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.

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