfilade fire to lobbing shells straight into the enemy’s defensive line and both Dalton and Moberly were impressed by the ‘man-killing’ effect of high explosive in the mountains (as at Gallipoli, the rocky terrain increased the effectiveness of the artillery).

Moberly was equally impressed by the Italian engineers but rather less impressed with the higher levels of command. The lack of telephone wire for communications surprised him, particularly as the observations posts that had so impressed Dalton tended to be distant from the battery and thus required even more wire than usual. Italian HAG equivalents, the raggruppamenti, were allotted to sectors, not to particular assault or defensive units, and Moberly was surprised by the fact that there was no expectation that he would meet with the commander of the division he was supporting. During the first operation supported by B1, Moberly noted the Italians were still grappling with technical issues that had been identified and solved on the Western Front years before, particularly regarding communication between the assault units and the supporting artillery, a situation aggravated by the smoke and dust created by the bombardment obscuring the target. He was also troubled by the lack of specific missions assigned to his men and the concentration on planned but uncoordinated support for attacks.

Moberly noted that the ineffectiveness of Italian counter-battery fire was due to the HAGs assigned to the task being allocated to army and not corps command and thus lacking tactical coordination in the battles. As a result the counter-battery staff soon lost touch with the progress of the battle and found it difficult to coordinate fire. Moberly even received orders to shell positions that his own observation posts had reported as silent for days. Commando Supremo had made counter-battery work a priority for ammunition allocation, but had not realised that numbers did not equal results. Counter-battery orders criss-crossed the chain of command, bypassing the heavy artillery raggruppamenti and going to the field artillery groupes, a system that naturally led to some confusion and to errors that made counter-battery fire ineffective. Attempts to solve problems created others: the deliberate simplification of orders, for example, speeded up their transmission across scratchy telephone lines, but sometimes led to requests for a handful of shells so even a timely request lacked enough power. The only aspect that impressed Moberly was that counter-battery officers spent four days out of every eight at front-line observation posts and thus established a close relationship with the Forward Observation Officers.

75-mm field gun – Cannone da 75/27 modello 11

Italian Field Artillery

Although its Turin Arsenal manufactured a limited number of mountain guns, before World War I, Italy acquired its artillery from foreign sources, including Krupp of Germany, the Austro – Hungarian Skoda factory, and the French Deport firm. These included the Krupp-designed 75mm 75/27 Mo. 06, which also saw service in World War II, and the 75mm Gun Mo. 11 Deport. Designed by the prolific Colonel Albert Deport of France and adopted in 1912, the 75mm Gun Mo. 11 Deport introduced a dual recoil system as well as the split trail carriage. The latter innovation incorporated twin hinged trails that could be closed for limbering and then spread apart to stabilize the piece and allow greater recoil at higher elevation. The Mo. 11 was acquired by other powers as well as Italy, and the split trail carriage quickly became the standard for nearly all field pieces worldwide.

Italy also fielded the 75mm Gun Mo. 06/12 and a howitzer designated the Obice da 100/17 Mo. 14. An Austro-Hungarian design, the quick – firing caliber 100mm Mo. 14 howitzer was adopted in 1914, and numbers were also captured from the Central Powers at the end of World War I. The 100/17 saw extensive Italian service during World War II and was also used by Polish and Romanian forces.

Cannone da75/27 modello 11

Although the Cannone da75/27 modello 11 was designed by a Frenchman it was produced only in Italy and may thus qualify as an Italian weapon. The designer was named Deport, who conceived the idea of a recoil mechanism that could stay fixed in a horizontal plane while the barrel could be elevated to any angle desired. The advantages of this system are rather obscure, but the Italian army certainly took to the idea to the extent that they produced the modello 11 in large numbers.

The modello 11 was a relatively small field piece, as a result mainly of the fact that it was originally ordered for cavalry use, In time it was issued to other arms and became a standard field gun, Apart from the unusual (an uncopied) recoil system, the modello 11 also had one other novel feature for its day. This was split trail legs which gave the gun an unusually wide traverse by contemporary standards, and also enabled the barrel to be elevated to a maximum of 65* allowing the gun to be used in mountainous areas if required, In action the trails were spread and instead of the more usual tail spade the legs were held in place by stakes hammered through slots at the end of each. This certainly held the gun steady for firing, but there were two disadvantages to this system. One was that any large change of traverse could not be made until the stakes had been laboriously removed from the ground; the other was that on rocky or hard ground it took time to hammer in the stakes. For all these potential troubles the Italians used the stake securing method on many of their artillery designs, large and small.

The modello 11 was a handy little weapon with a good range; its 10240-m (11200-yard) capability was well above that of many of its contemporaries. However, for its size it was rather heavy, which was no doubt a factor in its change from the cavalry to the field artillery, In action it had a crew of at least four men although a full detachment was six, the extra two looking after the horses.

It is known that some of these guns were used by the Italian maritime artillery militia within the Italian coastal defence organization. The modello 11s appear to have been used as light mobile batteries that could be used for close-in beach defences of likely landing spots. Many of the modello 11s were still in use in this role after 1940, and many other modello 11s were in service with the field arti1lery. In fact so many were still on hand in 1943 that many came under German control, with the designation 7.5-cm Feldkanone 244(i), for use by the German occupation forces in Italy. By that time many modello 11s had been modified for powered traction by conversion of the old wooden spoked wheels to new steel-spoked wheels and revised shields; these modernized equipments used pneumatic tyres.

Specification

Cannone da 75/27

Calibre: 75 mm (2,95 in)

Length of barrel 2.132 m (83.93 in)

Weights: in action 1076 kq (2,372 1b);

Travelling: 1900 kg (4,189 lb)

Elevation: – 15* to +65*

Traverse: 52*

Muzzle velocity: 502 m (1,647 ft) per second

Maximum range: 10240 m ( 11,200 yards)

Shell weight: 6.35 kg (14 lb)

LINK

The Imperial Russian Navy Submarine Program

The DELFIN was a product of the Bubnov committee at the tum of the century and was considered by many as the first true combat submarine in the Russian Navy. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 the DELFIN was employed as a training ship in the St. Petersburg area for officers and men assigned to new construction submarines.

Russian submarine Kasatka.

British journalist Fred T. Jane, writing in 1899 after an extensive tour of naval installations in Russia, observed, “I may, however, mention that the Russians believe very much in underwater craft, and do not regard the submarine battleship as an idle dream.”

This statement, although an exaggeration of the situation in Russia at the time, was indicative of the high degree of interest in submarines among Russian naval authorities at the beginning of the 20th century. The modern Russian submarine fleet in many respects dates from the establishment, on 19 December 1900, of a special submarine committee of the Naval Technical Committee (MTK-Morskoy Technicheskiy Komitet). Its purpose was to evaluate foreign submarine designs and prepare proposals for one that could be constructed for the Russian Navy. The chairman of the submarine committee was the noted engineer Ivan Grigor’evich Bubnov, who would be responsible for most Russian submarine designs until the collapse of the tsarist government in 1917. The other committee members were Lieutenant Mikhail Nikolaevich Beklemishev, a graduate of the Naval Academy in the constructor branch, and mechanical engineer Ivan Semenovich Goryunov. The committee studied projects submitted to the 1898 competition held in Paris, and proposals by the Russian submarine pioneer Dzhevetskiy and the Frenchman Maxime Laubeuf. In 1901 Beklemishev visited the United States, where he became acquainted with the submarine designs of John P. Holland and Simon Lake. He also visited Great Britain, France, and Italy to look at contemporary submarine efforts in those countries.

While the Bubnov committee did its work, Russia’s first submarine of the 20th century was constructed in 1901 at Kronshtadt to the design of engineer Nikolai Nikolaevich Kuteinikov and Lieutenant (later Captain) Evgeniy Viktorovich Kolbas’yev. Their submarine was intended to be carried on deck of surface warships and to be launched when within attack range of enemy ships.

This submersible displaced 20 tons, was 50 feet (15.25 m) long, and had a beam of about 4 feet (1.2 m). Propulsion was provided by electric motors driving six propulsors (screws) with power supplied by six Bary accumulators, which were evenly divided be- tween three forward and three after compartments, as were the ballast tanks. (The hull was divided into nine watertight compartments, a precursor to the arrangement of later undersea craft) The interior of the boat was accessible through a hatch in the conning tower. Both a bow and a stern rudder were fitted. The armament for this craft consisted of two torpedoes mounted in external Dzhevetskiy drop collars. These could be trained and fired from within the boat.

Kuteinikov was responsible for the submarine’s hull and Kolbas’yev for the electrical installations. Upon completion in 1902 this craft was baptized PETR KOSHKA, after a Russian sailor who had distinguished himself during the defense of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. The craft was to be transferred to Sevastopol for trials.

Although it was apparent that the Russian Navy was proceeding with caution with regard to submarine construction and clearly did not intend to invest large sums of money, a number of projects were under some form of official consideration at the beginning of the century. One of these was designed by Dzhevetskiy, who had lived in Paris since 1893. The design had been reviewed at the New Admiralty yard in St. Petersburg for its practicability in 1901, but had been discarded.

In May 1901 the Bubnov committee completed its work and proposed to the Naval Technical Committee the development of a submarine based on the Holland design, with some major design changes coming from Bubnov. These changes principally consisted of situating the main ballast tanks aft and incorporating the Dzhevetskiy drop-collar launching system rather than internally (tube) launched torpedoes. These features would be standard on most submarine designs pre- pared in Russia up to 1915.

Detail design work on the undersea craft recommended by the Bubnov committee began forthwith, and on 5 July 1901 the prototype boat, ultimately named DELFIN, was ordered from the Baltic Works in St. Petersburg. Construction proceeded under great secrecy under the direction of Bubnov and now-Captain Beklernishev. The installation of the DELFIN’S machinery and other equipment was completed by the spring of 1903, and sea trials began on 20 June 1903. They were evidently quite successful.

The DELFIN was considered by the Russians to have been the first true combat submarine in their Navy. After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 the DELFIN was employed as a training ship in the St. Petersburg area for officers and men assigned to new construction submarines.

By mid-1903 a Dzhevetskiy submarine design of some 800 tons appears to have been under consideration or possibly under construction, also at the Baltic Works in St. Petersburg. There is no record that the 800-ton Dzhevetskiy boat was completed, if indeed she was actually begun. This particular unit was stilI listed in the 1909 edition of the German yearbook Nauticus, although by that time it had certainly ceased to exist.

In commenting on the Russian Navy’s attitude toward submarines at this time, the German naval attaché in St. Petersburg noted, “Although perhaps at the moment there are only limited funds available, I would like to bring to your attention that perhaps with the exception of some problems still to be resolved there will be no further delays in ordering submarines. There is a highly favorable attitude towards this new weapon in the officer corps as well as among the engineers, reinforced by the belief that both types are truly Russian inventions.

In this vein, encouraged by the success of the DELFIN, the Naval Ministry on 13 August 1903 ordered the development of a design for a larger submarine. On 20 December 1903, the Naval Technical Committee approved the design of the KASATKA class of 140 tons prepared by the team of Bubnov and Beklemishev. It was at the same time also agreed to construct ten sub- marines of this design through 1914. The lead unit, named KASATKA (swallow), was ordered from the Baltic Works on 2 January 1904, further establishing that shipyard as the premier Russian submarine builder.

The next four units were ordered from the Baltic Works on 24 February 1904, with a sixth, funded by public subscription, ordered on 26 March 1904. These submarines were:

SKAT (ray)

NALIM (burbot)

MAKREL (mackerel)

OKUN’ (perch)

FELDMARSHAL GRAF SHEREMETEV

Thus, the first five submarines of the class were named for fish, while the sixth remembered a Commander in Chief of Peter the Great’s forces in victories in the Baltic area. The construction of these six submarines was accelerated with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904, and all six units were launched between July and August 1904. Under the pressure of war, the KASATKA was the only unit to be assembled for trials in the Baltic. The other were prepared for transfer in sections by railroad to the Far East.

The initial trials of the KASATKA were not very successful and steering difficulty was noted during the first dive. This was caused by a design fault that had placed the conning tower-and hence the center of buoyancy-too far forward. This stability problem was temporarily solved by adding a second conning tower aft. (Permanent new conning towers were not installed until 1906-1907.) Another defect was that the paraffin engines ordered from Germany had not been ready in time to be installed (and in fact were never delivered). The trouble was that these engines were to have been capable of burning either lamp paraffin or heavy oil. The German Koerting firm was to have provided these engines for the KASATKA as well as the subsequent KARP class. These engines were supposed to be safer than petrol or gasoline engines. However, Koerting had only built small, eight-horsepower engines of this type and had encountered delays in producing the larger engines. A makeshift solution was found for the Russian submarines by instead mounting a small dynamo for charging the storage batteries. Another problem occurred with the KASATKA on 2 October 1904, when it was found that a hatch was not watertight.

In general, however, the trials were sufficiently successful that the KASATKA, SKAT, NALIM. and FELDMARSHAL GRAF SHEREMETEV were loaded for transport by train to Vladivostok on 17 November 1904. Completion of the two remaining submarines was delayed until 1907.

During 1905 the small experimental submarine KETA was constructed by the engineering works of G. A. Lessner in St. Petersburg. This was a modified and lengthened Dzhevetskiy Type III craft, designed by a Lieutenant S. Yanovich. The craft was propelled by a gasoline engine driving one propeller shaft, and could be armed with two torpedoes. The KETA was also transferred to the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War. She was apparently not successful and was stricken from the Navy list on 19 June 1908.

Soviet Aircraft Shot Down by Stingers

Mujahedeen rebels aim US-made Stinger missiles near Gardez, Afghanistan.

Afghan guerrillas own a downed Soviet Mi-8B helicopter gunship, near the Salang Highway, a vital supply route north from Kabul to the Soviet border. Picture released on January 12, 1981.

There are many claims about the impact of the Stinger Missile given to the Mujahedin during the Soviet – Afghan War. Some of the lost aircraft were shot down by the Redeye missile. Redeye was an earlier IR missile.

AIRCRAFT SHOT DOWN

What is known is that during the war, the Soviets lost about 330 helicopters and around 120 jets during the entire war 1979 – 89.

Mil Mi-24’s SHOT DOWN

A total of 50 Hinds were lost during the entire war. While many were shot down, the type of missile used was not always known. The Stinger was delivered to the Mujahedin in September 1986. The first confirmed downing of a Mi-24 by a Stinger was done by engineer Ghaffar, of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. He brought down the first Hind gunship with a Stinger on September 25, 1986 near Jalalabad

Here are the losses of the Mi 24 during 1986–89.

1986

    25 September 1986 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    19 October 1986 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down.

    29 November 1986 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    29 November 1986 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

1987

    12 January 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    27 February 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    21 April 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    18 May 1987 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down.

    31 May 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    4 June 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    9 June 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    1 July 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    15 July 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    29 September 1987 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    30 October 1987 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down.

1988

    16 February 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down

    26 February 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down

    29 February 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter shot down

    18 April 1988 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    20 April 1988 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    21 August 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter shot down

    27 August 1988 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

    30 September 1988 – An Mi-24 attack helicopter was shot down

1989

    2 February 1989 – An Mi-24 assault helicopter was shot down.

ANALYSIS

If they cannot recover wreckage they mark it as “destroyed by PZRK”, PZRK mean manpad SAM, which could be one of four – Soviet Strela, China NH5, Egypt Eye Sakr or American Stinger.

I propose 12 certain kills by Stingers and around ten more possible kills, so ~22 in total. Even if we assume all PZRK kill after 1986 made by Stinger it gives us 31 max.

What the above shows is that upon delivery of the Stinger Missile to the Mujahedin there was an increase in the number of Mi-24’s shot down. In the last four years of the war at least 25 of these gunships were brought down. As you can see this represents half of the total number of Mi-24’s brought down during the war and they were all shot down after the Stinger was delivered to the Mujahedin.

There were a total of 269 Soviet Aircraft losses after September 1986 when the Stinger Missile was first given to the Mujahedin. The Mujahedin gunners claim they were able to score these 269 kills out of 340 engagements, a roughly 70% hit rate while using the Stinger. If this report is accurate, then the Stinger was responsible for over half of the Soviet Aircraft losses during the entire war.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and after the war, many of the Stingers found their way to other countries. The US had attempted to buy back the Stingers but at least 600 remained unaccounted for.

References:

List of Soviet aircraft losses during the Soviet–Afghan War – Wikipedia

Mil Mi-24 (Hind) Armed Assault Gunship / Attack Helicopter – Soviet Union

FIM-92 Stinger – Wikipedia

‘A fighting war with the main enemy’: How the CIA helped land a mortal blow to the Soviets in Afghanistan 32 years ago

Afghanistan: Kabul Confirms New Effort To Buy Back U.S.-Built Stinger Missiles

Afghanistan

THE CHANNEL AIR WAR: SUMMER 1940 I

A German twin propelled Messerschmitt BF 110 bomber, nicknamed “Fliegender Haifisch” (Flying Shark), over the English Channel, in August of 1940.

After Dunkirk, the rhetoric of Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it seem as though the fighters of the Royal Air Force had snatched a victory out of the overall tide of defeat that had swept away the British Expeditionary Force. The reality was somewhat different; the losses sustained by RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe during the evacuation phase were about even, while the French campaign as a whole had cost Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s Command 453 Hurricanes and Spitfires.

While Fighter Command strove to make good its losses during June 1940, Bomber and Coastal Commands both stepped up their offensive operations against enemy targets. In Coastal Command’s case, this involved intensifying attacks on enemy shipping, with particular reference to convoys, off the Dutch coast; night attacks were also made by Lockheed Hudsons on Dutch oil targets and harbour installations. Bomber Command, while concentrating on attacking communications and oil targets in Germany, and on minelaying activities, also carried out limited attacks on coastal targets in the Channel area; on the night of 13/14 June, for example, Handley Page Hampdens bombed the docks at Boulogne and Dunkirk.

From 5 June, the Luftwaffe was also active, small numbers of bombers attacking ‘fringe’ targets on the east and south-east coasts of England. These attacks caused little significant damage; their main purpose was to provide the German bomber crews with operational and navigational experience. On both sides, great care was exercised in avoiding damage to civilian property and loss of life. As one Ju 88 pilot, Kapitän Hajo Herrmann, later recorded:

We were allocated important strategic and military targets off the east coast of England, the oil refineries at Thames Haven and the nitrogen works at Billingham [the latter in the north-east of England]. We dive-bombed them under a full moon, with strict instructions either to bring our bombs home or look for shipping targets if we were unable to identify our main target quite clearly. I always flew on ahead and gave the others clearance to attack only after I had recognised the target positively and had put down one or two benzol bombs.

Many coastal reconnaissance and minelaying operations were undertaken in the Channel area during this phase by Heinkel He 115 floatplanes.

On 30 June, the C-in-C of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, issued a general directive setting out the aims of the planned air assault on Britain. The Luftwaffe’s main target was to be the Royal Air Force, with particular emphasis on its fighter airfields and aircraft factories; as long as Fighter Command remained unbeaten, the Luftwaffe’s first priority must be to attack it by day and night at every opportunity, in the air and on the ground, until it was destroyed. Only then would the Luftwaffe be free to turn its attention to other targets, such as the Royal Navy’s dockyards and operational harbours, as a preliminary to invasion.

On 3 July the Luftwaffe carried out its first daylight attacks on the English coast. Among other targets, the forward airfield at Manston in Kent was attacked by a small force of Dornier Do 17s, which came in at low level and dropped anti-personnel bombs on the landing area. The only damage was to a lawnmower. On the following day the Germans began flying fighter sweeps over south-east England. Dowding and the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, refused to be drawn, and it was not until 7 July that there was serious skirmishes, the RAF losing six aircraft and the Luftwaffe five. Three of the aircraft were Spitfires of No. 65 Squadron from Hornchurch, bounced by Messerschmitt 109s.

On the morning of 10 July – the date generally accepted as marking the start of the Battle of Britain – a Dornier Do 17P reconnaissance aircraft of 2/Fernaufklärungsgruppe 11 sighted a large coastal convoy off the North Foreland, heading south-west for the Straits of Dover. Although escorted by Me 190s of I/JG 51, the Dornier was attacked and severely damaged by Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron from Manston, eventually crash-landing near Boulogne with the loss of three of its four crew. But the damage had been done, and the Germans were now fully alerted to the passage of the convoy, code-named Bread.

At about 1030, a Staffel of Me 109s appeared over the Channel, sweeping parallel to the Kentish coast. Nine Spitfires were scrambled from Biggin Hill to intercept them and, in a brief but inconclusive engagement, one Spitfire of No. 610 Squadron was hit in the port wing and had to make an emergency landing at Hawkinge.

The main action began after 1330, when the CH radar station at Dover detected a build-up of considerable size behind Cap Gris Nez and passed on the information to HQ No. 11 Group at Uxbridge. As the enemy force – consisting of 24 Dornier 17s of KG 2, closely escorted by 20 Me 110s of ZG 26 Horst Wessel, with a similar number of Me 109s of JG 51 flying top cover – was plotted leaving the enemy coast, five squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires were scrambled to intercept. In the battle that followed one Me 109 was shot down into the Thames Estuary and two more crash-landed in France after sustaining damage. The twin-engined Me 110 Zerstörer, which had performed well against inferior opposition over Poland and France, suffered heavily; ZG 26 lost three aircraft over Folkestone and two more were damaged by RAF fighters as they fled across the Channel. Of KG 2’s Dorniers, two were destroyed – one when a Hurricane of No. 111 Squadron collided with it – and three others were damaged.

The RAF’s only combat loss during the action was Hurricane P3671 of No. 111 Squadron, which had collided with the Dornier whilst under attack by a 109 of JG 51, losing a wing. The pilot, Flying Officer T.P.K. Higgs, baled out but was killed. Three other 111 Squadron Hurricanes were damaged, one by friendly fire; three Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron also received damage, and although some of the RAF fighters had to make crash-landings their pilots were unhurt and all the aircraft were repairable.

The determined RAF fighter attacks, together with some accurate anti-aircraft fire – especially at Dover, where the barrage was radar-directed – had made it impossible for the Dorniers to make a co-ordinated attack on the convoy, although they did succeed in sinking one small ship. Away to the west, however, the Luftwaffe enjoyed better fortune.

While the attack on the Bread convoy was still in progress, 63 Junkers Ju 88s of Luftflott 3 approached the Cornish coast from the west, confusing the radar controllers at Dry Tree, on Lizard Point. Splitting up, the enemy force attacked Falmouth and Swansea, its bombs falling on railways, ships at anchor and a munitions factory, causing 86 casualties. It was a grim foretaste of what the population of southern England would suffer in the weeks to come, and to make matters worse the raiders escaped unscathed. Because of the radar confusion, Spitfires of No. 92 Squadron were not scrambled from Pembrey in time to make an interception; in fact, the only RAF pilot to come near the Ju 88s was Wing Commander Ira (‘Taffy’) Jones, the World War I ace with 40 recorded victories. Taking-off from a training airfield in an unarmed Hawker Henley target tug, he chased a Ju 88 out to sea, firing Very flares at it and doubtless cursing his lack of guns and ammunition. Jones’ exploit reinforced the view of many Fighter Command pilots that the Henley – originally developed as a fast light bomber, but never used in that role – might have been used to good effect against enemy bombers if fitted with machine-guns. Capable of nearly 300mph (480kmh), it would at least have taken some of the strain from the hard-pressed Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons. About 200 were in service in 1940.

Thursday 11 July saw more fierce fighting over the Channel; when the day ended the Luftwaffe had lost 15 aircraft to the RAF’s six. It was on this day that the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber entered the battle, with aircraft of LG 1 and StG 2 attacking Portland. Two Stukas were shot down, and the inferiority of their escorting Me 110s was again demonstrated in dramatic fashion when four were shot down by RAF fighters, two off Portland and one off the Ney Breakwater. The fourth crash-landed at Grange Heath near Lulworth after being attacked by pilots of Nos. 238, 87 and 601 Squadrons, in that order. All the Me 110s belonged to 9/ZG 76.

Not all the successes of 11 July belonged to Fighter Command. Early in the morning, an Avro Anson of No. 217 Squadron, based at St Eval in Cornwall, was on patrol over the Channel when the Coastal Command crew sighted a Heinkel He 59 floatplane, the type used by the German air-sea rescue service. It was also found suspiciously close to British coastal convoys from time to time. This example, belonging to Seenotflugkommando 1 and bearing the civil registration D-ASOU, was damaged by the Anson and forced down into the Channel. Its four-man crew took to their dinghy and were later picked up drifting near the Channel Islands; the aircraft was retrieved by the Royal Navy and beached at Walmer Harbour, Kent.

Actions against south coast targets and Channel shipping also resulted in the loss of several Heinkel He 111s on 11 July. I/IKG 1 lost two aircraft and had a third damaged during night operations against coastal towns on 10/11 July, and in the early evening RAF fighters destroyed two Heinkels of KG 55 in an attack on Portsmouth, damaging a third so badly that it was a write-off. The Luftwaffe also lost two Dornier 17s and a Ju 88 during the day’s operations.

The Heinkels suffered even more heavily on 12 July, five being shot down and a sixth damaged beyond repair. All the Heinkels except one, which belonged to KG 26 and was shot down over Aberdeen, were engaged in attacks on convoys off Aldeburgh and Orfordness. Two Dornier 17s and a Ju 88 were also shot down. The fight, however, was not all one-sided; return fire from the bombers – especially the Do 17s – was very accurate, accounting for two Hurricanes destroyed and a number damaged.

Saturday 13 July, was hailed as a major success for the Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron from North Weald, which intercepted a force of Ju 87s and their fighter escort over Portland. The Hurricane pilots claimed the destruction of seven Stukas; in fact, all the enemy dive-bombers returned to base except two which made forced landings in France. One of the Me 110 escorts was shot down and three suffered heavy damage. Elsewhere, Hurricanes of No. 238 Squadron shot down a Dornier 17 reconnaissance aircraft off Chesil Beach, while Spitfires destroyed an Me 109 south of Dover. In the day’s action, No. 56 Squadron lost two Hurricanes and No. 238 Squadron one.

During this phase, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, anxious to preserve his fighter strength, committed the Hurricanes and Spitfires to convoy protection work in relatively small numbers; fighter cover was only increased when a convoy reached the perilous waters of the Dover Straits, although the forward coastal airfields of Fighter Command were reinforced on 19 July, when an improvement in the weather brought expectations of greater enemy activity. In fact, this day proved a black one for the Command, which lost ten fighters against four Luftwaffe aircraft shot down. Six of the RAF aircraft were the hapless Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 141 Squadron from West Mailing, which were bounced by the Me 109s of III/JG 51 off Dover and shot down in flames one after the other. Ten of the squadron’s pilots and air gunners were lost.

There were several major engagements over the Dover Straits during the last days of July, and the entry in the war diary of No. 32 Squadron, operating out of Biggin Hill, is fairly typical of an 11 Group unit during this period:

20 July 1940. Convoy escort, 10 miles east of Dover. At 17.58 hours with 610 Squadron, intercepted a raid on the convoy by about fifty Junkers Ju 87s and Messerschmitt 110s, escorted by Messerschmitt 109Es. Led by S/L Worrall the Squadron shot down six of the enemy (3 Me 110s, 2 Me 109s and one Ju 87) and damaged four others (all Me 109s). One Hurricane was lost but the pilot, F/Lt Bulmer, is reported to have baled out near North Foreland. Sgt Higgins was slightly wounded in the face by splinters from bullets striking his protecting armour.

Also typically, the claims in the above report are wildly exaggerated. In all probability, No. 32 Squadron scored no success that day. No Me 110s were lost on operations, and the five Me 109s confirmed as destroyed were attributed to other fighter squadrons. Nor did the Luftwaffe lose any Ju 87s, although four made forced landings in France with varying degrees of damage. In all, the Germans lost 14 aircraft on 20 July, the RAF nine fighters.

On 25 July the Luftwaffe adopted a change of tactics, sending out strong fighter sweeps to draw the RAF fighters into battle before launching its bomber attacks. As a consequence, 60 Ju 87 Stukas were able to bomb a convoy with impunity while the fighters of No. 11 Group were on the ground refuelling. Later in the day, the convoy was attacked by 30 Ju 88s, escorted by about 50 Me 109s. The attacks continued until 1830 hours; 15 of Dowding’s fighter squadrons were engaged in the course of the day, destroying 16 enemy aircraft for the loss of eight of their own, all Spitfires.

In four weeks of operations over the English Channel, the Luftwaffe had sunk 40,000 tons of British shipping, including three destroyers. Combat losses during the month’s air fighting were Luftwaffe 190, RAF Fighter Command 77, of which 46 were Hurricanes – the aircraft which had borne the brunt of the fighting, and would continue to do so. Fifty RAF fighter pilots were killed or missing, and with German preparations for the invasion of England clearly under way, the loss was serious. It was already apparent that such a continued rate of attrition would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to make good.

There followed a comparative lull lasting a week. Then, on 8 August, Hurricanes were at the forefront of a furious air battle that developed when large formations of Ju 87s, under strong fighter escort, attacked a 250-ship convoy code-named Peewit off the Isle of Wight. One of the Hurricane squadrons involved was No. 145 from Westhampnett, led by Squadron Leader J.R.A. Peel. The RAF pilots were about to engage a Stuka formation when they were themselves bounced by 109s and forced on the defensive. Two of the squadron’s Hurricanes, one of them Peel’s, were shot down; the CO was rescued from the sea off Boulogne. That day’s fighting cost the RAF 15 Hurricanes and Spitfires against 21 enemy aircraft destroyed; it was the biggest loss sustained by Fighter Command since the offensive began. The RAF’s losses for 8 August included a number of aircraft destroyed in air actions over Dover and the Thames Estuary, when six squadrons of Hurricanes and two of Spitfires intercepted two heavy raids carried out under strong fighter escort. Six Hurricanes were lost in these battles, the others claiming six enemy aircraft.

The Peewit convoy, meanwhile, had lost six ships, three sunk by S-boats before dawn and the others by air attack. Several more were damaged. It was the first convoy to attempt a passage through the Dover Straits in daylight since 25 July, in the day of furious action when S-Boats and bombers had sunk or badly damaged 11 out of 21 ships, mostly colliers. Peewit was unfortunate in that the enemy had been alerted to its presence by a newly-completed coastal radar station at Wissant (Ushant), one of several experimental stations that were being set up along the arc of coast from the Friesian Islands to the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was to be some time before the British became aware that radar – or radio locations, as it was still known – was no longer their sole monopoly.

Bad weather frustrated operations on 9 and 10 August, the latter originally scheduled as Adlertag– Eagle Day, the start of the German air offensive proper – but on the 11th four heavy air attacks were launched on Dover and Portland. The Dover raids were intercepted by the Hurricanes of Nos. 1, 17, 32, 56, 85 and 111 Squadrons, which claimed 11 enemy aircraft for the loss of nine of their own, and by the Spitfires of Nos. 64, 65 and 74 Squadrons, which claimed five for the loss of three. Five of the shot-down Hurricanes belonged to No. 111 Squadron, which could claim only one Messerschmitt 109 in return, and worse than the loss of the aircraft was the fact that four of the pilots were killed. The attack on Portland, carried out by Ju 88s with an escort of Me 110s, was broken up by 16 Hurricanes of Nos. 87, 213 and 218 Squadrons, together with ten Spitfires of Nos. 152 and 603; nine enemy aircraft were shot down for the loss of five RAF fighters. There were more skirmishes in the afternoon as the Germans attempted to bomb a convoy, and the day ended with 35 enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of 30 Hurricanes and Spitfires. Since the beginning of July the Luftwaffe had lost 274 aircraft, the RAF 124.

On 12 August, the Luftwaffe switched the weight of its attacks to the coastal radar stations and the forward airfields of Manston, Lympne and Hawkinge. That morning, 24 hours before the main offensive was due to begin, 21 Messerschmitt 109s and 110s took off from Calais-Marck airfield and set course out over the Channel. They belonged to Erprobungsgruppe 210; the only unit of its kind in the Luftwaffe, its aircraft had all been fitted with racks enabling them to carry 500- and 1,000lb (225 and 450kg) bombs. On the previous day the Gruppe had tried out the idea operationally for the first time when 24 Messerschmitts dive-bombed convoy Booty off the Harwich–Clacton coastline, setting two freighters on fire. The German aircraft had been intercepted by the Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron, but all had returned to base.

On the morning of 12 August, Erprobungsgruppe 210’s targets were the radar stations at Dover, Pevensey and Rye. At 1100 hours, Me 110s dropped eight 1,000lb (450kg) bombs on the Pevensey station, while the remainder of the Gruppe attacked the masts at Rye and Dover. Although the bombs caused some damage, 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 30 minutes later by 15 Junkers 88s of KG 51 and KG 54. 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 transmitter’s frequency; the German listening-posts on the other side of the Channel believed that Ventnor was still fully operational. In fact it was only after 11 days of non-stop work that another station was brought into action on the Isle of Wight.

While Ventnor was under attack, around 75 more Ju 88s dive-bombed Portsmouth harbour, Portland and industrial targets in Portsmouth and Southampton, including the Supermarine Spitfire production plant at Woolston. The Ju 88s made their attack through the balloon barrage and intense anti-aircraft fire put up by shore batteries and ships in the harbour. Their bombs caused substantial damage, especially in Portsmouth, and 100 or so casualties. But the attack cost the Luftwaffe dearly; ten Ju 88s failed to return, falling victim either to the anti-aircraft barrage, the Spitfires of No. 152 Squadron or the Hurricanes of No. 213. Five Me 110s and an Me 109, escorting the bombers, were also destroyed.

At noon, the CHL radar station at Foreness, untouched by the morning’s attacks, reported 50 plus hostiles off North Foreland. They were Junkers Ju 87s, and they were searching for two Channel convoys, Agent and Arena. The attack on the latter was successful, the escorting fighters keeping the Spitfires and Hurricanes at arm’s length, and several vessels were sunk or damaged, but the attack on Agent was beaten off, albeit at the cost of four Hurricanes destroyed. All the Ju 87s returned to base.

In parallel with these attacks, a force of Dornier 17s of KG 2 raided the airfield at Lympne with showers of 100lb (45kg) bombs, causing some damage to the hangars, tarmac and buildings. Then, at 1330 hours, it was once again the turn of Erprobungsgruppe 210; 20 Messerschmitts swept across the airfield at Manston and dropped their bombs just as a flight of Spitfires of No. 65 Squadron was preparing to take-off. The Spitfires got airborne amid the exploding bombs and climbed for altitude, but the raiders had gone. Manston was temporarily put out of action. Later that afternoon the German bombers struck at Hawkinge and again at Lympne; both airfields were heavily damaged, and all through the night personnel worked like slaves to repair the cratered runways.

By nightfall on 12 August the Luftwaffe had despatched 300 bombers, with as many escorting fighters, against British targets. The Germans had lost 27 aircraft, the RAF 20; and the main offensive had yet to develop.

THE CHANNEL AIR WAR: SUMMER 1940 II

A formation of low-flying German Heinkel He 111 bombers flies over the waves of the English Channel in 1940.

There was a significant development on 12 August and it had nothing to do with the air battle. Soon after the Luftwaffe completed its attack on the radar stations, heavy-calibre shells from a German long-range battery across the Channel exploded in Dover. It was the town’s first experience of such an attack, but it would not be the last.

During the night, the Luftwaffe carried out several harassing attacks on coastal targets, including the docks at Bristol. During this raid, a Heinkel He 111 of KG 27 crash-landed at Sturminster Marshall, near Wimborne, Dorset, after being abandoned by its crew, who were all taken prisoner. The Heinkel had been attacked by a Blenheim night-fighter equipped with highly secret, and still very experimental, AI radar.

At 0730 the next morning the Luftflotten stood ready to launch the first attacks of Adlertag, but at the last minute H-Hour was postponed because of bad weather. The Dornier 17s of KG 2, however, failed to receive the signal in time; they took off in fog and rain and set course for the English coast without fighter escort. The 55 Dorniers were tracked by radar and Air Vice-Marshal Park scrambled two squadrons of Hurricanes and a squadron of Spitfires, dividing them between the damaged airfields at Hawkinge and Manston and a convoy in the Thames Estuary. He also ordered most of a squadron of Hurricanes to patrol between Arundel and Petworth, leaving behind one section to cover their home base of Tangmere, near Chichester. Lastly, a squadron of Hurricanes orbiting over Canterbury could be called upon to support any of the other units engaging the enemy. Further west the Air Officer Commanding No. 10 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Quintin Brand, scrambled a squadron of Hurricanes to patrol the Dorset coast. Another squadron and a half of Hurricanes were held on immediate readiness at Exeter.

Flying in tight information, just under the cloud base, the Dorniers passed over Eastchurch airfield and unloaded their bombs on the runways, hangars and parked aircraft. At that moment the raiders were attacked by the Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron from Hornchurch, led by Squadron Leader A.G. Malan. One of the Dorniers was shot down and the remainder scattered, climbing towards the clouds. The battle was then joined by the Hurricanes of No. 151 Squadron, under Squadron Leader E.M. Donaldson, followed a few minutes later by the Hurricanes of No. 111 led by Squadron Leader J.M. Thompson, and a fierce air battle developed over the Thames Estuary. By the time the bombers reached the shelter of the clouds four more had been destroyed.

At 1130 hours, 23 Me 110s of Zerstörer-Lehrgeschwader 1 took off from their airfield near Caen with orders to patrol the English south coast near Portland. Although they were picked up by radar as they crossed the French coast near Cherbourg, and although their strength was correctly reported as ‘twenty plus bandits’, the radar could not tell what type of aircraft they were. Since Dowding had given orders that his Spitfires and Hurricanes were to avoid combat with enemy fighters if possible (a fact that had been known to the Germans since late July, thanks to Luftwaffe signals intelligence, which had intercepted transmissions between RAF Sector Controllers and patrolling fighters) the controllers of No. 11 Group would probably not have scrambled any fighter squadrons had they known the identity of the enemy aircraft. In the event three squadrons took off from Tangmere, Warmwell and Exeter to intercept the enemy, and in so doing fell into the very trap that Dowding had been trying to avoid. The Germans planned that when their bombers eventually arrived they would catch the Spitfires and Hurricanes on the ground as they refuelled and re-armed.

The Hurricanes engaged the Me 110s over the coast and the German fighters immediately adopted a defensive circle. Three Hurricanes were forced to break off the action with battle damage, but five Me 110s went down into the sea, and five more returned to France severely hit. The action once again highlighted the heavy, twin-engined Me 110’s vulnerability in combat with lighter, more manoeuvrable fighters, and to make matters worse ZLG l’s mission had failed. The unit had drawn three British fighter squadrons on to itself so that the bombers could slip through according to plan – but the bombers did not come for another three hours, by which time the RAF fighter squadrons were ready for them once more.

At 1500 hours, 52 Junkers 87s of StG 2 took off from their base at Flers to attack RAF airfields in the Portland area. They were escorted by the Me 109s of JG 27. However, southern England was hidden under a blanket of cloud, making a dive-bombing attack out of the question, and the Stukas circled over the coast in search of a target. Within minutes their fighter escort was being hotly engaged by a strong force of Hurricanes from Exeter and Middle Wallop, while 15 Spitfires of No. 609 Squadron attacked the bombers. Five of the Stukas were quickly shot down; the remainder jettisoned their bombs and fled for home.

The next wave of bombers, approaching the coast a few minutes later, ran into the hornets’ nest stirred up by StG 2. They were the Ju 88s of KG 54, and they used the cloud cover to good advantage. One formation dropped its bombs on Southampton harbour, while others dived on the airfield at Middle Wallop, one of Fighter Command’s vital sector stations. The bombs caused only light damage, but severe damage was inflicted by another Ju 88 formation at Andover, a few miles away. Three Ju 88s were shot down and 11 returned with battle damage, some making crash-landings.

Meanwhile, over Kent, No. 11 Group was having a hard time. General Bruno Loerzer’s II Fliegerkorps has sent in both its Stuka-Geschwader, as well as a third from VIII Fliegerkorps, preceded by the Me 109s of JG 26. The Messerschmitts were able to beat off a flight of Spitfires from Kenley, allowing the 86 Junkers 87s to proceed unmolested to their target, the airfield of Detling near Maidstone. Fifteen minutes later the airfield lay in ruins; the hangars were burning, the operations room was wrecked, the station commander was dead and 20 British aircraft were destroyed. It was a brilliant attack, and in terms of its execution was highly successful. But there were no RAF fighters at Detling; it was a Coastal Command station. Nevertheless, among the aircraft destroyed were eight Blenheims of No. 53 Squadron, recently deployed there to carry out attacks on the enemy-held Channel ports.

At the close of Adlertag the Luftwaffe had flown 485 sorties, mostly against RAF airfields; three had been badly damaged, but none was a fighter base. The cost to the Luftwaffe was 34 aircraft; the RAF lost 13 aircraft and seven pilots. On 14 August, operations against the British Isles were hampered by bad weather. Nevertheless, attacks by small numbers of aircraft on Manston, Dover, Middle Wallop and Sealand cost the Luftwaffe bombers and six fighters, while the RAF lost five Hurricanes and a Spitfire, together with three Blenheim fighters of No. 600 Squadron destroyed on the ground during an attack on Manston by Me 110s of Erpobungsgruppe 210.

At 1030 hours on 15 August patches of blue sky began to show through the grey overcast which had stretched from horizon to horizon since dawn, and by 1100 the clouds had broken up completely. A few minutes later, 40 Stukas of II Fliergerkorps, escorted by a similar number of Me 109s, crossed the French coast near Cap Blanc Bez. Their targets were the airfields of Lympne and Hawkinge. As they approached the English coast they were met by the Spitfires of No. 64 Squadron and the Hurricanes of No. 501, but these were held at bay by the 109s and the Stukas caused severe damage at Lympne, putting the airfield out of action for two days. The damage was less severe at Hawkinge, where one hangar was hit and a barrack block destroyed.

The battle now shifted to the north, where two Geschwader of Luftflotte 5, operating from bases in Norway and Denmark, attempted to attack airfields and industrial targets in the Tyne–Tees area and in Yorkshire. The raids were intercepted by seven RAF fighter squadrons, which destroyed eight Heinkel 111s, six Junkers 88s and eight escorting Me 110s for the loss of one Hurricane. In mid-afternoon the battle flared up again in the south, when a major raid was mounted by the Dornier 17s of KG 3 from St Trond and Antwerp-Deurne, in Belgium. Over the coast they made rendezvous with their fighter escort, the Me 109s of JG 51, 52 and 54. The German formation was detected by radar as it assembled over Belgium and northern France, and as it headed across the Channel 11 RAF fighter squadrons – about 130 Spitfires and Hurricanes – were scrambled. Such was the diversity of the incoming raid plots, however, that the fighters were shuttled to and fro by the sector controllers with no real co-ordination. For example, the Hurricanes of No. 17 Squadron were patrolling the Thames Estuary when they received an urgent recall to their base at Martlesham Heath, north of Harwich. While still a long distance away the pilots could see columns of smoke rising from Martlesham, and when they arrived overhead they found that the airfield had been badly hit. Unnoticed and without any opposition, Erprobungsgruppe 210’s 24 bomb-carrying Messerschmitts had slipped in at low level, bombed, and got clear before anyone had a chance to fire a shot. It was 36 hours before the field could be made serviceable once more. Meanwhile, the Dorniers of KG 3 had split into two waves, one heading for Eastchurch and the other for Rochester. At the latter target their bombs caused severe damage to the Short aircraft factory, setting back production of the Stirling bomber by several months.

So far, Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2 had been attacking across the Straits of Dover. Now it was the turn of Sperrle’s Luftflotte 3; 120 miles (190km) to the south-west, his units were forming up over their airfields. At 1645 the Junkers 88s of LG 1 began taking off from Orleans, followed 15 minutes later by the Ju 87s of StG 1 from Cherbourg. The bombers rendezvoused with the Me 109s of JG 26 and JG 53 and the Me 110s of ZG 2, and the whole armada of more than 200 aircraft set course for the English coast.

The Germans, however, had thrown away their tactical advantage. The time elapsing between the raids had enabled Park and Brand to take adequate counter-measures, and to meet the attackers they were able to put up 14 fighter squadrons – a total of 170 aircraft, the biggest number of fighters the RAF had so far committed to the battle at any one time.

The Spitfires and Hurricanes met the bombers over the coast and concentrated on the Ju 88s, destroying nine of them in a matter of minutes and breaking up the enemy formation. Of the 15 aircraft of II/LG 1, only three managed to break through to their target, the Fleet Air Arm base at Worthy Down, north-east of Southampton. The others jettisoned their bombs and turned for home, under continual attack. II/LG 1 lost two Ju 88s, and IV/LG 1 three aircraft out of seven. I/LG 1 was more fortunate. Its 12 Ju 88s had been the first to cross the coast, and had managed to achieve an element of surprise. They dived on Middle Wallop, just a fraction too late to catch two fighter squadrons on the ground. The last Spitfires of No. 609 Squadron were just taking off when the bombs exploded among the hangars. It was the third raid on Middle Wallop in three days. During the attack the German pilots had the impression that they were bombing Andover; apparently they still did not know that Middle Wallop was a much more important sector station.

The fact that the Ju 88s bore the brunt of the RAF fighter attacks probably saved the vulnerable Ju 87 Stukas from a severe mauling. Even so, six were shot down. But it was the Messerschmitt 110 that suffered the worst attrition of the day. While I and III/ZG 76 had been detached to escort the northern attacks, losing eight of their number, the Geschwader’s other units had been operating in support of the cross-Channel operations, during which they lost 12 aircraft. Together with the destruction of an aircraft of ZG 2 over the Channel, this brought Me 110 losses during the morning and afternoon to 21 aircraft, and the day was by no means over.

At 1830 hours, 15 Me 110s and eight Me 109s of Erprobungsgruppe 210 set out over the Channel, escorted by the Me 109s of JG 52. Their target was Kenley, south of London, but they made a navigational error and bombed Croydon by mistake, destroying 40 training aircraft, killing 68 people and injuring 192, mostly civilians. As they were carrying out their attack they were intercepted by the Hurricanes of Nos. 32 and 111 Squadrons and four Me 110s were quickly shot down. The remainder ran for the Channel, but near the coast they were attacked by the Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron and two more were destroyed, together with an Me 109.

As night fell on 15 August, both sides retired to lick their wounds and assess their losses and victories. The Luftwaffe had flown 1,270 fighter and 250 bomber sorties during the day, and the Germans had lost 71 aircraft, mostly bombers and Me 110s. The RAF’s loss was 31.

On 16 August the Luftwaffe returned in force and struck at Brize Norton, Manston, West Mailing, Tangmere, Gosport, Lee-on-Solent, Farnborough and Harwell. Forty-six training aircraft were destroyed at Brize Norton, and the radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight was bombed once more. In the afternoon the weather clamped down again, and although Luftflotte 2 sent out a force of bombers to attack the fighter airfields of Debden, Duxford, North Weald and Hornchurch the raiders were forced to turn back, unable to find their targets under a thick blanket of cloud. Despite the sporadic nature of the fighting, air combats during the day cost the Luftwaffe 44 aircraft and the RAF 22. It was on this day that Flight Lieutenant J.B. Nicholson of No. 249 Squadron, patrolling near Southampton in a Hurricane, was attacked by a Me 110. Cannon shells wounded Nicholson in the leg and eye and set his aircraft on fire, yet he remained in the blazing cockpit and managed to shoot down his attacker before baling out, severely burned. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only one to be won by RAF Fighter Command.

On Sunday 18 August, following another spell of bad weather, the Germans launched a series of heavy attacks on the sector stations of Kenley and Biggin Hill. These attacks were carried out mainly by the Dornier 17s of KG 76, which, despite their fighter escort, suffered heavily, losing six aircraft with several more damaged. Two Ju 88s operating with KG 76 (the Geschwader was in the process of re-equipping with the new type) were also destroyed. The most fearful German loss of the day, however, was sustained by the Ju 87 Stukas of StG 77, which set out to attack the airfields at Ford, Gosport and Thorney Island, together with the radar site at Poley on the south coast. They were intercepted by the Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron and the Spitfires of No. 152, which destroyed no fewer than 18 of the dive-bombers and damaged five more. It was the last time that the Stuka appeared in British skies.

StG 77 was not the only Luftwaffe formation to suffer heavily that day: ZG 26, flying escort missions, lost 15 Me 110s to RAF fighters, while the single-engined fighter Geschwader lost 16 Me 109s between them. KG 53, attacking North Weald, lost four Heinkel 111s. The total Luftwaffe loss for 18 August was 66 aircraft; the RAF lost 35 fighters.

From 19 to 23 August inclusive, air action was confined to skirmishing as both sides rested and regrouped. During this period the Luftwaffe lost 27 aircraft, the RAF 11 fighters. 23 August saw the radar station at Ventnor back in operation again. The weather continued to improve steadily, and the Luftwaffe resumed its attacks on RAF ground installations. The next day, 24 August, North Weald was heavily bombed, together with Hornchurch, Manston and Portsmouth naval base. By noon Manston had ceased to function, although Hornchurch escaped with relatively light damage. The airfield attacks cost the Germans seven Ju 88s and four He 111s. In all, the Luftwaffe lost 30 aircraft during the day, and Fighter Command 20. Among the latter were four Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 264 Squadron, shot down during an engagement over the Channel. Three more Defiants were damaged.

That night, during attacks on targets in the London area, some bomber crews made a navigational error and dropped bombs on London itself – an act that was to have a far-reaching effect on the future conduct of the battle. On the night of 25/26 August, following a day that had seen heavy German raids on Portland, Weymouth, Warmwell and Dover, RAF Bomber Command attacked Berlin for the first time, aiming at industrial targets in the city by way of reprisal for the previous night’s raid on London. The attack was hampered by thick cloud. Of the 81 aircraft despatched (Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens of Nos. 3, 4 and 5 Groups) 29 claimed to have bombed Berlin. Six aircraft, all Hampdens, failed to return; three ditched in the sea and their crews were rescued.

From 1100 on 26 August, fighters of No. 11 Group fought a running battle between Canterbury and Maidstone with 50 bombers escorted by 80 fighters. In this action, No. 616 Squadron lost five out of 12 Spitfires, No. 264 Squadron lost three more Defiants, and No. 1 (Canadian) Squadron three Hurricanes, but an attempted raid on Biggin Hill was broken up. All available squadrons were committed to intercept a further attack by 40 Dornier 17s of KG 2 and KG 3 on Debden and Hornchurch airfields, escorted by 120 fighters; the latter were compelled to withdraw through lack of fuel and the bombers suffered heavily, 11 Dorniers being shot down. A third major attack, by 50 Heinkel 111s of KG 55 escorted by 107 fighters, was intercepted by three RAF squadrons and four bombers were destroyed. The Luftwaffe’s total losses on this day added up to 34 aircraft, and KG 3 had suffered so much attrition that it took no further part in the battle for three weeks.

But the RAF had also suffered heavily, losing 28 fighters and 16 pilots, RAF Fighter Command was now under immense strain, and it was a relief when the weather closed in again on 27 August, bringing a brief respite. There were scattered combats between Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe, but most were interceptions of reconnaissance aircraft. The Germans lost two Dornier 17s and a Heinkel 111 over the British Isles, the latter shot down by anti-aircraft during the night raid on Coventry. The RAF lost one Spitfire through enemy action.

Luftwaffe attacks resumed on 28 August, two heavily-escorted bomber formations crossing the Kent coast soon after 0900. Eastchurch airfield was badly damaged. During the morning’s action the luckless No. 264 Squadron lost three more Defiants, with another three damaged, which brought its losses in three operational sorties to 12 aircraft and 14 aircrew. After this, the Defiant was withdrawn from daylight operations. Later in the day, Rochford was damaged in an attack by 30 Dorniers. Fighter Command accounted for 26 enemy aircraft during the day for the loss of 15 of its fighters, one of which was shot down by friendly fire, and on the following day, when the Germans launched 700 fighter sorties over southern England in an attempt to draw Fighter Command into battle, the score was 12 German aircraft against nine British.

The refusal of Fighter Command to be drawn into action on 29 August encouraged the Germans in the belief that they were well on the way to achieving air supremacy, but although the fighter defences were seriously weakened, they were not worn down nor compelled to withdraw on any large scale from their forward airfields in southern England. The Luftwaffe was still a long way from attaining its primary objective, which was to put Fighter Command out of action in the potential invasion area. Meanwhile, Luftflotte 3 had switched to night bombing on the night of 28/29 August, launching 340 sorties against Merseyside and targets on the south coast. These attacks brought the total number of night sorties mounted against the British Isles so far to 600, during which the Luftwaffe had lost only seven aircraft. It seemed a far more attractive option than the costly daylight raids.

By day, the Germans continued to attack the RAF airfields lying in a defensive semi-circle before London: Kenley, Redhill, Biggin Hill, West Mailing, Detling, Manston and Gravesend to the south-east, and to the north-east Hornchurch, Rochford, Debden and North Weald. On 30 August Biggin Hill was completely wrecked, with 65 personnel killed and wounded, and on the following afternoon this target was hit again.

Despite the damage to the air defences, the oft-quoted thesis that the British fighter defences would have broken down if German air attacks on fighter installations had continued for 14 days longer than they actually did, exaggerates the effects of the German bombing attacks and disregards the overall potential available on either side. As a last resort, Fighter Command could have withdrawn its units from airfields in the southeastern coastal area to bases out of range of German single-engined fighters, or No. 11 Group’s fighters could have been reinforced by the fighters of the other three groups. In either case, the Germans would never have achieved numerical fighter superiority over the southern coastal area because of a simple arithmetical fact: fighter production in Britain was more than double that of Germany.

In fact, the crisis facing Fighter Command as September opened revolved around a shortage of aircrew, rather than a shortage of aircraft. The Command had lost about 300 pilots in the Battle of France, and was still short of 130 pilots at the beginning of August. During that month losses exceeded replacements, the deficit growing to 181. Had the battle not taken place over British soil, the situation might have become critical. From 19 August to 6 September Fighter Command suffered a total loss of 290 aircraft and 103 pilots, while the Luftwaffe, whose aircraft did not go down over friendly territory when hit, lost 375 aircraft and 678 aircrew.

THE CHANNEL AIR WAR: SUMMER 1940 III

There was no doubt that the strain, and the growing number of relatively inexperienced aircrew being committed to the battle – some with as little as 20 hours’ experience on Spitfires or Hurricanes – was beginning to tell on Fighter Command during the last days of August and into September, as the deficit between British and German losses narrowed. To make matters more difficult, the Germans were tightening up their fighter escort procedure. On 1 September, when the Heinkels of KG 1 attacked the docks at Tilbury, its 18 bombers were escorted by three Jagdgeschwader – roughly four fighters to every bomber. All the German aircraft returned to base, having been virtually unmolested by the RAF. The day’s operations cost the RAF 15 fighters, including four Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron, against the Luftwaffe’s nine. The losses contrasted sharply with those sustained during a series of savage air battles on 31 August, when the RAF lost 24 aircraft and the Luftwaffe 28.

The scores were again close on 2 September, when several airfields, including Biggin Hill, Lympne, Detling, Eastchurch (three times), Hornchurch (twice) and Gravesend were heavily attacked, together with the aircraft factory at Rochester and Brooklands aerodrome, adjacent to the vital Hawker and Vickers factories. Fighter Command maintained standing patrols over its sector airfields during the day and lost 23 aircraft against the Luftwaffe’s 26, seven of which were Messerschmitt 110s.

On 3 September the airfield attacks continued, North Weald being very severely damaged, and in the day’s fighting the RAF and Luftwaffe each lost 16 aircraft. Meanwhile, across the Channel, events were taking a new and dramatic turn.

That morning, Reichsmarschall Göring summoned his Luftflotten commanders, Kesselring and Sperrle, to a conference at The Hague. The main item on the agenda was the feasibility of a ‘reprisal’ attack on London; the Luftwaffe Operations Staff had ordered Luftflotten 2 and 3 to prepare such an attack on 31 August, even though there still existed ab order from Adolf Hitler forbidding bombing raids on the capital.

A lack of documentary evidence makes it hard to reconstruct the process leading to the decision to attack London. Hitler’s desire for reprisals following RAF attacks on Berlin, themselves a consequence of the erroneous raid on London in August, certainly played its part, but this is not the whole of the story. Bombing attacks on targets in the London area had been at the core of a plan originated by II Fliegerkorps before the start of the air offensive, the idea being to wear down the British fighters by bringing them to battle over the city, which was within the range of German single-engined fighters. That was one valid reason for attacking the city, although it hinged on another, far less valid one. This was the belief of Luftwaffe Intelligence that Fighter Command only had between 150 and 300 aircraft left early in September, so that the final blow could be delivered to it over London. The head of Luftwaffe Intelligence, Oberst Josef Schmidt, had arrived at this conclusion by simply deducting the wildly exaggerated figures of German combat claims from the originally assumed British fighter strength, at the same time underestimating British fighter production. It was one of the most incredible misconceptions of wartime German intelligence, and yet it was supported by both Göring and Kesselring. It was not supported by Feldmarschall Hugo Sperrle of Luftflotte 3, nor by Luftwaffe Signals Intelligence, which had compiled far more accurate figures for Fighter Command’s strength.

On 4 September, Hitler declared in public that he now wanted to ‘erase’ British cities, and on the following day he gave the order to attack London and other major cities by day and night. The assault on London was to begin in the afternoon of 7 September, and was to be directed mainly against the docks. The city was to be attacked by Luftflotte 2 by day and Luftflotte 3 by night. Simultaneous attacks were to be conducted against armament factories and port installations. Thirty aircraft and armament factories were selected, and attacks on these began on 4 September, in parallel with continuing raids on Fighter Command’s airfields. But from now on, London was the key target, and on that decision rested the outcome of the Battle of Britain.

While the young pilots of Dowding’s Fighter Command fought and died over the Channel and the harvest-fields of southern England, RAF Bomber Command had been waging its own war against the enemy in the Channel and North Sea areas. On 13 July 1940, Bomber Command switched a major part of its efforts to the German invasion preparations in the ports, anchorages and harbours stretching from Delfzijl in the north of Holland to Bordeaux in south-west France. These ports were to be attacked frequently during the four years that were to pass before the Allied invasion of Europe, but the most intensive phase of the air offensive against them – the ‘battle of the Barges’, directed against the armada of small craft assembled by the Germans for the thrust across the Channel – lasted until the end of October 1940.

Aircraft of every Bomber Command Group, as well as Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm, took part in this nightly offensive, the importance of which has to a great extent been eclipsed by the massive air battle that dragged its vapour trails over the skies of southern England during that long summer. But the Battle of Britain was, in the broad sense, a victory for the British bombers too; for although the Hurricanes and Spitfires of Fighter Command denied the Germans the air superiority necessary for a successful invasion, the attacks mounted on the invasion ports were so effective that, even if the Luftwaffe had succeeded in obtaining temporary mastery of the air over southern England, Hitler’s invasion fleet would have been in no position to sail on the planned date.

This was clearly substantiated by the Germans themselves on several occasions. On 12 September, for example, only three days before Operation Sealion was scheduled to take place, HQ Navy Group West sent the following signal to Berlin:

Interruptions caused by the enemy air forces, long-range artillery and light naval forces have, for the first time, assumed major significance. The harbours at Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne cannot be used as night anchorages for shipping because of the danger of English bombing and shelling. Units of the British fleet are now able to operate almost unmolested in the Channel. Owing to these difficulties further delays are expected in the assembly of the invasion fleet.

With the invasion thought to be imminent, Bomber Command launched a maximum effort offensive against the enemy-held ports. On the night of 13/14 September the bombers sank 80 barges in Ostend harbour, and the following night severe damage was inflicted on concentrations of enemy craft at Boulogne. This raid was carried out by the Fairey Battles of the newly-formed Nos. 301 and 305 (Polish) Squadrons, flying their first operational mission. The Battles of Nos. 12, 103, 142 and 150 Squadrons – at full strength again after the losses they had suffered in France – also carried out attacks on the enemy ports during this period. It was the Battle’s swan-song as a first-line aircraft; in October it was withdrawn from operations and replaced by Wellingtons and Blenheims.

On 14 September, Hitler issued a Supreme Command Directive postponing the launch of Operation Sealion until 17 September. On the morning of the 16th, however, the German Naval War Staff once again reported that the invasion ports had been subjected to heavy bombing:

In Antwerp considerable casualties have been inflicted on transports. Five transport steamers in the port have been heavily damaged; one barge has been sunk, two cranes destroyed, an ammunition train has blown up, and several sheds are burning.

There was worse to come. On the night of 16/17 September, only hours before the crucial German Supreme Command conference that was to decide whether or not the invasion would take place, a force of Blenheims and Battles surprised a strong concentration of enemy landing craft in the open sea off Boulogne. Several barges and two transports were sunk, with heavy loss of life. The vessels had been engaged in an invasion training exercise. German bodies, washed up on the English Channel coast later, gave rise to rumours that an invasion had actually been attempted.

On that same night the RAF also struck at the whole coastal area between Antwerp and Le Havre, and this prompted the German Naval Staff to report the following day that:

The RAF are still by no means defeated; on the contrary, they are showing increasing activity in their attacks on the Channel ports and in their mounting interference with the assembly movements.

This statement was underlined by Bomber Command on the night of 17/18 September when, in full moonlight conditions, every available aircraft pounded the Channel ports and caused the worst damage so far to the invasion fleet. Eighty-four barges were sunk or damaged at Dunkirk alone, while elsewhere a large ammunition dump was blown up, a supply depot burned out and several steamers and MTBs sunk. The next day, the Naval Staff report made gloomy reading:

The very severe bombing, together with bombardment by naval guns across the Channel, makes it necessary to disperse the naval and transport vessels already concentrated on the Channel and to stop further movement of shipping to the invasion ports. Otherwise, with energetic enemy action such casualties will occur in the course of time that the execution of the operation on the scale previously envisaged will in any case be problematic.

On 19 September, four days after the great air battle over London and southern England that would henceforth be marked as Battle of Britain Day, and which cost the Luftwaffe 56 aircraft, Hitler ordered the invasion fleet assembled in the Channel ports to be dispersed so that ‘the loss of shipping space caused by enemy air attacks may be reduced to a minimum.’ Operation Sealion had been postponed indefinitely, and Hitler’s preoccupation now was with the projected attack on the Soviet Union.

Between 15 July and 21 September, according to German naval sources, the British air offensive sank or damaged 21 transports and 214 barges in the Channel ports, about 12 per cent of the total invasion fleet. These figures should be treated with some reservation, as even at this stage of the war the Germans were in the habit of playing down their actual losses in confidential reports to the Supreme Command. The actual loss, in terms of both men and material, was probably higher, but even the figure of 12 per cent is sufficient testimony that the bombing effort during those crucial weeks was far from wasted.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the effort against the Channel ports was grossly under-estimated by the War Cabinet. Churchill in particular expressed disappointment at the results of the attacks, as revealed by air reconnaissance, in a minute to the Air Minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, on 23 September:

What struck me about these [reconnaissance] photographs was the apparent inability of the bombers to hit very large masses of barges. I should have thought that sticks of explosive bombs thrown along these oblongs would have wrought havoc, and it is very disappointing to see that they all remained intact and in order, with just a few apparently damaged at the entrance.

Churchill did not take into account the fact that many of the barges, although apparently intact, had been made unseaworthy by damage that the photographs did not show. The bomber crews who were over the ports night after night knew that they were sinking the barges faster than anyone had thought possible. The only question in their minds was whether they were sinking them fast enough to thwart the invasion if Fighter Command were annihilated.

The ports were easy to find, but they were not an easy target. Light flak was plentiful and losses were heavy. The anti-aircraft defences were particularly strong around Antwerp, and it was while attacking this target on the night of 15/16 September 1940, that Sergeant John Hannah, one of the crew of a Hampden of No. 83 Squadron, carried out an act of great courage that won him the Victoria Cross. The citation tells the story.

On the night of 15 September 1940, Sergeant Hannah was the wireless operator/air gunner in an aircraft engaged in a successful attack on an enemy barge concentration at Antwerp. It was then subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire and received a direct hit from a projectile of an explosive and incendiary nature, which apparently burst inside the bomb compartment. A fire started which quickly enveloped the wireless operator’s and rear gunner’s cockpits, and as both the port and starboard petrol tanks had been pierced there was a grave risk of fire spreading. Sergeant Hannah forced his way through to obtain two extinguishers and discovered that the rear gunner had had to leave the aircraft. He could have acted likewise, through the bottom escape hatch or forward through the navigator’s hatch, but remained and fought the fire for ten minutes with the extinguishers, beating the flames with his log book when these were empty.

During this time thousands of rounds of ammunition exploded in all directions and he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, but had the presence of mind to obtain relief by turning on his oxygen supply. Air admitted through the large holes caused by the projectile made the bomb compartment an inferno and all the aluminium sheet metal on the floor of this airman’s cockpit was melted away, leaving only the cross bearers. Working under these conditions, which caused burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah succeeded in extinguishing the fire. He then crawled forward, ascertained that the navigator had left the aircraft, and passed the latter’s log and maps to the pilot.

This airman displayed courage, coolness and devotion to duty of the highest order and by his action in remaining and successfully extinguishing the fire under conditions of the greatest danger and difficulty, enabled the pilot to bring the aircraft to its base.

The Royal Air Force was not alone in its campaign against the German invasion forces that were assembled mainly in the ports of Dunkirk, Ostend, Calais and Boulogne. Whenever possible, even though operating conditions in the Channel had become very difficult because of air attack, the Royal Navy took the opportunity to strike at shipping movements off the enemy coast. On 8 September 1940, for example, three motor torpedo boats, MTB 14, MTB 15 and MTB 17, set out from Dover to attack a German convoy of about 30 small vessels approaching Ostend. Two of the boats, MTBs 15 and 17, entered Ostend harbour under cover of darkness and an RAF air raid and launched their torpedoes, hitting two vessels. Exactly what they hit was never established, but it was the first successful MTB torpedo attack of the war.

On the night of 10/11 September, a striking force comprising the destroyers Malcolm, Veteran and Wild Swan set out to patrol the Channel off Ostend, which was again under air attack, when radar contact was made with an enemy convoy. Soon afterwards, the destroyers made visual contact with the enemy, aided by the light of flares dropped by the RAF, and opened fire, sinking an escort vessel, two trawlers that were towing barges, and a large barge.

Offensive sweeps of this kind were a regular feature during September 1940, when the threat of invasion was at its height, the naval forces usually operating from Harwich or Portsmouth; the Dover destroyer force had been dispersed, having suffered substantial damage through air attack. At the same time, aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, operating from bases in south-east England, joined the RAF in maintaining pressure on the enemy invasion ports.

The biggest guns the Navy could bring to bear on the enemy coast were mounted in two warships of World War I vintage, the battleship Revenge and the monitor Erebus. Both mounted 15-inch guns, the Erebus being fitted with a twin turret bearing her main armament and also with four twin 4 inch and two single 3 inch AA guns. She carried a crew of 300. On 20 September she set out from Sheerness to bombard the German gun battery at Cap Gris Nez, but the sortie had to be abandoned because of bad weather. On 30 September, however, she fired 17 rounds into a concentration of invasion craft in the Calais docks area, the fire being directed by a Fairey Swordfish spotter aircraft. On the following day, the German battery at Wissant fired precisely the same number of rounds at Dover by way of retaliation.

On 10 October it was the turn of HMS Revenge, the old battleship – armed with eight 15-inch guns – sailing from Plymouth with a screen of 5th Flotilla destroyers: Jackal, Kipling, Jupiter, Jaguar, Kashmir and Kelvin. The cruisers Newcastle and Emerald were also at sea, protecting the western flank, while a flotilla of six MTBs sailed from Portland to provide a screen against S-boats. Revenge’s target was Cherbourg, and for 18 minutes, beginning at 0333 on 11 October she laid a barrage of 120 15-inch shells across the crowded harbour, to which was added a total of 801 4.7 inch shells from the seven escorting destroyers. The resulting conflagration could be seen 40 miles (64km) out to sea. The British force reached Spithead at 0800 without damage, despite being shelled for the best part of 10 miles (16km) by a German heavy battery.

On 16 October HMS Erebus, escorted by the destroyers Garth and Walpole, again bombarded the French coast in the vicinity of Calais with the aid of spotter aircraft. Forty-five salvoes were fired, beginning at 0100, before the British force withdrew. Neither Erebus nor Revenge made any further sorties of this kind, even though the British heavy gun defences on the Channel coast in October were still pitifully weak. The pre-war heavy gun strength on the Straits of Dover, comprising two 9.2 inch and six 6 inch guns, had been reinforced during the summer by one 14 inch, two 6 inch and two 4 inch guns, all Naval weapons, together with a pair of 9.2 inch guns on railway mountings; and in October these were further reinforced by two 18.5 inch guns from the old depot ship Iron Duke, also on railway mountings, and a battery of four 5.5 inch guns from HMS Hood. Further heavy gun batteries, at Fan Bay, South Foreland and Wanstone, would not become operational until a much later date, by which time the invasion threat had passed.

While the British strove to disrupt enemy invasion plans, German destroyers were extremely active in the Channel area during September and October 1940, laying minefields to protect the flanks of their projected cross-Channel invasion routes and also making hit-and-run sorties against British shipping. One particularly successful sortie was undertaken on the night of 11/12 October by the German 5th Flotilla from Cherbourg, comprising the destroyers Greif, Kondor, Falke, Seeadler and Wolf. They sank the armed trawlers Listrac and Warwick Deeping with gunfire and torpedoes, and shortly afterwards destroyed the Free French submarine chasers CH6 and CH7, manned by mixed French and Polish crews. The German ships withdrew safely; although they were engaged by the British destroyers Jackal, Jaguar, Jupiter, Kelvin and Kipling, the latter achieved nothing more spectacular than several near misses. Another inconclusive action was fought between British destroyers of the 5th Flotilla, supported by the light cruisers Newcastle and Emerald, and enemy destroyers off Brest on 17 October, with no damage suffered by either side. The British warships came under air attack during the operation, the most serious threat coming from a flight of very determined RAF Blenheims whose crews had clearly not been trained in warship recognition!

November 1940 saw a resurgence of air attacks on British shipping by Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, which had been standing by at their airfields in the Pas de Calais to lend tactical support to Operation Sealion, now postponed. Their area of operations was the Thames estuary, where British convoys were assembling, and between 1 and 11 November they sank one merchant vessel and damaged six more. On 14 November they attacked targets in the Dover area, destroying a drifter and damaging three more vessels, but these missions marked the Stuka’s swansong over the British Isles.

There was a further destroyer action on 27/28 November 1940, when the British 5th Destroyer Flotilla intercepted an enemy flotilla from Brest. In the ensuing engagement the destroyer HMS Javelin was hit by two torpedoes, which blew off her bows and stern and detonated the ammunition in her magazine, destroying her superstructure as well as killing three officers and 43 ratings. Amazingly, she remained afloat and was towed into harbour, to spend 13 months in dock being virtually rebuilt. She eventually returned to operations and went on to survive the war.

Notwithstanding actions such as these, it was enemy mines that accounted for the highest proportion of British shipping losses in the closing months of 1940. Of the 42 Royal Navy vessels lost in the Channel area between 1 September 1940 and the end of the year, 28 were sunk by mines.

The threat of invasion had receded, and Hitler’s eyes, by the end of 1940, were turned towards the east. But the question must be asked whether Operation Sealion might have succeeded, had it gone ahead. All the accumulated evidence suggests that it would not. The matter is summed up admirably by the official Royal Navy historian:

We who lived through those anxious days may reasonably regret that the expedition never sailed for, had it done so, it is virtually certain that it would have resulted in a British victory comparable for its decisiveness to Barfleur or Quiberon Bay; and it can hardly be doubted that such a victory would have altered the entire course of the war. It is indeed plain today that, of all the factors which contributed to the failure of Hitler’s grandiose invasion plans, none was greater than the lack of adequate instruments of sea power and of a proper understanding of their use on the German side. Britain, on the other hand, not only possessed the necessary ships and craft, but they were manned by devoted crews who were imbued with a traditional and burning desire to come to grips with the enemy invasion fleet. Finally, we may remark how the events of the summer of 1940 emphasised once again what many other would-be conquerors of Britain had learnt in turn – namely, that an overseas expedition cannot be launched with any prospect of success without first defeating the other side’s maritime forces, and so gaining control of the waters across which the expedition has to pass.

In conflict with a centuries-old maritime power, there is little doubt that Hitler, had he launched his invasion, would have learnt too late the landsman’s lesson.