Relearning Old Lessons – RAF in France 1940 – Dunkirk

Spitfire and Hurricane (behind).

Shown here is a Hudson Mk.I of an unidentified Sqd off Dunkirk during early June 1940 at the time of Operation Dynamo.

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

As soon as the surrender was announced, British and German forces rushed to fill the vacuum created. A fierce battle was soon underway for the coastal town of Nieuport, the last defensible position to the east of Dunkirk. It was a crisis within a crisis. For the next two nights, Bomber Command focused all its efforts on direct support for the Dunkirk garrison. By the 30th, however, the Air Ministry considered the crisis to be over; it reassured the War Office that ‘in the event of a further critical situation arising in the land Battle’, all effort once more would return to tactical missions. On 30–31 May, more Hampdens were dispatched to attack oil refineries in Hamburg. It seemed the ongoing evacuation from Dunkirk was not crisis enough for the Air Staff.

While Portal deemed the crisis over, the British and French were grimly hanging on all along the perimeter defences. No. 2 Group was still fully committed to the Army’s cause, with sorties rising to nearly 100 on the 31st. That evening, the day bombers made one of their more telling contributions; an attack by six Fleet Air Arm Albacores and eighteen Blenheims dispersed German forces gathering for another attempt to break though the increasingly shaky British defences around Nieuport.45 Such timely interventions were still a matter of luck rather than judgement, but the bombers had to be operating in the right area before luck could even come into play. Ever fewer of the night bombers were in the right area. Wellington nocturnal sorties on German positions around the perimeter dropped from the forty-seven on the night of 28–29 May to just sixteen on the night of 2–3 June.

Fighter pilots were under clear instructions not to intervene on the ground. This was frustrating for some. It was obvious that their comrades were in enormous difficulty, and there seemed plenty of attractive targets. Air defence was quite rightly the priority, but there was no reason why they could not expend any unused ammunition on ground targets before heading for home.

Dowding could claim that he had too few fighters to waste any strafing the enemy. Park, whose No. 11 Group was solely responsible for protecting Dunkirk, would not dispute this—he had just sixteen of the available forty-five squadrons. Park was also only allowed his fair share of the Spitfire squadrons, even though his were the only fighters that could possibly encounter the Bf 109. The defences of the rest of the country would not be weakened by concentrating the Spitfires in the south-east.

On 26 May, Park used eleven single-seater squadrons over Dunkirk. Reinforcements from neighbouring Groups increased this to nineteen on the 28th, and it stayed at around that level until daylight evacuation ended. Dowding could claim that thirty-four of his squadrons were involved over Dunkirk at one time or another; this sounded impressive, but nine squadrons were only used on one day, and only one squadron, No. 17, was used on all eight days. It was not an all-out effort and it was certainly not sufficient to protect the beaches ‘from first light to darkness with continuous fighter patrols in strength’, let alone escort planes attacking German positions. Only around 250–300 sorties were flown over the beaches each day. To protect shipping crossing the Channel, a miscellaneous collection of Naval planes had to be used. While Hurricanes and Spitfires sat on airfields up and down the country, a motley collection of Hudsons, Rocs, Ansons, and Blenheim 1Fs were sent off in flights of three to patrol the sea-lanes. None of them would stand any chance if they encountered German fighters. Fortunately, the Luftwaffe would concentrate its efforts on Dunkirk.

In order to provide the continuous cover expected, Park had to use single-squadron patrols. On the 27th, the Luftwaffe launched a series of heavy attacks. Port facilities were so damaged that for a time, all troops had to be embarked from the beaches. The fighters, however, took a heavy toll. The vulnerable Ju 87 dive bombers managed to evade the high-flying RAF patrols, but twenty-four out of 225 medium bombers—over 10 per cent—were shot down. In response, the Luftwaffe stepped up its fighter cover48 and the lone RAF squadrons often found themselves hopelessly outnumbered.

Park had to start using multi-squadron formations to combat the stronger German escorts. Initially two squadrons were used, often with a higher Spitfire squadron covering a lower Hurricane squadron. Later, formations of up to four squadrons were used. Some squadrons also began copying the looser German formations, with fighters working together in pairs. Even with the larger formations, the RAF fighters were still outnumbered, and there now had to be long stretches during the day when there was no fighter cover at all.

This was not what Newall wanted. He made it very clear to Dowding that he had ‘to maintain continuous patrols in strength over Dunkirk and the beaches three miles east and west of it; to provide escorts for bomber sorties, and support the B.E.F’. Dowding insisted this was quite impossible. The air defences of Britain were at ‘cracking point’, and following these orders would lead to ‘a dangerous situation’. It was a difficult argument to sustain when there were no attacks on the UK. Newall was not persuaded, and he essentially told Dowding to do what he was told. However, if Newall wanted continuous cover in strength, he had to order Dowding to disregard temporarily the danger to the rest of the country and move more squadrons into the south-east. He chose not to, and Dowding essentially ignored the order to provide continuous cover.

Fortunately for the BEF, on the 28th, the morning of the 29th, and the 30th, Luftwaffe operations were severely hampered by poor weather. Luftwaffe bombing operations picked up during the afternoon of the 31st. The clear skies on 1 June meant that nearly 500 bombers, covered by over 500 fighters, were able to attack the port and transports. Fighter Command used fifteen squadrons and managed just 270 sorties. Even when the attacks coincided with RAF patrols, the fighters rarely broke through to the bombers. The RAF lost sixteen fighters, the Luftwaffe twelve, but only four bombers were lost, including just two of the 325 vulnerable Ju 87s.

Three British and one French destroyer were sunk, along with a dozen other craft. So heavy was the bombardment that the British were forced to abandon the evacuation by day. It was a victory for the Luftwaffe. On 2 and 3 June, the Luftwaffe continued to bomb the encircled troops. The total number of sorties flown by Fighter Command dropped to just 147 on the 2nd, while the Luftwaffe was still using 500 fighters to escort their bombers. Throughout the evacuation, the number of RAF fighter sorties on any one day never exceeded 300.

The evacuation was another chance to see if the Defiant could be used offensively. No. 264 Squadron flew missions over Dunkirk on the 27th, 28th, and 29th, and appeared to be doing well, claiming eleven victories. On 31 May, however, the squadron lost seven planes in a single engagement. As compensation, the gunners claimed an extraordinary thirty-seven enemy planes shot down. In a little more than a fortnight, the unit was credited with the destruction of no less than sixty-five enemy aircraft. With several gunners firing at the same plane and all claiming the victory, Defiant claims were inevitably more suspect than most; even so, the over-claiming was extraordinary. The claims for 31 May comfortably exceeded Luftwaffe losses on all fronts for the entire day. The battered squadron again had to be withdrawn to rest and reequip, but the claims the crews were making kept alive the dream that the turret fighter could be a success. It was just a question of finding a way to reduce losses.

Fighter Command squadrons had made an impact from the 23rd to the 27th, but on subsequent days the Luftwaffe reasserted itself. Even the Spitfire did not seem to be posing the problems it had a few days before, as German pilots became more familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the plane. Forty British fighters were lost on the three days between 31 May and 2 June, compared to seventeen German fighters and just fourteen bombers. Tactically, the Luftwaffe ended the battle on top.

Nevertheless, Göring had failed to deliver on his promise. Not even the all-conquering Luftwaffe could wipe out an army; even when it turned its attention to the ships, rather than the troops on the beaches, it could not destroy enough to prevent huge numbers escaping. The British were just as surprised. The number of soldiers rescued rose from under 8,000 on the 27th to nearly 50,000 on the 29th. From 30 May, the British agreed to take off an equal number of French troops, a belated but just reward for the crucial part they had played in holding the perimeter. By the end of the evacuation, 225,000 British and 100,000 French troops had been plucked from the beaches.

The Admiralty and War Office had good reason to celebrate, but the feeling of goodwill did not stretch to the RAF. From Ramsay and Gort at the top, right down to the humble private on the beach, there was fury at the scale of the RAF effort. Pilots unfortunate enough to be shot down over Dunkirk experienced the full wrath of the soldiers and sailors first-hand; some were denied access to the boats evacuating the troops. In Britain, it was considered unwise for anyone in Air Force blue to venture out alone. At what point exactly the Royal Air Force was rechristened the ‘Royal Absent Force’ is not clear, but post-Dunkirk that was the sentiment.

Soldiers on the front line are scarcely best-placed to be aware of all the facts. It was a very easy to draw the wrong conclusions when bombs were raining down and there was not a single RAF machine in sight. Nevertheless, some of the attempts to justify the apparent absence are scarcely convincing. Some fighters did have to fly at high altitudes, and they did have to try and intercept the bombers before they reached Dunkirk, but with limited endurance, patrolling too far inland was not a sensible tactic. The Spitfires were still under orders not to cross the coastline. The Air Ministry excuse that Dunkirk was beyond their air defence system again underlines how the Air Staff had allowed radar to become a crutch that Fighter Command believed it could not do without.

One of the particularly disappointing features of the RAF operation was the relatively few highly vulnerable Ju 87s shot down. Leaving aside the extraordinary claim of the Defiant squadron on the 29th (eighteen claimed destroyed when the Luftwaffe only lost two on all fronts) RAF pilots only claimed twenty destroyed during the entire evacuation. The actual Luftwaffe losses were just ten. With such strong escorts, the fighters attempting to tackle the bombers needed cover above them, but often even the lower fighter formations were flying too high to deal with the Stukas. Low-level fighter cover had been poor throughout the campaign. In tactical operations, the RAF had to be effective at all altitudes, which meant fighters operating at low as well as high altitudes.

The soldiers and sailors may not have had all the evidence, but they were essentially correct. There is no denying that the fighters that were used made a difference. As the Army had discovered in Norway, opposed bombing was far less effective than unopposed bombing. However, there were times when there were no fighters at all, and when they were present, there were not enough of them. Even if all the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons available had been used, they could never have prevented bombs falling on Dunkirk. No doubt the soldiers and sailors would still have complained. Nevertheless, if the Air Staff and Dowding had so wished, Fighter Command could have done more.

The pilots were not entirely convinced by the orders they were following. Flying so high puzzled some when they could see the Stukas below. Bomber pilots were also troubled. Guy Gibson, flying Hampdens, described how the aircrews in his squadron agonised over the logic of striking at industrial targets inside Germany when the soldiers on the ground were quite clearly in need of more direct support. Such doubts were arising at a time when bomber crews still firmly believed their strategic operations were inflicting enormous damage on the German war machine.

Churchill tried to restore Fighter Command’s reputation by claiming that RAF fighters had achieved a victory within the defeat. Not many were persuaded. It was unfortunate that it was often the brave pilots who flew in this unnecessarily unequal battle that bore the brunt of the soldiers’ and sailors’ ire. It was the Air Staff and politicians, chief among them Churchill, who were responsible for misjudging the bomber threat and holding back too many fighters. They were the ones who deserved the criticism.

It was not just RAF commanders who were getting it wrong; Göring also had an exaggerated idea of what bombers could achieve. Air forces could not destroy armies. German victories had been achieved by the Panzers and Air Force working together. It seemed that air power worked best when it was supporting forces on the ground. The Luftwaffe could not win wars, or even battles, on its own; the failure to appreciate this would have fatal consequences for the German cause later that summer.

The 225,000 British troops rescued from Dunkirk provided Britain with a nucleus of trained, battle-hardened troops around which a new Army could be built. Nevertheless, even with the manpower resources of an empire, the British could never hope to muster an army that could single-handedly drive the Wehrmacht from the countries Germany had occupied. Britain still needed France. Even after the May debacle, the French Army was still far larger than Britain’s could possibly hope to be for some time to come.

The Dunkirk evacuation gave the French the briefest of breathing spaces to organise their defences along the Somme and Aisne. The thirty divisions the French Army had lost included their best-trained and best-equipped. Weygand realised that with the Luftwaffe ruling the skies, he could not fight a mobile battle. Instead, he created a defence in depth, with every village and hamlet turned into a strongpoint that would continue to resist even if surrounded; he hoped that these strongpoints would suck the momentum out of any new German assault. If the French could hang on, their defences could only get stronger. The 100,000 troops rescued at Dunkirk were on their way back to France. In the air, there were already signs of a revival. The Martin 167 (Maryland) bomber squadron flew its first mission on 22 May, followed by the Douglas DB7 (Boston) squadron on 31 May. At the beginning of June, the French had seventeen day bomber squadrons equipped with modern planes and eight fighter squadrons reequipped with the Dewoitine D.520. French troops would now get more support from their air force, and at least the Stuka and the tank would no longer be a surprise.

Churchill was determined to give the French all the help he could. The newly formed 1st Armoured Division was already on the way to France to join the sole remaining division of the BEF. Britain’s only two fully trained divisions would follow. In terms of land forces, Britain was literally committing everything. However, the fear of a German bomber offensive ensured air support was treated very differently. Given the importance of the battle that was about to open, the French saw no reason why every one of the 680 fighters they believed Fighter Command had should not be transferred to France. If that was expecting too much, half this force could be sent at the very least. Given that Fighter Command had scarcely put half its available strength over the British Army evacuating from Dunkirk, it was a request that was unlikely to cause much soul-searching in the Air Ministry, and none at all at Fighter Command Headquarters.

Barratt was more realistic about what reinforcements might arrive, but even his modest requirements were unwelcome in Air Ministry circles. Barratt now recognised how unbalanced his original force had been; it had far too few fighters for the number of bombers and reconnaissance planes. Losses had reduced his AASF to just six Battle squadrons, but even this reduced force needed more than the three fighter squadrons he had. Barratt’s message was simple; either recreate a more balanced force with a higher proportion of fighters, or pull back the entire force to the United Kingdom. The latter, he emphasised, was unthinkable. If fighter reinforcements were sent, they had to arrive before the Germans launched their offensive—not in the middle of a retreat.

The cabinet discussed the matter on 3 June. The debate generated some curiously cunning arguments from the Chief of Air Staff. Churchill noted that the number of RAF squadrons available to support the Allied armies in France was now substantially fewer than at the beginning of the campaign and wanted British air support for the French to match the scale, and indeed the risk, being taken with ground forces. Newall, however, insisted that Churchill was getting his figures wrong; the Prime Minister was including the AASF and the fighter squadrons attached to it. This was ‘an integral part of the Metropolitan Air Force, which had been located in France for operational convenience’, Newall explained. The bombers belonged to Bomber Command, and the fighter squadrons attached to it were there to protect the bombers, not France or the French Army. As a concession, he suggested that these squadrons should be allowed to stay in France and form the reinforcement Churchill was asking for. It was an argument that stretched credulity to its limits—the AASF Battles had been part of the tactical BAFF since January.

As for fighters, Newall and Dowding repeated the usual arguments about fighters achieving better results guided by radar over home territory. Dowding produced a graph showing that in the week following the German offensive, Hurricane squadrons in France were losing an average of twenty-five planes per day, while production was only four per day. If this loss rate had been allowed to continue, the entire RAF Hurricane force would already have ceased to exist.

Dowding’s attempt to portray Command on the brink of collapse relied on a rather creative use of the figures. It seems that he had spotted an old production programme that had anticipated only seventeen Hurricanes would be built in the four days following the 13 May bank holiday. Even before Churchill had appointed Lord Beaverbrook to pep up production, fighter output was exceeding these expectations. No less than forty had actually been built in the week in question, and in the week preceding the cabinet debate, ninety-two had rolled off the production lines. The loss figures Dowding was using were also misleading; he seems to have arrived at a figure of twenty-five per day by counting as ‘lost’ the fifty-odd Hurricanes still serving with the three AASF squadrons in France. The figure also included the 100 or so abandoned or deliberately destroyed when the Air Component fled France. Dowding could, of course, claim that it did not matter how the plane was lost—a loss was a loss—but it also seemed reasonable not to expect a panicky retreat from France to happen every week.

Dowding made much of the huge burden the ongoing air battles over Dunkirk involved. As he spoke, he melodramatically told the cabinet that the very last three squadrons were flying down to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation. This gave a rather misleading idea of the intensity of Fighter Command operations in defence of the evacuation. Squadrons were so under-strength, he insisted, the resources of eight squadrons had to be combined to form one ‘strong’ patrol. This was just a reference to the multi-squadron formations Park had started using over the beaches to combat the German escorts.

Even if no more fighters were sent to France, Dowding warned the cabinet, if the Luftwaffe turned its full weight on Britain, he could only guarantee to maintain air superiority for forty-eight hours. Churchill pointed out that the German Air Force was by all accounts suffering heavy losses too, but Dowding claimed the Luftwaffe’s vast numerical advantage meant that only a victory-loss ratio of 8:1 would do. British fighters in France had only managed 1.5:1. Even in the Dunkirk evacuation, Fighter Command had only managed 4:1.

As far as Dowding was concerned, the role of the Air Force was not to help win a battle, halt an enemy advance, or protect an evacuation. The only measure of success was the victory-loss ratio. For a force that was determined to fight its wars independently of what was happening on land or sea, it was an entirely logical way of measuring who was winning—indeed, arguably the only way. Victory-loss ratios are a useful way of assessing how an air force is faring, but it is not a measure of victory or defeat.

Hurricane losses had been serious—323 Hurricanes had been lost in May and only 226 delivered. Nevertheless, Dowding’s admission that Fighter Command had over 500 serviceable fighters seemed to the cabinet rather at odds with his gloomy prognosis. He countered by insisting that the real problem was pilots. Again, losses had been heavy, with over 200 killed, wounded, or captured since the beginning of the battle. Nevertheless, the pilot situation was still not a crisis. On 15 June, Fighter Command had over 1,000 pilots in front-line fighter squadrons, which was not ideal—each squadron was supposed to have twenty-two pilots, so there was a deficit. However, Dowding cleverly managed to make the deficit more striking by increasing the pilot strength of each squadron from twenty-two to twenty-six. At a stroke, this increased the deficit from 134 to 362 pilots.

Britain’s apparent difficulties were not going to look so serious to her struggling ally. As Churchill pointed out, Britain had ‘some 500 fighters of incomparable quality which we would be withholding at a moment when they would be making a supreme effort on land’. Nevertheless, he agreed that any military help Britain could provide in the immediate future was so limited that it would almost certainly make no material difference to the outcome of the battle in France. The morale-boosting impact of a British contribution would be enormous, but Britain should send the minimum to achieve this. France would either stop the Panzers with what she had left or be defeated, regardless of what Britain sent. The French were told the RAF fighter force would stay at just three squadrons because this was the maximum that could be maintained by existing production, which must have left the French wondering why British fighter production was so low.

Bomber support provoked an equally vigorous debate. Even the Minister of War, Eden, insisted that the French campaign had shown the pointlessness of attacking bridges and troops. The most useful contribution British bombers could make to French success on the battlefield would be to continue to attack oil targets in Germany. Eden was only being critical of Allied efforts at tactical bombing; no one was suggesting that German efforts had been pointless. Atlee supported Eden, but Churchill insisted that once land operations began, Bomber Command must turn its efforts to supporting the French and British Armies more directly. Once again, the bombers would only be committed when things started to go wrong. The Germans were massing equipment in the bridgeheads they had established over the Somme at Abbeville, Amiens, and Peronne, and it was these targets that Bomber Command should have been attacking, before the offensive began—not oil refineries in Germany.

One of the reasons Newall gave for not deploying more RAF squadrons in France rather summed up British priorities. The servicing units more reinforcements required would be needed for Operation Haddock, a plan that was to be put into effect as soon as Italy declared war (which was expected to happen very soon). RAF bombers using airfields in France would strike targets in Italy. As always, Churchill was anxious to go on the offensive, and he had managed to persuade Reynaud that bombing Italy was a good idea. A token raid against a possible future enemy can scarcely have seemed a high priority to the French as they prepared to meet an imminent German offensive.

While the French and Germans packed their front lines for the decisive battle, the Luftwaffe tried its hand at independent strategic bombing. On 3 June, the German Air Force launched 640 bombers against the French capital, ten times the number that had struck Rotterdam just three weeks earlier. It was not an indiscriminate terror raid—airfields and factories were the target—but it was hoped that the attack would weaken the French will to resist. Several factories were damaged and twenty French aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Two hundred civilians and fifty servicemen were killed. Even a nervous French government could take this level of intimidation in its stride.

On 5 June, the real battle began. The thrusts from the Amiens and Peronne bridgeheads posed a direct threat to Paris. This was where French defences were strongest and where the French Air Force made its greatest effort. The Abbeville front was closer to Britain and the French hoped the RAF could help cover this. The only British division in the front line was the 51st Highlanders, on the coast near Abbeville.

No reinforcements had arrived for the AASF. The three Hurricane squadrons mustered just eighteen serviceable planes. By this time, the AASF had retreated to the Le Mans region, 100 miles west of Paris. They were further from the front line than squadrons in Britain. On the first day of the offensive, the only air support from Britain was one escorted raid by Blenheims. The Highlanders were immediately under enormous pressure, and they appealed to London for fighter cover to fend off the continuous Stuka attacks. From the 6th, two squadrons from Fighter Command operated over the division, using Rouen to refuel. This was increased to four squadrons from the 7th. The three AASF Hurricane squadrons also finally got some reinforcements to bring them up to full strength. Blenheim support slowly increased, with thirty-six sorties on the 6th and fifty-four on the 7th. No. 2 Group then maintained this level for a week. Dowding and Park were again dismayed by the way their fighters had to be used to escort these raids; Park was still trying to persuade everyone that single-seaters were quite unsuitable, and he suggested that the Defiant would be more successful. It was a claim that was hardly borne out by the success of the German single-seater escorts over Dunkirk and the failure of the Defiant to deal with them. By night, Bomber Command gradually switched some of its effort from oil to the Abbeville front, but nearly 50 per cent of sorties flown were still against targets inside Germany. Once again, the effort in the tactical zone was belated and half-hearted.

French resistance on the ground was stubborn and German progress was initially slow. It briefly seemed that the French might have done enough to halt the German juggernaut. For three days, French bombers managed around 100 sorties a day against the German forces edging forward. French cannon-armed fighters were thrown into the ground-attack role. They were supported by Barratt’s Battles, now benefitting from fighter escorts, although the shortage of fighters meant many Battles had to operate by night.

While the French focused their efforts on the Peronne and Amiens front, Rommel, almost unnoticed, broke through just south of Abbeville. By the 7th, his Panzers were racing westwards, outflanking the French forces still holding the Germans further south. On the 9th, a second German offensive across the Aisne shattered the French resistance. The next day, Mussolini declared war on France. The military situation in France was now hopeless. The transfer of reinforcements to France was halted, and the evacuation of all remaining British personnel began. From 14 June, the remnants of the AASF began leaving for Britain. On their return, the fighters went back to Fighter Command and the AASF became No. 1 Group Bomber Command again. The BAFF, the RAF’s first Second World War tactical air force, had ceased to exist.

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